Well that was pretty bonkers. It was always going to be an entertaining game with goals, but nobody could have quite predicted the events that would lead to Real Madrid’s 13th European Cup, their 7th since the Champions League era began in 1992. It was also their third consecutive win, a record in the post-1992 period, and their 4th in the last 5 seasons. For younger readers, Madrid won the first 5 European Cups consecutively between 1956 and 1960, and they will struggle to either equal or supersede that record, but their achievement in the modern era is nothing short of remarkable, especially with the quality of the opposition hanging around the competition these days.
Liverpool, to prove the theory, were not even on the long list for reaching the final this season, and yet they could quite plausibly have won this game, if the rub of the green had gone their way, and their best player (Salah) had not been removed on the half hour. The loss of Carvajal to Madrid was trivial in comparison, and he’d been playing poorly anyway. Nacho came on and held firm, despite the constant raids and harrying of Mané, Liverpool’s best player on the night.
In the end, the game was decided by two bizarre mistakes by Loris. But he’ll be fine as a warrior in the next Game of Thrones series, plus the fact that Justin Bieber likes his tattoos. The game was also decided by Gareth Bale, previously sitting grumpily on the bench rehearsing whatsapps to his agent regarding the host of clubs he might negotiate with during the summer. In literary terms, Bale is a ‘Deus ex Machina’, the character in Greek drama introduced near the end (on a crane) to resolve the unresolvable. And that was some first touch. The debate now begins as to whether that was a better goal than the one scored in Glasgow by the man who relegated him to the bench in Kiev, Monsieur Zidane. Let the tweets begin. It was a fantastic goal, only scored because I got up to have a pee, and I’ve noticed over the years in major competitions that if I get up to make some tea or go for a pee someone scores. I have accumulated a substantial amount of data to prove this thesis. From my position inside the loo, I heard my wife squealing from the lounge, and so I knew it had happened again. I arrived just in time for the replay. His second goal wasn’t bad either, blasted from an unfeasible distance, and poor Loris just wasn’t up for the challenge.
Bale’s ‘chilena’, as it is called in Spain, was a consummate act of timing and athleticism, spectacular in its execution and exactly what was needed after Mané’s equaliser had threatened to poop the party. It came about because Marcelo’s cross, unusually executed with his right foot, was actually a poor one and was floating behind the Madrid forwards, when Bale decided to pull out the party trick which will write him into the history books, probably a few weeks before he leaves the club.
Zidane – whose own iconic goal in Glasgow was probably technically superior – in terms of how to strike a falling ball – had decided that the best tactical approach to the game was through ball retention, given Liverpool’s physicality and speed on the counter. He was probably right, except that Isco struggled to adjust to the pace of the game, Kroos was unimposing, and Modric was being knocked off the ball too easily. Like legions of Orcs, Liverpool were swarming all over Madrid for the first 25 minutes, with Salah dangerous every time he got hold of the ball – able to adjust the orientation of his runs in any direction because of his two-footedness and speed of thought.
You could see Madrid slowly going under until the fateful moment when Sergio Ramos tussled with Salah and seemed to pull him to the ground like an experienced wrestler who knows how to inflict maximum damage in a single move. The accusation may be libellous, but it looked dodgy from where I was sitting.
Be that as it may, the game changed radically thereon. Without Salah to worry about, Varane and Ramos pushed up the line, Modric got into more interesting positions, and Madrid began to function. Mané continued to threaten, but Firmino looked lost without Salah and suddenly Henderson and Milner were on the back foot, unable to supply the forwards as before.
The other strange aspect of the game was that Benzema was one of Madrid’s best players. Pilloried and scorned all season, he was back to what he does best, dropping back between the lines and holding up the ball for the midfielders (and Marcelo) to advance, and to link with Ronaldo, should the great one actually require the ball – minimal as his contributions tend to be these days. Benzema opened the scoring in the second half when he anticipated Loris’s throw, stuck out his foot and diverted the ball into the net for one of the Champions League’s most comical final-night goals. Apart from that, he thoroughly justified his inclusion.
Ronaldo now has five Champions under his belt, four of them with Madrid. He also lost a final with Man Utd, but has nevertheless equalled Di Stéfano’s haul. He is still one short of Paco Gento’s six European Cups, and his rather strange pronouncements into the mike on the pitch at the end of the game had the Spanish commentary team frothing with morbid excitement, just as the other players were gathering to do the trophy dance. ‘It’s been great playing for Real Madrid’ declared CR7, ‘but we’ll talk in summer’. Is this the end, my friend? Is he off to Japan to play with Iniesta? The money’s certainly good. Ronaldo actually played quite well, peeling off to the left in the first half and working harder than usual, but then fading in the second half and just hanging up front in the hope of some scraps. In the end, Bale eclipsed him and reaped the glory, never a good thing for the Portuguese protagonist.
Keylor Navas was also good when called upon. It’s still difficult to see why Real Madrid persist in making him feel as though he is a temporary caretaker until someone bigger comes along. The trophy belongs to him as much as anyone this campaign, and the save he pulled off in the 23rd minute from Arnold probably turned the game. Two minutes later Salah was gone, and Liverpool never really re-gained the upper hand.
Finally (it’s way past my bedtime), Jurgen Klopp’s a cool dude. I liked the way he went over to Zidane to congratulate him, even before the final whistle had gone, and the sporting way he mingled with the Real Madrid players on the pitch afterwards was great. He’s funny, intelligent and different, and no wonder they love him in Liverpool. He’s restored something of their humour and dignity, and given them hope for the future. Meanwhile, Zidane continues to win big finals (that’s 3/3 as coach) and maintain a state of contentment at the club even after a poor league season, by Madrid standards. Thirteen and counting, or thirteen unlucky for some? What seems certain is that the core of this generation of players – the BBC certainly, has probably won its last European trophy with Real Madrid, certainly as a collective. Captain Ramos might still be around for a while yet, but other changes are afoot. Whatever – it’s been a fantastic ride, and love them or hate them, they’ve been pretty good to watch.
Time for bed.