Kyiv, Ukraine — a very different place four years ago. The city now decimated by Russian invasion was once a festival of football — hosts of the Champions League final. The road to Ukraine had been treacherous for fans of Liverpool and Real Madrid, some taking 36 hours to reach the Olimpiyskiy National stadium. The blistering heat quickly transitioned into a cool evening as the ground was engulfed by seas of red and white. This was the biggest occasion in football, and four years on we are treated to a rematch in Paris.
While it’s still tough to call who will lift Europe’s senior competition later this month, with Los Blancos one of the favourites in the Champions League odds as they are most campaigns, Liverpool are a vastly more experienced side than the one that reached the 2018 final.
Despite Mohamed Salah riding the crest of a wave, scoring against Brighton on the final day of the Premier League for his 44th goal of the season, Jürgen Klopp had lost his last five finals, and only Jordan Henderson had tasted success previously with the Reds — a 2012 League Cup against Cardiff City. Madrid on the other hand were a winning machine. Domestically they fell short to Barcelona but had still won the last two Champions Leagues under Zinedine Zidane. The Frenchman was so fixated on winning; he dropped an inform Gareth Bale — a move that would later prove to be a stroke of genius.
From the minute the game kicked off Madrid were in the ascendancy. Liverpool created a few half chances but you never felt Keylor Navas was genuinely troubled. Klopp’s industrious midfield had done a good job at suppressing Madrid’s mercurial triumvirate of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić. This stopped Cristiano Ronaldo from really getting any service, initially marked out of the game by a 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Then came the game’s defining moment. Salah lost control of the ball in Madrid’s half before a fall with Sergio Ramos led to the Spaniard falling on top of him and dislocating the Egyptian’s arm. Having unsuccessfully tried to play on, Liverpool’s ‘Egyptian King’ was stretchered off in tears, and Ramos, the pantomime villain in Kyiv, left to motivate his team and Dani Carvajal who was also forced off as Madrid headed into the interval level. Replacements Adam Lallana and Nacho failed to influence the game in any capacity.
That night in Ukraine was significant for so many reasons — another one being the end of Loris Karius’ time as Liverpool’s number one. The German had been a figure of inconsistency throughout his maiden season at Anfield, but after establishing himself as the successor for Simon Mignolet in his second campaign, many thought he had turned a new leaf. They were sorely mistaken. A routine catch was followed by Karius rushing to distribute the ball, and in doing so gifted the opening goal to Karim Benzema, who blocked his throw to let the ball roll into an empty net.
Just a few minutes later and Liverpool thought they had saved themselves. An ambitious corner lofted towards the back post was flicked on by Dejan Lovren into the path of Sadio Mané, who redirected the ball to cue delirium in the Liverpool end. 1-1. However, the Reds’ party was short lived as Bale was introduced from the bench.
Regardless of how things turned out for him at Madrid, the next 20 minutes should have branded Bale a Santiago Bernabéu legend. His first goal, an acrobatic overhead kick that perhaps defied gravity, will rightly be remembered as the best goal in a Champions League final ever, with even his manager, whose volley against Bayer Leverkusen is also a contender, could only put his hands on his head in sheer disbelief. If that strike hadn’t killed the game, his brace did.
While it was a clean strike, there’s no doubt Karius, clearly shaken up from his earlier blunder and then a collision with Ramos, should have done better. Bale struck the ball from 30 yards for the German to spill it into his own net. Ronaldo had been quiet, Isco the same, but nonetheless, this Madrid side just knew how to get over the line. Three consecutive Champions League titles, 13 overall.
Almost four years to the day the sides will meet again. And while the spine of that Real side including Zidane have moved on or dipped in form, the Liverpool players will be hungry for revenge at the Stade de France. There’s unfinished business on Klopp’s end, and it will be interesting to see if Liverpool can win a seventh Champions League to end a memorable season.
Founder and editor of Footiecentral. A voracious reader who loves reading anything and everything related to the history of football. He’s an ardent supporter of Manchester United and rarely misses a match.