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Pochettino, Klopp and weaponised niceness could make this UEFA's greatest final

Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino

Madrid, June 1: "I would say we have two proper football teams in the final. I respect a lot what 'Poch' has done..."

"Full credit to Jurgen Klopp – fantastic manager – the coaching staff and the players – unbelievable players. A great club like Liverpool with all their history…"

"He had a very talented group when he came there and how they've improved together has been very impressive..."

"Jurgen is a very successful manager and I admire him a lot..."

"I'm a 'shiny' person? Oh, 'brilliant'! Thank you! That's nice! You have to say that to 'Poch', he's a nice fellow as well..."

"He's great; he's always happy, he's optimistic, he's a really good example, I think he's spontaneous, he's natural. I like him a lot."

It reads like a script of an advert from one of the Champions League's myriad commercial partners; one of those cringeworthy 30-second snippets of fans of all countries and creeds united in squeaky-clean song and dance all before The Big Game, brought to you by This Company, begins its inoffensive broadcast.

But no. These were the words of Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino, 24 hours before the Champions League final, the grandest fixture in club football. Praising contemporaries in sport is hardly unusual, whether it's genuine or part of some mind-game masterplan to befuddle the opponent. This was nothing of the sort, though. This was mutual respect bordering on eulogy, the platitude amplitude cranked up to 11.

And you know what? It was fine.

Liverpool and Tottenham might be about the most satisfying final for the neutral observer in years. You just can't begrudge them their chance to lift the trophy at the Wanda Metropolitano, which looked suitably resplendent in the searing Madrid sun on Friday.

Each side fought to escape their group, Tottenham recovering from one win in their first four games to scrape through and Liverpool making up for some wretched away performances to seal progress by beating Napoli. Each impressed in the last 16, dispatching the top two teams in Germany in imperious fashion.

Spurs then knocked out Manchester City, probably the best team in Europe, in an utterly compelling two-legged eight-goal circus act. Liverpool made comparatively light work of Porto, it's true, but their performances were nonetheless worthy of the highest commendation.

And then came those semi-finals. The first-leg misery, the injury worries – Harry Kane, Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah – and the daunting prospect of trying to shatter the beliefs of two bands of devout Cruyffian disciples. And then Georginio Wijnaldum, Divock Origi and Lucas Moura produced the performances of their lives, and Barcelona and Ajax were left in the dust.

This is the second all-English European final of the week, but this is a long way from that soulless Europa League meeting in Baku. For one thing, there are plenty of fans here. At the UEFA-approved fan zones or in the hip streets of the Malasana district, Liverpool and Spurs shirts are mixing with each other and the locals in general good humour: a song here, a beer or two there, but none of the behaviour to warrant Marca's 'Fear' headline that foretold their arrival.

The aggressive scrutiny on the teams is lesser, too. Pochettino will be welcomed back to north London with open arms regardless of Saturday's result; the same could not necessarily be said of Arsenal's Unai Emery. Maurizio Sarri, in his first season in the job, has got Chelsea back into the Champions League, lost one cup final on penalties and won another brilliantly, and yet looks likely to return to Italy after a year in England of being pilloried by fans for having a set playing style. Would Jurgen Klopp be treated to 'F*** gegenpressing' if Liverpool fall behind to Spurs?

From the supporters to the managers to the teams, this is exactly the final UEFA would have hoped for. As the European Club Association reportedly pursues its European Super League with the incognisant bravado of Great Britain's no-deal Brexiteers, the continent's governing body are being presented with the perfect tonic: its biggest game contested by teams capable of captivating brilliance, led by managers of exemplary skill and manners, backed by fans who are ecstatic just to be here. We're even going to have two team photos before kick-off, with one including squad players not in the starting line-up, because Pochettino asked for it, because of course he did, because they deserve it.

Whether you enjoy the niceties or not, Liverpool, Tottenham and the Champions League have rarely looked in ruder health. Let's enjoy it while we can.

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Story first published: Saturday, June 1, 2019, 11:30 [IST]
Other articles published on Jun 1, 2019
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