After a lifetime, the end of the season has arrived, with all roads leading to Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur and the Champions League final.
For the second year in succession, Liverpool have managed to reach Europe’s showpiece event in football, rivalled only by the World Cup in status.
Reds hoping to avoid Kiev repeat in Madrid
Last year, the Reds took on Real Madrid in Kiev, which was a heartbreaking experience for anyone associated with Liverpool.
Jürgen Klopp’s side lost Mohamed Salah to injury in extremely controversial circumstances, suffered one of the greatest goals in Champions League history from Gareth Bale and saw their own goalkeeper (unfortunately suffering from concussion, again from extremely controversial circumstances) make two catastrophic errors.
It resulted in two Real Madrid goals and the ultimate two goal difference between the two sides on the night. Painful does not even begin to cover what could have been a magical and unforgettable experience.
Notably, however, one man refused to lie down and allow Kiev to overcome his positive outlook for Liverpool going forward. With the final still fresh in everyone’s minds, a video appeared on social media with Klopp and friends singing about how they saw the European Cup and pledging that they would one day return the trophy to Anfield.
Barely a year later, that day could be Saturday.
Klopp’s belief in his team means he would not have ruled out an immediate return to the final of the Champions League, but even he would have been surprised that Liverpool find themselves back on this stage so quickly, with the chance to make amends for what happened in Kiev.
That they have this chance in the city of the team who beat them to European glory a year ago just adds to the sense of destiny which has built over the course of this Champions League campaign for the Reds.
Yet the majority of their European journey in 2018/19 has been viewed as secondary in comparison to the hunt for the elusive Premier League title.
Liverpool’s magnificent campaign domestically was still not enough to stop arguably the best team in Premier League history from defending their title, alongside adding the League Cup and FA Cup to create a unique sweep of a domestic treble.
However, their Champions League dreams somehow remain alive, whereas Manchester City crashed out in dramatic circumstances to Liverpool’s opponents on Saturday night.
An unforgettable road to Madrid
After struggling through their group, admittedly full of quality with sides such as Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli, Liverpool’s progress through the knockout stages was relatively smooth at Bayern Munich and Porto’s expense, up until the semi-finals.
Barcelona and Lionel Messi awaited.
At this point, fan focus turned towards prioritising a sixth title in Europe’s premier club competition with the Reds’ Premier League ambitions looking likely to end in disappointment. City looked, and were, relentless, winning all of their remaining domestic games.
Despite a positive performance, Liverpool’s result was almost fatal in the Nou Camp, suffering a 3-0 defeat which should have been 4-0, regardless of Liverpool’s chances, when Ousmane Dembélé almost had an open goal at the end of the game but his scuffed shot was straight at Alisson.
Lionel Messi knew that was a big moment, but even he would have barely been able to comprehend the events that occurred at Anfield a week later, even accounting for Barcelona’s shock elimination to Roma last season.
Liverpool, without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mané, turned in one of the greatest performances in European history. By contrast, Barcelona produced one of the worst. The result was a 4-0 thrashing and a scarcely unbelievable 4-3 win on aggregate for Liverpool, booking their place in Madrid.
Beware the first time finalists in Spurs
Yet if Liverpool feel destiny is on their side for Saturday, so do Tottenham.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side were on the verge of elimination halfway through the group stages with just one point from their opening three fixtures. However, dramatic wins against PSV Eindhoven and Inter Milan, followed by a draw in the Nou Camp, meant Spurs squeaked through at the death into the knockout stages.
Tottenham had too much experience and quality for a young Borussia Dortmund side in the last 16 and somehow held off Manchester City, with help from VAR, to progress to the semi-finals.
The tie with Ajax appeared well-balanced on paper, but the Dutch giants went into a commanding 3-0 lead on aggregate by half-time in the second leg in Amsterdam, leading 2-0 on the night.
However, Spurs followed Liverpool’s comeback mantra, not knowing when to stop, when to quit. Building up enough momentum to overpower a young and suddenly fragile Ajax side, Spurs still left it to the very last second before Lucas Moura sent the club and their fans into meltdown, as the prospect of a first Champions League final in the club’s history became reality.
First trophy in England beckons on Spanish soil for either manager
Klopp’s record against Pochettino is encouraging, with only one defeat from nine encounters between Tottenham and Liverpool.
Nonetheless, the former are a match for any team in world football when they are fit and on form – as they have showcased in a Champions League run that always looked like it was about to end, but has continued all the way to the final.
Liverpool can point to the experience gathered from last year’s final and the quality of a team that has just achieved a ninety-seven point league campaign, which they believe will overcome any further magical spontaneity from Spurs and finally end their unprecedented European run in Madrid.
Spurs are good, really good, but Liverpool have the chance to prove they are better, and that they are Europe’s best for 2019.