Hands up if you knew all along that Liverpool were undoubtedly going to come back from a 3-0 deficit and eliminate Barcelona on Tuesday night? Having written on these very pages before it happened: “While history tells us Anfield is more than capable of producing special European nights, Liverpool are going to have to get off to an absolute flyer and score early in the second leg this evening to have any chance of producing another almighty comeback. Even then it looks like a big ask against a team who enjoy dominating possession.” (https://football-nerd.org/2019/05/07/football-nerd-weekly-ramblings-can-liverpool-and-spurs-bounce-back-in-this-weeks-second-legs/); well call me the Nostradamus of the football world!
When a mere seven minutes into the second leg, Divock Origi tapped home from close range, I turned to Mrs Football Nerd and said: “It is going to be one of those nights isn’t it?” One of those matches where footballing logic and common sense are flung out of the window and you simply watch the drama unfold before your very eyes.
Strangely though, as a neutral, as they lined up for the kick-off after the opening goal you could almost sense that Barca had no response. It was almost as if, still stung by blowing a 4-1 lead against Roma in last year’s quarter final, they knew that the tide of momentum was against them, for Liverpool as you may have heard have been here and done this before!
Overrun by a Liverpool midfield that sensed blood, the Catalan giants were strangely panicky and uncharacteristically wasteful in possession, unsettled by the ferocity of Liverpool’s pressing and the unrelenting wave of noise that surrounded them. Pantomime-villain-in-chief and former Liverpool idol, Luis Suarez, seemed more intent on picking a fight with anyone wearing the red of his former employers, Messi was swarmed by two, three or four Liverpool players every time he deigned to attempt to start one of his trademark runs, while rumours that Phillippe Coutinho was apparently on the pitch seem to have been greatly exaggerated!
The real dagger to the heart came in the second half when in the space of just two minutes, having only entered the fray ten minutes previously; Gini Wijnaldum had not only trebled his tally of goals for Liverpool in the Champions League but levelled the tie.
With Barcelona rocking, the goal that sealed the win for Liverpool was as cunningly ingenious as it was impudent: Trent Alexander recognising Barca’s tendency to argue and protest any decision against them and also mindful of the European multi-ball system, picked up a spare, nodded to his partner in deception, Divock Origi, and caught Barcelona, the great Barcelona, completely and utterly asleep. With that the tie was settled, Barcelona were out once again and Liverpool were in their second successive Champions League Final, all achieved without Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino.
While we all know that Liverpool have a flair for the dramatic, Tottenham’s reputation tends to stand at the other end of the spectrum, the one that suggests that if there is a way to lose from a seemingly strong position , to ‘Spurs it up’ if you will, then they will certainly find it. We need only think back to them finishing third in a two horse race in 2016, or to the FA Cup semi-final the following season when they completely outplayed Chelsea only to contrive to lose the match 4-2, or back in 2011-12 when they were ten points clear of Arsenal and 2-0 up in the North London derby, only to lose the match and be reeled in by the Gunners to be pipped to third place and then to see Chelsea win the Champions League nicking the final qualification spot for the following season’s competition.
What happened on Wednesday evening was the very antithesis of ‘being Spursy’. This time Tottenham did what so often has been done to them, they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the most spectacular of fashions.
Since squeezing past most people’s favourites for the competition, Manchester City, in the previous round and the loss of talismanic striker Harry Kane, Tottenham’s form has been woeful having won and scored just once in their previous five matches. When they then found themselves 3-0 down on aggregate at half-time the obituaries on another Spurs season were not so much appropriate as overdue.
As the teams emerged for the second half with the crowd including a certain Patrick Kluivert singing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” (better known for its lyrics: “don’t worry about a thing”), the footballing gods decided that the miracle of Anfield wasn’t sufficient for one week, we needed something more. Step forward Lucas Moura whose two goals in quick succession levelled the match if not the aggregate score.
From there this highly impressive young Ajax team were on the ropes, desperately hanging in for the remaining half hour of the match; even then though it looked like Spurs were going to come up short. Until that is the penultimate minute of added time when once again Moura found the ball at his feet and just as he had done with his previous two chances, calmly slotted it away, stunning the home crowd and sending the travelling support into raptures.
Many commenters, (yours truly most definitely included!), have bemoaned the Champions League for becoming stale, too predictable, boring even, but this year’s vintage has contained shock after exhilarating shock and some absolutely enthralling matches. Perhaps it is down to an evening up of the competition, a decline in the traditional dominant superpowers, but if future competitions are going to match this, then let’s have more of it.
After two of the most exciting comebacks ever witnessed, Thursday night’s Europa League semi-final second legs were always going to have to go some to top them. While there wasn’t quite the drama of earlier in the week there was still twists and turns aplenty from the continent’s secondary competition.
Going to the revered cathedral of football that is the Estadio de Mestalla leading 3-1 Arsenal were very much in the driving seat as long as they didn’t concede an early goal. Of course though Arsenal version 2019 away from home are the very opposite of a well drilled and supremely organised defensive unit and after just eleven minutes they allowed way too much space down their right flank and one time trusted lieutenant of head coach Unai Emery, Kevin Gameiro, had put the home side ahead in the match and very much back in the tie.
Because of their susceptibility at the back and the lack of a significant goal contribution from anywhere else in the side now that injury has ended Aaron Ramsey’s career with the club, the Gunners are heavily reliant on their two £50 million strikers. Thankfully on this particular evening they delivered and how.
Alex Lacazette has added tenacity and physicality to his game this season and his hard work allowed Arsenal to establish a foothold in the match. His oppo and buddy, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang chose this match to at last put on a display that demonstrated why he had been so coveted during his Borussia Dortmund days. Three goals from Aubameyang and one from Lacazette were enough to secure a place in the club’s first European final for thirteen years and their coach’s fourth in this competition, despite conceding a second from Gameiro.
Back in London Eintracht Frankfurt were making Chelsea work for the right to join Arsenal in Baku in a game that was by all accounts a tense attritional contest in which neither side was truly able to take control. Chelsea opened the scoring through Ruben Loftus-Cheek after twenty eight minutes but were pegged back when the highly sought after Luka Jovic equalized early in the second half.
In the half hour extra time, that I was able to watch after Arsenal’s game had finished, Frankfurt perhaps could and should have sealed their passage to the final only to be denied by two goalline clearances: the first from the much maligned David Luiz the second from Davide Zappacosta.
In a week of immense footballing drama it seemed almost fitting that the last of the four matches should be settled by a penalty shootout. In the end it was Chelsea who held their nerve, Eden Hazard in what may be, if rumours are to be believed, his final home game before heading off to Real Madrid, almost nonchalantly converting the decisive spot kick.
So for the first time in history all four finalists in UEFA’s flagship competitions come from the same country, and while purists may suggest that true European competition should be between clubs from different countries, if the finals themselves in three weeks’ time deliver anywhere near the entertainment we have enjoyed this week, we are in for a real treat.