Real Madrid substitute Gareth Bale scored twice - including a brilliant overhead kick - to win a Champions League final which ended in tears for Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in Kiev.
That’s three Champions Leagues in a row for Real Madrid, the first side to achieve that feat since Bayern in 1976, and their fourth in five years, yet a sense lingers that they are not truly great.
That is partly rooted in the fact that they stand for no obvious philosophy other than being rich enough to buy a lot of very good players, and by the feeling that luck has been with them – sometimes in the bounce of the ball or the propensity of opponents to make mistakes and sometimes with refereeing decisions.
But they also have undisputed individual quality. Gareth Bale’s overhead kick, moments after coming off the bench, was preposterous, one of the great final goals, a reminder of the talent of a player who has spent much of this season in the shadows.
But the luck was there as well as a game billed as Cristiano Ronaldo against Mohamed Salah was robbed of one of its stars within half an hour before two goals were gifted them by goalkeeping errors.
Mystifyingly the Serbian referee Milorad Mazic saw no offence as Sergio Ramos pulled down Salah. The defender then landed on Salah’s upper arm, causing him a shoulder injury that, after a brief attempt to play on, forced him off. There may not have been a deliberate attempt to injure Salah, but the offence was clear.
That was followed five minutes later by the departure of Real Madrid defender Dani Carvajal. The full-back had only returned in the final league game of the season after a month out.
The injuries disrupted what had been an extremely bright opening to the game for Liverpool. Having had 111 touches in the Madrid half in the first 30 minutes; Liverpool had seven in the remainder of the half.
The attitude revealed by Marcelo’s comment after Real Madrid had survived a Juventus fightback in the quarter-final that “Real Madrid is Real Madrid” and so does not suffer the sort of collapse Barcelona had in Rome the previous night, has characterised everything about them around this final. The idea that Salah might be in anyway be approaching the level of Cristiano Ronaldo has been treated – at least in public – with scorn, while their approach, again and again under Zinedine Zidane, has been rooted in the conviction that if a game comes to a shoot-out, they will win it. And here, surely enough, they did find a way, once again to win, despite a distinctly uncomfortable opening half hour.
Perhaps it was an act, perhaps Madrid thought they could lure Liverpool into a frenzy that would burn them out, but in the early stages they were clearly unsettled by the intensity of the Liverpool press. Both sides misplaced passes and wasted opportunities to break, and there was an awkward sense the longer the first half went on that if one of a number of loose balls in the Madrid box didn’t break for Liverpool, their opportunity might have passed. Only once did one of those chances break for a Liverpool player, but Roberto Firmino’s initial shot was blocked and then Keylor Navas made an excellent save to keep out Trent Alexander-Arnold’s follow-up.
That seemed like it would be as good as it got for Liverpool. Karim Benzema had an effort ruled out after Ronaldo had strayed offside and Isco hit the bar before Madrid took the lead with a farcical goal.
Bayern Munich goalkeeper Sven Ulreich had made an almost incomprehensible mistake to gift Benzema a goal in the semi-final, and Karius’s gaffe was every bit as bad. As the Liverpool keeper attempted to roll the ball out Benzema stuck out his foot, diverting the ball into the net.
At that stage the suspicion was that Liverpool were mentally gone, but four minutes later a right-wing corner brought an equaliser, Virgil van Dijk heading down for Mane to stab in. Thoughts of a fightback, though, lasted less than ten minutes. Marcelo crossed and Bale leapt and hooked a brilliant overhead kick looping beyond the dive of Karius.
Much, much worse was to come for the German as he allowed a Bale strike from range to squirm through his grasp.
One magnificent goal, two goalkeeping mistakes and an injury to a key opponent; for Madrid, it seems, it was ever thus.