KIEV. By the end of the night it felt that whatever Gareth Bale tried in this Champions League final would find the back of the Liverpool net, and even if what he attempted was not good enough then it would be Loris Karius’ misfortune to help it on its way.
This was the fourth Champions League final of Bale’s five years at Real Madrid, but the first in which he upstaged everyone, including Cristiano Ronaldo on the kind of night that is supposed to belong to Ronaldo. The first of the two goals the substitute scored was an overhead kick good enough to win any one of the 13 European Cup finals in which Madrid have now triumphed, and the second was part of the other story of the night that ended so differently.
Karius had the kind of night that a goalkeeper will never be able to forget and as he later sobbed in front of the Liverpool end, trying to express his sorrow for two terrible errors you wondered at how long the young German’s career will take to recover. He had thrown a ball against Karim Benzema’s foot for Madrid’s first goal and flapped in the second of Bale’s which was struck from 40 yards by Bale in the firm belief that whatever by that point he did would turn to gold.
It would have been hard for Liverpool to win this final with a goalkeeper as lost as Karius was, but it was even harder without Mohamed Salah, their goal machine taken out of the final by a first half entanglement with Madrid’s great cynic-in-chief, Sergio Ramos. Jurgen Klopp stopped short of blaming the Madrid captain for a wrestle that ended with Salah thrust down hard onto his neck and shoulder with the arm that should have broken his fall locked in by Ramos.
The Egyptian left the pitch in tears on just half an hour and he seemed to know then what Klopp confirmed later, that the injury was “really serious” and could cost him a place at the World Cup finals. Ramos was not even booked and we will never know if he could have foreseen what would happen but there was no question that he held onto Salah long after the Liverpool man was going down at a precipitous angle, slammed into the pitch.
In the aftermath, Bale was as outspoken as he has ever been about his Madrid future declaring that he needs to play games and that he will discuss the issue with his agent Jonathan Barnett over the summer. It certainly sounded like the end of Bale and Madrid, given that he has always been unequivocal that he would stay or perhaps it was the ultimate power play that will see Ronaldo leave and the Welshman remain.
While Bale was playing poker with his future in Madrid, so Ronaldo was declaring that he too would be leaving the club in the summer. The contract that he was promised by president Florentino Perez after victory in Cardiff last summer has never materialised and afterwards it fell to Zinedine Zidane to try to head off a crisis on this, his greatest night. “Cristiano has to stay, I always say this,” he said.
They scarcely had picked up the trophy and this famous Madrid side was already being picked apart but if this was their sign-off then they demonstrated just why winning these finals comes so easy to this team. There were periods when Liverpool were able to change the game to their kind of pace and tempo but there were so few of them, even when Sadio Mane scored a second half equaliser which briefly gave Jurgen Klopp’s team hope before Bale took over.
Mane would later hit the post with the score at 2-1 but 66 per cent of the possession of this game belonged to Madrid and the chaos that Klopp likes to inflict on teams just never materialised. He had to bring on Adam Lallana in place of the injured Salah, the Englishman having played just 16 minutes of senior football since the end of March and it showed in his game.
The injury to Salah was a grievous blow for Liverpool who had been blown around for periods of the first half, incapable of breaking the rhythms of Madrid’s passing. They had the only attempt on target in the first half from Trent Alexander-Arnold, the first teenager to start a Champions League final since Johan Neeskens for Ajax in 1971, and yet even then Madrid felt in control.
Madrid also lost a player to injury before the first half, and Dani Carvajal also departed in tears but if there was one they could afford to lose then it was their right-back. Isco hit the bar within three minutes of the start if the new half, the kind of chance that he should really have scored and it was eventually the Spain international who made way for Bale.
Before then came the first goal, Karius with the ball in his hands and Benzema, perhaps slightly more tenaciously than expected, dangling a foot in front of the goalkeeper’s under-arm distribution. Benzema got the full force of it, dribbling off his foot and into the corner of Liverpool’s goal. Those who had looked away expecting the ball to be released, turned back to Karius protesting – protesting what? – and Klopp, a man of so many emotions, unable to express a single one on the touchline.
He has known for some time that this young goalkeeper is not the answer to one of the club’s enduring problems and that was ruthlessly punished on this night above all. If anything, once the initial shock had subsided, it liberated Liverpool a little. From James Milner’s cross from the right they won the corner which Dejan Lovren won over the top of Ramos for Mane to squeeze in.
Bale had come on after the hour and within two minutes he had taken his opportunity. It is hard enough to execute an overhead kick in any circumstances and Bale did not have time to fully rotate and extend for his overhead kick. But he caught Marcelo’s cross at the perfect point of the arc and you knew instantly you had seen one of the goals of a lifetime.
His second goal of the night was a disaster for Karius, a shot that Bale would later say had “some wobble” on it but should have been saved easily by the Liverpool goalkeeper. By the end of the match the reality had sunk in and Karius slumped to the floor where the tears began to flow.