With tired limbs but far from exhausted desire, Liverpool and Real Madrid meet at the Stade de France on Saturday evening. With squads worth hundreds of millions of euros and managers who are aided and abetted by analysts, doctors and physios, they are the last two teams standing in Europe’s – the world’s – most prized club competition, the Uefa Champions League.
Because Liverpool have reached the final game of all the major competitions open to them, they will play their 63rd contest of the season this weekend. Real, the most successful team in European cup history, play their 56th match.
The talents are fabulous. The game knowhow incomparable. The coaches, Jürgen Klopp and Carlo Ancelotti, are a contrast in style and personality. Klopp, the German-Liverpudlian in his tracksuit and cap, Ancelotti, the Italian-Madridista in his waistcoat beneath a suit or raincoat. Klopp is almost volcanic with his energy and emotions; Ancelotti might possibly raise an arched eyebrow in expression.
But they are man-managers in football’s ultimate game. They look inside players’ minds and hearts. They have their own ways to draw out the last ounce of creativity or, just as important, defence where that can prove decisive. This is Ancelotti’s 1,688th match in a career that has spanned 46 years as a player and coach, and it is Klopp’s 1,313th over 32 years.
Whatever their style, the managers are trying to coax, cajole or persuade teams full of talents greater than their own at playing the game into one last 90 or 120 minutes where indomitability can prove as decisive as God-given talent. If you speak to Luca Modrić, Karim Benzema or Toni Kroos, three veterans who have all won the European Cup four times (in Madrid’s triumphs in 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018) you hear appreciation for Ancelotti’s management. “More than anything,” says the 36-year-old playmaker Modrić, “it’s the way he returned to the club in such a down-to-earth, natural way.”
It is the Croat’s way of saying Ancelotti lets them play. He does, until the point where he decides they are either off form or showing their age, whereon he summons a younger player like Rodrygo or Federico Valverde from the bench.
Again, no ceremony, no resentment. One wonders if Franck Ribéry, Arjen
Robben, Mats Hummels, Jérôme Boateng or Thomas Müller, the five players who went behind Ancelotti’s back to get him removed as their Bayern Munich coach in 2017, ever think of writing letters of apology for saying he was too uncommunicative to command their respect?
In essence, ‘King Carlo’ lets decent players play. No manager has won all five top European leagues, as Ancelotti has. No-one beats his five Champions League wins – two as a grafting midfield player at AC Milan, and three as coach with Milan and Madrid.
Klopp never had that pedigree. He was a hard but limited defender who then built his way up the coaching ladder to implant his never-say-die attitude into Borussia Dortmund before, finally, doing the same with more at Liverpool.
Harnessing the spirit of Bill Shankly, and persuading global talents to run the Anfield way, Klopp lost his first Champions League final to Real Madrid in Kyiv in 2018. But Liverpool persevered and within a year won the next final against Tottenham Hotspur at Atlético Madrid’s Metropolitano stadium.
Grit, personality and energy have taken Liverpool all the way back to a third European final under Klopp. And, typical of the manager, his response to losing the Premier League last Sunday was to say: “Losing the league increases the desire to win next week.”
No time to be tired or disappointed; take down the European giant six days later. The plan will be, regardless of whether play-maker Thiago Alcântara recovers from his thigh strain, outgun and outrun the aristocrats in white.
Thiago is a relatively new Red, but less so than the breathtakingly quick Luis
Díaz. The Colombian winger gives Klopp bold attacking options, so much so that Real’s president Florentino Pérez, the man who led attempts to turn Europe into a closed elite, is reportedly so miffed at being rejected by Kylian Mbappé that he might now try to entice Mo Salah and Sadio Mané from Liverpool.
Pérez is the ultimate predator when it comes to paying outrageous money for his so-called Galáctico collection. Liverpool will resist, up to the point of silly money, any attempt to pluck any Anfield star.
Yet Salah has been coyly enigmatic for months over his future. His mind right now is certainly on Madrid, but not in the way that Señor Pérez might appreciate. Before the semi-final, Salah was asked who he wanted in the final, Real or Man City.
“Madrid,” he replied. For revenge? “Yes, we lost in the final,” Salah answered. His smile suggested that revenge is personal. Madrid removed Salah after 30 minutes of the 2018 final, thanks to a violent armlock from their brutish captain Sergio Ramos that dislocated his shoulder.
Ramos, thank goodness, is no longer there. Salah is accompanied by nine of
the Liverpool players from that night in Kyiv. Revenge, however, works both
ways. The only Champions League final Ancelotti has lost was in Istanbul in 2005 when his Milan led 3-0 at half-time, allowed their opponents to pull it back to 3-3, and then lost the penalty shoot-out.
The opponents? Liverpool FC.