By Oliver Holt
On the day his side left Merseyside to fly to Madrid, Jurgen Klopp recorded a message to a dying man on the other side of the world. The Liverpool manager talked about life and death and the beauty of belonging to the community of players and supporters that bonds a club together and gives it its identity. ‘The only thing we would try to do the whole year,’ Klopp said to Liverpool fan Dave Evans as he stared into the camera, ‘is to give people some hope. Some joy. Some good moments to remember. We share these moments…We share these experiences. That makes us actually friends.’
Liverpool are a club whose recent history is forged in pain and fuelled by emotional energy and, fired by that hope and that joy of which Klopp had spoken, tens of thousands of their supporters had streamed out of the squares and the bars of the Spanish capital where they had congregated all day and made their way to the Wanda Metropolitano where it squats on the outskirts of the city. There in the sultry heat of the evening, a second minute penalty from Mohamed Salah and a late strike from substitute Divock Origi delivered a 2-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur and the joy the supporters craved. It also rid Klopp of the reputation of the man who always loses finals.
The victory in the first all-English Champions League Final since 2008 re-established their team as one of Europe’s elite and banished the pain of their defeat in the titanic Premier League battle with Manchester City when they won 97 points and still it was not enough. They had not hidden from that pain. They had held it close and embraced it and used it.
The match was not a classic. In fact, it was as if both teams had spent all their energy and their taste for drama in their semi-final miracle comebacks against Barcelona and Ajax. It almost felt on Saturday night as if Liverpool won the trophy that night at Anfield when they scored four unanswered goals and humbled Lionel Messi and his teammates. This was the confirmation of what they earned that magical evening.
This was not a night to marvel at the football but to revel in the history. This was Liverpool’s sixth triumph in the European Cup and Champions League, a record that lifts them above Bayern Munich and Barcelona and behind only AC Milan and Real Madrid in the history of the world’s leading club competition. What a tribute it was to a team’s ability to bounce back. It was only 12 months ago after all, when they were leaving the pitch at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, desolate having lost to Madrid in the final, haunted by nightmarish images of two macabre bloopers from their goalkeeper, Loris Karius, and a stunning overhead kick from Gareth Bale. They have lived through this season determined to purge themselves of that disappointment.
So what have you actually won Jurgen Klopp? No longer can the accusation that the German is a nearly man be levelled at him. Never again. Saturday night fixed that. He had lost six finals in succession before Saturday night – three as the boss of Borussia Dortmund and three as the manager of Liverpool – but he has won the biggest prize of all now. His image will be paraded on the Kop among the icons of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Rafa Benitez. He is one of the great ones now.
‘I feel mostly relief,’ he said after the match. ‘Mainly for my family, actually. The last times we were always on holiday with a silver medal which didn’t feel too good. Tonight was so emotional; it was so big. It means so much to us. I know how Tottenham feel better than anyone else in the world. ‘Jordan Henderson is captain of the Champions League winners of 2019 and that sounds good. It is overwhelming. My life is much better than I expected it so winning something is cool but it is for us. I have talked to Uefa already and we will be there in Istanbul for the final next year. We carry the burden of history so it will be a target to play in Istanbul again.’
The doubts about Klopp were always ridiculous anyway. He won Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund against the might of Bayern Munich. Before, he was the underdog. Saturday night, his team was the favourite and they made their class count. It wasn’t the classic many had been expecting. The heat saw to that. It was not high-energy. It was subdued. But history will not care too much for that.
History will say that this vibrant, brilliant team that hums to the beat of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s youth, James Milner’s combativeness, Virgil van Dijk’s imperiousness, Andy Robertson’s energy, Jordan Henderson’s indomitability, Sadio Mane’s trickery, Salah’s pace and Roberto Firmino’s creativity walks with the club’s giants now. They take their place alongside the heroes of Rome in 1977, Wembley in 1978, Paris in 1981, Madrid in 1984 and Istanbul in 2005. They belong now in the same company as legends like Tommy Smith and Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness, Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.
For all Liverpool’s joy, it was a desperately disappointing night for Spurs. Their hopes of becoming the 23rdclub to win the competition were dashed without them ever getting close to their best. They improved in the second half but Liverpool have replaced Karius with an altogether better goalkeeper in Alisson and he was equal to everything Spurs threw at him.
The Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino had gambled by recalling both Harry Kane and Harry Winks in the starting line-up after long injury lay-offs and the gamble did not pay off. Winks played well but Kane looked short of match fitness and Virgil van Dijk, the man of the match, and Joel Matip were not troubled by him. Spurs looked better once Lucas Moura, the hat-trick hero of the semi-final second leg comeback against Ajax, came on midway through the second half but Pochettino said he had no regrets. Inevitably, Pochettino was asked about his future after the match amid doubts he will stay at the club. ‘It is not the moment now to talk too much,’ he said. If Klopp was under added pressure because of his list of final defeats, his team soon settled his nerves. A few passes after kick-off, Henderson lofted a ball over the Spurs defence to Sadio Mane, who was in more space than Spurs should have allowed him. Mane checked when he got to the edge of the area and when his cross hit the outstretched arm of Moussa Sissoko, the referee pointed to the spot. There were 21 seconds on the clock.
Replays suggested the decision was harsh but not harsh enough to warrant it being rescinded. There was a delay while the referee checked with VAR and then confirmed the penalty. Salah, Liverpool’s leading scorer, stepped up and blasted the ball past Hugo Lloris.
Only 1 minute and 48 seconds had elapsed, making it the second fastest goal in the history of Champions League finals, beaten only by Paolo Maldini’s opener after 50 seconds against Liverpool in Istanbul in 2005, a goal that turned out to be the prelude to one of the greatest comebacks the game has seen.
The game settled for a little then, becalmed, as if it did not quite know what had hit it. The cloying heat grabbed at the players and sucked the drive out of them. Both sides gave possession away regularly. It was another 15 minutes before Liverpool threatened the Spurs goal again, Trent Alexander-Arnold whistling a shot across Lloris and just wide. It was three weeks since the end of the English league season and both teams struggled to find fluency. After the interval, the Spurs fans sensed their team beginning to gain the ascendancy and roared them on as they attacked their end. Liverpool’s defence was starting to get stretched now and Heung-Min Son almost wriggled free in the area only for his shot to be blocked. Klopp knew the momentum was shifting. He brought on Origi for Roberto Firmino and Milner for Gini Wijnaldum.
Liverpool began to respond to the changes. The clock ticked down, bringing the prize closer and closer, and they searched for the goal that would put the game out of reach. Mane jinked his way past Christian Eriksen and when the ball broke to Milner, he lashed it just wide of Lloris’s left-hand post. It was end-to-end stuff now, the game we thought we might have had from the start, the game we might have had in English temperatures. Son burst through the Liverpool defence next and cut the ball back to Dele Alli but his chip was easily caught by Alisson. Alisson was pressed into action again and again now, beating away a shot from Son and diving low to stop a shot from Lucas Moura.
Ten minutes from the end, hearts leapt when Milner brought down Danny Rose on the very edge of the area. It was a free-kick not a penalty, but even though Eriksen struck it sweetly, even though it was curling towards the far corner, Alisson flew across his goal and pushed it wide. After all that pressure, though, Spurs were undone in the final minutes. They failed to clear a corner and when the ball fell to Origi ten yards out, he took a touch to steady himself and then drove it past Lloris low into the corner. This time, for Spurs, there was to be no comeback.
…Holt wrote this article for The Mail on Sunday