I was trying to decide what to compare the Champions League final to, and—spoiler alert—there isn’t really something that’s comparable in a 1-to-1 way. At first I thought Super Bowl, but this isn’t like two teams coming from two conferences, a neat and clean path to the championship, although the hype and significance of the game itself may be reminiscent of the Super Bowl.
This isn’t like the Stanley Cup Finals either, even though they’re a circuitous path to winning. Champions League includes the top teams from leagues across Europe, so the clubs change (to a degree) each year as league play has the knock-on effect of determining a Champions League berth. And alas, as much as we would prefer never to watch the Ottawa Senators play a professional game again, this variability doesn’t happen in the NHL.
It’s not even really analogous to the World Cup. Yes, both tournaments feature pool play and then knockout rounds, but that’s like saying basketball in the Olympics is the same as the NBA Finals.
It’s not—national(ist) sentiment is different than rooting for your club. Suffice it to say, this is a unique event that combines arduous schedules and length of time, intense fan loyalty, and an international flair all into one.
How Did We Get Here?
And what about the teams themselves? It’s Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, whose name will never not be funny to me because it’s so stereotypically British (say “hotspur” in your head with a British accent). On the one hand, these are both Premier League teams so what the fuck? On the other hand, this is part of the charm—there’s no best of the worst coming from one division or one conference; they earned the right to be here, league be damned.
Is it a David and Goliath scenario? Ehh, not exactly. Liverpool is a powerhouse, but they had issues of their own getting here. Up and down their lineup they’re stacked, including having two of the world’s best forwards in Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino, literally the world’s best defender in Virgil van Dijk, and yet another superlative in goalkeeper in Alisson Becker. However, in the semifinal they ran up against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona and promptly got their ass kicked in the first leg 3-0. To make matters worse, in the second leg a bunch of those “world’s best” I just named didn’t even play—notably Salah and Firmino. And yet, they came out and destroyed Barca 4-0, thanks to substitute Georginio Wijnaldum and his two goals coming within minutes of each other early in the second half. This changed the entire nature of the match, since they had to not just win it but win by more than three goals—really fucking hard to do. (Another relative rando, Divock Origi, had the other two so clearly they can do it without the big names.)
In a way it’s almost like two Cinderella stories because as crazy as Liverpool’s comeback was, Tottenham’s berth is even more insane. They were seconds away from losing to Manchester City in the quarterfinals when a goal got called back for being offside, letting the Spurs squeak by what is, on paper at least, a much better team. A hat trick by Lucas Moura in the second half of the second leg of the semis against Ajax got them here—not unlike Liverpool popping off for a bunch of goals in the last possible moment. And all of this happened without their top striker, Harry Kane, who’s been injured for months. Again, like Liverpool, the entire team made the difference as opposed to reliance on one star player (as Barcelona and Juventus with Messi and Ronaldo, respectively, are painfully aware).
So Where Is It Going?
That’s all fine and good—now what the hell is going to happen, right? Well, Liverpool is ostensibly the better team, particularly with Salah and Firmino playing, and is definitely a big favorite to win. But then again, the Spurs should have been out two rounds ago, should have lost to these other, better teams, and sometimes emotion and momentum are enough in a one-match situation, just like a game 7.
Personally, I think Tottenham will do their thing where they dominate possession but make just enough mistakes for Liverpool to capitalize. Van Dijk practically lets no one get by him with the ball, and I expect the Spurs will struggle to get past him and the rest of the backfield, and even if they do they have Alisson to deal with. Meanwhile, Liverpool can take advantage quickly, move the ball through the midfield and have enough scoring threats to catch Spurs goalkeeper Hugo Lloris on the back foot. He’s not terrible, but I’ll take Alisson over Lloris ten out of ten times. And they only need to do it once, maybe twice, and then shut down Son, Moura and Kane, who will likely play but I question if he’ll be much of a factor coming back from a months-long recovery for an ankle injury.
This is what is likely to happen, but this entire run has been full of unlikely turns of events so I reserve the right to hedge on this. To complicate things further, both the coaches are also world-class-superlative guys. Mauricio Pochettino has done incredible things with a veritable MASH unit all year and may be coaching himself to a better gig, and Jurgen Klopp has been here twice and never won the final, so there’s both experience and ridiculous determination for the prize (especially after losing out on the Premier League title by one fucking point).
It will not be dull and it won’t lack for championship drama—that much I’m confident about. Because, oh yeah, on top of everything, one of those finals that Klopp lost was with Liverpool last year, and Salah got injured early in the game and that is some major motivation for everyone involved. It’s more pressure too, but between the down-to-the-wire Premier League race and this drama, they should be getting used to it.
Even if you’re not that into soccer, this one will be worth your time.