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Final only proved entertainment is never guaranteed

 

Poor fare: Heung-Min Son heads over the bar in the Champions League final
Poor fare: Heung-Min Son heads over the bar in the Champions League final
Mauricio Pochettino

By Jonathan Liew

Hugo Lloris punts the ball long. Virgil van Dijk heads it away. Moussa Sissoko takes a heavy touch. Gini Wijnaldum tackles him and wins the throw off Sissoko. Andy Robertson takes it. Kieran Trippier heads it clear. Roberto Firmino can't control the loose ball. Dele Alli tries to thread it through to Son Heung-Min, but overcooks the pass. Trent Alexander-Arnold clears it. Trippier heads it away again.

And so, there you have it: 40 seconds of football in which not a single pass is completed, the ball is given away eight times, and which, in many ways, was a far more accurate précis of the 2019 Champions League final than any highlights package, soft-focus video tribute or No Filter compilation on BT Sport. A mediocre microcosm of a game that, for all its weighty flourish, never remotely threatened to shout down its own bickering mediocrity.

Not that you could blame anyone for sugar-coating things. For all the outpourings of emotion at its conclusion, the elation of Liverpool and the defiant pride of Tottenham, this was one of those games that you suspect not even the victors would want to relive in full.

The first task is to try and pin down exactly what made this such a poor spectacle. By some of the bare statistics - two goals, 30 shots on goal - you wouldn't instantly peg this as an awful game. But most of those chances were hemmed into the final stages as Tottenham's players poured themselves forward in search of an equaliser, with mixed success. They didn't have a shot on target until the 73rd minute and, with the possible exception of Christian Eriksen's curling free-kick, you'd be hard-pushed to describe any of them as heart-in-mouth moments.

Then there was the lack of fluency. The unconventional opening, in which Liverpool were awarded a penalty after 24 seconds but didn't end up taking it for more than a minute, helped set a disjointed tone to the game. It wasn't until the fifth minute that Tottenham completed a pass in the Liverpool half. It wasn't until the sixth that Liverpool managed to string more than three together. And their overall passing accuracy of 68 per cent was shocking, even for a direct, risk-taking team. "Hopeless," was Andy Roberton's verdict on their first-half display.

Because of the oppressive heat, neither side was able to enact their fierce running game. Liverpool's total distance covered was just 95 per cent of their average in the Champions League this season; Tottenham's just 92 per cent. The ball was out of play for 40 minutes in total, well above normal, and that doesn't count the time the ball was either in the air or being inexpertly shovelled among the Tottenham back five: like late-2000s Barcelona, as interpreted by your local pub team.

Perhaps this was the biggest contributory factor to the lack of thrills: the interminable periods of holding-pattern football, in which Tottenham were neither good enough to do anything with their possession, nor Liverpool good enough to win it back off them. Had you watched Tottenham on Saturday night without any prior knowledge of them, you would surely have concluded that Hugo Lloris was their danger man, given the unerring regularity with which Tottenham sought to find him. Almost a quarter of their completed passes were exclusively between Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Lloris, simply recycling the ball between them.

The second point is to try and ascertain the extent to which this matters.

Certainly, the triumphant Liverpool side were in no mood for complaint. "I don't want to explain why we won it, I only want to enjoy that we won it," Jurgen Klopp insisted afterwards.

"When we look back, we won't see that the game was slow, but that we're European champions," said Trent Alexander-Arnold.

Even Tottenham weren't going to argue the toss. "I'd look stupid if I say we dominated and had 65 per cent of the possession and we shot eight or nine times on target and they shot four times," Mauricio Pochettino admitted, whilst saying exactly those words. "The final is to win. It's not about deserving. Nobody is going to remember that maybe we deserved a little bit more."

This wasn't surprising. When the biggest trophy in club football is on the line, you don't get extra points for entertainment or style.

Yet virtually all of the ingredients that you could possibly engineer to guarantee an entertaining game were in place. A competition that rewards the richest leagues with the biggest stars. Two teams with a reputation for playing attacking, full-throttle football. Rules systematically loaded in favour of attackers, from the offside law to the VAR interpretation of handball. And a three-week gap that would allow both teams to play the game at maximum freshness. And still, it was an utterly terrible game. What are we supposed to make of that?

Perhaps that, despite all the attempts to harness it, football at its core remains defiantly resistant to control. That despite every imperative to flatten out the peaks and valleys of sporting chance in favour of smooth business certainty, once the whistle blows you can't guarantee a thing. That the pinnacle of the men's domestic game, was a total washout. I don't know about you, but I find that quite cheering.

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