Intense, unrelenting, never-say-die. Graham Hunter explores how two barely believable semi-final comebacks raised the UEFA Champions League’s capacity to astound and amaze to new levels
By the time Lucas Moura completed only the third hat-trick of his senior career, leaving Ajax distraught and propelling Tottenham Hotspur towards their first-ever UEFA Champions League final, this glorious competition had already seen over 600 semi-final goals across the previous 248 last-four matches since 1956. A rich, 64-season tapestry of footballing brilliance, ambition and daring.
So for that ‘Moura moment’, plus the glorious anarchy at Anfield which swept Liverpool past Barcelona, earning their second consecutive shot at lifting this trophy, to be widely considered the greatest, most thrilling, most uplifting pair of semi-finals the European Champion Clubs’ Cup has ever seen is saying something extremely special.
Each of this evening’s English finalists were 3-0 down during their semi-final – Liverpool admittedly at least with a night at one of the most inspirational (and daunting) football fortresses in history still in hand. But Spurs, with just 36 nerve-jangling minutes left to score more goals in a knockout away leg in this competition than they’d managed on all but two occasions – well, you’d have been forgiven for thinking: “Even the Champions League couldn’t produce a grandstand comeback of those proportions … could it?”
I guess someone might just about be able to script drama like this for cinema or television. But you’d have to be awfully good to make it credible. Golden Globe, or Academy Award level, at least. Is there context to be found? Romantics might argue that the Champions League long ago demonstrated it has its own specific personality – theatrical, intense, dramatic and thrillingly quixotic.
The brilliance of the stellar footballers taking part; the wit and psychology of the coaches; the loyal, daring-to-dream fans; the cavernous, regal stadia; the relentless continental media; the match officials whose athleticism must equal the footballers’; and the VAR which now gives football one of life’s most coveted facets, a second chance – these are the quantifiable component parts of our competition. You can see, count, touch and measure them. But sometimes, when that soaring anthem echoes across an arena, the competition itself seems to whimsically reach down to a particular team, player or tie and sprinkle a little magic dust on it. For those of us who feel that way, perhaps it was inevitable that the 20th anniversary of Manchester United’s remarkable added-time win over Bayern München was scheduled to not only throw up more Premier League representation in the final, but drama to match the Camp Nou in 1999.
Kostas Manolas wheels away after scoring the goal that stunned Barça in 2018
Until those frantic few seconds during which Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær ripped the ‘Cup with the Big Ears’ from Bayern’s previously rock-solid grip, it’s arguable that the European Cup and Champions League combined had never seen anything quite so astonishing. Did Liverpool’s comeback from 3-0 down to AC Milan in Istanbul six years later match, or overtake, that night for sheer disbelief value? Perhaps, but that’s for others to argue out. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The feats produced by Liverpool and Spurs now mean that over the last two and a half years there have been three comebacks from three or more goals down. That’s as many as in 31 previous years.
Liverpool’s 4-0 shock-and-awe defeat of the Spanish champions was also the sixth second-leg comeback from two or more goals down since the start of 2017. Which is as many as in the previous 12 Champions League seasons put together. And six teams recovered from a first-leg defeat to win ties this season – more than in any other Champions League campaign. What we witnessed was a triumph of the human spirit. Unflappable belief, elastic lungs, intensity, togetherness and resourcefulness of which history’s great heroes would be proud.
Spurs were without their iconic captain and striker, Harry Kane. His deputy, Heung-Min Son, failed to score. Had you suggested to those who calculate the odds on such a challenge that, in those circumstances and with a 3-0 aggregate deficit, Mauricio Pochettino’s team would still find a way to win then the statistical equation offered wouldn’t have been attractive. Yet they defied the odds.
As for Liverpool, three goals behind to a Barcelona side featuring Leo Messi on Ballon D’Or form, and not only missing Naby Keïta and Roberto Firmino but the talismanic and free-scoring Mo Salah too … ask yourself frankly then give an honest answer: did you still believe that they could do it? The fact is that there has been an increased flow of these astounding matches in recent seasons.
"Ask yourself frankly then give an honest answer: did you believe they could do it?"
Barça, whether coincidentally or not, seem to be at the heart of the emerging pattern. Eight of those who suffered Liverpool’s 4-0 ‘comeback’ uprising at Anfield were in the Blaugrana side beaten 4-0 in the February 2017 round of 16 first leg at Paris Saint-Germain. What happened next was without precedent in Champions League history and felt unmatchable, at least until April’s semi-finals. Back at the Camp Nou, Luis Enrique’s side won 6-1 with the crucial goal coming in the 95th minute via the outstretched boot of home-trained midfielder Sergi Roberto. The last three goals came between minute 88 and the end of added time. Epic drama.
Then, a year ago, Barcelona’s 4-1 advantage was blown away in Rome when Kostas Manolas headed home with eight minutes left to make it 3-0. This year Atlético de Madrid, our final hosts, were leading Juventus 2-0 after 90 minutes, then slumped 3-0 in Turin. Manchester United had it still tougher – defeated 2-0 at Old Trafford by Paris but somehow emerging victorious on away goals at the Parc des Princes thanks to Marcus Rashford’s 94th-minute penalty.
What has changed, over the long, nourishing and culture-changing lifespan of the Champions League, are firm nuances in attack, pressing, defence; the challenges of playing away from home; opponent information; and what the equilibrium between entertainment and conservatism must be.
We live in an era of football where the age-old idea of ‘pressing’ opponents, ‘pressing’ the ball carrier is very significantly an attacking tool – rather than defensive. Not all of the stunning results referred to here were earned by wave after wave of 4-3-3, incessant, coordinated, ‘win-the-ball-back-high-up-the-pitch’ pressing. But a good few were.
That can be equally true away from home, not just in the relative ‘comfort’ of your own stadium. The Champions League’s lifetime has seen a homogenisation of pitches, now uniformly exceptional. No more the horror of a surface light years away from what you play on weekly.Homogenisation, too, of information. So vast are the computer-based knowledge pools of opposition sides, their strengths and weaknesses, that the tendency to play conservatively against hard-to-scout, lesser-known rivals is now an irrelevance.
One-nation finals are rarely short on excitement
As the means of defending becomes attacking, as away matches are played with the same verve and desire for victory as home matches once were, as intimate knowledge of opponents becomes uniform, as the pace and intensity of games becomes almost unrelenting, vital knockout ties are more often determined by who is less drained towards the end of the season, who can conjure up several moments of destiny-shaping inventiveness or daring. Even if they are trailing by a couple of goals. Think of Lucas Moura’s wonderful finish against a tiring Ajax, or Trent Alexander-Arnold’s brilliant, razor-sharp corner taken when Barcelona, just briefly, switched off but Divock Origi, ready to pounce, didn’t.
Some of the big comeback scores owe hugely to the diversity of tactical philosophies out there too. Culture clashes, occasionally, bring huge drama. When Roma eliminated Barcelona last year, they shrewdly played the ball vertically to Edin Džeko sufficiently to minimise the role of Barça’s midfield. They constantly kept their Liga rivals turning, running back, doing the things they rarely had to face domestically. And disliked on the night.
Spurs, in the final 45 minutes in Amsterdam, did similarly with Fernando Llorente producing one of the displays of his entire life, again bypassing Ajax’s middle, making them turn, pinning the previously wonderful Matthijs de Ligt back. Preventing the Dutch playing out from the back, preventing De Ligt moving up to add superiority of numbers.
The fans go wild as Ole Gunnar Solskjær completes United’s astonishing comeback in 1999
We have Liverpool and Spurs here in Madrid tonight because this competition has always inspired. Inspired drama, inspired greatness, inspired effort beyond what some thought they were capable of. The Champions League demands wit, wisdom, brilliance, bravery, dogged determination – qualities known to great achievers throughout human history. Which is why we are privileged spectators. Which is why the world will be watching and waiting – knowing that something which literally defies our expectations and belief is actually never that far away.
Graham Hunter is the host of The Big Interview, silver medal winner at the 2019 British Podcast Awards