Lessons from Liverpool – can Spurs overcome Real?

by Liam Milner

For the majority of Tottenham Hotspur’s players, this is unchartered territory. It certainly is for their manager who, prior to his appointment at White Hart Lane, had enjoyed spells with Bournemouth, West Ham, Portsmouth (twice) and Southampton. The lack of Champions League experience among most of the players – coupled with the club’s absence from Europe’s premier club competition since 1961-62 – means that few expect them to triumph against Real Madrid and progress to the semi-finals of this year’s competition.

Liverpool were met with similar expectations in 2005. Their history in the competition was well-known and they had reached the quarter-final in 2002, but the quality of the squad meant that their progress in the competition was always assumed to be nearing an end.

If one player is emblematic of their Champions League campaign in 2005 it is Luis García. Signed from Barcelona – where he had struggled to hold down a regular starting place – at the beginning of Rafael Benitez’s tenure at Anfield, he was a frustrating player at times. But he came to life in European competition. Goals in both legs against Bayer Leverkusen in the last 16, a stunning goal against Juventus at Anfield in the quarter-final, and then the “ghost goal” against Chelsea to send Liverpool to Istanbul suggest that without the Spaniard, there would have been no “miracle” in the Ataturk stadium. When a team are weaker than their opponents on paper, it is players like García who help redress the balance.

Man for man, the Tottenham team of today is better than Liverpool’s of 2005. There’s no Igor Biscan, Djimi Traoré or Anthony Le Tallec hoping to line up against Real in the next round. Spurs have a forward line of Jermaine Defoe, Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko, which compares favourably with the quartet of Djibril Cissé, Milan Baros, Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama-Pongolle who jostled for position up front for the Reds six years ago.

Despite the quality that Harry Redknapp’s team possesses, they will still be considered underdogs against Real. If they were to reach the semi-finals they would likely end up playing Barcelona, who would be considered favourites no matter which team they were playing. Spurs will need to surprise their opponents, and probably rely on a shade of good fortune. García was Liverpool’s main provider of unpredictability. His strike against Juventus came out of nothing. His goals against Leverkusen exhibited his deftness of touch in the penalty area.

There is nothing to suggest Tottenham do not have players who can perform this role. Rafael Van Der Vaart, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale spring immediately to mind as individuals who can summon up a moment of energy or intricacy to turn the momentum of a game. Indeed, Bale showed his capacity for such moments against Inter. Like all the best managers, Jose Mourinho plans in detail for each game. That is why Spurs may come to rely individual moments which cannot be thwarted by prior preparation.

The supporters will have their role to play. Against both Juventus and Chelsea, Liverpool began with a high tempo and thrived in the febrile atmosphere of Anfield. The Italian champions did not know what had hit them. “Liverpool were in the mood, feeding on the energy of their fans, rolling forward in wave after red wave towards a Juventus who did not gather their bearings until half-time,” wrote Henry Winter in the Telegraph. “Liverpool’s tempo was high, their ambition even higher.” In short, Benítez’s side got at the Italians, refusing to let their opponents dictate proceedings. When Mourinho’s Chelsea arrived in the following round, John Terry may have thought he had won a psychological battle by forcing Liverpool to play towards the Kop in the first half. If anything, it had the opposite effect. Against Inter and Milan, those packed inside White Hart Lane gave great backing to their team. A high-energy start from both the team and the crowd will be necessary in the return leg against Real.

Finally, Spurs will need a bit of luck. It does not make the achievement any less noteworthy, but Liverpool enjoyed several significant moments of good fortune. Pavel Nedvěd hit the post in the first leg of the quarter-final, another linesman may have refused to give García’s goal against Chelsea, and to this day I have no idea how Eidur Gudjohnsen did not score in second-half stoppage time. For Tottenham to progress, they will probably need luck on their side.

Mourinho’s side should beat Spurs. Redknapp has a poor record against the former Chelsea manager, and any side fielding the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Özil and Ángel Di María are likely to be formidable opponents. But if Tottenham keep it tight at the Bernabéu – as they did in the San Siro against Milan – and then go for it in the second leg, then they may come out on top. Stranger things have happened.

3 Responses

  1. Paul Stoller says:

    I definitely think Spurs inexperience has benefited them in this tournament. They have so far played with an excitement and freewheelingness that is a result of their tournament naivety.

  2. Liam Milner says:

    A correction to the article above: it was in fact Zlatan Ibrahimović who hit the post against Liverpool at Anfield, not Pavel Nedvěd.

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