Sports

Crowning the Champions

BY SUJAY ATHREY

Soccer in the U.S. has been rising in popularity over the past decade, but for the rest of the world, the sport has always reigned as the most popular. For any team, the crowning achievement is placed squarely on the Champions League Final. The UEFA Champions League is a tournament that takes place annually around June, where the top European soccer clubs compete for the title. Many sports fanatics are attracted to this tournament’s host of spectacular soccer, electric atmosphere, and roaring fanfare— and this year was no different. The 2018-2019 UCL campaign kicked off on June 26, 2018, and on Saturday, June 1st, 2019, 400 million people around the world witnessed a clash between two soccer giants—Tottenham Hotspurs and Liverpool F.C.—for the trophy, glory, and name amongst history.

The path to the finals was by no means easy for the Hotspurs, as there were numerous reasons to doubt their championship chances. While soccer fans acknowledged the Spurs great team chemistry, the team’s lack of starpower was a cause for concern throughout their season. Breakout seasons were needed from its players and much to the relief of the team, forward HeungMin “Sonny” Son expanded his offensive prowess and stepped up as a clear leader for the Spurs, scoring 12 goals and distributing 6 assists throughout his Premier League season. Heading into this tournament, team manager Mauricio Pochettino looked to implement a high-press system on offense, with fast wingers like Harry Winks and Lucas Moura aiming to crash the center with a supply of crosses, overwhelming the defense with overlapping runs. On the back end, Pochettino’s style called for defensive solidity built on rugged, bruising midfielders that wore out the opposition.

In the group stage of the tournament, the Spurs started out slow, as they suffered two early losses. However, with a late equalizing goal during their match with FC Barcelona, the Spurs were able to barely advance and reach the elimination round. Against superior teams Manchester City and Ajax in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively, the Hotspurs had to play at the top of their game in order to make the finals despite critics and fans alike p l a c i n g bets against them. Even with their starting striker Harry Kane facing a serious injury, they were miraculously able to stave off Man City’s possible comeback and advance because of their away goals advantage. Against Ajax, manager Pochettino’s offensive game plan resulted in a hat trick from Lucas Moura, which propelled the Spurs to the championship in Madrid.

Losing out on last season’s final in an unfortunate loss in Kiev, Liverpool looked to prove themselves on the European stage once again. As a result of last year’s performance, Liverpool was amongst the favorites heading into this tournament; their ability to connect with each other quickly gave them the edge over more passive teams. Team manager Jürgen Klopp looked to pressure the opposition in the attacking half, leading to rushed decision making and turnovers. Offensively, Liverpool looked to give the ball to their attacking trio of Mo Salah, Bobby Firmino, and Sadio Mané. Salah, one of the best players in the world, was prolific this past season. Salah scored 44 goals and earned countless accolades in the 2018 season, including the British Premier League’s (BPL) “Player of the Year.” Though they faced early difficulties in the group stage, Liverpool was able to move on to the elimination bracket. In the round of 16, Liverpool’s potent attacking front was on display, as they took down reigning Bundesliga title holders Bayern Munich in a convincing 3-1 win in the second leg. After a win against FC Porto in the quarterfinals, Liverpool was set to face Barcelona in the “match to watch” of the tournament. After falling down three goals to none in the first leg, Liverpool was able to shut out Barcelona 4-0 in the second leg and advance to the championship for the second year in a row.

Tottenham and Liverpool gathered in Madrid, Spain for a chance to make history for their club, players, and fans. Liverpool was seeking redemption after losing in this same position last season, and the Spurs were looking to silence the pundits who doubted them. While both teams began the match shakily, Liverpool came out as the aggressor. With a penalty kick awarded 23 seconds in, Mo Salah was able to give Liverpool an early 1-0 lead. Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker proved his dominance, as he amassed three crucial saves in the late minutes of the match to keep Liverpool’s clean sheet intact. Substitute Divock Origi added another goal in the latter stages. Liverpool had successfully secured its first UCL title in 14 years.

This year’s eventful season, with its underdog stories, exciting comebacks, and incredulous feats, was especially significant for the Liverpool Football Club and Tottenham Hotspurs. Although they came up short this season, the Spurs solidified their position amongst the top tier of European teams and will head into the next season as a formidable club. As this season’s champion, Liverpool F.C. has redeemed itself and reminded the soccer world of its skill and willingness to compete. Although this season’s finals matchup was shockingly unexpected, it will serve as a shining reminder of the success that resilience and grit can yield for years to come.

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