It was not the type of game we wanted, but it was an enthralling final nonetheless.
The entire footballing world wept at the sight of Mohammed Salah, who has entertained both Liverpool and neutral fans all throughout the season, going off injured midway through the first-half of the Champions League Final and the biggest game of the Egyptian’s career so far. This ultimately damaged the Reds’ hopes of writing a sixth edition of glory in this competition, as a wonder-goal from Gareth Bale helped Real Madrid on their way to a routine win, and their third Champions League trophy in a row.
But barring the premature withdrawal of Salah, what can we learn from the contest regarding where Liverpool can go from here, and how they can reach the stature of their Champions League final opponents?
Two Teams, Two Different Levels
Despite the early setback, Jurgen Klopp’ men battled well for the entire ninety minutes – there can be no complaints in the Liverpool camp concerning the performance and effort. However, the long-term preparation going into the season has let the Reds down once again, especially when you compare it to that of Real Madrid.
If there is one word to describe Los Blancos over the past five years, it is ruthless, both on and off the field. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve achieved in your career, if you’re a Real Madrid manager and you do not win La Liga or the Champions League, you’re out. Just ask Carlo Ancelotti.
It’s not just the manager who can experience the ruthlessness of the Real Madrid hierarchy, the players are under the same pressure too. A simple sub-standard run of form from James Rodriguez was enough to see him pushed out the door, despite being the golden boy at the last World Cup in Brazil 2014. Furthermore, Keylor Navas has barely put a foot wrong for Real Madrid since his arrival in 2014, but was nearly dragged out of Madrid in order to accommodate the failed David De Gea swap deal with Manchester United three years ago. A similar experience happened with Mesut Ozil, perhaps Real Madrid’s best technical player during his tenure there, yet was deemed surplus to requirements following the signing of Gareth Bale in 2014. It is this harsh and vicious structure, which Zinedine Zidane emulates in his role as manager, that makes Real Madrid a title-winning force, and has led them to a Champions League-winning dynasty.
This contrasts massively with the scenario at Liverpool, who have been almost lackadaisical in recent years with regards to their player recruitment. While Salah’s injury was damaging to an extent, it was the errors from Loris Karius which cost Liverpool the game. The mistake for the first goal, an attempted roll out to the defence which was block by Karim Benzema, is shocking even at amateur level, while the error for the third goal comes down to his basic technique as a goalkeeper. What is more, is that these errors from the German ‘keeper did not come as a surprise to those who have been watching Liverpool regularly over the season. Since his arrival in 2016, Karius has looked out of confidence and capable of making an error at any opportunity, while his understudy Simon Mignolet has been making similar errors as a goalkeeper over the last five years. This unwillingness to either fix or replace the situation by Jurgen Klopp demonstrates a simple neglect towards his defence, something that the German manager has been frequently accused of in the past. Perhaps Klopp has too much faith in his players, and maybe the success of Liverpool’s front three distracted many from the goalkeeping deficiencies, but this clear lack of judgement by Klopp has cost Liverpool a Champions League title.
Where do Liverpool go from here?
While Liverpool’s season conveys the blunt reality of a fourth-place finish with no domestic or European trophies, there is a real springboard for Jurgen Klopp’s men to go and win major honours under the German. The loss of Salah in Kiev on Saturday night allowed Sadio Mané to become the main man for Liverpool, and when the Egyptian returns from injury then the Reds will have an unstoppable front three once again including Roberto Firmino. The signing of Naby Keita from RB Leipzig is also a step in the right direction but further additions need to be made in order to ensure that Liverpool can compete with the best. A new goalkeeper, one that is confident and trustworthy, must be a priority as it will be difficult to see Karius coming back from this major setback. On top of this, although Dejan Lovren has had a very good campaign considering the standards of his previous seasons at Anfield, the addition of a top-class centre-back could create a robust back four alongside Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil Van Dijk and Andy Robertson.
Jurgen Klopp also needs to improve his squad’s depth and the lack of it showed in Kiev on Saturday night, as the German could only turn to Adam Lallana and Emre Can in his attempts to change the outcome of the final. This is another stark comparison between Liverpool and Real Madrid, as if Cristiano Ronaldo had got injured in the same way in which Salah had done in the first-half, then Zidane could have called upon personnel such as Gareth Bale or Marco Asensio to fill his role. Klopp, meanwhile, had clear reservations surrounding the rawness of Dominic Solanke on his substitutes bench. If the development of players such as Solanke, Ben Woodburn and Sheyi Ojo does not go to plan over pre-season, then strength in depth will be another priority for Klopp over the summer.
Overall, despite limited success to show for it, Liverpool and their fans can be proud of their season in their attempts to win the Champions League. However, it would be a great shame if Jurgen Klopp’s men do not push on from here and challenge for more success. It is important to note that Liverpool have not won the league title for 28 years, the FA Cup for 12 years, or a trophy altogether in 6 seasons. This simply has to change.