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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Epic comebacks set stage for Champions League Final

Liverpool, Tottenham erase insurmountable semifinal deficits

Before the start of the semifinals, this year’s edition of the UEFA Champions League was already one of the greatest in the competition’s history. The tournament has been marked by an unprecedented amount of drama and unexpected developments, from shocking upsets and large comebacks to ridiculous goals and highly controversial officiating decisions.

Many of the biggest clubs in Europe, and those with the deepest pockets, have seen their hopes of winning this grand competition slip away at the expense of surprising underdogs. In addition, the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) at the start of the group stages has single handedly decided the outcomes of a few different matchups.

Needless to say, it would’ve been quite a memorable tournament regardless of what happened in the semifinals.

Instead, fans around the world were treated to two of the biggest comebacks in Champions League semi final history, as English sides Liverpool and Tottenham both overturned three-goal deficits in their second legs. Each comeback was equally as shocking and dramatic in its own right, setting up the first All-England Champions League Final. With Chelsea and Arsenal both advancing to the Europa League Final as well, this year marks the first time in history that all four teams in the two major European finals have come from the same country.

After dominating possession and putting constant pressure on Barcelona in the first leg, Liverpool was extremely unlucky to leave Camp Nou with a staggering 3-0 deficit. Both teams were at a relatively even level for the first half and Liverpool, despite trailing 1-0 from an early Luis Suarez goal, dominated the first 25 minutes of the second half. They seemed destined to break through and push across at least one or two pivotal away goals, but failed to convert on a plethora of prime scoring chances.

In the final 15 minutes of action, superstar Lionel Messi took matters into his own hands and punished the Reds with two late goals, including a jaw-dropping free kick that curled perfectly in the top left corner of the goal. Barcelona squandered a pair of late breakaway scoring opportunities, including a wide open miss by striker Ousmane Dembele in the final kick of the match. Those missed chances, which could’ve changed the entire complexion of the second leg, will surely haunt Barcelona for a long time.

Back home in front of a raucous crowd at Anfield, Liverpool thoroughly overwhelmed Barcelona all night, employing an aggressive, high-line press with a level of intensity that the visitors simply could not match. Barcelona had its chances in the first half, but several key saves by goalkeeper Alisson Becker kept Liverpool in front 1-0 at halftime. As the game wore on, the pressure on Barcelona continued to build in the midst of the thunderous and intimidating environment created by Liverpool supporters.

Following an injury to Liverpool left back Andrew Robertson, midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum came on as a substitute to start the second half and promptly scored twice in the span of two minutes to knot the score on aggregate at 3-3 with over a half hour remaining. In just 55 minutes, Liverpool completely wiped out all remnants of that nightmarish night at the Camp Nou.

In the 79th minute, a moment of genius from right back Trent Alexander-Arnold finished off this unimaginable comeback in fitting fashion. The 20-year old caught Barcelona completely asleep on a corner kick, quickly firing the ball into the box before the defense could get set up. Attacker Divock Origi, playing in place of injured star Mohamed Salah, was able to finish Alexander-Arnold’s cross with a beautiful tap-in goal to the top corner of the net.

The historic Anfield stadium has seen its share of extraordinary European nights over the years, often willing Liverpool to victory through the home fans’ sheer magnitude of passion and ferocity. Given the circumstances heading into this game, with Liverpool playing without lead forwards Salah and Roberto Firmino and facing one of the best teams in the world, the 4-0 victory over Barcelona undoubtedly ranks as one of the greatest nights that this fabled ground has ever seen in its 127-year history.

Just when soccer fans thought the action couldn’t get any more captivating, Tottenham Hotspur came right back the next night and pulled off an even more enthralling comeback over host Ajax.

Spurs had their struggles in the first leg, playing without suspended striker Heung-Min Son, and were lucky to escape the match with a 1-0 loss. Ajax will lament the multiple chances they missed to potentially put Tottenham’s hopes to bed before the second leg.

On Wednesday, Ajax came out firing once again with its aesthetically pleasing brand of attacking football and netted a pair of goals in the opening 35 minutes to take control. The second goal, a sensational, one-time screamer into the top corner by winger Hakim Ziyech, looked to be the nail in the coffin for a Tottenham side that appeared mentally and physically drained.

Nevertheless, things started to unravel for the Dutchmen early in the second half of play. Tottenham striker Lucas Moura scored a pair of goals just four minutes apart to suddenly bring Tottenham back from the dead. Then in stoppage time, with the referee’s final whistle just seconds away, Moura slotted a low shot into the bottom-right corner to propel Tottenham through to the final on away goals. Home fans at the Johan Cruyff Arena were completely stunned as they watched Ajax players collapse to the turf in despair, while Tottenham players and coaches rushed the field in delirium.

After their incredible run in the Champions League, advancing all the way from the second qualifying round and coming within seconds of reaching the final, Ajax will unfortunately see a large chunk of its core depart as early as this upcoming summer. Top players such as Ziyech, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong have already been rumored to join bigger clubs in the near future, as Ajax seeks to recoup a large sum of money in transfer fees and reinvest in more young talent.

Tottenham joined Liverpool in rare company, overturning a three-goal deficit at this stage of the Champions League, but pulled off the miracle in half the amount of time. Spurs have secured a fourth-place finish in the Premier League and will thoroughly enjoy the three-week break before the Champions League Final on June 1 at Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in the Spanish capital.

Tottenham is hopeful that star forward Harry Kane can make a full recovery from his ankle injury, which he sustained in the quarterfinals against Manchester City, and be fit enough to suit up for the final.

Liverpool will need the rest just as badly, after falling short in arguably the greatest title race in Premier League history. Despite finishing with the third most points ever in the league season and losing just a single match, the Reds could not prevail over two-time defending champion Manchester City.

Liverpool will hope that players such as Firmino and Robertson are able to rehab during these next few weeks and be available for team selection in Madrid.

Given all the victories Liverpool has piled up this season, there is a considerable amount of pressure on manager Jurgen Klopp and the rest of the team to come away from the season with at least one trophy to show for it. Even though the Reds fell agonizingly close to ending their 30-year domestic title drought, another European Cup wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize for a club that already has a rich history of success in this competition.  

Liverpool were victorious in both meetings against Tottenham this season, but were very lucky to come away with three points in their last meeting at the end of March. If not for a Spurs own goal in the 90th minute, Liverpool would’ve suffered a draw and a devastating blow to their title hopes at the time.

Both Klopp and Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino are highly regarded as tactical geniuses, and will definitely take these next three weeks to prepare intelligent and creative game plans to stop one another.

According to the bookies, Liverpool are considerable favorites to hoist the trophy next month in Madrid, with 1-2 odds offered at Bovada.

Elsewhere around Europe:

The Europa League Final, staged in Baku, Azerbaijan on May 29, should be an interesting battle between a pair of London rivals.

Chelsea has already secured a return to Champions League football for next season, having finished in the top four of the Premier League. The club will try to cherish what could be the last game from superstar forward Eden Hazard, before his impending summer transfer to Real Madrid.

Meanwhile, fifth-place Arsenal has everything to play for in this final, because a victory over the Blues would earn them automatic entry into next season’s Champions League — instead of a third straight year playing in Europe’s second-rate competition. Luckily for the Gunners, first-year manager Unai Emery is a master at winning the Europa League, coming up victorious in three straight finals for Sevilla from 2014-2016.

Written by: Brendan Ogburn — sports@theaggie.org


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