Champions League Final

For Loris Karius, it is a career-defining match. He may never recover from the memory of not one but two horrendous errors on the biggest of stages in club football. As much as the young German has improved since staking a definitive claim to being Jurgen Klopp’s first-choice goalkeeper, such mistakes are inexcusable at this level, further underlining Liverpool’s need to invest in a top-class goalkeeper this summer.

I can’t help but wonder how different it might have been had Mohamed Salah not been substituted after just 29 minutes with a suspected dislocated shoulder, after having been wrestled to the ground by the ever conniving Sergio Ramos three minutes earlier. For a tearful Salah, it is a heartbreaking end to a record-breaking season in which he has scored 44 goals in 52 games, winning countless individual accolades. Not only has the Egyptian been robbed of the opportunity to lead Liverpool to Champions League glory, but he now finds himself fighting to save his World Cup campaign, too. It was undoubtedly a cynical attempt to injure Salah from Ramos, who was as frustrating to watch as ever, later connecting his elbow with Loris Karius’ face before collapsing to clutch his own face claiming a slap from Sadio Mané, who was at the time stood some four yards away.

Little more could have been expected of Salah’s replacement, Adam Lallana, who before last night had featured for more than 20 minutes on only three occasions during a second consecutive injury-plagued season. During the early part of Jurgen Klopp’s tenure, Lallana’s effectiveness relied heavily on his fitness levels, but the substitute failed to influence the game for more than 60 minutes, lacking both the stamina to harry the Real Madrid defence and the sharpness to lead the Liverpool counter-attack. Had the option of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain been available to Klopp, perhaps his pace and more direct approach would have made him a more suitable candidate to replace Salah in the Liverpool attack.

Prior to the injury, Liverpool had been composed and assertive, threatening the Madrid defence from the outset, with a last ditch interception from Raphael Varane preventing Sadio Mané from testing Keylor Navas inside of the first minute. Liverpool were compact and measured in the press, harrying Real Madrid in typical fashion. Real Madrid looked to be shaken in the opening thirty minutes, with Toni Kroos and Dani Carvajal epitomising the manner in which they cheaply conceded possession on a number of occasions. Nineteen-year old Trent Alexander-Arnold, the only Scouser in the squad, also forced a save from Navas with a low, well-struck drive on a night when he once again showed maturity beyond his years.

The psychological blow of losing Salah, however, was palpable both among the players and the fans, both in the Olympic Stadium and back at Anfield, where 30,000 were watching a live screening of the match. In a first half of few chances, Liverpool dropped off following the substitution, and Real Madrid began to dominate the ball as the Reds had in the opening twenty minutes, with a rightly disallowed goal indicative of the mounting pressure that had a breakthrough seeming imminent at half-time.

In the second half, Real Madrid continued to dominate, and Isco hit the bar just two minutes after the restart.  Then came the first of Karius’ two gut-wrenching howlers to gift Real Madrid a 1-0 lead. The German goalkeeper calmly collected a stray pass on the edge of his area but, while attempting to roll the ball out to a nearby defender, he inexplicably threw it against Benzema’s outstretched foot, leaving the goalkeeper to watch on helplessly as the ricochet carried the ball into the unguarded net. It was a momentary but inexcusable lapse in concentration, and Real Madrid duly capitalised.

Liverpool’s heads did not drop, though, and they showed great resolve to recover almost immediately. Just three minutes later, Roberto Firmino was inches from meeting a James Milner cross. Then, from the resulting corner, Dejan Lovren rose highest to guide Milner’s lofted corner into the six-yard box for Sadio Mané to poke home from close range. As had been the case for the full sixty minutes to this point, it was a cacophony of Liverpool fans, mostly chanting “Allez, Allez, Allez”, that filled the Olympic Stadium.

Liverpool persisted, roared on by the chants of far more than the allocated 16,000 fans. Nevertheless, it was clear at this stage that Real Madrid were the dominant side and the more likely to score next. The holders were not creating guilt-edged chances, but they had pushed Liverpool deeper, with even Mané dragged into the mire and unable to offer an out-ball. In the sixty-first minute, Gareth Bale replaced Isco and announced his arrival within two minutes by scoring possibly the greatest goal ever seen in a major final, an audacious over-head kick from an otherwise innocuous right-footed cross from Marcelo.

Liverpool rallied and Sadio Mané hit the post, but they seemed to be running out of ideas, and now the tiredness of the Senegalese, as well as Lallana and the incessant midfield three was beginning to show. A series of corners from Milner curled too close to the goalkeeper to exploit Liverpool’s aerial dominance as exposed for Mané’s goal.

As Klopp’s side tired and began to take risks in search of an equaliser, Real Madrid found space to exploit a stretched Liverpool defence. A last gasp sliding tackle from Andy Robertson prevented Cristiano Ronaldo from adding his customary goal. Then, with seven minutes of regular time remaining, Bale shifted onto his left foot some thirty yards from goal and unleashed a strike with real venom but, in truth, very little movement. It looked to be heading right at Karius, who raised two hands only for the ball to strike them and fall limply into the Liverpool net. It was reminiscent of his save against Roma in the semi-final, in which an unconvincing hand fortunately sufficed to tip the ball onto the crossbar. What makes it so disappointing is not that it is a goalkeeping error, but that, despite his improved form, the warning signs have always persisted with Karius.

In truth, the scoreline could have been worse as in the closing minutes Bale was denied a hat-trick by a sliding challenge from Lovren before Van Dijk cut off a cross destined for Ronaldo to tap home. With just seconds remaining, it was then the turn of a pitch invader to deny Ronaldo the chance to add his customary goal, and to seal a deserved victory for Real Madrid. Still the singing persisted, and You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out around the Olympic Stadium as the referee brought the game to a close.

  • Karius: 2
  • TAA: 7
  • Lovren: 8
  • Van Dijk: 7
  • Robertson: 7
  • Henderson: 7
  • Milner: 6 / Can: 6
  • Wijnaldum: 7
  • Salah: 6 / Lallana: 5
  • Firmino: 6
  • Mane: 8

Perhaps the decisive factor was simply that Zinedine Zidane had the likes of Bale to turn to on the Real Madrid bench, a €100m world class player who would ultimately score the greatest goal in Champions League final history. Even Marco Asensio, introduced with just two minutes remaining, would be a star player for most other teams in world football. In contrast, it is telling that Klopp chose to make only two substitutions, despite the obvious tiredness of his team in the latter stages. With Lallana already introduced in place of the injured Salah, Liverpool’s only offensive option at that stage was, by contrast, Dominic Solanke, a 20-year old striker who had scored just one goal all season.

It may be too simplistic to look to two catastrophic mistakes from Karius and conclude that, without them, the score may well have been 1-1. What’s more, we will never know what might have been if Salah had been able to play the full match. There can be no excuses, no ifs, buts or maybes. Nobody but Liverpool will care for the story of how they came to lose this final in 10 years time. What matters is simply that Liverpool did lose.

Heartbreaking footage at the end of the match showed a distraught Karius sheepishly heading for the Liverpool supporters, raising his hands in floods of tears to accept his responsibility and to plead for forgiveness from those who had travelled thousands of miles, spending thousands of pounds to watch their time in an eighth European Cup final. On a personal level, it is difficult not to sympathise with Karius, who knows better than anyone the consequences of his blunders. On a professional level, though, it’s hard to see him featuring at all prominently for Liverpool next season.

It is the supporters for whom I reserve the most sympathy and pride. From the first minute to the last, the Liverpool fans sang for their team and gave everything to transmit their energy into the team, and to inspire a commendably resilient performance.

In the post-match analysis, much has been made of the fact that Klopp has now lost 6 cup finals in a row. It is noteworthy, however, that his teams – both Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool – have likely been the underdogs in 5 of those 6 finals, with the dubious exception of the Europa League final against back-to-back winners Sevilla in 2016. In short, this is not a question of tactical incompetence, naïvety or desire. There is no credible reason to believe that Klopp will not guide this team to silverware next season.

When the dust settles, Klopp and his players will reflect on the season as a whole as a major step forward, and can use their disappointment against Real Madrid as motivation heading into the next campaign. It is worth stressing that any Liverpool fan would in August have snatched at the offer of a top-four finish in the Premier League and a place in the Champions League final. Let’s not forget that, as fans, we shrugged at the signing of Salah, who appeared at best to be a winger who may get 10 or 15 goals, but who had failed at Chelsea, and we grumbled in January when Klopp chose not to replace his most talented player, Philippe Coutinho, who was sold to Barcelona for £142m. Salah has gone on to score 44 goals, winning countless individual accolades and breaking almost every record before him in the process. As for Coutinho, that his departure is scarcely mentioned is testament to the achievements of Liverpool in the aftermath. In previous seasons, the loss of such a player would have derailed an entire project, as was the case for Brendan Rodgers when he reluctantly sold Luis Suárez. We must keep faith in Klopp, because his is a project that seems destined to end in glory sooner rather than later.

Irrespective of the result last night, it has been a good season. Liverpool remained unbeaten at Anfield all season and have qualified for the Champions League for successive seasons for the first time in over 10 years. That alone represents significant progress, irrespective of a magnificent Champions League run in which Liverpool scored a record 47 goals in 15 games, including seven against Maribor and Spartak Moscow, a mesmerising five-nil demolition of Porto in the Dragão, a 5-1 aggregate victory over the odds-on favourites for the trophy – and runaway champions of England – Manchester City, and a breathtaking five goals in thirty-two minutes to all but eliminate Roma in the highest-scoring semi-final in Champions League history.

Ultimately, Liverpool gave a good account of themselves in the final, and there’s no doubt that, with a fit Salah and one or two additions, they have the ability, graft and motivation to challenge any team in the world on their day. Crucially, and as exposed once more in the final, it is reinforcements to the squad – rather than to the first eleven – that are required for the most part, particularly with Naby Keïta’s transfer already confirmed, and with Van Dijk having impressed since his arrival in January.

There will be money to spend for Klopp, not least because this season’s record-high Premier League television rights deal has been accompanied by an unexpected Champions League run, which has generated a further £70m in revenue. In addition, the futures of senior players including Simon Mignolet, Alberto Moreno, Daniel Sturridge, Lazar Marković, Divock Origi, Danny Ings, and – sadly – Loris Karius, are all uncertain.

Goalkeeper: Even before a shambolic night from Karius, Liverpool were in the market for a goalkeeper, with Mignolet seemingly destined for a summer exit. It may now be that Karius does not play for Liverpool again, and both he and Mignolet leave, with an international class goalkeeper arriving and Danny Ward promoted to second-choice.

Centre-back: The arrival of Virgil Van Dijk in January has seen Liverpool’s defensive woes hugely subsided in the second-half of the season, with the Dutchman’s commanding presence impacting positively on Lovren’s performances in recent months. Various injuries to Lovren, Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez have exposed Liverpool at times this season, most memorably when Klopp was forced to select Wijnaldum and Can as his centre-backs against Brighton in December.

Central-midfielder: Liverpool already have the exciting box-to-box midfielder Naby Keïta joining from RB Leipzig for £52m, but with Emre Can leaving for Juventus on a free transfer, Liverpool will need one more option in midfield if they intend to compete on multiple fronts once more next season. Towards the end of the season, with injuries to Lallana, Can and Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool were also left short in this department, forced to rely upon Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum, with Alexander-Arnold even drafted into midfield on occasion.

(Wide) forward: The Champions League final compounded what Liverpool fans have known all season, that a significant injury to any one of Liverpool’s mercurial front-three leaves them short of their crucial verve. To find a replacement for Roberto Firmino is near-impossible due to his unique style, but Klopp and his staff will be looking to secure a replacement for Philippe Coutinho, and perhaps another attacking outlet in the mould of Salah and Mané. Nabil Fekir of Lyon has been widely linked with a £62m move to Anfield in the coming weeks.

Regardless of their summer dealings, Liverpool are a team in the ascendency. This is a special group of players, and the addition of Van Dijk has already added defensive solidity to supplement their breathtaking attacking prowess. If kept together and reinforced with one or two additions, they could produce something special next season.

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