European Titans Clash in Kiev

In the 64’, Gareth Bale gifted us with a moment of true magic with an acrobatic bicycle kick from the edge of the box from Marcelo’s cross that floated into the top left corner of the goal.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The 2018 Champions League final saw a clash between two of Europe’s most exciting and successful clubs dating back to the turn of the century—Spain’s Real Madrid and England’s Liverpool. Both teams, after largely disappointing domestic competitions with a combined total of zero trophies, had one final chance at the Champions League to bring home some silverware this season and be crowned the kings of European football.

If you weren’t a Liverpool fan in the beginning of the season, then you would not have bet on this team to make it all the way to the Champions League final. Liverpool was notorious for a sloppy defense and at times suspect midfield, so their attacking line would have been the only source of hope for Reds fans everywhere. But coach Jurgen Klopp and club management did an excellent job in filling in the weaknesses that were present in the squad.

They brought in the likes of Virgil van Dijk in the winter to sturdy up their central defense and youngsters Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson to fill in the full-back positions on the flanks of the defense. But the greatest signing of the season had to be Egyptian winger Mohamed Salah, who set the footballing world alight by putting up numbers that resembled those of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He broke the record for goals in a single premier league season with 32 and scored against the top-notch competition of Chelsea, Manchester City, and Tottenham along the way. He was declared the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Player of the Year and is being touted to win the Ballon D’Or (the award that goes to the voted best player in the world at the end of every year). The success of these signings, especially Salah’s, has made many forget Philippe Coutinho’s departure, now seemingly forgotten by Liverpool.

Salah’s success also opened up the game for Bobby Firmino and Sadio Mane in the attack, paving the way for Liverpool’s finals berth. Liverpool’s path to the Champions League final saw them rout FC Porto (Portugal) in the round of 16 with an aggregate score of 5-0. But it was during the second round, when they dismantled Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, one of the favorites to win it all, when they proved themselves to be a major threat among the contemporary European royalty by beating City 5-1. City used Guardiola’s gloried tiki-taka passing and possession style of football to tear through the Premier League on their way to becoming English champions. It was more of the same in the Champions League until they ran into Liverpool. The constant high press paired with a tight defensive performance opened up the game for Liverpool’s in-form attackers to completely exposed City’s defence, or lack thereof. They then carried this momentum to the semifinals, where they got past a gritty Roma team. However, the toughest had yet to come, as Liverpool and Salah would now be put up to the test against Los Blancos, the two-time defending champions.

As for Real Madrid, there is not much more to say—coming in, they were the two-time defending champions of Europe, and unlike the Liverpool squad, their starting lineup knows what it is like to play in the final with all the eyes on them, where star players are needed the most. The quality in their team is unquestioned, with Ronaldo, arguably the greatest player in the world, and Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, two of the best midfielders in the world. The road they took to get to the final was also undoubtedly the toughest this season. In the round of 16, they coasted past the Neymar-led French champions Paris Saint-Germain and edged out defending Italian champions Juventus in the quarterfinal, before beating the German giants and perennial European football superpower Bayern Munich, led by Robert Lewandowski, who is arguably the greatest striker in the world today. The Los Blancos had a chance to make history here; they had a chance to complete the three-peat, and their performance would not disappoint to say the least.

The game was played in Kiev, Ukraine, with an equal distribution of red and white jerseys dispersed throughout the stands. The eyes were on the two stars, Ronaldo and Salah. Ronaldo was a global superstar, a multiple time Ballon D’Or and Champion League winner, and his production on the pitch has never failed to live up to his ego. And then there was Salah, this humble Egyptian man with a scruffy beard and messy hairdo, who more than anything else represented the power of a so-called mortal man and had been Liverpool’s club hero the entire season. For the past 10 years, football has been dominated by the “alien” Leo Messi and the “cyborg” Ronaldo, and Salah was the only man in the past decade who put up the same goal scoring tallies as those two did but gave off the persona of a mere mortal as well.

The first half of the 2018 Champions League final was sadly defined more by the controversy in between gameplay rather than the actual football on the pitch. In the first 20 or so minutes of the first half, Liverpool were clearly the better side. They played calmly out of their defense, the captain Jordan Henderson and James Milner controlled the midfield against Kroos and Modric, and the attack, boosted by fullbacks Robertson and Alexander-Arnold, looked threatening.

But then Sergio Ramos came to Real Madrid’s rescue. When a defensive altercation with Salah saw their arms get locked up in the play, and when Ramos’s tackle took Salah to the ground, Salah fell awkwardly on his left shoulder. Ramos won the ball fairly, but it was a tough play nonetheless. And after this historic season, Salah saw his season with Liverpool come to end, walking off crying to a standing ovation by the Liverpool and Real Madrid fans alike. Losing Salah was a nightmare for Liverpool fans, but manager Klopp was by no means defeated.

The first half ended with a score of 0-0, but the second half proved different. As the game progressed, Karim Benzema struck for Real Madrid in the 51’ to give them a 1-0 lead. However, the goal was more the error of Liverpool’s goalkeeper Loris Karius than it was the skill of Benzema, as Karius carelessly threw the ball right at Benzema in his own goalie box.

Liverpool stormed right back, though, as Sadio Mane scored just four minutes later from a headed flick from Dejan Lovren off of a corner. Despite the tie score, Madrid’s manager had a secret weapon up his sleeve in Gareth Bale, a true example of Real Madrid’s embarrassment of riches for him to be coming off the bench. And it did not take long for Bale to make an impact. In the 64’, Gareth Bale gifted us with a moment of true magic with an acrobatic bicycle kick over his shoulder from the edge of the box from Marcelo’s cross, which floated into the top left corner of the goal. And when Gareth Bale’s curler from outside the box bounced off of Karius’s hands right into the goal in the 83’, it was all but over. This was a second major goalkeeping error that would prove fatal to the English side’s slim hopes of winning the Champions League. After his performance, many question Karius’s position on the Liverpool side next season. The German was visibly distraught after the final whistle, but his teammates picked him back up, showing the harmony in the Liverpool locker room. With his teammates’ support, Karius will surely bounce back to make amends for his blunders.

The game ended 3-1 to Real Madrid, and Los Blancos had their three-peat and fourth win in five years. Manager Zinedine Zidane, despite being only with the team for three years, made his claim to be considered among the all-time greats with this accolade, in addition to already being considered one of the greatest players to ever compete. With his fifth Champions League title, Ronaldo only further solidified his claim to being not just the greatest player in the world, but the greatest player of all time. But this Madrid team will do more than just be remembered for the three-peat; they will be remembered for defining our era, just like Real Madrid’s Galacticos had done at the turn of the century.