As Liverpool ask what might have been, Gareth Bale and Real Madrid just go and continue to do things so rarely seen. Zinedine Zidane’s side went and completed a feat for the ages in winning a third successive European Cup and fourth in five years, and that after a goal for the ages – if also a goalkeeping mistake for the ages.
Substitute Bale’s supreme overhead kick ultimately ensured that Madrid extended the most overwhelming period of dominance in the competition since their own pioneer predecessors in the 1950s, bringing it to 13 Champions Leagues overall. Yet for all the grandiosity of such achievements, the eye-opening numbers involved and the brilliance of such a goal, it’s still difficult not to bring this otherwise odd game down to very different specific individual moments of misfortune, and two very different individuals.
A game that had seemed set up for an epic finish was derailed and temporarily deflated when Mohamed Salah had to go off injured after a highly dubious challenge by Sergio Ramos, as the most prestigious fixture in club football lost one of the game’s great players. That wasn’t necessarily the losing of the game but contributing a big part in it was one of the most calamitous individual performances this fixture has seen.
It was impossible not to feel sorry for Loris Karius after two errors that were almost inexplicable at such a level – particularly the first for the Karim Benzema goal – but equally impossible not to wonder why Jurgen Klopp did not sort the obvious goalkeeping problem out earlier.
So much of this brilliant run is on him but so is some of this, even if the injury to Salah ultimately just stretched Liverpool too far. It ultimately meant it wasn’t to be his final, but it wasn’t Cristiano Ronaldo’s either.
It was the man who had been dropped, and who is still expected to leave.
What a parting gift from Bale if that is the case.
He offered the brilliant juncture moment that made the difference, but it wasn’t the only one.
Karim Benzema scored a comical opening goal (Getty )
That came in the 29th minute, as Sergio Ramos wrestled Salah to the ground, while refusing to let go of his arm. The Egyptian attempted to persevere, but it soon became clear that the pain was just too much. He had to go off, after just 32 minutes. There would be no 45th goal this season.
Debate will persist about how things would have gone had Salah stayed on, but just as much debate should rage over how intentional the manner Ramos took the star down was. The length of time the Madrid captain held onto Salah’s arm as he himself fell did look a little excessive, and unnecessary.
Madrid benefitted almost immediately, but the quality of the game did not. The sloppiness that had been making them look so poor suddenly evaporated, having gone with Salah, replaced by a composure. That should be no surprise, since their biggest worry had gone, just as it should be no surprise Liverpool looked so aimless as substitute Adam Lallana struggled to find his position.
That was not the only challenge for Jurgen Klopp’s side. There was something deeper, that was really going to take all of their resolve.
How could they win this grandest and most demanding of matches without their elite match-winner, their best player? It was ironically a question that had been answered by some of their biggest rivals, as well as one of their direct opponents on the day, whose examples could well have offered Liverpool inspiration.
Ronaldo, who had given Salah such a conspicuous and internationally televised side-eye in the tunnel, was forced to go off early in the Euro 2016 final only for Portugal to defy the situation and all expectation and beat France to win their first ever international trophy. Manchester United had seen Roy Keane sent off in that historically famous FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal in 1999, only to still produce a victory for the ages.
It was just that a match that had looked like it was building up to a similar kind of epic had lost much of its intensity. Liverpool had lost much of their edge.
Before the Salah injury they had 56 touches in the attacking third compared to Madrid’s 21. After it, Madrid had 65 to Liverpool’s one. One. And all because of one moment.
Klopp’s big half-time job was to restore Liverpool’s belief, because that seemed to be waning, too.
It could have evaporated never to return in the 51st minute, as Karius – who had previously made such a brilliant save – offered an error for the ages.
After the goalkeeper had so easily collected a clipped ball over the top for Benzema, he then so carelessly went to play it out – somehow without realising the French striker was mere yards. Benzema deflected back towards the net for the easiest goal he’ll ever score.
That should have set it up for the easiest of wins, as many at Madrid had expected. Liverpool had lost their best player, lost their way, and now committed the kind of farcical self-inflicted error that would make a lot of teams lose hope.
They didn’t. Within four minutes, they were back in the game, as the defiant Mane stabbed home from a set-piece. It was both a remarkably quick and remarkable response.
But was still be surpassed by the response
With Madrid again looking sloppy and again looking so much less than a side supposed to be responsible for one of the most dominant spells of success the European Cup has seen, Zidane again displayed one of the reasons for that success: an inspired substitute at just the right time… but no one could have expected this level of inspiration.
Just 122 seconds of coming on, Bale had the ball back in the net with one of the finest goals ever scored in a Champions League final. It was even one to rival that scored by his manager in 2002.
The next goal was then a mistake to rival the first, as Bale again showed his power, but the hapless Karius showed his poverty as a keeper.
It was awful to watch, but is the cruelty of the game, even if not necessarily the type of cruelty you see on a stage as elevated as this.
You don’t usually see levels of success like this or goals like this either. Liverpool had still shown spirit, but Madrid had – again – shown how to win. They again had the trophy, that silver this time symbolising Europe’s gold-standard feat.