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A final challenge for two esteemed goalkeepers
ALISSON Becker became the world's most expensive goalkeeper last summer just as Hugo Lloris was celebrating the peak of his professional football career.
When Becker posed for pictures at Liverpool's Melwood training ground after completing a £66.8 million (S$116.1 million) transfer from Italian club Roma last July, Lloris was still basking in the after-glow of lifting the Fifa World Cup, five days after captaining France to a 4-2 win over Croatia in the final in Moscow.
Yet neither enjoyed the moment for long. Less than three weeks after Liverpool coughed up the big bucks for Becker (who's more commonly known by his first name Alisson), Chelsea added another £4.8 million on top of that record fee to sign Kepa Arrizabalaga.
And Lloris has spoken since about the "emptiness" he felt as soon as the dust had settled from Moscow. "I remember I needed one day to stay in bed and just stop," said the 32-year-old Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper. "I had to disconnect a little bit."
Alisson, meanwhile, is looking to cap a remarkable debut season in England by winning the same trophy that the Reds surrendered to Real Madrid a year ago, largely due to the mistakes of his predecessor, Loris Karius.
For both Alisson and Lloris, the road to Madrid - the host of this weekend's Champions League final - has not been smooth.
Lloris, in particular, began his season with a drink-driving charge in August that earned him a £50,000 fine and a 20-month ban from driving.
By the end of the Champions League final between Spurs and Liverpool on Saturday (Sunday 3am kick-off, Singapore time), Lloris might well have won the sport's greatest prize for his club, 10 months after claiming the most prestigious one for his country.
"It was an accident that serves as a lesson," said Lloris of his drink-driving incident. "I made a mistake."
On the pitch, he committed his fair share of errors too, enough of them to put his place in his team's starting line-up in doubt. To be fair, he also chipped in with some pivotal saves in key matches, without which Spurs might have missed out on qualifying for next season's Champions League, let alone winning this year's trophy.
In the Champions League, there was the man-of-the-match display against Borussia Dortmund in the Round of 16. In the quarter-finals, he made an early save from Sergio Aguero's penalty that would have given Manchester City a vital away goal and control of the two-legged tie. But Lloris also failed to prevent Barcelona from winning 4-2 at Wembley, and he also received a red card in the game against PSV Eindhoven. With Spurs one man short, they conceded a late equaliser to the Dutch side.
"During a season, you know there are always highs and lows," Lloris said earlier this week. "You just have to try to be ready to be at your best in the most important moments."
When Lloris signed for Tottenham back in 2012, some critics at the time questioned why France's captain - and a goalkeeper widely regarded as one of the most promising in the world - was joining a team with its feet firmly planted in the Europa League.
(The Europa League is widely regarded as a second-tier competition, given that it involves teams that finish lower in their respective league tables.)
"If I comment, it will echo the other side of the Channel," said France's sceptical coach Didier Deschamps.
A key trait
And perhaps Lloris would have left were it not for the arrival of Mauricio Pochettino as Spurs manager, with whom he has since forged a close bond. "Hugo is one of the best keepers in the world," Pochettino said in October last year. "He's our captain and there's no doubts about him."
Supporting, rather than selling, struggling players has been a key trait of Pochettino's time at Spurs, in part perhaps, because the club's financial limitations have given him little choice.
But Liverpool could afford to be more ruthless in its transfer dealings, even if the club identified Alisson as a potential signing months before Karius' blunders in goal.
The younger brother of Muriel, who plays in goal for Belenenses in Portugal's Primeira Liga, Alisson, along with Virgil van Dijk, has transformed Liverpool's defence into the best in the English Premier League. "If I knew he was this good, I would have paid double," said Reds manager Jurgen Klopp in December, after Alisson's late save against Napoli prevented Liverpool from an early exit in the Champions League.
The 26-year-old Brazilian has made some mistakes too, of course. Against Leicester City last September, he was robbed of the ball by Kelechi Iheanacho. And against Manchester United in December at Anfield, his fumble allowed Jesse Lingard to score.
But Alisson retained the confidence of both Klopp and the Liverpool fans as they believed in his talent.
After enduring testing seasons, only one of these two esteemed goalkeepers can go on to enjoy a final flourish in the Spanish capital and lift European club football's most prestigious trophy. AFP