Champions League Final Preview: Liverpool vs Tottenham
After 3 weeks of fervent waiting, the Champions League final is finally upon us. For a second successive season, Liverpool has made it to the finals. Having been felled at the final hurdle the previous year, the Reds will be determined to bring home “Old Big Ears”. Standing in their way would be a familiar foe, with Tottenham determined to cap off their first ever Champions League final with a trophy.
In light of the first all English final since 2008, which saw Manchester United take on Chelsea, here’s the rundown for the Premier League rivals.
Sidelined for the Red’s past 3 games, Firmino is set to play a part in the Champions League final. This is after the gaffer has conveyed positive news on the fitness of his star forward. Speaking to liverpoolfc.com, Klopp said: “Bobby looks really good [and] he is now part of training. It was not too long out, but of course we are still careful and want to make sure nothing happens. We have a few days still and want to use them, that’s why he is in, out, in, out.”
From a Liverpool perspective, that’s no doubt great news. An integral part to Klopp’s system, his ability to drop deep allows the likes of Salah and Mane to run in behind defenses. There’s no other player in the squad that’s been able to perform that role to such perfection; such is his importance and uniqueness.
And it’s not just his play-style that’s eye-catching, his final product is pretty impressive too. Since the start of last season, only Cristiano Ronaldo (25) has been directly involved in more goals in the Champions League than Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino (21 – 13 goals, 8 assists). Clearly, he’s a big game player and he’ll surely relish playing on the biggest stage.
If Firmino is important to Liverpool, the same can be said about Kane for Tottenham. Injured during the first leg of their Champions League meeting with Manchester City, the Englishman had missed the remaining games for the season. However, he’s since returned to training and could likewise feature in the showdown against Liverpool.
Speaking to the media, Pochettino provided an update about his star forward: “Kane is training, he’s in a good phase of recovery. We hope he’s there to help whether that’s from the start, off the bench or as moral support in the dressing room. We’re optimistic that he can be there to help on the pitch.”
Despite coping well in the absence of their No. 10, scoring 14 goals in 10 games, having Kane as an option could be handy for Spurs if the going gets tough. A ruthless striker in the 12-yard box, he’s one player Liverpool will not want to have anywhere near their goalmouth. And while Pochettino’s comments seem to suggest that his role will be as a substitute, Klopp will be preparing his men to deal with him. It’ll be crucial, especially during the dying stages of the game when everyone’s fatigue level is at the highest. Hopefully, they’ll have enough in the tank to shut out Kane and see out the remainder of the game.
The Many Faces Of Tottenham
In the league games that they’ve squared off against this season, Tottenham has opted to lineup differently each time. In their first meeting, Pochettino went with a back four, before opting for a back three in the return fixture. However, it’s the second meeting between the two teams that’ll provide more insight into the game in Madrid.
In lining up with a back three from the start, Pochettino had intended to outnumber Liverpool’s midfield. Knowing Liverpool’s prowess in attack, the Argentine identified the midfield as a key battleground to win, hence the decision to field 5 midfielders to cut off their opponent’s supply lines.
Though great in theory, the reality is far from it. With both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson being instructed to push high up the pitch, Tottenham had their wing-backs pinned back. Essentially, the Lillywhites had a back 5, leaving the likes of Alli, Eriksen, and Sissoko to deal with Liverpool’s own midfield trio. Man against man, the visitors couldn’t cope with the Reds tempo, giving the home team the upper hand in the first half.
Noticing his team struggling, Pochettino made a switch in formation going into the 2nd half. Vertonghen was instructed to play as the left- back, with Rose assuming a left winger role. By doing so, it allowed for Spurs to play with a 4 man midfield, which in turn translated to a higher percentage in possession. That upturn in possession was key for Spurs, and they eventually grabbed the equalizing goal through Lucas Moura. Had they taken their chances, and without Van Djik’s crucial defending, Tottenham could’ve easily won the game.
From that game alone, it’s safe to say that Spurs will line up with a conventional back four. Pochettino, being the astute tactician that he is, wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. Therefore, Liverpool have to find a way to overcome their counterparts in midfield.
With the aforementioned Firmino returning to the team, Klopp could opt for his usual 4-3-3, with Firmino dropping when necessary. That way in terms of numbers, the Reds will match their opponents. Whether they can win their individual battles is another separate question, but on such a big stage, surely any player would want to give it their all.
A little over a year ago, the Reds walked out onto the pitch of the Olympiyski Stadium to face Real Madrid. Then, they were very much the underdogs, with good reason. Their opponents were back-to-back champions of Europe, and were strong favourites for the cup when the campaign began. On the other hand, the Reds were making their return to the European stage. The fact that they made it all the way to the finals was surprising to the casual observer. Being their first Champions League final since 2007, it was ultimately a lack of experience, and a couple of key errors, that cost them the game.
This time around though, the roles have been reversed. It’s the Reds, rather than Spurs, that are being labeled the favourites for the cup. Already, the mind games have started, with Pochettino placing the ‘favourites’ tag on his opponent. Discussing Liverpool’s transfer spending, he said: “They are favorites because they have invested a lot of money. They have signed a goalkeeper (Alisson) and a £75million defender (Van Dijk). Liverpool’s plan is to win the Champions League and Premier League. Tottenham’s plan is to make the best season in history.”
With him eager to point out that there’s been no incoming transfer since last summer, when the money has been in fact been invested in their £1 billion stadium, the Reds are set up to be the Goliath of this game. Coupled with their second successive final appearance, it certainly makes Pochettino case all the more compelling.
However, Kopites aren’t fooled by Pochettino’s comments. On their day, the Londoners starting XI are a match for any team. Klopp and his men will know that first hand, given the narrow league victories they’ve had. The fact that 26 points separate both teams in the league will count for little, especially so for a side that has overcome Dortmund, Manchester City, and Ajax en route to the final.
Even the one weakness that Spurs possessed is mitigated by the 3 weeks long break between the last league game and the final. Ex-Red Jamie Carragher certainly seems to think so, and has recently expressed his frustration over the later date. Speaking to the Anfield Wrap, he said: “No-one’s been able to give me a reason why the Champions League is three weeks after the league campaign. It’s normally two weeks, where you have the FA Cup then the week after is the Champions League.
“That’s pissed me off a little bit that, to be honest. I think it probably helps Spurs more than us, I would say. I think they’ve got bigger injury problems than us, certainly with Harry Kane, Harry Winks, other little knocks they had towards the end of the season.”
Given how Spurs league form nosedived during the business end of the season, it’s easy to understand Carragher’s point of view. It gives the likes of Harry Kane and Harry Winks a chance to make an injury comeback. And while squad depth will still be an issue, things could’ve been much worse for the men in white.
So, as much as the media and Spurs would like you to believe that the Reds are the favourites, the truth is far from it. In a one-off game, anything can happen. This season’s Champions League has proven that much, with seemingly lesser opponents triumphing against all odds to advance into the next round. Give Spurs the due respect, fight hard during the game, and hopefully we’ll able to lift that fabled trophy for a glorious 6th time.