By Andrew Warshaw in Madrid
June 3 – The sight of thousands of crestfallen Tottenham Hotspur fans traipsing out of the Wanda Metropolitano stadium on Saturday, lost in thought following bitter defeat in the Champions League final, hardly told the full story.
As Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and their legions of fans went wild with celebration following their victory in the largely good-natured all-English final, Spurs supporters could only ponder a number of ‘what ifs’ as they sought refuge in each other’s company on the road back in central Madrid.
Literally on the road – since in their wisdom the authorities had closed some of the nearby metros, with scores of fans forced to walk in any direction they could, without a clue where they were, before hailing the first taxi available.
The fact that Spurs had twice as many chances as Liverpool and twice as much possession was scant consolation for their fans, some of whom of a certain age may never see their side in the final again.
Among the what ifs were two crucial questions. What if the referee had not awarded Liverpool a penalty after just 24 seconds? The debate among pundits, biased and unbiased, will rage on for ages.
Sadio Mane’s attempted cross was blocked when the ball struck Moussa Sissoko’s chest and then deflected on to his arm, prompting referee Damir Skomina to immediately point to the spot.
Initially it seemed desperately harsh since it was not intentional. Indeed in past seasons Sissoko’s action would not have been penalised.
However, UEFA has adopted a stricter policy on handballs in the Champions League this season following the introduction of the video assistant referee (VAR) in the knockout rounds of the competition.
UEFA’s head of referees Roberto Rossetti explained back in January that a stance like Sissoko’s would be punished. “The big challenge is the position of the arm,” he said. “When the arm is totally out of the body above the shoulder it should be penalised.
“If the defender is making the body bigger in order to block the ball it is not fair. It is different if the defender is challenging or playing the ball and it rebounds. But if he is looking to block a cross or a shot on goal and the player is trying to spread his body then it is a handball.”
New rules introduced by the International FA Board states handball will be given if the ball “touches a player’s hand or arm which has made their body unnaturally bigger”, or “the ball touches a player’s hand or arm when it is above their shoulder (unless the player has deliberately played the ball which then touches their hand/arm)”
The hand ball rule has long been a point of contention and has intensified even more this year. Ironically Saturday’s referee was the same one who awarded Manchester United a highly dubious last-ditch penalty against Paris St Germain that knocked the French club out earlier in this season’s competition.
In past eras, as I say, Sissoko would have got away with it. Not now. Simply being unable to get your arm out of the way is no longer deemed enough to avoid being punished.
Unlucky for Spurs and an early bonus for Liverpool. Yet such is the confusion – still – over what is and what is not a handball offence that TV commentary teams across the globe could not even decide among themselves.
The second huge ‘what if’ as far as Spurs fans are concerned relates to England striker Harry Kane. The Spurs talisman had been out for several weeks with a recurrence of an ankle injury and there is a large body of opinion that believes Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino, for all his remarkable achievements in getting his team to the final having not spent a single pound, dollar or Euro on any new players for 18 months, took a huge risk starting Kane and should have gone with his semifinal hero Lucan Moura, instead leaving Kane on the bench as an impact substitute.
Liverpool’s £70 million defender Virgil van Dijk had Kane in his pocket for the entire match. Would the pacier – arguably more match-fit – Moura have given the sublime van Dijk and his fellow defenders more to think about? We will never know yet once Moura entered the fray, Spurs certainly looked more penetrative and seemed to have more options.
Opportunity lost? The jury will be out for some time.
Having said all this, no-one should begrudge Liverpool their victory after a remarkable season that will live long in the memory. Tottenham’s two most creative midfield players didn’t pose nearly enough problems while Jurgen Klopp’s side always looked dangerous on the counter.
Liverpool were not at their best. Far from it. Indeed, they played better a year ago when they were cruelly beaten at the same stage by Real Madrid. This time they got over the line much to the relief of an ecstatic Klopp who has finally lifted a key prize after so many near misses.
“I’m so happy for the boys. I’m so happy for all these people, I’m so happy for my family, they suffer every year when we go to the final last game of the season and we lose it,” he said. “Did you ever see a team like this? Fighting with absolutely no fuel in the tank any more.”
Lifting the trophy for a sixth time and the first since 2005 was deserved reward for a team that was in danger of being labelled the finest group of players never to win a major title. But Liverpool fans knew it could so easily have slipped away.
At the final whistle, one of them made a point of approaching two heartbroken spurs supporters sitting a few yards away. “Bad luck,” he said. “You were the better team. We felt a year ago as you do now. You will come again.”
It was a class touch. The difference, however, is that Liverpool – with their far superior resources – are likely to have a better chance in the coming seasons than Tottenham, for whom getting to the final in the first place was a miraculous achievement in itself.
Spurs have not won a trophy of any description since 2008 and Pochettino is yet to win silverware as a manager. Contrast that with Liverpool’s flag-waving trophy parade through the streets of the city on Sunday.
But don’t be fooled by it. Having come so close, Tottenham fans are anticipating their squad finally being strengthened in the summer but of far more importance is the position of their manager who has yet to commit his future to the club after five years in charge.
Whether or not Pochettino made mistakes in his selection for the biggest game in the club’s recent history – one he had predicted would be decided by emotions rather than tactics – and however much the club dives into the transfer window, holding on to their Argentine manager to maintain the Spurs revolution and Renaissance would be the biggest coup of all in the next few weeks.
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