The now managerless Real Madrid’s game-management guided the Los Blancos to a 13th European title, although their performance against a slightly unfortunately Liverpool could never be described as vintage.
Starting with the same eleven from the corresponding 2017 final but with an obviously frustrated Gareth Bale, despite his telling intervention, cutting a brooding figure at full-time, Real are not the team they once were, as highlighted by a stuttering La Liga campaign. Cristiano Ronaldo no longer plays with a swashbuckling élan that characterised his talismanic worth to the Madridstas, leaving club president Florentino Perez more concerned by Bale’s possible departure, than that of the 33-year old Portuguese.
The Champions League joust between two such European leviathans did though throw up so many ‘if only’ and ‘what if’ scenarios, many of which would instead have seen the red side of Liverpool now in possession of its sixth European Cup/Champions’ League title:
- What if… Sergio Ramos had been booked for fouling Mo Salah, placing the Spanish defender for the remainder of the game on a disciplinary tightrope?
- What if… A positional ‘like for like’ Danny Ings, who didn’t in the end even make the bench, had replaced the injured Salah, and not the ring-rusty Adam Lallana? Or, had Daniel Sturridge been brought in from the cold to at least claim a place among the substitutes, instead of an instantly forgettable stint at West Bromwich Albion…
- What if… Marcelo hadn’t pulled out a peach of a cross on his ‘wrong’ foot – thereby facilitating a gravity-defying Gareth Bale to score perhaps the best goal in a European final?
- What if… Choosing between Simon Mignolet and Loris Karius is at the best of times something of a Hobson’s Choice, with neither custodian being of a consistent standard to propel Liverpool to the next level. Had though the Belgian instead been chosen, it is unlikely both of Karius’ blunders would’ve been replicated.
- What if… Bale, and not the somewhat lumbering Karim Benzema, had started the game; would Real have been out of sight – regardless of Salah’s early departure?
One could, although probably shouldn’t go on; after all, every game from grassroots to the very pinnacle of professional football contains a myriad of ‘sliding door’ moments. For a match of such magnitude the finest of lines between success and failure were though crossed to an extent of which I can barely recall. Real won because they know the process, and how to manage an occasion that isn’t just an XI vs. XI. Admittedly ably assisted by Karius, the four times Champions’ League winner Zinedine Zidane did though get lucky that Gareth Bale’s delayed entry into the fray had such a decisive, devastating effect. Liverpool will though pay the price for placing their hopes on the Mane-Salah-Firmino tripartite, with goals from elsewhere in the squad, let alone the team, almost non-existent. Despite being honest workhorses, James Milner and Jordan Henderson are not Toni Kroos nor the effervescent Marcelo.
It is therefore somewhat ironic that Liverpool’s future looks more stable in the immediate future than a now Zidane-less Bernabeu. Could it next be Wenger, Loew, or Pochettino? The latter two have recently signed long-term contracts with country and club respectively, although in modern-day football that hardly precludes a manager, or player, from jumping ship. If anything, it insulates the aggrieved club from only receiving derisory compensation which is otherwise paid when a contract is winding down to ‘free agent’ status. Liverpool need two goalkeepers, a central defender to complement the excellent Virgil van Dijk, and an out an out striker who would enable Salah to play the number ten role, which in turn would bring in Firmino and Mane from deeper-lying, wider roles.
A period of upheaval awaits at Real Madrid and although managerial churn is nothing new at the Bernabeu, expect a defiant statement of intent from Perez to counter the very definite doubts now circulating about the futures of Bale, and that of a what must be said deteriorating Ronaldo. Liverpool have secured the services of Fabinho and R B Leipzig’s Naby Keita but to get nearer to Manchester City, and eventually eclipse the blue moon, it is vital they strengthen the squad where it is needed the most. Interesting times await, albeit with the tedious and bloated hype-driven FIFA World Cup rapidly hoving into view.