And so the 2018 Champions League final will be contested by Real Madrid and Liverpool.
Or, to put it another way: the crown of European kingpins will be placed on the head of either the side which is currently lying in third place and 15 points behind new champions Barcelona in La Liga or the side which is currently lying in third place and 21 points behind new champions Manchester City in the Premier League.
And that’s not where the curious similarities and anomalies end. After 34 games in Spain, Real have scored 82 goals and conceded 37 while, after 35 games in England, Liverpool have scored 80 and also conceded 37.
To put those stats in perspective, the current second-placed team in La Liga, Atletico Madrid, have scored 55 and conceded 18 and the current second-placed team in the Premier League, Manchester United, have scored 67 and conceded 27.
All of which suggests that if something is going to give in Kiev, it will be a defender or a goalkeeper, rather than a striker, fluffing his lines, defence having proved to be the Achilles heel for all the big Champions League contenders this season.
Coaches might have had occasion to tear their hair out but fans have certainly not been starved of rip-roaring entertainment in Europe’s premier club competition.
The business end of things had already produced a number of high-scoring, aggregate thrillers – including Real Madrid 5 PSG 2, Juventus 4 Spurs 3, Roma 4 Barcelona 4, Real Madrid 4 Juventus 3 and Liverpool 5 Manchester City 1 – before the semi-finals took centre-stage with a clear intention not to be outdone for eye-popping drama.
The heavyweight clash of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich turned into a suitably epic battle which produced yet another 4-3 aggregate win, this time for Zinedine Zidane’s side, whose own accumulation of wobbles at the back in the second leg was offset by a goalkeeping howler of the year contender on the part of the unfortunate Sven Ulreich.
After the final whistle in the Bernabeu on Tuesday night, Liverpool fans were apparently scandalised by the sight of Madrid players wearing t-shirts flagging up the fact that the club is now on course to extend its historical domination of the European Cup/Champions League to 13 wins. Not only did this miss the point that it is entirely legitimate to express an ambition but the irony appeared to have been totally lost on the Red faithful that, even as they complained about a lack of respect, their own side still had a job of work to do to ensure Roma wouldn’t spoil Liverpool’s own party in the making.
And what heavy work the visitors duly made of it in Rome last night.
In keeping with the unpredictable nature of the Champions League this season, Jurgen Klopp’s team had already done their bit to ensure the Italians would have something to play for in the second leg when, after blitzing them in trademark style at Anfield they then, in no less characteristic fashion, generously allowed them a licence to dream by conceding those two late goals.
They might have come back from the dead against Barca but the Italians were always going to need their own version of the miracle of Istanbul to prevent Jurgen Klopp’s team prevailing in the Stadio Olimpico last.
And from the moment when Nainggolan scuffed a pass which was seized on by Firmino who put in Mane for the opening goal, the miracle scenario should have been off the table.
Liverpool did attempt to keep things nominally interesting by providing both the assist and finish for Roma’s equaliser, Lovren smashing the ball off Milner and back into their own net but, not to be outdone, Dzeko then decided to turn provider for Wijnaldum, as more chaotic defending coughed up a second goal for the visitors.
That gave us an aggregate score of 7-3 at half-time but by the end of a wild and crazy second 45, the final scoreline over the two legs would be 7-6 in favour of Liverpool as first Dzeko and then Nainggolan on the double almost but not quite atoned for their earlier mistakes while the errors piled up on the other side.
On a night when even Mo Salah did a decent impression of anonymity, it was once again a combination of Liverpool’s vulnerability at the back and failure to seal the deal from a position of strength, which kept things interesting right to the Roma penalty kick which was the last significant act of the night.
So it’s Real Madrid versus Liverpool in the final. If we can dare to try and predict anything about how this season’s Champions League will conclude, it’s that it will be with a game in which defences won’t be on top.
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