If you can’t get yourself up for a match like this, then you shouldn’t be playing football, writes Liam Mackey
From Dublin derbies to World Cup finals, it’s a cliche beloved of footballers keen to convey their absolute readiness for the biggest battles. And so, for one day only, the rest of us can feel a bit like the pros. Because if you’re not excited about tonight’s Champions League final then you really do have to question your credentials as a lover of the game.
And that even goes for supporters of Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United and Everton.
It might be painful for them to have too watch their greatest rivals hogging the main stage but, not to worry, they can get themselves up for it too by the simple expedient of cheering on the other crowd.
The point is that this is a final which should have something for everyone — and then a bit more.
Real Madrid v Liverpool might have seemed an unlikely final pairing at the outset of this season’s Champions League — and still less when you consider how far off the pace both sides have been in their domestic leagues— but, as a wildly entertaining, topsy turvy competition has progressed, they have come through it all to emerge as the two teams most likely to give us a dream date in Kiev.
I’m very conscious that I could be tempting fate here, of course.
From the very first European Cup final I remember watching on television as a child (Manchester United’s 4-1 win at Wembley, all of (good grief) 50 years ago, in 1968) to the 2011 final which I was lucky enough to attend (also at Wembley, also featuring Manchester United but this time with the Reds played off the pitch by a brilliant Barcelona side), European club football’s biggest fixture has served up some truly memorable games.
And not forgetting, of course, a game much talked about in the build-up to tonight’s decider, the ‘miracle of Istanbul’ in 2005, that night of comeback heaven for the Liverpool players down on the pitch and rewrite hell for us hacks high up in the Ataturk stands.
But, as we all fall over ourselves teeing up another classic-in-the-making tonight, I have particular cause to recall the 1991 decider in Bari as a sobering example of how it can all go horribly wrong.
In what used to be a much shorter route to the European Cup final, Red Star Belgrade and Marseille (who had Chris Waddle on board) had never stopped shooting the lights out, the former scoring 18 times and the latter 22 in just four games. Utterly captivated by both sides’ commitment to all-out attacking football, I made a point of assuring non-believers and those who had fallen out of love with football, that this would be a final; guaranteed to win them over and restore their faith in the beautiful game.
And what happened? On the night, fear of failure was allowed to trump will to win, resulting in a barren scoreless draw which stank out the Stadio San Nicola for 120 minutes, before Red Star prevailed in a penalty shoot-out.
And you don’t have to take my word for how abject it was. Here’s how one of the main men, Red Star’s Sinisa Mihajlovic, recalled the occasion some 20 years later: “I think it was the most boring final match in European Cup history.
A few hours before the match, seven of us were shown tapes with Olympique matches. I remember (manager) Ljupko Petrovic telling us, ‘If we attack them we’ll leave ourselves open for counterattacks’, to which I asked ‘so, what do we do then?’ His answer was: ‘When you get the ball, give it back to them’. So we spent 120 minutes on the pitch without practically touching the ball.
“The match went to penalties, (Marseille’s) Manuel Amoros failed to convert his whereas we converted all five. Had we approached the match with an attacking mentality, we probably would’ve lost, not because Olympique were necessarily better than us, but because their players were used to playing big matches like this one.”
I suppose, at a stretch, you could pin Liverpool as this year’s Red Star since they arrive in Kiev as the tournament’s top scorers but clearly playing second fiddle in terms of experience to a Real Madrid side chasing the first European Cup/Champions League three-in-row since Bayern Munich in the 1970s.
If the occasion is going to get to one of these teams, you’d have to fancy it would be Liverpool.
Still, can anyone seriously imagine Jurgen Klopp doing a Ljupko Petrovic and telling his charges that, having journeyed this far with their foot firmly to the floor, it is now time to park the bus?
Frankly, that’s about as likely as Zizou lecturing Ronaldo about the value of tracking back.
Liverpool know only one way to win matches and, when their devastating front three are on the front foot, it has made them a thrilling side to watch. When the roles are reversed, however, we also know how brittle they can be under pressure and, ominously for the Merseysiders, Zinedine Zidane’s side have already shown this year that the Champions League is capable of bringing the best out of his side.
But Real are hardly unassailable at the back either, not least on the left side where you always have the feeling that Marcelo would much rather be doing what Mo Salah will doing to him all night tonight. And while Sergio Ramos is the recognised leader of the team at the heart of their defence, his hyped-up warrior spirit can too often topple over into a rush of blood and a costly foul.
If this is a game which could be lost at the back, it will be won in midfield and attack. Luka Modric is still a class act in picking out a pass and dictating the tempo of a game, and that under-sung hero, James Milner, will be kept busy trying to disrupt the Madrid lines of supply. But it’s in the final third at both ends where we are really entitled to expect fireworks, with Salah, Firmino and Mane the go-to guys for Liverpool, and Benzema and, of course, Ronaldo, the likely game-changers and match-winners for Real.
Zidane, you would have to say, can also call on the stronger bench, with Gareth Bale among his most potent options should he choose to keep him in reserve.
Adding to the endless attractions of tonight’s game is that it’s genuinely tough to call: one of those anything-could-happen-and-probably-will deals.
Before kick off, you could make a persuasive case for either team and, on the evidence of their rollercoaster progress to the final, still be making your case even if the game is well advanced and one side is a couple of goals to the good.
Extra-time? Possibly. Pens? Why not? But if I’m prepared to make any kind of prediction at all, it’s that this one won’t be nil-nil at the end of 90 minutes. Which is why we’re all champing at the bit.
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