Monday 23 September 2019

Horror night will leave mark on luckless Reds

Liverpool keeper Loris Karius was destraught after the Champions League final. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Liverpool keeper Loris Karius was destraught after the Champions League final. Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Barney Ronay

It felt even crueller that the final image of Mo Salah's relentlessly joyful season should be the sight of the Premier League Player of the Year leaving the pitch in tears half an hour in to this Champions League final. But then, there are reasons why Real Madrid win these games, why the same faces keep on being framed by the cameras year after year lifting that vast, intoxicatingly shiny trophy. Or in other words: Mo, meet Sergio. Sergio, Mo.

Madrid were the story here: three-time European champions now, with victory capped by an overhead kick from Gareth Bale of such devastating athleticism and grace even the stunned Liverpool end greeted him with a ripple of generous applause as Madrid lined up for the restart at 2-1 up.

But make no mistake, Liverpool had their moments to win this game, most obviously in the opening quarter of this game when they hammered Madrid 0-0, battered them to a state of parity, strangled them into even-Stevens submission.

For 20 minutes as Liverpool went - fearlessly, brilliantly - for the full, blitz attack this was a scragging, a mismatch. There were hoofed clearances, four of them in the opening 10 minutes as those princely white shirts looked a little giddy, a little punchy. Liverpool do this to you when they're not breaking at speed, swarming in with the body shots, taking your breath, making the pitch spin, just always failing somehow to create the killer opening.

Something had to give. It did. The wrong thing. Nobody will ever really know what Sergio Ramos intended as he grabbed Mo Salah's arm and tumbled to the ground in contact. No foul was awarded, even with Salah lying in agony holding his shoulder.

This was probably an entirely innocent coming together. In slow motion it looked like an expert secret service judo move, the kind of thing you spend three years in a camp in the Swiss Alps learning to pull off on a crowded train station without breaking stride, along with the blow dart to the neck and the sword-stick umbrella.

Ramos might say he was giving some back in kind, reacting to Liverpool's own concussive style. Either way Salah was done, soldiering on for a few moments before going down in distress clutching that shoulder. Ramos, undisputed svengali of white-shirted bastardism, loves these games. Here he seized another of them by the throat and squeezed at the vital moment.

And instantly the game changed, the air going out of the red shirts. The excellent Sadio Mané was taken off the left where he was traumatising Dani Carvajal.

On 51 minutes Madrid were in front, Loris Karius producing a horrible, gut-wrenching error, teeing Karim Benzema up by basically placing the ball on the end of his foot in front of an open goal from a simple throw-out.

Still, though, Liverpool didn't drop, didn't die. Four minutes later they were level, the goal coming from Mané, their best player on the night, nipping in at a corner and poking the ball past Keylor Navas, and giving that masse Liverpool end the moment it had craved, another note in the pure sense of pleasure that has soundtracked this run to Kiev and which will remain a dominant note of this losing final.

What's black and white and red all over? Kiev, of course. Or at least it had been for one sun-drenched Saturday afternoon as Liverpool's travelling support milled noisily but peaceably, adding a splash of something sweatily vibrant to the washed out greens and blues and greys.

They came in vans and coaches and cars. They came via Frankfurt and Amsterdam. And throughout the day they turned the centre red, filling Shevchenko Park with a beer-sodden, bobbing, burping, chanting mass of sun-flushed red.

They peeled off their sticky nylon replica shirts and washed in the Kiev streets under bottled water showers. They filled the backstreet bar tables with a basking, travel-frazzled sense of dolce vita, filling the vacated city centre with their songs and shouts.

As the minutes ticked down to kick-off there were booming cheers from both ends and a crackle of genuine electricity around those steeply banked stands.

There was a familiar feeling of ravenousness to get to those moments, an impatience to the pre-match hoopla, capped by the massed kitchen foil-clad dancers of the great Dua Lipa, who eventually appeared bouncing gamely on top of a blue and yellow birthday cake stage.

This game was still there for Liverpool, a tribute to the resilience in this team. Trent Alexander-Arnold kept pace with Marcelo as he jinked inside time and again, sniping sideways like a horribly malevolent giant tarantula.

They fired again either side of Mané's goal, still mob-handed but without that glaze of genius, the switch of gear to take the air out of the stadium. Mané hit the post. The game was still there.

How cruel, again, that it should be taken away by another genuinely painful howler from Karius, a moment to kill any game as he let a Bale shot spill through the most brittle of pasta-wristed punches.

Liverpool will leave Kiev with fond memories, and with no little pride, but also with the bruises of a night when luck simply deserted them.


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