3-0 and in all likelihood, tie over. Liverpool and Barcelona had conjured up an exhibition worthy of a Champions League final, but after a flurry of missed chances from Liverpool’s star cast, it was Barcelona, or more accurately Messi, that received the plaudits. In Spain, the feeling was growing that it was their turn to lift Europe’s premier competition rather than arch rivals Real Madrid. And they would have had the pleasure of doing so in their nemesis’ precious capital, as if the prospect needed any extra shine.
Meanwhile back in England, a thunderous strike from Vincent Kompany kept Manchester City on course for the league title – there was much lamenting the possibility that Liverpool’s brilliant season could finish without reward. As if the scale of the task was not large enough, Liverpool faced a taxing examination away at St. James’ Park, while the Spanish champions left most of their key players at home for a trip to the Atlantic frontier to face Celta de Vigo. As was the case in the first leg, the only sour note for Barcelona took the form of Ousmane Dembélé, who picked up an injury ruling him out of the second leg. Even this setback paled in comparison to those suffered by the Reds, Klopp later confirming that Firmino and Salah would play no further part in the tie. Jürgen Klopp, as good a cheerleader as you could ask for on your touchline, admitted that they would try to come back but if not, they should at least “fail in the most beautiful way”.
And yet. Lionel Messi conceded that at points during the first leg, Barcelona were feeling “asphyxiated”. This time however, Liverpool did not loosen their grip. Constant running, relentless pressing, the incessant power of Klopp’s warriors forced the Blaugrana into submission. The few chances Valverde’s men did manage in the first half were squandered and Liverpool pressed home their advantage in the second half, blitzing their way to a four-goal victory and a place in Madrid.
To cast Liverpool as a plucky underdog seems a little farfetched given their own plentiful resources, yet it was their lack of individuality, the absence of Salah and Firmino, which made this victory so laudable. It was a victory dedicated to Klopp’s system, the tactical discipline of his players and their cohesion. Although Origi, Wijnaldum and Alexander-Arnold all excelled in this match, the general reaction did not focus on their brilliance, but that of the team. Every player has his price on the market, but knowing exactly where your teammates are going to be is priceless and at times, unstoppable.
Barely had the footballing fraternity drawn breath before all eyes focused on Amsterdam, this time the plucky underdog tag fully merited. Strolling to a two-goal lead, in control of the tie, the Dutch giants were on course for a phenomenal return to the summit of European football. Famed for their 1995 triumph in the competition, a side mostly constructed from their youth academy, a footballing fairytale. Nearly 25 years later, however, the financial imbalance is more pronounced than ever and the talent has been pooled for a select few – that Ajax could once again build a side mostly from De Toekommst is an achievement of biblical proportions.
Although most Europhiles will have been aware of the rise of De Jong and De Ligt, the rest of that line-up was notable for its lack of established names and even their two wonderkids were untested at this level. By no means did they carry their side through to this point either; Manchester United reject Daley Blind marshalled the defence alongside De Ligt, formerly inconsistent Southampton winger Dusan Tadic left the illustrious names of Real Madrid’s defence dazed and confused, and a previously unheralded Donny van de Beek ran the midfield.
Despite some misleading results, they destroyed both the Italian champions Juventus and the current Champions League holders Real Madrid. Two of the early-season favourites were powerless to resist their movement and agility on the ball, particularly in the two away performances, as close to total football as one can find. Hardly five minutes would slip by without a chuckle, a gasp or a non-descript groan in appreciation for a masterpiece painted on grass.
Likewise, Manager Erik ten Hag is due plenty of credit. The counter-pressing after a loss of the ball was a fine impression of Klopp’s own artform. Additionally, the ease with which the entire team combined in possession, a clockwork of moving pieces, changing passing lanes and intelligent use of the ball proved both effective and exhilarating. Only the odd pass into empty space let slip that it was in fact a finely tuned machine and not just an entirely natural occurrence. Their performances were a tribute to their personal Jesus, the late Johan Cruyff, and to the concept of total football.
But more than that, it was a timely reminder that a cohesive unit entirely committed to a style of play and a system can surpass any collection of individual talents. A testament to football as a team game, a glimpse of what a group in perfect harmony can achieve in an era of superstars.
And then Lucas Moura latched onto an Alli pass and modern football’s hegemony was re-instated. Tottenham’s comeback was as impressive as Liverpool’s, if not more dramatic. Secured with essentially the final kick of the game, Moura’s goal ensured that the Spanish capital will have a decisively London flavour come the first of June.