What is the most alarming sight for a goalkeeper involved in Saturday’s Champions League final? For Thibaut Courtois, of Real Madrid, it would likely be Mohamed Salah bearing down, one-on-one, shifting the ball to his left foot, calculating the angles.
For Liverpool’s Alisson, it may be Karim Benzema, without the ball, hunting him down in the split second when the keeper’s thoughts turn to which pass out from the back is the wisest to make. Any indecision, with Real Madrid’s Benzema in the vicinity, is liable to be punished.
Club football’s greatest prize will be contested in Paris by two strikers who can claim to have mastered better than anybody specific, shifting trends of modern football. Salah has been the most effective goalscorer in the years when Liverpool set the best examples of how to regain possession and transition rapidly into counter-attack.
Benzema has a range of skills that aspiring centre-forwards study and imitate, one of which would be his alert scrutiny of a goalkeeper’s indecision in the age when elite keepers are expected not just to make saves but to pass accurately and fast.
It was that sixth sense that swung the 2018 final between Madrid and Liverpool the way of the Spanish club, Loris Karius the unfortunate Liverpool goalkeeper.
Six minutes after half-time in Kyiv, with the match goalless, Benzema applied, to Madrid’s benefit, a moment of the sort of high pressing that Liverpool under manager Jurgen Klopp have developed so well.
He saw Karius collect a tame, unthreatening ball and the keeper immediately start to think of rolling it out, from the hand, to his right back. Karius did not pay sufficient attention to Benzema’s run towards him. The Frenchman intercepted the attempted pass, and with only one predatory touch required, diverted it into an open goal.
Liverpool equalised quickly, but the introduction of Gareth Bale from the Madrid bench restored Madrid’s lead. Bale scored two goals, one of them a breathtaking overhead volley, the other helped in via another Karius error.
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By the time both Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo had complained in television interviews immediately after the final whistle about their status at Madrid, Benzema’s key contribution had faded from the headlines.
Ronaldo left Madrid that summer, Bale slid into the marginalised limbo that has defined the second half of his nine-year stint with Madrid that will end next month. In their slipstream, Benzema would emerge as a figurehead for the club, the key man in the two Liga titles they have claimed over the last three seasons, the outstanding candidate for this year’s Ballon d’Or.
He has 44 goals this season at more than one every 90 minutes; he scored two hat-tricks in the ten goals he contributed to Madrid’s series of dramatic comebacks in the Champions League knockout rounds. Both hat-tricks featured goals that came from Benzema pressuring goalkeepers — Paris Saint-Germain’s Gianluigi Donnarumma and Chelsea’s Edouard Mendy — who were nervously looking where to pass.
If Benzema has been the star of the later stages of the competition, Salah illuminated the group phase with seven goals in Liverpool’s sweep of six victories in six matches. His form has dipped a little in the past two months, but in the circumstances of his demanding year, that was almost to be expected.
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He had a gruelling Africa Cup of Nations, which ended in heartbreak with defeat for the Pharaohs he captains, on penalties, in the final against Senegal, a disappointment repeated in March when Egypt lost to the same team in the World Cup play-off.
A special motive then, for Salah, a narrow runner-up twice with his country and with Liverpool in the Premier League title race, to finish his season with the most prestigious club trophy.
Memories of Kyiv also drive him. Salah was off the field, nursing a badly injured shoulder, when Benzema ambushed Karius. He had been substituted after half an hour, following a rugged challenge from Sergio Ramos. Salah was wiping away tears as he departed the action.
He would win his first European Cup a year later, scoring the opening goal from the penalty spot against Tottenham Hotspur, but he has made no secret of the fact he sees another final against Madrid as the real chance to make amends for the Kyiv disappointment.
“It’s revenge time,” Salah said earlier this week, repeating a theme he took up immediately Liverpool qualified for the final. “I don’t believe in ‘revenge’ but I do understand it,” said Jurgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, of Salah’s personal mission. “He wants to put it right. I want to put it right. There is an opportunity now.”