Lloris has shot at history and vindication in Champions League final
Spurs goalkeeper can lift trophy at end of up-and-down season
Tottenham captain Hugo Lloris celebrates saving Sergio Aguero’s penalty in the Champions League quarter-final first leg against Manchester City. Photograph: Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images
Hugo Lloris is 32 and has won the World Cup. He has been a first-team goalkeeper for 14 seasons at Nice, Lyon and Tottenham Hotspur. He has 110 caps for France. Tonight in Madrid, as Spurs captain, he could lift the Champions League trophy. This is a man of serious accomplishment, whose penalty-save against Sergio Aguero in the quarter-final first leg was, in a way, as important as Lucas Moura’s hat-trick in Amsterdam in the semi-final. Without the former, you might not have the latter.
And yet it was only in early April, one week before the Man City first leg in fact, that Mauricio Pochettino felt the need to stress: “He is my captain and one of the best keepers in the world. No doubt.”
In this particular circumstance, no doubt was a turn of phrase, rather than an accurate reflection of how many Spurs fans and neutrals saw Lloris. Because doubt was obvious.
The France captain had just pawed at a Mo Salah header in injury-time at Anfield, the ball coming off Lloris’s gloves, hitting Toby Alderweireld and crossing the line to give Liverpool a 2-1 win in the Premier League.
Tottenham’s title hopes were already gone, but it mattered to Liverpool and it may have given Jurgen Klopp pause for thought over the past few weeks. He knows the significance of a goalkeeping aberration from a man called Loris.
The notion of the Anfield error gnawing away at Hugo Lloris, however, was quickly dispelled by his save from Aguero, and perhaps he and the club’s goalkeeping coaches regard it as just one of those things that happens to keepers. Their mistakes are amplified because of the consequences.
After all, Moussa Sissoko had missed a glorious chance at Anfield at 1-1 in the second half. Some scrutiny fell on him and his reliable wobbliness in front of goal. But a miss such as Sissoko’s shapes a match; a mistake such as Lloris’s defines it.
As all managers and outfield players understand, there is nothing quite like a goalkeeping blunder to suck the air and energy from a team. All that work on shape and tactics is undone in a split second. Think of David De Gea at Barcelona in the quarter-final second leg when he allowed Lionel Messi’s shot to squirm under him to make it 2-0 on the night and 3-0 on aggregate.
Manchester United had actually started the game brightly, but De Gea’s error took the entire tie away from them.
Loris Karius’s initial lapse in last season’s final did not have the same sapping effect on Liverpool simply because the score was 0-0 at the time. Karius casually threw the ball and Karim Benzema did not need to be a mind-reader to stick out a leg.
But four minutes later Liverpool were level courtesy of Sadio Mané. The team had not had time to lose belief. There was only one goal in it.
It was only after Gareth Bale’s spectacular overhead kick made it 2-1 and then Karius fumbled at Bale’s long-range shot to make it 3-1 (with seven minutes left) that the game was taken away from Liverpool by their keeper. (Karius’s concussion, mentioned again by Klopp this week, cannot be overlooked).
Six weeks later in Moscow, Lloris made an equally conspicuous misjudgment in the World Cup final against Croatia. Fortunately for Lloris, France were 4-1 ahead when he tried to outfox Mario Mandzukic and instead presented him with the ball to score.
There were 21 minutes left, and Croatia were the superior team, but they could not get the third goal that, you felt, would lead inevitably to a fourth. Lloris got away with it.
Just over a month later he did not get away with driving in London having had alcohol. Lloris received a ban and a fine. He apologised and some thought that Pochettino would drop him and Tottenham would strip him of the captaincy. Neither happened.
But when Spurs hosted Barcelona in their second Champions League group game at Wembley, Lloris was exposed for the Catalan opener. In the next group game, away in Eindhoven, Lloris charged out to bring down Hirving Lozano and was sent off. There were 11 minutes left and Spurs were winning 2-1. They drew 2-2 and had one point after three games.
At this moment, Lloris was not beyond doubt. City had Ederson, Liverpool had invested a world record goalkeeping fee in Alisson and Chelsea had broken that record with Kepa Arrizabalaga. One Lloris headline then was: “Five possible replacements for Tottenham’s error-prone goalkeeper”.
It was late October and when considering Spurs’ future, not many mentioned a final in Madrid. Tellingly, Pochettino said: “I’m not going to blame any player,” for PSV’s late equaliser.
Lloris’s suspension meant that when the next Champions League game arrived – PSV at home – Spurs had Paulo Gazzaniga in goal, but Lloris played in the Premier League games either side and Pochettino’s loyalty to his No 1 has been consistent. Lloris said this week he and Pochettino are “tied” to one another.
But others lost patience. Following the spill at Anfield former Spurs midfielder Jermaine Jenas called for Lloris to be replaced by Gazzaniga.
But Lloris stood firm. He is not a vocal presence on the pitch, nor in the showbiz surrounding football. “I don’t search to be understood by those outside, the most important is to be understood inside the club,” he said.
His penalty-save save from Aguero was his third in a row. There was the block from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the north London derby and one from Leicester’s Jamie Vardy. There have been other games where Lloris has been unobtrusively adept, when no one has raised a question mark. Most of his seven years at Spurs, since he joined from Lyon, have been like this.
Tottenham are a changed club from then and Lloris has been part of the change.
André Villas-Boas was at White Hart Lane when Lloris arrived and that he made his debut in a Europa League game rather than in the Champions League says where Spurs were. Clint Dempsey, Steven Caulker and Gareth Bale, these were some of Lloris’s new team-mates. He was No 25 – Heurelho Gomes was No. 1 - signing at the same time as Gylfi Sigurdsson and Mousa Dembélé among others.
Tottenham finished 5th in that first season. Then it was 6th and 5th and when Pochettino got into his stride, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd. This season it was 4th with a Champions League final to boot.
Should Spurs win it, Lloris will join a small group of keepers who have won the European Cup/Champions League and the World Cup – Sepp Maier, Fabien Barthez, Bodo Illgner, Iker Casillas and Manuel Neuer. It is good company. Lloris and Pochettino would feel vindicated, no doubt.