The stage is set and the two finalists have now been confirmed for the UEFA Champions League final in Paris following Real Madrid’s heart-wrenching comeback against Manchester City on Wednesday.
Los Blancos have reignited their love affair with the competition this season, showing everyone why they have been credited with winning the most titles in the tournament’s illustrious history. Following a 4-3 defeat at the Etihad last Tuesday, Madrid arrived at the Bernabéu with another second leg deficit to climb, a theme that has been synonymous with them this season. However, Manchester City silenced the stadium in the second half, thanks to a well-taken finish from Riyad Mahrez who slotted the ball past Thibaut Courtois’ near post In the 73rd minute of the game.
What followed next was perhaps the most unbelievable and unexpected series of events. Real Madrid, with one minute plus stoppage time to play, scored two goals back-to-back thanks to substitute Rodrygo who scored a double to level the game at 5-5 on aggregate in the 91st minute, sending the game into extra time. The momentum was now with the team from Spain and a rocking atmosphere inside one of Europe’s most daunting stadiums proved too much for Manchester City, who eventually surrendered the lead on aggregate when Karim Benzema won and converted a penalty in the fifth minute of extra time.
Real have performed these mini remontadas in the previous two rounds of the competition, against French champions Paris Saint-Germain and the current holders of the UCL, Chelsea. But to do it with only a few minutes left to play in the game indicates a footballing pedigree and mentality that seems to be unmatched by any other club in Europe.
Pep Guardiola and City were, like many of us, left bamboozled and hood-winked at the full-time whistle. After reaching the final last season, the Mancunians were looking to repeat that feat this year and were minutes away from doing so. But, following the capitulation at the end of the match, questions have once again risen about Pep’s ability to deliver that elusive Champions League trophy to the City fans.
Liverpool on the other hand will be waiting fervently to face Real Madrid once again and will be seeking to enact revenge on the team who beat them in 2018. The Reds had their own comeback against Villarreal on Tuesday, when they went down 2-0 in the first half to the yellow submarine. But, having already scored two unanswered goals in the first leg, Jurgen Klopp and his team rallied back in the second half to score three goals without reply.
It will be the third time that Real Madrid and Liverpool will face each other at this stage of the competition and the second time in four years
Mo Salah, who was controversially injured by then Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos in that game in 2018, tweeted “We have a score to settle” after Madrid’s progression to the final was confirmed. He in particular will be looking for blood when he comes up against Los Blancos on the 28th of May as he would have felt aggrieved following that now infamous incident which many believed significantly disadvantaged Liverpool from competing.
Another storyline going into the final will be about two of Europe’s most in-form players and perhaps the winner of the competition will decide who receives the Ballon d’Or. Salah of course, who has the most goals and assists in the Premier League this season, continues to perform as good as any player in the world this season.
Spare a thought for Sadio Mane as well. Taking into account his national team heroics with Senegal – leading them to the African Cup of Nations as well as the 2022 World Cup in Russia, while helping Liverpool inch closer to a possible quadruple title-winning season, Mane deserves to at least be a part of the conversation.
It will be tough though, for both men to convince the football world that Karim Benzema should not receive the award when the season concludes. The Frenchman has proven time and time again this season that he is arguably the best player in the world at the moment. So far he has 43 goals in 43 appearances inthis campaign, achieving back to back Champions League hat tricks against PSG and Chelsea, scoring 15 goals overall in the competition this season (the second most in a single campaign behind Cristiano Ronaldo) while helping France to win the Nations League. Benzema, who is supposed to be in the twilight of his career, is having a majestic campaign. There has hardly been a more stellar individual season from a player in recent times.
This year’s UCL final will be staged at the Stade de France in Paris for the third time in the competition’s history and the first time since 2006. It could be the crowning glory for Salah, dubbed the King of Egypt by his fans back home, or a princely homecoming for France’s very own Karim Mostafa Benzema.
We shall see on May 28th.