Champions League Final: Madrid Upset or Liverpool Dominance?

The roaring atmosphere at the Bernabéu on Wednesday evening was a heady cocktail of elation and disbelief. Real Madrid had just unexpectedly knocked out favorites Manchester City in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal. City had gone into the game with an aggregate lead of 4–3, only needing a tie to advance to the final against Liverpool on May 28. 

And for the first 90 minutes, it looked like they had the final in the palm of their hand; however, a brace of goals by Madrid’s Rodrygo in the span of two minutes snatched away the visitors’ security, sending the game to overtime, in which Karim Benzema, Los Blancos’ veteran standout of the season, netted a penalty to dash City’s hopes for Champions League redemption after tactical mistakes and key injuries cost them the cup last year. 

Madrid were the underdogs in this pairing, a seemingly uncharacteristic position for one of the most historically successful and iconic football clubs in the world. This season, however, has been one of rebuilding for this football powerhouse, or at least a reconfiguration. After last summer’s enforced turn away from big spending on established big-names in favor of young talents in need of faith and nurturing, the makeup of Real’s squad is a bit of a mixed bag: promising youth like 21-year-olds Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo line up next to experienced superstars Luka Modric and Toni Kroos. This squad has also been adapting to a new(ish) style under previous manager Carlo Ancelotti, one of the most prolific and legendary managers in history, who returned to the Bernabéu at the start of the season after six years away. 

The 2021–22 season has been good to Real Madrid, with the team claiming first place in La Liga just days before the semifinal on Wednesday. But in the Champions League, they have survived so far largely on moments of individual brilliance, most often coming from their captain, veteran striker Karim Benzema. It was his hat trick against Paris Saint-Germain in the second leg of the round of sixteen that pushed his team through to this matchup with City, and it was his successfully-taken penalty that knocked the Citizens out of the running for the trophy. Despite the fact that Manchester City had the deeper squad and better balance under manager Pep Guardiola’s fine-tuned playing philosophy, Los Blancos penned yet another underdog story in this Champions League run, cementing themselves as the tournament’s Comeback Kids.

Set to face Real in the final is Liverpool FC, perhaps the best team in the world at this moment. Currently competing in a very close battle for top of the English Premier League with Manchester City, who have been undeniably dominant in English football for years, the Reds have solidified their reputation as one of the most well-organized and fluid teams playing the game. It’s hard to say what part of the field sports their greatest strength, as each position is staffed by a world-class player, with notable names including center back Virgil Van Dijk, right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, and, perhaps most famous, forward Mohamed Salah. At central command is famed manager Jürgen Klopp, whose introduction to Anfield has shepherded in a new era that brought the club out of its twenty-odd year drought back into its winning days of old, reigniting its legendary trophy- and championship-winning history. 

On their way to the semis, Liverpool pushed aside reigning Italian Serie A champions Inter Milan and Portuguese threat Benfica in the round of sixteen and quarterfinals, respectively. In their own semifinal matchup, the Merseyside squad faced another Spanish team, Villarreal. Even more so than Real Madrid, Villarreal was undoubtedly the underdogs in the competition; that they progressed so far in the tournament was largely unexpected, and deserves commendation. Led by respected manager Unai Emery, the affectionately-named Yellow Submarine bested Italian giants Juventus in the round of sixteen before toppling German powerhouse Bayern Munich in the quarters.

Unfortunately, the fairytale ended in the semis when they fell to the Reds in a 2–5 aggregate loss over two legs. It was a rather routine victory for Liverpool, for while Villarreal put up a good fight, the victors’ sheer talent and stability was too hard to get past or break down. Klopp runs his team like a well-oiled machine, but his players maintain a consistent capacity for creativity and innovation that makes them a constant threat. Their attack is relentless, their midfield dances across the pitch perfectly balanced, and the defense is one of the toughest walls in the Premier League, if not Europe. 

Liverpool are widely considered the favorites to hoist the trophy in Paris at the Stade de France at the end of it all, but they won’t trounce Madrid, nor will Los Blancos go down without a fight. In my opinion, Liverpool’s consistency and all-around depth will manifest in a characteristically high-energy, dominant performance that will reward them with their seventh Champions League trophy. Despite his recent showing of those heart-stopping goals that pull Real back from the deep, banking on a flash of magic from Karim Benzema may not be enough to clinch the title. That’s not to say that the rest of them have no hope at all, but the team is relatively new and still unstable in many ways, and is set to face one of the most resilient teams in Europe in Liverpool. 

Now, I might be putting my money on the Reds, but no one can count Real Madrid out after their recent string of upsets. Regardless of where your loyalties lie, this final is sure to be one for the history books. Forgetting the final score for a moment — difficult, I know — the football itself promises to be technical, creative and beautiful from both sides, themselves two of the most legendary clubs in European, if not world football. Liverpool faces off against Real Madrid on May 28, in what will surely be a clash of titans for the football ages. 

Images courtesy of Fars Media Corporation and Real Madrid

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