“Two hours ago you all felt s***. Now hopefully you all feel better. This is just the start for us. We will play in many more finals.”
Jürgen Klopp’s rallying cry may have fallen on the deaf ears of his crestfallen Liverpool squad the night of the Europa League final, but it is proof that fate works in strange ways. Two years on, Klopp has proved to be a man of his word. His team have earned the right to another battle to the death – and this time, it’s against the most decorated and fearsome of fighters.
Real Madrid’s enduring love affair with the Champions League continues. The walls of the Santiago Bernabeu describe the team of the 1950s as “The team that won five European Cups in a row amazed the world with its spectacular brand of football. An endless torrent of success made the club the most decorated in Europe. It was proclaimed the ‘king of kings‘.”
Considering how the club no longer have a helping hand from General Franco, and the infinitely more competitive nature of the Champions League over the European Cup in its infancy, winning a 4th title in 5 years will surely put Zinedine Zidane’s men ahead of Di Stéfano, Gento, Kopa et al as Real Madrid’s greatest ever side.
And so England and Spain’s most successful clubs in European competition go to war at the Olympic Stadium in Kiev, best known for hosting the Euro 2012 final. There will no doubt be a thunderous rendition of the iconic Champions League anthem before kick off, but take it with a pinch of salt – both Real Madrid and Liverpool were at no point this season the best of their domestic competition, far from it in fact. Madrid’s defence of their title was tame to put it kindly, and Liverpool were never in the picture, as has been the case for much of the last 28 years. Still, the quality of the sides has shone through in clutch moments, and that’s the name of the game in the Champions League.
Despite blowing hot and cold at times this season, both teams have kept up a remarkable level of performance in the competition. No two teams deserve to be in the final more. Real negated a group with Tottenham and Dortmund, before beating the champions of France, Italy, and Germany on the trot. Liverpool have adopted a strategy of attempting to make up for shortcomings in defence by simply blowing teams away in breathtaking attacking spells, seen in the knockouts against Porto, Roma, and Manchester City. Despite losing Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January and opting not to replace him, the Anfield outfit have broken the record for most goals in a single Champions League campaign.
Saturday will be a blast from the past for Klopp. The obvious black mark on his managerial career is his record in finals – just one win from six. Two of those losses came against Bayern, who at the time were playing their 3rd final in 4 years and Sevilla, on a quest to complete a hat-trick of titles. Real will provide both challenges for the price of one. Some would say that it makes the task all the more harder but knowing Klopp, he probably sees it as a chance to right the wrongs.
If Klopp is seeking redemption, Zidane is chasing immortality. No side defended their Champions League crown successfully before his all-conquering juggernaut came along, and now he has the chance to become the most successful manager in the history of the competition, taking his place alongside Carlo Ancelotti and Bob Paisley. A treble of successive titles is a record so staggering it almost sounds daft, but anyone who has seen Los Blancos in the past two and a half seasons knows it’s well within their reach.
If the game was played on paper, Liverpool might as well have packed their bags by now. The gulf in experience is wider than in any final in the past few years. Between them, Real’s squad players have played 47 finals. The Reds have none. Time and again Real have shown that being the better side doesn’t matter – grinding out win after win even when the chips are down. This isn’t to say that they’re short on quality. How could they be with Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks? The one man goal machine has proven to be the king of the competition yet again, bagging 15 goals in 10 straight games. As has been the case in the last couple of years, he has shown that suggestions of him being on the wane due to his advancing age are unfounded yet again.
So how do the Merseysiders, relative rookies, better a team that’s already been there done that? Not many expect them to win, but not many expected them to be here in the first place, and that’s just fine by them. Saturday’s final is a day and 13 years after a certain miracle in Istanbul, which is all the more impressive keeping in mind the opposition. Each player of Milan’s starting eleven that night are considered modern day legends in their own right, and same will be said of this Madrid lot down the years. But football is a funny game, and you never know when the misfits may land a knockout punch.
Salah vs Ronaldo, van Dijk vs Ramos, Red vs White – this game promises to be an assault to the senses, and then some. Science provides little, if any clues to what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, but Kiev will bear witness to what happens when two formidable forces collide.
Image 1 via Football 365
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