KEIR RADNEDGE in MADRID: The difference between Liverpool losing the Champions League last year and winning it this year could come down to one position and one player.
Both Liverpool and Tottenham bring outstanding goalkeepers to the final in Madrid’s Estadio Metropolitano in Alisson Becker and Hugo Lloris. Alisson is 26 and has won no major trophies since coming to Europe with Roma three years ago while Lloris is 32 and won the World Cup last year with France.
The two players are a contrast: Alisson enjoys having the ball at his feet and the sweeper-keeper role which enables Liverpool to play a high defensive line in support of their high-energy Gegenpressing style. Lloris is barely adequate with the ball at his feet but his reflexes are finely sharpened when it comes to defying opposing strikers.
Above all, the most decisive difference is that Alisson is not Loris Karius.
Last year luckless Karius committed two of the most disastrous blunders by any goalkeeper in the Champions League final in the modern era.
Contrast in goal
Karius, ever since his arrival at Liverpool in 2016, had always appeared to be an accident waiting to happen.
Not so Alisson. The self-confidence of the Brazilian has been matched by the security of his all-round performances. That self-confidence has been enhanced by knowledge of the key roles he played in overturning Barcelona with Roma last year and then, this season, with Liverpool.
He has repaid Liverpool’s £65m investment with 21 Premier League clean sheets and the ‘golden gloves’ award as the tournament’s best goalkeeper.
Liverpool’s goalkeeping coach, John Achterberg, said: “When you come new into the Premier League, you always need time to settle in, but he picked it up quickly. There were a couple of areas where he needed to adapt but everything else was automatic. We worked in training on the things that could happen in terms of opponents’ aggression.
“His level was probably one of the best in the world. In the Champions League, he made some massive saves for us – a save against Napoli was worth qualification for the next stage – and then in the Barca game his match-winning saves got us the clean sheet we needed.
“He is really calm under pressure and makes good decisions. The calmness he gives to the team, the decision-making, is vital for a goalkeeper. He is always capable of a match-winning save and that steadies the team in front of him, knowing that if anything goes wrong he will be there.”
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino feels the same about Lloris even though the Frenchman had an erratic first half of the season. Off the pitch he was banned from driving after failing a drink-driving test and on the pitch he made several costly mistakes, most notably in the last minute of the Premier League defeat at Liverpool last month.
Lloris staged a superb display against Borussa Dortmund in the European second round and made an important penalty save against Manchester City in the quarter-finals. However ex-Tottenham striker Jermaine Jenas believes Spurs’ captain is past his best and has become a liability.
Jenas, a BBC TV analyst, said: “He has been brilliant at times and when people talk about the best keepers in the world, his name always comes up – but I just don’t feel like his performances over the past couple of seasons for Spurs reflect that status.
“Against Liverpool you could see the disconnect between Lloris and his defence. They always seem to be worried about when he is going to make his next error.”
Pochettino will not hear a word of criticism against his captain. But it was not always that way. When the Argentinian arrived at the club in 2014, one of his first jobs was to convince Lloris to stay in north London. Later Pochettino said he had “needed to change Lloris’s way of thinking about life and his profession.”
Now Pochettino describes the Frenchman as the best goalkeeper in the world and worthy of the captain’s armband because “he embodies our philosophy on the pitch: professionalism, attacking mentality, not afraid of a high line, an active and brave goalkeeper who is good on the ball.”
Lloris demonstrated his leadership qualities at half-time against Ajax in Amsterdam when Spurs were losing 2-0 and 3-0 on aggregate.
Pochettino said: “Hugo was the one who lifted the team before they went out on to the pitch. As I was leaving the dressing room, he was shouting: ‘We are close, we need to score one goal more, never give up and try because the moment we score we’re going to be in the tie.'”
Liverpool or Tottenham? Klopp or Pochettino? It could all come down to Alisson or Lloris.