MADRID — And now, after a 2-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur, it is six European Cups for Liverpool. With Barcelona and Bayern Munich left behind, ahead — just one away — are Milan and then 13-time winners Real Madrid, who have owned the European Cup competition like few others. No club can be separated from its past but Liverpool, more than most, are marked by what came before, from the sublime to the tragic.
The latest title mirrored those that came before in the sense that it was gutted out and filled with might-have-beens, probably many more than there should have been. That has been the story of Liverpool’s European wins: twice on penalties, twice by a single goal, always with the game in the balance until the final minutes.
So maybe it was apt that at the final whistle, when most of the newly crowned champions of Europe collapsed to the Wanda Metropolitano pitch, felled by equal parts exhaustion, elation and the need for release, the last to get up was Jordan Henderson.
The Liverpool captain stayed down for what felt like an eternity, first with head in hands, then hunched on all fours. Only when substitute Divock Origi put the match out of reach, with three minutes to go, could Liverpool shake a creeping fear that an final marked by errors and fatigue could take a twist against them.
There, for much of the second half, when Tottenham shook off the torpor and finally realized that if they were going to go down, it could not possibly be with the sort of flaccid whimper that characterized the opening 45 minutes, was Henderson. Arms flailing, legs pumping, orders barking.
He was not flawless, nor decisive, but he was the realization made flesh that a season’s work — heck, four years’ work — could be undone by a single, cruel moment. And in his ability to suffer, to fear and to excrete energy from every cell in his body, lay the key to Liverpool weathering Tottenham’s late revival.
This was not the Liverpool side we had seen for much of the season, but it was the Liverpool side that needed to show up in order to win the European Cup, one year after losing in the final to Real Madrid.
“It was a big challenge for both teams, after three weeks without a competitive game, with the heat, it turned into a fight,” manager Jurgen Klopp said later. “Usually, I’d be sitting here to explain why we had played so well and lost. It’s nice not to do that.”
The Wanda Metropolitano is a concrete bowl, surrounded by lanes of expressways, that still feels unfinished nearly two years after its opening. In truth, Atletico Madrid’s new home is about as welcoming as a port-a-potty, but less than a minute into the game, there was no place any Liverpool fan would rather have been.
Moussa Sissoko’s arm was up and away from his body, possibly pointing at potential runners in the Tottenham penalty area, when Sadio Mane’s chip struck him near the shoulder. Referee Damir Skomina did not even need VAR: ender the handball protocol, it was as straightforward a penalty as they come.
Mohamed Salah converted from 12 yards and celebrated with a hint of rage, his own moment of release. Just over 12 months ago, his Champions League final was cut short after a clash with Sergio Ramos in Kiev. Now, not only was he back, he had scored early.
The goal stunned Tottenham. You can understand why. For three weeks they had built up to this game, they had visualized, they had planned, they had dreamed. And now the cartoon piano had fallen on their heads.
For the rest of the first half they were sloppy and imprecise in passing and movement. Harry Kane looked like what he was: a guy who had not played competitive football in nearly two months. Son Heung-Min was frantic and frenzied, his button stuck on 16x, but not in a good way. Christian Eriksen was AWOL, and the less said about full-backs Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier, the better.
Chalk some of this up to Tottenham’s limitations, some of it to the psychological after-effect of the Sissoko blunder and some of it to a Liverpool press that worked just the way it does in Klopp’s mind: Mane and Salah rapaciously doubling full-backs and midfielders, Henderson and Fabinho squeezing up, Virgil van Dijk keeping the defensive line high enough to deny all but the most vertical balls for Son.
Indeed, right up until an Eriksen shot just before half-time that landed among the Liverpool fans, Spurs’ only effort on goal was a Sissoko piledriver/attempt at redemption that also sailed into the second tier.
But the early goal also had its effect on Liverpool’s forwards. They could pop Tottenham attacks like soap bubbles, but could not turn possession won back into clear-cut chances. Other than the odd strike from distance — Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson had one each — there was little to trouble Hugo Lloris.
Whether it was a creeping overconfidence or whether it was the fact that Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld slowly got the measure of Liverpool’s front three, it felt as if Klopp’s crew had wasted much of the opening period when it had an opportunity to close out the game.
Both teams went into the break knowing they could do better. A lot better. Previously subdued Tottenham supporters sprang into life with a rousing rendition of “When the Spurs go marching in,” perhaps remembering that, no matter how poor their team had been, they were still very much in the game.
Mauricio Pochettino’s men could not let the club’s first European Cup final end like this and they did not. Robertson had to snuff out a 5-on-4 counter with a brilliant tackle on Harry Winks, and Joel Matip channelled his inner Dikembe Mutombo to reject a close-range Dele Alli effort.
Klopp also had answers on his bench. On for Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum came Origi and James Milner: respectively, the comeback, late-goal hero and the tireless veteran whom Lionel Messi called “burro” (which means donkey and which Milner, the epitome of humility, probably took as a compliment).
When Klopp makes substitutions with a lead, the purpose is not to slow the game down and play on the counter, it is to add fresh legs, energize the press and go for the kill. And thus the game opened up.
Milner — keyed by one of those patented Mane zero-to-60 in nothing flat accelerations — shot just wide. Van Dijk neutralized a Son scamper in his own, apparently effortless way — 64 and counting, in fact. When Tottenham did pose a threat, Allison made a trifecta of stops, denying Son, Lucas Moura and Eriksen.
Then came Origi’s moment and the sense of liberation for Liverpool that comes from knowing it is your night, no matter what came before. It is not a coincidence that Klopp said his overriding feeling was “mostly relief.” Silverware matters, of course it does, but he knows that what matters more is the work behind it, the journey that takes you there.
Especially in a campaign with key moments that could easily have gone the other way, from the semifinal comeback against Barcelona to the dramatic 1-0 win against Napoli at Anfield in the final group-stage game, Klopp has seen enough, to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, to treat those impostors — victory and defeat — just the same.
It is about the process and it is not over. For one, there is the desire to go one place better in the Premier League and claim a title the club has chased for 29 years. As Klopp himself pointed out, this is not the culmination of anything; this is an intermediate stage in a long-term plan that began with his appointment on an October day nearly four years ago:
“The players are still young; they have lots more to give,” the manager of the European champions said.
The journey continues.