If the Champions League final is the European game’s answer to the Super Bowl — and there are some powerbrokers who would love to make it even more so — then most will be more than happy with Saturday’s contenders. Liverpool versus Real Madrid ticks many of the hype boxes so dear to sponsors and broadcasters, but also likely reflects the current pecking order in Europe.
There’s no fairytale here. There’s merit and savvy, quality and confidence, experience and grit. Most observers would rank Liverpool, runners-up in the Premier League and winners of the League Cup and FA Cup, and Real Madrid, winners of LaLiga, as two of the top three club sides in Europe this season. (In case you’re wondering, the third member of this season’s dominant trinity is Premier League champions Manchester City, who were beaten by Real Madrid in a dramatic semifinal comeback).
Those three were the elite among Europe’s already elite super clubs as the others fell to the wayside. Paris Saint-Germain, despite the Neymar-Kylian Mbappe-Lionel Messi frontline, and Chelsea, the reigning European champions, were felled by, yes, Madrid, whose run to the final has seen them knockout multiple potential winners with late comebacks.
Bayern Munich and Juventus fell to giant-slaying upstarts Villarreal (themselves beaten by Liverpool, after giving them a scare). Fellow blue-bloods Barcelona and Manchester United also made early exits, burdened respectively by the fallout of a near financial meltdown and the ongoing chaos and psychodrama that is Old Trafford.
So you have two more-than-legitimate finalists. We’ll let marketing folk with their consumer surveys work out where they rank, but it’s safe to say that in terms of global fan base and brand strength, both Real Madrid and Liverpool are in the top five. Part of the reason why the City of Light’s tricolor may as well ditch the blue for the next few days and leave just Madrid’s white and Liverpool’s red, because that’s all you’ll see on the streets.
Nobody can question their history, both past and present. Nobody has been European champions more than Real Madrid, who have won it 13 times, dating back to the days when it was called the European Cup (same trophy, by the way, just rebranded as Champions League) in the mid-1950s. But Liverpool have won it six times and victory on Saturday will see them match AC Milan’s seven victories in second place. And we’re talking recent success, too. This is Liverpool’s third trip to the final in the past five years; Real Madrid have won it four times in the past eight campaigns.
But you also have a delicious tasting menu of subplots and backstories.
For a start, in some ways it’s a grudge match following the 2017-18 Champions League final in Kyiv. That night, Real Madrid beat Liverpool 3-1, but, for many Reds, the way the game unfolded still smarts. Goalkeeper Loris Karius made two colossal blunders and star forward Mohamed Salah had to be substituted after half an hour following a clash with Sergio Ramos.
Salah will be there on Saturday night, along with 18 others from both teams who were involved in Kyiv. Ramos, the sort of player loathed by opponents and adored by supporters, might be temped to be there too, and not just for trolling purposes: after all, he spent 16 years at Real Madrid and now plays for PSG, just a short trip around the Peripherique from the Stade de France.
Then there’s the fact that Real Madrid arrive with the ego somewhat bruised. Not the players mind you — if there’s one thing this season’s comeback run to the final has taught us is that few can match them for resilience, unflappability and sheer self-belief — but Madridismo, that great collective (part-philosophy, part-flesh and blood) of supporters and club members itself.
After months in which it appeared dead certain that they were signing star striker Mbappe, one of the two heirs apparent to the Messi-Cristiano Ronaldo duopoly, as a free agent, the French superstar said “non” and instead opted to stay at PSG.
There’s more to ratchet up the hype meter and the star power. Real Madrid have the presumptive Ballon d’Or winner (Karim Benzema) and a pixieish turn-back-the-clock floppy-haired genius who, even at 36, sees and hits passes others can only draw on whiteboards (Luka Modric).
Liverpool have Salah, the Premier League’s top scorer, and Sadio Mane: bitter rivals on another continent — Mane’s Senegal outlasted Salah’s Egypt in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations — brothers in goals on the pitch. The goalkeepers, Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois and Liverpool’s Alisson, are arguably the best in the world, capable of the sort of stand-on-your-head performance that can single-handedly win you a final.
Both coaches are wildly popular and quick with a smile, albeit all business in the 90 minutes in their own way: Jurgen Klopp maniacally waving his arms and roving the sideline, Carlo Ancelotti intensely chewing gum and huddling with his assistant, Davide, who also happens to be his son. Klopp is looking for his second Champions League title; Ancelotti his fourth, more than any other manger in the history of the game.
All Liverpool’s goals en route to the Champions League final
Liverpool: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Konaté, Van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Fabinho, Keïta; Salah, Mané, Luis Díaz
Real Madrid: Courtois; Carvajal, Éder Militão, Alaba, Mendy; Kroos, Casemiro, Modri; Valverde, Benzema, Vinícius Júnior
Route to final: Group B winners, ÿþ2-1 agg vs Inter (R16), 6-4 agg vs Benfica (QF), ÿþ5-2 agg vs Villarreal (SF)
Form (all competitions, most recent first): WWDWDW
Where they finished: 2nd in Premier League, FA Cup winners, League Cup winners
All of Real Madrid’s goals en route to the final
Route to final: Group D winnersÿþ, 3-2 agg vs Paris (R16), 5-4 agg vs Chelsea (QF), 6-5 agg vs Man. City (SF)
Form (all competitions, most recent first): DDWLWW
Where they finished: Liga champions
European Cup final pedigree
European Cup final record: P9 W6 L3 F13 A11
Most recent appearance: 2019, Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham
European Cup final record: P16 W13 L3 F42 A23
Most recent appearance: 2018, Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool