Spurs ‘trying like animals’ ahead of Champions League final
Alderweireld: ‘We’re not happy with playing a final – we want to win it’
Tottenham’s Toby Alderweirel blocks Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong’s shot during their Champions League semi-final second-leg win at at the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images
Toby Alderweireld has been close to a Champions League title before. Close enough, in fact, that there was probably someone squirrelling away trying to fix the colours of Atlético Madrid to the trophy. Time was running out in the 2014 final but as the clock ticked into the fourth added minute, Sergio Ramos rose to meet a corner and, like that, the chance was gone.
Alderweireld had entered the field at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz in the 83rd minute as a substitute for Filipe Luís. Diego Simeone brought on the Belgian in place of the more attack-minded Brazilian in an attempt to close out the match. It was something his team had proven better at than almost any other side in Europe. But then Luka Modric drove the ball towards the penalty spot, Ramos shuffled five yards forward to lose a clutch of defenders and his formidable forehead did the rest. Real Madrid went on to win the match and the trophy 4-1 in extra time.
“We were so close to winning it,” Alderweireld recalls now. “Ramos scored in the 90th minute or something so, yeah, the feeling of losing, not winning it, is very hard. I will take this feeling to the final and show I want it more than anyone else.”
The final in question takes place on Saturday, of course. It will see Alderweireld return to the home of Atlético as Tottenham take on Liverpool at the Wanda Metropolitano for European club football’s greatest prize. It is a chance the defender admits he was not sure he would get.
“It is difficult [to deal with] because you are 25 years old,” he says of the 2014 aftermath. “That night I flew to Belgium because we had the World Cup coming up, so there was no time to grieve. Two days after I was playing Luxembourg in preparation for the World Cup. After the World Cup, when I had time to think about it, I thought it was a big chance, a big opportunity and maybe it will never come again. It was a strange moment.
“Everyone is saying it is unbelievable about Spurs getting to the final but we’re not happy with playing a final – we want to win it. That’s the mentality we need.”
A lot of the talk at Tottenham’s training ground this week, before the squad left for Spain, accentuated how enjoyable the process of building up to the final had been; how each player was looking to embrace the occasion, relish every second of the final and so on. Alderweireld’s remarks seem to give the lie to all that. You can enjoy a final all you like in the moment, but if you lose you won’t remember it fondly.
The likely truth is that any smiles the players are wearing are masking gritted teeth. “In the last couple of weeks we’ve been trying like animals,” says Alderweireld. “We’re trying to give our best every day because that is the way we need to work to be in the right state for the final. Everybody wants to be there, to be involved and give their best, and the final is not going to start on Saturday – it started two weeks ago.”
Alderweireld has not only played in a Champions League final but also in the World Cup semi-finals last summer with Belgium. And he is not alone in having accrued high-pressure experience given Spurs’ own England contingent.
“I think we have quite a mature group so I don’t have to talk too much, but I think just to stay calm and do the normal things,” he says. “A lot of players have played in really big games, World Cups and stuff like this, so we know what to do. Of course, the tension will get more as the week goes on but we have the maturity in our group and that is not a problem.
“We have to be confident in our own game. The last game at Anfield [a 2-1 loss in March] we had a difficult start but in the second half we were better than them. We have to learn from that and have the confidence to play and put them under pressure. We don’t want to talk about or think too much about our opponents.”
It is a fine balancing act and, as Alderweireld knows well, there is an equally fine line between success and failure. All either side can do is try to cover off every detail they can control. Speaking of which, which specific animal have Spurs been training like? “It would be a new creature, I think,” smiles Alderweireld. “It’s not one animal. It’s a metaphor. It says, in a positive way, the hunger is there.”