When Real Madrid lost the first leg of their Champions League last-16 game in Paris on 15 February, the world was a different place. By the time the second leg was played, Russia had invaded Ukraine. Football had become unimportant. But those who saw how Real miraculously turned the game around will never forget it.
This year, the Champions League final is taking place at a time when war is raging in Europe. It has been moved from St Petersburg to Paris because Russia, the aggressor, has been excluded. The war of the autocrat Putin is changing the whole world.
Ibrahima Konaté smiles after Liverpool secure a place in the Champions League final by beating Villarreal.
Ibrahima Konaté: ‘The final in Paris, my home. I couldn’t have dreamed it’
It is the Real Madrid team that are distracting Europe in this spring’s sad times. On their way to the final, they beat last year’s finalists, Chelsea and Manchester City, in a similarly spectacular way to their win over PSG. Their opponents dominated the games, Real survived critical phases and then surprised their opponents and the football world with brilliant moments.
In the semi-final against City, Real were two goals down in the 90th minute and won. It reminded me of Bayern Munich’s painful defeat against Manchester United in 1999 or Chelsea’s victory in the 2012 “Finale dahoam”, my personal Waterloo. In the Premier League, on the other hand, City last Sunday turned a 0-2 into a 3-2 in five minutes and became champions. The inexplicable is part of the fascination of football.
Now the 13-time champions Real face six-time champions Liverpool. As to whether Real can pull off another miracle, all eyes are on Karim Benzema. The best striker in the world represents what Real are all about: talent, genius, intuitive understanding of the game, belief in his own strength. Against PSG he scored three times in 17 minutes. He scored 10 goals in the six games of the knockout rounds. He has equalled Cristiano Ronaldo’s record for Champions League goals in a season and could overtake him in the final.
Benzema’s missteps off the pitch do not make it easy to admire him without reservation. But he is one of the greats. He has already won the Champions League four times. In Paris, like Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos (who won the first of his four titles with Bayern), he could equal Alfredo Di Stéfano, who created the Real Madrid myth with the unique winning streak from 1956 to 1960.
Discipline is not what one associates with Benzema. Keeping a player like him on track requires a coach who knows whom he is dealing with at a club every footballer dreams of playing for. Carlo Ancelotti, the first coach to reach the final for the fifth time, is a perfect fit for Real right now. Against City, he changed Kroos, Modric and Casemiro in 10 minutes. Recognising the right moment for such a coup de grâce requires gut instinct. And anyone who collects the consent of these players for his decisions on the touchline, like Ancelotti, enjoys absolute credibility.
The galácticos – that has been have been Real’s tradition for more than half a century. They are the best of the best from each generation. They come from Spain and South America, occasionally from Europe, usually from the great football nations of France, England, Italy and Germany. City and especially PSG are emulating Real and want a piece of that glamour. In a decade they have not been able to catch up. They are still copies and Real, even if they missed out on Kylian Mbappé, remain the original.
Liverpool represent a different path. The decisive factors of their football are physicality, speed, forward drive in almost all positions. That’s how most teams want to play. In the final of the Europa League, Eintracht Frankfurt defeated Rangers in a passionate battle. But no one comes close to Liverpool’s excellence; the style of the time is tailor-made for the port and working-class city.
There, in seven years, a unity has developed between Jürgen Klopp and his players. He succeeds in transfers Liverpool’s underdog mentality on to the pitch. Like all great teams, Liverpool have developed an identity, which is taking them to their third final in five years. Barcelona was more than a club, Bayern was “mia san mia”, and at Liverpool Virgil van Dijk, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Sadio Mané never walk alone.
The team is bigger than the individual.
Philippe Coutinho, once Liverpool’s best, didn’t realise that. He failed to make it at Barcelona and Bayern, and now plays for Aston Villa. Mohamed Salah, on the other hand, became a star in Liverpool’s community. As a 12-year-old, he travelled four hours every day by bus to training in Egypt; today he is in the hall of fame. This ambition, this greed to assert himself, characterises Liverpool. The contrast with Real and Benzema could hardly be greater. That’s why I’m incredibly looking forward to this game.