At its highest level, the shape of European soccer is well-defined. Real Madrid have won the last three Champions League titles. Juventus have made two finals in the last four seasons. Barcelona and Bayern Munich are in the running year after year. We’re still waiting for financial powers like Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain to truly break through at the European level, but that success is inevitable so long as the money doesn’t dry up. (PSG won Ligue 1 by 16 points. City’s only EPL competition was Liverpool; they finished 26 points ahead of third-place Chelsea.) The hierarchy isn’t completely static—Dortmund and Atlético Madrid have recently threatened the mega-clubs both domestically and in Europe; Monaco took Ligue 1 in 2017; Leicester City had a miraculous premiership-winning year not so long ago—but we tend to see the same colors and faces competing for trophies when the calendar turns to spring.
Which is why the business end of this season’s Champions League has been such a delight. Alongside mainstay Barcelona in the semis, we had Liverpool (a historic power that has fallen off the pace of Europe’s elite), Tottenham (an upper-middle class striver), and Ajax (huge in the 70s, now a smart club with a modest budget). And now we have an all-English final, which if you listened to Anglophone pundits you would assume happens every year but is in fact a novelty.
Liverpool were in this same place last season, but this is all new for Spurs. Following mildly convincing title challenges in 2015 and 2016, they have stagnated a bit and like every non-Liverpool team in England proven that they can’t hang with Pep Guardiola’s Man City over the course of 38 domestic matches. But a string of Champions League performances like they’ve had has always been possible. They’re strong at the back and fast going forward, which is the sort of thing you can make work for you in a knockout setting, where goals tend to be at a premium. (Let’s shunt to one side the fact that this was absolutely not the case in their 3-3 aggregate win over Ajax.) With two weeks to prepare and Harry Kane at close to full strength, Spurs have a puncher’s chance against anybody.
For their part, Liverpool might play the most beautiful soccer that currently exists. It’s certainly the most fluid, with Sadio Mané, Roberto Firmino, and Mo Salah drifting and collapsing and surging forward and the midfield driving into the spaces they leave behind. Many of the best teams in the world dominate possession and operate with lots of bodies high up the pitch, but what’s remarkable about Liverpool is that they seem to always be trying to accomplish something. This is no small feat. Barcelona have spells when nobody runs and they sluggishly one-touch the ball to each for a few minutes. Bayern Munich are occasionally merely talent in search of a plan. Liverpool are constantly trying stuff; they wear the opposition out as much as they lance through them. Mané wanders out to the touchline, Andy Robertson sprints beyond even the forwards, Georginio Wijnaldum and Salah catch each other’s eyes and the one-two is on. Soccer—even really well-played soccer—is given to stretches of tedium. Liverpool operate as if their goal beyond winning is to eliminate all the boring bits of a match.
In short, the game should be entertaining. It’s a colorful clash of styles, and at the end of it we’re going to see a European champion who hasn’t summited that mountain in a while (Liverpool) or ever (Spurs). As enticing as this is, it doesn’t represent change on a structural level. Liverpool aren’t Manchester City rich, but they’ve long had the resources to compete with the best in the world, and it appears that under Jürgen Klopp’s stewardship, they’re reestablishing themselves as a big club. Provided they can hold onto Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham will remain capable of making deep Champions League runs while also not being favored to do so. Ajax are very likely to fall away. In a crushing reminder who runs things round these parts, they’re going to hand their most exciting talent over to the aristocracy—Frenkie de Jong has already agreed to a move to Barcelona; Matthijs de Ligt is definitely leaving for a lucrative sum; David Neres and Hakim Ziyech are probably on the move too.
That’s fine as far as it goes. We watch the Champions League to see the greatest teams on the planet, and way more often than not, the most impressive collections of talent and the smartest managers are plying their trade at a familiar handful of clubs. Some powers decline—Milan haven’t been living up to their reputation for over a decade now; Manchester United can’t seem to get it together post-Fergie—but for the most part the whole system stays locked in place. Which is why it’s so thrilling when the machine spits out an end-of-the-line matchup we didn’t expect. We’re probably not going to get Liverpool-Spurs again for a long time, so we might as well enjoy it.