After coming close to missing out on the last 16, Spurs and Liverpool made much easier work of their round of 16 ties.
Both teams faced German opponents, with Spurs enjoying the most comfortable nights of their European season over two matches against Borussia Dortmund. Both legs of the tie occurred during a run of games in which Dortmund won only once in eight matches – a period which included elimination from the German Cup, and also a loss of what had been a nine point lead over Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga title race.
Bayern were Liverpool’s Champions League opponents, and were in mildly celebratory mood after securing a goalless first leg draw at Anfield. But Liverpool delivered one of their best away performances in the second leg, controlling most of a match in which they were 3-1 winners.
Following Liverpool’s 5-0 aggregate win against Porto on the way to the 2017/18 final, the Portuguese champions were considered a much bigger threat in a quarter final rematch between the teams. But in failing to take any of their first leg chances and coming away from Anfield with a 2-0 defeat, Porto faced a huge challenge in the second leg and were eventually on the end of an aggregate scoreline every bit as emphatic as in the previous year’s competition.
Drawn against Man City, Spurs had a much tougher quarter final, but were boosted by the long-awaited opening of their fantastic new stadium, which hosted the first leg in which Spurs won 1-0.
A tight first leg was followed by a second leg which was anything but, and an explosive start led to five goals being scored in the opening 21 minutes, leading to Man City gaining a narrow advantage on the night.
Pep Guardiola’s team needed a two goal win, and City went ahead on aggregate just before the hour mark, before again conceding at the other end to put Spurs back in the driving seat on away goals.
In one of the games of the season, Man City thought they had a fifth goal in injury time to put them in the last four and keep alive hopes of an historic quadruple. But as the Man City players, staff and fans celebrated wildly, the officials were reviewing an incident using VAR, and in the most dramatic of late twists, the goal was ruled out and Spurs survived the final moments of the contest for a famous win.
In any other season, Man City v Spurs might have been the most memorable 90 minutes of the competition, though it was rendered ordinary after two of the most incredible semi final matches.
Liverpool were confident heading into a semi final against Barcelona, but were left stunned by a 3-0 loss in the first leg, with Lionel Messi inspiring a win which gave a false picture of a match in which Liverpool matched their opponents.
Despite a heavy loss, the quality of Liverpool’s performance gave some degree of hope for the return fixture, though the threat Barcelona posed in attack was always going to be a big problem for Liverpool, with the Reds scarcely able to afford to concede again in the tie. Another concern was that two of Liverpool’s star strikers – Mo Salah and Roberto Firmino – were absent through injury. It wasn’t quite mission impossible, but in footballing terms, it wasn’t far from being an accurate description of the task ahead.
The prospect of turning around the tie seemed a little more realistic when Divock Origi netted early in the match, although with no additions to the scoreline in the first half, Liverpool were still left needing to score twice to level the tie and at least three goals to avoid the prospect of extra time.
When the goals did arrive, they were delivered from an unlikely source. Georginio Wijnaldum hadn’t scored twice in the same game since Newcastle’s 5-1 win over Spurs in May 2016, but the Dutchman bagged two goals within 11 minutes of coming on as a half time substitute and the aggregate scoreline was level with half an hour to play.
Liverpool remained on top, and with the final ten minutes approaching, a quick-thinking Trent Alexander-Arnold delivered a corner which will go down as one of the most famous corner routines in Liverpool’s history, and caught the entire Barcelona team lacking concentration. Fortunately for Liverpool, Divock Origi was more aware of the ball being played into the penalty area, and struck home a fourth goal to give Liverpool an overall semi final lead for the first time in the tie.
A shell-shocked Barcelona tried in vain to grab the all-important away goal which would have swung the tie instantly back in their favour, but after losing a three goal lead in the previous season’s quarter final, and losing 4-0 to PSG in 2017, it was yet another disastrous European night for the Catalans.
Spurs faced an Ajax team who had played some of the best football in the knockout rounds, and in the process had knocked out both Real Madrid and Juventus. Most of Ajax’s best results had come away from home, and they secured a vital win at Spurs in the first leg, although a dominant first half was followed by a second half in which Spurs contested much better.
That pattern was also true of the second leg, with Ajax earning a 2-0 lead by half time and 3-0 on aggregate. As in the first leg, Spurs were much improved after the break, and enjoyed the lion’s share of the possession as well as creating the majority of the game’s chances. Just as had been the case for Liverpool the previous night, Spurs grabbed two goals in quick succession just before the hour mark – with Lucas Moura the man on target for both.
Spurs still needed another, and had to keep out Ajax at the other end, which involved surviving a few scares – not least of which was when Hakim Ziyech struck the base of the post.
But with the game slipping away from Spurs, a final chance fell to Lucas Moura, and the Brazilian placed a low shot past Ajax goalkeeper Andre Onana at the moment in which the match time surpassed the five minutes of added time that had been signalled.
Had Moura’s shot gone wide, the resulting goal kick would have been the last kick of the match.
Including the additional minutes added on at the end of each half, Ajax led the semi final for 180 minutes over the two legs, with Barcelona holding an aggregate lead for 133 minutes of the other tie. In more than 6 hours of football, Spurs and Liverpool played a combined total of just 19 minutes of their respective games whilst in a position to reach the final.
Having had more experience in European finals, and also considering the huge gap between the teams in the league, Liverpool start tonight’s match as favourites.
However, Spurs have overcome the odds on so many occasions this season that no one will be ruling them out, and Champions League finals contested between domestic rivals are often difficult to predict.
In the last five Champions League finals involving teams from the same country, four have required extra time, including three which went all the way to penalties.
In light of the scale of the drama witnessed already in this year’s competition, it would be a surprise to no one if the 2019 UEFA Champions League final is decided only in the very last moments of a thrilling season.