“When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone, “there are bitter weeds in England.” There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.” Sir Winston Churchill began his landmark “We Shall Never Surrender” speech in the British Parliament in 1940, when Hitler’s Germany was carpet bombing the city of London every evening, after the fall of France, with an imminent fall of Britain in sight. The German bombing expeditioners fell, in front of the island home, and the city of London, which went on till the very end. Bitter weeds…
The first leg between Barcelona and Liverpool is underway at Camp Nou. Virgil van Dijk, now the world’s most sought after defender, was crowned the PFA Player of the Year just the week before, a crown very seldom bestowed upon defenders, the most recent being John Terry, the central defender who led England and Chelsea in a very illustrious career. Both Suarez and Messi have been at it, against Liverpool, which had been struggling throughout the first half, with lapses and lot of unnecessary dog chasing runs in the defences. It’s the 82nd minute, and the game looks over with Barcelona having established their superiority and Suarez and Messi having hammered two goals already. Fabinho blocks off Messi and that earns Barcelona a free kick 30 yards from goal. Messi is on goal number 599, and Van Dijk has had his legs spread all over on the day. Messi prepares, takes aim, strikes, a beautiful curl swirling past the wall of defenders, and in a moment, he has not only his 600th goal, but also one of his all time best magic the world has been thankful to witness. Liverpool has fallen. It’s a decisive 3-0 at Camp Nou. Only a miracle can now save this club which has seen its best year of revival, against the giants of Europe.
A week later, at Anfield, the Liverpool fans are chanting “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, commentators and pundits have already given up on Liverpool. With their star Mo Salah out with a knee injury, their hopes of even a close defeat looks bleak. He comes onto the pitch, greeting the fans and the television cameras, with a rather hopeful ‘Never Give Up’ t-shirt, while his teammates practice on pitch with ‘YNWA – You’ll Never Walk Alone’ wind cheaters. The match kicks off with much enthusiasm, with Jurgen Klopp flowering out his antics at the team stand, craving for victory and glory. Messi is slide tackled, and fouled by Robertson early very early on in the game, but the referee fails to notice the deliberate brush against his head, he lies on the pitch crying for help. In the 15th minute, Divock Origi and Adam Lallana penetrate the Barcelona defence, Origi chucking in a beautiful flick pass to Lallana, Lallana fails to score, but Origi is there for a tap in, and Liverpool are up 1-0. The fans are exuberant and Anfield now radiates with hope.
Only minutes later, Alisson Becker stops the Barcelona attack in its tracks, somehow, with a much important save. There’s no more action till half time. After half-time there’s still a mountain to climb, to topple the giants, 3 goals needed to glory. Wijnaldum is substituted in for Robertson. The substitute executes a wonderful and powerful tap in of the cross from the young right back Alexander-Arnold. Barcelona’s defence lapses, tactically and morally. The deficit is now cut in half.
Only minutes later, the ball is transferred from the right to the left, and Shaqiri takes control of the ball, playing around with Milner for a few seconds, before taking a wonderful cross towards the goal, and the super substitute Wijnaldum is there yet again, for a second goal, with an extraordinary leaping header, drilling the ball into the goal. It is now all level at Anfield, the mountain has been climbed, only the throne remains to be sat on. Anfield blasts with screams, tears and more than anything, hope. Barcelona already look overwhelmed by the electricity of their opponents and of Anfiled, chins already down.
20 minutes pass by, and the 80th minute comes closer, creating a nail-biting tension. Alexander-Arnold tries to pull off a lazy cross of the left back, only earning a corner. He prepares to take the corner, but another ball (now it seems all too deliberate) comes in from the ball boy, which is cleared by Origi. The Barcelona defence is clearly distracted, more so, by the second ball coming in on the pitch, it’s chaotic, the field, everybody ‘looks’ unprepared for the corner. Alexander-Arnold is seen walking away from the corner flag, to make way for Shaqiri to take the corner. But he notices that the Barcelona defence is completely unprepared, some still adjusting their socks, the defence hasn’t even boxed in, nor have the Liverpool corner takers. There is but one unguarded and noticeable, Origi, right in front of the goal. But Arnold, in the flick of an eye, suddenly takes the corner, directly aimed at Origi. The Barcelona defenders only in the minority of one – Gerard Pique try recoiling, but he, along with Ter Stergen, is too late for Origi’s tap in, and the fourth, and perhaps the most absurd Champions League Sem-Final goal. Liverpool are through to the finals with an astounding and clear 4-0 victory over the giants of Europe. The players, can’t believe it, the fans can’t believe it, Messi can’t believe it, nor can the world. Mo Salah walks out, with his t-shirt very well validated.
Only 3 days later, the world of sports was to witness another historic and equally great comebacks, from the late bloomers, Tottenham Hotspur, against the youngest team in the Champions League knock-out stage, Ajax. Tottenham travel to the Netherlands with a minor and conquerable trail of 1-0. Their star, Harry Kane is out with an injury from their previous semi-final leg. He is to be replaced by the PSG reject and the aging and mediocre Lucas Moura.
Only 5 minutes into the game, Matthijs de Light, the promising centre back in the world currently, puts in a delightful headed goal. Just before half-time, Hakim Ziyeck puts past a delicious left kick dragged bend, within the penalty box, into the left post of the goal. On aggregate, it is again, a mountain to climb for yet another British team, with a 3-0 deficit. Harry Kane gives the team a pep talk during the half-time, reminding them that they are all ‘bitter weeds’ of England. The real game only begins after half time.
Dele Alli tries to dribble past the last defender in the 55th minute, but his touch is too heavy. Lucas Moura takes charge of the ball right outside the penalty box, and digs in a left footer in the flick of an eye. The score is 1-3 at Juan Cruyff arena. Only minutes later, there is chaos in Ajax’s penalty box, with the defenders and the goalkeeper unable to clear the ball, caught in a frenzy. Lucas Moura sees the opportunity, takes charge of the ball, and magically dribbles with great precision, and shoots the first time with his left footer, among all the bodies in the penalty box, finding a space in the right side of the goal. It’s a magical goal, but only magic could take them through to the finals.
It’s the 95th minute of the game, the final minute, and Tottenham have been lucky to survive two scares post their goals. It looks over now, those two goals of Moura having to look consolatory for the team that has fought so hard. The ball is lofted into Ajax territory, and the Ajax central defence has a quick slip of the moment, and the ball falls into the possession of Dele Alli, who turns and passes through to Lucas Moura, who makes a wonderful run from behind. He doesn’t look forward, but only at the ball, and with his first touch, he shoots Tottenham into glory. The ball ends in the back of the net, yet again, for Ajax, and Tottenham win on way goals, making it one of the most historic hattricks in footballing history, for Lucas Moura. The young Ajax team collapses to the ground, with their head against the ground. The battle of Britain has been won, and the two underdogs have conquered Europe, even before the final. They went on till the end, they never surrendered.
Tomorrow, these two teams are to face-off in Madrid for the final glory – the Champions League trophy. Both teams look balanced and have restored all their injured players, so it’ll certainly be a promising match at Madrid. I don’t want to be one of those pundits who tries to predict a football game. If these two semi-finals, or even sports in general, has proved anything to us, it is that the game is never over until it’s over, and only those, who can go on to the end, finally, win.
Swagat Baruah is the founding editor of Catharsis Magazine.