Opinion

The Champions League Final: Perspective

Pain, disbelief, tears. Those were just some of the emotions the people around me, as well as myself, in the Liverpool Pub in Subotica, Serbia, felt in certain moments of this epic Champions League final. It was David vs Goliath all over again, a battle between a superclub, one that has won this competition almost twice as many times as the nearest competitors, and a club that is in a long rebuilding process, coming from huge depths to finally get their head above the water.

Real were always the favourites, no sane person ever disputed that. They do have a strong winning mentality, stronger than any other team in the world at this moment. We have to be realistic – despite all the recent positive vibes around the club, we have yet to develop something similar. We were aware of that before the game. In fact, the only team yours truly wanted Liverpool to avoid in this season’s Champions League run-up for as long as possible was – Real Madrid. All hoping against hope, that someone would knock them out along the way. It wasn’t because of their quality, no. Not because of their style either. Nor the formation or any brain-product of Zinedine Zidane. It was because of their mentality. The mentality that helped them overcome obstacles like Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich before facing the Reds in the final. The mentality that got them over the line in the end and had them lifting that trophy for the 13th time.

And now, when the dust has started to settle down a bit, it’s time to reflect.

First of all, it should be said that the first 30 minutes of the final showed that even with the likes of Henderson, Milner and Wijnaldum in midfield, we have possibly the best starting XI in the world. It used to be something Liverpool fans boasted about while not being taken very seriously by others, but during that half an hour it was there, plain for everyone (with eyes) to see. The Reds entered their opponents’ box too easily and too frequently for the occurrence to be considered a fluke. Yes, there was a lack of inch-perfect accuracy in small-space passing inside the box, there was an occasional inappropriate first touch, or an occasional wrong decision. There was also some fine defending and goalkeeping by Real.

The Ramos Moments

But it wasn’t looking like it would stay that way forever. One moment of luck smiling would have been enough for Liverpool to make it count, and Sergio Ramos, as experienced and dirty as he is, sensed it. He was afraid. A cowardly instinct awoke in him and he had to make sure his team got a chance to breathe. Taking out Liverpool’s best player was the solution his filthy logic immediately presented him with.

It was deliberate. There’s no other way to interpret it, though Madrid fans have tried.  Some even go as far as claiming that Salah grabbed Ramos first, but looking at the video from all angles, you can clearly see Ramos putting his arm over and around Salah’s. In fact, this final is not the first time the notorious centre-back has done this.

It was an offence worthy of a red card. It was a clear intention of injuring the opponent which, sadly, worked like a charm for the offender. Referee Milorad Mažić, my compatriot I ruefully have to admit, clearly didn’t do his job there. We can talk about how the exit of Salah influenced the game, and about how we need to have more firepower for that not to happen in future. But in the same context a neutral point of view has to consider what would have been if Ramos was forced out too, and with Zidane unable to send in a replacement – as should have been.

We can also talk about Mažić being human and perhaps not able to spot everything that goes on, but it was his job to spot it and the existence of the mistake should therefore be acknowledged.

Was that enough for Ramos? No.

Less than two minutes before Loris Karius infamously assisted Karim Benzema for the opener, he was elbowed to the head – by Sergio Ramos. He spoke sharply to Mažić about it, but Mažić chose not to take too much notice. Admittedly, you won’t see a ref give a foul merely on a player’s complaint, but it was another case of him missing an important detail to Ramos’ advantage.

And a minute after Benzema’s goal, he tried to get Sadio Mane booked in a manner that needs no description or commenting:

The Karius Moments

As for the first goal, there can’t really be any defence against the criticism. What poor Loris was doing there, what he was thinking, where he was looking, I’ll never know. We have often fed our pride on the fact that Roberto Firmino is a striker that never gives up on closing down. Benzema maybe isn’t as hardworking as our Bobby, but he’s certainly not lazy either. Anyone that has ever seen him play knows that.

The second one was very reminiscent of the one Simon Mignolet conceded to Granit Xhaka at the Emirates. A tricky shot, trickier than it looks at first glance, and Gareth Bale is much more known for his shooting ability than the Arsenal midfielder. Still, a goalkeeper has to be ready for it and deal with it in any way that would stop the ball from hitting the back of the net. Karius clearly underestimated the velocity of the shot. His hands and wrists looked far too relaxed when the ball hit his palms and it slipped through. Having already conceded a spectacular overhead kick from the Welshman to add to the first mistake, at this point there was no way back. He did, however, make a few fine saves in the game but they fell into shadow.

Embed from Getty Images

 

The reactions to his performance have been various to say the least. From some strong words of encouragement by fellow professionals to death threats by obsessed individuals (or simply trolls) who have no place in football.

As for myself… I’ve always kept a sober point of view when players are faced with criticism. I’ve been loud in defence of the likes of Henderson, Moreno, Mignolet, Benteke, Škrtel… I even defended Balotelli whenever I felt things went a bit too far. But I’m not sure I can bring myself to defend Karius after this. The overwhelming feeling remains that the team put in a strong effort (some stronger than others) to stay in the game and that the result would have been different, even with Salah off and Ramos remaining on and Bale’s brilliant goal, if it hadn’t been for Karius’ inexplicable mistakes. I understand that he must be feeling worse right now than anyone else. I applaud his bravery in stepping up to take full blame. And whatever the club decide to do about the goalkeeping department, I hope with all my heart Karius bounces back from this horrible experience and rises to a top class ‘keeper.

But I can’t honestly say that I’m all for him remaining the long-term No.1 choice. The links with the likes of Alisson Becker and Jan Oblak have returned in full force, and it’s hard at this point to choose what to hope for. Thankfully it’s not my call to make, and I fully trust Klopp and any decision he makes on the matter.

The Perspective

A year ago, I felt I would be satisfied if the season ended with Liverpool finishing in the top four and a place in the Champions League quarterfinal this term. That would have been an improvement on 2016/17, a step in the right direction. The top-four finish has been achieved, and it took Real Madrid in the final to stop us in Europe’s elite competition. And we’ve shown we can play even there, even against them. With Naby Keita secured and a few more quality additions potentially arriving, I feel another step forward is about to be taken. The competition within the squad will become more fierce, which in turn means better players on the bench. There’s no escaping the fact that we missed that influence throughout the season.

Our time is coming. Theirs still lasts, but it has to end some time.

We walk on.

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