Now comes the season of our amazement, an all English UEFA Champions League final, against all odds, and via spectacular comebacks that could not have been more different. Our prediction of a Dutch-English final did not materialize any more than our hoped-for Italian-Spanish one, but we got a pretty nice alternative.
In the Netherlands, Ajax, the home team who had beaten Tottenham in London, fell apart in the final minutes of a game they had dominated and deserved to win. In England, Liverpool, who had been outplayed and handily, if unfairly, beaten at Barcelona, had a heroic comeback against a superior team having bad day.
Ajax led their encounter by aggregate scores of 1-0 at the 00:00 mark, 2-0 at the 05:00 mark, and 3-0 at the 35:00 mark, only to concede back to back goals at the 55:00 (3-1) and 59:00 (3-2), then miss a handful of opportunities in the next 37 minutes before conceding a last gasp hat trick to Lucas Moura at the 96th (3-3). Tottenham won on the away goals rule.
Liverpool came into their home turf at a 0-3 aggregate disadvantage and proceeded to chip away at a listless Barcelona who were up against an unimpressed referee and an inspired opponent. The hosts were 1-3 at the 07:00 mark before the floodgates opened up in the second half—2-3 at the 54th, 3-3 at the 56th, and 4-3 at the 79th. They then held off Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and all comers Ernesto Valverde brought to bear.
In Amsterdam, in the end, the Ajax dream disintegrated as much from the pressure of their bad luck (posts and misses galore, and unfortunate teammate interference) as from the pressure of their inexperience (communal naivete) in allowing Liverpool anywhere near their box in the waning moments of a match which had tilted mostly Tottenham’s way for only spurts.
Barcelona, trying to live up to Messi’s promise of a European trophy, seemed to sleepwalk for most of their away game, with a listless attack and a shaky defense accompanying their mostly absent superstar. When talk of the GOAT rears up, it is these moments, as much as Messi’s success when surrounded by world-class set-up men such as Xavi and Iniesta, that dampen his shine. Pele rarely disappeared during a crucial match and he was hardly assisted as well and often or been given the refereeing benefits Messi has enjoyed his entire career. Frankly one could argue that ditto Maradona, Cruyff, Di Stefano, or even his current competitor, CR7.
As for the final, it will be a joyous clash between coaches and teams who are on a resurgent cycle and have hopes of retaining some of what they now have for seasons to come. Barcelona, on the other hand, is nearing its post-Messi era and it will be interesting to see if they transition better than Real Madrid has. But it is Ajax who might end up suffering the most as their roster of up and coming stars is likely to be much different after this season and after the dust settles following the coming transfer and buying windows.