As kickoff approached ahead of Saturday’s all-English Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid, Spurs fans might have liked their team’s chances of pulling off the upset.
The Reds were the overwhelming favorite, of course, and, having missed out on a Premier League title that would’ve been Liverpool’s first in three decades by a single point last month, all the pressure was on Jurgen Klopp and Co. — who lost last year’s Champions League decider to Real Madrid — to hoist the European Cup for the sixth time in club history.
Tottenham, meanwhile, was playing with house money, having already upset Prem champ Manchester City in the epic two-leg quarters en route to its first continental final. The optimism lasted less than 30 seconds.
Before some fans had even settled into their seats at Estadio Metropolitano, referee Slovenian referee Damir Skomina whistled Spurs midfielder Moussa Cissoko for a handball in the box, sending Mohamed Salah to the penalty spot. It was obvious then, just 23 seconds into the match, that this was going to be Liverpool’s night.
The call may have been harsh, but Cissoko was punished for making the mistake of having his hand raised above his head (he appeared to be instructing a teammate to cover the space behind him) as Reds striker Sadio Mane lined up his cross. After the video assistant referee declined to intervene following a quick check, Salah stepped up and blasted his team to a lead they would never relinquish:
The early shock seemed to stun both sets of fans. It also served to take the edge off what had been a party atmosphere. A typical, end-to-end Premier League contest this wasn’t. With the stakes sky-high and temperatures approaching 90-degrees Fahrenheit in the Spanish capital, chances were few and far between for the remainder of the first half. The biggest roar from the crowd the rest of the half came when a scantily-clad pitch-invader briefly interrupted the proceedings before being escorted to the sidelines. A telling stat began making the rounds on social media: The Reds’ 101 completed passes over the opening 45 minutes was its fewest in any half of any match this season.
Still, even with Spurs chasing the game, Liverpool carved out the better opportunities. Had it not been for rock-solid Tottenham backstop Hugo Lloris, who was forced to make two good saves, the underdogs would’ve had a steeper hill to climb. The Reds fired off eight shots in the first half. Mauricio Pochettino’s side managed just two, neither of them on-target. Lloris’ save on Andy Robertson was particularly clutch:
It didn’t help Spurs’ cause that Pochettino opted not to start Brazilian winger Lucas Moura, who single-footedly vaulted Tottenham into the final with a hat trick against Ajax in the semis. It was even stranger that the Argentine manager didn’t bring Moura on from the start of the second half.
In Moura’s place was Harry Kane, who was playing for the first time since early April after injuring his ankle in the first leg against City. Kane’s lack of match-fitness was evident, as the England captain was rendered mostly invisible by center back Virgil van Dijk. Klopp pulled his striker before his counterpart, as Bobby Firmino, coming back from an injury layoff of his own, was substituted before the hour-mark. Moura eventually entered in the 66th minute, but he couldn’t reproduce his semifinal magic, sending his lone shot straight at Reds’ keeper Alisson Becker.
James Milner left Spurs hanging around when he squandered a chance that would’ve sealed the win. And Tottenham came close a few times, with Son Heung-min the main protagonist. The South Korean even got an open look at Alisson’s goal, only to send a blistering effort directly at the sure-handed Brazilian.
Once again, the football gods just didn’t seem to be on Tottenham’s side. If that realization hadn’t set in earlier, it certainly did when super sub Divock Origi finally scored the Reds’ second, ending any possibility of yet another miraculous comeback:
It was a just result in the end, and nothing short of what Liverpool and Klopp — who won his first trophy since leaving Borussia Dortmund for Anfield four years ago — deserved after a season that, in just about other year, would’ve been good enough to win both domestic and European honors. It’s hard not to feel a little bad for Spurs, though, and wonder how this match would’ve played out if not for that pivotal early call against them that, as their fans suspected, proved too difficult to overcome.