Sometimes, in football, in life, everything just goes against you. Liverpool had one of those nights in Kiev. It’s the nature of the sport. It can be cruel, brutal and soul-crushing. Those three words are an apt description of how this latest cup final defeat feels in the immediate aftermath.
Liverpool have been the best side in the Champions League this season. No team has ever scored more goals in this competition in a single season. The football, at times, has been stunning beyond anything we’ve ever seen. Manchester City, Premier League champions with 100 points, sent crashing out, 5-1. Porto demolished, 5-0. Roma, in the semi-finals, 5-0 down at Anfield. This kind of thing simply doesn’t happen at this level.
To win the trophy, though, you always need a bit of luck to get over the line in the final. It’s a game of fine margins. Real Madrid have become the masters of riding their luck and obtaining those fine margins over the past three years. Liverpool, on this occasion, were on the wrong side of pretty much everything.
It’s a really strong, aggressive start from Jürgen Klopp’s side. Real Madrid were second best by some distance, struggling to cope with Liverpool’s sheer speed and intensity. When Dani Carvajal lashes the ball out 40-yards for a corner under absolutely no pressure at all, you could tell Zinedine Zidane’s players were rattled. Karim Benzema put the ball out of play under no pressure, too. Cristiano Ronaldo was more or less invisible.
And then disaster struck. When your best player, your talisman, has to leave the field with a shoulder injury after half an hour, it’s a hammer blow of the heaviest possible kind. Sergio Ramos knew precisely what he was doing has he wrenched Salah’s arm round at a bizarre angle before hauling him to the floor, as evidenced by his knowing grin to the linesman immediately afterwards.
The impact on Liverpool was two-fold. Obviously, the attack carried nowhere near the same level of threat thereafter, as Adam Lallana’s lack of pace and match fitness severely limited Liverpool’s forward line. Perhaps most significantly, though, was the mental aspect of Salah’s injury.
The players were visibly shaken at their star player having to go off so early in tears. They knew they had an almighty battle on their hands to get the job down without the Egyptian’s sensational ability to call upon, and that was the pivotal moment upon which the contest turned on its head.
Real Madrid were given an enormous lift and began to strengthen their grip on proceedings, with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos demonstrating once more why they have been the best midfield duo in world football for several years now. Liverpool’s pressing fell off dramatically as they dropped deeper and deeper, with that initial spark of the early stages put out by the shock of Salah’s untimely departure.
That said, Real Madrid were hardly battering the door down before they were gifted the opener in the most absurd circumstances imaginable, as Loris Karius inexplicably rolled the ball into Karim Benzema’s outstretched knee, as it trickled slowly over the line in agonising fashion.
Sadio Mané briefly gave Liverpool hope after stabbing home the equaliser from a corner, and shortly after saw a superb effort cannon back off the post, only for Gareth Bale to come off the bench and score one of the greatest goals you’ll ever see, a sensational bicycle kick ruthlessly dispatched with a stroke of utter genius into the back of the net. Fine margins.
When something like that happens, there’s not an awful lot you can do but applaud a truly magnificent individual effort, for which no Liverpool defenders could take any blame.
It felt like a killer blow at the time, and was compounded by another howler from Karius as he spilled Bale’s dipping 30-yard strike into the back of his own net to cap off a nightmarish evening for the German keeper.
It was a harrowing sight to see him in tears, apologising to the away supporters for his costly errors and in truth, it’s difficult to see a way back for him now at the club given the likely damaging effect this will have on his confidence.
To see such disgusting abuse thrown in his direction via social media is a sorry indictment of the way supporters treat footballers online, and while such a performance at this level is inexcusable, those errors were not intentional and from a human perspective, he’ll be going through a quite horrible time and should never have to face such vile treatment from his own supporters.
In the short term, it’s a really bitter pill to swallow and it’s absolutely gut-wrenching that such a remarkable European campaign should end in such devastating fashion. It’s the feeling of regret, that Salah’s injury deprived everyone of seeing a fully fledged Liverpool side push Real Madrid all the way, and only saw a pale imitation of the side thereafter.
Yet the memories of this run, of Porto, of Man City, of Roma, will live on. None of that is taken away by this single defeat and those nights were up there with the most joyous Liverpool fans have experienced this century. Only one team can win this competition and for Liverpool to go so close, with a squad depleted by injuries to key players (and having sold Philippe Coutinho in January), while disappointing in the extreme to fall short at the final hurdle once more, has exceeded all expectations.
It’s been a quite incredible season and with new summer signings to come in and further bolster this already brilliant Liverpool squad, the club is still on a steep upward trajectory under Klopp, in the best shape it has been in for some time.
With Naby Keita set to arrive, and a likely move for Nabil Fekir on the horizon, this Liverpool side is still far from the finished product and will continue it’s exciting evolution next season and beyond. With Champions League football already secured one more for 2018-19, Liverpool are very much back, dining at Europe’s high table once more.
Right now it hurts, a lot. It will take a while to fully get over that feeling of dreams being crushed. But to lose a final, you have to be in the final. The whole point in following a football team is to live the kind of joy and elation Liverpool have delivered throughout this latest chapter in the club’s European history, which so few clubs ever get to experience.
It’s been one hell of a ride. This single result doesn’t change any of that.