The 1981 European Cup Final: The First Liverpool vs Real Madrid Clash

A look back in time at the first time Liverpool and Real Madrid played each other.

Saturday night saw Liverpool hand Arsenal a thumping 3-0 defeat on home turf, their first game of club football in almost three weeks. Just 4 days later, another match day has arrived, and this time, it's at the highest stage of club football, the Champions League.

Liverpool travel to Spain again after one year, where they faced a frustrating 1-0 defeat against Atletico de Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano, the very stadium the club lifted their sixth Champions League trophy in, just eight months earlier. An early goal by Saul Niguez ensured that Liverpool leave the Spanish capital with no points.

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale wheels off in celebration in the Champions League win over Liverpool

12 months have passed and this time, the Merseyside Reds will take on Atletico's neighbours, a club with unrivaled European pedigree. Real Madrid Club Futbol. This will be the seventh meeting between two of the most successful clubs on the European stage.

Previous Meetings 

In the last six meetings, the record is very much balanced. Liverpool won the first three meetings, and the Los Blancos got the better of the Reds in the next 3 meetings. The six matches panned out like this:

 1980/81 European Cup Final

Liverpool 1-0 Real Madrid

 2008/09 Roundup of 16

Real Madrid 0-1 Liverpool 

 Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid

 2014/15 Group Stages

Liverpool 0-3 Real Madrid 

Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool

 2017/18 Champions League Final

Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool

7 goals scored by each club, with Liverpool keeping three clean sheets, one better than Madrid's two. Karim Benzema is Real Madrid's (and the overall) highest goal scorer in this fixture with four goals, Gareth Bale and Steven Gerrard are second with two each.

The most recent, and vividly remembered, surely, clash was just 3 years ago, where a goalkeeping disaster from Liverpool's Loris Karius gifted Real Madrid a record 13th Champions League trophy. Real captain, Sergio Ramos injuring Liverpool talisman Mohamed Salah left a sour aftertaste as well.

Karim Benzema

A feeling of revenge and redemption must still linger about the Liverpool camp, as they look to knock out the Spaniards and progress to the Champions League semi finals for the 3rd time in 4 years.

Today, however, we are going to to turn the pages of history and take a trip to 1981, exactly 40 years ago, when Liverpool and Real Madrid walked out of the tunnel together for the very first time.

1980/81 European Cup Campaign

The 1980/81 season of the European Cup was the 26th one of its existence. Liverpool entered the competition as two time winners of Europe's most prestigious trophy, and Real Madrid entered as six time champions, winning the cup a record 5 times in the first 5 editions of the competition.

There were 33 teams competing that year, and 63 matches were played. Each team had to play in 4 rounds to reach the final, each round consisting of two legs. Liverpool's Terry McDermott and Graeme Souness, along with Bayern Munich's Karl-Heinz Rummenigge were the joint leading goal scorers that year, with 6 goals each to their names. The final was held in France's Parc de Princes, now the home of Paris Saint-Germain.

Liverpool's route to the Final

After winning the 1979/80 English First Division, along with the Charity Shield, Liverpool qualified for the European Cup as English champions. 

First Round

Liverpool faced Finnish opponents in the first round, in the shape of Oulun Palloseura, whom they thrashed 11-2 on aggregate. The Merseyside outfit drew the first leg 1-1 away at the Raatti Station, but their second leg 10-1 win at Anfield saw them cruise to the second round.

Second Round  

Scotland's Aberdeen Football Club were the next obstacle. After 1-0 away win, and a 4-0 home win, Aberdeen were brushed aside as Liverpool breezed past them to the quarter finals. Interesting fact, Aberdeen, at that time, were being managed by a certain Alex Ferguson.

 Quarter Finals

PFC CSKA Sofia were the next opponents for Paisley and his men. In yet another one sided tie, a 5-1 home and a 1-0 away win guaranteed Liverpool a place in the semi finals.

Semi Finals 

The semi finals were much more intense than the previous rounds. Liverpool's 0-0 draw at home meant they just had to avoid defeat and score in order to book their spot in the finals. Fortunately, they did just that and the 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena was enough as Liverpool qualified for the final on away goals, their third final in five seasons.

Build up to the 1980/81 Final

Spanish champions Real Madrid had gotten to the Final after comprehensive victories over Limerick (7-2), Honvéd (3-0), Spartak Moscow (2-0) and Internazionale Milan (2-1). This was their ninth appearance in an European Cup Final.

Liverpool, on the other hand, were appearing in their third European Final, winning their last two finals in 1977 and 1978. They had finished 5th in the league that season, so they needed to win the final in order to qualify for the competition next season.

Real Madrid had ended their season in second place in La Liga, qualifying for the UEFA Cup of next season, but victory in the final ensured another season in the European Cup.


Both Liverpool and Real Madrid, like current times, incredibly enough, were facing a few injury problems before the final. Liverpool's Kenny Dalgliesh and Alan Kennedy were sidelined for several weeks and Real"s Laurie Cunningham was out of action since November of 1980. All three, however, ended up starting for their sides.

The Final

Liverpool boasted a well stacked side of English and Scottish players, with Bob Paisley at the helm. Real, on the other side, fielded an all-Spanish side, with the exception of Englishman Cunningham, who, incidentally, was the first ever English player to wear the colours of the Spanish giants. Serbian Vujadin Boškov was their manager.

The starting of the game was in Liverpool's favour, whose first clear cut chance came in the 11th minute. Chances kept on arriving but McDermott and Dalgliesh failed to capitalize. Real Madrid had their chances too and Liverpool almost scored before the end of the first half through Souness but the score line remained 0-0 at half time.

The first goal scoring opportunity of the second half fell to the Spanish side, but to no avail. Both sides failed to break each other down, Real Madrid playing in a slow pace with sudden quick bursts, and Liverpool adopting a system where they were playing through their wingers.

The deadlock was, finally, broken very late, in the 81st minute. A throw in from Ray Kennedy found Alan Kennedy, a Kennedy to Kennedy connection, who entered the Real box and slotted the ball past goalkeeper Agustín. The latter had to make a series of saves after conceding, as Liverpool looked hungry for more, but no change was seen in the shorelines and Liverpool lifted their 3rd European Cup in Paris, as champions of Europe.


The triumph over Real Madrid made Bob Paisley the first, and now, one of the only 3 managers in footballing history, to lift the European Cup thrice, Carlo Ancelotti and current Real Madrid manager, Zinedine Zidane, being the other two.


That was the first meeting of two great sides of Europe who have taken the European Cup (now, the Champions League) by storm several times in history, a combined 19 trophies between the two sides.

Liverpool will be looking to add another one to their tally as they travel to the Estadio Alfredo di Stefano (the iconic Santiago Bernebéu has been under construction for months) for the first leg away from home. 

Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Joe Gomez, Jordan Henderson, Divock Origi and Caoimhín Kelleher will be missing the match and some of the notable absentees in the Madrid squad include Sergio Ramos, Eden Hazard and Dani Carjaval.

Both Liverpool and Madrid are going into the match after winning their last games 3-0 and 2-0 respectively. Spirits will be high, confidences won't be lacking, and the two teams, so ravaged by injuries this season, will battle it out in their quest for yet another European crown.