Sometimes it just comes down to the minor details.
If Mohamed Salah’s arm didn’t land underneath the full weight of Sergio Ramos’ body (whether by accident or sly design), would this Champions League final have ended differently?
The stats – even at half time – seem to suggest that it might well have done.
Attacking-half touches before and after Salah left the #UCLFinal in the 31st minute…
– Before: Liverpool 111, Madrid 57
– After: Madrid 149, Liverpool 7
— Paul Carr (@PaulCarrTM) May 26, 2018
What if Loris Karius hadn’t bestowed two goals on a team who really aren’t in need of gifts?
The first, may – on another day – have been ruled out. It’s probably not a foul, but you’ve seen similar efforts chalked off in the past. Like Thierry Henry at Blackburn in 2003. Either way, it was an incredibly brainless attempt at a throw.
The second was, perhaps, much more costly.
With the score just 2-1 at the time, a third goal for Madrid meant the game was well and truly up. Liverpool couldn’t get themselves back into the game, and Karius too is down and out. How does he come back mentally from something like this? Indeed, how do Liverpool?
But in between two veritable howlers was a goal which simply had to win the game.
Gareth Bale’s overhead kick was a perfect feat of pragmatism and improvisation from a man who always steps it up in the big games. It wasn’t shinned, he leapt high in the air – it was everything you want in an overhead kick. Perhaps his own manager, Zinedine Zidane, has scored a Champions League final goal to match it, but there’s a case to be made for Bale’s.
After the ball hit the net, and the Welshman slid towards the corner flag, you got the feeling that there couldn’t possibly be a Liverpool comeback – that goal just had to be the winner.
So good was it that Cristiano Ronaldo declined to celebrate with the goalscorer. If you want to judge the quality of a crucial goal in a Champions League final (so long as it’s scored by anyone other than Ronaldo) then watch the Portuguese’s reaction. If he doesn’t celebrate, you know it’s because his limelight has been stolen.
There’s not much heart to take in a defeat like this for Liverpool, either. Absolutely nothing went right on the night, and not all of it was their fault. This seemed to be an occasion made up of a patchwork of small moments, of which few – if any – went Liverpool’s way.
Heaven and Earth seem to move in order to facilitate them. Like a time traveller attempting to kill his own grandfather only to be taken out by a cartoon anvil falling out of the blue, the world just does whatever it can to make Madrid champions of Europe. It just won’t seem to let another side take the crown.
But there is a greater reality to Liverpool’s defeat, one that lands squarely on their shoulders and evades attempts to pin this on the details.
The issue in goal is clear and Karius would do well to be the club’s number one in August. But beyond that there were more issues tonight, too. When Salah went off, the balance of the front three changed as Adam Lallana is hardly a like-for-like replacement. Later on, there were simply no options available to Jurgen Klopp to change the game. In the other bench, Zidane could call on Bale. And to great effect. That was arguably the difference.
In the end, this may well have been a game which hinged on minor details, but it also came down to fundamental differences in squad depth. And Liverpool just didn’t have the players in the long run.
They know they’re good enough to belong at this level, that they should be challenging Manchester City for the Premier League title and that they should be competing for European honours. But this summer it’s clear that adding depth will be the key.