AFTER a 63-match marathon, and on a night of chaos and heartache in Paris, Liverpool’s incredible season ended in a cruel defeat.
For the second successive weekend, Jurgen Klopp’s men were denied a trophy in agonising fashion – a second-half sucker-punch from Vinicius Junior and a wonder show from Real keeper Thibaut Courtois robbing them of victory.
Liverpool’s fans had been pepper-sprayed and tear-gassed as kick-off was delayed by more than half an hour by shambolic organization outside the Stade de France.
And just six days after Manchester City’s comeback against Aston Villa robbed them of the Premier League title, Liverpool were pipped again.
After chasing an unprecedented quadruple for so long, Liverpool end up with ‘just’ two domestic Cups – and both of those won on penalties after goalless draws.
But even here, they never ran out of gas and they never ran out of conviction either.
Carlo Ancelotti has now surpassed Liverpool’s Bob Paisley and become the first manager to win four European Cups.
And Real, with 14 triumphs, now boast twice as many successes in this competition as any other club.
It can be argued that they did not deserve to defeat Chelsea in the quarter-finals or Manchester City in the semis and they were certainly second-best here.
But with their experience, their cunning and the sheer weight of their history, Real almost always seem to find a way.
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Those Liverpool fans had traveled in their legions by trains, planes and ferries, taking over vast swathes of the French capital with their ‘ole, ole, oles’.
Some had witnessed Liverpool’s triumph in the same city, against the same opposition in 1981, and others in Rome and London and Istanbul and Madrid yet with European Cup Finals it always feels as exciting as the first time.
But there were indications of organizational chaos hours before kick-off time.
Liverpool’s team bus was held up in heavy traffic and there were chaotic scenes near the entrances to the Stade de France.
With fans complaining of shambolic organization and a risk of crushing outside, it was unsurprising when UEFA announced a delay to kick-off
With a newly-laid pitch also causing controversy, it felt as if this fixture had been switched from St Petersburg just days, rather than months, ago.
The kick-off was pushed back by 15 minutes, then half an hour, then to 36 minutes.
And the ‘opening ceremony’ commenced with thousands still desperately trying to get inside – the dancers booed and jeered as they did their unnecessary thing.
By this stage, some fans with tickets were being pepper-sprayed by riot police.
Klopp’s men were favorites but after such an epic season, and even with some cute use of squad rotation, they had been laboring in recent matches.
Real, meanwhile, were fresher having sewn up their domestic title before the semi-final victory over Manchester City.
Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho were both passed fit to start, giving Klopp his first-choice line-up – remarkable after such a draining campaign.
After the delays, the first 15 minutes were understandably sluggish but Liverpool were enjoying plenty of the ball.
And from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s low center, Salah swivelled and forced a decent save from Thibaut Courtois.
After a patient passing move, Alexander-Arnold blazed one over the bar.
Mane then wriggled his way through a mob of defenders and drilled in a shot which Courtois pushed onto the post.
Real were sitting extremely deep and even when they broke, the experienced midfield duo of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro rarely joined in.
Three minutes before the break, though, Real thought they had the lead – only to be denied by an agonising VAR check.
Ferland Mendy released Benzema with a sweeping through-ball but after the striker was forced wide, Alisson and Ibrahima Konate got into a horrible tangle – and Federico Valverde sent through Benzema who netted but was narrowly offside.
Valverde’s pass cannoned off Fabinho on its way through – and Real clearly felt the goal would stand.
Liverpool, despite having dominated the first half, had certainly got away with a call that could have gone the other way.
As a result of that, it felt cagey and tense at the start of the second period. Alexander-Arnold was tirelessly up and down the right flank and David Alaba survived a penalty shout for handball when Salah drove a shot straight at him.
But suddenly Real were in front, breaking the Liverpool press, then Valverde on the right angling a center which caught the Reds defense square, Vinicius darting in behind Alexander-Arnold and poking past Alisson at the far post.
Less than a minute earlier the Brazilian scorer had high-fived Klopp in the Liverpool manager’s technical area.
The air of bonhomme did not last long.
Salah then cut in from the right and unleashed a curling shot destined for the far corner until Courtois, fully stretched, slapped it away.
With Real pulled out of shape again, Courtois scrambled to block from Salah, the Belgian keeper having a belting game.
Courtois made another tremendous save from Salah, who ought to have squared for Sadio Mane.
Mane is likely to leave for Bayern Munich after this. He did not deserve to go out on such a crushing low – and neither did any of Klopp’s marathon men.