Champions League Review

Oliver Miller reports from the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv on a Champions League campaign that should be viewed with pride rather than sorrow.

They travelled via Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw. Some went through Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin. Others opted for Paris, Istanbul and even Dubai. Whilst some supporters chose to stay on land and hopped on a bus for a week long trip. What ever it took, they had to be there. However, in reality, Liverpool’s journey to the Champions League Final began in Hoffenheim, Germany in August of last year.

On that midsummers evening in a glorious picturesque town in South-West Germany, few could have believed how the following nine months would unfold. Despite Liverpool’s history in European competitions, on this occasion they were just content to be back in the top tier – even if that did involve an early play-off round in late August. “Liverpool FC, European royalty,” proclaimed one of the club 100’s of banners and flags on show on Saturday. The official UEFA programme for the final put it nicely, stating: “the aristocrats entered via the service door.”

The adventure that the fans and players had been on together, was more exciting than anything that had gone before. Regular victories by four or five goals, dynamic play to stake a claim as one of the most attractive yet efficient sides in the land and a togetherness unique around Europe. Even if Liverpool hadn’t expected to reach this year’s final of the Champions League, they certainly deserved to.

From Europe’s very western edge to its eastern frontier, Liverpool supporters arrived in Kyiv for a single match that many of them didn’t even have tickets for. Fan groups from around the world joined in, travelling thousands of miles with vague promises of a small hostel bed, or a native’s floorboard, or nothing at all. Because it was the last step of the journey, and they wanted to take it together.

The spectacular scene prior to kick-off as the Champions League anthem played

Kyiv – a venue derided for its geographical location, turned out to be a host city that surpassed all expectations – it became filled with flags and faith and it fully absorbed the fun. The various fan parks, including UEFA’s Champions Village, was in celebratory mood. No trophy had been won yet but the sense of achievement of getting there – particularly of those from Merseyside – was apparent and rewarded with a beer and a song.

The ninety minutes of football are normally completely separate to the happenings off the pitch. Pre-match there was little talk of tactics, player’s forms or even game plans, it was all celebratory – a sense of what will be, will be. It was more of a case of How have you got here? and Where are you staying? It was footballing experience different to many others and the best, many have said, that they have been part of. Although no trophies are ever won by singing and no goal is awarded on the basis of how many supporters wanted it to be scored; you wouldn’t have thought that on Saturday as Liverpool fans took over Schevchenko Park.

The rather unique aspect about Liverpool – especially Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool – is that they embrace the effervescence of their supporters. Unlike Real Madrid whose players entered the NSC Olimpiskiy stadium, headphones on, shutters down, Liverpool want to move and they want to be moved. The connection is key, they want to stun and laugh at the end given the ridiculousness of it all. Real are about them and them alone, whereas Liverpool are about us.

The difference in playing styles is very much derived from such beliefs. Real-entness Madrid are a winning machine; they control the game, drawing the sting, playing the ball and not the occasion. Few of their games are classics. Liverpool, by contrast, play with a sense of madness. What control? They play the occasion, and sometimes to their own detriment, but then again they reached a Champions League final by doing so.

Thousands of Liverpool fans made their way to Kyiv from Merseyside and beyond

The role of the fans is key to Liverpool’s exaggerated footballing approach. From Sevilla, to Porto, from Manchester to Rome – as the now famous chant goes – Liverpool gave little thought to the opposition but played their own game, a ferocious concoction of blood and thunder. It can lead to scorelines of 5-1, 3-3, 5-2, 4-2, 3-0, 7-0, but that only makes the fans love the club that bit more. It all adds to the adventure.

The opening exchanges in Kyiv very much resembled the calm and serene Real against the up-and-at-them Liverpool. Dominated the early possession, Liverpool looked set for an early goal. Trent Alexander-Arnold had a shot saved, the reaction was not the usual deflation but rather a roar of intent from those 100 metres away at the other side of the stadium.

Liverpool’s progress this season is down to a number of factors; a sturdier defence –the addition of Virgil Van Dijk being crucial –, a midfield trio that are more and more confident with being dominant centrally and able to quickly instigate attacks, and also a front three that would strike fear into the meanest of defences. The issue for Liverpool was that all three started to unravel after 30 minutes in Kyiv.

If Mohamed Salah would have stayed on the pitch, Liverpool would still not have been victorious. His impact before receiving the shoulder injury brought about by a tackle from Sergio Ramos was not as lively as usual. In fact, of Liverpool’s front three, he was the quietest in the opening half hour. His departure affected Liverpool physiologically more than in terms of a physical presence. The fans – and players – were clearly devastated that the main man of Liverpool’s campaign would be exiting the final early; it affected everyone, including Madrid.

If Salah’s departure had flattened Liverpool, then Loris Karius well and truly squashed them. It is difficult to single out players when watching Klopp’s Liverpool, as it is all about the collective. But on this occasion there was nowhere to look other than Karius for the reason as to why Liverpool lost the final.

The Liverpool goalkeeper’s first mistake – the worst of the two because it was a conscious decision – gifted Karim Benzema another Champions League goal, becoming the third highest goalscorer in the competition. Despite the magnitude of Karius’ error, for a while it looked as if it had lifted Liverpool from a slight slumber. Sadio Mane – one of Liverpool’s best players on the night alongside Andy Robertson – prodded the ball into the net after a Dejan Lovren header. The hope returned.

The madness of it all encapsulated Liverpool’s season: shooting themselves in the foot but then coming back, and not necessarily in that order. Liverpool’s energy was starting to re-emerge in what was far from one of their best displays of the season, partly down to having two weeks without competitive action, the front three not being quite at their best and, also, playing against Real Madrid.

In fact, it would not be outlandish to say that the quality of the match was not fitting of the occasion. Yes there was drama, tension and entertainment, but as is so often the case in finals, the quality was not the highest.

There was, however a moment of brilliance. The greatest goal in a Champions League final, beating Zinedine Zidane’s in 2002 and Mario Manduzkic’s last season. Gareth Bale had been on the pitch for less than three minutes when he took the game, final and trophy away from Liverpool. The manner in which he did so was exquisite. An overhead kick full of high-quality technique and imagination and ambition. Regardless of the goalscorer, and the team for whom he had scored, everyone in the stadium saw their jaws drop to the concrete flooring. “Un golazo!!” as one Spanish broadcaster exclaimed next to me.

If the game had not been concluded by Bale’s sublime act, then it was by another Karius error. Bale’s speculative shot was straight towards the German but still the ball found the net. Hearts sank for Karius. Making mistakes like that on this stage is difficult, he must be admired for doing the difficult thing of standing up and apologising – both to the travelling fans at full-time and over the internet the following day. Karius needs to be consoled and then dropped. It is impossible for him to return.

The match ended with more drama; a pitch invader preventing Cristiano Ronaldo from potentially scoring his in the final. However, he was not to be upstaged and ensured that he grabbed the headlines by admitting post-match that his immediate future could well lie outside of Madrid.

With the final whistle, came the annual scene of Madrid players celebrating with ‘Old Big Ears’; pyrotechnics went off and eventually, after lifting themselves of the pitch to applaud their supporters and collect their runners-up medals, so did the Liverpool players.

Liverpool players applauded their fans after the final whistle

The match kind of summed up Liverpool this season. Disbelief has become the overriding emotion throughout their travels around the continent during the past nine months. And for the first time, in as many months, Liverpool supporters wanted to return home straight away once the confetti had settled on the Olimpiskiy pitch – they were tired and wanted their bed. However, for many that wouldn’t happen for some days to come.

It is difficult to lose a final, let alone the biggest one in the club game. But add to that the genuine belief of the players and supporters, the lengths that many have had to endure to arrive in Kyiv it was a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that it was down to Liverpool more so than their opponents, only made it harder.

As I wrote here last week, it was Madrid’s experience that pushed them over the line. In many ways they were gifted the trophy, continuing their somewhat ‘lucky’ run to three consecutive Champions League titles. Luck plays a part but their success also comes from hard work, talent and a financial advantage that is the envy of the footballing world. It is hard to recall too many excellent Madrid performances over the past three years, the distance between themselves and Barcelona in this season’s La Liga showed they lack consistency but clearly thrive in the Cup.

The night had seen plenty of tears – an emotional ending to Liverpool’s emotional season. It is the price to be paid when following Klopp’s Liverpool; there will be ups and downs but together, progress will be made. The progress this season has been extraordinary, at the start of it all no one would have predicted Liverpool reaching their eighth European Cup final. But they deservedly did and the journey will be savoured.