Ken Early: Alisson in Wanda land completes fairytale season for Liverpool
Brazilian goalkeeper made the big saves when Tottenham’s pressure rocked Liverpool late on
Last year, as Liverpool left Kyiv broken-hearted and trophy-less, Jürgen Klopp promised that they would be back. Even if Klopp believed his own words at the time, he must have suspected that it could not be true for all of his players. Loris Karius had made the sort of mistakes from which you can never really recover. When Karius made another mistake in a pre-season friendly against Tranmere – and was abused for his incompetence by the Tranmere player Ben Tollitt – Klopp decided he had to act.
Liverpool broke the world record for a goalkeeper. On Saturday night they knew it’s a bet that has already paid off. Alisson Becker’s save in the last minute against Napoli saved Liverpool from being knocked out in the group stages. In Madrid he went one better to win them the Champions League. The official man of the match was Virgil van Dijk, who gave the usual assured performance and made a decisive tackle on Son when it looked as though he was about to be dribbled past for the first time this season. But the real hero was Alisson.
Late in the game, when Spurs had taken off their two starting midfielders and were flinging themselves forward in search of a goal, when Liverpool were creaking and looked like they might disintegrate. This was when the Brazilian goalkeeper stepped up to win the match. He finished the match with eight saves, almost all of them in that frenetic last quarter-hour. He was the rock upon which Spurs’ heroic campaign finally foundered.
Neither side had kicked a ball in three weeks and their rhythm seemed to have deserted them. At half-time the two teams had produced the worst pass completion rate of any game in this season’s Champions League.
Some of the strangeness of the match undoubtedly had to do with how early Liverpool took the lead. Spurs’ defence was caught by Henderson’s header over the top and Mane got to the ball first. There were 21 seconds showing on the clock when his attempted cross struck Moussa Sissoko’s arm and the referee awarded the penalty. The ball had hit Sissoko on the armpit and almost rolled down the underside of his arm. Salah’s penalty was hit very close to Lloris, but with enough power to take it past the goalkeeper.
You could argue this was a harsh penalty but it’s of a type we have seen awarded in this season’s Champions League against Danny Rose and Presnel Kimpembe. Michel Platini recently predicted that if Uefa were going to consider these incidents to be penalties, players would start aiming for opponents’ arms, and it looked as though Mane might have done just that. If so, it was a rare moment of technical quality in a first half that was, frankly, truly dire.
After taking such an early lead, you might have expected Liverpool to push forward and try to hammer Spurs into submission before half-time. Instead they seemed to grow cautious and tentative, while Spurs’ efforts to chase the game had more energy than finesse.
You couldn’t help wondering where Lionel Messi was watching the match, and what he must have been thinking. He had apparently called James Milner a “burro” – donkey – during the semi-final first leg, and based on that first half this could go down as El Final de Burros. Was it the stifling heat? Was it rustiness after the three-week break? Were we seeing a rare case of both teams overcome by pressure and “bottling” the final simultaneously?
Half-time brought a chance for the managers to remind their players that they were better than this. But the start of the second half was more of the same. It was only when Klopp made two uncharacteristically early substitutions that things began to change.
Much of the interminable lead-in to the match had focused on Harry Kane and whether he would start in place of Spurs’ semi-final hero Lucas Moura. There was less analysis of the similar dilemma faced by Klopp – whether to pick Roberto Firmino or Liverpool’s semi-final hero Divock Origi.
This issue did not attract as much attention, mainly because Origi, unlike Kane, is not the captain of England; also because Firmino had not been out as long as Kane, and perhaps because Origi’s case for inclusion was not quite as compelling as Lucas’s over the course of the season.
But when Firmino was short of his usual standards Klopp was again ruthless, taking off the player he tends to praise more than anyone else in the team, and sending Origi on in his place. Kane, meanwhile, stayed on, with Pochettino preferring to sacrifice midfielders when the time came to reinforce the attack.
Mohamed Salah missed one chance on a breakaway and laid on another for Milner, who shot wide, but Liverpool were scarcely present as an attacking force. Even Spurs’ late spell of pressure owed as much to Liverpool’s mistakes as their own work.
In the end it was a set-piece that decided it. A Liverpool corner broke to the edge of the box and via a series of ricochets ended up at the feet of Matip, who laid it off to Origi on the left of the box. He took one touch to steady himself and with his second he sent a low shot skimming into the corner of Lloris’s goal. With only two minutes plus injury time left on the clock and Alisson in their goal, Liverpool knew now they had won it.
If you had missed the game and somebody had shown you the statistics, you’d have guessed you must be looking at the figures from a Spurs win. Perhaps most surprising was that Liverpool completed only 62 per cent of their passes – their worst performance of the season on this metric by far.
None of which was any consolation to Mauricio Pochettino. “I would be stupid to talk about – we dominate, we had 65 per cent of the possession, we shoot eight times on target and they four,” he said after the game.
“I believe that the final is about winning. It’s not about “deserve”, it’s not about to play well. It’s about winning. We created chances. But they were more clinical in front of the goal. We create some chances, but we didn’t score. It’s so painful . . . but we can be proud, we played the final for the first time in the history of the club. We must be positive.”