In the end, hope alone wasn’t enough to carry Liverpool to this most unlikely of victories. The sheer joy of their football, those bursts of irrepressible attacking, which has overwhelmed so many teams from around this continent, seemed at one stage to be carrying them inexorably to a sixth Champions League trophy. Indeed, even in the opening exchanges here in Kiev it felt that way.
And yet, Real Madrid, don’t indulge romantic whims. They win trophies. A thirteenth European Cup goes their away. From the moment Mohamed Salah was crushed by the weight of Sergio Ramos, whose strong arm gripped the Egyptian, forcing him to fall unnaturally, and clutch his shoulder, that seemed most likely. Salah departed, sobbing and injured, on 28 minutes. And though Liverpool did so such thing, fighting gamely, you sensed a moment passing.
Astonishingly, this is a third successive Champions League trophy collected by their coach Zinedine Zidane, who joins the likes of Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley as the most-successful coaches in the competition’s history. Except that Zidane has done it in his first 29 months of coaching in his first job. And Real Madrid join Ajax and Bayern in achieving that treble. Except, of course, they did it before in the 1950s, with five successive win.
On another night we would have been lauding the exceptional performance of Britain’s best player, Welshman Gareth Bale. Excluded from the started line-up, he came on to win the game with a goal so good it is unlikely to be matched for decades. Maybe it even surpassed that of the manager who had left him out, who scored a similarly magnificent goal in this final in 2002. He then added a second, which finished Liverpool. And perhaps Loris Karius.
At times, Karius was superb. Yet this was always be the final he lost. The first goal he conceded was comically awful, bowling the ball out directly into Benzema’s out-stretched leg. The second was as bad, allowing Bale’s speculative shot from thirty yards, aimed directly at him, to slide through his hands and into the net. You could not feel anything except enormous sympathy for him. It was the kind of night from which only the strongest recover.
Zinedine Zidane left out Gareth Bale, opting for the more subtle creativity of Isco, a bitter blow for the Welshman after his recent run of fine form. However, initially, it would make little difference to the balance of the game for Real Madrid were subject to as sustained assault of harrying and hustling from an eager Liverpool side as you are likely to see.
We knew Liverpool would apply a high-octane approach from the start. Call it ‘big balls football’ or ‘heavy metal’ but Jurgen Klopp is all or nothing. As such, you imagined Real Madrid would be prepared. Yet they looked aghast. It was like watching footballing aristocracy being asked to mix with the hoi polloi, classic musical concert goers being confronted by Iron Maiden. Here was Sadio Mané robbing Cristiano Ronaldo; there was James Milner tearing into Casemiro, targeted by Liverpool at every turn. It was quite something to see a team as accomplished as Real Madrid quite so firmly on the back foot.
The question was whether such an approach could be sustained. And whether its idealistic enthusiasm would catch Liverpool out. When Roberto Firmino under-hit a pass to Andy Robertson, the Scot gamely attempted to make it anyway. He didn’t and in doing so left his post unguarded. Into that gap advanced Cristiano Ronaldo, spirting elegantly, ball at his feet. He shot just over. But it was a warning. The establishment knows a thing or two quelling youthful revolts.
Still, Liverpool had by far the better of the game’s opening. On 11 minutes, a Salah flick and cushioned header by Roberto Firmino allowed Terence Alexander-Arnold to sprint through on goal which required Keylor Navas to race from his line to smother.
When Dani Carvajal sent an attempted cross field pass straight out for a corner on 17 minutes, it seemed to represent the minor panic induced in Real Madrid by Liverpool’s sheer ferocity. From the corner, Virgil van Dijk headed just over. Better would follow on 22 minutes, when Firmino’s shot was deflected into the path of Alexander-Arnold. His strike, firm and low, forced a fine save from Navas.
However, on 28 minutes came the most grievous of blows for Liverpool. Two minutes, in a tussle with Sergio Ramos, Salah had been crushed and emerged clutching his shoulder. He winced but played on and the Liverpool fans felt reprieved. Yet two minutes later he simply dropped to his knees, seemingly in tears and holding that injured shoulder. It was clear what it meant. He walked off, sobbing, distraught and straight into the arms of a Klopp bear hug, as Adam Lallana came on.
Real Madrid would suffer their own setback, though hardly as significant. Carvajal had received treatment on an ankle in the warm up. Now, 37 minutes into the half, it gave up on him, collapsing as he ran. Again, he held his head, tears flowed and his final finished as Nacho took his place.
It wasn’t that Liverpool purposely changed their approach without their talisman. Lallana went left side and Mané filled in on the right. Yet you sensed, all around the Olympic Stadium, a little of their belief ebbed away.
Real Madrid began to hit their stride, the threat never more apparent when Isco crossed on 42 minutes to find a rising Ronaldo, who headed goal-wards in his imperious fashion. It took a fine save from Karius to push the ball away, only into the path of Karim Benzema, who volleyed in. A flag though was raised and Liverpool were spared. It appeared to be for Benzema but Ronaldo had actually been offside as he made his initial run.
Then there was a cross-field ball from Benzema on 45 minutes which substitute Nacho volleyed into the side netting. Liverpool, having unsettled the might of Madrid, were happy to head to the refuge of the dressing room and a fresh injection of hope from Klopp.
Where Real Madrid had stuttered, now they strutted. They came out as confidently as they had finished the first half. Ronaldo played in Marcelo and Lallana attempted to cut out his pass on 47 minutes. Yet unfortunately he only helped the ball onto Isco. Karius’ despairing lunge meant he pretty much had the whole goal to aim at. Somehow he hit the bar.
The reprieve wasn’t to last long, however. And when the incision came, it really was the unkindest cut of all. An over-hit Toni Kroos pass on 50 minutes was collected by Karius. In his eagerness to restart play, he attempted to bowl the ball out to his centre halves, but in too casual a fashion. For Benzema was lurking close by and he simply lifted a foot and the ball lamely lolloped into the net. There was nothing spectacular, nor enthralling. But the damage was enormous.
Karius raged, Jordan Henderson protested to the referee. But really there was nothing to be said. Benzema’s foot wasn’t especially high and he wasn’t even that close. It was an awful mistake, plain and simple, made in front of the world. A groan of sympathy echoed around the ground as the replay was shown.
Liverpool looked lost for a second. When Mané, in sheer frustration, raised a hand at Ramos – rightly or wrongly perceived as the author of their lost hope – the Spaniard reacted predictably. Mané was lucky, he escaped with a lecture.
But keeping their heads was as important. There was a glimmer of light when Varane’s headed intervention was just enough to stop Firmino meeting a cross and heading in on 55 minutes. Chances were coming. And then, from the corner, hope rekindled. Milner found Lovren, who rose brilliantly and headed goal-wards. And Mané just reacted quicker than anyone, stealing a yard, sticking out a leg and deflecting the ball home.
Belief returned. The stadium, vast swathes of it echoed again echoed to the sounds of The Kop. Yet soon another blow would arrive, this time as extraordinary as the first goal was ridiculous. Gareth Bale had only be on the pitch three minutes, coming on for Isco. There seemed little danger when Marcelo dinked in a cross from the left. Yet, back to goal Bale rose, if a little ungainly, with scarcely-believable athleticism to meet it with his foot, a good metre and a half off the ground. It was the most spectacular of overhead kicks and simply soared into the net, a goal to match his manager’s supreme effort at this final in 2002.
Yet Liverpool didn’t retreat. They rebooted and came back at Real Madrid. And Mané was to the fore. Ramos needed to stretch out a desperate left to prevent him racing through on goal on 69 minutes. A minute later, his strike from outside the box produced a fine save from Navas, tipping the ball on to the post.