Wednesday, May 30, 2018

What Went Wrong?

Normally when it comes to big matches, I tend to get really nervous and often expect the worst but for most of last week I was relaxed. I was actually excited and ready to enjoy the Champions League final. Liverpool were going into the game as underdogs, having just gotten back into the Champions League after a lengthy absence and making it to the final, overcoming some tough opponents, it was nerve wrecking but also a joy to watch if you were a fan of the game. Liverpool were rampant in attack and while their defence was as shaky as someone with Parkinsons disease they somehow managed to get through to the final. 

It felt right, Liverpool are England's "European Team", with them having won 5 trophies and having appeared in 7 finals before this. Jurgen Klopp joked a press conference prior to the game that if you had to Google "European Nights" most of the results would be of Anfield, and he was not wrong!  The atmosphere at Anfield during Champions League games is unrivaled, ask any opposition player who stepped out onto the pitch to play and they will all tell you the same thing, it unsettles their nerves, it mesmerizes the away fans and it powers the team to achieve the impossible. 

As you can imagine, tickets for the game were hot property, having been offered one myself but unable to get a visa in time is a story for another time. I, like many were convinced Liverpool were going to bring home their 6th European Trophy, it would be the perfect way to cap off an interesting season. After selling what could be arguably our best creative midfielder halfway through the season, many expected us to fall but with our dynamic front three, they just kept going, especially our new signing Mohammed Salah. After picking up almost every individual award imaginable, it was all set for him to shine on the continents biggest football spectacle. 

The thousands of the red army descended to the Olimpiyskiy National Stadium in Kiev, strong in voice, strong in confidence. They believed we could do it, they believed we had what it took and with Klopp at the helm, it seemed inevitable that glory would be ours come the end of the 90. It was bullish to be so confident, after all, our opponents were vying for their 3rd trophy in 3 years, their coach, a former player of the club, a masterful tactician as he was a player. But none of that scared us, we had our own army, our own tactician. The game started, with Liverpool controlling much of the possession, a good solid 25-30 minutes of Gegenpress, the famed Klopp's style of high pressing, fast passing football. Liverpool creating a few chances, and should have been more clinical but there was no rush, there was still plenty of time on the clock. 

Now, in football, there is an element of physicality but to an extent. Laws are there from preventing players getting injured badly and potentially suffering career ending injuries. Having watched Real Madrid in previous matches, there are elements to their game which don't really sit well with many, a few players like to bring in this physicality that is borderline illegal, one of those players is their captain Sergio Ramos. I don't need to list examples, just go search on YouTube, there's plenty of videos showing his dirty ways, but surely in a final, with millions watching, he wouldn't dare attempt to pull off something like this? but he did. After 30 minutes, where Liverpool were definitely the team on the ascendancy, Ramos got hold of Salah's arm while he was on the ball and proceeding to yank the winger down, locking his arm underneath his and falling on top of him. It shocked many to see the Egyptian lying on the pitch in pain, not now, not in the final. For people who question the actions by Ramos, even the European Judo Union came out and said that what he demonstrated was "Waki-gatame" which is a technique that isn't allowed in their sport because of the damage it could do. 

Damage it did, after coming back on, trying to fight away the pain, Salah eventually collapsed again and had to be replaced by Adam Lallana, who himself just returned from a lengthy injury. The team was in shock, so were the fans, we were not prepared for a game without Salah. They made it to half time with the scores leveled and after the break, Real started to show  they were in the game too, but then Ramos popped up again, charging a corner, coming no where near the ball, the Madrid captain then made contact with his elbow to the head of Liverpool's keeper Loris Karius. In front of the officials, yet again nothing was done. It didn't stop there for Ramos, he later in the game theatrically dived, when Mane was nearing him, clenching his face as to say he was hit in the face. Mane received a yellow card. I'm aware people will do whatever it takes to win a final but being a cheat and a fraud? That never sat well with me, if the person was punished for his actions as per the rules of the game, then maybe, example Luis Suarez handball in the 2010 World Cup against Ghana, he was sent off and Ghana got the chance to get their goal. 

I could honestly go on about Ramos and his barbaric ways to unsettle the opposition but it would look like I'm playing the blame game. There is no doubt Salah's substitution changed momentum in the game, but two costly errors from Liverpool's keeper Loris Karius would be the main talking point from the game. The first, a total brain fart throwing the ball so close to a charging Benzema who's deflection ended in the back of the net. There was a glimmer of hope when Mane leveled the scores for Liverpool but when Zidane threw on Gareth Bale, no one was prepared for what was to come. A remarkable overhead kick which left everyone rooted to their position, just standing and watching it go into the net, it left us numb. The third, another howler by Karius, attempting to palm down a long range effort from Bale but rather went through his hands, into the goal. It was all over then, there was nothing more we could do. The team was deflated, out of ideas and basically threw in the towel. It was not meant to be, Real secured their 13th Champions League, Zidane's 3rd on the trot as manager. Comments from some of his key players after the game sort of dampened their victory as speculation over the futures of Ronaldo and Bale hung in the balance. 

While Madrid's win will be the the one written in history, Liverpool's emphatic run will be one to be remembered. They managed to beat the number of goals scored in the competition with Sadio Mane's strike in the final being number 47 for the team, surpassing the record previously held by Barcelona of 45 in the 1999/2000 season. While its taken Liverpool 11 years to reach the final of the Champions League, it might not be all that difficult for them to do it again, with them already bolstering the team ahead of the 2018/19 campaign. Having already secured Champions League football for next season by finishing 4th in the English League, adding players such as Naby Kieta and Fabinho will only do wonders for the Merseyside team. There are talks of potential other signings, but I think for now what we all want to see is a new keeper being brought in. 

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