The biggest game in European football takes place tomorrow, and in all the years since the European Cup was rebranded as the UEFA Champions League following changes to the format of the competition, there has arguable never been a season in which the two finalists have collectively delivered so much drama.
From the first round group stage to the semi final ties, both Spurs and Liverpool have found themselves having to recover from a number of seemingly impossible situations to ultimately qualify for the final in Madrid
Both drawn into difficult groups, Spurs were handed Barcelona, Inter and PSV, while Liverpool had to face Paris Saint-Germain, Napoli and Red Star Belgrade.
Liverpool couldn’t have started their campaign any better, and a win over a strong PSG side in the first group game was an indication that having reached the final just months earlier, the Reds would again be among the contenders to win the competition.
But losses in all three away games – most disappointingly a 2-0 reverse in Belgrade against the second-lowest ranked side in the group stage – left Liverpool with only six points from five games, and the team went into the final matchday requiring nothing less than win against Napoli, who were three points ahead in the group.
With the head-to-head record between the two teams likely to decide who would go through – based on an assumption that PSG wouldn’t slip up against Red Star – Liverpool needed to win 1-0 and match Napoli’s result in the teams’ previous meeting. Any goal scored by Napoli at Anfield would effectively be treated as the same as an away goal in a two-legged tie, and would leave Liverpool instead needing to win by two clear goals.
As it happened, simply winning the game at all was difficult enough, and a superb save from Allison to deny Arkadiusz Milik from point blank range in injury time was needed in order to see out the win.
The drama didn’t quite match that of the Olympiakos match of 2004, when the requirement was identical but on that occasion, Liverpool did concede and had to score three second half goals in order to progress.
But as with the famous 2004/5 season, Liverpool had, by their own doing, left themselves with a lot of work to do in order to reach the knockout phase, and only qualified by the narrowest of margins after a highly tense night at Anfield.
On the same evening of football, Spurs were in action in the most chaotic of Champions League groups, and one in which every round of games involved late twists.
On matchday 1, Spurs were only five minutes from a vital away win at Inter, before the Italians struck twice in the closing stages to send the Premier League side home with an early defeat in the competition.
Matchday 2 saw Spurs lose to Barcelona, with Lionel Messi netting a decisive goal in the last minute, as Spurs pushed for an equaliser in a high-scoring match.
Spurs did at least gain a first point in a 2-2 draw against PSV Eindhoven during Matchday 3, but were again denied a valuable away win after conceding with just three minutes to play, shortly after the sending off of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
But in the return fixture, the late goals finally went in Spurs’ favour, as Harry Kane scored twice – including an 89th minute winner – to turn the match on its head during the dying stages, and save Spurs from being eliminated at the earliest possible stage of the competition.
Considering the results that had gone before it, Christian Eriksen’s 80th minute winner in a 1-0 against Inter barely constituted late drama, but it was yet another vital moment in Spurs’ season, in a game that they simply had to win to keep any alive any slim hopes of progressing.
From being on the brink of elimination, Spurs went into the last round of games with the situation in their own hands and knew that they would qualify if they matched – or bettered – the result achieved by Inter.
Whereas Inter were at home to a team already confirmed to be finishing bottom, Spurs were away to Barcelona. Mauricio Pochettino’s men were given a boost by Barcelona’s decision to field a weakened team, although the line-up still included €105m signing Ousmane Dembele, who gave the hosts an early lead.
But in the group’s other game, Inter were soon to find themselves behind, too, which meant that Spurs would go through even if they lost.
With both Inter and Spurs creating a huge number of goalscoring chances in their respective matches, it was inevitable that the evening would see further goals, and with less than 20 minutes to go, it was Inter who scored next to provisionally move into second place in the group.
Spurs needed a response, whilst also hoping that Inter didn’t score again. And in keeping with almost every other round of games in a crazy group, it was an 85th minute strike by Lucas Moura that ultimately proved to be decisive – earning Spurs a draw which was good enough thanks to Inter Milan’s failure to grab a winning goal.
With just eight points and a negative goal difference, Spurs finished with the worst record of any English team to have qualified from a Champions League group.
Not that Liverpool were much better, with the Reds becoming only the third team to ever qualify from a group having lost all three away games.
Only Inter Milan, under Jose Mourinho in 2009/10, had ever reached a Champions League final having taken fewer than 10 points, and no one would have predicted that both Spurs and Liverpool would end up contesting the final in Madrid – which was also the host city for Inter’s 2010 success.