Salah and company should win Champions League, would be foolish to underestimate Real Madrid


Salah and company should win Champions League, would be foolish to underestimate Real Madrid

Ahead of Real Madrid’s crucial match against Manchester City earlier this month, forward Rodrygo made a bet with his father. He would, he wagered, bag a hat-trick in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal.

He lost. He only scored twice, although the late brace at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu set up a dramatic period of extra time in which Karim Benzema’s penalty advanced Los Blancos to Saturday’s final in Paris (2 p.m., DAZN & CBS). Apparently, that still wasn’t good enough for the 21-year-old.

“I’m missing one,” he remarked in the tunnel post-match, referring to the failed hat trick. “I will get that one in the final.”

If his prediction comes across as brash, that’s certainly not how he meant it. It was a playful prognostication from the Brazilian. But that, too, misses the point.

In no way should Madrid be expected to beat Liverpool at Stade de France. They are older, slower and second-best at almost every position, and also without the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane — key figures in the teams that won four European Cups between 2014 and 2018. (They’re also, for all intents and purposes, without Gareth Bale.)

Then there are the opponents.

Liverpool were on the losing end of the Spanish giants’ last continental triumph, and it’s not a defeat they took well — nor forgot.

Specifically, they didn’t forget Sergio Ramos dislocating Mohamed Salah’s shoulder inside the opening half hour. A gaffe-riddled outing from then-goalkeeper Loris Karius also rankled the Reds, as they felt they were otherwise good enough to prevail in Kyiv.

Nevermind that it simply wasn’t their moment. Not yet, and not against a Galacticos outfit among the most dominant in the history of the competition.

But that was four years ago — long enough in football to change, well, almost everything.

After knocking on the door in the 2018 final, Liverpool bulldozed it down a year later when they eliminated Bayern Munich, Porto and, most impressively, Barcelona before beating Tottenham Hotspur to win the Champions League.

All they did the following season was finish 18 points clear of Manchester City to claim a first English title in 30 years. They nearly won it again this spring, and had they done so they’d be going into today’s match with a chance to win an unprecedented quadruple.

Instead, having come up just short in the Premier League, they’ll have to settle for an opportunity to lift every cup on offer. The FA and Carabao Cups are already ensconced in what is now the country’s biggest trophy cabinet, but this is the big one, and Salah, in particular, has had his eye on today’s showdown for a while.

“I want to play Madrid,” he told BT Sport after he and his teammates dispatched Villarreal in the semi-finals. We lost (in 2018), so I want to play against them, hopefully win it from them as well.”

Despite a rather topsy-turvy season individually, Salah nevertheless finished first in Premier League goal-scoring (he shared the Golden Boot with Tottenham’s Son Heung-min) and, for the first time, led the division in assists as well. He picked up a groin injury in the FA Cup final against Chelsea but is fit to start in the French capital.

Combine the Egyptian with Premier League Golden Glove winner Alisson, the near-impenetrable defensive pairing of Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate, resurgent playmaker Thiago and January addition Luis Diaz, and Liverpool appear well-equipped to avenge Kyiv.

The departures of so many Galacticos would only seem to make their task all the more straightforward. But as Manchester City found out, and Chelsea before them, and Paris Saint-Germain before Chelsea, not only should this Real Madrid side not be underestimated, they also seem to have that special something that is often the difference in these types of moments.

Karim Benzema, for example, has had magic in his boots all season.

At 34, the striker is enjoying the best campaign of his career and enters its final encounter with 44 goals in all competitions. It’s a haul that has him on course for the Ballon d’Or — an individual honour he’ll almost certainly seal if today’s result goes Madrid’s way.

But the numbers are one thing. The manner of them is something else entirely.

Since being shut out by PSG mid-February, Benzema has scored in every Champions League knock-out match. He tallied the winner that vanquished PSG in the second leg of their round of 16 tie, did similarly to oust Chelsea from the quarterfinals and then completed the stunning comeback against City. As long as he’s on the pitch, Madrid have a chance to win — even against Liverpool.

“Our journey in the Champions League was not easy,” he told this week. “So it proves that we are a very good team, shows that we don’t give up, that we have mental strength.”

They also have a quiet confidence that, in a Madrid culture accustomed to swagger, is more than a bit unusual — perhaps even more intimidating. And it runs throughout the squad.

Vinicius Junior, who came third in La Liga goals and assists this term, might be the least-talked-about superstar in world football. Eduardo Camavinga, too, has made an impact in the Champions League without much fanfare. And then, of course, there’s Rodrygo.

In addition to his vital double against City that set up today’s showdown with Liverpool, his stunning volley against Chelsea in April helped produce the final-four tangle with the English champions.

And, like he says, he still has a goal to score in the Champions League final.

Don’t put it past him, or past Real Madrid. Time and again they’ve found a way to triumph over opponents probably better than themselves. Work that alchemy one more time and they’ll both lift a record-extending 14th European Cup and deny Liverpool their long-awaited vengeance.

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Twitter @JerradPeters

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