Real Madrid and Liverpool. Two clubs that have weaved themselves into the very fabric of European football. Indeed, without Real Madrid and their um, “questionable” European titles in the 1950’s, there likely wouldn’t be European football. (No, we won’t be elaborating more on that history any further).
Since the competition’s inception, Real Madrid have qualified for at least one European Cup final every decade except in the 1970’s. And since Liverpool reached their first final in 1977, they’ve been to a final every decade other than the 1990’s. Of course, if you are routinely successful for as long as these clubs have been in this competition, you’ll eventually meet up at the pointy end of things. Multiple times.
May 28th will be the third time these two sides have faced off in a final, the most for either side. Of Real Madrid’s 17 finals, they have faced Juventus and Atletico Madrid twice. And Liverpool, of course, for what will now be their third meeting. The Reds, in turn, have only met one other team multiple times, AC Milan in 2005 and 2007.
Liverpool have the distinction of being the last team to beat Real Madrid in a final, a feat last accomplished in Paris in 1981. If the European Cup ends up adorned with red ribbons and Liverpool’s name once again inscribed on it at the end of the month, the Reds will also be the first team to beat Real Madrid in multiple finals.
These are the kind of high-profile matches that the now-defunct Super League, and sadly, the new Champions League format hopes to encourage. But the reason why this final is so special is because of the rarity of its reoccurrence. While meeting a Liverpool-Real Madrid in the group stages, or even the knockouts, is a big event, it loses its luster if it is every year.
From a Liverpool perspective, it has been four long years since the last Liverpool-Real Madrid final. Almost nothing by European Cup standards. Four years of lamenting the missed opportunity. Four years to let the anger at the multiple uncalled red card challenges and concussion-fueled goalkeeping errors fester and stew. Four years to silently (or loudly) curse Sergio Ramos’ name and cringe whenever Lois Karius’ name enters the chat.
Last year, Liverpool had a chance at revenge in the knockouts, only to once again come up short. However, that Liverpool side was one hobbled by injuries. It wasn’t one with real ambitions of lifting the big cup. This side, physically and mentally, are in a completely different place. Real Madrid will be getting Liverpool at their best. And it will be in a one-off game. A final. Winner takes all.
However, that loss spurred Liverpool on. They used that anger and frustration to kick on the next season, challenging Manchester City to the last game in the league, and lifting their sixth European Cup shortly thereafter. They came back even stronger the next season (in the league at least), lifting their first Premier League trophy in 30 years.
And yet, that memory of that fateful night in Kiev burns deep inside.
Losing a Champions League final is devastating. It remains a perverse tradition to make the losing side walk past the victors, and within touching distance of the European Cup, en route to collecting their silver medal. It is a final humiliation to endure after an otherwise brilliant season to get to that point.
This is a fixture that evokes memories—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows—for both supporters. But equally, it is one that excites fans across the globe like few others could.
Liverpool-Manchester City, while almost certainly the two best teams, with the two best managers on the planet, would be a disappointment. It would be an interesting tactical battle. Perhaps it would even be a good game.
But there’s nothing special or interesting about City. They have zero European Cups. And practically no European history prior to this decade (and the massive influx of ill-gotten gains from a human rights abusing petrostate). There are no City legends from the 70’s or 80’s to wax lyrical about the latest squad. And there would be no fan culture prior to, during, or after the match that would make football supporters around the globe sit back and take note.
A Manchester City Champions League victory, when it eventually comes, will be the biggest non-event in world football.
Liverpool-Real Madrid is a final for football romantics. It is a final for those who love the game, who love the tradition, who love the history. And you’d be hard pressed to find any two clubs with more history, especially in this competition, than Liverpool and Real Madrid. The two sides have 19 European Cups between them, the most ever. Last time these two faced off it was “only” 17, a record at the time.
This is a final that both Jurgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti will no doubt adore. Both managers are, at heart, romantics. Both managers have had glorious victories and devastating defeats in the competition. Ancelotti lost two finals to Liverpool, one as a player, and another as a manager (looking at you, Istanbul), before getting his revenge in 2007.
Liverpool are, on paper at least, the favorites. But it’s Real Madrid in a final. Their staggering 13 wins in 16 finals is a testament to their mentality and belief. They believe it is their competition to win. That belief was on full display in the waning moments at the Bernabéu, with a steadfast refusal to give up. The Reds, of course, need to disabuse them of this belief in destiny, just as they did in 1981.
It will be a fascinating final, and one that won’t be decided until the final whistle. I can’t wait.