How could they? How did they manage it? Out of 180 minutes played in their two-legged semi-final ties, Barcelona have been through on aggregate for 118 minutes; Ajax – for the incredible 175 minutes. Both clubs held a three-goal edge at one point, Ajax having an away strike on their side to make it even better. Half-times at Anfield and Amsterdam Arena saw thousands of fans all around the world switching their TVs off and going to sleep, convinced that nothing interesting is going to happen. And yet – we’ve been treated to the first all-English Champions League final since 2008. All courtesy of the most spectacular bottle jobs you’ll ever see during the May fixtures of the most reputable competition in Europe.
Act I: Ernesto Implodes
Valverde disgusted – a rare sight.
Photographer by heart, football manager by profession, the Basque boss won’t browse the photos from Tuesday night in his free time. Nearly thirteen months after Barcelona’s spectacular fiasco at Stadio Olimpico, his team has surpassed that absolute howler and registered a crash of parissaintgermanesque proportions. The first-leg result in the bag was better than the one achieved last year; the opposition, deprived of Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, looked more weakened than Roma. Last but not least – this time, Barça had the luxury of resting their entire first eleven during La Liga weekend, whereas in 2018, six starters who we’ve been humiliated by Kostas Manolas also started club’s previous match against Leganes three days earlier.
At Anfield, Valverde has decided not to change a thing. Philippe Coutinho, the absolute passenger during the 3-0 victory at Camp Nou and a transfer misfit to boot, has been handed another start ahead of the troubled summer signing, Malcom. Nelson Semedo, who stood out during the closing staged of the first leg, dropped back to the bench. So did Arthur – one of the few decent performers in a dead-rubber 0-2 defeat at Balaídos. In the absence of the Brazilian and with Sergi Roberto’s another start as the right-back, Arturo Vidal was tasked with the job of a defensively-minded right midfielder.
As it turned out, only the Chilean has come out of the hell of Anfield with his head held high. Having won more (7) tackles than anyone else on the pitch, he was perhaps the only visitors’ player who understood Barcelona’s lack of combativeness and tried to improve it. Alas – his trying was abruptly stopped by Valverde who, at 0-3, with the opponent fired-up and buzzing, has subbed off his gladiator for… Arthur – the player tailor-made to hold the 0-0 scoreline but relatively useless at handling the crisis. Four minutes after that inexplicable swap, the hosts pulled off the cheekiest goal in years and FCB was done.
At that point, Coutinho was already in the dugout, replaced after an hour by Semedo. All things considered, the man who spent six long years in Merseyside was his former club’s twelfth player during this tie. At Anfield, he did not complete a single dribble, did not create a single goalscoring chance and his only shot, attempted on a very dangerous counterattack in the 18th minute, was quite comfortably pushed away by Alisson. A year ago, the lad was seen as a quicksilver forward, perfectly suited to Blaugrana’s slick attacking style. 17 months and £105 million later, he looks more like one of the most expensive marketing stunts aimed to win over all the Brazilian hearts heartbroken after the departure of Neymar.
Act II: Heroes Arise
The two midfielders that could.
In the grand scheme of things, his career has always been X-Files material. He’s never scored double-digit number of goals in a season. He’s never been Belgium’s regular, always watching Romelu Lukaku, Christian Benteke or Dries Mertens from the dugout. He went to Germany to play more regularly but Wolfsburg shipped him back after a year. For a year, instead of embracing him, his club would rather give chances to utterly ineffective Dominic Solanke. Divock Origi. The ultimate Special Task Player has done it twice on the day he wasn’t even supposed to feature. Ironically, Roberto Firmino’s injury couldn’t have come at a better time.
On Tuesday, Origi’s story has been perfectly complemented by Georginio Wijnaldum. On May 7th 2016 he played as Newcastle United’s left winger against Aston Villa’s Alan Hutton in Magpies’ final, desperate bid to avoid relegation. In front of a rock-bottom side, at that stage clocking abysmal eleven defeats in a row and led by a caretaker manager, Gini failed to score and a 0-0 draw has all but sent Geordies to the Championship, securing their arch-rivals’ Sunderland stay in the process. It’s been three years. Sunderland are in League One, NUFC recently gave Liverpool a huge scare in a Premier League clash and the Dutchman has scored a brace past Barcelona on the third anniversary of his Villa fiasco.
Those goalscorers were being endlessly aided by the third unlikely hero – Jordan Henderson. Last summer, Liverpool captain received a massive vote of no confidence after his manager hired Fabinho and Naby Keita for the combined amount of £92 million. That new reality was further confirmed by the first three league games, in which the 28-years old came as an substitute, replacing Keïta, Milner and Firmino deep in the second halves. Little did we know that from then on, this season will be a triumphant march forward for the midfielder. By December, he was back to starting XI for good; by April, he started to add assists and attacking runs to his usual, solid defensive contributions. Not even half-way through May, he’s in the Champions League final, having relentlessly pressured Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitić – all while playing through the pain barrier from a nagging knee injury.
Act III: Catalans Rally
No translations needed.
The reaction of Barcelonian media behemoth Sport was both sad and hilarious. Listing player ratings, they’ve handed 3/10 marks for Catalan fan-favorites Gerard Piqué (a culpable bystander for the third goal) and Jordi Alba (poor at closing down in the events leading to the second goal; completely surprised by the fourth). Meanwhile, Ivan Rakitić received giant zero out of ten despite playing fairly competently. Fortunately, those opinions did not rub off on anonymous netizens visiting MD’s website: 44 percent of them rated Alba’s worst game of professional career 0/10, doing more or less the same to another player who’s somehow escaped the newspapers’ criticism – Sergio Busquets.
Elsewhere, media sources were more reasonable. Marca, traditionally relishing in FCB’s failures, handed single stars out of three possible to ter Stegen (made one class, reflex save), Vidal, Busquets (?) and Messi. The Argentinian also got a decent 6/10 mark from L’Equipe who faintly praised him for setting up good chances for Coutinho, Alba and spectacularly indolent Luis Suárez. Leo himself was left behind by the team, as he’s been asked to take a doping test that took longer than expected. Perhaps that was for the best – after the second spectacular disaster in two years, one could easily imagine him getting into a heated argument with few people who’ve just horrifically let him down – including Ernesto Valverde…
Act IV: Ajax Attacks
Everything was fine…
One day later, everything has gone the right way for the slayers of Madrid and Juventus. Well, at least initially. Their first shot on target deflected off Kieran Trippier’s heel and forced a big save from Hugo Lloris, yielding the hosts a corner. Seconds later, Eredivisie’s leaders have displayed a curious innovation – crossing the ball directly into the path of Dele Alli. The young Englishman didn’t pay attention and was promptly outjumped by Mathis De Ligt, who opened the scoreline. On top of that, referee Felix Brych has elected to ignore van de Beek’s collision with Vertoghen and immediately after that, Son’s miskicked, narrow-angled cross has hit the post instead of sneaking into the back of Onana’s net.
Spurs had only themselves to blame. Around 20th minute, they should’ve been level. Danny Rose carried the ball forward, was brought down but the ball went to Dele Alli who played a wonderful, diagonal pass to Son. The Korean, in great position, slightly outran the ball and it made his eventual effort fairly easy to save. Soon enough, completely unmarked Eriksen also couldn’t place a strong enough shot – and thus, Ajax’s awkward effort to close the game by having three centre-backs defend in line have gone unpunished. Tadić could’ve put himself in spotlight after a strong, left-footed shot but he missed the far post by a whisker.
That didn’t stop the Dutchmen from doubling the lead. Hakim Ziyech, the lad who drew harsh criticism for wasting far too many speculative shots this season, has finally demonstrated how it’s done. Trippier played Tadić onside, he cut back a simple pass into the penalty area and the Moroccan smashed a perfect strike from an angle. It was seventh heaven for a player who’s reportedly sealed a transfer to Bayern Munich already before this semifinals’ first kick of the ball. On Wednesday, around 18:43 GMT, having eliminated Real and Juventus and watched Barcelona knocked out in the other tie, he and his Ajax friends must’ve felt merely a tiny step away from securing a miraculous Champions League win for their club.
Act V: Lucas Leads
…until Lucas went for the throat.
Just like the day before, the final twist of the evening has been provided by a man who had everything to prove. Three years ago, Lucas Moura could not make an impact after being subbed on at Etihad and Paris Saint-Germain lost the quarterfinal against Manchester City. One year later, he was first to be subbed off at Camp Nou and sat in the dugout as the sky caved in on the French champions. Last year, when Juventus blocked Tottenham’s path, the Brazilian used to be stuck so far in the pecking order, he’s only featured for a single minute. Again – it took a top forward’s injury for a supporting character to emerge and change the course of history. The fact that it rounded off the best season of his career only made it sweeter.
The mayhem started ten minutes after the break. By pure chance, Dele Alli has decided to dribble directly into the path of arriving Lucas who picked up the ball, escaped marking and placed a sweet shot into the bottom corner. Less than five minutes later Onana and Schöne took part in a catastrophic mix-up while dealing with a cross. Moura, whose days at Parc des Princes have likely been shortened by the arrival of Neymar, has done something which his 6 months older Brazilian colleague would have been proud of. By the virtue of spectacular footwork, he rolled the ball away from defenders in front of him, evaded players challenging him from the side and expertly buried a goal that blew the entire tie open.
Absolute chaos ensued. Ziyech missed a chance similar to the one he put away earlier. Son, striking from a difficult position, hit the crossbar. Ziyech again had an opportunity to end the contest but bombarded the right post of Hugo Lloris’ goal. At the other end, Onana parried Llorente’s header and his friends somehow managed to extinguish Vertonghen’s awkward follow-up. Throwing the kitchen sink, Spurs exposed themselves on the counterattacks; meanwhile, under immense pressure, Ajax defenders started to make errors. In an ending which absolutely could have gone either way, the fortune smiled to Lucas for the third time. The stadium clock pointed at 95 minutes and two seconds when his final kick of the match rolled into the right corner…
Act VI: Madrid Awaits
The final venue to conquer.
So it’s an English final, after all. Concussed Mohamed Salah will definitely be fit to play in it; baring some fresh disaster, Roberto Firmino should return for it as well. Given Reds’ qualities this season, their desire to avenge the unfortunate Kiev night and their already impressive amount of European experience, Jürgen Klopp’s lads will be ironclad favorites to take the Champions League trophy for the first time since the memorable Istanbul meeting with AC Milan. For the likes of James Milner, Dejan Lovren, Daniel Sturridge or Jordan Henderson, this might be the final shot at lifting a proper European trophy; apart from the last years’ upset, all of them also remember the 2016 Europa League loss against Sevilla. In view of all that, motivation should not be an issue.
Spurs are coming into the match as an outside marauder, squeezing by the last two rounds by the slimmest of margins. Mauricio Pochettino’s men are also guilty of losing thirteen league contests – some of which features massively underwhelming defensive work and ineptitude at dealing with the absence of Harry Kane. In good news: there is a significant chance that the troubled star forward will be fit for the June match. In bad news: if that’s the case, Tottenham will be virtually forced to bench one man from the attacking quartet of Alli, Eriksen, Lucas or Son. Just imagining one of those players on the bench feels wrong. Can teary-eyed Poch solve this charade? The stakes have never been higher: today, it’s been 11 years, 3 months and 11 days since Tottenham last won a trophy. And it wasn’t the UCL one…