The three-peat, pretty clearly, was written in the stars.
With a wacky, legitimately unbelievable 3-1 win over Liverpool, Real Madrid became the fourth team ever to win three-straight European championships, and the first team to ever do it since the competition was rebranded as the Champions League. It’s Madrid’s fourth title in five years, and 13th overall—more than any other two clubs combined. Like they have for much of this year’s competition and at various points en route to the previous two titles, Zinedine Zidane’s side won out due to superior talent and an incredibly fortuitous confluence of events.
First, Liverpool’s best player and a legitimate challenger to Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi for this year’s Balon d’Or award, Mohamed Salah, left the field in tears after 30 minutes. When Sallah collided with Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, it appeared like Ramos grabbed Salah’s arm and purposefully wrenched it backward as the pair fell to the ground.
Ramos has a history of, as British fans call it, “utter shithousery,” and we’ll never know whether he meant to do it, but it proved to be a decisive moment in the game. If he did it on purpose, this will live on as one of the darker on-field moments in the history of European soccer. Salah had scored 44 goals and notched 16 assists before the final, and the dynamism of Liverpool’s record-breaking front three, also including Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, is what drove Jurgen Klopp’s side into the final. Over the first half hour, Liverpool dominated the flow of the game. Without Salah in the match, the attack petered into nothing.
Attacking-THIRD touches before and after Salah left the #UCLFinal in the 31st minute…— Paul Carr (@PaulCarrTM) May 26, 2018
- Before: Liverpool 56, Madrid 21
- After: Madrid 65, Liverpool 1
With Salah’s World Cup with Egypt in doubt—post-match reports suggest he’ll return in time—Ramos became enemy no. 1 in Cairo:
Then, at the beginning of the second half, Madrid’s Karim Benzema ran onto an over-hit ball over the top. He was offside, but the linesman never raised his flag. And in a moment that will be permanently etched into the minds of millions on Merseyside, keeper Loris Karius attempted to throw the ball to a teammate—only for it to deflect into the goal off of Benzema’s foot.
What a mistake from Karius as his throw gets blocked by Benzema and ends up in the back of the net! pic.twitter.com/F5KsQ8ts1Y— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 26, 2018
Justice—depending on whom you ask—seemed like it was eventually served minutes later. After a Liverpool corner kick was lofted into the back post, Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren launched himself over Ramos to play a header back across goal. Sadio Mane pounced on the pass and touched the ball by Keylor Navas to even up the score. The poetry was almost too on the nose: As Liverpool celebrated, Ramos lay prone on the ground, appealing to the referee for a nonexistent foul.
If there was one deciding factor in this game—beyond God seemingly flipping a coin that read “Real Madrid” on both sides—it was Real’s strength in depth. We typically talk about depth as an advantage across a full season, allowing managers to rotate their squads and play different formations in order to address the specific problems of individual opponents and steal rest for key players without the overall team quality taking much of a dip. But Saturday night in Kiev served up a season-long message in 90 minutes.
With Salah’s injury, on came Adam Lallana, a 30-year-old hybrid midfielder-attacker who’d played fewer than 500 minutes all season. When fullback Dani Carvajal went off with a hamstring injury, he was replaced by Nacho, who was just selected to Spain’s World Cup squad. Then, right after Mane’s goal, Isco, another Spanish international, was replaced by Gareth Bale, the sixth-most expensive player of all time. Just 120 seconds and five touches later, he scored what might be the greatest goal in Champions League history:
As Liverpool looked to find a way back in, Jurgen Klopp’s only sub was to swap midfielder for midfielder, taking off James Milner and replacing him with Emre Can, who’s likely headed to Juventus this summer. Mane, who stepped up and tried to fill the Salah-shaped void all on his own, hit the post, but Liverpool never came much closer than that. They took three total shots after Salah went off. Then Bale killed the game off with a knuckling pile driver from 45 yards out. It looked like a simple save, and then Karius’s day went from bad to historically embarrassing in a single moment:
Karius AGAIN with the mistake in net!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) May 26, 2018
This time he gifts Gareth Bale his second goal of the night, putting Real Madrid up 3-1. pic.twitter.com/iZEA7RnZMr
To top off the absurdity, Cristiano Ronaldo, who hinted that he might be leaving the club after the match and who had his quietest big-game performance since getting injured minutes into the Euro final against France in 2016, bore in on goal in the waning moments—only for a fan to run onto the field and for the referee to blow the play dead.
Before the final, I wrote about how Klopp had built a team that created chaos—and then thrived in it. But not like this. The first 30 minutes followed a pattern Liverpool would’ve liked to maintain for 60 more—attack, lose the ball, win it back, attack again, rinse, and repeat. It all, of course, went to hell when Salah went off. Prior to the game, any argument in Liverpool’s favor hinged on them being the better team, not the more talented one. Without Liverpool able to control what the game looked like over the final hour, the result fell prey to a couple moments of individual brilliance and individual ineptitude. If there’s any solace for Reds fans, it’s this: Liverpool’s starting 11 were the youngest group to appear in the Champions League final since 2013. The whole team should be back next year, save for a handful of players who’ll likely get upgraded in the transfer market. But even if Klopp’s club is better next year, it doesn’t guarantee another run to the final. For a club used to tragedy or varying forms and degrees, this is the latest step on a familiar path.
As for Madrid, there’s no denying three European titles in a row and four in five years. For Zidane, it’s three Champions League crowns in three seasons, taking him level with former Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti and, fittingly, Liverpool’s Bob Paisley as the most successful European managers of all time. Yes, it’s weird that Madrid have only won one domestic title over that half-decade of continental dominance, but there’s just something about this team that’s totally ineffable and inevitable in knockout tournaments. From Ramos’s arm bar to Benzema’s opportunism to Bale’s bicycle kick, this club just does the singular things that make the biggest differences. Tacticians won’t be studying this Madrid side in 20 years—see the first half-hour of the game for why—but when you win this often, it really doesn’t matter how you do it.