In its bitter aftermath, it feels as though if there is any one moment that sums up Liverpool’s 3-1 Champions League final loss to Real Madrid it was when a drunken fan invaded the pitch late in stoppage time, preventing Cristiano Ronaldo from scoring with the last kick of the match. In other words, it feels as though it was a game of equal parts pure farce and poor timing.
Millions of Red fans around the world woke up on the morning of the final laden with a cautious confidence. Sure, we were underdogs, but the same was the case nearly every step of the way through the season’s magical run to the big game. If this Real Madrid team was better than the Manchester City side we thrashed two rounds prior then it wasn’t by much. Top-heavy and talented but weak at the back, this team could be got at.
Then the lights came on at the NSC Olimpiyskiy stadium, the reams of Liverpool supporters crammed into the rafters, some pop flavor du jour performed an opening number, referee Milorad Mažić blew for the kick off, and everything was going according to plan.
Inside three minutes, a script familiar to anyone who has watched this Liverpool side this season began to play out. Mighty Real Madrid, with their 42 Champions League medals worth of players on the pitch, realized like City before them that Liverpool was for real and that €470m worth of elite footballers couldn’t hold onto ball against the Reds vaunted high press. Los Blancos backline and midfield made errors and were forced into turnovers as the Merseysiders steadily, confidently ratcheted up the pressure.
Recovering the ball after a successful tackle, Gini Wijnaldum needed to make just one more pass to find an unmarked Sadio Mané in the box but went for it himself and got his shot blocked; Mohamed Salah received the ball on the edge of the box after a turnover but left Roberto Firmino with just too much to do on a layoff resulting a list-ditch clearance; Madrid keeper Keylor Navas just beat Mané to a ball over the top; Trent Alexander-Arnold, the youngest Liverpool player to start in a European Cup final, nearly squeezed a rebound from a Firmino shot under Navas’ arms from only a few yards away.
Nine shots in the opening 30 minutes. It was coming. It had to be coming.
That one defensive mistake and that one ensuing whirlwind of a counterattacking move that would result in the simple goal to open the floodgates for an all-out Red assault. The whole stadium could sense it. Players from Roma, City ,and a dozen other teams this season watching today’s game from their couches surely had their PTSD triggered knowing what was about to happen.
The first pivotal moment of the match occurred. Sergio Ramos, the wily Madrid captain who always seems to play an outsized role in these sorts of matches, locked arms with Salah while fighting for the ball, causing the Egyptian to fall heavily on his left shoulder with Ramos landing on top of him.
The hearts of millions in Red relocated from chests to mouth. To that point in the season, Liverpool had scored 128 goals in all competitions; Mohamed Salah had scored more than a third of them. All of the attacking plan has flowed through the magical striker and it was a given that a win today for his side would make him a favorite for the Ballon d’Or. The Reds could not afford to lose him. But despite trying to valiantly fight on for a few more minutes, lose him we did. 28 minutes into the match, Salah had to be subbed off in tears, his season and possibly his World Cup hopes ended.
Understandably, the game immediately flipped. The lauded Madrid attacking band of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benezma, and Isco which had stood watching confused unable to get a touch of the ball to that point in the match suddenly found space and service against a shell-shocked Liverpool.
And with Liverpool’s fans far outnumbering Madrid’s, the stadium fell deathly silent at the change in fortunes, though they found their voice to boo loudly whenever Ramos touched the ball. Slowly, the Red faithful came to the realization that their team needed them now more than ever, and refrains of Allez! Allez! Allez! began to re-emerge throughout the stadium.
Jürgen Klopp’s side did their best to rally but the well-oiled gegenpressing, goal-happy machine struggled to function without one of its most vital cogs. Adam Lallana’s 15 total games of playing time and conspicuous rust from his injury-hit season couldn’t possibly replicate Salah’s role with the counter, the press, and the morale suffering.
From not wanting the first half to end, Liverpool now could barely wait for the whistle to blow. Little did they know that things would get worse after the intermission.
Coming early in the second half, Madrid’s opening goal through Karim Benzema from Loris Karius’ first error seems too painful to yet discuss for a Reds fan. Instead, here is a video of the 51st minute opener. Liverpool supporters are advised to view at their own discretion:
Like the pitch invader later in the match, the goal was unbearably stupid, completely avoidable, and difficult to watch.
It was not quite the second pivotal moment of the match however. Mané, understanding that the responsibility to carry the team now fell to him with Salah out, responded. He stepped up to the plate, driving forward with the ball at every opportunity and pushing the issue.
His teammates responded, too, biting into tackles with renewed vigor and hunting in packs once again. In the 55th minute, James Milner lifted an inviting cross into the box, with Raphael Varane flicking the ball just past Firmino at full stretch ummarked at the back post. On the ensuing corner, Dejan Lovren leapt higher than the already-flopping Ramos, nodding towards Mané to stab home from a foot away.
The stadium woke once again, hope sparked in every Red chest and tangible energy crackled throughout the grounds. It was improbable and it was unlikely, but this indomitable Liverpool side seemed as though it just might have a chance. No one thought we would even be here and yet here we were, having vanquished sides better than this in the march to Kiev. Were the odds not worse in Istanbul? A roar went up as Madrid full back Nacho Monreal stumbled with the ball under pressure from two Reds moments after the restart, as supporters recognized that the most unlikely of goal runs could occur at any moment.
But then came the second pivotal moment of the match: the introduction of Gareth Bale. Zidane, the master of the perfectly-timed substitution, waited until the 60th minute to bring the Welshman in for Isco, who had been decent if unremarkable. This had been the fear, this was the one player in the squad on form that no Red supporter wanted to see.
Two minutes, later those fears were justified. Marcelo wasn’t closed down on the wing, allowing the Brazilian time to lift a looping cross into the box. That Bale was able to contort himself and produce one of the greatest goals in the competition’s history to nestle a bicycle kick into the roof of the net from 16 yards is no slight against the otherwise stout Liverpool defense on the day. It was simply brilliant is all.
And still, the Reds rose up once again from the mat. Again it was Mané exerting his influence on the game, linking up with Wijnaldum to blast a left-footed shot just wide of the post. Minutes later he nearly beat Ramos and Navas in a foot race onto a long ball as route one football to the speedy Senegalese became the strategy.
Madrid pressed high, recognizing the need to kill off the game. The emotionally-drained Reds pushed forward but struggled to get back into their shape upon losing the ball, with only a last-ditch tackle in the box by Andy Robertson from behind preventing Ronaldo scoring on a breakaway.
Milner kept putting in enticing crosses into the box causing Zidane to reconsider and tell his team to drop back into a defensive block to try soak up the pressure with 15 minutes of normal time remaining.
Bloodied, bruised, but back up swinging through pure force of will, the Reds finally succumbed to the knockout blow provided by Bale again in the 83rd minute. In stark contrast to his worldie 20 minutes earlier, this one was a routine 25-yard pot shot straight at Karius. And yet, the Liverpool keeper somehow couldn’t decide whether he wanted to punch, catch, or palm the ball away, instead spilling directly into his goal.
It was inexplicable. Literally. There is no amount of analysis one can attempt to figure out what happened.
But that is how it ended. One all-time great goal, two stupid ones, and Liverpool’s top scorer out injured in the first half. Real Madrid have their record third straight Champions League trophy, winning as they so often have this season even when they haven’t seemed the clear best side on the day. The injury to Salah—the second such of the season-ending variety that Madrid have benefited from this campaign alone after knocking Neymar out of the round of 16—and two unfathomable errors do not a gameplan make.
And as much as this hurts, it is this that represents the silver lining to the sad end of an otherwise magical European campaign for Liverpool and the clubs fans. Number six will have to wait until next year at least, but Klopp’s project marches on. YNWA