For Liverpool it was a game too far. Number 63 of a season in which they have contested every single one that has been open to them was supposed to bring the crowning glory, the moment to define Jürgen Klopp’s era.
There have been six trophies under the manager, including two massive ones – the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League the following season. But to beat Real Madrid in an almost impossibly glamorous showpiece to complete a cup treble promised a new, even more rarefied high.
It was not to be. On a night when the kick-off was delayed by 37 minutes due to problems for the Liverpool fans outside the stadium here on the north side of Paris, their team gave everything only to run into more than Real’s mystique, the line that the Spanish champions parrot about how they do not lose these endings.
Standing in the Real goal, Thibaut Courtois had a night when he made outstanding saves and also saw the defenders in front of him put their bodies on the lines, repeatedly thwarting Liverpool.
Klopp’s team started brightly but they were reeled in by the old masters, for whom this was a 14th triumph in the competition. Vinícius Júnior struck the decisive blow just before the hour and, no matter what Liverpool did thereafter, Courtois found a way to deny them. Carlo Ancelotti has made history by winning the trophy for the fourth time as a manager. Liverpool are left with only bitter regrets.
The pre-match had been chaotic, the Liverpool team bus stuck in traffic at 7.35pm local time – less than 90 minutes before the scheduled kick-off time; it would make it in five minutes later – and the match then delayed as thousands of Liverpool fans were stuck outside the stadium. Some of them said the authorities had closed one of the gates that serviced their enclosure and there was anxiety as tensions rose and the police fired pepper spray.
The big screen carried the message that the delay was “due to a security issue” and there would be an announcement it was “owing to the late arrival of fans”, which was disputed by Liverpool supporters. The police put out a message on Twitter urging them not to “force entry”. It was hugely unsettling. Both sets of players re-emerged for another warmup, trying to keep the blood pumping. The packed Real end whistled. They wanted the game to get going.
At 8.44pm, Gary Lineker had tweeted that he was “finding it impossible to get in the ground. This appears to be very dangerous. Absolute carnage.” There were reports of fans being herded into tight spaces and it had certainly been difficult to get too excited as the cameras picked out notables such as the King of Spain, Rafael Nadal and the Brazilian Ronaldo and the pre-match show cranked up.
To the action, belatedly, and the great sense of theatre, the swagger and attitude brought by two of the giants of this competition, not to mention the history. You had to go back to 1981 for Real’s previous defeat in a European Cup final and it came across town at the Parc des Princes against Liverpool, thanks to Alan Kennedy’s late goal. Liverpool had been stung by the most recent meeting in the 2018 final, with Mohamed Salah having admitted that there was a score to settle.
Klopp had wanted an aggressive start and he got it, his team pressing high, snapping into challenges, dominating the ball. With Sadio Mané and Salah showing their intent with sharp movements, especially in between the lines, Liverpool had the chances, too – Courtois forced to make two excellent saves in the opening 20 minutes.
The first followed a burst and cross from Trent Alexander-Arnold and Salah did well to unload when off balance. Courtois sprang low to his left to get a hand down. The second stop was even better. Mané sliced from left to right, opening up a space and the shot for the near corner from the edge of the area packed a punch. Courtois stretched to tip it against the inside of his post and, although the ball ran in front of the line, it would not spin over it. Salah would also send two further efforts at the goalkeeper before the interval.
Real sat deep, hoping to spring on the counter. After Liverpool’s initial flurry, they dug out a foothold with their rhythmic short passing game.
They looked supremely unruffled, believing that their time would come, and it nearly did on 43 minutes when Karim Benzema took a high pass to the right of goal and jinked inside with Alisson in close attendance.
When Benzema jabbed to the left, it was the prompt for Alisson and Ibrahima Konaté to get into a tangle. Fede Valverde snapped towards the loose ball, so did Fabinho and, when it broke, Benzema – who was in an offside position – rammed the ball home. How did it reach him? If it had come off Fabinho, Liverpool would have a problem. VAR ruled that it did so, but inadvertently, meaning that the goal had to be ruled out. It was extremely difficult to unpick.
Real were happy to play at a slower tempo and, as they measured their moves with precision, it felt as though they had Liverpool where they wanted them, even if they were not exactly carving them apart. With this Real team the fear lies in what they might do, the moment that they could create.
Then it happened. The danger did not appear pronounced when Casemiro worked the ball out right to the excellent Valverde but that quickly changed when the midfielder drilled over a low cross. Vínicius had timed his run in behind Alexander-Arnold and he swept into the empty net.
What did Liverpool have left? It was the time to dig impossibly deep. Salah cut inside and unfurled a curler for the far corner and yet Courtois got across and, moments later, when the substitute, Diogo Jota, headed square, Salah saw Courtois block from him at the near post.
Casemiro fluffed a square pass with Vínicius and Benzema in front of goal and Courtois denied Salah twice more. In between, the Liverpool substitute, Naby Keita, lifted high over the crossbar.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism