May, 2017- no club in history had ever retained the Champions League Trophy.
May, 2018- Real Madrid have just won their third consecutive Champions League title.
Real Madrid have written history once again conquering their 13th Champions League and finishing the season with the hat trick of UCL trophies. This game has been a roller coaster from minute 1. It had everything- tactical frailties, game altering injuries, anxiety and a goal that is arguably the best in ucl history.
Madrid arrived in Kiev expecting Liverpool to bring the fight to them, and Liverpool delivered. Klopp would have hoped for Zidane to opt the 4-4-2 diamond over the 4-4-3 with Bale, as Liverpool’s high pressing and ability to exploit Madrid’s lack of space due to Gareth’s absence would serve as the perfect setup for Klopp to restore Liverpool’s reputation as an European powerhouse. Zidane’s tactics aside, Liverpool would have hoped to exploit Casemiro’s lack of composure when being pressed, and the space Marcelo leaves behind when he ventures a move to attack.
While they were successful in forcing Casemiro into making errors by pressing him and forcing him into giving the ball up very frequently, Sergio Ramos dropped a masterclass and not only did he cover up for the Brazilian left-back very efficiently but also distributed the ball from the back better than you favourite CM. Nonetheless, Liverpool was the side that exploited Madrid’s defensive weaknesses through their three forwards, Firmino, Mane and Salah. It was the latter’s injury that turned the game over it’s head. Liverpool had been breaking inside the Spanish final third over and over again, making good use of the pace offered by their front three. But one shady tackle by El captino (more on that later) broke the hearts of thousands of Liverpool and Egyptian fans alike. Real had their own injury problems too though, as Carvajal came down with an apparent hamstring injury and was forced to limp out of the final within 10 minutes of HT. Nacho was brought on for Carvajal, and Lallana for Salah. Our hearts bleed for Salah and Dani, and we hope they recover in time for the World Cup.
The second half begun with the score still at 0-0, but that changed in the 51st minute after a horrible, horrible mistake from the English goalkeeper Loris Karius, as an attempted short pass from him on the edge of the box was intercepted by Benzema just inches from Karius’ gloves and the ball rolled into the bottom corner of the net. Disastrous goalkeeping. 1-0 to Real Madrid.
Madrid was doing what they’ve been doing this entire season by this point, dominating the midfield. You might call Zizou lucky or tactically inept, but he had a plan and it was clearly working. But conceding a goal did give Liverpool a new life, as they pressed and attacked with greater intensities and scored a goal through Mane in the 55th minute. 1-1.
61st minute. Zidane brought in Bale for Isco, hoping to use his pace to exploit Liverpool’s defense. The Liverpool players were tired at this point, and it was the perfect substitution, as this would leave their defenders unable to match his pace. And it worked. Do you remember Zidane’s goal in the 2002 UCL final? And the golazo Cristiano scored in the 2018 semi-final against Juventus? Take the importance of the former, and the spectacle of the latter, and you’ll get what Bale showed us last night. A pin-point cross from Marcelo, followed by a perfect leap from Bale and a beautiful overhead kick that you won’t forget in your life. One of the, if not THE best goals in UCL history. 2-1 to Real Madrid.
By this point, Liverpool was completely shut down by the men in white. The superiority in quality was clear. Kroos and Modric were dictating the flow of the game. The thirteenth was coming home. But not without yet another disastrous goalkeeping by Karius. Bale tested his luck, and the opposing goalkeeper, and took a long shot, which went straight to Karius’ hands. Yet, he let the ball slip into the net to add another blunder which has already been a rather embarrassing display by the young keeper. 3-1 to Real Madrid.
Let’s talk about the Madrid setup now. The 4-4-2 diamond has proved to be very effective in the past, and Madrid were basically unstoppable last year when they used this. But the system had flaws, and you would expect Klopp to identify and plan to exploit them. Casemiro, for instance, was the most obvious target for Liverpool. And that’s what they did, as they pressed him and won possession from him multiple times. But would you really expect Zidane to overlook that problem? Absolutely not. If you watch the match carefully, you’ll observe how Casemiro was the target of high presses, which allowed Kroos to act as the lone pivot. Therefore, while Madrid themselves eliminated their own player from the collective, it allowed the other 10 some freedom and space to do something with the ball. A good plan, i’d say.
Another concern for the men in white was the space Marcelo leaves behind when he makes a run forwards. Madrid got lucky with Salah’s injury as he was unavailable to go head-on with Marcelo. Nonetheless, any space left behind was very efficiently covered up by Ramos, who was one of the best players on the pitch last night. Not only was he solid as a rock in the Madrid defense, but he also proved his ball distribution skills multiple times over the 90 minutes. He also filled in for Marcelo when the Brazilian left his post to help with the attack. But let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Was that foul on Salah intentional? Absolutely not. Rather, it was good defending and it was Salah who locked arms with the spaniard. Ramos has had a rather rough history when it comes to his discipline, but on this instant, there was absolutely nothing wrong with his challenge.
The positives now. Is it coincidence that Real Madrid has won 4/6 UCL trophies while Modric has been a regular starter/completely fit? Absolutely not. One of the greatest midfielder to ever step foot on a football pitch. GODRIC was all over the pitch last night. He was filling in for Carvajal/Nacho when they were up ahead attacking, and making key passes to penetrate the Liverpool defense. He made some vital blocks and interceptions right from the beginning of the match, and continued this godly display till the final whistle. He got his reward, 4 UCL trophies in 5 years. Your favourite CM could never.
Next time someone asks you what poetic means, point them towards Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale’s 2017/2018 season. The fans all over the world howled for them to be sold since the season started, as they didn’t live up to “the Real Madrid standards” and they were the tw players who had the maximum impact on the most important game of the season, with their names on the scoresheet. Shakespearean stuff, this. We’ll talk about Gareth’s goal in a minute, but let’s take a moment to appreciate Benzema for a moment. After having a goal being disallowed for being barely offside, Benzema finally got his big final goal after he took advantage of a horrendous piece of goalkeeping by the opponents. The big goal aside, Benzema did what he does best and goes unnoticed for it. It’s weird to see a number 9 not scoring tonnes of goals, yes but Benzema’s importance manifests away from the goal. Benzema tracked back throughout the match and was beaming with confidence. So glad he got to redeem himself when it mattered.
Gareth Bale. The most expensive player in the world at one point, Bale was criticized for being injured throughout his spell with Real Madrid. Injury prone as he is, no one could wonder if he was good enough. He proved himself in his first season, and again last night. Coming on as a sub for Isco, all Bale had to do was exploit the tired Liverpool players with his pace and he delivered. A pin-point cross from Marcelo at the perfect height later, Gareth Bale had scored the best goal in UCL history in yet another final for Real Madrid. I’ll just leave you with the GIF.
It’s funny how Klopp told the media that while Marcelo was very effective going forward, he couldn’t defend, and Marcelo ended up providing the 2 crosses in the final, while hardly committing any defensive errors. Toni Kroos was consistent as always, hardly misplacing any pass and staying calm while dictating the tempo of the game. His pairing with Modric is one of the greatest ever, rivaled only by a Xavi-Iniesta of sorts. Varane was as good as his captain in the match and having won his 4th UCL at the age of 24, there’s no doubt who’s going to man the Madrid defense for years to come.
And yes, while Cristiano did drop a 4/10 performance in the final all his contributions throughout the competition can’t be overlooked. 15 goals in the tournament, having scored in all the matches until the semi-finals is an achievement in itself. Cut him some slack. At least it proved that his team’s performance in high stake matches depend solely on him, unlike some other Spanish club and their talisman. *ahem* Barca *ahem* .
Let’s talk about Karius now. Yes he made some huge mistakes in the what was the most important match in his career, and in the club’s recent history. And yes, he did cost his team the entire final. But he was bold enough to accept his mistake and apologize to the fans. We should remember that the young German is only 24 years old, and just a few months back was constantly in Simon Mignolet’s shadow. Experiences like these make a man, and it’s all up to the goalkeeper what he makes of these mistake; whether he bounces back or succumbs to the pressure. And before you consider warding into Karius nonetheless, remember that he’s suffered enough already. Being abandoned by his players on the pitch after the match is one thing, but death threats to him is taking this to a whole new level. He doesn’t deserve that. Here’s to hoping that he’ll bounce back from this disaster and prove himself. You’ll never walk alone Karius.
And there we have it. That’s the tale of how this Real Madrid established itself as a dynasty and rewrote history once again. You thought winning it twice in a row was impossible, we’ve won it thrice in 3 years. It’s quite unbelievable how they’ve normalized the UCL, and made it their own. Your favourite club could never.
Here’s a highlight of the match:
— Football Faithful (@FootyFaithful_) May 27, 2018