Saturday 21 September 2019

Karius catastrophes and Bale wondergoal break Liverpool hearts

Real Madrid 3 Liverpool 1

Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale scores a spectacular overhead kick during last night’s Champions League final at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale scores a spectacular overhead kick during last night’s Champions League final at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium. Photo: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Sam Wallace

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 Loris Karius would do his best to make it that way.

An outrageous divergence of fortunes on European football's biggest night, when Bale came on and changed once again the trajectory of his career with a first goal that was good enough to win all three of the Champions League finals which Real Madrid have collected in the last three years.

The Welshman rose from the bench on 61 minutes, scored twice and played the Cristiano Ronaldo role with Cristiano Ronaldo still on the pitch, thoroughly upstaged.

Bale's first, an overhead kick two minutes after coming on was applauded by Zinedine Zidane in the knowledge that his swivel and volley goal in the 2002 final at Hampden Park has now been eclipsed as arguably the greatest goal ever scored on this stage. "It has to be the best goal in a Champions League final," said Bale.

The second from Bale was a catastrophe for Karius, a swish of a boot from 40 yards out that was straight at the Liverpool goalkeeper's nose, yet it was slapped into his own goal.

The first Madrid goal had been Karius's fault too, a ball thrown against Karim Benzema's outstretched foot that you would be disappointed to concede in the Monday night five-a-side.

Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

And then in the meantime there was Mohamed Salah, walking off in tears on 29 minutes after being thrown to the ground by Sergio Ramos. If it could do wrong then it did go wrong for Liverpool, and in the end the 13th European Cup for Madrid never truly looked in doubt.

This was not Salah's night, and it was not Ronaldo's night, it was Bale's night, five years after he joined the club, collecting his fourth European Cup title and coming back from the shadows to take centre-stage.

The entanglement between Salah and Ramos was one of those moments that might have passed without mention until when you watched it again and again and the nature of the damage was obvious. The natural assumption was that Ramos meant it, that he knew that to trap Salah's right arm and twist him over so he fell in a precipitous headfirst downward motion - neck and shoulder crushed into the turf - was all planned. That is what Ramos is perceived to be, the great cynical win-at-all-costs merchant with a diabolical plan for every occasion.

Yet, it is hard to say for sure that he wanted to inflict such obvious discomfort on Liverpool's star player that when Salah went down for the second time in agony from his left shoulder that he came up shedding tears.

Liverpool's Sadio Mane scores his side's goal. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire
Liverpool's Sadio Mane scores his side's goal. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA Wire

Sure, Ramos locked that right arm of Salah's for longer than might be supposed meaning that the Liverpool man could not break his fall, and he sent him down like a wrestler onto the mat headfirst. Whether he intended such damage is hard to say.

It 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, and the Spanish side finished the half with 65 per cent of the possession.

When Liverpool did break forward they were urgent and they did have the one attempt on target of the first half, a shot from Trent Alexander-Arnold that Keylor Navas saved easily. Andy Robertson was released down the left after an exchange with Sadio Mane and his cross was first controlled and struck goalward by Roberto Firmino. When that was blocked it came to Alexander-Arnold, the first teenager to start a Champions League final since Johan Neeskens for Ajax in 1971.

Salah's shoulder slam into the turf came just two minutes later and his departure threw his team-mates. They have become so used to the power he gives them over opposing sides that they struggled for confidence in the late stages of the first half and his replacement Adam Lallana, who had played 16 minutes since the end of March, needed time to adjust to the pace of the game.

Real Madrid celebrate with the trophy. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Real Madrid celebrate with the trophy. Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire

In the closing stages of the half Karim Benzema had the ball in the Liverpool goal after Karius had elected to punch Ronaldo's header but the latter had already been flagged offside.

Generally Liverpool had looked confident in defence, led by Virgil van Dijk in the centre while Dejan Lovren had almost put Ronaldo into the halfway line television camera within 30 seconds of the kick-off.

But the pace of the first half was dictated by Madrid. There were times when they were sloppy with the ball, and Ronaldo switched from the left to the right to little effect in the first 45 minutes. Yet Madrid had so much of the ball that when it did finally fall into Liverpool's possession they were too eager move it quickly when they might just have granted themselves some time in control.

Their best period before the break was the first 10 minutes when Alexander-Arnold, Salah and Firmino combined at different times to open up the left side of Madrid's defence. Their passing was crisp and it felt they were tuning up for something more dangerous when Madrid gradually seized 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 taken when Lallana failed to get the ball away and it dropped for the Madrid man in the area. That time Karius was stranded and could do nothing about the outcome.

The Benzema goal was a different story.

The German had the ball in his hands and Benzema, perhaps slightly more tenaciously than expected, dangled a foot in front of the goalkeeper's under-arm distribution and got the full force of it. It dribbled off Benzema's foot and into the corner of Liverpool's goal in a second when many might have looked away from the match.

They looked up to see Karius protesting - protesting what? - and Jurgen Klopp, a man of so many emotions, unable to express a single one on the touchline.

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 Lovren won over the top of Ramos for Mane to squeeze in.

Bale had come on after the hour for Isco, 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. But he caught Marcelo's fiercely driven cross at the perfect point of the arc and you knew instantly you had seen one of the goals of a lifetime.

His second of the night was a disaster for Karius who slumped to the floor at the end of the game, and Bale was one of the first to try to kick him off the turf.

Bale said afterwards of his future: "I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season. I had an injury five, six weeks in but fit ever since. I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it."


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