Well this was a most peculiar anti-climax. Full of effort and yet somehow devoid of urgency, and with excitement and quality levels similarly low on the barometer, the whole thing resembled seeing a balloon being immediately deflated and then simply left lying unattended for another 89 minutes.
Rather than lumber tragically through the seven stages of grief, or find some perceived injustice and rage at it, the sentiment at AANP Towers is therefore one of curious frustration. Given that Liverpool themselves were oddly underwhelming, this ought probably to be listed as a Missed Opportunity, alongside the Leicester season – and yet somehow, the mood is one of philosophical acceptance.
Probably best just to toddle over to the corpse and begin dissecting.
1. The Penalty Decision
Not all will agree – and judging by the high-pitched apoplexy emanating from his larynx, Glenn Hoddle most certainly did not – but I must confess I had little problem with the penalty decision itself.
To clarify, I did not perform any sort of jig of delight – in fact those around me needed to deliver a rigorous prod between the ribs to check that the blood was still flowing, such was the horror-stricken, frozen chill with which I reacted – but I did follow the logic of the sturdy fellow making the call. Although the ball bounced off chest first, it did then receive an inadvertent stroke from the incoming arm of Sissoko.
Worse crimes have undoubtedly been perpetuated within the vicinity of the 18-yard rectangle during the history of the game, but I understood why, in that situation, a jury might convict.
Just a dashed shame – if quintessentially, absurdly Tottenham – that it happened within thirty seconds of the start of the biggest game in our history.
2. Best Laid Plans vs First-Minute Penalty
More of a concern was the impact of that early farce upon the best-laid plans of Our Glorious Leader. According to the newswires, Pochettino’s three-week preparations had included inviting the players to plant their feet on hot coals (a strategy that, if you ask me, carries an inherent flaw, given that these chaps’ feet are the most important dashed parts of them), breaking arrows with their necks and all manner of other eyebrow-raising sorcery. Frankly it struck me that he might have had a little too much preparation time on his hands.
Alas, the one circumstance for which he presumably had not prepared was the concession of a penalty in the opening minute. One sympathises, for why would he?
And in fact, our lot reacted to this decidedly unseemly new set of circumstances with admirable stiffening of the upper lip and some neat and tidy interplay around halfway.
The problem with the early goal was not so much its effect upon our heroes as its effect upon Liverpool. It meant that for the remaining 89 minutes they did not need to take any sort of risk, or show any sort of forward intent that would allow even a whiff of an opening behind them. They were content to strangle the life out of us, and pretty much did just that.
3. The Kane Selection
Our Glorious Leader had made the reasonable point that hindsight would tell whether his team selection would go down as masterstroke or clanger, so naturally enough the knives are out in some quarters. All of which places me in a terrifically delicate spot, as Poch, having presumably pored over these very pages in recent days, rather scarily opted for the precise team and formation for which I had been marching around town campaigning in the past week or two.
Kane undoubtedly had fairly minimal effect upon proceedings, finally threatening around the peripheries in the final twenty or so, without ever eking out – or having eked for him – that half a yard that would have allowed him a decent pot at goal.
However, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the better half of North London, I do not think our general bluntness was much to do with him, for the chap was barely given a touch of the ball by his chums in the opening hour or so.
He might have been in the form of his life and it would not have mattered, because our build-up play, particularly in the first half, was thoroughly bogged down by the time we hit the final third (almost as if the players were sinking beneath the weight of tactical instruction, which rather makes one wonder).
Even in hindsight I am still not particularly convinced that starting Lucas instead would necessarily have been the solution, for sniper-quality though his finishing was against Ajax, his involvement in build-up play was nothing about which to ring the church bells, and when he was eventually introduced last night his impact was neither here nor there.
The problem struck me as not so much to do with Kane’s fitness or the absence of Lucas, as the dearth of creativity and service from the ranks behind them.
4. Eriksen, The Selected Scapegoat
At such times as these I feel legally obliged to identify a scapegoat.
With Liverpool content to allow us the ball and take their chances as a defensive unit, plenty of onus was placed upon the assorted size nines in our midfield. We found ourselves in desperate need of some wit and ingenuity, someone who could make use of ample possession in midfield, and boast both the vision to pick a defence-splitting pass and the technique also to deliver it.
In short we needed Christian Eriksen.
The opportunity could not have been better made for him if it had taken him aside beforehand and measured him for size. This was the precise scenario that Mother Nature had had in mind when she fashioned him all those years ago, and the stage was that for which one would expect the true greats of the game to don their capes and leap into action.
But cometh the hour, Eriksen had little to offer that dropped the jaw and made the heart skip a beat or two.
It’s a source of some pretty ripe debate in lilywhite circles. The chap’s ability is not in question – he produces some silky stuff of which most teammates simply aren’t capable. The issue here at AANP Towers is that he is something of a Match of the Day player: his best bits make the highlights reel, and come 10.30pm on a Saturday night he can look pretty spectacular. But roll up and watch the whole 90 minutes, and too often he does too little to effect things, much less boss an entire match. Last night was a case in point.
By contrast, Winks and Sissoko – neither of whom anyone of sound mind and teetotal disposition would ever suggest were better players than Eriksen – did more at least to attempt to inject a little vim and energy into our midfield play.
5: Clinical Finishing (And Lack Thereof)
Whatever the virtues or otherwise of Eriksen’s performance, it seemed that, like me, the players were labouring under the misapprehension that clear-cut chances would simply materialise automatically, because this was the Champions League 2019 and frankly that’s what has tended to happen. This time however, we were a little too patient and passive for our own good.
By around the 70-minute mark the memo to get heads down and dig out a goal had evidently reached all in lilywhite, and there was an urgency to our play in the final third. The Liverpool goalkeeper was even having to get his gloves dirty, as our heroes stumbled upon the novel idea of trying an occasional, polite shot at goal.
Alas and alack and woe upon woe, we did not actually create one decent chance throughout the whole desperate affair. Instead, we needed to be at our clinical best to take advantage of whatever scraps and glimmers of opportunities came our way.
In short, we needed to produce the sort of clinical finish from one of those half-chances that Divock Origi did at the other end, at the death, summoning the ghost of Lineker in the Italia ’90 Semi-Final to turn a sniff of a chance into a goal.
But where Origi caught his shot as sweetly as a front-foot cover drive at Lord’s, Sonny and Lucas did not quite make the clean connection that makes the heart skip a beat and young ladies swoon; and Dele’s chipped effort was rather cruelly made to look a heck of a lot closer to hitting the top corner than it actually did, by that most wretched and evil prankster, the Deceptive Camera Angle.
And that was that. The whole Champions League campaign has been, until this point absolutely riotous fun, so warm applause and stiff drinks are deserved all round. Just a shame that the finale was such an oddly damp squib, but such is life I suppose.