For clubs with such rich history in Europe it seems strange now that this was the first time they met. Preparation for the Paris final wasn’t the best, with wrangling over shirt advertising affecting the buildup and, remarkably, both sides having to contend with a dreadful Parc des Princes pitch that had been torn up by a rugby match two weeks beforehand.
Liverpool had endured a relatively poor league season with an ageing squad staggering home in fifth. They had won the League Cup for the first time, mind, and Phil Thompson, the club captain, had been given a telling off for leaving the trophy on the coach overnight – which would have a bearing on events after this final.
With both teams enjoying a possession-based approach it wasn’t a match with a long highlights reel. Laurie Cunningham, who was returning for Madrid after a long injury layoff, was marked out of the game while Graeme Souness and Juanito cancelled each other out in midfield. When the only goal came it was a happy accident. Ray Kennedy found Alan Kennedy with a throw-in and, well, I’ll let him tell the story. “I didn’t even want the ball … but [it] hit me on the chest and dropped perfectly. The defender came in and nothing happened … I didn’t know whether to shoot or cross, and basically just wellied it towards goal,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “It went in and I ran behind the goal to celebrate.” It was Liverpool’s – and Bob Paisley’s – third European Cup, putting them one ahead of Nottingham Forest and him one ahead of Brian Clough. That it came against the record six-time winners made it all the sweeter.
Now back to Thompson. So concerned was he about losing the trophy and getting another roasting, that he “put it in the back of my Ford Capri and went straight to [his local pub] the Falcon in Kirkby. I ran the Sunday league team there and we moved all the trophies we’d won, and all the bottles of brown ale, and put the European Cup behind the bar.” He even delayed media duties the next day, having promised local kids they could pose with the trophy in the pub. Now there’s a man who has got his priorities right.
It took 28 years for the clubs to meet again, in the first leg of the last 16 of the Champions League. Rafa Benítez was enjoying his most consistent league season at Liverpool but they had fallen seven points behind leaders Manchester United after a dip in form following his infamous “facts” press conference in January. Oh Rafa!
Madrid, meanwhile, were the reigning Spanish champions on a run of eight wins. Juande Ramos was overseeing a return to sparkling form after succeeding Bernd Schuster, who was sent packing after a 2-0 clásico defeat in December.
With Steven Gerrard only making the bench owing to a hamstring strain the odds were against Liverpool, but Xabi Alonso was back in the side after missing the 1-1 draw against Manchester City. With Javier Mascherano acting as his bodyguard, Alonso enjoyed enough time and space to control the midfield to the extent that he impressed Madrid enough to become a key transfer target.
“He’s the man Madrid need,” said Pepe Mel in a newspaper column the following day. As in 1981, it took until the 82nd minute for the first goal to arrive and, when it did, Benítez was rewarded for starting Fábio Aurélio over Andrea Dossena at left-back. The Brazilian’s inviting free-kick found the slender figure of Yossi Benayoun – for whom headed goals were as rare as hen’s teeth – to head home unmarked. Advantage Liverpool in the first leg. Madrid would come roaring back at Anfield though, wouldn’t they?
Erm, no. This was utter humiliation for Madrid, who had Iker Casillas to thank for it not being even more traumatic. Fernando Torres was irresistible and played as though he was trying to kill the club he grew up hating, tormenting Pepe and a 35-year-old Fabio Cannavaro with his pace and off-the-shoulder runs and giving Liverpool a 1-0 lead in the 16th minute.
A Gerrard penalty put the tie to bed as early as the 26th minute and, from thereon in, it was an exhibition. Madrid played like George A Romero was directing their performance, staggering around Anfield with the stench of a dying era following them. Some fleet-footed trickery from Ryan Babel helped to create a second for Gerrard early in the second half and then the match entered its trippy phase.
A 20-year-old Jay Spearing, on as a substitute in only his second appearance for the club, began pinging passes around like Andrea Pirlo as the Kop chanted his name. If that sounds outlandish, Dossena, who was more noteworthy for how amply he filled his Liverpool shirt than what he did in it, nipped in to score a fourth.
Anfield was giddy now. Dossena did it again a few days later, scoring in the 4-1 defeat of Manchester United that firmly put Liverpool back into the Premier League title race. As for Madrid, the shocking defeat sparked a second era of gálacticos at the Bernabéu, where Alonso would be strutting his stuff just months later.
When Madrid next turned up at Anfield, only three players – Marcelo, Pepe and Casillas – remained from that harrowing night in 2009 and Carlo Ancelotti was in charge. Having challenged for the league title in 2014, Liverpool had lost Luis Suárez to Barcelona while some bright sparks in the “transfer committee” had decided that Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert could help to replace him.
Gerrard was fighting a losing battle with his ageing limbs, too, and it showed. It took only 23 minutes for Madrid to take the lead through Cristiano Ronaldo, helping on a delicious dinked assist from James Rodríguez, who was still riding high after his stellar World Cup and was yet to lose his way in Madrid white.
Toni Kroos produced the next bit of wizardry, crafting a beautifully arced cross to the back post which Karim Benzema headed back into the far corner on 31 minutes. The game was effectively dead 10 minutes later when Benzema pounced again after Martin Skrtel misread a corner.
Madrid were on another level and an unbalanced Liverpool side were chasing Anfield shadows, the most elusive of which was Peak Ronaldo. He was in possession of the Ballon d’Or at the time and every trick and flick was golden, bamboozling those in red who could not lay a glove on him. That he received rapturous applause from all four sides of Anfield when he was withdrawn speaks to his brilliance. He scored 61 goals in all competitions that season but, remarkably, Madrid did not win La Liga or the Champions League. Barcelona – and that man Messi – won the treble.
Mo Salah is still seething about this final, Gareth Bale will cherish it, and poor Loris Karius may never recover from it. Liverpool were in full furious Kloppball-mode in the second half of the 2018 season. Virgil van Dijk, signed in January, had given them a stable platform to attack from and Salah, in his first season, had plundered 44 goals in all competitions. We were expecting high drama. We got that, judo and more.
Liverpool enjoyed the better of the first 25 minutes, their high tempo causing Madrid all kinds of problems until Sergio Ramos – it had to be him – dipped into his Big Book of Dark Arts and slammed Salah to the floor and out of the final with a serious shoulder injury. It took the momentum out of Liverpool’s play and Madrid finished the half the better side.
Isco hit the bar for Madrid early in the second 45 before Karius, in Liverpool’s goal, entered his very own Twilight Zone, trying to roll the ball out to Dejan Lovren while seemingly oblivious to one of Europe’s most deadly strikers standing in its path. Benzema jabbed out a foot to give Madrid the lead. It was an astonishing mistake that clearly nestled in Karius’s head like a poisonous worm. Liverpool rallied and Sadio Mané equalised. Then on came Bale with around half an hour to go to score possibly the greatest ever Champions League final goal – with his first touch! – an overhead kick from near the edge of the penalty area hit with such fury that it made 61,000 jaws drop. Even Zinedine Zidane gawped, and he’s seen and scored them all.
Again Liverpool came back, Mané clattering a post and giving fans hope until Karius outdid himself. Bale’s fiercely hit shot from 25 yards out was straight down his throat and should have been a routine save, but his head was clearly gone. As the ball slipped through his fingers he turned into a Pac-Man-style ghost, all colour draining from his face as his Liverpool career drifted up and away. The club later said he was concussed after a collision with Ramos. Whatever the cause, his errors gifted Madrid a 13th European Cup.
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This was a bizarre spectacle, really, played out at the little training-ground stadium used by Madrid’s second team and with no fans in attendance owing to Covid. Add to that the curious sight of Benzema and Nat Phillips wrestling with each other and it really does feel like a footnote in this rivalry.
Mind you, it was a still a Champions League quarter-final. Liverpool’s injury crisis meant they had somehow staggered to that stage of the competition having used 18 centre-back partnerships.
The young Turkish loanee Ozan Kabak was alongside Phillips in Madrid and their lack of positional sense was exposed by Kroos in the first half when he lofted a delightful pass over Phillips for Vinícius Jr to sprint on to and finish.
Nine minutes later Trent Alexander-Arnold’s mind was clearly elsewhere when he tracked Vinícius well only to then head back across his own goal to Marco Asensio, who cheekily lobbed Alisson. Salah got Liverpool back into it in the second half but Vinícius put the tie beyond this makeshift Liverpool side, who were opened up time and again as the game wore on. A second leg at Anfield without fans was far from daunting for Madrid, who drew 0-0 to progress.