Sport Champions League

Sunday 20 January 2019

Egyptian King's sad exit undermines Reds' hopes of reclaiming throne

Liverpool's Mohamed Salah looks dejected after his injury in the Champions League final. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters
Liverpool's Mohamed Salah looks dejected after his injury in the Champions League final. Photo: Hannah McKay/Reuters

Chris Bascombe

Sometimes the chasm between realising dreams and suffering is too much. It was written in every tear of Mohamed Salah's face. There is cruelty in the extremes of a final. UEFA even choreograph the tunnel walk to ramp up provocation, the European Cup teasingly planted between the players as they emerged.

Salah's heartbreaking early exit would be as lingering an image of this night as Loris Karius's horrific errors or Gareth Bale's overhead kick.

After the Egyptian's injury on the half-hour the sides went in goalless at half-time. In many ways it felt Jurgen Klopp's team-talk before the second half needed to be as pivotal as Rafa Benitez's in Istanbul in 2005.

The German had to reorganise and restore the belief of his players. They were not only playing to create new memories, but to preserve and enhance their most recent. To ensure this campaign's wins over Porto, Manchester City and Roma are framed and exhibited rather than snapshots hidden in a rarely opened album.

In the build-up, several Liverpool players were asked how they cope with this consuming sense of what might be. To a man they offered a shrug, suggesting they would approach it like 'any other game'. They started that way, too. But swiftly understood the skill and cynicism of their opponent.

For two weeks Liverpool supporters spent restless nights considering how Salah might expose Marcelo's attacking adventure, or Roberto Firmino harass Ramos into submission. The presentation of undisturbed demeanour was theatre - a psychological ploy disguising anxiety.

Klopp seemed to demand this from his squad as much as the call to press a full-back receiving a misplaced pass. Klopp knew if he could transmit the calmness and concentrated joviality of his Kiev press conference performance into the body and mind of those players, this was truly his greatest man-management achievement. It was a trick demanded again at the interval.

Liverpool have suffered too much recently. So has Klopp. It has often been said the experiences of narrow failure have made them stronger, but when counting up the losses there is no profit. There is never consolation in a final defeat. None.

Klopp's approach to the final is worthy of a stand alone psychological study. There was nothing new tactically he could teach his players.

Everyone knew how Liverpool could play, and how they would at least try. His concern was making sure they felt free enough to do it - and just as importantly convinced Real Madrid Liverpool's best was waiting. He also needed to summon the spirit of which he was so proud.

"We are Liverpool," was stated so often by Klopp it was like a mantra.

He wanted use of the notion of there being something quintessentially different about his club as ammunition. He felt it when he was first mentioned in connection with the job, absorbed it when stepping into Anfield and has nourished it over the last three years.

These European runs somehow appear grander when Liverpool are involved.

Their rivals have simmering contempt for the kind of Anfield pomp that can make a royal wedding seem a low-key gathering of friends. Liverpool embarked on a charm offensive; those wishing they were here seem to find the charm offensive.

Klopp, Liverpool, its fans and the city have shown their capacity to grasp the importance of these occasions and suck the marrow from them; to 'own them' as Pep Guardiola acknowledged earlier in the competition.

But Real Madrid feel the same. They are one of the few clubs who can not be intimidated by that rich tapestry of banners, each trying to outwit the others with a new slogan; the incubating of new chants in the early rounds, which grow into stadium rockers by the final; or the inventive use of social media to ensure there is no escape from Scouse bravado, for Liverpool the European experience is much more than that all-important 90 minutes.

Liverpool in Europe is a cultural phenomenon. But so it is for Real Madrid. It has its distinguishable history.

Klopp made another point before the game. "Whatever happens, we are back," he argued.

Here, there was more wriggle room. Liverpool being in the final, and securing Champions League football next season whatever the outcome validates Klopp's claim the club is mixing with European royalty again.

But back on their throne? Only victory could achieve that.

Without their Egyptian King - and with unfathomable calamity from a goalkeeper - that was even harder than imaginable.


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