For Liverpool, it was a game too far. No 63 of a season in which they have contested every single one that has been open to them was supposed to bring the crowning glory, the moment to define Jürgen Klopp’s era.
There have been six trophies under the manager, including two massive ones – the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League the following season. But to beat Real Madrid in an almost impossibly glamorous showpiece to complete a Cup treble – with the League Cup and FA Cup already in the cabinet – promised a new, more rarefied high.
It was not to be. On a night when the kick-off was delayed by 36 minutes due to problems for the Liverpool fans outside the stadium here in Paris, their team gave everything only to run into more than Real’s mystique, the line that the Spanish champions parrot about how they do not lose these finals.
Standing in the Real goal, Thibaut Courtois had a game when he made outstanding saves from first to last, when he had Mohamed Salah, in particular, howling in frustration. Salah had declared himself to be motivated by the loss to Real in the 2018 final, when he was thrown out of action by Sergio Ramos. There would be no revenge storyline.
Salah watched Courtois produce a string of saves to keep him out, three of them in the jaw-dropping bracket, with the best saved to the last. Salah’s touch to kill a high ball in the 82nd minute was sublime and, when he shifted inside and shot, the hopes of the Liverpool support soared. Courtois would stretch to tip beyond the far post. There had also been a save from him to deny Sadio Mané in the early running that, in many ways, set the tone, clawing at Liverpool’s belief.
The harsh truth was that not enough Liverpool players reached their best levels. Perhaps it was because of the mental and physical drain of a season like few others, which also featured an unsuccessful fight to the finish with Manchester City for the Premier League title. Liverpool had lost only three of the previous 62 games and one of them did not matter – the second leg of the last 16 tie in this competition against Internazionale. This one, Klopp’s third defeat in four Champions League finals as a manager, the first one with Borussia Dortmund, cut them to the core.
Liverpool started brightly but they were reeled in by the old masters, who came to dictate the tempo at which they wanted the game to be played. Vinícius Júnior struck the decisive blow just before the hour and, no matter what Liverpool did thereafter, Courtois was in the way.
Real had ridden their luck during a wild ride through the knockout rounds but not here. It was a performance of strength and poise and it brought them a 14th European Cup from 17 appearances in the final. The last time that they lost one was in 1981 to Liverpool in Paris. Incredibly, it was a fifth triumph in the competition in nine seasons and, for Carlo Ancelotti, it added up to a piece of history – a record fourth success as a manager.
The pre-match buildup had been chaotic, the Liverpool team bus stuck in traffic at 7.35pm local time – less than 90 minutes before the scheduled kick-off time; it would make it in five minutes later – and the match was then delayed as thousands of Liverpool fans were shut out of the stadium. Some of them said that the authorities had closed one of the gates that serviced their enclosure and there was anxiety as tensions rose and the police fired pepper spray.
It was hugely unsettling, Gary Lineker tweeting it was “very dangerous, absolute carnage”, and reports of supporters being herded into tight spaces. The inevitable investigation will make for uncomfortable reading.
Klopp had wanted an aggressive start and he got it, his team pressing high, snapping into challenges, dominating the ball; Salah and Mané showed their intent with sharp movements, especially between the lines.
Courtois sprang to his left to deny Salah after a Trent Alexander-Arnold burst and cross before stretching to tip Mané’s shot from the edge of the penalty area against the inside of his near post. The ball would run in front of the line but it would not spin over it.
Real sat deep, hoping to spring on the counter and, after Liverpool’s initial flurry, they dug out a foothold with their rhythmic short passing game. They were supremely unruffled, believing that their time would come, and it nearly did on 43 minutes when Karim Benzema took a high pass to the right of goal and jinked inside with Alisson in close attendance.
When Benzema jabbed to the left, it was the prompt for Alisson and Ibrahima Konaté to get into a tangle. Federico Valverde snapped towards the loose ball, so did Fabinho and, when it broke, Benzema – who was in an offside position – rammed home. How did it reach him? If it had come off Fabinho, Liverpool would have a problem. VAR ruled that it did so but inadvertently, meaning that the goal had to be ruled out. It was extremely difficult to unpick.
It came to feel as though Ancelotti’s team had Liverpool where they wanted them, even if they were not exactly carving them apart. With Real, the fear lies in what they might do, what they will do. They did it when the excellent Valverde drilled over a low cross and Vinícius, timing his run in behind Alexander-Arnold, had a tap-in.
Liverpool fought on. Salah watched Courtois tip away a curler for the far corner, in among his other saves, and there was the moment when the substitute Naby Keïta lifted wastefully over the crossbar. Casemiro fluffed a square pass with Vinícius and Benzema open in front of goal but Real – and Courtois – would keep the back door bolted.