Real Madrid are officially the best team in Europe for the 14th time in their extremely rich history, after a solitary strike from Vinicius Junior just before the hour mark took them to victory over Liverpool in the Champions League final at the Stade de France on Saturday.
There was a lot of debate ahead of the match about who the best goalkeeper in the world is at the moment, with most people agreeing it was between Courtois and Liverpool’s Alisson Becker. But while Alisson had really little to do in this match and his quality certainly cannot be judged based on it, Courtois really proved he belongs at the very top.
The Belgium international made a total of nine saves, most of them extremely difficult, denying shots that would’ve had most ‘keeper easily beaten. But not Courtois, not on this day.
Three of those saves stand out. One where he got down to deny a deft flick to the bottom corner by Mohamed Salah, the other when he sprung downwards to deflect a powerful low effort from Sadio Mane onto the post, and another on Salah later on when the Egyptian left Eder Militao behind and whacked goalwards from close range and a tight angle. To use an English-media cliche here, he had “no right” to save those.
It was a goalkeeping performance to be remembered and studied, worthy of great honor. It’s always the goalscorers who get all the glory, but even though it was Vinicius who scored the only goal of the game, if you’re looking fort the Man of the Match, look no further than Thibaut Courtois.
Back in 2018, when these two teams last met in a Champions League final, Real emerged victorious by 3-1. It was a controversial match with everything that happened involving Sergio Ramos, Salah and Loris Karius, but in the end, nobody could realistically say Liverpool deserved to win.
This time it was different. It’s not even about the difference in possession which was slight (54%-46% for Liverpool). It’s all about the way the ball was used when in control. It was Liverpool who pushed forward from the start, and even the fact that Courtois was the best performer on the night says a lot about the way the contest was going. The final stats say Klopp’s team took a total of 24 shots, nine on target, while Real had four, with just two on target.
Liverpool’s chances of beating Real this time seemed much greater than four years ago, right from the start. They pressed and won possession high on the pitch, and had the Real defence on the ropes for a number of considerable spells. However, the better team doesn’t always win, and this match was a perfect proof of that fact.
It should, on the other hand, be said that Vinicus’ goal appeared to have deflated the Liverpool team greatly, and for a while after it came they seemed incapable of getting back on track mentally. This is very unlike the team which Klopp once described as “mentality monsters”, and it seems the fact that they took all four competitions this season to the wire and won two, drained them of the energy needed to plough on through this final task.
On the other hand, that same fact is an admirable achievement by Liverpool nonetheless.
One thing that can be said about this Real performance is that it was as mature as it gets, worthy of a team with the experience of Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Casemiro and Dani Carvajal in their ranks.
Profoundly aware of their own limitations, Carlo Ancelotti’s team simply refused to be drawn into a contest of fitness. For large parts of the game they wouldn’t press high, but formed the first line of defence some 30 yards from their goal. Those lines were kept mostly tight, with no space in between for the opposition to exploit, and the defending inside the box was extremely decisive from everyone. And behind all that, there was still the unbeatable quality of Courtois.
Real’s considerable counterattacking prowess, given the pace of their wingers and the passing skill of their midfielders, was always likely to prove a danger for Liverpool’s usual high defensive line, but even though it didn’t come off nearly as often as one might’ve thought it would (Liverpool were clearly drilled on that), it did cause problems for the Merseysiders a few times.
One of those situations was crucial, as Fede Valverde broke down the right and fired low across the box. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who otherwise defensively had a fine game, was caught in no-man’s land this time and Vinicius was on hand to take advantage from close range.
This is, basically, what this Real team does. They contain the opposition and hit when opportunity arises. When that moment comes, their hand is extremely heavy and the blow they deal is hard. Liverpool are merely the latest in a long line of their top-level victims this season in the Champions League, after Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.