A stunning 30 minute cameo from Gareth Bale inspired Real Madrid to overrun Liverpool in the Champions League final on Sunday morning, with a 3-1 victory earning the club their third consecutive European crown.
The Reds started the better of the two teams, coming out of the blocks at an explosive pace and using some lovely link-up play to force Real Madrid into retreat.
However, their momentum was halted when Mohamed Salah was forced off due to injury, to be replaced by Adam Lallana. Madrid captain Sergio Ramos tackled the Egyptian to the ground and forced him to land awkwardly on his shoulder.
Minutes later it was Real’s turn to lose a player through injury though. A fairly innocuous challenge from Andrew Robertson spelled the end of Dani Carvajal’s night, with the Spaniard seemingly hurting his achilles. Nacho Fernandez entered the fray in his place.
Back on the pitch, Karim Benzema had the ball in the net on the stroke of half-time – turning in Ronaldo’s header which was excellently saved by Loris Karius. The linesman’s offside flag halted any premature Madrid celebrations, however, as the teams went into the break scoreless.
Liverpool needed to regroup with Salah out of the match, but it was Madrid that went closest to scoring – with Isco rattling the crossbar in the 47th minute.
It did not take much longer for the lead to be found, and it came in the most horrible of circumstances for Jurgen Klopp’s men. After claiming a routine ball at the top of his penalty area, Karius attempted to distribute quickly out to Virgil van Dijk – but Benzema was alert. The Frenchman deflected Karius’ quick throw, and time stood still as the whole world watched the ball trickle into the net.
The advantage did not last long as Sadio Mane equalised for Liverpool, when he was quickest to react in diverting Dejan Lovren’s back post header form a corner.
The travelling Kopites began to find their voice, but they and the whole football world were about to be silenced by the introduction of Bale, who replaced Isco on the hour mark.
Within four minutes of coming on, the Welshman scored not only one of the greatest Champions League final goals, but one of the best goals in world football history. Adjusting his body as Marcelo’s whipped delivery approached him on the edge of the box, Bale leapt and launched a spectacular overhead kick past a hapless Karius – reminiscent of his teammate Cristiano Ronaldo’s effort against Juventus earlier in the competition.
Liverpool continued to fight for their second equaliser of the match, and Mane came closest again – striking the post with 20 minutes to play.
Ultimately it was Bale who had the final say, as his 40-yard rocket was too much for Karius to handle, all but giving Los Blancos the trophy and yet more history in the modern game.
Bale issues a timely reminder
Frustrated with restricted minutes and some questionable fan support this season, the former Spurs superstar came on with a certain attitude of ‘hey, remember me?’
His pace and directness was a significant game changer, springing off the bench to spur his teammates on to victory. His performance, and indeed that mesmerising bicycle kick, will go down in history.
Speaking on the pitch after the post-match celebrations, Bale cast a cloud of doubt over his future at the Bernabeu, indicating that he needs to be playing week in, week out, and his current situation in Madrid is not allowing him to do that.
While his future is unclear, his quality and reputation in European football certainly is known and understood across the world, and wherever it is that he is plying his trade next season, he will undoubtedly be a success.
Salah’s legendary season ends in tears
Liverpool’s ‘Egyptian King’ was distraught as he left the pitch in Kiev with just 30 minutes on the clock, as teammates, medical staff and Klopp tried to console his shattered figure.
It was an incredibly unfortunate and undeserving way for Liverpool’s No.11 to end a record-breaking season, in which he scored 32 goals in the Premier League – a record in a 38 game season – and 44 in all competitions, which included 10 in the Champions League.
Perhaps even more devastating, is the likelihood that he will miss the World Cup with his beloved Egypt, a tournament that he guided his teammates into with a winning penalty in the dying minutes of their final qualifier.
The World Cup is a showcase of the best talents in football, and he will be sorely missed if early fears of his injury are to be true.
The thoughts of the whole world are with him in wishing a speedy recovery, and all sights will turn to next season as he looks to replicate his insane numbers from this campaign.
Karius to blame, but not the scapegoat
There is no denying that the young German committed two howlers in this match, and that, given the complexion of the game, they cost his team dearly in their search for a winner’s medal.
Karius was inconsolable at the final whistle, as he sobbed with his head in hands, making his way over to the Liverpool fans to apologise for his mistakes in truly heartbreaking scenes.
Klopp bought Karius from Mainz with confidence, and since then he has already grown and improved so much. He is young, he is human. Humans make mistakes, and young humans who lack experience are more susceptible to those errors.
One must not overlook the outstanding work that Karius has put in during the season, and while this will undoubtedly hurt for some time, there is no reason for him to become a scapegoat, and no immediate necessity to replace him between the sticks.
Real Madrid and the European Cup – a perfect match
A famous quote by match commentator Clive Tyldesly as Steven Gerrard lifted the 2005 Champions League trophy comes to mind here, as he said “Liverpool’s love affair with the European Cup continues.”
If the Reds have a love affair with the ‘Big Ears’ trophy, then Real Madrid have a long-lasting marriage with it, as a third in a row and fourth in five incredible years takes their overall total to 13 Champions League’s, eight more than Liverpool and six more than their nearest competitor in AC Milan.
Zinedine Zidane’s side played with confidence, an air of arrogance and authority that ultimately saw them past a very good Liverpool, as they became the first team in the UEFA Champions League era to win three titles in a row.
This team of superstars and history makers will only continue to flourish as their players gain yet more experience and reach their prime, which spells grave danger for the rest of the continent.
Liverpool just getting started
Despite Klopp’s unwanted record in major competition finals (he has now won just once in eight attempts in his managerial career), what is clear is that he has hauled Liverpool out of the depths of mediocrity that the club has been stuck in for large parts of this century.
Three cup finals in two seasons, two of which were in Europe, back-to-back top four finishes for the first time in nine years, great success in the transfer market and dominance at Anfield have highlighted Klopp’s hugely successful beginning to his reign.
Very, very few people will have tipped Liverpool to make it all the way to the final of the Champions League, and Real Madrid were heavily backed as favourites coming into the game in Kiev, but they defied all odds in getting there and competing.
With a strong summer in the transfer market, the desire for redemption that this defeat has ultimately brought and an excellent foundation in place already, the Reds are set up for an exciting future, and they will be back here in no time at all.