Champions League final 2022: Running on empty, Liverpool finally ran out of road

It was not just the 63rd and final game, but the last possible, that proved a game too far. Liverpool had played every match in every competition until the biggest game brought the serious disappointment. Paris brought elation in 1981 and frustration in 2022. They didn’t run out of steam as much as of inspiration. “The longer the game went, it just looked as though we weren’t going to score,” confessed a candid Andy Robertson. And, much as Thibaut Courtois’ saves decided the Champions League final, it was how it felt.

Liverpool’s roadrunners had run off the road. They were running on empty, perhaps. For a side whose identity was intensity, to quote Jurgen Klopp, a relentless fixture list led to a loss of sharpness and that tends to be their defining quality when they are at their best. Perhaps it was no coincidence their brightest forward in Paris was Mohamed Salah: injury spared him 240 minutes of Liverpool’s previous 270. A mini-break may have re-energized the Egyptian but he encountered an inspired goalkeeper. As it is, Liverpool now have two months off to reflect that two more wins would have brought two more trophies and a clean sweep. Or, indeed, that an earlier defeat might have permitted a more meaningful triumph. There is no definitive way of knowing if an early cup exit would have kept them fresher to win the Champions League, but perhaps they peaked against what seemed the best team in Europe, rather than in Europe’s most prestigious match, surging into a 3-0 half-time lead against Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final. That was when they were electric and irresistible.

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The most recent trend had been of Liverpool plotting a path to victory when they did not always excel, and that is Real Madrid’s specialist subject. They conceded first in five games out of the previous six, losing none of them and winning four. Their profits at penalties decided the FA Cup. They managed a stunning second half away in Villarreal, after a wretched first. They were tied at 1-1 for 159 minutes in their last three league matches and won them all.

Until they faced a Real team who can distinguish matches to moments, and win those. That had seemed a skill Liverpool had acquired but they encountered the masters. The game came at the wrong time, perhaps, when Thiago and Fabinho were only just back from injuries, when Jordan Henderson was in his 57th club match of the season and Sadio Mane and Salah, who had also played in the African Cup of Nations, have also brought up a half-century apiece in Liverpool colors alone. Klopp had rotated adeptly from his best-ever squad earlier in the season but in the defining spell, when games grew bigger, he only really did so when a second-string side won at Southampton. Eventually, the overworked were overcome. It is a delicate balancing act, but maybe end-of-season exhaustion is a factor in some of Klopp’s collection of final defeats.

But the Champions League showpiece also came when Liverpool had gone off the boil. Not all of them and not all of the time, but the warning signs had been there in recent weeks. They were getting by courtesy of spells at times, individuals at others. A defense that kept 12 clean sheets in January, February and March was reduced to six thereafter and, for eleven, Alisson did not make any stunning saves on Saturday. Sensational before Afcon, subdued more frequently thereafter, Salah’s goals dried up in the last three months of the season. Diogo Jota’s followed suit in April: irrepressible so often, he finished the season on his longest Liverpool drought, without a goal in 13. Briefly, it seemed Roberto Firmino’s second coming at Anfield may be as the super-sub but injuries impeded him at the end of the campaign. Naby Keita has produced his finest Liverpool displays this year, but he still feels an enigmatic figure. His cameo of him in Paris may be remembered for a shot he skied.

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Mane had dragged them through at times, Luis Diaz at others but while the Colombian has looked the most natural of fits for Liverpool in many respects, there is one element to address. A return of six goals in 26 games feels inadequate for his overall impact from him and, as when Firmino used to have barren spells, it can exacerbate their reliance on Salah and Mane. That however needs to be seen in the context of a campaign that brought 147 goals.

So it feels freakish Liverpool could play three finals, have 61 shots and score from none. The law of averages dictated that at least one should go in. The law of Courtois ruled otherwise. Over the season as a whole, Liverpool only failed to score six times; only two cost them. They twice won trophies against Chelsea after stalemates. They beat Arsenal and Inter in two-legged ties when they only scored in one. They can look at the league loss at Leicester and the Champions League final defeat and wonder what might have been. Two instances of impotence may have cost them immortality. But so, too, may the cumulative efforts of a remarkable season.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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