Phil has said it best: “Well, that was pretty bonkers”. It was a weird final indeed, one in which Liverpool’s showed the resilience that most winning sides need, but lacked the depth required to deal with Real Madrid.
Jurgen Klopp’s team dealt surprisingly well with three extraordinary hits, any of which would have finished any other team. First, they lost their best player, injured in an unfortunate play with Sergio Ramos. The Real Madrid skipper played many of his dirty tricks last evening, but I don’t think his foul on Salah intended anything more than preventing the Egyptian from taking the ball in space. Ramos had missed the tackle, Salah won the position and held Ramos’ arm, and the latter wrestled him down to stop the play. The really unforgiveable action of the skipper was his hit on Karius at the beginning of the second half, a shot as cheap as they come.
But back to the match. The shock of seeing their star leaving the pitch in tears was felt by Liverpool. Up to the 30th minute, Klopp’s lads had completed over 100 passes in the final third. After Salah left, they only did so 7 times in the next 60 minutes. Real Madrid took control of proceedings and it was always Liverpool on the back foot, although showing their will to fight in an extremely dynamic defence. Watching Liverpool play for those first 30 minutes, I was thinking that they had to bring it down at some point, as their pace was superhuman and impossible to sustain for 90 minutes. I expected Real Madrid’s midfield to start taking over as space opened, but Salah’s injury accelerated that process.
In the final 15 minutes of the first half, Real Madrid started to play. Isco gave his first decent pass forwards around the 40th, after one of the poorest performances he’s had in a Real Madrid shirt. Between him and Casemiro, they lost the ball or misplaced passes at least ten times, something that kept the defensive determination of Liverpool alive. Casemiro compensated for his profligacy with some key interceptions, but Isco could do nothing right. Benzema played the Isco role better than Isco himself.
Liverpool took a step back, but they were still in the game. The second half started exactly like the first had ended, with Real Madrid controlling proceedings and getting their passing in the right rhythm progressively. Isco hit the post and things looked promising for Real Madrid.
That’s when Liverpool had to take the second hit. Karius presented Benzema with a goal that we don’t even see in kids’ tournaments. Their reaction was again impressive. They took advantage of Real Madrid’s carelessness with the ball – something we’ve seen this season is their inability to protect leads — charged forward and drew level off a corner kick, in which Lovren headed over Ramos and Marcelo broke Mane’s offside position, who scored with ease. After that goal, Liverpool recovered the frantic activity of the opening half an hour, something seemingly unsustainable, physically impossible.
The third hit did not take much longer to have its impact on Liverpool. In this case it was Bale’s bicycle kick, something so rare to see in football, let alone in a final, or even less when it happens twice in the same tournament. Again, Liverpool hit the post less than two minutes later through Mane, who took over from Salah and did his best, although that wasn’t enough.
One of the reasons many Madridistas were confident was the difference in depth between both teams. Liverpool’s offensive trio is extraordinary, but they haven’t much off the bench to alter the course of a match, and something very similar happens with their midfield. Zidane chose the 100M man Bale over Asensio or Vazquez, all menacing options to make a difference when you need a break. It was evident that if Liverpool had any chance, they needed to reach the final third of the match with a lead, because the spacing and Real Madrid’s passing would indeed create some chances once the Reds got tired.
Mane’s shot was Liverpool’s swan song. They would not come close to Navas’ goal again, even less after the fourth hit, Karius’ second error of the night, one that showed that Liverpool did not have their goalkeeping sorted out before this match. Good as Karius is with his distribution, Bale’s shot demanded he go chest first, an extremely basic concept in goalkeeping that top-level goalies never get wrong.
Resilience is one of the main traits of this Real Madrid, a team that this same season has survived a couple of howlers by Navas (against Juventus and Bayern, no less) and came back to eliminate both teams. Liverpool showed they can take quite a few to the chin, but four were too many punches and they had invested too much energy up to that moment. They did not have much to come off the bench and change the course of the match. Surviving all that was beyond human reach.
This is a historic achievement for Real Madrid, one more for this amazing squad. That is why the statements from Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo sounded so out of place, so untimely, so childish. They could have waited until after the celebration, let everyone enjoy the victory, but decided to have a go at stealing the headlines on an otherwise memorable night.
Bale’s case is probably one of miscommunication. To any outsider, it’s evident that Zidane trusts him almost as much as he trusts Ronaldo. The Welshman has started every time he’s been healthy, which has not been often this season. Zidane has been careful bringing him back into the team after every knock, and if he chose Isco and Benz over him for the final it was because he feared Liverpool’s high press… and he was dead right to do so, as we saw.
If he’s healthy, Bale will start every week. Where that leaves Asensio and Vazquez, I am not sure, but if we’ve learned something in these last five seasons it’s that you need a deep squad to contend for all trophies, and that in many spells of the seasons injuries make a lot of the line-up choices for you.
Ronaldo’s words sound a lot more like his usual end of season routine. He needs attention, and he probably feels he’s not getting enough, which has happened a few times in the past. But he knows well that he would not be breaking as many records without Kroos, Modric and Case behind him and Benz, Bale, Vazquez and Asensio around him. This team is designed for him, Zidane has made him grow in the way he approaches each season… If he delivers on his threat and leaves, I’ll be shocked if he does not regret it in two years’ time.
Which is pretty much the amount of time this group has as an entity to win another few trophies. I’m stating this based on the ages of Ramos (32), Modric (33 in sept) and Ronaldo (33), who look in top shape but can’t keep this pace up eternally. They are the spine of this Real Madrid from the back to the front, and their theoretical replacements don’t look half ready yet.
I do believe that four Champions League titles in five years is something we won’t see again. At least I don’t think I will myself. This group has the chance to make it even bigger by keeping the group together and getting a couple of much-needed reinforcements, such as another full-back – Carvajal is outstanding but seriously injury-prone – and another scorer who can take a part of Ronaldo’s burden. They have proven they know well how to compete and can make this run go for another two seasons at least.
Some would say that it’s enough, that they should be forgiven for anything that may happen in the next decade, after the amount of joy they’ve brought to the fans.
But this is Real Madrid, ladies and gentlemen, and that means that no amount of winning is ever enough.