The UEFA Champions League final. This is the grandest stage in club football worldwide. The Champions League is a competition synonymous with Liverpool Football Club and many a European night, not least a couple this season, live long in the memory of most Kopites. Having already won the European Cup five times we headed to Ukraine this weekend hoping to win our sixth against a Real Madrid team who are record holders and have won ol’ big ears three times in the last four years. Would they be able to make it four in five and three in a row, or could Liverpool do the unthinkable?
In order to write his name once again the history books, Zinedine Zidane chose a familiar side with one notable absence. Keylor Navas was protected by a back four consisting of Marcelo, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane and Dani Carvajal. Casemiro would shield them while allowing Toni Kroos and Luka Modric to retain possession in midfield. At the tip of this sparkling diamond was Isco, who had the pleasure of supplying Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo. Despite scoring five in his last eight games Gareth Bale would only be deemed good enough for the bench as was Marco Asensio, another who would have felt hard done by for missing out on this showpiece occasion.
As for Jurgen Klopp he too had a full compliment to pick from, apart from Alex Oxalde-Chamberlain for obvious reasons. The backline now rolls off the tongue; Karius in goal, Alexander-Arnold right back, Robertson left back, Lovren and Van Dijk at centre half. Gini Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner would retain their places in midfield, despite the returning Emre Can who made the bench. Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah all managed to avoid mischief in training to start this game.
Liverpool flew out of the blocks and were controlling the opening stages of the game. We played with frightening pace going forward and it was clear that the opposition were fearful of what was in store for them on this fine Saturday evening. They hardly came forward and looked to do a job on Salah whenever they could. Even in the opening twenty minutes he was clearly a target for the Real defence. He remained an outlet though, and every time Liverpool came forward it was the Egyptian who we were looking for. He wasn’t involved in the first opportunity of the game for Liverpool though, when Alexander-Arnold pounced on a loose ball in the area from a Firmino shot blocked by Ramos. The young right back shot low but Navas got down well through a crowd of bodies to save low to his right.
It took Los Blancos a while to settle but they did eventually start to create chances. On eighteen minutes Carvajal nicked the ball off the toe of Robertson in midfield when the left back pushed too high forward. He played in Ronaldo who was now clear in the box. When the Portuguese idol usually scores he blazed his shot over Karius’ bar. It was a warning for Liverpool but still Real’s first and only real attempt on goal. It wouldn’t matter however as the game had its first real flashpoint on twenty six minutes.
Mo Salah took a high ball down on the halfway line and tried to advance on the defence. He was met by Sergio Ramos and the two engaged in a tussle before both falling to the floor. The referee allowed play to go on but Salah didn’t get up. He was down holding his shoulder as the Liverpool medical team ran to his aid. After a couple of minutes attention and leaving the pitch Salah did make it back. However, he would only last for four more minutes before going down again. This time, in tears, it was obvious he couldn’t continue. Replays of the tussle clearly show Ramos pulling Salah’s arm underneath his body as the two hit the deck. Whether he meant to injure the Liverpool hitman or not is something only he will really know but his actions in the immediate aftermath showed little remorse.
Salah was replaced by Adam Lallana, a man with his own injury problems this season, and Sadio Mane was switched to the right hand side. Mane now had to be the outlet that Salah was previously, he offers more defensively than Salah and his instinct took over. Regardless of the tactical tweaks made by Klopp to lessen the impact of losing the forty four goal winger, Liverpool had well and truly had the wind knocked out of their sails. The players were visibly affected at losing their talisman as was the crowd, who, for the remainder of the half, had the energy sucked out of them. Madrid though had been buoyed at seeing the greatest threat to their European crown lose the pitch. He had caused them problems in this half and they were seemingly very worried by his presence. They began to come forward with more purpose and freedom, safe in the knowledge that Liverpool had lost their out ball.
Madrid would have an injury issue of their own four minutes after the exit of Salah. Carvajal attacked down the right and played a back heel to Ronaldo, who was unable to pick up possession. Carvajal went down and began to cry having seemed to have picked up an injury of some sort. Tears and an innocuous act usually mean trouble, and he would have to replaced by Nacho.
Real’s dominance was mostly sterile but, on forty two minutes, they would have the ball in the back of the net. A cross into the box by Nacho was met by the head of Ronaldo. His attempt was saved by Karius, who parried straight into the path of Benzema. The Frenchman reacted superbly to slot into the empty net as Karius lay prone, but had strayed inches offside and the goal was chalked off. It would be the final meaningful attempt of the half as the referee called time minutes later. Zinedine Zidane’s side had smelled blood in the closing stages of the half and he would have been keen for them to capitalise as they always do on such situations. Jurgen Klopp will have wanted his players to regain their heads. The loss of Salah had obviously devastated his side but they need to compose themselves. Mane needed to sit narrower and higher up the pitch in order to be effective. We needed to start the second half as we started the first.
The second period began with both teams contesting a much tighter match. Both sides looked level in terms of momentum and neither could be separated early on. Liverpool’s back four had coped admirably with Real Madrid’s attacking line, with Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold both starring as usual. It is hard sometimes to remember that Alexander-Arnold is just nineteen years old as he shows so much maturity for someone so young. A special mention should also go to Dejan Lovren. He has been pilloried this season, no less than by me, but he was absolutely sensational throughout tonight. Maybe there is hope for him yet.
Despite the close proximity in ascendancy in this game, it was Real who would carve out the first big chance of the half. Two minutes after the break they came forward. Marcelo tried to find Benzema on the edge of the box but Lallana managed to cut it out. Confusion in the area saw the loose ball fall to an open Isco, who only had the ‘keeper to beat from twelve yards out. With Karius advancing at speed Isco hit the bouncing ball but was denied by the crossbar. Five minutes later though Liverpool’s luck ran out. Toni Kroos played a ball over the top of the defence for Benzema to run onto. Karius was first to it though and gathered the loose ball. He failed to take his time though and try to roll the ball out quickly. However, Benzema read the ‘keeper’s intentions and threw a foot out to block the roll. Karius rolled the ball straight at Benzema’s foot and the ball trickled into the net. Karius protested for obstruction but the referee waved for a goal. Liverpool were behind in the most bizarre and, for Karius at least, cruellest of circumstances.
Real then began their usual tricks, with the likes of Ramos throwing themselves to the floor at any opportunity. These would usually pay off but, on fifty five minutes, Liverpool gained a corner after Milner’s cross was flicked away by Varane. Milner took the corner himself and Lovren rose high above Varane to head the ball back into the six yard box. As Navas came out to punch the ball Mane beat him to it to prod the ball into the open net. Three quarters of the stadium erupted as Mane wheeled away in celebration with no one more relieved than Loris Karius.
Real responded by immediately retaking the initiative. Isco forced Karius into a big save moments after Liverpool drew level in what was to be his last act on the pitch. He would be replaced by Gareth Bale and, from there, the game would change without anyone even realising it.
On sixty two minutes Casemiro played a ball out to the left wing for Marcelo. The Brazilian controlled well before cutting back onto his right foot. He chipped a ball into the edge of the box, seemingly for no one. However, just two minutes after coming on, Gareth Bale flung himself into the air and produced one of the most spectacular goals you will ever see in a Champions League final. Bale scored with an overhead kick from the edge of the box, which Loris Karius could only watch fly into his top corner despairingly. This was a goal of the highest quality and one with will should go down as the best scored in any Champions League final. If Real Madrid went ahead in outrageous circumstances then they retook the lead in sublime fashion.
The reaction from Liverpool was encouraging. We started to forage ahead again and Sadio Mane seemed clean through from a ball over the top by Lovren just six minute later but it was cut out by Ramos fantastically. Minutes later Mane came forward again from the right. He came inside and lost Ramos before letting fly. Navas dived but got nowhere, and would have been delighted to see the ball hit the foot of the post before bouncing away. Real tried to take advantage of Liverpool’s search for another equaliser though. Kroos played in Ronaldo over the top and he looked certain to score. As he bore down on goal and was imminently pulling the trigger, Robertson got back superbly to take the ball of his toe and deny him his obligatory goal. The game was now end-to-end and it looked like more goals were on offer, with the next being decisive. That would indeed be the case and it would again come in a truly peculiar way.
On eighty two minutes Marcelo switched the ball from right to left for Bale. The Welshman advanced without challenge before letting rip from twenty five yards. It was straight at Loris Karius and it looked like the ‘keeper would catch the ball easily. However, after looking like he had first selected to punch to shot, Karius tried to catch it. The result was the ball slipping right through his hands and into the back of the net. The Madrid end exploded again as Karius struggled to his feet. It was a howler that would cost Liverpool dear.
With the game over competitively, it was Real who continued to push forward. First Bale was clean through but was denied by the flying leg of Lovren brilliantly. Then, in stoppage time, Ronaldo was denied again, this time by a rogue pitch invader. He was clearly unhappy but it didn’t matter in the end. The referee blew his whistle not long after, declaring Real Madrid champions of Europe for a thirteenth time in doing so. Liverpool would not have a fairytale ending to this Cinderella story.
It’s hard to take losing in such a cruel way. There were plenty of tears at the final whistle, justifiably so in the case of Loris Karius. He cut a lonely and sad figure as he walked past the Liverpool end holding his hands up in apology, appearing inconsolable. Losing this way, in these circumstances, is excruciating. But there are certainly positives to take. Real Madrid, reigning kings of Europe, were on the ropes for the opening half an hour and had to take our danger man out of the game to take some sort of control. After going ahead we pegged them back immediately and, again, had them reeling for five or so minutes. It took two massive mistakes by our goalkeeper to for them to win this game. Without those and the injury of Mo Salah, who knows how it might have turned out. One thing is for sure though and that is that Liverpool, despite this setback, are heading in the right direction.