- The debate will go on regarding this Real Madrid side's all-time greatness, but an injury to Liverpool's centerpiece and a moment of sheer genius from Gareth Bale tilted the scales in a memorable Champions League final.
KIEV, Ukraine – The decisive goal, scored with a Gareth Bale overhead kick moments after he had come off the bench, was brilliant, and the two Loris Karius mistakes that gifted Madrid goals either side of that were ghastly. But there was no doubting what had been the decisive moment as Real Madrid won its third European title in a row and its fourth in five years with a 3-1 triumph over Liverpool.
As Keylor Navas went to take a goal kick, Mohamed Salah slowly subsided, sinking with a desperate sadness to the ground. It looked bad, and confirmation soon followed from Liverpool’s medical staff. He had not recovered from an injury suffered a couple of minutes earlier and his final was over after just half an hour. As Salah walked off, his face crumpled in tears, his right arm hanging awkwardly limp, Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos both consoled him, but the truth is his departure had been Ramos’s fault.
The center back may not have intended to injure him, but he was guilty of a clumsy–and strangely unpunished–foul, hauling Salah down, landing on his extended arm as the two players fell together and making no attempt to loosen his hold as the two went to ground. It was, at least, highly dangerous. With Salah’s departure, so the tenor of the game was transformed. It’s in that detail that the doubts about this Madrid, the sense that despite its record it is not a truly great side, lie. Again and again, for all its individual brilliance, it has been rather fortunate over the years: with the draw, with the bounce of the ball, with refereeing decisions and with its capacity to induce mistakes from opponents.
Liverpool had begun well. It had pressed hard and unsettled a Madrid side that seemed to struggle to get going. Again and again it got the ball in dangerous areas, although only once did one of the many loose balls in the Madrid box fall to a Liverpool player: Roberto Firmino’s effort was blocked, and Navas then made a fine save to keep out Trent Alexander-Arnold’s follow-up chance. Liverpool wasn’t laying siege to Madrid’s goal exactly, but it was making life difficult for the champion.
In that first 30 minutes, Liverpool had nine shots; in the rest of the half, it had none. In that first half hour Liverpool had 111 touches in the Madrid half; after that seven. Madrid, so sloppy early on, found a sharpness. The game shifted to the Liverpool half, and Karim Benzema had a goal ruled out after Ronaldo, whose header was well-saved by Karius, had drifted offside in the build-up.
Madrid also lost a player to injury in the first half, Dani Carvajal, who had been out for a month before coming back in the final league game of the season against Villarreal, going off five minutes after Salah. But sad as that was for him, he, clearly, is of less significance to Madrid than Salah is to Liverpool, both in terms of ability and belief.
The individual quality of Madrid is not in doubt, but it’s also been true that over this recent run of success it has benefited from the strange habit of opponents of making extraordinary mistakes. Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich gifted Benzema a goal in the semifinal, collapsing as though mesmerized by a back pass, and Karius's error was no better. Looking to roll the ball out, he somehow threw it into the dangled foot of Benzema with sufficient force that the ball rebounded and rolled, painfully slowly, into the net.
Isco had just hit the bar prior to the goal, and at that point Liverpool looked demoralized. It is hugely to its credit that it didn’t disintegrate, but struck back four minutes later with Mane, who had an excellent night, extending his leg to touch in after a header from a corner kick played the ball forward. But just as Liverpool began to believe, there came a moment of the sort of absurd individual quality of which Madrid is capable, and which it has a remarkable capacity of producing just when required.
Marcelo crossed, Bale went airborne, and, with only marginally less grace than Ronaldo showed against Juventus, hooked a shot over his shoulder and into the top corner, one of the greatest goals ever scored in a European final.
He added another 19 minutes later, a long-range shot of no great venom, slithering through Karius’s grasp to give Madrid a cushion.
Two dire mistakes, an injury to a key opponent and a goal of absolute genius. This is what Madrid is. It does not stand for any great philosophy beyond that of being rich enough to buy great players and the ability of those individuals, added to a (very) fair wind, has been enough to have it touching levels of domination in European competition not seen since the late 1950s. Perhaps that is enough for greatness, and so, too, is a title run that included triumphs over PSG, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Liverpool. But the very highest level of the pantheon probably demands a little more.