Crunch time in Madrid for two of the world’s best

(Image courtesy of Michael Regan/Getty Images)

How the Champions League final will debunk the trophy myth while informing the futures of Klopp and Pochettino

On Saturday night, two proud managers will march their troops into Champions League final battle while the rest of the world, having had a month to ponder the madness of the semi-finals, may still be wondering just how they managed to get there.

Having beaten the odds in their own remarkable ways, Liverpool and Tottenham descend on Madrid to simultaneously represent the Premier League and compete for club football’s most prestigious prize. The final will be a culmination of not only the greatest edition of the Champions League in history, but a chance for one of Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino to finally lay a particular issue to rest, crowning a remarkable season.

In keeping with the rest of this season’s tournament, the Champions League semi-finals were truly berserk. Over the course of two nights, Klopp and Pochettino oversaw two of the best comebacks the football world has ever seen, as their players defiantly stormed their way to the final, which will be played out on Saturday night. Above all else, the fact that the madness of this year’s Champions League will culminate in this all-English final is ironic and just in equal measure.

The feeling that has manifested itself in the modern minefield that is social media is that somehow Klopp and Pochettino are “failures” for not having won any trophies – in Klopp’s case since 2014; in Pochettino’s, ever. As such, they are failures, or “bottlers,” as Twitter will have you believe.

Arguably, Klopp has been a failure if you look solely at his record in finals since his appointment as Liverpool manager in 2015. In his three finals at the Anfield helm, Klopp has lost all three. However, to label him a failure is to blindly ignore the journey he has taken his Liverpool side on in such a short period of time, transforming them from a drifting, forgotten giant of the past to a powerhouse who this week return to their second consecutive Champions League final.

Klopp leads his Liverpool side to their second successive Champions League final, having fallen short to Real Madrid in Kiev in 2018. (Image courtesy of Liverpool FC).

On the other hand, Pochettino has long been touted for so-called bigger jobs, as the narrative dictated that he would never achieve anything of real significance with Tottenham, such is their capacity to choke under pressure at the vital moment. Three weeks ago, Spurs were 3-0 down on aggregate with 45 minutes left to play vs Ajax. Just an hour later, Pochettino burst into tears and led wild celebrations, having led his side to that dramatic second-half comeback in Amsterdam, himself proving his ability to perform as an elite manager on the biggest of stages.

Over the course of those two memorable nights at the start of May, Klopp and Pochettino proved themselves as arguably the two best managers in world football right now. In many ways, they are similar, which makes for a fascinating match-up on the biggest of stages come Saturday evening. After their respective semi-finals, the raw passion from both was indicative of such similarities – Klopp’s fist-bumping and conducting of the Kop; Pochettino’s tears of overwhelming joy after the drama of the Lucas Moura-inspired comeback in Amsterdam.

In the weeks that followed, Pep Guardiola completed a historic domestic treble with Manchester City, although he has now long struggled to succeed in Europe’s elite competition, last reaching the final in 2011. Alongside Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino make up a formidable trio of the world’s best managers, with the latter two working with significantly less resources. As a result, in the last couple of seasons, Guardiola’s domestic dominance has meant that Klopp and now Pochettino’s only real chance for silverware must come in Europe.

This season, against all odds, one of them will claim the grandest prize of them all: it seems fitting that having disproved the “bottling” theory, one of them will return from Madrid a Champions League-winning manager.

In the process, the victor will once and for all debunk and hopefully settle the trophy myth. For Klopp, victory would cap an extraordinary season with Liverpool that is more than deserving of a trophy, while Pochettino may sail off into the sunset having overachieved and resoundingly disproved popular criticism labelled at both him and his team.

Pochettino was visibly moved after his side’s comeback to defeat Ajax in the semi-finals. (Image courtesy of PA).

As for the losing manager, defeat would have the possibility of making or breaking their future, yet arguably it seems that for Klopp, the stakes are higher. Defeat for the German would be devastating, given last season’s final heartache followed by the desperation that empty-handedness from such a brilliant season as this would cause.

What’s more, despite his defiance in admitting so, Klopp must also lay his miserable final record to bed and get over the final hurdle. In doing so, he would clinch a sixth European Cup for Liverpool, immediately entering the history books and establishing tangible success to show for his and his side’s remarkable rise to the summit of world football.

If Tottenham were to lose, Pochettino would of course be heartbroken, but all would not be lost. If truth be told, Spurs have defied all expectation to even get to this stage, having consistently overcome adversity on their 2018/19 Champions League adventure. From their dreadful group-stage start (Spurs had one point after their first three games) to the miracle of Amsterdam, Pochettino’s side have taken an unmatched route to the Wanda Metropolitano that could boost them in their approach come the final.

For Saturday’s showpiece event, Spurs are slight outsiders, as Liverpool’s experience in last year’s final along with their momentum from both their league and recent European exploits may carry them through. However, after the way the North Londoners’ season has gone, particularly in this tournament, they may yet feel that their name is written on the trophy.

By kick-off, both teams will have had three weeks since the climax of the Premier League to prepare. While Roberto Firmino’s fitness has been called into question, the same doubts have been posed of Spurs captain Harry Kane, who last played in the Champions League quarter final first leg against Man City at the start of April.

Both strikers have been declared fit in the lead-up to the game, but speculation could well exist as a battle of mind games between two savvy, hungry managers who have done an outstanding job to haul their sides to this point. Now, all that remains is to decide who will enter the history books and dispel all doubts about their trophy-winning ability on the greatest stage of them all.

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