Liverpool’s rematch with Real Madrid is about more than revenge

Opponents’ meeting in the 2018 Champions League final was about the Reds’ identity and direction, which remains the same now

Melissa Reddy
Senior Football Correspondent
Tuesday 06 April 2021 11:20 BST
A challenge by Sergio Ramos (left) saw Mohamed Salah go off injured in the 2018 Champions League final
A challenge by Sergio Ramos (left) saw Mohamed Salah go off injured in the 2018 Champions League final (Getty Images)

Virgil van Dijk was stretched out on his back, powerless on the Wanda Metropolitano turf after relief had overwhelmed his body. He was a Champions League winner, but as he lay there after his legs had buckled while rushing towards goalscorer Divock Origi, he thought about Kiev; about being a loser on the same stage in the most gutting way.

Liverpool had beaten Tottenham to win their sixth European Cup, and first trophy of the Jurgen Klopp era, but the centre-back spent seconds rewinding to their defeat by Real Madrid a year earlier. 

“The painful memory”, as Van Dijk labelled it, didn’t materialise in obvious vignettes. He did not picture Mohamed Salah engulfed in tears as he exited the pitch with a shoulder injury, nor an inconsolable Loris Karius.

The rapid stream of thoughts included the fact that Joel Matip and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were unable to feature at the Olympiyskiy and how helpless they must have felt being bystanders during such a cruel encounter. 

He recalled the details of confident pre-match preparations and the utter desolation post-match, painted by the snuffling through otherwise silence.

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That fixture, that night, that feeling was about so much more than the game itself. Framing Liverpool’s rematch with Real – this time in the quarter-finals of the tournament – as a revenge mission, reducing it to seeking retribution against Sergio Ramos, completely undersells how significant Kiev was in Klopp’s reconstruction of the club.

Adam Lallana summed up losing the 2018 final as an “emotional spark”, believing the conquering of the world that followed would not have been possible without its crushing disappointment.

It was Liverpool’s third failed attempt under Klopp to lift silverware, but it stands apart in myriad ways. No defeat hit harder, and yet, none convinced the team more that trophies would be a natural consequence moving forward – fast. 

Kiev prompted defiance, which extended to a fanbase intoxicated from the togetherness at Shevchenko Park and alert to the realisation success would be around the corner. 

It also provided a sense of destiny. Captain Jordan Henderson revealed that once the misery of the loss dissipated, it was crystalline that Liverpool’s processes had “guaranteed we’d be in more finals. We were doing everything right but just hadn’t managed to cross the line. We knew that was coming.”

The end and the beginning

At the Eurostars hotel in Madrid, where Liverpool’s players and staff toasted to landing their first trophy since 2012, defenders Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold were deep in conversation. 

The right-back was trying and failing to capture just how emotional he was at watching his family revel in the triumph. “I was so sad for them in Kiev, not for myself,” the England international said, trying to compose himself. “They deserve this.”

Robertson added that the comfort of his loved ones, who put on a barbecue the day after the defeat by Real, was what initially helped him deal with the despair.

Ultimately, he explained he could dust it off as “we knew this was coming. We knew we’d win something big, but we had to go through that wee hurt.”

As much as Kiev was a horrid experience, it was a necessary one. Liverpool had extracted more than an emotional bond from that night and the desire to right its wrongs.

The Champions League trophy evaded Liverpool in 2018’s final, before their 2019 triumph (Getty Images)

They now understood they needed to manage a final, not decorate it. Bar their mistakes, Liverpool had turned in a better, more aesthetically pleasing performance against Zinedine Zidane’s charges, but opted for greater nous when facing Spurs.

The club’s experience a year earlier had exposed them to the circus that surrounds the climax of the Champions League, with an escalation in demands, pressure and expectation. 

They were slightly overawed by the scale of the build-up, and in the aftermath, it had been scrawled in bold that the result was everything. 

And so in 2019, their training preparations remained intense, but there was a promotion of relaxation. Liverpool did not want to get beaten by the occasion before they had stepped onto the pitch. 

“How we prepared for it was also crucial,” assistant manager Pep Lijnders explained. “We kept our football routines but also created a more relaxed atmosphere at the training camp by inviting all the families. It was truly special. We trained really hard, created a positive environment, a real trust between staff and players.”

Liverpool’s squad also had a separate pre-match meeting where they discussed all the near-misses of the past and how to deal with scenarios – like ceding a key player through injury – in a more measured manner.

This discussion between the group really pleased Klopp. It signified that his team were taking responsibility, they were thinking their way through the final and were going over and above to ensure they were properly primed mentally for the showpiece.

But moreover, it spoke to the unity garnered from their shared experiences; a sign of how a low like Kiev could be turned into a weapon.

“When you win trophies, there’s always the question – what came first?,” Klopp mused from the idyllic Gut Brandlhof hotel during Liverpool’s pre-season camp in Austria, while they held status as champions of England, Europe and the world.

“Was it the team spirit or was it the success? We had a really good relationship before we were successful because we went through really hard moments together that helped obviously.

“In moments like this, you either go in this direction apart or you come together. We got very close through all the missed chances, because we knew we can solve it if we kept the desire and worked really hard, really doing it together. 

“This is how I understand football, how I understand life and how I understand my team.”

Long before suffering dejection in Ukraine’s capital, Liverpool were being equipped with the tools to recover from setbacks, while not possessing the fundamental elements to get over the line. 

Jurgen Klopp and his staff ensured Liverpool reacted to the 2018 final defeat in the right manner to bounce back (AFP via Getty Images)

That is where the storyline splits to the Before and After Kiev. 

The 2016 League Cup final should have been won by Manchester City, the far superior side, in regulation time. 

As was too often the case, a sprinkling of gold dust from Philippe Coutinho injected offensive life into Liverpool, taking the game to penalties. 

The Brazilian had his spot-kick saved, along with Lallana and Lucas to crown City champions. They were deserving winners and at a completely different phase in their development. 

While Manuel Pellegrini’s men carried an air of surety, convinced in their capabilities of picking up silverware, Liverpool’s squad was still shaking off the psychological scars of feeling they were not good enough to be at Anfield, let alone on a podium receiving gold medals. 

Klopp’s work on eradicating those insecurities was still in its embryonic stages and Liverpool were a team that could shock opponents, which remained a surprise to themselves. 

The manager’s directive that they shouldn’t be “silly idiots who stay knocked down on the floor” was a demand rather than simple motivational speak in the face of a defeat. 

The German knew his team would question themselves again and accentuate their flaws, which would not aid their advancement. Klopp refused to let Liverpool feel sorry for themselves on the way back from London to Merseyside, insisting they had the power to create more shots at silverware - a process that needed to start with increasing the credence in their abilities.

The side’s run in the Europa League later that year, dispatching Manchester United and Borussia Dortmund en route to the final, helped shift a fragile psychological state and the feeling of fortune to be competing for trophies. 

Liverpool still lacked big-game experience, quality in both boxes and a solid spine, which was underscored by how they capitulated against wily Sevilla in Basel. There weren’t as ready to win as they were in Kiev, which – coupled with the circumstances of the surrender – made what happened against Real that much harder to swallow. 

Before then, Liverpool were a project that was a distance from perfection. But the team that took to the pitch against Cristiano Ronaldo and co were only a nip and tuck away from being a complete unit. They had scorched Guardiola’s City machine 5-1 in the quarter-finals before overcoming Roma 7-6. 

Shortly after the first leg against the Italians, Klopp had phoned Lijnders to convince him to leave his role as head coach of NEC Nijmegen to rejoin Liverpool. “He told me in the third or fourth sentence when he called me that we would conquer the world together,” the assistant manager remembered. “I never thought he meant this literally.” 

When the club secured their passage to the final, they were also concluding the legwork of two decisive moves: bringing in goalkeeper Alisson from Roma and securing Fabinho from AS Monaco to operate as a specialist midfield anchor.

Liverpool defeated Roma en route to the 2018 final, before signing the Italian side’s goalkeeper Alisson (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Regardless of what happened in Kiev, Liverpool were committed to moving forward. 

Essentially, the presence of the pair enabled the more controlled approach against Tottenham as well as the ability to win in different ways across a domestic season, which was core to delivering a league title.

While Alisson and Fabinho were already part of the blueprint before the 3-1 hurt at the hands of Real, how the storyline unfolded at the Olympiyskiy rendered their recruitment non-negotiable. 

The daring before the despair

“We have them here,” Robertson recalled thinking as he sat alone, rewatching the opening half-hour against the Spaniards in the days following the defeat. 

Real were dominating the ball, but Liverpool swarmed them and were carving out better opportunities. Keylor Navas had to save from Alexander-Arnold, but just as the Merseysiders were forcing their opponents on the ropes, Ramos locked Salah’s arm judo-style as he dragged him to the ground.

The Egyptian dislocated his left shoulder in the fall, with the defender insisting there was no intent to hurt Salah. Much of the football world disagreed with that analysis, including Giorgio Chiellini.

“Ramos makes interventions beyond any logic, even with injuries that he causes with almost diabolical cunning,” the Italian wrote in his autobiography.

“Salah’s was a masterstroke. He always said that he didn’t mean to injure him, but he was aware that falling that way and without letting go of his grip, nine times out of 10 you can break your rival’s arm.”

The fallout from those seconds still lingers. Klopp termed Ramos a “wrestler”, while Dejan Lovren admitted to deliberately elbowing the centre-back while on international duty with Croatia against Spain. 

Salah has admitted that heading into next week’s rematch he has “special motivation to win the tie and go through to the semi-finals.”

Cristiano Ronaldo consoled Salah as the Liverpool winger went off injured (AFP via Getty Images)

On the evening itself, that moment in the match turned a scene of courage and confidence into a collective holding of the breath and then complete uncertainty.

As Salah departed in a flood of tears, his watershed season over and his World Cup participation in doubt, there was mass deflation in the stands. 

Liverpool’s backroom staff could feel it at the time. They could understand it: The euphoria had been so thick throughout the run to the final and assisted by the absorbing fan event at Shevchenko Park that afternoon, but suddenly there was a brutal dagger through it all. 

And there was worse still. Goalkeeper Karius was elbowed in the head by Ramos, and three minutes later he was casually rolling the ball straight to Karim Benzema. 

The striker, as startled as everyone watching on, kept his composure to punish the mistake. 

Sadio Mane equalised, but Gareth Bale came off the bench to produce one of the all-time great final goals with an overhead kick. 

Robertson and Henderson have both pinpointed that moment as the curtain call for Liverpool. They had rallied after Salah’s substitution despite ceding their threat as an unsharp Lallana was tasked with replacing him, and they had recovered from Karius’ first blunder.

Bale, portrayed as an annoyance rather than an asset in Madrid, came off the bench on the hour, and had done that within two minutes.

“I honestly think the second goal took the wind out of our sails, and we didn’t know how to bounce back from it,” Robertson said. 

“Watching the game back, I think you can tell we weren’t really going to get back into it. Sadio [Mane] hit the post but [Luka] Modric started coming into his own, calmed the whole game down and it was a real struggle for us.”

Bale banished any designs of a fightback with his acrobatic mastery, which was followed up with a speculative 30-yard effort that Karius fumbled into the net.

Gareth Bale scored a stunning overhead kick and a long-range shot that Loris Karius spilled (Getty Images)

The goalkeeper’s implosion was hard to watch, but Germany and Bayern Munich’s doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt analysed his performance differently to everyone else. 

He was convinced Karius suffered a concussion from the blow to the head and noticed him seeming to struggle with his vision. 

Muller-Wohlfahrt passed on this information to the club’s honorary president Franz Beckenbauer, who in turn called his friend Klopp to ask if Liverpool had assessed the stopper. Karius was on holiday in the US and Liverpool booked an examination for him at Massachusetts General Hospital.

They concluded: “Mr Karius sustained a concussion during the match. At the time of our evaluation, his principal residual symptoms and objective signs suggested that visual spatial dysfunction existed and likely occurred immediately following the event. Additional symptomatic and objectively noted areas of dysfunction also persisted. It could be possible that such deficits would affect performance.”

Five days after the final, the goalkeeper was still positive in 26 out of 30 markers for concussion.

Liverpool’s fury at Ramos ballooned, but so did their frustration that Serbian referee Milorad Mazic failed to send him off.

Karius, in essence, is still recovering from the knock that night. 

The finding of concussion was externally sketched as an excuse and the aftermath of Kiev hung heavy in the air. Klopp was desperate for a rehabilitation story, but during the pre-season friendlies it became apparent that no healing could be done in England.

Liverpool fans, the opposition and their supporters, as well as the media used Karius as a punchline. His mental health suffered, his confidence evaporated, and he was so debilitated that he could no longer do the basics. A coach at the German’s previous club Mainz called him “unrecognisable.”

Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius is in essence still recovering from his knock by Ramos (AFP via Getty Images)

Karius, now on loan at Union Berlin, lost more than a final in Kiev, where Klopp’s wife Ulla had to comfort his mother in the stands.

The manager had caught a glimpse of that post-match and struggled to digest it. He’d seen Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, on crutches, crying uncontrollably into his palms.

As Klopp made his way to conduct media duties, he met Salah in the corridor, the forward was still sobbing and had his left shoulder in a sling. 

It remains astounding that Salt Bae has a picture standing next to the distraught player, his shades on and assertively pointing at the camera while Salah’s eyes remain a puffed-up tap.

While that was getting snapped, Klopp requested some time alone. 

He couldn’t speak for a short while as the scale of how the night affected his players picked at him.

Those emotive visuals have stayed with Klopp and the squad. For a long time, it played on loop, serving as the “emotional spark”, as Lallana said. 

Liverpool’s successes were in large part moulded from their pain in Kiev. Close to three years on, much has changed, with both clubs currently in desperate need for a silver lining to their campaigns.

Despite the passing of time and Liverpool getting over the line to land major honours, there is a deep need to prove – stripped of any dark arts – that they can outdo Real.

The players were desperate to draw Zidane’s men last year, and given their injury crisis with the absence of Van Dijk and Henderson chiefly, perhaps it would have been better that way.

But maybe there is no better fixture right now to summon the best of Liverpool: to speak to their need to be emotionally charged, to offer combined poetic justice and promise for the season, to feel like they are carrying their supporters through it and to adopt that underdog status they thrived in. 

While the outcome is uncertain, it is undeniable that Liverpool’s showdown against Real symbolises so much more than revenge. It is about so much more than Salah versus Ramos. 

Kiev was about identity and direction then, which remains the same now.

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