Mohamed Salah's early exit stripped Liverpool of their verve when they needed it most

After Salah walked off with his face crumpled, wiping his eyes with his shirt, those remaining in red shirts seemed to shrink a little

Real Madrid lift the Champions League trophy

The first time Mohamed Salah walked to the sideline, preparing to return to the pitch, the pain etched on his face said it was already over. Just two minutes passed before he was on his back again, clutching at the shoulder dragged out its socket. And then came the tears.

In the build-up to this Champions League final, nothing appeared certain. Either of these two teams intent on counter-attacking could win handsomely. They could just easily play a tightly-contested thriller or cancel each other out. No guess at the final scoreline was made confidently.

How ironic then that it should be defined by a relative veteran at 32-years-old doing something that could have been predicted.

Did Sergio Ramos mean to injure him? It is always difficult to ascribe intent in football, but even loyalists to the Real Madrid defender must admit that given a chance to put the opposition’s most important player out of Champions League final, the caricature of Ramos as a comic book villain means many think he would take it.

Whether such skullduggery is a quality to be admired and whether it can be accepted as part of competition is a matter of perspective. What is certain is that Salah’s withdrawal sucked the momentum out of a Liverpool side previously crackling with potential and greatly enhanced Madrid’s chances of lifting their third consecutive European Cup.

Salah has been the first among equals rather than this Liverpool team’s talisman. He is the main beneficiary of a finely-tuned attacking unit’s ability to devastate their opponents, the one who converts the chances the system creates. This is why the words ‘one-man team’ – often a hollow criticism, anyway – have so rarely been used to describe Jurgen Klopp’s side, despite one of their number having an outstanding individual campaign.

Yet with each of Salah’s 44 goals this season, the cult gained more followers. Gradually, he became that little more totemic. The past week has seen a television documentary, a special primetime BBC news report and countless column inches concentrated on a young man who is at once a symbol of inclusivity, a role model to millions and one of the world’s best footballers. To many going into this final, he was Liverpool and their reason to believe they could beat Madrid.

His team-mates have often looked as though they would be the last to give in to the idolatry. For all their appreciation of Salah’s talents, their approach has always been one of a collective, not focused on an individual. After all, their manager is a believer in systems, not superstars.

Yet after Salah walked off with his face crumpled, wiping his eyes with his shirt, that power of superstar appeared to count for much more and those remaining in red shirts seemed to shrink a little. Having clocked up nine attempts on Madrid’s goal prior to the Egyptian’s exit on the half-hour mark, Liverpool had to wait until Sadio Mané’s equaliser in the 55th minute to have their next.

Still, even after the surge of energy that the Senegalese’s finish provided, they lacked the zip that has characterised them this season. The overloads on Madrid’s defence did not come easy, if at all. Salah’s replacement was Adam Lallana, who before this game had played 396 minutes this season – less than the equivalent of four-and-a-half matches. Unsurprisingly, he was off the pace.

Winded and wounded by the loss of their best player, that brilliantly-effective system became impotent. Only Ramos knows if this was his plan all along. Whether it was or not, it worked.

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