A thrilling run inspired by Mohamed Salah has taken Liverpool to Saturday’s Champions League final in Kiev against Real Madrid, where now Jurgen Klopp’s side must stop the Spanish giants from winning the trophy for the third year running.
Real have seen this as their competition ever since winning the first five European Cups in a row, and this is another golden era for them, in which they are dreaming of making it a fourth Champions League in five years.
Neither Atletico Madrid (twice) nor Juventus have been able to stop Cristiano Ronaldo from inflicting pain on them in recent finals.
But Liverpool’s own attacking quality gives them reason to believe and suggests the Olympic Stadium in the Ukrainian capital could be the scene of an unforgettable encounter.
In terms of history alone, this is a dream final.
Real’s 12 European Cup wins puts them way ahead of the rest, but Liverpool have lifted the famous trophy five times themselves, most recently in 2005, defying all the odds against AC Milan in Istanbul.
This time, under Klopp, their adventure started against Hoffenheim in the play-offs last August, on through stunning wins over Manchester City and Roma via a 3-3 draw in Seville when they had been three goals up.
They have scored a record 46 goals in all in this season’s Champions League, with Salah netting 11 of those—the Egyptian has 44 in all competitions since joining from Roma last year.
“If we win the competition then the road to Kiev plus the final would be one of the most exceptional rides ever,” Klopp told Liverpool’s website. “So far, it was just outstanding.”
Klopp has lost his last five major finals as a coach, including the 2013 Champions League with Borussia Dortmund against Bayern Munich, and the 2016 Europa League with Liverpool against Sevilla.
Experience means his team have to be the outsiders in Kiev—none of the squad have ever played in a Champions League final before—but Klopp knows Zinedine Zidane’s side cannot dismiss them.
“Do Real Madrid, sitting in Madrid at the moment, think, ‘thank God it’s Liverpool!’? I can’t imagine that,” added the coach, who has welcomed Emre Can back into his squad.
Salah will of course be so important, especially if Marcelo is unable to resist the temptation to abandon his left-back position and join the Real attack.
While Gareth Bale is unlikely to make Zidane’s line-up, how will the Liverpool midfield cope against Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, their central defence against Ronaldo?
Five for CR7?
Real can became the first team since Bayern in 1976 to lift the European Cup three years running, and thereby make it five consecutive titles for Spain.
Ronaldo could win his fifth Champions League. That would equal the individual record, and leave him in sight of yet another Ballon d’Or.
Zidane, meanwhile, is on the brink of a third straight Champions League win as a coach.
“We have already made history and we want to keep on doing it. It would be incredible,” defender Raphael Varane told Madrid sports daily Marca.
“I still don’t think we have realised the scale of what we are doing, but when all this is over we will.
“Through experience we know how difficult it is going to be, but experience gives more security and serenity as well.”
The build-up to the game itself has been overshadowed by complaints from fans of both sides that getting to Kiev—and finding accommodation there—has been too expensive.
With fans undertaking arduous over-land odysseys to get to Ukraine, and paying extortionate rates for rooms, Liverpool chief executive Peter Moore has claimed the city cannot cope with such a big event.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin confirmed on Thursday that 1,000 tickets allocated to Real fans had been handed back because they could not get there.
Those tickets will—officially at least—be sold to locals, but those coming from afar at great cost will at least be hoping the match itself lives up to its billing.