Liverpool and Real Madrid might be two of the most prestigious names in European football history, but in the contemporary context there’s a huge gap.
This was only the second season in eight years that Liverpool were playing Champions League football and the first time since 2009 that they had made it out of the group stages.
Of the 18 man squad for the final, only Mohamed Salah, James Milner and Emre Can had played a Champions League knockout game before this season. And Can’s previous experience amounted to a single game, a dead rubber second leg for Bayer Leverkusen against PSG, in which he was sent off.
Contrast that to Real Madrid, who played the same starting XI as last year’s resounding victory over Juventus, and a squad that’s been the backbone for the most prolonged spell of European domination since their team of the 1950s.
Liverpool’s supporters didn’t travel 1,700 miles just for the experience. They came to win.
Saturday was a beautiful day in Kyiv. In a park twenty minutes from the stadium, the statue of Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s most celebrated literary figure, was surrounded by dozens of Liverpool banners.
Thousands of fans had been drinking all day, emptying the local shops of their 50p beers, always to the chorus of the “Allez, Allez, Allez” chant that will forever be associated with this cup run.
Call it confidence, arrogance or delusion but there was a belief they were going to see their team achieve something special in the Ukrainian capital.
There was a strong argument they had every right to believe. In their respective leagues, there was only one point between the two. Liverpool made the final in a more convincing manner than their opponents, who posed more questions than answers against Juventus and Bayern Munich.
Jurgen Klopp’s team broke goal-scoring records and won hearts and minds due to the astonishing attacking blitzes that downed Porto, Manchester City and Roma. City in particular have played the most cohesive and emphatic football this season, by a distance – if them, why not Madrid?
So much of that was due to Mohamed Salah.
Individually, his season has arguably been the most compelling by anyone, anywhere since the emergence of Messi & Ronaldo a decade ago.
Channel 4 aired a documentary about him earlier in the week, such is the magnetism of his story. Reflected by the chants to the tune of James’ ‘Sit Down’ and prevalence of Salah shirts all over Kyiv – far more than any other player – he’s an instant Merseyside hero.
Not only did his individual brilliance provide many of the key moments that took Liverpool to this date with destiny, but he immeasurably improved the team around him.
With an almost extrasensory understanding with Sadio Mane & Roberto Firmino, he also assumed his role within the pressing system that so often disorientated opponents.
So good was this collective context that it helped to dissipate the logical concerns about their opponents – their experience, their fortitude, the vastly superior individual quality, their depth.
Could Madrid cope with a team that will come at them so aggressively? Atletico Madrid and Juventus were different tests entirely. Seldom have Zidane’s European invincibles played a team quite like this.
The first twenty minutes
Kyiv. The conclusion of everything that Liverpool had worked for.
The noise was deafening as Liverpool’s fans transformed the Olympiskiy’s ‘pivnich’ into a kind of mobile makeshift Kop. The concourses were frenzied, intoxicated with anticipation. There is nothing like the prestige of the European Cup: nobody was in any doubt of the magnitude of this game.
Liverpool started well enough. Raphael Varane was forced into last-ditch mode three times. Toni Kroos uncharacteristically booted the ball out of play. Salah was able to get on the ball and get in behind Marcelo, looking at his best and linking up well with Firmino.
It’s not the most brutally effective, out-of-the-traps football they’ve played this season. But they pressed well. Asked questions. Weren’t overawed. Didn’t allow Madrid to find any rhythm. There was always the potential for that devastating, irresistible next gear. “Allez, Allez, Allez” rung out.
This looked like the final promised.
But it was only to be a hint.
Because then it happened. Silence from the other end of the stadium. Prone on the floor, a body in a red shirt.
And that, after 24 minutes, was that.
Just as it sucker-punched the team, Liverpool’s support were winded. There was a defiant, whimpering cry of the Mo Salah chant as he left the pitch. But you felt their optimism drain instantly.
Drawing against Real Madrid in a European final at half-time is not a bad position to be in, but it the vibe was probably more akin to being 3-0 down against Milan. They knew.
Sergio Ramos’ role in Salah’s downfall
Following the ball, in the stadium I didn’t know what happened, but I might have guessed: Sergio Ramos.
A player of blacks, whites and greys.
The black and white are his records and achievements. Nobody has lifted more European Cups as Real Madrid captain. Nobody has picked up more red cards in the history of Spanish football, many of which for violent and dangerous challenges, or by lashing out.
Scoring in two finals, including a last-minute equaliser, he has been one of Madrid’s most influential players as they have won four Champions Leagues in five years. Madrid have only won two league titles to Barcelona’s six in the last nine years. His defensive lapses have often cost his team this season as they feebly failed to defend last season’s title.
The grey is how we interpret such indisputables. And it’s within this prism that his challenge on Salah must be viewed: Cynically and intentionally overstepping the mark / whatever it takes to win / an unfortunate coming together / “leaving something on him” ? Choose.
A serial winner. A scumbag. There’s enough compelling evidence for whatever position, but it doesn’t have to be binary.
The other seventy
Salah’s replacement was Adam Lallana, who has lacked match fitness and played fewer than 400 minutes all season.
Not only did they lose the individual most likely to make a difference, but they lost the collective structure that elevated them to more than the sum of their parts: the 4-3-3 that has been so devastatingly effective throughout this competition.
Their co-ordinated pressing was lost. Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino were isolated, working hard but frustrated and making late challenges. Marcelo was free to drive forward without the threat that was so potent (he assisted both Bale goals). Toni Kroos and Luka Modric were obliged to set the tempo and stepped up.
With one injury, Liverpool go from a team that can hope to take the game to Madrid, to the scrappy and technically limited underdogs that Diego Torres, Vicente del Bosque and the Madrid-based media portrayed them as. Their limitations were laid bare, every Madrid player of higher quality than their Liverpool counterpart.
It resembles the mismatch one might have imagined had last season’s fourth-placed Liverpool, yet to sign Salah and stun the world with this season’s overwhelming displays, played last season’s all-conquering Real Madrid.
Of recent finals, it was most similar to Chelsea against Bayern Munich, where only a combination of tireless work, good fortune and last-ditch defending might, somehow, prevail against the superior, dominant opposition.
To Liverpool’s credit, all of their players carried out this spec. Except for spectacularly, gut-wrenchingly, one of them: Loris Karius.
So what did it tell us?
This is not to delegitimise Madrid’s victory. They were worthy winners on the night.
Depth is an important part of the game and the difference between the two was shown in stark detail here. But we already know that.
We know that Gareth Bale, Madrid’s record signing and until relatively recently the most expensive player in the world, can make an impact from the bench. We know that Liverpool’s options are lacking, and that Salah is an important player. We know which team has the better players.
So it played out like a futile, pointless exercise. And it should have been anything but. Madrid’s experience, guile and sheer quality may well have won out anyway, perhaps probably would have after weathering the first 20 minutes.
But we’ll never know. Salah’s remarkable season and, with it, Liverpool’s campaign were crushed under the weight of a shithouse Sergio Ramos challenge. They beat a Liverpool, but they were denied the opportunity to beat this Liverpool.
It’s a cruel twist of fate that such a season has been robbed of a truly satisfying conclusion, an eternal “what if?” hanging over it. Not the first, this will be another part of this tournament’s rich tradition of devastating defeats: Atletico Madrid in 1974, 2014, 2016. Leeds United in 1975. Arsenal in 2006.
This team still together and on the ascendancy with exciting imminent arrivals, there will be opportunities to put this right.
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