It would be either brave or foolish to try to predict the outcome of this year’s UEFA Champions League final, after what has been a wonderfully unpredictable tournament. However, we can reasonably expect that the clash between Liverpool and Real Madrid – which will take place in Kiev on 26th May – is unlikely to be a dull affair.
Both sides have played some scintillating football and scored phenomenal goals – none more so than Cristiano Ronaldo’s masterful overhead kick away to Juventus in the quarter-final. And yet – in this writer’s view – neither side entirely deserves to be in this year’s final.
No, you didn’t misread that. Both Liverpool and Real Madrid can consider themselves extremely fortunate to have reached this year’s Champions League final.
Admittedly, this is a controversial position. Real Madrid have hardly had a kind draw this year – they had to knock out Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich to earn their right to play in Kiev.
Reds fans have a right to feel aggrieved, too. After all, Liverpool crushed FC Porto away from home, thrashed Manchester City at home and neutralised them at the Etihad, and put a staggering seven goals past AS Roma – the same side which had eliminated the mighty Barcelona.
So yes, there will be howls of protest from Madrid and Liverpool. However, I daresay there won’t be many in Manchester, Rome, Turin or Munich.
Of course, every team that wins anything needs a little bit of good fortune along the way. Yet there’s still a colossal difference between a little bit of good fortune and outrageously good luck – which is what both the Reds and Los Blancos have enjoyed this year.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a closer look at their matches, starting with the Reds.
Yes, Liverpool were magnificent in the first leg of the quarter-final, but Raheem Sterling can still count himself desperately unlucky that none of the officials noticed Andy Robertson clearly appearing to foul him in the penalty area.
Then, of course, there was the perfectly legitimate Leroy Sané goal that wasn’t given in the second leg, which would have left City just 3-2 down on aggregate.
As for the Roma tie, the Serie A side were admittedly fortunate only to lose 5-2 at Anfield, as their performance was little short of comical. The Italians were also awarded a highly debatable penalty towards the end.
Yet, if we’re talking debatable penalty decisions, the Reds twice escaped punishment in the second leg at the Stadio Olimpico. Loris Karius appeared to trip Edin Džeko, who was wrongly adjudged to be offside, and Trent Alexander-Arnold appeared to block a goalbound shot with his arm.
Both offences would potentially have earned the Liverpool players red cards.
Yes, Liverpool could have had a penalty of their own in the early stages of the match, and the one which wasgiven against the Reds looked harsh. Yet the first decision came shortly before the Reds opened the scoring, while the second was in the dying moments of injury time – so neither of them could be considered pivotal in the tie.
As for Madrid, they also benefited from one hotly debated penalty decision.
Juventus’ Medhi Benatia was controversially adjudged to have committed a foul in injury time at the Bernabéu, after Madrid had somehow contrived to throw away the commanding three-goal lead they’d established in Turin.
Referee Michael Oliver’s decision so enraged Juve keeper Gianluigi Buffon that the veteran was given his marching orders for protesting too vociferously – before later colourfully claiming that Oliver had a ‘bag of rubbish for a heart’.
Yet Madrid’s good luck isn’t really about refereeing decisions that went their way. Put simply, they just haven’t been very good in their last three matches. In their home leg against Juve, the final score of 3-1 to the visitors actually flattered the home side.
And as for their semi-final against Bayern, the Bavarians must be kicking themselves, as they had enough chances to hammer a thoroughly uninspired Madrid. Even after gifting the Spanish side two goals over the two legs – including one of the most farcical pieces of goalkeeping you’ll ever see from Sven Ulreich – the Germans still presented a serious threat to Madrid until the very end of the tie.
When you look at it from that point of view, it seems bold to claim that either the Reds or Los Blancos are thoroughly deserving finalists.
Yet this all begs one important question: so what? The question of who does or doesn’t deserve to win is of far greater importance to losers than winners.
Can you imagine Sir Alex Ferguson losing any sleep over the outrageous ‘smash and grab’ his side pulled off against Bayern Munich in 1999? Or José Mourinho fretting about his side’s suspiciously offside goal against Barcelona at the San Siro in the 2010 semi-final, or how lucky his side were in the return leg at the Nou Camp?
Neither can I. The records don’t say, “United won the 1999 Champions League but were flukey so-and-sos.” Or: “Inter won the 2010 Champions League but boy, did they ride their luck.” They just say who won. Deserving to win is merely the icing on the cake.
I’ll leave you with a slightly paraphrased Nick Hancock joke, which was originally about Brazil being knocked out of the 1978 World Cup:
‘Manchester City, Juventus, Roma and Bayern Munich all claimed the moral victory. Then they paraded their moral victory trophies through the streets, in their moral victory buses.’
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