Two of the most prominent and distinguished clubs in the world will cross paths this weekend in the UEFA Champions League final when Real Madrid faces Liverpool.
Saturday’s match at the Stade de France in the northern suburbs of Paris pits two of the competition’s most successful sides against each other. Since the tournament’s inception in 1955-56 when it was known as the European Cup, Real Madrid has come out on top more times than any other team, winning club soccer’s biggest prize on 13 occasions.
More so than the Montreal Canadiens with the Stanley Cup or the New York Yankees with the World Series, no team is more intrinsically linked to a sports championship than Real Madrid is with the UEFA Champions League. Liverpool’s history in the tournament isn’t too shabby, either. The Reds have been crowned the kings of Europe six times, tied for third-most with Bayern Munich, and just one fewer than Italian giants AC Milan.
Real and Liverpool aren’t exactly strangers, as Saturday will mark the third time they have met in the final. The English club bested their Spanish counterparts in 1981 in Paris, and then Real patiently laid in the weeds before finally exacting revenge four years ago in Kiev. But it’s more than just the past that closely binds together these two giants of the game.
In terms of the here and now, they followed similar paths to Saturday’s final. They both easily won difficult first-round groups, with Liverpool going a perfect 6-0, and Real’s lone blemish coming in a shocking upset to FC Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova. Both clubs then scraped by their round-of-16 opponents before surviving scares in the quarter-finals and semifinals.
In the Spaniards’ case, a dramatic come-from-behind win at home over Manchester City allowed them to overcome a first-leg deficit and book their spot in the finals for a record 17th time. Liverpool looked to have its semifinal well in hand following a 2-0 win over Villarreal at Anfield. But the return match in Spain proved problematic, with the Yellow Submarine jumping out to a 2-0 lead, before Liverpool woke up and replied with three unanswered goals in the second half.
The similarities don’t end there, as they are each guided by coaches who are widely respected. Italian Carlo Ancelotti has a trio of Champions League winners medals to his credit, including the one he earned in 2014 during his previous tenure in charge with Real Madrid. A 4-1 victory on that night in Lisbon saw Real put one over city rivals Atletico Madrid, but also claim la decima – a historic 10th title. German Jurgen Klopp has transformed Liverpool since he took over the reins in 2015, helping an underachieving outfit win its first English league title in 30 years and its sixth Champions League three years ago.
It’s also interesting to note that Real Madrid and Liverpool are led by a pair of international stars who, for all they have done, still manage to fly somewhat under the radar.
At 34, Karim Benzema has shown no signs of slowing down. The French forward has enjoyed a remarkable season for Real by scoring 44 goals in 45 games in all competitions, including a tournament-high 15 in the Champions League. On more than one occasion during Real’s run to the final, it was Benzema who bailed them out with his penchant for scoring timely goals.
Over at Liverpool, Egyptian international Mohamed Salah’s 32 goals (eight in the Champions League) proved vital for the club as it simultaneously competed on multiple fronts and just missed out on winning the Premier League race last weekend.
And yet, their names don’t come up very often in debates and discussions about the best player in the world. Despite their genuine quality and their importance to their clubs, Benzema and Salah have long lived in the shadows of superstars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, with neither being able to even get a sniff at winning the Ballon d’Or, the prestigious annual honour that goes to the world player of the year.
While Benzema and Salah are fey figures, they have hardly carried their teams on their shoulders. Rather, they are but one key cog on carefully constructed rosters that are noted for their depth and overall balance.
Brazil’s Alisson and Thibaut Courtois are among the best goalkeepers in the world, providing their clubs with a sturdy foundation at the back. Virgil van Dijk and Joel Matip are top-level defenders for Liverpool, as are Real’s Nacho and Jesús Vallejo.
In midfield, Ancelotti and Klopp are spoilt for choices on both sides of the ball, with Croatian Luka Modric brilliantly pulling the creative strings for Real Madrid and Brazil’s Fabinho serving as Liverpool’s defensive dynamo. Vinícius has terrorized opposing defenders while effectively linking up with Benzema, while Sadio Mane has been the perfect counterweight to Salah’s languid play with his more direct style.
There hasn’t been a genuine blowout in a Champions League final since Real bested Juventus 4-1 in Cardiff in 2017. Considering the makeups of both of this year’s finalists, Saturday’s match should be a tightly-contested affair where a moment of pure inspiration and magic could decide it. Luckily for Liverpool and Real Madrid, they have an ample supply of both qualities.
John Molinaro is one of the leading soccer journalists in Canada, having covered the game for over 20 years for several media outlets, including Sportsnet, CBC Sports and Sun Media. He is currently the editor-in-chief of TFC Republic, a website dedicated to in-depth coverage of Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. TFC Republic can be found here.