By Andrew Warshaw
May 31 – They are the underdogs with the bookmakers, are in unchartered territory and face a side desperate to make up for the pain of 12 months ago. But as the old cliché goes – or two clichés to be precise – it’s 11 versus 11 and anything can happen on the day when Tottenham Hotspur take on firm favourites Liverpool for Champions League glory on Saturday.
After the Europa League warm-up in Baku comes the real deal in Madrid in the second all-English European final within three days.
Unfortunate to miss out on the Premier League title having lost just once in league all season, Liverpool are understandably tipped by most pundits to lift Europe’s main club trophy and end the season – deservedly some might say – with the biggest prize of all, giving manager Jurgen Klopp his first major silverware since 2012 having lost his last seven finals in cup competitions, four at Borussia Dortmund and three at Liverpool.
Liverpool fans simply can’t contemplate that run being extended in the Spanish capital especially given the heart-ache of 2018 when they lost 3-1 to Real Madrid at the same stage courtesy of goalkeeping blunders from Loris Karius and a Gareth Bale wondergoal.
The stats are certainly in their favour. Liverpool won both league encounters with Spurs during the season just completed, gained 26 more league points, have a virtually fully fit squad, have invested heavily (Spurs have signed no-one for 18 months) and sensationally overcame a 3-0 semi-final deficit to knock out mighty Barcelona.
The current vintage are perhaps the finest team never to have to won the Premier League or Champions League and this is surely their time. Or is it?
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino – whose team remarkably were just 12 minutes from Champions League elimination having taken only one point from their first three group game yet now find themselves unlikely finalists following their own dramatic semi-final fightback against Ajax – believes it is all about how his players expend their mental energy in the cauldron of the Wanda Metropolitano stadium.
Pochettino says emotion, not tactics, will be the deciding factor, one which he has been working on in the build-up to the showdown in Madrid.
“It’s impossible to say that it’s just another game,” said Pochettino, whose side have made huge strides under their Argentine manager in shrugging off the tag of a having a weak underbelly when it matters most.
“Everyone is expecting a tactical battle, but emotions will be the deciding factor. We’re two teams that know each other well, so no tactics are going to be a surprise. The emotional side is going to be fundamental.”
“No one expected Tottenham to be able to get to a final, but we’re here on our own merit. We can make history. Obviously, you play a final to win it and we’re preparing to win it.”
One key question for all Spurs fans is what role ace marksman Harry Kane, who missed the last few weeks of the season with yet another ankle injury, will play.
Kane told reporters at this week’s Tottenham media day that he was “ready to go” having not played since the quarter-final first leg against Manchester City on 9 April.
“I feel good. There have been no problems so far,” said Kane, who will either start or be named as a substitute. “I started to feel my way back with the team at the end of last week. This week now is to get the fitness as high as possible.
“Then it’s down to the manager. The manager will assess it and decide whether I’m ready to go or not but, so far, I feel good and ready.”
Kane has scored 24 goals in all competitions for Tottenham this season, despite missing six weeks in January and February with damaged ligaments in the same ankle.
Asked whether England’s captain would play, Pochettino was giving nothing away. “I can’t say he’s 100%, whether he will be available or on the bench or out, but we are so happy and positive about his progression. It’s so important that he feels well and we see what happens. I’m very positive about his situation.”
“Football is about team spirit, the collective and faith. Look how we got to the final. When Harry got injured it was in the quarter-finals and look what happened.”
“That doesn’t mean he’s not one of the best players in the team. For me, he’s one of the best strikers in the world – in the top three. We need to beat Liverpool and if he’s available all the better.”
Facing Liverpool’s dangerous front three of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane is a scary prospect for any team but Tottenham, who have not won a trophy since 2008, are determined to make up for in spirit what they lack in squad depth and have their own danger men, not just Kane but the likes of semi-final hero Lucas Moura and the club’s player of the season Son Heung-min.
“We will not lie down,” said their Danish international playmaker Christian Eriksen who is reportedly being courted by Real Madrid. “We dream we will stand with the trophy – that’s what we see in our heads. But we know it won’t come easy.”
Only two players in the Spurs squad have experience of playing in a Champions League final, one of whom is defender Toby Alderweirald who was on the losing side for Atletico Madrid against Real Madrid in the 2014 final.
“The feeling of losing is very hard,” said the Belgian. “I thought it was a big chance, a big opportunity, and maybe it will never come again. I will take this feeling to the final and show I want it more than anyone else. We are going to leave our hearts on the pitch and do everything we can.”
Whether that will be enough remains to be seen.
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