It was an epic night, filled with so many different storylines, and unfortunately for Liverpool’s accident-prone goalkeeper, Loris Karius, he will have to live with the fact that his part will be remembered for just as long, or possibly even longer, than Gareth Bale’s spectacular bicycle kick or the tears from Mohamed Salah.
For Bale, it was a personal triumph with two of Real Madrid’s goals and a
man-of-the-match award from a final he did not enter until the 61st minute.
His flying, acrobatic volley, only two minutes after coming on,
will go straight into the list of the greatest all-time goals in a
Champions League final and put Madrid, with their 13th triumph,
on their way to emulating the great Ajax and Bayern Munich
teams of the 1970s with a third successive win.
That, however, tells only part of the story from a night when Karius was a
danger to his own team, responsible for Madrid’s two other goals and last
seen wandering aimlessly around the pitch – alone,
distraught and clearly traumatised – to ask forgiveness, hands clasped,
from the thousands of Liverpool supporters. Karius looked broken.
He chose a bad night to be so vulnerable and Liverpool will always
wonder what might have happened if the German had not turned
the night into his own personal ordeal. Or, indeed, if they had not
lost Salah, half an hour in, with the shoulder injury that
turned the match in Madrid’s favour.
Salah looked inconsolable as he was led from the pitch and Sergio Ramos
had some nerve offering a sympathetic hug on the way off.
Ramos had locked Salah’s right arm and turned him, judo-style,
as they lost balance going for the same ball. Television replays
hardened the suspicion it was a calculated move on Ramos’s part
and when Salah landed, with a hell of a thud, the damage was considerable.
That blow could conceivably put the Egyptian out of the World Cup, too.
His absence was a grievous setback for Liverpool,
who had looked the more dangerous team until that point,
and it would not be sour grapes for the losers to think that
was the moment the game started to swing away from them.
They had started so thrillingly but all their early momentum was
lost once Salah went off. It never properly came back and the
players in red took a long time – too long, probably – to adjust to
being without the man who had scored 44 times over a record-breaking season.
Without Salah, they never looked so threatening again.
Ultimately, though, the difficult truth for Liverpool, and the tragic Karius, is that two of the goals they conceded were almost beyond comprehension, and how many times has Jürgen Klopp been warned this team risks being undermined by the lack of an elite goalkeeper? Karius has too much previous for this to be considered a one-off and, as goalkeeping mistakes go, his errors in the 51st and 83rd minutes were as bad as one another. In fact, they were not just bad; they were appalling. So wretched, indeed, it was difficult to recall a worse goalkeeping performance in any major final through the years.
His meltdown – for that is exactly what it was – started with the opening goal when he came to the edge of his penalty area to collect a ball that Toni Kroos, trying to set Karim Benzema free, had overhit. All Karius had to do was pick up the ball and roll it to Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right of defence. He got the second part horribly wrong, as if unaware that Benzema was still lurking, and the striker was able to flick out a boot to intercept the underarm throw. That was all it needed and, almost in slow motion, the ball trickled into an exposed goal.
Liverpool’s equaliser came within four minutes. James Milner swung the ball over from a corner on the right and Sadio Mané, Liverpool’s most dangerous player, was alive in the six-yard area. Dejan Lovren won the header and when Mané flashed his shot past Keylor Navas it seemed as though Klopp’s team might have the momentum again.
Instead, Zinedine Zidane turned to Bale and it was an incredible way in which the Welshman announced his presence – a twisting, mid-air bicycle kick to redirect Marcelo’s left-wing cross and flash the ball into Liverpool’s net. Zidane against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002? Mario Mandzukic for Juventus in 2017? Bale’s effort belongs in the same category. There was even applause from Liverpool’s fans when it was replayed on the giant screens.
At 2-1, Liverpool came back again and Mané, in particular, kept threatening, fizzing a low shot against the post. Yet Bale was clearly emboldened by his first goal and when he let fly again from 40 yards the ball swerved in front of Karius and went through the goalkeeper’s hands. Perhaps Karius’s confidence had been damaged by the earlier mistake. Maybe the swerve was deceptive. At this level, however, there can be no excuses for such a mistake and, in that exact moment, everyone inside the Olimpiyskiy Stadium must have known there was no way back for Liverpool. If anything, they were fortunate not to suffer more damage in the second half. Madrid could also look back on Isco hitting the crossbar and there was an extraordinary moment when Cristiano Ronaldo was shaping to shoot only to be interrupted by a pitch invader from the end where the Madridistas were going through their victory songs.
For the most part, Liverpool had contained Ronaldo, and Klopp’s team had often played well, particularly before Salah’s injury. The problem was their goalkeeper had the worst night of his professional life. It was a sixth successive defeat for Klopp in a major final and at the final whistle, with Karius burying his face into the turf, there wasn’t exactly a stampede of team-mates wanting to console him.