THE elongated delay between the Champions League semi-final and Saturday night’s final has left Liverpool and Spurs fans in a strange limbo-like existence while they wait for events to unfold in Madrid.
Most seasons, finalists and fans usually have just two weeks to wait before the final. You go through the wringer of making the final, you take a breather, watch the FA Cup final, then you go through the build-up to the final. This year, there was a three-week wait for no apparent reason.
The delay has forced us to find ways to divert our attention away from the looming final. Sure the FA Cup was on, but the result was hardly ever in doubt. And it was so long ago it now seems like it was another season.
There was the Championship play-off final in Wembley, which is always worth a watch because of the money at stake, especially for the unfortunate loser. But, to be fair, the quality of the play was not up to much.
Instead, we were left for 21 long days watching European and local election results, listening to Rod Stewart down the Páirc and debating the dangers of using a swing. All the while, the clubs’ fans have been left stewing in their insecurities and anxieties regarding a final that has taken an eternity to arrive.
I think the hiatus has been worse for Liverpool and their fans (speaking as one). The time afforded them has allowed time to think about what they will have to do to win this final. And with all that time to think, creeps in the old insecurities of what will happen if they lose?
Such dark thoughts can usually be scared away with confidence-building affirmations of, ‘We’ve had a great season, no matter what happens we have done so well’.
But that takes you only so far. The long days and weeks since that magnificent night against Barcelona in Anfield only allows more time for doubts to sneak in under the armour of bravado. ‘Ya, it was a great season but how could we handle not winning any silverware after winning so much?’
The favourites tag is also a heavy burden. Analysis of Liverpool’s remarkable season showed them lose only one game in the Premier League, claim an amazing 97 points and reach the Champions League final... But no cups have been won, yet.
Each match in the tit-for-tat title run-in with Man City, since January, was like a cup final every week. Every Saturday or Sunday required them to lift their performances to strength-sapping perfect levels, week after week. And when they weren’t out-performing in the league they were coming back from being 3-0 down to the greatest team/player in the world for the past 10 years.
The fear for Liverpool fans? What will three weeks without competitive football, without the demands of having to win for over 21 days have on the team?
This break came at a lot more favourable time for Spurs. The end of the regular season saw them scramble to the finish line. A host of injuries to key men had the team down to a threadbare and tired looking outfit, while their Champions League heroics stole Liverpool’s thunder for its madcap and last-ditch endeavours, but also must have been draining for them.
The three weeks have given them a treasured chance to recoup and recharge their batteries and allowed injured stars like Kane, Winks, and Vertonghen the chance to make it back in time for the final.
The head-to-head analysis with Spurs puts the Merseysiders in an uncomfortable position, even if the stats don’t merit it.
Spurs have only beaten Liverpool once in the last 14 times they have played each other. Yes, since early 2013 Spurs have only beaten Liverpool once. But that was a humiliating 4-1 defeat in October 2017 the previous season. And there the doubts come back.
Liverpool beat Spurs twice this season in the league, 2-1 on each occasion. They comfortably beat them in Wembley and should have won by more, but struggled to find the killer goals to finish them off properly. The Anfield rematch was a lot less comfortable with Spurs probably feeling aggrieved at not getting the draw their performance deserved, at least.
The Londoners finished two places and 26 points behind Liverpool in the league this season. They lost 13 matches compared to Liverpool’s single defeat. But as any football fan will know, league form counts for little in a one-off final match, especially against teams who play in the same division.
Even the obvious advantages of Liverpool’s experience in the competition’s final game, nine finals compared to Spurs’ first appearance, does not necessarily fill the Liverpool fan with confidence. Sure, our five titles provide the club with a swagger but the expectations also come with the reputation. Liverpool will have learned a lot from last year’s heartache of losing to Real Madrid in Kiev and will be determined I’m sure to avoid it again. But that defeat also brings doubt.
This will be Liverpool’s third European final since Klopp has arrived on Merseyside and the need to claim the cup is palpable for him and among the fans. Throw in the League Cup defeat at the hands of Man City and the unlucky outcome of this year’s Premier League and you might get an idea of the stomach-churning, mind-melting, internal excruciation the last three weeks’ delay has brought the Liverpool fan.
For Spurs, there is nothing to lose. They go into the final free of any hard expectation after creating a miracle end to a season that earlier looked like going down the tubes.
A late equaliser against Barcelona saved them from going out at the group stages, VAR saved them from going out against City, while their semi-final comeback and 96th-minute goal against Ajax is the kind of extraordinary run not seen since Liverpool’s epic race to the title in 2005.