After losing last year's final to Real Madrid, Juergen Klopp's Liverpool has another shot at lifting the European Cup for a sixth time on Saturday. Tottenham doesn't get its hands on trophies often. The north London club is contesting a Champions League final for the first time, the culmination of an improbable run that has shaken the soccer establishment.
"It is something that we have changed at the club," Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen said. "How people look at the club. How people think about us players at Spurs." Much has been made of Liverpool's 29-year domestic title drought — that came within a couple of points of ending three weeks ago — but Tottenham's stretches back exactly twice as long to 1961. Despite that, the club has made an unexpected march to the biggest game in club soccer without anything near the kind of lavish spending that clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have thrown — unsuccessfully — toward the same pursuit.
Manager Mauricio Pochettino hasn't even been able to sign a single player in the last two transfer windows — a first for a Premier League club — because of a frugal environment brought on by the club's recently completed $1 billion-plus new stadium. And yet he has just celebrated a fourth consecutive top-four finish in the Premier League by seeing off bigger spending rivals Arsenal and Manchester United.
Qualifying for the Champions League is seen as an achievement alone for a club which has only reached four second-tier European finals, mostly recently winning the now-defunct UEFA Cup in 1984. Since Pochettino took charge in 2014, Tottenham's net spend on transfers is estimated to be less than 30 million pounds ($38 million). That is around a sixth of Liverpool's net spend over the last five years.
"You can either take it that the manager has got full confidence in what he's worked with in the last two years, that he believes in you and doesn't want to bring in anyone to challenge for your position," Tottenham defender Danny Rose said before flying to Madrid. "Or you can take it that nobody wants to join Tottenham, the club hasn't been able to provide the funds to buy anyone."
That's not the accusation leveled at Liverpool owner John Henry, who also runs the Boston Red Sox in MLB. Klopp's answer to losing last season's final was jettisoning blundering goalkeeper Loris Karius and — briefly — breaking the goalkeeping transfer record to sign Alisson Becker from Roma for $85 million.
That final in Kiev was agony for Mohamed Salah, who was forced off in the opening half hour with a shoulder injury before Liverpool lost 3-1. The striker has struggled to live up to the 44 goals he scored last season, with a haul of 26 in all competitions in a front three alongside Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
Now the target is preventing Liverpool falling to a third Champions League final loss since the club's last victory in 2005. "Everything feels better this time around," Salah said, "and we have more experience than the last time."
That experience pushed Manchester City to the final day in the Premier League title race and amassed 97 points that would usually be enough to secure the crown. "If there was a prize for the biggest development in the last 12 months then it's going to the Reds, that's how it is," Klopp said. "The boys did a really amazing job, but we get that it's about winning competitions."
Pochettino faces the same jibes as Klopp about his inability to land a trophy. Although Klopp did win the Bundesliga twice at Borussia Dortmund before joining Liverpool in 2015 — but also lost a Champions League final with Dortmund and a Europa League final with Liverpool.
Pochettino, a former Argentina defender, is now in his third managerial role after Espanyol and Southampton, and still awaiting a winner's medal. Winning the biggest prize in Europe wouldn't be bad place to start for a manager so often linked with moves to bigger clubs.
"We can provide our fans and our people and our family, of course, the best happiness in football that you can provide," Pochettino said. "I think today to talk about individual thing is a little bit embarrassing and ashamed because you know I think I am not important."
But Pochettino has taken much of the credit for steering Tottenham to the final after collecting only one point from the opening three group stage games. Progress to the round of 16 was only secured thanks to a late equalizer by Lucas Moura at Barcelona in the group finale.
Even after Harry Kane limped out of the quarterfinals first leg against Manchester City, Tottenham found a way to cope without its leading striker. Fernando Llorente's goal — and a favorable stoppage-time VAR denial of Raheem Sterling's strike — clinched a frenzied aggregate win at City.
In the semifinals, Moura scored with almost the final kick of the second leg to complete a hat trick and overturn a 3-0 aggregate deficit. If Kane recovers from his ankle injury, Moura is likely to return to the bench.
"No one expected us to be here at start of competition," Rose said. "No one expected us to be here after the quarters or the semis." Liverpool also pulled off an improbable semifinal result to see off Barcelona by recovering from 3-0 down.
And form is on Klopp's side heading into Saturday's game at the Atletico Madrid stadium. Although Tottenham only finished two places below Liverpool in fourth, there was a 26-point gap between the sides and the north London club lost both league encounters 2-1.
"It's not that we were five levels above them," Klopp said. "But that's how a final actually should be."
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