What a Champions League final we have in store. I am in Madrid and visited the Wanda Metropolitano on Thursday and there was already an anticipatory buzz around the stadium, so the atmosphere should be wonderful. I am lucky enough to have secured a ticket through the Uefa Masters course I’m doing and I’m expecting the match between two fantastic English teams to be as vibrant as the atmosphere. With the attacking style of both teams it promises to be spectacular. Whichever team wins will have provided the perfect finish to an amazing story.
Which team will that be? That is extremely hard to call. I would say Liverpool just edge it thanks, in particular, to their greater experience in midfield. A good example of the strength in depth they have there came when Georginio Wijnaldum sprang from the bench against Barcelona and scored two goals. Wijnaldum could not get into the starting team that day. And then they also have such players as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain available for selection.
It might surprise some people that I identify Liverpool’s midfield as a potentially decisive area because for much of this season there have been suggestions that midfield is Liverpool’s weakest sector because of a supposed lack of creativity, particularly after losing Philippe Coutinho last season. But I think there are different kinds of creativity.
Liverpool’s midfield is the engine of their team, with players extremely capable of relentless pressure, winning the ball high up the pitch and releasing their front three, who are able to stay forward and create chances nearly every time they get the ball. With a midfield that works that hard, and in effect provides assists through counter-pressure of the opposition, you do not necessarily need someone who can play penetrating passes like Kevin De Bruyne does for Manchester City. So the midfield is not a weakness at all for Liverpool, just a different type of strength.
If anything, their weakness is in defence, where they make very occasional errors, even Virgil van Dijk. For all that, they have a more solid unit than Tottenham, who can be susceptible at the back. Kieran Trippier, for instance, is a good player but when it comes to putting him in a duel with, say, Mohamed Salah, nine times out of 10 Salah will come out on top.
I think this final will be determined by attitude more than tactics. Both teams are going to attack because that is what they are supreme at. So the question is which players will be able to produce their best on the big occasion. This is where Liverpool could have an advantage, having played in last year’s final. That should make them less prone to the nervous energy that often sees cagey starts to finals. If I were on Liverpool’s coaching staff, I would make sure to show last year’s final this week during an analysis session and say: ‘This is what it looks like to lose this final – let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again.’
But, of course, there is a flip side to that. The fact they lost last year means they go in under more pressure than Spurs. So does the fact that they finished runners-up in the Premier League. Liverpool’s players have been incredible this season and can be proud of their performances but I have no doubt there are regrets in that dressing room over the Premier League. They had a seven-point lead at one point and did not get over the line. But while Mauricio Pochettino’s men go into the game under less pressure because nobody expected them to reach the final, the Tottenham manager has the most difficult selection decision. If Harry Kane is fit, should he start? I am sure Pochettino has been deliberating over that all week, trying to figure out whether there is a way he can fit Kane, Lucas Moura, Son Heung-min, Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen into the same team. Someone is going to have to miss out, and the question is who? It is a tricky one.
Personally I would not start Kane. Spurs showed in the semi-final that they can be formidable without him. When Son has been asked to play the leading man, he has always stepped up. And how could you leave out Lucas after he scored a hat-trick to get the team into the final? When players are understudies and you tell them to be ready to seize their chance, then when they do it, you have to reward them by keeping confidence in them. Again, though, there is an alternative view: Lucas and Son have proved they can make big impacts off the bench, whereas Kane seldom has, because he has seldom had to. But I would bench Kane and challenge him to show his quality from there.
And then there is another imponderable. How important is the first goal? We have two teams who, following those amazing semi-finals, are aware that they – and their opponents – are eminently capable of recovering from adversity to win. So making the first breakthrough may be not be all-important in a match in which there will probably be a few more than one goal.
Both teams have brilliant managers and Pochettino and Jürgen Klopp will have done remarkable jobs this season irrespective of the outcome. But each will be desperate to win their first trophy at their current club. We saw after Chelsea’s victory in the Europa League how much getting silverware meant to Maurizio Sarri. The Italian gripped and lifted that trophy as if it meant the world to him. It is one thing to have people saying you have done great work as a coach; it is another to be able to show something for it.