Real Madrid v Liverpool: Champions League rivals reunite three years after final of farewells
Since the final in Kiev much has changed for both sides, while plenty has also stayed the same
It was a final of farewells. It was 30 minutes young when Mohamed Salah, scorer of 44 goals that season, tearfully left the stage. It had been over barely three minutes when another pair of great marksmen, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, announced on television they were thinking of leaving the winning club, Real Madrid.
The Kiev 2018 Champions League final marked a goodbye, too, to the Liverpool career of Loris Karius, whose two errors had such a decisive impact on the outcome, a 3-1 Madrid victory. For the sake of the goalkeeper, it was deemed kinder he should spend most of the following three seasons, as he has, out on loan abroad.
As it turned out, Kiev 2018 would also close the competition’s most glorious modern managerial run. Zinedine Zidane resigned, to widespread shock, as Madrid head coach just five days after leading the club to a third consecutive European Cup from his two and half years in charge.
Yet on Monday, speaking at the preambles for Tuesday night’s quarter-final, the first meeting of Madrid and Liverpool since Kiev, there was Zidane, again, and Jurgen Klopp, the same two managers who patrolled the touchline at Ukraine’s Olympic stadium.
Much has changed for both. Zidane was called - begged, even - back to manage Madrid after a disastrous nine months for the club without him. Klopp meanwhile bounced back from that cruel night - peppered with Liverpool misfortunes - with a vengeance. Liverpool’s next 101 matches under Klopp would produce record-breaking runs of form, just 13 defeats in all competitions, the 2019 Champions League title and a Premier League crown in 2020.
Zidane insists what happened in May 2018 will have little relevance on Tuesday. “We don’t think in the past,” said the coach of the club with the most glamorous history in the European Cup. “That’s true for both teams. We will be preparing for a different game than we did then.”
Of the 22 players expected to line up at kick-off for the quarter-final first leg at the Alfredo di Stefano stadium, perhaps half will have started in Kiev. Gone are Ronaldo, now of Juventus, while Bale - who came off the bench in that final to score a brilliant overhead volley and put a long-range shot through Karius’s gloves - is on loan at Tottenham Hotspur. There are different men keeping goal, Thibaut Courtois having replaced Keylor Navas, Alisson a significant upgrade on his Liverpool predecessor.
Most pertinently, neither Sergio Ramos, the Madrid captain whose rudimentary challenge on Salah deprived Liverpool of the Egyptian for an hour, nor Virgil van Dijk are available because of injury. The cost of losing Van Dijk has been thoroughly examined in a season where Liverpool’s defence of their league title has faltered badly. The lower level of performance by Madrid when they do not have Ramos, especially in Europe, is comparable.
Defensive frailties are why neither the reigning Liga champions, nor the Premier League title-holders are regarded as top favourites to win this European Cup. But within each squad are clusters of excellence with enough knowhow to claim the prize again if they make the semi-finals.
Zidane, in his second reign, trusts his enduring midfield triumvirate of Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos as much as three years ago. Liverpool’s front trio, the prolific Salah and Sadio Mane framing the intuition of Robert Firmino, is still intact, supplemented by the dynamic Diogo Jota, whose first season at Anfield supplies plenty of arguments in favour of his starting ahead of Firmino.
Liverpool’s firepower concerns Zidane. “We know that the three up front are very good, really effective,” said the Madrid coach, “and they are part of a very complete side.”
The once-fabled Madrid Fab Three - Bale, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema - who won four European Cups together, are history. Only Benzema, who swooped on Karius’s hesitancy to open the scoring in Kiev, remains, carrying a heavy goalscoring burden. But Zidane indicated it could be eased by Eden Hazard, who has missed much of his 18 months at Madrid with injury, and who may return from his latest recuperation against Liverpool.
There will be caution with Hazard, given his recent history of coming back from fitness problems and quickly breaking down again. “We have spoken a lot about it,” said Zidane, who pushed strongly for the signing of Hazard when he returned to Madrid for his second stint as coach. “The important thing is Eden’s recovery. We take that step by step. But if the player is ready, I want him with the team.”
Updated: April 6, 2021 09:16 AM