June 1, 2019 By Kevin Omondi
People only look at the final but almost never the journey, more often than not, one of adversity and tumult that the finalists have had to overcome! We are honoured to share with you Victor Mokaya’s deep dive into the UEFA Champions League Final.
Adversity as The Real Shaper of Character and Attitude
When Lionel Messi struck – what has now become his trademark freekicks – beyond Alison Becker’s top right corner in the 82nd minute, Barcelona fans believed that they were all but in the final of the UEFA Champions League. The Champions League gods, however, were of a different mind. Divock Origi’s 79th-minute strike in the second leg of the tie took Liverpool through, 4-3 on aggregate. This, however, is not a story about comebacks. This is a story about how adversity shapes character and creates a winning attitude, and how the written-off teams in the competition have on more than one occasion pulled themselves out of the ditch, to pull the unlikeliest of feats. English teams are the masters of pulling these feats, and 20 years since the incredible Manchester United heroics, Liverpool and Tottenham have overcome incredible odds to get to the final. But who will triumph at the end? Who has suffered enough, and has been shaped by adversity, to see it through to their name on the trophy?
In the 1998/1999 season, Manchester United was pooled alongside Bayern Munich and Barcelona in the group stage, with all to play for. Manchester United would draw all four games against Bayern Munich and Barcelona and come second in the group with 10 points. The team would then meet Internazionale in the quarterfinals, knocking the Italians out 3-1 on aggregate. Then as fate would have it, they met Juventus in the semis, snatching a late 1-1 draw at Old Trafford thanks to Ryan Gigg’s injury time goal. In the return leg in Turin, Inzaghi put the tie at 3-1 aggregate by the 11th minute, only for Andy Cole to leave it late, taking United through on 4-3 aggregate thanks to his 84th-minute strike. This is the sort of adversity that the 1998/1999 Manchester United team had to go through that set the stage for Ole Gunnar‘s 93rd-minute strike that won United the competition against all the odds. Adversity shaped the character of Sir Alex Fergusson’s team.
In the 2004/2005 final in Istanbul, we all remember Liverpool doing the unthinkable, overcoming a 3-goal deficit in the first half, to win the competition on penalties. But how did the run-in shape this mentality and character that allowed them to overcome a 3-goal half-time loss? Liverpool pooled Monaco, Olympiakos and Deportivo La Coruña in the group stage. Liverpool had to get a win against Olympiakos in the final group stage game to progress to the knockout. Unfortunately, they conceded early but managed to rally two late goals in the 81st and 86th minutes, to win the game and proceed, albeit second, and level on points with Olympiakos. In the quarters, Liverpool proceeded on a 2-1 aggregate, after a hard-fought 0-0 draw against Juventus in the second leg of the tie. In the semi-finals, Liverpool would meet Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and grind out a narrow 1-0 aggregate against Jose Mourinho, the competitions reigning champion. Six minutes of utter madness in Istanbul, started by Steven Gerrard’s 54th-minute strike would take Liverpool to extra time, and penalties, where they survived the likes of Pirlo and Shevchenko failed penalties, and Jerzy Dudek‘s heroics to win the competition. Harry Kewell‘s injury and the introduction of Vladimir Smicer is part of the smaller scripts that spices up the adversity that shaped Liverpool’s character, enabling them to win against all the odds, against arguably the best team in the competition.
Chelsea’s solitary trophy in the competition is the stuff of legends. After an easy group stage phase, Chelsea needed to overcome a 3-1 deficit against Napoli, with an inexperienced interim manager in Roberto di Matteo. At the Bridge, Chelsea scored early, but Gökhan Inler’s 55th-minute strike seemed to complicate the tie, giving the Napoli a crucial away goal. Lampard‘s 75th-minute penalty would take the tie to extra time, and Branislav Ivanović’s heroics would take Chelsea through, 4-1 on the night and 5-4 on aggregate. Chelsea was then pooled alongside free-scoring Messi’s Barcelona in the competition’s semi-final tie. A half-time Didier Drogba’s stoppage-time strike would give Chelsea a 1-0 advantage in the first leg at Stanford Bridge. At the Nou Camp, Barcelona’s two first-half goals seemed to swing the tie. Chelsea lost both their centre backs in the game, Gary Cahill to injury, and Captain, Leader, Legend John Terry to dismissal. A man down, Chelsea’s Ramires scored a memorable 1st half stoppage time goal, swinging the tie in Chelsea’s favour. Lionel Messi then missed a 49th-minute penalty, denying him his 15th goal of the season’s competition. This set the game for an incredible finale. With Barcelona pushing for a winning strike, goal-shy Fernando Torres scored another stoppage-time goal in the 92nd minute, to effectively kill the tie. Chelsea’s campaign was to be defined by stoppage time goals and resilience.
Enter Munich. Thomas Müller’s 83rd-minute strike seemed to have settled the final. But it would seem Bayern Munich never learned a lesson from the 1999 competition’s campaign. Didier Drogba would score in the 88th minute to take the tie to extra time. The reliable Arjen Robben would miss a 95th-minute penalty taking the tie to penalties, where Chelsea’s takers survived German’s otherwise composure from six yards, to win the competition. Chelsea’s win was best captured by BBC‘s Phil McNulty,
“This was a victory in the mould of Chelsea’s semi-final win against Barcelona, built on resilience, discipline, defensive organisation, and nerve at the crucial times and done without the suspended Terry, Branislav Ivanovic, Ramires and Raul Meireles.”
Once again, adversity shaped the character of the competitions eventual winners.
The 2018/2019 campaign features the feat of the eventual finalists, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, the unlikely and unpredicted final tie. Tottenham, without a single summer signing in the campaign, pooled Barcelona and Internazionale in the group stage. Tottenham did not get a win until Matchday 4 of the competition and risked elimination. Harry Kane’s late double gave Tottenham a 2-1 victory over PSV. A late 80th minute Eriksen goal at Wembley and another 85th minute Moura goal at Camp Nou saved Tottenham the blushes of elimination. Spurs were level on points with Internazionale at eight but progressed over Inter on away goals scored in head-to-head matches. In the quarters, Spurs would get a narrow 1-0 victory at Wembley, setting the stage for a frenzy of a match at the Etihad against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. In a frenzy 11 minutes of the second leg, the score was 2-2, Son Heung-min’s double putting Spurs through on aggregate. Bernado Silva and Aguero would effectively put City on the driving seat, before VAR drama judged Fernando Llorente’s 73rd-minute strike as legitimate, giving Spurs the edge. At the death of it, Raheem Sterling thought he had taken City through, only for VAR to rule out the goal, knocking City out and sending Spurs through to the semis. Mauricio Pochettino would remark, “This is why we love football. It was an unbelievable game.”
Unfortunately for Spurs, they drew Ajax, the competition’s giant slayers. As was the norm, as they had done before at the Bernabéu and at the Juventus Stadium, Ajax Amsterdam snatched a narrow 1-0 victory at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, to take to the second leg. At the Johan Cruyff Arena, everything went wrong for Spurs in the first half, conceding a further two goals, giving Ajax a 3-goal advantage. Mauricio Pochettino’s side would then do the unthinkable, channelling the footballing gods of Istanbul, and reversing the tie, going through thanks to a 96th minute Lucas Moura strike, his hattrick goal of the tie. Indeed, to Dare is to Do, and Tottenham Hotspur did it most unbelievably. For a team that was on the verge of elimination, followed by survival at the teeth against Manchester City, Tottenham showed the young Ajax team that beyond all, resilience and adversity maketh winners. Tottenham’s campaign has been marked by going through at the death of games, and channelling whatever is left in them. Defender Jan Vertonghen summed it all up,
“How many games have we played to get here? Twelve? In every single one of them, something crazy happened.”
The question is, will it be crazy enough, and will it work at the Wanda Metropolitano in Madrid?
Liverpool know a thing or two about Champions League heroics, and this season was no different. Pooled against Paris Saint-Germain and Napoli, Liverpool seemed equal to the task. A 92nd-minute Firmino goal would spare Liverpool the blushes of failing to win at home. A shock 2-0 defeat at Red Star Belgrade, followed by a 2-1 defeat at the Parc des Princes effectively meant that Liverpool had to beat Napoli by a to goal margin or win and avoid conceding, to progress, and they did, grinding a narrow 1-0 win against Carlo Ancelotti’s side. Liverpool survived yet again. Drawn against Barcelona in the semis, all was to play for. Barcelona were beatable, but Barcelona had Lionel Messi, and with Messi, everything is possible. So did it happen at the Nou Camp when Messi bent that spectacular freekick beyond Alison to give Barća a three-goal advantage. Needing to score an away goal to rattle Liverpool at Anfield, Barcelona underestimated what they were up against. Moreover, Liverpool were without Mohammed Salah, Roberto Firmino, and Naby Keita through injuries. Divock Origi, drafted in for the missing Firmino, would have none of it. His brace, the opener and the last goal, together with Georginio Wijnaldum’s brace scored inside two minutes, would put Liverpool through 4-3 on aggregate, knocking out the Spanish giants. This is the stuff of legends, the making of the Champions League where it is never decided until the referee blows the final whistle.
The stage is set, the day is here. Jurgen Klopp makes for an interesting finalist, a perennial loser in finals, having lost his last six finals in different competitions across Germany, England, and Europe. Mauricio Pochettino is an undecorated manager having won nothing so far in his career from the dugout. Liverpool made it to the final last year but lost to the brilliance of Gareth Bale, and the shambles of Loris Karius in goal. What will it be this time? Who will channel the gods of adversity and resilience, to make it and lift the big-eared trophy? This is a final made of exciting teams who have no winning experience (for Tottenham Hotspur Football Club) and no recent winning streak (for Liverpool Football Club) when the stakes are as high as they will be in the biggest European club competition. Who will blink first?