Beauty inside

Only in an alternate reality should Real Madrid be Champions League winners – that’s the beauty of football

Another day, in another timeline, maybe Real Madrid could have won the 2021-22 Champions League final.

That would have been unlikely in any universe, with the way Carlo Ancelotti’s team played, but you can imagine an alternate reality where body and ball movement is a little less orderly, where football is a little less fair – who knows, maybe stranger things have happened in a world like this than a smashing 1-0 victory.

But yesterday wasn’t that day, and it’s not that timeline.

Of course, Liverpool are champions. That was never in doubt, not after Sadio Mane scored the fastest ever goal in the Champions League final in 49 seconds.

It wasn’t exactly a shock that the goal came from a pressing situation. Since the start of the group stage, Liverpool have finished third out of the 16 teams that ended up qualifying for the knockout stage for the way they disrupted their opponents’ build-up play. Real Madrid were no exception last night.

The staggered front five of Liverpool’s 4-3-3 block denied access to Madrid’s midfield long enough for David Alaba to turn around and switch back to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

This was the trigger for Mane to jump forward in his new role as centre-forward. He first shut down Courtois – who is a rarity at the top of the game at the moment for his relatively clumsy feet – then swerved to chase the ball back from the keeper to Alaba.

Meanwhile, Mohamed Salah rushed to the other side of Alaba to deny the easy out pass to left-back Ferland Mendy. The pressing trap has been triggered.

By the time Salah managed to squeeze Mendy against the touchline on the ball, Liverpool midfielders and their right-back, Trent Alexander-Arnold, had each jumped around five yards in front of any potential passing option.

This aggressive positioning not only locked potential receivers into Liverpool’s cover shadows (a fancy German name for the inaccessible space directly behind a defender), but it also left each defender close enough to step in if Mendy tried to make a move. passes over the guy in front of them – which he did, of course, by hitting a ball that Alexander-Arnold cut.

The first instinct for some teams when they win the ball like this is to pass backwards, secure possession and get back into shape before launching an attack. Liverpool did the exact opposite, rushing straight to the goal in transition like a good team coached by Germany, so that the opposing defense had no time to organise.

It took four seconds between the interception and a ball through Madrid’s back line.

Alaba rushed to cut the through ball, and another day he might have had a toe. Instead, Mane kicked the ball around him and Casemiro and fired a one-on-one against Courtois, who never had a chance. 1-0. Liverpool fans, who had found their seats hours before kick-off thanks to well-managed security and streamlined crowd management, cheered.

Fifteen minutes later, they struck again.

This time it was Liverpool’s new improved passing game features that earned them a goal.

Thiago, distributing from his preferred role deep on the left while moving to his right, played a comfortable diagonal to Jordan Henderson on the right wing.

Henderson headed the ball towards Alexander-Arnold in the corner of the box. In previous seasons, Alexander-Arnold might have looked for a shallow cross here, but in this one he entered the reduction zone to create higher-value chances.

Alexander-Arnold’s low cross found Salah, who put a shot on target with an expected goals after shot value of 0.53 – more likely to score than not. Another day Courtois might have gotten his hands on it, but as football is a mathematically exact sport and the odds were stacked against him, it’s fair that he didn’t.

And so on for Madrid, who netted a deserved goal involving Karim Benzema and a confusing VAR metaphysics on what Fabinho did or didn’t intend to do, but Ancelotti’s side didn’t seem accomplish much more in this best of all possible worlds.

It didn’t help that their response to the Liverpool press was to drop Toni Kroos under Casemiro. It might have made sense, in theory, to link their best deep passer with their centre-backs instead of their worst but, in practice, it continued to stretch the midfield into a diagonal shape best described as, uh , avant-garde.

Meanwhile, Liverpool kept scoring.

Sadio Mane’s low shot from a 21st-minute shot grazed Courtois’ glove, bounced inside the post and made it three.

A Salah curler from his favorite area at the top of the box slipped under Courtois’ arm for the fourth.

Diogo Jota headed a ball through a gaping net towards Salah, who had an easy tap-in at the far post.

Of course, he marked that. This sport is not Random. It’s not cruel.

When the final whistle sounded, the score was Liverpool 5 Real Madrid 1 – a bit wider than the xG difference, but only because Real Madrid had a big chance on a scuffed shot from Fede Valverde that stunned everyone. world, including Vinicius Junior, who stumbled. what could have been a tap-in at the back post.

No one could claim that the result was unfair. Liverpool had the upper hand in possession, pitch inclination, shots and expected goals. They had played the match in an organized 4-3-3 and pushed into Madrid’s half, while Ancelotti’s lopsided form, intended to test the space behind Alexander-Arnold with the Vinicius-Benzema pairing, n never really created much of a threat.

If you’re lucky enough to have an active imagination, you might be able to design an alternate universe where an unbalanced game could come out the other way.

But here in the real world, football – like life – is fair, and Liverpool won their seventh Champions League, tied with AC Milan for second place behind Madrid’s 13.

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)