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Real Madrid embellish Champions League legacy in beating Liverpool for 14th European title

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Published in Soccer
Saturday, 28 May 2022 18:39

PARIS -- And now it's 14 for Real Madrid, which is more than the next two most successful clubs in Europe -- AC Milan have seven, Liverpool six -- combined.

And now Carlo Ancelotti has four as a manager, which is more than anybody else. ("I am a record man!" he said, equal measures disbelieving and self-effacing.)

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And now the Kylian Mbappe snub isn't quite so infuriating -- it has to be satisfying to win a European Cup in his city, a 10-minute scooter ride from where he was born and raised. (Or, as club president Florentino Perez put it after the game: "Mbappe is forgotten now and that's OK ... Madrid had a perfect season.")

We already know that no club is as closely associated with this trophy: From the early days of Paco Gento, Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano, to the Zinedine Zidane Galactico era at the turn of the millennium to this outfit, capable of winning five European titles in nine years. But perhaps no team has ever become champions of Europe after overcoming such a tough run in the knockout rounds: Mbappe's (and Lionel Messi's) Paris Saint-Germain, defending champions Chelsea and then Manchester City and Liverpool, No. 1 and No. 1a in most fans' unofficial power rankings.

"There's not much I can say -- this was a really difficult Champions League campaign, if anything tonight was easier than the previous games," Ancelotti said. "Main factors? Quality, mentality, the experience of the veterans, the drive and impact of the youngsters, all of them are important. Beyond that? Well, I've never seen anybody win without being a bit lucky at times, too."

There was no heroic comeback this time, because Liverpool failed to convert the chances they created before Vinicius Junior's second-half strike, thanks in no small part to the long-limbed Thibaut Courtois: part-octopus, part-Gumby, all nerves of steel. But the tools of victory were those they had employed in earlier rounds: belief, unflappability and experience.

Real Madrid arrived at the Stade de France with three weeks of late-season games that were de facto preseason warm-ups. That's what happens when arithmetic grants you the league early: You have the luxury to rest and recuperate, tweak and tinker, eyes and minds fully engaged on the prize. Ancelotti's lineup reflected this: It may or may not have been his best XI, but it's the one he trusted to start the game, with Fede Valverde wide on the right doing double duty as a winger in attack, a fourth midfielder without the ball.

Liverpool's pursuit of the quadruple meant Jurgen Klopp did not have that luxury. It's true that he rested players when he could, but he still had a hard-fought FA Cup final against Chelsea at full-strength to contend with just two weeks ago, and in any case, the mental drain of being within a point of eventual Premier League champions City can't be underestimated. He was also able to call upon, on paper, his first-choice XI, but the vibe was different. From Virgil van Dijk to Mohamed Salah to Fabinho to Thiago Alcantara, it felt like veterans wearily returning to the front after a day of quiet -- not quite 100%, but hungry to gut it out.

With kickoff delayed nearly 40 minutes by the security issues outside, which saw some supporters pepper sprayed, the tension only grew as the pregame minutes passed. The delays were so substantial that both teams came back out on the pitch to warm up again.

The game unfolded as scripted in the early going. When Madrid tried to play from the back, they were met with the twin central barrier of Salah and Sadio Mane, with Luis Diaz on the left and either Jordan Henderson or Trent Alexander-Arnold on the right. When they looked for the long "out ball" (most often to Vinicius), Ibrahima Konate was often there to meet him step for step.

It wasn't surprising, then, that the first sustained spell of Madrid possession in the Liverpool half didn't come until the 25th minute or so. Before that, Courtois had to make two key saves off Salah and rely on the post after Mane skipped past Eder Militao, created space where there wasn't any and rifled his shot against the woodwork.

Madrid were on the ropes, but this is a team that knows how to both dazzle and suffer. There was Dani Carvajal matching the lightning quick Diaz and poking the ball away, generating a roar from the white-clad mass behind the Madrid goal. There was David Alaba, demanding and getting a massive chest-bump from his defensive partner, Militao. They needed a spark and they got it from the way they defended.

At the other end, there wasn't much. The highlight should have been Benzema's goal -- not the one he scored and was then disallowed due to a fiendishly complicated (but ultimately correct ... probably?) interpretation of the offside rule and what constitutes "playing the ball," but the one he didn't, in the same play, when he killed a long pass out of the sky, froze Alisson with a feint, but then froze himself, unable to bury his chance.

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Was that Madrid's break? Was that the moment they didn't seize? The diem they didn't carpe? Nope. Because they got another just before the hour mark. Valverde romped his way down the right flank and Benzema, the thinking man's center-forward, cut to the near post. He took Konate with him, which made sense, but he also sucked in Alexander-Arnold, who was a few yards behind his center-back. This allowed Vinicius, ghosting in from the other flank, to sneak in and meet Valverde's hard, low cross, steering it past Alisson.

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Vinicius and Valverde, once Madrid's future, combined to define the present and in doing so, showed that the future is very much now. Both arrived at 18 years old, the former with great hype and fanfare as a Brazilian wunderkind, the latter almost an afterthought as a Uruguayan grafter. Both were instrumental in their own way this season, too. Vinicius enjoyed a breakout season playing Robin to Benzema's Batman with a slew of goals and assists, while Valverde displayed the kind of hard hat reliability and flexibility that made Ancelotti's hybrid 4-3-3/4-4-2 formation possible. Much is made of Madrid's veterans and rightly so, but these two have gone to the next level under Ancelotti this season.

In the other dugout, Klopp shook his head and sent on the cavalry -- first Diogo Jota, then Roberto Firmino. The chances came: The best of the lot was perhaps Salah's finish, which Courtois somehow seemed to deflect with his bicep, spreading himself like a paintball splash.

"Today, nobody was going to take my desire to win the Champions League away from me, l was going to win it," Courtois said after the game and anyone who saw what he pulled off, particularly on Mane and Salah, would tend to believe him.

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Nicol: Liverpool 'scratching their head' how they didn't win UCL final

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As the clock ticked into injury time, Liverpool supporters raised a chorus of "You'll Never Walk Alone" into the Paris sky. And indeed, they won't. Moments later, Madrid fans replied with the staccato cry: "Asi! Asi! Asi gana el Madrid!" ("That's how! That's how! That's how Madrid win!") They weren't wrong, either.

At the final whistle, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric embraced, while Benzema trotted over and patted Kroos on the back.

"This was maybe the most difficult Champions League [win]," Benzema said. "We showed everyone that we're alive and that we're here and we won."

It felt like one of those old flicks they show on Saturday afternoons in which the gang successfully gets together for one final, big heist. Except, even without Mbappe, you suspect this won't be their last -- not when there's a guy like Ancelotti, one of the few men who can pull off the cardigan-cigar-shades combination and lead a team in transition to a league and Cup double. Not with young guns -- Vinicius, Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, Rodrygo -- already with the "big one" under their belt. Not with Courtois, in the prime of his career, staking a claim as the world's No. 1 between the posts and getting a few things off his chest. ("We showed again who is the King of Europe.")

Not with the culture, and expectation, of success that inhabits "la Casa Blanca."

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