In a season where Liverpool have chased history right to the wire, they may have even found time to correct some that has already been made.
As I commence writing this, it’s the evening of Sunday 22nd May 2022. Liverpool have come within 10 minutes of winning the Premier League title earlier today, only to ultimately miss out by a single point. Clearly this is a very disappointing outcome, all the more so with the Reds having amassed 92 points across the season (I’ve explained the context of that figure elsewhere). Unfortunately, endings like this come with the territory for any team that wants to win it all, particularly in the era of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. In the words of Jürgen Klopp shortly after the final whistle at Anfield, “If you want to win big, you have to be ready to lose big” (words, I dare say, that might look good adorning a statue some day).
His team will have the chance to win big again on Saturday evening, an occasion where a defeat would hurt like no other but a victory would be one of the most exquisite ever delivered by the most decorated English club of all. This is the very definition of risk and reward: you risk the likelihood of disappointment for the potential reward of glory. Liverpool may have delivered more of the latter than most clubs over the years, but whether it’s a trophy, a top-four finish, a cup-run, a playoff place, promotion, or the avoidance of relegation, this is a basic foundational cornerstone of football/sports fandom that we all share. It’s a gauntlet that Reds supporters will run one last time this season against Real Madrid in Paris, but we’re not the only ones with skin in the game.
The very fact that Liverpool tried to win the Premier League title at all, or perhaps that they came so close, and almost certainly that their supporters allowed themselves to think it was possible in the first place, and for sure that Mo Salah momentarily thought that his goal to put Liverpool 2-1 ahead against Wolves may have been the one to clinch the title and celebrated accordingly, or some heady mixture of all of the above, has been greeted by supporters of other clubs with alternating bouts of gut-wrenching hilarity and (more bafflingly) furious anger. The latter is perhaps best illustrated by City supporters taking physical aim at Aston Villa goalkeeper Robin Olsen in the immediate aftermath of the final whistle on Sunday, not to mention Liam Gallagher taking to Twitter shortly afterwards to attack Liverpool Football Club in particular and Scousers in general, following their own club’s Premier League title victory. This, I might add, a few days before a new LG album release which I may have otherwise been interested in buying. Oh well: As You Were.
Elsewhere, we have been reminded once again that we currently exist in both a ‘banter’ and a ‘post-truth’ world. Chelsea fans were supposedly cheering every City goal during their meaningless game against relegated Watford at Stamford Bridge, hopefully the closest they’ll come to having an interest in a title race for some time now that good old Roman has taken his leave, while Klopp was moved to wonder aloud why Wolves supporters were doing the same at Anfield. Well, because banter, Jürgen. You’ve got to find something to amuse yourself as you watch your club, one that had pretensions of European football a few weeks ago, drop two places to 10th. Everton’s Richarlison, meanwhile, whose wretched team had finished four points off the drop in 16th having just lost 5-1 to Arsenal, immediately took to social media to engage in the one kind of behaviour that Evertonians value above all others, more than winning games and certainly more than winning trophies (27 years and counting), namely revelling in a Liverpool defeat.
We have, of course, also been treated to City mouthpieces like Micah Richards (“It feels like Liverpool get all the love”) and Noel Gallagher (“When Liverpool get a corner it’s the greatest corner of all-time”) once again talking about the Reds instead of, oh I don’t know, CELEBRATING THEIR OWN FUCKING TEAM WINNING THE TITLE?! I mean lads, if you, the ones who actually support City, can’t bring yourselves to stop talking about Liverpool for a day and focus instead on the admittedly superb achievement that is a fourth league title in five years, then you’re kind of pissing into the wind expecting anyone else to do it, aren’t you?
Then again, there is a party line to parrot, namely Guardiola’s empty propaganda about the entire nation having wanted the Reds to win the title. Well, not Chelsea fans…and not Wolves fans…and not Everton fans…and certainly not Manchester United fans (Pep’s words kind of backfired on him at a press conference recently when he was forced to accept that his local rivals essentially consider another club to be far more consequential than his own, though at least he took the revelation with trademark sarcasm)…and not Sky’s Gary Neville, who sounded as though a beloved family pet had passed away in front of his eyes when Matty Cash opened the scoring at the Etihad on Sunday. But maybe everyone else, then? Perhaps that’s why Liverpool’s parade next Sunday, win or lose in Paris, will be in the multiples of thousands better attended than City’s title-winning celebration on Monday — all the fans of other clubs from every corner of England being bussed in to pay their respects?
You do have to feel for poor underdog City, don’t you, who in the absence of Klopp’s Liverpool would have claimed their fifth Premier League title in a row on Sunday with an 18-point average margin of victory, with their £100m attacker who stayed on the bench as they desperately chased three goals to save a title that they were pissing to the tune of 14 points a few months ago, and with their £50m winger replacing their £60m one. The only way they could get more underdoggy, in fact, would be to sign one of the world’s best strikers for an overall total reportedly in the region of £200m. Poor underdog City, who are funded by owners that have attracted the attention of UEFA, the FA and the Premier League regarding alleged rule breaking within their own sport, as well as Amnesty International outside of it. Why on Earth would any objective, cogent adult ever be minded to cast their achievement as anything other than David overcoming Goliath?
Well, while I think there may be some clues there if you look hard enough, my money is on jealousy mixed with Scouse bias. After all, we know how the rest of England has traditionally adored the city of Liverpool…
All sarcasm aside (we’ll leave that to Pep), the aftermath of the 2021/22 Premier League season has illustrated that Liverpool supporters won’t be the only ones running the gauntlet of risk and reward this Saturday night. For a few hours, the hopes and dreams of many fans who ordinarily support English clubs will also rise and fall with the exploits of Spanish champions Real Madrid in the Paris commune of Saint-Denis.
Hey, I get it: I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t rooting for Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final, or Pep’s Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, although I certainly wasn’t publicising my glee when Manchester United lost the latter two, or indeed my disappointment at them winning the former, and that would have remained the case even if social media had been around. However, I would concede to some extent that it’s different for supporters of clubs that have a rivalry like Liverpool and Manchester United (Neville, paid millions to ostensibly be an objective analyst, doesn’t get that pass), or indeed Liverpool and Everton. Likewise, I would certainly expect your average Barcelona or Atlético supporter to be wearing red this Saturday. When Chelsea beat Bayern in 2012, on the other hand, I barely even remembered the game was on, and my reaction afterwards at their first European Cup win was a shrug of “what took you so long?” I expect it will feel similar whenever City inevitably win their first, incidentally. That’s because rivalries, real rivalries, take decades to build.
So this preview is for you as well, guys and girls, whoever you support. I hope it sets the scene for what will be a monumental night for all concerned. I can certainly see how it might be easier to laugh at the marginal failures of Liverpool than focus on the colossal fuck-ups of your own clubs this season. Lord knows, there would be ample hilarity to be found for any Liverpool supporter (or player, or coach) of a similar mind if they were to cast an eye down the 2021/22 Premier League table. Outside of ourselves, City and maybe Tottenham, whose manager has sounded in recent weeks like a man looking for an out, the level of ineptitude and sheer buffoonery amongst our peers this season has been simply, often hilariously, breathtaking. I wouldn’t want to dwell on it either. I’m glad that Liverpool’s failure to overhaul City at the top of the table on Sunday gave you a momentary respite from, for example, the pain and drudgery of 10th (Wolves), 16th (Everton), and leaving Wembley empty-handed twice this season (Chelsea), and I wish you all the best for Saturday.
But, in the spirit of forewarned is forearmed, do remember:
* * *
Historical events rarely take place in a vacuum, but some have more immediate meaning attached to them than others. When Liverpool went up against Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final in Kyiv, the only meaningful historical linkage was 37 years old (i.e. the 1981 final in Paris which the Reds had won 1-0). Other meetings in the meantime, namely the 2009 last-16 tie (1-0 and 4-0 to Liverpool) or the group stage matches in 2014 (3-0 and 1-0 to Madrid), bore little relevance to the matter at hand in May 2018. And although Liverpool supporters may have subsequently been tempted to attribute later triumphs to the experience forged in that 1-3 defeat, the truth is that the team’s trajectory was pointing very much upwards anyway, regardless of that result.
Jürgen Klopp knew it too: in a video that subsequently went viral, he could be seen singing alongside Liverpool supporters in the small hours of the following morning: “We saw the European Cup, Madrid had all the fucking luck, We swear we’ll keep on being cool, We’ll bring it back to Liverpool.” Which he did, almost a year later to the day. In Madrid.
The arrival of Fabinho, whose signing was announced shortly after the final, was already agreed. Loris Karius would still be starting pre-season friendlies come July, meaning that his mistakes hadn’t prompted the club to immediately beat a path to Allison Becker’s door in the aftermath of the final (the Brazilian would eventually sign some 54 days after Kyiv), nor did they summarily sack the German (he’s still at the club, in fact). Most of all, Liverpool didn’t have to lose that game in order to learn how to win one later: teams don’t typically rattle off 62 league victories out of 76 games, as they did during the following two seasons, out of some indefinable lesson gleaned from a game where injuries to two of their most important players directly affected the result.
From a Liverpool perspective (Real Madrid have 12 other historical linkages for that night, of course), this was one game, one bitter disappointment, one night that showed the supporters what was possible (and introduced Dua Lipa’s One Kiss into their songbook), but it has otherwise hung there ever since, suspended on a single thread in history, an isolated heartbreak that stands alone and was soon over-shadowed by victory in the same showpiece occasion the following May. Nothing more than that.
I’m sorry, what’s that you say, Mo? Oh…
According to no less an authority than Mohamed Salah, all of that may be about to change. And lest there be any room for doubt, when asked about his social media posts later, on the night that he accepted his FWA Player of the Year award, the Egyptian reiterated: “We lost in the final. It was a sad day for all of us and now it’s revenge time.”
“Revenge time”? Oh be still, my beating heart…
Suddenly, the threads of history are converging and they’re making a beeline straight for the events of 26th May 2018. They’re wrapping themselves like a warm caress around any Red who was in the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium, in Shevchenko Park, or any of the environs of a city whose current plight will carry a unique poignancy for anyone who visited four years ago. They bind themselves to two iconic clubs who have won 29% of all European Cups between them and whose third meeting in the final of Europe’s showpiece club football tournament now makes it the most frequent final pairing in the competition’s 67 years (I didn’t believe it either, so I checked twice).
Most of all, perhaps, they cling to the very soul of a player who left the pitch in tears after only half an hour that night, the perfect finale to his dream 44-goal season left in tatters by the calculated actions of an opponent who escaped without so much as a yellow card and would subsequently (and fatefully) concuss Liverpool’s goalkeeper with a blow to the head later that evening with the game still at 0-0, the same goalkeeper who in turn would go on to commit two of the most inexplicable mistakes in European Cup final history. Maybe they weren’t so inexplicable after all.
Yes, it’s coming back to me. But this time is already different in a number of important respects, isn’t it?
* * *
In the run-up to the 2018 final, the squad which housed that early prototype of Klopp’s future English, European and World champions was already strained to breaking point. At the back, the preferred partner for Virgil Van Dijk in the centre of the Liverpool defence, Joël Matip, was ruled out with a hamstring injury, while Joe Gomez, who would rise above Matip in the pecking order ahead of the 2018/19 season, was missing due to ankle surgery. In midfield, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, so effective on the run to Kyiv, had ruptured anterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in the first leg of the semi-final against Roma, while Adam Lallana (hamstring) and Emre Can (back), both nominally ‘fit’ for the final, had featured for a combined 16 minutes since March. It meant that the options were dangerously thin against a team that boasted quality like Luka Modrić, Casemiro and Toni Kroos in that area of the pitch.
Further forward, both Daniel Sturridge and Divock Origi, who would both come back to contribute so much during the 2018/19 season, were out on loan and looked to have no future at the club. In their stead as the next man up behind Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino was Dominic Solanke, 20 years of age at the time, who had made 27 appearances in all competitions that season (4 starts) for a grand total of 1 goal. Needless to say, approaching the business-end of a game that was in the balance until the 83rd minute, Klopp did not break the glass on the emergency Solanke option. The remaining players on the bench (Simon Mignolet, Nathaniel Clyne, Ragnar Klavan, Alberto Moreno) were never realistic alternatives either, although I can’t be the only one who would have considered rolling the dice on Albie for 10 minutes as a nuclear-option auxiliary left-winger once the score went 1-3, his pace surely more likely to discomfort Madrid than an unfit Can.
The lack of quality squad depth also meant that largely the same ten outfield players (19 year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Dejan Lovren, Andy Robertson, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Gini Wijnaldum, Mané, Firmino and Salah) were required to play every game during a run-in that saw a top-four finish only secured on the last day of the season with a 4-0 win over Brighton. Madrid, meanwhile, were already out of contention for the two domestic competitions in Spain and were, therefore, well-rested coming in to the final. That, coupled with their vast experience of the competition (going for four wins in five years) against a club that was completing its first season in the Champions League since 2013, made them overwhelming favourites.
And didn’t they know it. Diego Torres, a well-connected journalist working for El País in Madrid, summed up the mood in the Real camp before the 2018 final:
There isn’t any sensation of fear in Madrid about Liverpool — among the directors, among the players. They’re relaxed in Real Madrid before this final. They’ve never been so calm and confident in the club before a final than now. This final is the easiest final they have in front of them, all of them — Florentino Perez, the captains. Everyone.
That confidence would ultimately be vindicated, of course, even if they did need two common assaults, two goalkeeping howlers and arguably the greatest moment of inspiration ever seen in a European Cup final to beat a team that was already down to the bare bones even before its top goalscorer had his shoulder ripped out of its socket and its goalkeeper concussed. But Real Madrid will always be that entitled club, the one that literally has the term “royal” in its name and carries itself with all the arrogance and self-importance of a monarchic dynasty (for their part, Liverpool have always been a better fit for the role of working-class heroes), the one whose manager said of the then-reigning European champions in 2019: “If we play Liverpool, we will eliminate them.” I guess humility isn’t for everyone.
In this context, comments recently attributed to Karim Benzema (“Liverpool have a lot of confidence. They think they have already won the match, maybe. Maybe they think this isn’t the same Real Madrid as last time, these things. Maybe they think they’re favourites”) are mind-bogglingly ironic. Once again, following Madrid’s dramatic semi-final win over Manchester City, their players wore t-shirts that could easily be misinterpreted as celebrating an achievement that has yet to be earned. “Go for the” small print notwithstanding, I suspect it would mortify any self-respecting Liverpool supporter if the club’s players were to have similarly cavorted around Anfield wearing the number ‘7’ almost a month before the actual final. But yeah Karim, Liverpool think they’ve already won the match.
But maybe that’s an old-fashioned take on my part? The t-shirts certainly worked out fine for Madrid in 2018, and there is every possibility that they will again in 2022. There are, however, a few important elements that they won’t have in their favour this time as they attempt to manifest their sartorial prophecy in the city of love. Firstly, while we can never say for certain and random injuries and/or acts of violence can change everything in a hurry, I would say it’s a relatively safe bet that Balon d’Or frontrunner Benzema is unlikely to have a ball rolled to his feet by Liverpool’s goalkeeper this time around. That’s just for starters, an hors d’oeuvre, if you will.
Similarly, while it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Liverpool might lose a player like Salah or Mané early again, they won’t be relying on a barely fit Lallana or Can to fill their shoes this time. Injuries permitting, they are likely to be calling on two very dangerous replacements in the form of Diogo Jota and Firmino should lightning indeed strike twice. That’s right, Liverpool’s starting centre-forward in Kyiv (still in his prime, incidentally) is now realistically fifth-choice amongst the club’s forwards. All of that and the ability to make five substitutions, well…it’s a far cry from Dom Solanke, isn’t it? That’s to say nothing of the tactical options available to the manager in those positions. Madrid right-back Dani Carvajal, for example, will likely face the electric Luis Diaz from the start in Paris but could easily find himself directly up against Mané or Jota at various points during the evening too.
A similar level of quality in depth is evident all over the field. Whereas Van Dijk was flanked in Kyiv by the erratic Lovren (who had a very good game, incidentally, even grabbing an assist) and the only back-up was provided by the journeyman Klavan, this time the manager will choose between Matip and Ibrahima Konaté, both of whom have been exceptional during 2021/22. Robertson’s deputy at left-back is now the excellent Kostas Tsimikas rather than Moreno. Gomez has deputised for Alexander-Arnold at right-back to great effect on a number of occasions in recent weeks, and is also an accomplished centre-back. Karius, never the most reliable goalkeeper even when his cognitive abilities were unimpaired, has been replaced by one of the world’s best in Alisson, with League Cup final hero Caoimhín Kelleher an able deputy on the bench.
That’s to say nothing of the experience these players and coaches have amassed in the five years since their Champions League journey began with a qualifying round victory over Hoffenheim in August 2017, with the club’s record now standing at five straight knockout stage appearances and three finals over that period (a staggering 58 games in total, even outstripping Madrid’s 52).
It is midfield, however, where Madrid are likely to see the biggest difference (since 2018, that is — obviously they will also note that they won’t be facing Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips at the back this time, as they did during their 2021 quarter-final tie). At the time of writing, Liverpool are sweating on the fitness of two automatic starters in Fabinho and Thiago Alcântara. The former will almost certainly be ready to return, albeit short of match fitness after two and a half weeks out. For the Spaniard, injured against Wolves last Sunday, the final may come too soon, which would admittedly be a huge blow to Liverpool and a massive boost for Madrid. With that said, the Reds lost Thiago in the warm-up for the League Cup final in February and, with Naby Keita deputising, nonetheless went on to win the trophy against last season’s European Champions.
The likelihood at the time of writing is that Henderson, Fabinho and Keita will start in Paris, with Thiago (if we’re lucky), Milner (a starter in Kyiv) and Curtis Jones the next men up. Unlike Lallana and Can in 2018, all of those players have significant minutes under their belts in recent weeks. The increased midfield depth is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Oxlade-Chamberlain, so sorely missed four years ago, is now fully fit but unlikely to feature at all. There are technical differences too. Longtime Madrid crony Jorge Valdano, himself no stranger to arrogant comments on the subject of Liverpool over the years, correctly described the 2018 team as one that “lives off of the mistakes of their rivals“. They can still do that, of course, but it has since become just one of a number of strings to their bow. In particular, Madrid are likely to find that whoever starts in Liverpool’s engine room will boast every bit as much ability to control the game as their opponents this time, all the more so if Fabinho and Thiago are able to feature.
In all, Madrid are likely to have five starters surviving from Kyiv (Carvajal, the midfield three, and Benzema), while Liverpool will probably have six (Alexander-Arnold, Robertson, Van Dijk, Henderson, Mané, Salah). The benches will be very different too, including Carlo Ancelotti replacing Zinedine Zidane, and Madrid will have their own new faces in the form of Ferland Mendy, Vinícius Júnior, Eduardo Camavinga, Federico Valverde and semi-final hero Rodrygo. But are they substantially better than the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Isco and Marcelo four years ago? Do David Alaba and Éder Militão represent a tougher nut to crack than Raphaël Varane and Sergio Ramos? I would say probably not on both counts, which is certainly not to say that they are in any way worse. But the real improvement since 2018 has undoubtedly taken place on the other side. This time, Liverpool injury doubts notwithstanding, the two teams very much enter this final as equals and Madrid cannot take for granted being significantly better in any facet of the game than their opponents.
That includes a quality which Spanish daily sports newspaper AS referred to as “paranormal” after the semi-final comeback against Manchester City. Sid Lowe, writing in The Guardian, described it as “the last in a crescendo of comebacks, each feeding off the last, miracle of miracles.” He went on: “This is the club that rescued the 2014 European Cup against Atlético with a 93rd-minute equaliser, that constructed a legend, an identity around comebacks, history invited to play. The team that have made the impossible feel inevitable, embracing the chaos.” And many have been moved to agree in the aftermath of the semi-final against City, perhaps feeling that Madrid with their 13 wins have some kind of impossible hold on this competition that cannot be explained, especially this season given their route to the final.
But both of these clubs can talk about embracing chaos, can’t they? About comebacks. Madrid’s current manager was on the end of the most extraordinary six minutes in the history of the European Cup final in 2005 as Liverpool recovered from 0-3 behind to shock his great AC Milan side in Istanbul. Or perhaps Madrid could ask their biggest rivals in Barcelona about the chaos they encountered inside Anfield in 2019, as a team led by Divock Origi and minus both Salah and Firmino recovered from a 0-3 first-leg deficit to win 4-3 on aggregate.
Liverpool too have long specialised in madness, in the supernatural. We have discussions that rank these historic moments. Borussia Dortmund in 2016, managed by last season’s Champions League-winning manager, was another one, with three goals required in half an hour. Three goals were needed in 45 minutes against Olympiakos in 2004 to reach the knockout stages. St. Etienne in 1977 was easy in comparison: when Dominique Bathenay’s strike hit the back of the net at the Anfield Road end, the home side had 40 minutes to score two. And those are just the European ones. Consider this: Liverpool wouldn’t even be in this final had it not been for a 95th-minute winner from their goalkeeper in the penultimate game of the season last May. Chaos? We know all about it.
That’s how I know that when Lowe calls the City comeback the “most ridiculous resurrection of all”, he has to be talking specifically about Madrid, because if the Spanish champions need to rely on the supernatural once again in Paris, then that’s a fight in which Liverpool can historically hold their own. Bloody hell, Origi’s entire legacy at the club is built on the inexplicable.
The truth, however, as the Anfield Wrap’s Neil Atkinson has been at pains to point out this season, is that classics are overrated. Get involved in too many of them, as City found out to their cost in the semi-final, and eventually you find that ties and games can veer outside of your control. Aggregate scorelines of 3-2, 5-4 and 6-5, the latter two of which included extra-time drama, as well as the kind of injury-time heroics we saw in the semi-final, represents brilliant entertainment for the neutral but it does nothing to improve a team’s chances of winning. Throw in a 0-4 reverse at home to a non-vintage Barcelona in March shortly after the last-16 comeback against PSG, and it leaves you wondering how watertight Madrid are against better sides (they also found themselves 0-2 behind at half-time last month against their main rivals for the La Liga crown for much of 2021/22, Sevilla, only to launch a trademark second-half comeback).
Los Merengues have found themselves on the ropes against PSG (0-2, final score 3-2), Chelsea (3-4, final score 5-4) and City (0-2, 1-3, 2-4, 3-5, final score 6-5) on the way to Paris. While the ability to come back from the dead three times in a row is a handy ability to have, it does involve going behind in the first place and the odds are that you will eventually come up against a team that, in the immortal words of Omar Little, “don’t scare.” Furthermore, the conclusion of all of those comebacks took place inside the Santiago Bernebeu. Liverpool on neutral territory is a very different prospect.
Their opponents, the second leg of the quarter final against Benfica aside (where they rested players and the offside line of an untested back four was inches out of shape on a couple of second half goals), have largely avoided high-scoring classics in Europe this season. Even after a wretched first-half in Villareal in the semi final second leg, they asserted their dominance against the underdogs with three goals in 12 second half minutes to win 5-2 on aggregate. This is another area in which this team has grown since 2018, when a 5-0 lead after 70 minutes of the semi-final against Roma evaporated into a nervy 7-6 aggregate victory in the end.
In other words, Madrid have no major advantages coming into this final, beyond perhaps the ability (again) to rest players for most of May with the La Liga title put to bed early and no Copa de Rey distractions. Liverpool, meanwhile, have played every game possible in the English calendar, including an FA Cup final recently that went the distance. Those aforementioned injuries to Fabinho and Thiago are a direct result. Even this has a counterpoint, however, given Klopp’s comments historically about maintaining rhythm and, in particular, the effect of the 13-day wait for the 2019 final that likely contributed to the sterility of the game itself. Indeed, every player in the squad will have had at least six days’ rest coming into Paris (more in the case of Fabinho and Van Dijk) and, in the event that fringe players need to be called upon in the final, the likes of Tsimikas, Milner, Minamino and Jones will all have 90 minutes under their belts in the previous two weeks, with Firmino, Gomez and Elliott also receiving vital first-team minutes.
You could certainly argue that Liverpool don’t have any major advantages either, and that would be fair. The point is that this is a clash of equals, where Liverpool match up well in virtually every department. Even the battle of the lightning fast Vinícius Júnior and Alexander-Arnold doesn’t unduly concern given that Trent is a far better defender than many give him credit for, although cover from a Henderson or a Milner may be crucial given his offensive duties. Meanwhile, Benzema will not face a tougher central defensive partnership than Van Dijk-Matip or Van Dijk-Konaté, and Liverpool are full of goals and creativity all over the pitch. In all, it’s worlds removed from the respective situations of the finalists heading into Kyiv.
* * *
Salah’s words about revenge carry that implicit acknowledgement, and in that regard they represent more than just a score to settle for the player or the team. They are, in the first instance, a recognition of how far Liverpool have come since Kyiv but, more than that, they invest the 2022 final with the ability to make the 2018 defeat part of a pair, no longer simply a standalone disappointment. Victory in Paris will mean that memories of 2018 will not only become more palatable than before, they will immediately merge with 2022, right down to the song that was part of a pre-show performance in Kyiv but has since come to soundtrack some of our greatest days supporting the club during a campaign that has threatened to be the greatest of them all and will surely remain in that conversation if a seventh European Cup is claimed on Saturday night.
Thus, in a season where Liverpool have chased history right to the wire, they may have even found time to correct some that has already been made. And honestly? My gut is telling me they’ll do it too. This final is the very definition of a 50/50, although you could certainly make Madrid slight favourites depending on how much of it features Fabinho and Thiago. But this team has given us no reason to doubt it yet during the run-in to a season where it has lost just 3 games out of 62, and I would be shocked if it’s about to start now.
Liverpool: 1. Alisson, 66. Alexander-Arnold, 4. Van Dijk, 5. Konaté, 26. Robertson, 3. Fabinho, 14. Henderson (c), 8. Keita, 23. Diaz, 10. Mané, 11. Salah.
Real Madrid: 1. Courtois, 2 Carvajal, 3. Militão, 4. Alaba, 23. Mendy, 14. Casemiro, 8. Kroos, 10. Modric, 15. Valverde, 20. Vinicius Júnior, 9. Benzema (c).
Prediction: Liverpool 3-2 Real Madrid (90 mins).