It hurts. And it’s going to hurt for a while, there’s no two ways round it.
Liverpool’s season came to a crashing halt last night as they were beaten by Real Madrid in the Champions League final. It wasn’t a spectacle for the most part – if anything it was quite forensic by Madrid – but the disappointment and the pain remains all the same. The Reds deserved better than this and so did we.
It’s easy to feel a lot of things in the wake of nights like these; anger, sadness; but perhaps the overriding feeling is one of disappointment, of ‘this could’ve gone so differently’. It’s feeling akin to grief and one I think will haunt the team and its fans in the coming weeks. I don’t think anyone saw Salah on the pitch and didn’t look skywards thinking, “take one of my arms instead big man, do something else, but not this, not now”.
This wasn’t the David vs Goliath battle it was pitched as being, it couldn’t have been after Salah’s injury. Having to watch someone who has been so emblematic of everything this team has done right this season breakdown, during what should have been his biggest reward for an exceptional season of toil, that was a particularly hard one to take. Not just as a Red, but for what Salah’s come to represent this season: hope. The next big thing. The cavalier football romantic. For so many, often who aren’t associated with the club or its fanbase.
Put simply, last night wasn’t fair, and it hurts. It hurts because – to borrow a film cliché – it mattered. It mattered to everyone not in a white Real Madrid shirt, and don’t let your friends who support other clubs tell you otherwise. But the universe doesn’t deal in fairness and I don’t think we should either. It wasn’t fairness that brought the team to this final, it was hard work and a collective spirit, a belief that we were better than the other eleven lads on the pitch and that we had to go show it. We can’t deal in pantomime extremes; however much Madrid might have mastered the dark arts. That doesn’t change the result, but it also doesn’t mean there weren’t positives, and we can’t ignore those either. If there’s a silver lining to grief, it’s that it brings an undeniable clarity to how you see things, and this was a team that did lots of things right, even after the game got away from them.
Robertson and Lovren (for all the criticism) were excellent, Trent-Arnold very rarely looked out of place and I think Mane went a long way to showing this team isn’t just reliant on Mo Salah to find its way home. I’d go as far as to say that until the Salah injury we were in the game as much as Madrid (this threadon Twitter reassures me that I’m not chatting absolute wham) and we should be rightly proud of that. Make no bones about it, Madrid are one of the best teams in the world and certainly the biggest. Liverpool in their current state had no right to go toe-to-toe with them on the biggest stage when the season began nine months ago, and yet we more than held our own when everything was equal – take comfort from this.
Not PSG, United and City with all their millions, nor Barcelona, Munich or Juventus with their pedigree. Plucky Liverpool – the scourge of Europe. Plucky Liverpool going all the way in spite of the odds, in spite of being told it was a pipe dream to think beyond the group stage. Liverpool, who lost their best player in January, Liverpool who were nothing without Sadio Mane and only had a lad from Roma who failed for Chelsea for backup. Liverpool, doing what this club does and has continued to do, beat the odds – take comfort from this.
A word on Karius, I feel for the lad I really do. His errors compound a night that had already taken an extreme knock with Salah’s exit, but to have not one but two mistakes cost you is really cruel. Parking any goalkeeper chat for a second, I hope he recovers from this because he’s played a big part in what we’ve done well this season. The unfortunate irony is that he made some terrific saves last night that kept us in the game at key moments. What happens to him between now and September is crucial. Mignolet looks almost certain to depart and with all the talk around Butland, Oblak and Alisson going quiet it’d be curtains to have a number 1 who is low on confidence and no reasonable backup. Bringing the transfer chat back in, I think Karius will stay but starts the season out of the limelight and we bring in a new number one. It would’ve been a hard sell to a goalkeeper who’s done little wrong, but I think last night gives the player and the manager the leverage to step back from the starting XI for a time. He clearly has something – his bravery to go apologise to the fans at full-time shows that.
I suppose the real question then is where that leaves us, and in truth I think we’re still in a good place. I don’t feel as despondent now as I thought I would come full-time and when I think of the team I think of it with pride. Mo’s injury hurt because he feels like one of our own, this isn’t a team of individual stars like Madrid, but one that feels closer to home. I think of the moments this season that the team have shared with the fans, the full-time celebrations in Rome, that photo against City, Mo with his arms outstretched putting us into the semi-finals. It’s been a season of shared moments and a growth and collectivism no one thought was possible back in September and that’s where we need to start again in August.
I wrote recently of how this was a season of stories, both individual and shared, and I stand by that point. Klopp and his staff have had an undeniably transformative effect on a club that was fractious and splintered before their arrival, and that might be their greatest achievement in the last few seasons. It’s hard not to look at the scenes before yesterday’s game and feel like this is a club on the cusp of something special. Go find that footage if you haven’t seen it already, Liverpool City Centre at a standstill and awash in red. Remember that we’re capable of that always, and that we will be again in the very near future. This isn’t unbounded optimism, but the cycle of football.
Barcelona, Madrid, Munich – all three need major work on aging squads, and there’s only a limited pool of superstars they can fight over to do so. City are a big threat, domestically and in Europe, but they lack the synergy with the fans that we have. Of the other teams left, it feels like a law of diminishing returns. Juventus have a lot of stars, but I don’t see how they move forward without losing elsewhere, the same goes for United, PSG and Atletico. Liverpool meanwhile feel like they have lots of room for development in all areas – ours isn’t a team of superstars, but it plays like it is. Ninety minutes in Kiev isn’t the undoing of us, but for now we have to take our medicine and look forward.
Let the hurt happen – we’ll be back again. Take comfort from the good times – and there have been many – the songs, the goals, the nights out. Think on the joy and the pride this team have given you and remember that we can still be better. And don’t be afraid of the dark. At the end of the storm is a golden sky in August, and a chance for us to right all these wrongs. Plucky Liverpool with its future in its own hands – take comfort from this: this is just the beginning.
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