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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 14 July, 2020

Why the Champions League final is increasingly the antithesis of almost every other football match

Liverpool face Tottenham in the season’s climactic encounter on Saturday.

Liverpool beat Tottenham 2-1 the last time the sides met.
Liverpool beat Tottenham 2-1 the last time the sides met.
Image: Martin Rickett

NOT LONG AGO, around this time of year, the biggest match in English football was considered the FA Cup final.

Winning the cup was of similar value to the league title. When Man United did the double in 1994, with Alex Ferguson’s first great team that included club legends like Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona, it was heralded as a remarkable achievement.

The 4-0 scoreline may have suggested a thoroughly one-sided affair, but it was not the case. The opening 45 minutes were tight — Blues player Gavin Peacock came closest to scoring when his half volley hit the crossbar.

It was only when Eric Cantona’s 60th-minute penalty put United ahead that the floodgates opened, with three goals in nine minutes sealing the Red Devils’ victory, and substitute Brian McClair putting the incing on the cake in stoppage time.

United were favourites for the game, but it was far from a foregone conclusion. Chelsea, who finished 14th in the league and were not considered one of England’s top sides as they are today, had secured 1-0 victories over Alex Ferguson’s men home and away in the league.

That Red Devils team, as great as they were, had to really work to win the title, losing four and drawing 11 of their 42 games. They ultimately finished eight ahead of second-place Blackburn on 92 points — a tally that would have seen them finish third this season even with four games extra played.

Of course, the FA Cup is no longer what it was — that issue has been apparent for a number of years. Most Premier League sides no longer field their first-choice XI in the competition. The fact that Liverpool and Tottenham are in this season’s Champions League final was aided by their resting of players and relatively early exits in the cup.

But the diminished spectacle of the FA Cup was perhaps more stark than ever this year. Man City’s 6-0 win over Watford felt like a non-event. The Etihad outfit didn’t even need to play their best team to earn this comfortable victory, leaving Sergio Aguero and Kevin De Bruyne on the bench, though introducing the latter in the second half.

The overall point is that while there is more football than ever on TV and more matches than ever in general, it feels like genuinely special occasions are increasingly rare.

Even when lower league sides beat a Premier League team in the cup, it is offset by the fact that the top-flight team usually have played their reserves and are not overly concerned about exiting the competition anyway.

In the Premier League this season, two of the best teams the English game has ever seen went toe-to-toe in an incredible title race, with City ultimately pipping Liverpool by a point.

It was a tense title run-in, but could it really be described as a thrilling one? City won 18 of their last 19 matches, suffering their one league defeat this year against Newcastle on 29 January. In all but seven of these wins, City led by half-time and didn’t surrender their lead thereafter. In 12 of the matches in question, Pep Guardiola’s side won by more than one goal. And in virtually all of these fixtures, City dominated possession and the game descended into an attack-v-defence session practically.

End of Premier League Season Package Vincent Kompany's goal against Leicester was one of the highlights of the Premier League season. Source: Nick Potts

There were, of course, moments of real excitement. The 2-1 win over Liverpool back in January was ultimately the difference between winning and losing the title. And for long stages of their penultimate match against Leicester, it looked like the soon-to-be-champions would not be able to break down the Foxes’ defence, before Vincent Kompany’s 70th-minute cracker brought the house down at the Etihad.

Yet for the most part in the Premier League, fans have been starved of genuinely competitive fixtures at the top of the table. Even traditionally big games often disappointed. Back in February, City beat Chelsea — the team who finished third — 6-0. The 3-1 and 2-0 wins over rivals Manchester United were less emphatic but similarly comfortable.

Granted, Man City are not the first team to dominate English football and others have spent their way to glory before, but the problem is worse now than ever, as indicated by the unprecedented points tallies accumulated over the past two seasons.

And while the Premier League has suffered from a lack of competitiveness — a pattern mirrored in other elite leagues in Italy, Spain and France — and paucity of thrilling matches with two well-matched leading sides, the Champions League this season has been the exception that proves the rule.

There has been more than one match that will surely be remembered as a classic in years to come. Europe’s premier club competition, of course, is not perfect. The group stages are increasingly beginning to feel like a formality. There were no real surprises in terms of who advanced, and the only groups with genuine tension at their climax were those two that featured three top teams — PSG, Liverpool, and Napoli all went close to qualifying in Group C, while Tottenham pipped Inter to second spot on goal difference in Group B.

The knockout stages, however, have been unquestionably spectacular. On six occasions out of 14, the team leading in the first leg did not go through. Liverpool overturned a 3-0 aggregate deficit in 90 minutes, Juve came back, in the second leg, from 2-0 down against Atletico, Ajax stunned both the Turin outfit and Real Madrid, while Spurs needed just 35 minutes of time remaining to recover a three-goal deficit against the Dutch side.

And Saturday’s game featuring Liverpool and Tottenham undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of football. The World Cup is no longer that — managers at international level have far less time to work with players and so the tactics are less sophisticated and the quality is lower. It is hard to imagine, for instance, World Cup finalists Croatia playing as well as Liverpool and Spurs did at times this season.

Therefore, with such occasions increasingly rare — unless certain clubs get their way and a European Super League is formed — Saturday’s game should truly be savoured.

If it is anything like the last time the two sides met — when Toby Alderweireld’s last-gasp own goal earned Liverpool a thrilling win — then a season beset by financial disparity-related issues will end with a match that reminds us of what football can be at its best.

Gavan Casey is joined by Murray Kinsella and Sean Farrell for a review of the 2018/19 season, and cast an eye forward to next year and the Rugby World Cup in Japan.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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