‘The game of the season’: Weight of history adds to Champions League final shaping up to be a modern classic

·7 min read
Jurgen Klopp motivates his players on the eve of the final   (Getty)
Jurgen Klopp motivates his players on the eve of the final (Getty)

Although the Liverpool players attempted to treat this like any of the many big games they’ve played, it took a mere step on the Stade de France pitch to change that. This is the club’s third Champions League final in five years, but there’s still that extra electrical charge to the air.

“It’s the occasion, it’s talking in a press conference here,” Trent Alexander-Arnold said. “There’s different things you do around the game. It’s the special game, the one that everyone wants to play in.

“It’s the game of the season.”

The hope is that it will also be the game of the season in terms of spectacle. That is one thing the Champions League has not really served up amid all its drama, and you arguably have to go back to 2005 for the last truly great showpiece, but there are little elements coming together that could set up a classic.

It is not just that it is again Carlo Ancelotti and Liverpool. Both managers are able to name full teams. Real Madrid have everyone fit. Jurgen Klopp confirmed that Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho are “looking good”.

It means, for this greatest of occasions, both will be able to play their best teams.

Whether they are actually the best teams in Europe is something else open to debate, and it is also rare enough that the final serves up a meeting between the two finest sides on the continent. The last time it happened was maybe 2017, or 2015.

Manchester City would argue it is impossible to be that without their presence, but the occasion is arguably richer for that.

A showpiece between two teams from different countries is what the Champions League final is really about, and there are few clubs that have enriched the competition as much as these two. Illustrating that, no other final has featured two clubs to collectively have as many European Cups, with a total of 19. Madrid are going for their 14th, Liverpool for their seventh.

Alexander-Arnold is preparing for a third final at the age of just 23 (Liverpool FC/Getty)
Alexander-Arnold is preparing for a third final at the age of just 23 (Liverpool FC/Getty)

Fittingly, it is also the first pairing to meet three times, with Ancelotti aiming for a record fourth Champions League as a manager.

History weighs over the occasion, most of all their contentious last final in 2018.

For all the talk of “revenge”, and renewed discussion about Loris Karius, that game is perhaps most interesting for how it reflects on the two clubs now. There has arguably been a reversal.

Back then, Madrid were still the most powerful club in world football, while Liverpool – and particularly Klopp – were dismissed as “losers”. A hugely admirable team, of course, but losers nonetheless.

The 3-1 defeat was Klopp’s sixth successive defeat in finals. Even Sadio Mane, the scorer of Liverpool’s only goal, seemed a second-tier player; not quite the top level. Liverpool felt much less imposing once Mohamed Salah went off, and had very little on the bench.

How things have changed.

The truth was that these games did not reveal what Liverpool were, but shaped what they would become.

“You have to learn to win,” Klopp said at the Stade de France on the eve of this final, as he reflected on the one from four years before. “I had to learn the hard way – the really hard way. I’ve lost a lot of finals in my life.”

It has all set up a season where Liverpool could win all three cups. They missed out on the title by a point, but that in itself emphasises just how strong they are; that they were able to go so far in everything. Mane has meanwhile become a contender for the Ballon D’Or, with interest from both Bayern Munich and Madrid, although it would no longer seem so damaging for Liverpool to lose one of that front three. A ready-made replacement is already there, and probably starting this game, in the electric Luis Diaz.

Liverpool have come a long way since their painful defeat to Madrid in 2018 (Getty)
Liverpool have come a long way since their painful defeat to Madrid in 2018 (Getty)

So much stems from 2018. That was the last final Liverpool lost, and they have since won five in a row, including the very next Champions League showpiece as well as competitions such as the Super Cup and Club World Cup.

While the merits of those latter trophies are debated, the team’s quality is not. They have long been the most devastating of forces in world football, and probably the equal of Manchester City right now. Their two draws reflect that, as does the fact that Liverpool have gone one game better in the Champions League this season, despite finishing one point behind Pep Guardiola’s side in the league.

Given how City destroyed Madrid in general play for about 170 minutes of their semi-final, it is hard not to think Liverpool are also superior to the Spanish champions.

Madrid have gone through as many changes since 2018, and there is the view that this is still really the remnants of that side.

Cristiano Ronaldo is gone, and still hasn’t really been replaced. Kylian Mbappe was supposed to be that successor, but Madrid’s longstanding interest in the French star has only served to illustrate their loss of power.

The Bernabeu, put bluntly, is no longer the place to be.

Madrid no longer carry the same weight, and have to be more creative about their business. It is why they have sought to replicate the Liverpool model.

And yet it is precisely that realisation that has propelled them through this season. It made the defeats of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain all the more symbolic. The state-owned clubs may have more money, but they don’t have Madrid’s affinity with this competition – or their belief.

That has also created an emotional momentum of its own. The Madrid players feel almost invincible due to this run, fired by a sense of destiny. Karim Benzema has meanwhile performed to Ronaldo levels, and actually surpassed him in terms of consistent decisive influence on the knockout stages, with some of his teammates now using the Mbappe rejection as motivation.

Ancelotti will attempt to win his fourth Champions League as a coach (Getty)
Ancelotti will attempt to win his fourth Champions League as a coach (Getty)

Madrid certainly don’t feel inferior to Liverpool.

“The confidence level of Madrid players is extraordinarily high, after so many comebacks,” Klopp said. “That’s an important thing in football.”

It very much came across in the Madrid press conference.

“There is so much excitement,” Marcelo said. “The season has been wonderful, and we deserve to be here.”

It does point to another important element in this game, though.

As much as Madrid have been the story of this Champions League season, their ties have been as much about the failures of the opposition. Ancelotti’s side faced a Chelsea undercut by the uncertainty of their takeover, while both City and PSG have ongoing psychodramas with this competition.

All of them might have been better than Madrid, but they just didn’t have Madrid’s Champions League identity

It had a very tangible effect. It changed the atmosphere and psychology of games, making that series of comebacks possible.

“Our history in this competition drove us at times,” Ancelotti said.

It just may not have quite the same effect in the final. That is because Madrid are facing one of the few sides who feel all of this as much as them.

Klopp is one win away from a historic season (Liverpool FC/Getty)
Klopp is one win away from a historic season (Liverpool FC/Getty)

The hope for everyone watching on is that all this fosters something just as spectacular as Saturday, at last a game to match the occasion.

On that, there was a pointed question to Klopp at the end of his press conference. He was asked about the fact this match was originally supposed to take place in St Petersburg, only to be moved due to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

It was a rare moment when Klopp was stumped, as he had a good think about what he would say.

His words, inevitably, were close to perfect.

“The war is still going on and we have to think about that. The game not being in St Petersburg is exactly the message for Russia.

“Life goes on, even when you try to destroy it.”

Ultimately, that’s what a Champions League final should really be about: a celebration of life.

It is people coming together, with this match in Paris the first full showpiece since the pandemic, for something as gloriously frivolous as football.

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