UEFA Champions League final ultimate preview: What you need to know before Tottenham vs. Liverpool
MADRID -- The only thing left to settle for the European club season before the summer is the Champions League, and much like the Europa League final, it's an all-English affair in Madrid as Liverpool take on Tottenham. Who will begin their holidays with a trophy and who will spend the offseason wondering what could have been?
Here is what you need to know ahead of Saturday's game, which kicks off at 3 p.m. ET (8 p.m. BST) and is set to be played in hot temperatures.
BACKSTORY: Liverpool arrive with the greater pedigree. They've won the European Cup five times; only Milan and Real Madrid have more. They reached the final only last season, when they were beaten by Real Madrid in Kiev, Ukraine, and they finished this season a single point off the pace in the Premier League behind Manchester City.
Contrast this with Tottenham. Only Michel Vorm, their third-choice goalkeeper, was even born the most recent time they were in a European final of any kind: the 1984 UEFA Cup final. That was also the most recent time they went beyond the quarterfinals in Europe. Spurs finished fourth in the Premier League and lost 2-1 both times they faced Liverpool this season, though the second clash, at Anfield, was a particularly tight, hard-fought affair that could have gone either way.
CARDIAC COMEBACKS, LIVERPOOL EDITION: If it wasn't for a dramatic victory over Napoli in their final group-stage game in December -- which saw them advance thanks to a tiebreaker -- Liverpool's Champions League quest would have ended before the knockout rounds. Plus, they pulled off the most dramatic of turnarounds at Anfield in the semifinal against Barcelona, winning 4-0 to wipe out a 3-0 first leg defeat.
CARDIAC COMEBACKS, TOTTENHAM EDITION: Tottenham were also headed out of the competition in December until Lucas Moura's goal, with five minutes to go away to Barcelona at the Camp Nou, in the final group game. Even then they only advanced thanks to the tiebreaker as well. Moura, of course, would prove decisive again in the semifinal second-leg comeback against Ajax, notching a hat trick including that buzzer-beater of a winner in injury time. Oh, and in the quarterfinal against heavily favored Manchester City, a dramatic Fernando Llorente deflected goal with minutes to go saw Spurs advance in a seesaw match.
NO SILVERWARE, NO PROBLEM: Tottenham boss Mauricio Pochettino famously said that trophies "build egos" but league finishes and year-on-year improvement build clubs. While Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp hasn't quite gone that far, he too is living proof that a manager's popularity rests on far more than delivering silverware. Both are immensely loved by their fan bases, yet Pochettino has never won a trophy in his managerial career and Klopp's last major title was in 2012, when he led Borussia Dortmund to the Bundesliga title. His record in finals isn't great, either, having lost six of seven.
Obviously, that will change for one of these two men Saturday ...
TACTICAL CONTRAST: Both managers believe in pressing, directness, high lines and speedy forwards, but Pochettino has been, often by necessity, the more pragmatic and shape-shifting of the two. Where Liverpool's lineup has been relatively settled for much of the season, Tottenham have been hammered by injuries at various stages. As a result, Pochettino has played a variety of lineups and schemes, and going into this game, it's hard to predict how Tottenham will take the field.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO FOLLOWING A DEFEAT, LIVERPOOL: They will be dealt a crushing psychological blow and folks start to murmur that, for all his touchy-feely, cult-of-personality schtick, maybe Klopp really does have issues in getting a team over the line. To miss out on the Premier League by one point and then to fail in Madrid after losing in last season's Champions League final, ending another season empty-handed ... it's a grim thought the players and fans will not want to entertain.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO FOLLOWING A DEFEAT, TOTTENHAM: Given Liverpool are huge favorites, a loss for Spurs wouldn't be a big deal. But there's intrigue here, too. Pochettino says he's taken Tottenham as far as he possibly can and demands further investment in the side in the summer. If it doesn't come -- and, in fact, contract malcontents Christian Eriksen and Toby Alderweireld leave -- Pochettino resigns, too. Not the best way to end a season filled with so much hope.
CENTER-FORWARD CONUNDRUM, LIVERPOOL: Roberto Firmino is an atypical central striker whose contribution is less about goals and more about his movement, passing and work off the ball. He is invaluable to Liverpool's system but suffered muscular injuries late in the season. Klopp says he's fit for the final, but you wonder how a layoff of nearly six weeks since his most recent start is going to affect him.
CENTER-FORWARD CONUNDRUM, TOTTENHAM: Spurs born and bred, Tottenham fans sing that their captain, Harry Kane, is "one of their own." He undoubtedly is, and what's more, he's one of the best center-forwards in the world, having scored 90 goals in the past three years in all competitions. While it appears he's fit again, his most recent appearance for the club was way back on April 9, so rust is bound to be a factor.
Kane's return also poses a dilemma for Pochettino: Does he leave out either Son Heung-Min or Moura, who were heroic in getting Spurs this far, or does he try to cram all three into his starting XI? On paper, it's a risky thing to do ... then again, he's done it five times in the Premier League this season. And each time, Spurs have won.
STAR MAN, LIVERPOOL: Mohamed Salah took Liverpool by storm last season, when he scored 44 goals after joining from Roma, and many expected him to regress to the mean this season. But while his numbers are down (he has 26 this campaign), he's still a constant scoring threat.
STAR MAN, TOTTENHAM: Christian Eriksen is the sort of player soccer connoisseurs love. Neither particularly quick nor athletic, he's hugely clever in finding space and unlocking opposition defenses and is always a threat from long range.
WHERE THE GAME WILL BE WON OR LOST: Both teams love to exploit the flanks, and Liverpool in particular have devastating fullback-winger combinations in Andy Robertson with Sadio Mane on the left and Trent Alexander-Arnold with Salah on the right. How Pochettino defends them will be key since both his full-backs (Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose) are more attack-minded. He might resort to a back three or, more likely, demand more work off the ball from his wide attacking players.
(Side note: Keep your eye on Robertson -- arguably the best crosser of the ball, he could place the ball on a dime in the most dangerous of attacking positions.)
X FACTOR, LIVERPOOL: Liverpool's style means that Virgil Van Dijk is often asked to do a lot of open-field defending. He's one of the best center-backs in the world, and how well he marshals the back four will have a huge impact; so too will the threat he poses at the other end on set pieces.
X FACTOR, TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR: Son has scored more key goals than you can shake a stick at this season, and his combination of strength, tactical nous and energy makes him both a nuisance (for opponents when in possession) and a threat to run behind (when opponents lose possession).
LIVERPOOL WILL WIN BECAUSE ... They simply have more top-to-bottom quality in the lineup, and two key Spurs players are returning from injury (not just Kane but Harry Winks, too). Many of the matchups favor them in different areas of the pitch, particularly out wide. What's more, they have a distinct edge in dead-ball situations -- their goal difference in the Premier League in this department was plus-15, to Spurs' plus-5 -- and that can be decisive in a one-off match.
TOTTENHAM WILL WIN BECAUSE ... Pochettino knows how to be pragmatic, and in a final, the old standby of soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter works well. There's also more pressure on the opposition, and Pochettino is a master at spinning the underdog tale to motivate his players.
PREDICTION: Liverpool 3-1 Tottenham
There's a reason why these two clubs were separated by 26 points in the Premier League this season. Liverpool have more of an edge to them this season -- witness Robertson tackling Lionel Messi at Anfield -- and Klopp has more tactical Plan B options, like Xherdan Shaqiri off the bench or Gini Wijnaldum ghosting into the front three, than he did last season.