Tuesday 15 October 2019

Glory is English in name but global in nature

Liverpool players and fans celebrate after the match. Photo: Action Images via Reuters
Liverpool players and fans celebrate after the match. Photo: Action Images via Reuters

Sachin Nakrani

George Sephton has been Liverpool's stadium announcer for 48 years and is such a part of the furniture there that he is known as The Voice of Anfield. His is a low, rumbling, almost soothing voice that makes pre-match announcements, names goalscorers during games and wishes everyone a safe journey home after the final whistle. From his office in the Kop, Sephton, a 73-year-old born-and-bred Scouser, also plays records, regularly capturing the mood perfectly.

As was the case on Tuesday, a little before 11pm and while the home spectators made their way to the exits following Liverpool's extraordinary 4-0 victory over Barcelona. Suddenly, 'Imagine' by John Lennon struck up.

You . . . you may say I'm a dreamer

But I'm not the only one

I hope someday you'll join us

And the world will live as one

Lennon was singing it and so too were the crowd because it was absolutely the right song at the right time. What they had just witnessed was wondrous, incredible, beguiling and beautiful, a victory even the most optimistic of supporters had only half-heartedly believed was possible. But it came to pass.

Liverpool had overturned a 3-0 first-leg deficit against one of the best teams in the world, and with two of their best players in Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah missing through injury, to secure a place in the Champions League final. After that how could you not be a dreamer? How could you not imagine anything was possible?

It has been that type of week. The night after Liverpool's triumph over Barcelona came an another similarly jaw-dropping one by Tottenham over Ajax. Spurs arrived in Amsterdam 1-0 down from the first leg and conceded another two goals before half-time. It was done. But Tottenham scored twice inside four second-half minutes and then, with practically the last kick of the game, got a third to put them into the final. The all-English affair will take place in Madrid on June 1 and who would dare predict what will happen then.

That is the beauty of sport - a crucible of unscripted performances that at peak moments of tension and consequence produce the most thrilling of dramas. And no sport electrifies the senses quite like football.

Not always. More often than not games simply come and go. But every so often the Beautiful Game serves up something unforgettable, something miraculous. That it happened twice in two days is mind-blowing.

The game at Anfield was particularly sensational, partly because of the stadium's history when it comes to special nights in European competition. There they will tell you about Internazionale in 1965, St Étienne in 1977, Olympiakos in 2004, Chelsea in 2005 and Borussia Dortmund in 2016, so it really does mean something that amid the roars and cheers on Tuesday many home fans were openly naming the game in front of them as the best of the lot.

Everything came together: a meaningful victory in adversity over a team containing arguably the best player that has ever lived in Lionel Messi and, crucially, one that was fully deserved. Liverpool were excellent, displaying a collective will that was fully appreciated in the stands around them.

The songs that so many opposition fans sneer at throbbed with spirit while the jubilation sparked by each of the four goals was unconstrained.

Presumably the celebrations among the Tottenham supporters at the Johan Cruyff Arena were just as febrile and what connects both triumphs is the sense they arrived in large part through the character of the respective managers.

English football is living through a different age. Gone are Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho and Arsène Wenger, giants of the previous generation who ruled with an iron fist, a morose sense of self-entitlement and an understated thoughtfulness. Now we have Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, all of whom lead as much with their hearts as they do with their considerable brains.

There is passion and a driving sense of optimism, not to mention a touchy-feely relationship with the players that you cannot help but think ties them to their managers in a way that makes them dig that little deeper and run that little harder when the occasion calls for it, as it did on Merseyside and in Amsterdam.

Klopp and Pochettino led the celebrations as much as they did their own sides, while Guardiola did similar on Monday as Manchester City secured a 1-0 win over Leicester that makes them firm favourites to retain their Premier League crown today. Again there was magic in the air as City's goal came via a long-range thunderbolt from their creaking captain, Vincent Kompany.

On Thursday, meanwhile, Arsenal and Chelsea came through their respective Europa League contests to ensure there will be two all-English European finals in one season for the first time. And to think, it was not so long ago that English football was constantly looking elsewhere for ideas on how to succeed.

One reason English football is thriving is because it has opened itself up to ideas and people from different countries. Liverpool are managed by a German; their goals against Barcelona were scored by a Belgian and a Dutchman. Tottenham are managed by an Argentinian and the scorer of their goals in Amsterdam was Lucas Moura, a Brazilian.

Last week's dizzying glory is English in name but global in nature.

People everywhere have been talking about what Liverpool and Tottenham achieved. Heck, it was even discussed at prime minister's questions.

Football is forever in the mainstream but all too often for the wrong reasons. Not this week. This week the discourse has been positive and uplifting, sparked by contests that, even now, appear too surreal to have taken place in reality.

As Ferguson put it after Manchester United's own wondrous achievement - the treble of 1999 - "Football, bloody hell."

Observer

The six Champions League finals between teams from the same country

May 24, 2000: Real Madrid 3-0 Valencia — The first intra-national European Cup final in the competition’s 45-year history acted as the stage for Steve McManaman to write his name into Champions League folklore. The Englishman secured victory for Real in Paris with a stunning 67th-minute volley, with Fernando Morientes and Raúl scoring the others.

 May 28, 2003: Juventus 0-0 Milan (Milan won 3-2 on pens) — Dripping in Italian defensive energy, 120 minutes of tough tackling and swinging elbows at Old Trafford yielded just eight shots on target and a whopping 57 fouls. The goalkeepers reigned in the shootout with five of the first nine efforts saved before Andriy Shevchenko sealed Milan’s sixth European Cup.

 May 21, 2008: Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea (United won 6-5 on pens) — Didier Drogba has spoken of his unease at seeing Moscow adorned in red before the final and that anxiety was vindicated on a pulsating night that saw Cristiano Ronaldo and Frank Lampard trade goals before Drogba was sent off in extra-time. John Terry then slipped at the crucial moment.

 May 25, 2013: Borussia Dortmund 1-2 Bayern Munich — Twelve months is an eternity in football and no one knows that better than Arjen Robben. In the 2012 final Robben was the scapegoat in defeat to Chelsea. A year later he cemented himself as a Bayern legend, scoring the winner after Ilkay Gündogan and Mario Mandzukic each struck in the second half at Wembley.

 May 24, 2014: Real Madrid 4-1 Atlético Madrid (aet) — At 90 minutes Atlético looked to have triumphed against the odds to win a historic double. On 94 minutes Sergio Ramos wheeled away in celebration of a heartbreaking equaliser. By the time 120 minutes had elapsed in Lisbon Real had run riot en route to La Decima.

 May 28, 2016: Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid (Real won 5-3 on pens) — If Cristiano Ronaldo was still searching for a crowning moment as king of Madrid then the fifth and final penalty in this shootout in Milan confirmed his coronation. Sergio Ramos and Yannick Carrasco scored in normal time before Juanfran hit the post with his spot-kick setting up Ronaldo’s vintage moment.

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