As Lucas Moura nipped in between De Ligt and Tagliafico, and a rasping corner from Trent Alexander-Arnold connected with the inside of Divock Origi’s right foot, there was an eerie, somewhat elemental inevitability of the outcome. Or- as it is universally regarded- it was the magic of that crazy game we call football. It is when something simply has no right to happen, when every stat on the face of the earth is contradicting, when the odds aren’t merely stacked against it- but they tower over it. Yet somehow, somehow the impossible weaves it’s way through. The forces of nature spontaneously synchronise and in those moments no expected goals stat, 1-7-2 formation, or isotonic drink can have it’s say. Football takes over.
Liverpool progressing to Madrid was such a ludicrous proposition that Barcelona’s Chilean midfielder, Arturo Vidal, said he would donate his left testicle should it come true. On top of the ridiculous goal turnover required, Liverpool had two key men- Salah and Firmino- out injured and had just ground out an exhausting 3-2 victory away to Newcastle. La Blaugrana meanwhile, had the luxury of a fully rested 11 having wrapped up the title early. It was Origi, Shaqiri and Mane against a back four and goalkeeper with a combined total of 56 major trophies. Liverpool battled, dug deep, and dared to dream.
Fight, belief and passion. Three Victorian sporting virtues in many ways levelled as criticism at English sides in the past, thought to be partnered by a technical incompetence. In the glory years of the late 70’s and early 80’s, a period where Nottingham Forest, Liverpool and Aston villa shared 7 European titles in 8 seasons, English football was all about physicality and directness with a pinch of finesse on the side. The likes of Sam Allardyce’s Bolton and Tony Pulis’ Stoke have stretched that stereotype far beyond its best before date as since Cantona, Bergkamp and Zola revolutionised their respective clubs, the Premier League has undergone a total foreign overhaul, with the archetypal English ideology only remaining in increments.
‘Direct’, and ‘physical’ have become, rather unfairly, derogative terms, words used to describe those technically restricted. Yet, many forget, that Klopp- a man lauded for the thrilling football he brings to his sides- and his Liverpool side epitomise this philosophy. And it was coined in that special night on Wednesday. We all love those moving underdog stories. The pumped, pressure-free outsiders making it ever so awkward for the off-colour favourites- it never gets old. The way Barcelona spluttered in possession, the way they couldn’t handle Liverpool’s energy, the way Trent Alexander Arnold mystified the whole defence with one pass. Anfield had it’s part to play too. The Kop was sucking the ball into the net in that second half, as Klopp and Liverpool proved the English philosophy of attitude over ability still reigns supreme.
At the Johan Cruyff Arena, a different, more freakish narrative unfolded. The young lions of Ajax were in cruise control for 135 minutes of this tie, until the magic of football struck once more. 3-0 down on aggregate, outwitted, outran, outclassed by Ajax, Spurs were all but out. A hairdryer treatment from Harry Kane at half-time and Spurs, with nothing left to play for, came to terms with the fact that this was the defining moment in their season. 45 minutes later, De Ligt, De Jong et al were slumping to the ground in sheer despair. Tottenham had done it.
For Ajax, it was a lack of experience (along with some awful luck), and you can only imagine how it must have felt. There were myriad opportunities where they could have lumped it to the corners in the last five minutes but they were not pragmatic enough. It is a match that this young squad will learn from. For Barcelona, however, there is no excuse. They let a three-goal lead slip last year against Roma and should have learned their lesson. There are many experienced heads in that Barcelona side, and Valverde’s position in charge- no matter how convincingly they have been in Europe this year- will come under scrutiny. For ‘superclubs’ like Barcelona, your season will be judged on how you perform in the Champions League. And for two seasons in a row, Valverde’s man-management over two legs has not been adequate. Fans of both teams must remember this feeling, the shock, the despondence, the anger. Their team will rise again, and the glory will taste even sweeter. For now though, the world of football must celebrate the momentous achievements of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool. Particularly the former. Only a couple of months ago did I write a blog titled “Has the Champions league lost it’s magic”, criticising UEFA over their unfair financial distribution. With a net spend of £0, Spurs have taken on Europe’s big boys, and staked their place in Champions League history. Pochettino breaking down in his post-match interview, Harry Kane’s ‘ankle injury’ vanishing, Moura in tears as he watches back commentary. I love football.