Liverpool draw a blank after season of chasing the impossible ends in crushing defeat

In missing out on the Premier League and now the Champions League, Liverpool’s FA and Carabao Cup double feels scant reward for a season of such relentlessness and brilliance

Richard Jolly
At the Stade de France
Saturday 28 May 2022 22:55 BST
Trent Alexander-Arnold reacts after Real Madrid’s 1-0 win in Paris
Trent Alexander-Arnold reacts after Real Madrid’s 1-0 win in Paris (Getty Images)

And so, on successive weekends, four became two, the potential quadruple reduced to a double of the domestic cups. Rather than completing the greatest season ever, Liverpool ended up emulating George Graham’s Arsenal; the 1993 vintage. Their parade will contain one trophy they had not won for 10 years, another they had not touched for 16 but not the two they prized the most and the two that defined the club.

They may have been the best team in Europe this season but the official status rests with Real Madrid. As player and manager, Carlo Ancelotti now has six European Cups, drawing him level with Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp had specialised in finding a way to win, piloting Liverpool through games where they went behind and then prevailed, but this was a comeback too far, even for them. Real proved the one team they could not kill off. An evening that began with tear gas ended with tears. Liverpool could enjoy neither.

For just the fourth time in 63 matches this season, they were beaten. For the second in the last five Champions League finals, Real overcame Liverpool. They remain the last side to defeat Real in a European Cup final, but it was Paris in 1981, not 2022. The more recent comparison point was 2018, but the differences outnumbered the similarities. There was nothing as traumatic as Loris Karius’ meltdown, as heart-breaking as Mohamed Salah’s injury or as spectacular as Gareth Bale’s overhead kick; just a moment when Vinicius Junior stole in behind Trent Alexander-Arnold to meet Fede Valverde’s low pass. Real, the great moments team, conjured a relatively prosaic one.

Nor was there the same context. In 2018 Liverpool always felt outsiders. Here they began with the air of favourites. They had the majority of shots and possession. They had the start that was a statement of intent, an assumption of authority as they camped in Real’s half. Liverpool had four shots before Real had one. Then five. Then six. Then seven. It was gegenpressing versus no pressing. They made Real, the aristocrats of European football, look like underdogs. But perhaps that suits the mentality of Ancelotti’s team. Real can seem fixed in the imagination, the perennial establishment club, but identities shift.

Now their great talent is in hanging in games. It is an ability that scarcely evokes the Galactico ethos, still less Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas. Glamour has been replaced by guts, stardust by something within them. Liverpool, Klopp’s great mentality monsters, faced a side with a similar attitude. Real, with a central midfield trio boasting a combined age of 98, with a manager in an unrivalled fifth European Cup final, suggested there is no substitute for experience. They did not try and play Liverpool at their own game. Instead, aided by the brilliance of Thibaut Courtois, they showed their skills as survivalists. They held on amid Liverpool’s power game.

They probably only had two potential match-winners in attack but Karim Benzema had a goal disallowed and Vinicius’ strike stood. Liverpool seem to possess more scorers but they have played 330 minutes in finals this season without finding the net; apart, that is, from 17 penalties against Chelsea in shootouts. Without such accuracy from 12 yards, they might have come second in four competitions this season.

(Getty Images)

But, after 147 goals, they drew a blank. Luis Diaz was arguably the man of the match in the Carabao and FA Cup finals but there was no hat-trick. He was withdrawn after a subdued showing. Sadio Mane’s conversion into a striker has felt a masterstroke, but it was inches from its crowning glory, the combination of Courtois’ fingertips and the inside of the post denying the Senegalese an opener. He had talked of the Ballon d’Or but, when the votes are tallied, it is likelier to reside in Benzema’s trophy cabinet.

Salah was persistent, racking up the shots but scoring none as Courtois reeled off save after save. He was the sharpest of the attackers and came closest to levelling but, since February, his only goals have been a penalty, a brace against a lamentable Manchester United side and a scrappy tap-in against Wolves. Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino were tossed on but to no avail. What Liverpool would have given for one more cameo from Divock Origi, but he was injured.

Liverpool spent nearly all of last season lamenting Virgil van Dijk’s absence from their defence and ended this with the Dutchman acting as an auxiliary centre-forward. Theirs has been an epic campaign, but it culminated in them strewn across the Paris pitch, exhaustion seemingly mixed with disbelief. They were reluctant to drag themselves away, to believe it was all over, but it is. Liverpool are the 2021-22 FA and Carabao Cup winners and it may feel scant reward for a season of such relentlessness and brilliance.

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