Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool: 16 CL final Conclusions

Date published: Saturday 26th May 2018 10:27

1) This trophy is Real Madrid’s. It was when Paris Saint-Germain were swept aside in the first knock-out round, when Juventus were shattered in the second and when Bayern Munich were left exasperated in the third. The power of belief and sheer sense of entitlement has overwhelmed Europe’s challengers to the throne. As former Eintracht Frankfurt manager Paul Osswald noted after defeat to Los Blancos in 1960’s final: “They should just give Real Madrid the trophy and make another one for the team that earns the right to be humiliated by them in the final.”

This was no humiliation, but a resounding win nonetheless, and an unprecedented success. The European Cup had been won three times in succession on just four occasions, and not since the 1970s. With the amount of elite clubs in the competition expanding with each season, Real have simply tightened their grip on the greatest prize.

Is this the greatest club side of all time? For my money, no. But this is certainly one of the greatest ever achievements by any club ever. Real Madrid had to win in Paris, Turin, Bayern and in what had essentially the atmosphere of an away game in Kiev to complete the perfect hat-trick. Four Champions League trophies in five seasons should not be possible in the modern day, and yet here we are.

 

2) Zinedine Zidane has been managing at senior level for 29 months. He has won nine trophies – a rate of three per season – and 104 of his 149 games. He is the first manager to win three European Cups in succession, and no coach has ever won more overall. He is brushing shoulders with Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti, sharing company with the great coaches of history in his second full season as a manager.

Klopp was questioned about the Frenchman’s supposed deficiencies earlier this week. Zidane has been referred to as a ‘clap-your-hands manager’ and a ‘lucky’ coach on more than one occasion. His tactics are regularly derided, his decisions dismissed. When you stop and think about it, it really is rather ludicrous.

He started Karim Benzema despite calls for Gareth Bale to receive the nod. The former opened the scoring and was excellent, while the latter scored twice and decided the game upon his introduction as a substitute. The clue is in the name: it is in a manager’s remit to manage the game and his players. Zidane appears to have mastered both.

 

3) There will be those who mock Liverpool, as is the right of any football fan. Even the most coefficient-obsessed Manchester United supporter would have resented their bitter rivals winning for myriad reasons, and even the proudest English Arsenal fan would have avoided their Merseyside work colleagues for weeks had they lifted a sixth European Cup. The nature of not-so-friendly competition dictates that Liverpool failed to win this competition just the same as United did, even if the former advanced far further than the latter.

Liverpool fans will mourn this defeat safe in the knowledge that they should not have been there in the first place. That is not to say there should be no criticism for their performance or their approach in the final, or that this was a free hit. It was a disappointing defeat whether or not they were pre-tournament favourites. But it is simply a reminder of the achievement. Their hope was to advance past Hoffenheim in the qualifiers, and possibly make it through the group stages.

Porto were hammered in the last-16. Manchester City were humbled in the quarter-finals. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was dismantled in 90 minutes. They are the highest scorers ever in a single Champions League season, the first side to have three players reach double figures for goals in one campaign, and the first Premier League team to reach the final and finish in the top four since 2011. This is a devastating chapter of Liverpool’s journey under Klopp; the signs suggest that its final destination could be far more glorious.

 

4) The size of the task facing Liverpool was evident in the starting line-ups. None of Klopp’s side – indeed, none of Klopp’s squad – had ever been in a Champions League final before. The last time that happened was in 2013 with Borussia Dortmund. I forget the name of their manager then.

At the other end of the spectrum was Real, whose XI was the exact same as in last year’s final. In fact, only Raphael Varane and Isco were not starting their third final in succession. This was the power of continuity versus the virtue of inexperience.

Real’s starting line-up had 876 Champions League career appearances between them, with Keylor Navas (35) the relative newcomer. Liverpool’s had just 223, with Mohamed Salah (37) the resident expert. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more Champions League hat-tricks (7) than Andrew Robertson had played Champions League games (5). It was a complete and utter mismatch on paper; Liverpool were punching about four divisions above their weight.

 

5) Yet it was Real who seemed encumbered by the sheer burden of expectation and potential history, and Liverpool who were uninhibited due to their ignorance of the occasion. The crowd played a key role, cheering every Liverpool pass and booing early periods of Real possession. Casemiro gave the ball away within 20 seconds, which was met with a loud cheer from a supposedly equal support. The Liverpool fans who had made it to Kiev made it feel like a home game played about 1,700 miles away.

Madrid were nervous. Toni Kroos knocked the ball out for a throw-in when looking for a teammate, while Dani Carvajal’s pass back to Sergio Ramos went out for a corner. But with Real looking weak and exposed, Liverpool showed restraint. It is not a criticism, but there was no explosiveness to their play, none of the structured chaos that brought them here. The build-up was patient, proving and promising, landing blows but pulling their punches. They were by far the better side early on.

 

6) The infamous press was key, and Real looked panicked. The first shot on target came when Sadio Mane and James Milner combined well down the left, with the latter cutting the ball back to Firmino. His blocked shot fell into the path of Trent Alexander-Arnold, the youngest Englishman to ever play in a Champions League final. His low, driven effort was saved well by Navas.

Real were on the ropes. Their only sign of attacking intent came from a Liverpool mistake, when Robertson was caught upfield and Ronaldo raced down his flank to blast over. The Reds were keeping their shape as well as their composure, playing like a united team against a group of individuals, albeit incredibly talented ones. It was difficult to shake the feeling that they had to capitalise on the situation soon, but equally difficult to see how Real could finally get a grip on proceedings.

 

7) Ramos soon took care of that. “That is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on a football pitch,” was BT Sport commentator Ian Darke’s incandescent reaction 11 months ago, having witnessed the Spaniard engineer the dismissal of Juan Cuadrado in last year’s final. With five minutes remaining and Real boasting a comfortable two-goal lead, Ramos collapsed into a heap as the Juventus winger innocuously brushed past him.

It was a needless, gratuitous attempt to hammer home an advantage. Cuadrado was caught in the crossfire of Ramos’ insatiable desire not only to win, but to dominate, to humiliate and to be the absolute best by any means necessary.

Another final, another example of gamesmanship. Ramos could easily have released Salah’s arm as both tumbled to the ground, and his refusal to do so was the catalyst for Salah’s substitution. The Egyptian was in tears as he departed the pitch, with Ramos the pantomime villain. He might not have intended to cause injury, but it was a deliberate action to try and establish superiority over an opponent. It brought an abrupt end to the biggest club game of Salah’s career, and leaves his World Cup hopes in jeopardy.

At this point, we are contractually obliged to describe Ramos as ‘a master of the dark arts’. In truth, he’s just a bit of a d*ck.

 

8) The injury had a clear and profound psychological affect on both teams. Liverpool were rocked. This was not only arguably their most important player being substituted early due to injury, it was their teammate and friend distraught at what had happened. It had an obvious impact on their system and tactics, but the natural human response is one of deflation. “The situation with Sergio Ramos looked really bad and it was a shock for the team,” said Klopp after the game. “We lost the positive momentum and they immediately came up.”

For Real, it was a wake-up call, as if the removal of Salah exposed the throat of their opponent. Liverpool had nine shots in the 30 minutes before the substitution, and none in the final 15 minutes of the first half. Real had two shots in the first 30 minutes, and five in the final 15 of the first half.

It was as if Liverpool decided to try and ride the changing wave of momentum to half-time. They did not just decide to cede possession and focus on counter-attacks; they altered their approach entirely to nullify Real’s attack and little else. The numbers from sports analyst Paul Carr were startling: Liverpool had 56 touches in the attacking third before Salah was substituted; Real had 21. In the period after before half-time, Real had 65 to Liverpool’s one. It was an immense gamble in a game of such magnitude from Klopp, but a half-time scoreline of 0-0 suggests it paid off.

 

9) The only problem was that Liverpool did not respond to the situation in the second half. They continued to invite Real pressure while displaying no intent of their own. That would only pay dividends for so long.

So it proved. Alexander-Arnold opened the door with a misplaced pass and Lallana kindly held it for Real to stroll through with a botched interception. Isco seemed certain to capitalise as Karius raced out of his goal, but his effort bounced back off the crossbar. It was less a catalogue of errors and more an entire manual of how not to defend.

Liverpool did not heed the warning. They would fall behind little over three minutes later to yet another individual error. The nerves of this fearless side were on full display.

 

10) Karius has improved this season. The German has looked more confident, is making better decisions and executing them far more efficiently, and has been crucial to Liverpool’s own development. The 24-year-old is far from the finished article, but 16 clean sheets in 32 appearances ahead of the final is a fine record.

Klopp described goalkeeper as one of the two most difficult positions to play for Liverpool earlier this week. Any shred of sympathy evaporated when Karius inexplicably rolled the ball out onto Benzema’s foot to concede the opening goal. It was an unfathomable lapse in concentration, an unforgivable moment of negligence.

The keeper made a couple of decent saves in the aftermath, but any hope of reclaiming his footing was lost when he bundled Bale’s long-range effort into his own goal to gift Real a two-goal lead in the final ten minutes. Karius has come back from adversity before and improved for it; this feels like a watershed moment and an impossible mountain to climb. Klopp has to be ruthless and invest in a better, more reliable goalkeeper this summer while letting the current one go. There is no use in loyalty when it is repaid with that kind of performance.

 

11) If losing Salah to injury dented Liverpool’s confidence to such an extent, what would conceding a goal in the most baffling of circumstances do to their psyche? A team with a tendency to collapse under pressure had fallen a goal down on the biggest stage to Europe’s greatest predator. The script was written.

Liverpool showed scant disregard for the expected outcome. Their response was impeccable, and rewarded when Mane’s reacted instinctively to divert Dejan Lovren’s header past Navas. They were level, and the wind was knocked out of Real’s sails. Momentum had shifted once more.

Mane was the best player in a red shirt, and possibly the best on the pitch altogether. The often forgotten member of the triumvirate, he shouldered the burden of Salah’s injury and Firmino’s neutralisation to deliver a fine performance. It was his tenth goal in the competition this season, but he also completed the most dribbles (4), was fouled the most times (3) and made the most tackles (6) of any player. His was the most undeserving of runners-up medals.

 

12) The onus was on Real to wrestle back control. The key was that he had the means to do so. The benches of the two sides told a story of its own: Liverpool’s seven had scored eight goals all season, while Bale had netted four this month alone. It was the Welshman who came on for Isco on the hour mark, and it was the Welshman who took the initiative.

Marcelo’s cross from the left-hand side was hopeful, aiming more for the space than anyone in particular. Bale took it upon himself to immortalise the moment, contorting his body and arrowing a bicycle kick into the top corner. That Karius tried to save it with a diving header summed up the surprise factor of a quite phenomenal goal.

Bale’s second and Real’s third would be rather more calamitous – has there ever been a more chasmic disparity in the quality of goals in one game? – but the first will live long in the memory. It was better than Ronaldo’s strike against Juventus in the quarter-finals, harder to accomplish and on a greater stage. Watching with the perfect vantage point from the sidelines, Zidane’s memories of Hampden Park 16 years ago must have been sent into overdrive.

 

13) It was inevitable that the possibility of a return to the Premier League would be broached at the final whistle. Bale, knowing he now holds every deck of cards in the vicinity, played it cool: “I need to be playing week-in week-out and that hasn’t happened this season for one reason or another,” he said. “I have to sit down in the summer and discuss my future with my agent and take it from there.”

The clamour for him to return to England is understandable, but this is a player who can pick and choose his next move. This is his fourth Champions League winner’s medal, and the second final he has helped decide with his goals. The few Premier League clubs who can afford him would either not be able to accommodate him or not deserve the opportunity to.

 

14) The third goal was a hammer blow, a dagger to the heart of a team that had already recovered from two mishaps. Liverpool clambered through the rest of the game, their spirit broken and their resolve shattered. They mustered one shot in the final 20 minutes, with Lallana’s stoppage-time effort blocked.

Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum all played well – particularly the latter member of the midfield triumvirate – but the final ball was lacking. I expected Liverpool might rue the absence of a more dynamic, catalytic deeper player behind the front three. Lallana might have been that man but was unfit and had to be forced out wide. Emre Can had no time to make an impact and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was sorely missed. Naby Keita is a crucial arrival this summer.

 

15) The contrast to Kroos and Luka Modric was obvious. The pair succeeded where Kevin de Bruyne, Fernandinho, David Silva and countless other partnerships have failed this season in finally overcoming the press to administer their own control on the game and stamp their authority. Kroos attempted 87 passes at a 95.4% accuracy, while Modric attempted 72 at 94.4%. Henderson (94%) was the only Liverpool midfielder able to match them. “We dropped deep and we could not get to Luka Modric or Toni Kroos,” was Klopp’s assessment.

This Real team will inevitably break up eventually, with six of their starting line-up aged 30 or over. But the foundation of Modric (32) and, in particular, Kroos (28) will remain. There is not a single more solid, proven framework in Europe.

 

16) And so Klopp makes it six successive cup finals without a victory, three of which have come at Liverpool. The German will downplay the mental impact of such regular disappointment, but the seed of doubt that was planted with the first loss only continues to grow. It is a difficult circle to escape from, and a troublesome reputation to shed. Liverpool are on an upwards trajectory and seem destined for greater things, yet each day this bridesmaid waits to become a bride only brings added pressure.

 

 

 

Matt Stead

 

 


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