16 Conclusions on the Champions League final: Liverpool 0 Real Madrid 1

Date published: Monday 30th May 2022 8:08 - Matthew Stead

Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson is consoled by Jurgen Klopp

Real Madrid came with Thibaut Courtois and a plan. Liverpool stumbled at the worst moment in a phenomenal season. UEFA should be ashamed.

 

1) There was a reason Jurgen Klopp never spoke about the Quadruple in any terms other than to downplay its likelihood and talk up the remarkable position a club would be in for it to remain a genuine possibility in late May. It was never a topic of public discussion for his players and staff. Liverpool were always likely to fall at a hurdle they themselves did not place. The Premier League slipped through their grasp and now the Champions League has eluded them, both in the closing sprint. The two domestic cups represent hollow consolations but tangible proof of success from a ludicrous season in which the goalposts have regularly been moved.

Theirs is only a failure to achieve something entirely unique, an inability to cross a line no team ever had before them, an impotence against the constant shift in expectations – from the pre-season hope of stabilisation and Champions League qualification, to the forlorn wish that the European Cup be integrated into a Treble. The disappointment for Liverpool is palpable but born of what could have been, rather than what should have been. It came down to fine margins in the end: slight imperfections and opposition brilliance. But in no way has this been the aborted campaign some have predictably tried to paint it as already.

“We only cause ourselves problems as human beings,” Klopp said recently. “‘Don’t come home without a quadruple,’ for example – then you will never be happy.” Liverpool won’t be in the immediate aftermath of defeat in Paris. Nor should they be. Losing four times in a 63-game season and missing out on the biggest prizes should sting. But once the dust settles they can look back with pride and fondness on 10 months during which they flirted with the unprecedented and ended with the solace of two more trophies. They will know to block out the noise and not take it for granted.

 

2) Klopp would be mistaken if he puts this down to Real Madrid having “all the f**king luck” again, mind. That was his “slightly drunk”, chanted and viral reaction to defeat against the Spaniards in their last Champions League final defeat. Mo Salah’s first-half injury derailed Liverpool and the travails of Loris Karius entirely toppled them. There was no flashpoint when facing the same side four years later, no one factor they could point to as proof of some divine intervention against them. Liverpool were beaten and it was completely fair. Their complaints can only be introspective.

In 330 minutes across three cup finals this season, the Reds have failed to score. That is neither coincidence nor misfortune, but winning two of those games in a penalty shoot-out and losing the other to a single second-half goal emphasises how fine the line is between success and failure at this level. They have sought more control and efficiency in these games but that is no guarantee of victory. Striking that balance is one of few things Klopp has not consistently managed at Anfield; the German has lost four finals and won five, with only the 2019 Champions League being won in normal time. That is a middling record for a sensational reign.

Jurgen Klopp watches Liverpool lose the Champions League final.

 

3) The other side to that coin is Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti, who had a clear and coherent game plan which was carried out diligently. As always, it required a degree of luck and some impeccable performances, but the Spaniards were far better at controlling what they could.  The Liverpool full-backs were nullified, the space in which their forwards were able to operate was cramped by a low defensive block and the midfield was trusted to exert authority in the crucial moments.

Their first half was almost perfect as they withstood an eventual attacking barrage and converted their only chance, only for the fourth official and VAR to intervene. Not to be deterred, they continued on a similar track to score the winner within the hour and defend that lead superbly for the remaining 30 minutes. It was sublime game management from a masterful coach of an almost unfairly tactically intelligent squad.

 

4) Ancelotti is the first manager to win the Champions League four times, adding to his distinctive completion of the Big Five Leagues challenge from earlier this season in claiming Serie A, Premier League, Ligue Un, Bundesliga and La Liga titles. His 100th victory in the competition – five behind leader Sir Alex Ferguson – won him another European Cup 19 years after his first, breaking the record of a 15-year gap previously held by Jupp Heynckes. For a coach so often reduced to either a walking eyebrow or a vibes merchant, his achievements are singularly brilliant yet somehow underrated. His acumen is unrivalled and his personable approach remains breathtakingly effective. No ordinary manager could have inherited a Real Madrid side which finished second in La Liga and was thoroughly outclassed by Chelsea in last season’s Champions League, add only David Alaba and Eduardo Camavinga and win the Double. The idea that Ancelotti is some sort of gold-plated Harry Redknapp, a feel-good boss who leaves dressing room tactics boards untouched and just lets the players figure it out, needs updating. He is one of the absolute greatest.

 

5) This might also have been the single toughest run ever in the Champions League knockout stages. Those unfathomable comebacks against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City fed into the imperious attitude of a squad which never knows it’s beaten. That was put to use against Liverpool to ride out early pressure and see out that final half an hour with relatively little anxiety. Many supporters and teams relish kinder draws; Real Madrid have relied on iron sharpening iron since the group stage. Liverpool faced good teams in Inter Milan, Benfica and Villarreal but perhaps found it less natural to perform at the necessary higher standard.

 

6) But the idea that this was somehow predestined persists. This final was prefaced by a strange sense of two Goliaths trying to cast themselves as the underdog David. Karim Benzema suggested Liverpool “think they already won the game” in the build-up, while Klopp referred to Real as “massive favourites” and the local media claimed his team talk was ‘already delivered’ when Los Blancos players wore shirts referencing their aim to win a 14th European Cup after the semi-final.

Thibaut Courtois dispatched with the transparent nonsense to declare that “Real Madrid, when they play a final, they win it”. The Belgian was speaking from experience as a losing finalist with Atletico in 2014 and that sense of fate started to pervade the match with every save. Some were routine but a couple were spectacular: tipping Sadio Mane’s first-half effort onto the post and single-handedly scuppering Mo Salah’s revenge mission were particular and literal highlights. He was a worthy man-of-the-match by a distance with a performance that underlined the importance of belief and conceptualising success. Courtois felt the outcome was predetermined and he helped make it so. It was one of the great individual Champions League final showings.

 


Courtois: ‘Put respect on my name’ after denying Liverpool in Champions League final


 

7) Many of those early Liverpool opportunities originated from patient, careful moves: delicate one-twos between Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right, or quick passes into the feet of Mane and Diaz. They did not seem like particularly typical patterns of play from the Reds, until Ibrahima Konate did his best Joel Matip impersonation by striding out of defence to break the lines and play it wide to Alexander-Arnold, whose whipped cross found Salah’s head and forced another save.

Konate was sublime and his display should not be lost in the rubble. Klopp showed immense faith in the Frenchman to choose comfortably the least experienced Champions League player on either side to start when Matip would have been the forgivable choice. Konate repaid that trust with some majestic one-versus-one defending against Vinicius Junior, who was first shown wide and then pickpocketed before later being dispossessed with an inch-perfect slide tackle on the edge of the Liverpool area. Vinicius did beat him once but Jordan Henderson was in to cover brilliantly.

When Klopp is ready to examine this game, he will consider the specific decision to pick Konate, as well as the process by which he has been seamlessly embedded into the side, a rousing success.

 

8) Liverpool’s set-pieces were atrocious. Brendan Rodgers might consider asking his former side to rock up at Leicester and put a few of those deliveries in, purely for the subsequent confidence boost as Ricardo Pereira heads every ball clear as the first man. Courtois gleefully welcomed each out-swinging corner and the Reds wasted some free-kicks in notable areas. Their surprising ineptitude in dead-ball situations rather exposed the limitations of their build-up in open play. With one potent weapon blunted, Real only had to focus on keeping their shape and composure under pressure.

 

9) One of the keys in that instance was Dani Carvajal. The right-backs for both teams were accentuated as potential weak points for the opposition to target and exploit, making Diaz and Vinicius perhaps the most important players: if either could definitively win their battle, it would likely shift the outcome of the game.

Carvajal is not the most convincing elite defender but his performance was exemplary. While Diaz seemed to have him beat a couple of times, the Spaniard recovered in some form each time and whether ushering the forward clear of danger or outright fouling him, that threat was neutralised. No player made more tackles than Carvajal and only David Alaba blocked more shots.

Alexander-Arnold was not only uncharacteristically bereft of imagination going forward – crossing deep to the back post when no teammate was in the vicinity, or focusing on power instead of placement for a shot in the hope it would be deflected – but he sometimes struggled defensively. One second-half tackle on Benzema was clean, yet before then it came down to two borderline moments: a Toni Kroos pass behind the defence which Alexander-Arnold covered well to mask his own poor positioning; then the similarly lackadaisical marking for the goal. Casemiro played the ball to Federico Valverde, whose driven shot-cross hybrid was tapped in by Vinicius at the back post.

Only once, when Valverde controlled Casemiro’s pass, did Alexander-Arnold briefly glance over his shoulder during the move to examine the space in which Vinicius was being allowed to roam. The England defender occupied a random central position, marking no-one and playing the Real Madrid forward onside with his foot. Considering Alexander-Arnold said “Vinicius is an exciting player to watch” earlier this week, he chose the wrong time to stop doing so.

 

10) That capped a standout campaign for Vinicius, with 22 goals and 20 assists an exceptional return for a forward at this level. His previous best seasonal tallies for either at the Bernabeu were six goals in 2020/21 and 12 assists in 2018/19. That is an astounding improvement, an explosion of talent and hard work finally mixing. From the tears of frustration after scoring against Osasuna in September 2019, to Benzema telling Ferland Mendy not to pass to him because “he is playing against us”, Vinicius has shown the necessary fortitude in times of adversity. With two years remaining on his Real contract, he might be the single biggest winner of the Kylian Mbappe saga – aside from the Frenchman’s accountant.

 

11) It was before that goal when Real understandably felt they had a breakthrough. Benzema had drifted between Andy Robertson and Virgil van Dijk, timing his run to perfection for Alaba’s sumptuous clipped ball over the top. The chance seemed to escape Benzema but a muddle involving Alisson, Konate, Valverde and Fabinho squeezed the ball back out to the Frenchman to score.

The 34-year-old was in an offside position for the second phase. That much is widely accepted. But the reason behind the goal being disallowed remains divisive and few of the explanations made it clearer. By the letter of the law, it was fairly ruled out on the faintly existential basis that Fabinho, who got the last touch before Benzema’s finish, had not tried to deliberately play the ball. Peter Walton complicated matters by repeating himself during questioning and ignoring Konate’s preceding touch. But the goal seemed to exist in that grey area of being justified either way, which unfortunately satisfies too few for it to be acknowledged.

The decision inevitably dominated the half-time discourse. No-one changed their mind from their instinctive response. They never do. It is time and energy expended doing something entirely worthless as non-experts disregard the written rules and supposed specialists try and clumsily defend whichever on-field call was made. It is in nobody’s interest to constantly pore over contentious referee verdicts, aside from the relevant broadcaster and social media team. Just accept it and move on. Real Madrid managed that to great success.

 

12) Casemiro was outstanding, his defensive screening wrestling back the midfield initiative. Kroos was quiet but particularly effective with his long passes and ability to draw fouls and relieve pressure. Luka Modric had his fingerprints on the opening goal and fulfilled his contractual trivela obligation with an absurd pass in the 84th minute, scooping it high and wide to Vinicius in acres of space without taking a touch to control the loose ball first. It is a perfectly balanced midfield, the foundation upon which Real Madrid have lifted four European Cups, and a base Liverpool struggled to threaten.

 

13) Those three, Casemiro, Kroos and Modric, are 30, 32 and 36 respectively. Courtois and Carvajal, both 30, were decisive. Benzema, 34, was a typical handful. But Real Madrid’s three youngest starters were arguably their most important. Eder Militao defended with immense timing and aggression, Valverde’s energy was startling and Vinicius made the critical difference.

Real’s season started with Lucas Vazquez, Nacho Fernandez, Isco, Eden Hazard and Gareth Bale in the starting line-up. None of those 30-somethings made it off the bench in Paris because Ancelotti has the balance right between youth and experience; he called on 21-year-old Rodrygo and teenager Camavinga, while twisting the knife by bringing on Dani Ceballos, as his substitutes. Their future is as bright as the present and past.

 

14) Salah was approaching ‘Steven Gerrard against Chelsea in 2014’ levels of attempted independent heroics by the end. The Egyptian had nine shots, six of which were saved, but his crushingly disappointing calendar year continued. 2002’s Bernd Schneider would sympathise with a player losing the AFCON final and getting knocked out of World Cup qualification by the same team, on penalties both times, while winning two domestic cups but going off early injured in one of the finals, then scoring what is mistakenly believed to be a title-clinching goal before coming up against a wall in the Champions League final. Salah has scored four open-play goals in 25 appearances since returning from international duty in February. That break really did obliterate his momentum.

 

15) It doesn’t bear to think that roughly half an hour into the game, fresh reports were still emerging of fans being tear-gassed outside the Stade de France. The Liverpool end remained half-empty by the time the match kicked off 36 minutes late. There was more than a quarter of an hour remaining by the time the Reds released an official statement condemning the ‘unacceptable issues’ faced by fans before, during and after the match, into which they have requested a formal investigation.

This is the greatest match in European football and supporters should not have to experience the scenes we have witnessed tonight,’ they said. It is a sentence which should shame and embarrass UEFA, whose showpiece final was overshadowed by their own deplorable organisation and an innate contempt for paying supporters which was realised to farcical and dangerous effect.

That disdain for the fans was encapsulated by UEFA’s first statement on the matter, as they announced a delay to the game because of ‘the late arrival of supporters’. It was a message thoroughly undermined by the anecdotal evidence of journalists who themselves had joined the queuing congregation outside the stadium at least two hours before kick-off. The harrowing reports of crushing and bottlenecking, of children and families being subjected to pepper spray, of exits being closed, of stewards requesting bribes for entry, of people who had paid thousands in ticket and travel expense being turned away and members of the media facing physical intimidation for filming the incriminating scenes, continued to trickle through over a depressing evening.

UEFA had a chance to correct their own mistake with a more considered response, but instead suggested that the problems were created by ‘thousands of fans who had purchased fake tickets which did not work in the turnstiles,’ which ‘created a build-up of fans trying to get in’ and apparently left the police with only one choice: to ‘disperse them with tear gas and force them away from the stadium’. This despite there being no evidence that such measures were even vaguely necessary to quell swathes of people whose solitary crime was to arrive early and wait hours.

Some of the footage that did seep through showed a handful of foolish supporters scaling the fences to gain entry but the response was disproportionate, disrespectful and dangerous.

The communication both in and outside the stadium was risible, the preparation unfathomably abject. The wider reaction in some corners, to question the behaviour of Liverpool fans and allude to them being historically problematic – ‘Scousers’ was a particularly dispiriting trending topic on social media at one stage – was inexcusable. As ever, the enemy here is not a rival team but the body which will readily allow fans of your club to be treated in the same way without blinking an eye. Issues like this should unite all supporters, not exacerbate those already demoralising divides.

“It wasn’t a nice experience, not a nice final to come to. The Champions League should be a celebration but it wasn’t that,” said Robertson after the game, the left-back criticising the “shambles” and explaining how a friend he had personally given a ticket to was turned away on the pretence it was fake. The brother and pregnant sister-in-law of Joel Matip called the situation “unworthy of a Champions League final” and told the media of how they had to take up refuge inside a nearby restaurant. It cast a dark cloud over what should have been a special night – and the fear is that worse stories are still to come.

 

16) Robertson and Matip will not have been the only players with family and friends attending the game. Squad members of both Liverpool and Real Madrid were left to contemplate the safety of their loved ones when their professional focus should have been on a career-defining match. They came out to warm up at quarter past 7, then again just after 8pm long after it was apparent that kick-off would be delayed. There was uncertainty over whether Thiago, named in the starting line-up after his Achilles injury, would feature; he seemed uncomfortable on the pitch and engaged in deep conversation with probable stand-in Naby Keita. The meticulous physical preparation was disrupted and the mental challenge of effectively getting ready for the same game twice cannot be understated.

It came as no surprise that the early stages of the game were played out like an extended training session. The tempo was glacial, the movement laboured. The teams did eventually move out of that stuttering first gear and those fans fortunate enough to take their seat – a quite preposterous line to have to write – were treated to a nervous, imperfect spectacle. Finals of this magnitude tend to have that air about them, but this was for entirely the wrong reasons and they will deservedly linger over UEFA’s crown jewel spectacle for some time yet.

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