When the final whistle blew in the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night, Real Madrid fans the world over rejoiced while the Liverpool faithful glumly filed out of the stadium or turned off their televisions. It had been a rollercoaster of a tournament, but in the end, Los Blancos hoisted the Champions League trophy against all odds, reclaiming the title of champions of Europe for a record 14th time.
In the end, only one goal stood between the two teams, both European soccer powerhouses in their own right with decades of storied histories and an array of accomplishments between them. It was a goal 15 minutes into the second half by Vinicius Jr. that pushed Real Madrid into the lead, but the team’s overall defensive effort, including a number of clutch saves by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, kept them there.
Pre-match, most fans expected Liverpool to emerge from the evening victorious. Even though Madrid had clinched their domestic title a few weeks ago to become champions of La Liga, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool was widely predicted to cap off their long season in this, their 62nd game, with the crown of Europe. Alas, it was not to be for the Reds, and Real Madrid bolstered their reputation as one of the most historically successful clubs in the world with this win, which was also manager Carlo Ancelotti’s fourth Champions League title, the most of any manager to take part.
Perhaps in somewhat of a bad omen for the English club, the match began about 35 minutes late due to a buildup of mainly Liverpool fans unable to access the stadium crowding outside. In a move that has been questioned heavily by the public and resulted in Liverpool calling for an investigation, riot police present on the scene decided to handle the situation by pepper-spraying and tear-gassing the crowd of those fans, shown in videos now circulating across social media.
When the match finally began, Liverpool took a few minutes to establish their characteristic dominance in possession and relentless pressure in the attack, but once they did, they dictated the flow of the game. The first half seemed to be a story of Liverpool attacking the Madrid goal, and Madrid’s defense holding them off. When Madrid did move into Liverpool’s half of the pitch, their main route of attack was through Vinicius Jr. on the left flank. For the most part, however, Liverpool held the majority of possession and showed off their dominance with sharp and intricate passes to wear down the resilient Madrid defense.
Courtois, who later was dubbed Man of the Match, began earning the award quickly. He produced 2 spectacular saves in the first 20 minutes that prevented Liverpool from stealing the lead. The first was an effort from Mohamed Salah driven low towards the right corner that the keeper reacted quickly to reach. The other was also low from Sadio Mane, a strike that would have reached the back of the net had Courtois not gotten his fingertips to it to push the ball onto the post to deflect out of bounds for a corner kick.
The highlight of the first half, however, was a result of a Real Madrid attack. In the 43rd minute, Madrid star striker Karim Benzema had a goal called offside in a seemingly controversial decision by the Virtual Assistant Referee (VAR). Liverpool keeper Alisson had initially stopped a first shot by Benzema but fumbled the save, leaving a scramble in the middle of the penalty box. The ball was attacked by several players, but eventually bounced off of Liverpool midfielder Fabinho’s knee into Benzema’s path, who put the ball into the back of the net.
However, after over three minutes of VAR analysis off-pitch, the goal was called off and the score remained level at 0–0 until halftime. The CBS match commentators and several pundits, as well as Madrid fans, questioned this ruling and likely would have made much more fuss had Madrid not ended up victorious.
The momentum began to shift at the end of the first half for Liverpool. The last 10 minutes, in which the disallowed goal occurred, saw them lose some organization and their play become more frantic and stretched. This continued into the second half, when Real Madrid capitalized to score the only goal of the game that ultimately proved to be match-winning. In the 59th minute, Madrid attacked down the right-hand side with midfielder Federico Valverde, who took a wayward shot on goal that landed right in the path of Vinicius Jr., who passed it into the goal on his first touch. Liverpool’s back line lost its shape, with Vinicius left alone at the back post with a wide-open net in front of him — he couldn’t have missed.
Unlike many teams in the position, this did not demoralize Liverpool, who continued attacking with ferocity and determination until the very last minute. Unfortunately for them, their efforts went unrewarded. Just as in the first half, Real Madrid’s solid defense snuffed out threats from all angles, and anything that did get past them never made it beyond the safe clutches of Courtois. Mohamed Salah attempted 9 shots on goal throughout the game, the most by one player in any match in the tournament this season, but was unable to score, somewhat emblematic of his team’s performance on the night.
When the final whistle blew, after a long five minutes of stoppage time, the Real Madrid bench ran celebrating onto the field, set against a backdrop of a sea of raucous fans in white shirts behind them. There were tears on both sides for different reasons, and at the end of the day it was club captain and stalwart Marcelo who lifted the trophy for Real Madrid, the team he has played for since 2007. Madrid’s first Champions League trophy was 66 years ago, also in Paris, so it truly was a full circle moment for Los Blancos, who have continued their legacy for another year as one of the most decorated soccer clubs of all time.
Image courtesy of UEFA