Like it or not, this year’s Premier League season has thrown up more examples of the best and worst leadership qualities as the good and great once again have made big sacrifices to be in with a chance of winning football’s biggest prize. Once again we’ve seen masterminds of football management come up against the footballing establishment and totally outwit and outclass them with a brand new style of football. This sea of change has really been obvious this season and as former masters Josè Mourinho and Claudio Ranieri have been casualties of this subtle change, it seems that the era of the superstar manager is here to stay.
The ever-changing face of competitive sport has never been so evident as the price of success has once again risen to form the sporting elite. Yet even the mega-teams of Manchester City and Liverpool recognise the huge significance of grass roots football and despite the controversially high wages, academy products Phil Foden and Trent Alexander-Arnold have become permanent fixtures in these two world dominating teams proving that home grown talent is still alive and well.
Last Tuesday night the footballing community sat dispirited and defeated as Liverpool attempted to turn around a 3-0 deficit from the first leg of the semifinal in the Nou Camp against the all conquering Barcelona just six days previously. For the strongest teams in Europe, this was a big ask and with memories of last year’s disappointment in the final, it seemed that even Jurgen Klopp’s positivity wasn’t going to be enough to pull Liverpool out of their Champions League slumber. Together with this and the fact that they would be without star men Roberto Firmino and Mo Salah, their chances of reversing fortunes looked slim. Yet with Divock Origi’s 7th minute goal they had given themselves the best possible start.
Memories of Liverpool’s shocking 2005 victory at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium when Rafa Benitez’s men beat AC Milan on penalties to lift football’s biggest trophy was on the minds of the majority of fans at the Kopp end of Anfield. Fourteen years later, could history be repeating itself? When substitute Georginio Wijnaldum netted the second goal in the 54th minute, Anfield began to believe and a sense of recaptured hope resonated throughout the stadium. Even watching it from the relaxed confines of my sofa, I could just sense this belief that Liverpool weren’t done yet. Sure enough just two minutes later Georginio Wijnaldum found himself with the ball at his feet, on side with one on one with the keeper. Two goals in two minutes had levelled it up and the team in red looked hungry.
Never before had a team been able to reverse a 3-0 defeat in a Champions League semi final but in a season of so many thrills and spills, anything was possible. Then in the 79th minute Origi did it again and Liverpool fans began to dream. They had done the impossible and all without Salah and Firmino. All they had to do was hang on for eleven minutes and hope the mighty Barcelona didn’t score. It’s difficult to remember many games which have contained these many emotions and most of us weren’t Liverpool fans. As the final whistle blew, there was disbelief around the stadium as it began to sink into both players and fans that Liverpool had defied the odds to qualify for a successive place in the Champions League final.
If Liverpool could do the unthinkable, it was now over to Tottenham to see if they too could overturn a two goal deficit against the mighty Ajax. Like Liverpool, Tottenham have suffered their fair share of injuries, most notably their most prized striker Harry Kane who had been injured since the 1-0 victory over Manchester City on the 9th April. But Tottenham had been in a similar situation in the last round when they managed to thwart Manchester City’s hopes of winning the quadruple by beating them on just one away goal. Such a special night at the Etihad Stadium could have been thought of as the pinnacle of yet another successful season under Mauricio Pochettino. Spurs were down but not out…
The game didn’t prove a perfect start for Ajax as Tottenham hit the post through Son Heung-min. Almost before Spurs could draw breath, defender Matthijs de Ligt put the ball passed Hugo Lloris in the fifth minute. After a rampant start, the game developed a steady flow before Hakim Ziyech netted the second home in the 35th minute assisted by former Southampton winger Dusan Tadic which momentarily broke Spurs hearts. Half time couldn’t come soon enough for Tottenham where Mauricio Pochettino would be forced to deliver the most important half time team talk of his managerial career in order to give Tottenham the slightest chance of getting anything out of the following forty-five minutes but the odds were heavily stacked against them. Yet Lucas Moura’s 55th minute composed finish left the Ajax keeper Andre Onana stunned. Two goals away from home meant Tottenham only needed just one more to achieve the impossible.
Just when Spurs fans had resided to the fact that tonight wasn’t going to be their night and the search for football’s biggest trophy would have to wait for another season. But then in the 96th minute and last kick of the game, the man of the moment Lucas Moura completed an unlikely hat-trick at the pivotal moment securing a Tottenham victory which meant that they would face Liverpool in the Champions League final. Forget Line Of Duty, forget Game Of Thrones, this was possibly the best drama that British television had seen for a very long time. Pochettino was crying, the players were crying and the fans were euphoric as for the first time ever Tottenham Hotspur were through to the Champions League final.
So there was only one game separating the clash of these titans – the small matter of the last day of the Premier League season. Just one point separated leaders Man City from their nearest contenders Liverpool who were looking for their first league title for twenty-nine years so it was still all to play for. It had been several years since the title had been decided in this way and we could enjoy such drama on the last day of the season. Football is always better when it’s unpredictable and the final day should be full of excitement, anxiety and wonder. After all, that is most of the thrill of football; to see if a team can defy the odds and beat their formidable opponent. Fans were instantly reminded of Sergio Aguero’s 96th minute goal which secured Manchester City’s first top flight title for forty four years in 2012, snatching it from Alex Ferguson and Manchester United. This had all the ingredients for similar excitement and it didn’t let us down.
After the mouth watering build up, Sunday afternoon came round and football fans everywhere were on the edge of their seats for the first time in five years as it was time to discover whether Liverpool or Manchester City would lift English football’s most desirable trophy. Liverpool were the first to strike as Sadio Manè opened the scoring against a reinvigorated Wolves in the seventeenth minute. As it stood Liverpool were looking the favourites to get the trophy and ten minutes later Liverpool fans started to dream when Brighton’s Glenn Murray had put the Seagulls 1-0 up against the title defenders. Yet this was Pep Guardiola and Manchester City, they were far too polished and professional to give up without a fight and just a few seconds later starman Sergio Aguero fired the ball passed Matt Ryan to go ahead yet City needed more.
So City have yet again conquered the domestic competitions but in doing this have sacrificed the growth of their European reputation and this has been a pivotal falling block for both the players and their mastermind Pep Guardiola. Yet it’s pertinent to note that in terms of footballing pedigree, City are still in their infancy and despite having an extensive cheque book, they have a long way to go before they can join the European elite. As for Liverpool and Tottenham, domestic success may have escaped them for this season but coming back from such defecits against such formidable competition is testimony to their character and commitment which are the perfect ingredients for a memorable night at the Estadio Metropolitano in Madrid on Saturday, 1 June at 20:00 BST.
Obviously these two victories are enormous achievements for both sets of fans to see their teams collide for the very first time on what remains the biggest football stage in the world.Yet on a wider scale it’s evident to suggest that the beautiful game has changed forever and the days of consistent domination is clearly over. This is the new world of football and in the season which has seen the demise of the former Special One, football has given birth to bigger heroes and villains and it’s clearly a very exciting time for English football. Who knows if it will be Liverpool or Tottenham that will go on to lift that all important Champions League trophy but the dedication that they have displayed is testament to their cohesion as a team which has made this a significant period for English football and for that we can all feel proud.