It’s Liverpool versus Real Madrid in the Champions League final again.
Jurgen Klopp’s Reds, having battled their way past Villarreal in their semi-final, had looked certain to face Manchester City in Paris when Riyad Mahrez put the Premier League leaders 5-3 up on aggregate against La Liga’s champions in the other last-four tie.
Yet Madrid, architects of some remarkable comebacks under Carlo Ancelotti, produced another unforgettable evening at the Santiago Bernabeu in the competition they consider their own. Rodrygo scored twice after the 90-minute mark before Karim Benzema’s extra-time penalty sealed a 6-5 aggregate win that even the diehard Madridistas watching on could scarcely have imagined.
So it is that the 2022 final will be a repeat of 2018, when Madrid triumphed 3-1 to complete an historic Champions League three-peat under Zinedine Zidane. It promises to be quite the spectacle — so, what can we expect?
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The final of 2018 ended far too early for Mohamed Salah’s liking. In the 25th minute, the Egypt star tussled with Sergio Ramos for the ball and the two fell to the Kyiv turf, Salah’s arm locked beneath Ramos’s grip. The tears told the story before the medical tests could: his shoulder dislocated, Liverpool’s talisman could play no further part.
To some, it was an unfortunate but accidental injury born of a robust challenge. For others, it was a calculated, “judo-style” grapple by Ramos — a cynical move by Madrid’s Machiavelli to break Salah’s shoulder and Liverpool’s spirits.
Whether it was deliberate or not, Liverpool never quite recovered. Benzema put Madrid ahead early in the second half after an awful error from Reds goalkeeper Loris Karius. Sadio Mane equalised, but parity lasted just eight minutes, as Gareth Bale restored Madrid’s lead with a miraculous bicycle kick. When Karius flapped another Bale shot from distance into his own net, the game was over.
But Liverpool never forgave, and never forgot. Moments after helping Liverpool reach the 2022 final, Salah was asked by BT Sport which team between Manchester City and Real Madrid he would rather face in this year’s final and there were no cliches in his response: “If you ask me personally, I would prefer Madrid, because we lost in the final before against them. So I want to play against them, hopefully win it against them as well.”
There are six games left for Liverpool in 2021-22 that could define not just their season, but their place in the annals of history.
Having already won the EFL Cup (Carabao Cup), Klopp’s men are just a point behind Man City in the Premier League title race and have FA Cup and Champions League finals to come. They could become the first English side to win the quadruple and the only team to do so in Europe since Celtic won the European Cup and Scottish domestic treble in 1966-67 (we’re only counting the times a team has become champions of Europe as part of a four-trophy haul).
Klopp is as close to achieving the feat as any manager is likely to get, but Carlo Ancelotti will be out to end his first season back in Madrid with a second record of his own.
Having already become the first coach to win all of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, the Italian could now become the only manager to win the Champions League or European Cup on four different occasions. He is also now the outright leader for finals as a coach in this competition — this will be his fifth.
☝️ First coach to win the five big leagues!
👔 @MrAncelotti#RealFootball | #CAMPEON35 pic.twitter.com/85hE9LMEJE — Real Madrid C.F. 🇬🇧🇺🇸 (@realmadriden) April 30, 2022
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Ballon d’Or face-off: Can Mane stop Benzema?
Benzema’s extra-time penalty kick against City took him to 10 goals in this season’s knockout stage, equalling the competition’s knockout round record set by Cristiano Ronaldo in 2016-17.
With 42 goals to his name in all competitions and another La Liga winner’s medal in his collection, lifting the Champions League for the fifth time in his career would make the 34-year-old the firm favourite to win the 2022 Ballon d’Or.
Liverpool perhaps boast the candidates most likely to stop him. Salah is leading the race for the Premier League golden boot, and more decisive contributions in his side’s coming matches could propel him right back into the reckoning, particularly if he buries the ghosts of four years ago by firing Liverpool to glory in Paris.
But it’s Sadio Mane who might have the best chance among Liverpool players. Having been crowned the competition’s best player after leading Senegal to Africa Cup of Nations success, the 30-year-old broke Didier Drogba’s record for Champions League knockout goals scored by an African, with his semifinal strike against Villarreal taking him to 15.
If Mane can fire Liverpool to the FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League, it will be nigh-on impossible to ignore his credentials for the game’s top individual prize.
Madrid’s route to the final has undeniably been the most dramatic — the comeback against PSG, the rescue act against Chelsea, that breathless end to the City clash — but it also proved their vulnerabilities. They seemed to progress from each of those rounds by individual inspiration and sheer force of will rather than via carefully constructed game plans.
By contrast, Liverpool’s march to Paris has looked more sure-footed. They won all six games of a difficult group (no Premier League team had done that before) and imperious first-leg performances against Inter Milan and Benfica meant some second-leg wobbles at Anfield never had them truly worried. Indeed, the first time they looked genuinely shaken was when Villarreal leveled the semi-final aggregate score at 2-2, and even then, Klopp’s charges responded in style to win the game 3-2 and the series 5-2.
It’s perhaps not surprising then that, for all Madrid’s pedigree in this competition, they are the early underdogs with the bookies. As of May 4, SkyBet were pricing Liverpool at 1/2 to win the final, with Madrid at 13/8 (for context, the same bookmakers have Chelsea at shorter odds to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup final). Similarly, DraftKings have the Reds at -105, with Madrid at +265.
Liverpool and Real Madrid each claim a degree of ownership of Europe’s top competition. Between them, they have been to 25 finals (not including this year’s) and won the trophy 20 times.
Should they win in Paris on May 28, Liverpool will equal AC Milan on seven European Cup/Champions League triumphs, which is second on the all-time list. The team with the most is, of course, Real Madrid: They are the only side ever to reach double figures when it comes to being crowned champions of Europe, having done so on 13 occasions, including in four of the previous eight seasons.