May really is the cruellest month. For Liverpool Football Club and Jürgen Klopp there is something brutal, and even darkly comic, in the current run of finals and final days, those razor-thin margins at the end of a glorious, gruelling year.
Liverpool have played 62 games this season and lost only three. They have one left now, a bravura Champions League final against Real Madrid in Saint-Denis on Saturday night, a fixture that has already been relocated twice, shunted around on a kind of Bourne-franchise tour of Uefa-zone glamour spots, through Munich, St Petersburg and finally on to Paris.
And while it might seem absurd, facile and just plain wrong to say the season will be decided by victory or defeat at the Stade de France, that nine months of something close to sporting perfection, already two trophies deep, will be cast as success or failure by a one-off game; well, it is also probably true.
This is the beauty and also the viciousness of elite sport. It is also a mark of the extreme quality of this mature Klopp team. By any sensible measure Liverpool are already there. This team have won the Champions League. They have those deeper notes, the structures, the retreading of every surface of the club. And yet right now a final such as this, a genuine blue chip one‑off, may just be what Liverpool need.
For all the highs to this point there is still a sense of an entity yet to find its final form, to experience its own defining high. This is often just a matter of how fixtures fall. The Champions League final victory against Tottenham Hotspur was decisive, unarguable, magisterial; but also, at bottom, a Champions League final against Tottenham Hotspur. Winning the league by 18 points was a wonderful feat, but also an experience muddied by quarantine conditions.
Paris on Saturday is something else, at least in terms of its sweep. Here is an opportunity to show the world just how good this team are, in the most cinematic of one‑offs. Great teams do tend to have these moments, from Milan’s evisceration of Barcelona at the peak of the Sacchi-into-Capello years, to Manchester United’s paroxysms against Bayern Munich, to Pep-era Barcelona’s cruel perfection at Wembley in 2011.
This is more than simply theatre. For Klopp there is a more immediate tactical note to the prospect of facing opponents of this quality. Liverpool are narrow favourites. At their best they are a more coherent, relentless, powerful team. With some early wind at their backs there is a chance they could run through Madrid.
But there is also a note of warning here. Liverpool’s recent record against the better teams is their one headline weakness. Why didn’t they win the league this season? The most obvious answer is that in six games against the other members of the top four they mustered six draws and no clean sheets. They beat a diluted Manchester City 3-2 in the FA Cup. The last time Liverpool beat a recent Champions League winner, other than on penalties, was the 2-0 against Chelsea in September 2020.
In the past two months Madrid have beatenChelsea and City. They also beat Liverpool last year, although it is in the details of that game that a key to Saturday may lie.
Finals tend to be won in midfield. These are often games that go deep, that test the ability to hold the ball, to assert your own rhythms under pressure. It is here that Madrid have held their advantage in this competition. Modric-Kroos-Casemiro is an era all in itself, footballers of such quality, such intelligence, such big-game chops that they can find ways to win, can spend half an hour being outrun but still know that their own moments will come.
Toni Kroos, in particular, looks exhausted from pretty much the first minute these days, a footballer who seems to be running through wet sand, but who knows he still has the capacity to affect a game at this level.
It is Madrid’s midfield that has had the edge over Liverpool. Luka Modric and Kroos seemed to be playing through lighter air in the opening hour at the Alfredo Di Stéfano stadium last season, dominating possession and finding time to lace passes into that red zone behind the full-backs. That gap was more pronounced in the 2018 final, when Kroos had 99 touches, Modric 90 and a Liverpool midfield of Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner and Jordan Henderson, who appears to be Modric’s favourite footballer, spent the night chasing.
There are several reasons to suspect this can now be reversed. First, Madrid’s grandees are all older. Kroos may not play if Carlo Ancelotti prefers the high-energy presence of the excellent Eduardo Camavinga. Second, Liverpool may just get Thiago Alcântara back for Saturday, their only central midfielder with the class to go toe‑to-toe with these kings of tempo and touch. His presence – and it is in serious doubt – would be a massive step up.
Third, the team Liverpool put out last year had Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips in defence, a dilution in quality that affects every aspect of their play.
Much is made of Liverpool’s high defensive line, the way the fearlessnesses of their central defenders in holding that position allows Klopp to condense play, to make the press into an act of suffocation. Madrid will have to cope with that pressure. And it is in that middle third that the game could well be won and lost.
The most notable element of Liverpool’s struggles against the better teams is the way their opponents have attacked the space behind their full-backs with quick passes from central midfield. The direct confrontation between Vinícius Júnior and Trent Alexander-Arnold is the most obvious point of pressure here.
Both players will look to find an edge on that flank. The space Alexander-Arnold leaves, deliberately – this is a tactic – by pushing on as an attacking playmaker is only really a source of alarm when the midfield is unable to take control, to prevent a player such as Kroos from having the space to find his range. Klopp has a choice: push his right-back into his usual advanced spaces, trust the process and the cover; or sit deeper, aware that Vinícius and Karim Benzema provide Madrid’s most obvious razor edge. Either way, so much of this springs from how the centre holds.
There are other points of interest. Madrid have played one meaningful game in the past four weeks, the home win against City. Since then Benzema and Modric have played less than 180 minutes. Liverpool are if anything overextended, frazzled by their run of final things and moments of crisis.
It is unlikely to matter much. It has been pointed out that there is no second leg here, that Real’s progress has been dependant on dragging their way back into these ties. But a final like this is the ultimate second leg. This is overtime, the endgame, the moment when you’re left pinned and wriggling on the wall, every choice, every doubt, every note of weakness played out in the brightest of glares.
Liverpool have shot at a kind of ultimacy in Paris. For Madrid this is their zone of comfort, the place they have been trying to get to all season. The only question now is: who blinks in that light?