This week, football has improvised the perfect movie script, full of fight, heart, desire, determination, tears of anguish, tears of joy, unsung heroes taking centre stage and the impossible becoming possible. This movie is a true story that ended with two English teams reaching the Champions League final, proving that maybe the Premier League is the best in the world after all.
Now it goes into its final weekend with Manchester City one apparently inevitable win from the title while just behind them Liverpool, after Tuesday night’s miracle at Anfield, can make up for any domestic disappointment at the Champions League final in Madrid next month. With City determined one day to complete their transformation under Sheikh Mansour with victory in Europe’s top club competition and Liverpool desperately seeking their first league title for 29 years, I suspect that if the two teams had been offered their choice of either of those positions at the start of the season, City would immediately have taken Liverpool’s and the Reds would have delightedly snatched City’s.
But what a journey they have taken to reach this spot. On Monday Vincent Kompany was in tears at the Etihad Stadium after his incredible shot sealed victory for City over Leicester. On Tuesday there was hardly a dry eye at Anfield after Liverpool’s astonishing comeback against Barcelona. Mo Salah might not have been able to play but he even gets his T-shirts right: the slogan he was wearing, “Never give up”, said it all. On Wednesday, we saw Lucas Moura demonstrate that being allowed to leave by PSG last January and his lack of playing time since does not restrict his ability to achieve a superhero hat-trick in a Champions league semi final.
I am sure I was not the only player watching Liverpool’s victory over Barcelona on television who identified one big emotion in themselves: jealousy. Some of those jealous players might even play for Manchester City, the team that are probably about to win the league at Liverpool’s expense. I was jealous of Liverpool fans, able to watch that team and call it their own. I was jealous of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s youth and ingenuity, the way he walked away from that corner before turning back to set up the fourth goal. And I was jealous of all the players who shared that experience, and who are part of a team blessed with such spirit and drive. A quote from Jürgen Klopp’s pre-match team talk later emerged: “I think it’s impossible, but because it’s you we have a chance.” What more can you ask of a manager than to come up with things like that, and what more can you expect of a team than to actually live up to it?
Then came the tears of joy in Mauricio Pochettino’s post-match interview the following night that left me choked, understanding that after five years in the job, unable to buy players in the previous transfer window, he and his team had gone way above and far beyond expectations.
It shows that this game is not all about technique and that character, will and emotion also have a massive impact. There can be no other explanation for the fact that Lionel Messi, one of the greatest players of his era and of all time, was so massively outshone by Gini Wijnaldum and Divock Origi. Tuesday was not the first time that I have seen Messi, when his back is against the wall either for Barcelona or for Argentina, somehow look sorry for himself. When his teams need leadership and look to him, sometimes he seems just to have a blank expression. Compare that to the character shown by players such as Origi and Tottenham’s hat-trick scorer, Lucas Moura, who bore huge responsibility on their shoulders in the absence of Mo Salah and Harry Kane.
One of the things that made Liverpool’s achievement all the more impressive was that this is the same squad that were seven points clear at the top of the Premier League in January, that looked certain to win the title, and have probably messed it up. Other teams, having had to come to terms with that kind of disappointment, would not be fighting the way Liverpool are fighting now. They did not let that failure define them or defeat them, and instead that same side will now be defined by a brilliant victory over one of the greatest teams and probably the greatest player in the world.
Tottenham go into Sunday’s home game against Everton knowing a place in the top four, their key objective this season, is virtually guaranteed. Had Tuesday night gone differently Liverpool would have gone into their match against Wolves knowing that a brilliant season was likely to end 90 minutes later with nothing to show for it. I am sure they will still feel devastated to have let such a fabulous opportunity to end that long wait for a title slip through their hands, if the incredible form they have shown domestically since August in the end brings them nothing in return. But what might have been a miserable atmosphere will now be a celebration, and perhaps – who knows – Anfield might yet witness its second miracle of the week.
Sunday is a last opportunity to watch two of the great teams in modern English football history complete one of the most remarkable league campaigns. City’s win over Leicester was their 13th in a row in the league; Liverpool have lost one league game all season. The table tells me City are the better side, and they remain on course for a domestic treble. For all the praise Liverpool have got and deserve since Tuesday, however great their fans, their manager and their players, after 37 games they remain second.
But if I had to pick a team of the year from the Premier League, it would be Liverpool. It has to be. Pep Guardiola’s side faltered in Europe where Liverpool have succeeded, and for all the grit and skill they have shown in somehow conjuring winning goals in game after game during the title run-in, I don’t believe that Manchester City could have achieved what Liverpool achieved against Barcelona or what Spurs did against Ajax. Watching the unbearably tense final moments of both semi-finals I was stunned and nearly in tears. Regardless of what team we support they were two nights that, if only for a few hours, made us fall in love with football all over again.