There’s a feeling among Liverpool players that this Uefa Champions League final against Real Madrid is about to become a historic story of revenge.
It’s the classic superhero movie in which the protagonist is pulverised and embarrassed by the villain, forcing him to undergo deep introspection and then return to exact revenge.
Coming from Liverpool’s talisman, Mohamed Salah, it can be understood after he sustained an injury against Real Madrid in the final in 2018. He has not been shy about his feelings towards the Spanish outfit and how much he would love to crush them when the two sides meet in Paris on Saturday.
Before Real Madrid even confirmed their spot, Salah had said that he preferred to face Los Blancos over domestic rivals Manchester City.
When Salah won the Football Writers’ Association player of the year award, he was asked for his thoughts and didn’t bother sugarcoating anything. “We lost in the final [four years ago]. It was a sad day for all of us, but yeah, I think it’s revenge time.”
Madridistas have not taken Salah’s comments lightly. Midfielder Federico Valverde, for one, said in an interview with Club del Deportista magazine that the side would use the Egyptian’s words as added motivation.
“Obviously they’re words that everyone can take however they want,” Valverde said. “I’m his opponent and it’s like disrespecting the Real Madrid badge, the players … The only thing we must do is give our best, try to show why we’re in the final and let’s hope we can give another trophy to the fans and to Real Madrid.”
But Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp brushed aside all personal rivalries when he spoke to the media on Wednesday. He called for 90 minutes of focus and nothing else.
”I just want to focus on us, no disrespect to Carlo Ancelotti and Real Madrid. We know how good they are but we cannot go into the game thinking about how they were in the last two minutes against Manchester City,” Klopp said.
“If that would be our opponent for 90 minutes it would be really tricky but, thank God, there are 88 more minutes and we have to make sure we get the game in the right direction.”
With a lot of mind games being played before the actual football kicks off on Saturday, there are many key battles on the field that could shape the direction of the game.
Real Madrid have shown defensive vulnerability in both La Liga and the Champions League this season. They were battered 4-0 by a far from convincing Barcelona side in March and could have been run over by Manchester City in the semifinal first leg if City had taken their chances.
If Salah, Sadio Mane and Luis Dias watched that first leg, they may feel that their relentless pressure and pace could have the Madrid back four in for an extremely long night on Saturday.
But their experience and resolve to conquer three of Europe’s best sides en route to the final has shown that you can never bet against them.
For Real Madrid, the experience that they have in midfield with Luca Modric, Casemiro and Tony Kroos may be able to dictate the game in key moments. But, with the energy and pressure of Liverpool, it may also be a challenge for the ageing legs of the midfield trio to run the game at their own pace.
Most pundits will see the best battle between Liverpool’s centre back Virgil van Djik and Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema. Benzema has scored 44 goals in 45 games this season, with 15 of those goals coming in the Champions League. Somehow, for every striker that comes up against Van Djik, it is usually a mismatch. The composure, skill and strength of the Liverpool defender usually allows him to brush off most forwards. But Benzema’s ability to tinker with his positioning between being a false nine and a complete number nine may just have the Dutchman on his heels.
It would also be foolish to ignore Real Madrid’s wonderkid, Vinicius Junior, who has caused problems for so many teams in Europe this season. With endless pace and a hint of Neymar’s touch, Trent Alexander-Arnold will have his hands full and may have less of an influence on the attack for the Reds.
But Vinicius may also have to work on his cardio; when Liverpool do get on to the front foot, Alexander Arnold almost turns into a winger. If Vinicius fails to track back down that side of the field, Real Madrid may suffer the same way that most of Liverpool’s opponents have suffered since the beginning of the year.
With titanic clashes happening on all parts of the pitch, Saturday’s final may just be one of the most intriguing that we’ve seen in a few years. Liverpool will definitely walk out as favourites with more starpower, but this year’s Champions League has taught us to never doubt Los Blancos, even if they may get outrun or outplayed.