A Final Word On The Champions League Semi-Finals

Mark Murphy had some degree of affection for more than one club in this week’s Champions League semi-finals, but would one win out, when they played each other?

The greatest Champions League semi-final comebacks? Tottenham’s, demonstrably.

Liverpool were 3-1 down with 36 minutes plus stoppage time left against Barcelona. But they were very audibly and visibly at home. They had the momentum of their rousing first-half display. And, their first leg against Barca had not been “a three-nil” game, just as their 2005 Champions League final first half against Milan was no “three-nil first half.” Spurs were 3-0 down with 35 minutes plus stoppage-time left against Ajax. But their first 135 minutes were a very “three-nil 145 minutes.” And they were very audibly and visibly away.

The games also proved that I could fully appreciate a football event as a genuine neutral… and BE genuinely neutral. I had doubted my ability to do or be either. Like Sky pundit and ex-Manchester United right-back Gary Neville, if for less combative reasons, I hadn’t cared if Manchester City or Liverpool won the Premier League. But I warmed to Liverpool, somehow. Vincent Kompany’s thunderstrike almost changed my view (because of the quality of goal and goalscorer). But not quite.

And for the Champions League semi-finals, Barcelona had Lionel Messi; my formative years watching European club football were Ajax-dominated, hence my “Arkwright Sportswear” classic 70s Ajax top. And I supported Spurs as a kid. So, I’d have “taken the positives” from any combination of finalists. And the biggest test of my neutrality this week came, unexpectedly, from BBC Radio Five Live’s Anfield coverage.

Those early European football-watching years were also anti-foreign commentary dominated. Tales of ‘swarthy’ dirty-tricksters, cynical fouls, off-the-ball skulduggery, diving and rolling around feigning injury. Teams full of Luis Suarez’s essentially. And too much of Ian Dennis’s first-half commentary recalled that era. Barcelona “won” each free-kick they got. Liverpool “won the ball there” each time they were penalised by the “Turkish” referee, who “certainly wasn’t a homer” and whose nationality was audibly more spat than said.

This was poor in itself but especially from Dennis, the best of Five Live’s impressive commentary roster. By half-time, therefore, I was rooting for Barca and was even disappointed that Suarez, whose sh*thousery deserved Dennis’s ire (ask Andrew Robertson), didn’t equalise when clean through shortly after the break.

But in the second half, Dennis redeemed himself…and more. It was impossible not to re-warm to Liverpool as they flew forward and to Dennis as he lost composure and voice in equal measure in full keeping with on-field events. By full-time, Dennis’s commentary was joyously, if hoarsely, conveying the enormity of the occasion. Doing his job magnificently. If only that could be said of co-commentator Alan Shearer, seconded from the telly to no obvious benefit.

In the (relative) post-match calm, presenter Kelly Cates asked Shearer to explain what Trent Alexander-Arnold did to create Liverpool’s winner. “I don’t think I can,” Alan whined. On taxpayers’ money. Specifically asked to do his specific job. And specifically not doing it. Well done Liverpool. Very well done, eventually, Ian Dennis. Fcuk off Alan Shearer.

The contrast between Shearer and John Murray and, unexpectedly, Chris Sutton’s co-commentary from Amsterdam was painful. Murray and Sutton displayed a pro-Premier League bias which you might expect from a UK national media outlet, although I’d understand any Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish-accented dissent here. (Sutton’s guttural screaming to herald Spurs’ goals and near-misses was way more coherent, and better radio, than Shearer’s ‘contributions’). But their bias didn’t shake my neutrality.

And when Spurs completed their somehow-Llorente-inspired comeback, I didn’t say “we” won, despite years as a fan. I’d stayed neutral as Ajax went three-up on aggregate and when Lucas Moura’s quickfire double tuned the tie sideways. A disbelieving “f**k off” on 95 minutes was the height of my emotion. I was fearful when 90 seconds’ more stoppage-time magically appeared. But that was fear of the injustice of anyone losing in that time, not particularly Spurs. And then I put my Ajax top back in the wardrobe and contemplated the long-awaited re-run of 1973’s Uefa Cup semi-final.

Because I stopped being a Spurs fan when the not-at-all-a-crook-oh-no Harry Redknapp became manager. I’d smiled when an early Redknapp Spurs retrieved a 4-4 draw from a late 4-2 deficit at Arsenal. Watching Spurs beat Manchester United 2-1 in their last game at the old Lane flickered emotions because that was also the result of my first Spurs match. But post-Redknapp, Spurs are just another team. And even a Champions League final can’t change that.

So, well done Murray and Sutton. Very well done, eventually, Tottenham. Fcuk off Harry Redknapp.