“Just pump sport into my veins.”
On occasion, the unscripted nature of sport can deliver an adrenaline surge like no other. It sets the heart galloping, while the emotional rollercoaster is something only the most hapless of junkies could explain. It can bring immense euphoria, paired with the fathomless ravine of despair. A year ago this week, I tweeted those six words above after witnessing two of the most incredible sporting contests, 24 hours apart.
Heading into the two UEFA Champions League semifinal second legs, the scenarios for Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur were vastly different. Liverpool had been humbled by Barcelona in their first leg at Camp Nou, returning to Anfield needing to overturn a three goal deficit. What followed was scarcely believable. Anfield has become famous for its European nights, but even the memorable wins over Chelsea, Arsenal, Real Madrid, Olympiakos and Roma wouldn’t have prepared the Kop for what was about to follow.
Liverpool started the match without two of their star attackers, as Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino both missed the match through injury. Their absence was quickly a footnote though. Divock Origi, earning a rare start in the front three as a result, prescribed the first dose of what was to come just seven minutes in. Liverpool’s fast and furious start to the evening had seen Sadio Mane pounce on a poor header from Jordi Alba, Jordan Henderson forced a sharp save out of Marc-Andre ter Stegen, and Origi was on hand to tuck home the rebound.
There were no further goals in the first half though, despite the hectic nature of the contest. Both keepers made crucial saves, with Alisson able to thwart both Lionel Messi and Philippe Coutinho in front of the Kop. After failing to score an away goal in the first leg, and still two goals down in the tie, those saves would prove pivotal in what was a wild second half.
Just prior to the interval, there was concern for Liverpool as left back Andrew Robertson took a knock. He wouldn’t return for the second half, with Georginio Wijnaldum thrust into action, forcing a reshuffle as James Milner moved into the back four. That concern quickly turned to ecstasy. Wijnaldum turned the tie on its head within eleven minutes of his introduction, scoring twice to level things up.
His first came once again on the back of an error from Alba, as Trent Alexander-Arnold picked his pocket on Liverpool’s right flank. Alexander-Arnold’s cross took a deflection into the path of Wijnaldum, who thumped it home despite ter Stegen getting his left hand on it. Just a minute later and the roof threatened to come off Anfield. Xherdan Shaqiri, the other player deputising in the front three, delivered a perfect cross from the left flank. Wijnaldum was there again, burying a header from eight yards out.
What would prove the final blow came in the 79th minute. Having won his side a corner down the right flank, Alexander-Arnold began to retreat away from the ball to allow Shaqiri to come and take. However, after spotting Barcelona’s defenders asleep inside the box, Alexander-Arnold quickly turned, swept the ball in low towards the near post, and Origi helped it home for his second. Now leading 4-3 in the tie, Liverpool were still vulnerable to a Barcelona away goal, but it never looked likely. They stayed strong at the back and Barcelona’s horror trip was complete. A formidable powerhouse of European football, humbled by a 4-0 defeat thanks to two goals each from Divock Origi and Gini Wijnaldum. It was a truly remarkable win, with Barcelona seemingly unable to find any real response after halftime, as the Reds flooded forward time and again.
Yet what would follow just a day later would somehow exceed the chaos at Anfield. Ajax had pipped Spurs by a lone Donny van de Beek goal in the first leg, returning to Amsterdam with a lead in the tie. After teenage captain Matthijs de Ligt headed home a corner in the fifth minute, and Hakim Ziyech added a second on the counter after the half hour, it looked like the upstart Dutch side would head to Madrid to take on Liverpool. With Ajax’s fans belting out club anthem Three Little Birds, it really did look like every little thing would be alright for the Dutch side. Spurs started the second half in the same position Liverpool had a night earlier; three goals in arrears, albeit with half the time available to overcome their plight. They were also missing their main attacking threat, as Harry Kane’s ankle injury suffered in the quarterfinals forced Lucas Moura into leading the attack..
It took until the 55th minute for them to salvage even a glimmer of hope. Danny Rose’s pass out of his own half launched Spurs forward, with Moura helping a ball onward from the centre circle to find Dele Alli. Alli’s heavy touch turning onto his left inadvertently found Moura bursting through into the area, and his finish found the bottom right corner.
Four minutes later and Moura was at it again. This time it came after a patient spell in possession, with Fernando Llorente teed up by Kieran Trippier’s square ball for what looked a sure goal. Andre Onana made an incredible save to deny Llorente, but then couldn’t regather the rebound at the feet of his own defender. The ball squirted free, Moura collected, took a couple of tight touches to find an opening among the traffic, before finally turning and firing home. Spurs had drawn level on the night, and needed one more to advance on away goals.
The final half hour was frantic. Spurs surged forward time and again looking for their needed fix, while Ajax were able to counter in search of a goal of their own to kill things off. Hugo Lloris denied de Ligt a second, while Ziyech came perilously close to a brace of his own, hitting the base of the right post. Minutes before the end of the ninety, Jan Vertonghen hit the bar with a header, and when his stabbed effort from the rebound was cleared off the line, Spurs must have started to feel that their time was up.
Five minutes of added time was shown, and Ajax showed their inexperience and naivety as they kept pushing forward themselves. It would cost them. With the five minutes of added time expired, a long ball forward from Moussa Sissoko found Llorente outside the area. His touch in turn found Alli, who nonchalantly poked it into the box to find Moura’s run. A first time effort with the left dragged the ball home past Onana for his hat-trick, sending Spurs through to the final in wild scenes.
As a Liverpool fan, it wasn’t hard to get swept up in the fairytale at Anfield. Yet 24 hours later I found myself as a true neutral enjoying sport for what it always has the potential to be. You couldn’t script the kind of drama seen at Anfield or the Johan Cruijff ArenA. With TV and cinema you expect the unexpected. Fictional movies always seem destined for the miraculous finish. Sports, often disappointingly, tease as much only for the ultimate let down. When the miracles do happen, witnessing them is like riding at the top of a narcotic fuelled bender. For Barcelona and Ajax, the depths of their despair would have felt like the most horrific of comedowns.
The final never got close to matching either of these games, with Liverpool winning a mostly forgettable encounter. Regardless, what happened in the semis will long be remembered.
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