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Liverpool vs Real Madrid: A date with destiny beckons in Paris

Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti speaks to his players during a training session at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis on Friday, ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final against Liverpool

Real Madrid's Italian coach Carlo Ancelotti speaks to his players during a training session at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis on Friday, ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final against Liverpool. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP

Published May 28, 2022

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Johannesburg — Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s Champions League Final in Paris, Real Madrid's barnstorming comeback from the dead in their Champions League semi-final second leg against Manchester City in front of a packed and boisterous Santiago Bernabeu three weeks ago, cemented their status as the true big boys of European football.

Buoyed by landing a 35th Spanish La Liga crown, a title they incredibly won with four games left in the Spanish top flight, they headed into that do or die clash of the titans against Manchester City oozing enough confidence to pull off what many thought would be an impossible come from behind win to make up for their 4-3 away loss to the Citizens in Manchester late April.

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The story of Los Blancos' breathtaking display of sheer will power and mental fortitude on that early May evening would be amiss if told without the context of the first leg of this memorable semifinal tie.

In essence it summed up their dogged determination throughout the knockout stages of the tournament, where they have repeatedly emerged triumphant when defeat appeared a certainty.

Within the opening 15 minutes of that clash at City's Etihad Stadium the rampant hosts had raced into a 2-0 lead and looked destined to add more.

However gilt edged chances floundered by Phil Foden and Riyaad Mahrez, which would have ensured they head into halftime of the first leg with at least four goals in their account, proved to be the basis upon which Carlo Ancelotti's resilient Spanish champions would build their mind blowing comeback in the return leg in Spain.

From there, Los Blancos would pull one back before the interval from Ballon D'Or front runner Karim Benzema as the sides headed to half time with City 2-1 up. They were 3-1 to the good eight minutes after the break, but their defensive frailties once more allowed the 13 times European champions to come back into the tie just two minutes after Foden's strike, with the skillful Brazilian speed merchant Vinicious Junior turning City's auxiliary rightback and skipper Fernandinho on the halfway line before turning on the afterburners — showing his 37 year old compatriot a clean pair of heels for the entire length of the half and then calmly slotting past Ederson to haul Real back into the contest.

The nippy Portuguese playmaker Bernardo Silva looked to sealed it for City when he rifled a belter into Thibaut Courtois' net on 74 minutes, but as they've done in all their knockout stage matches in this season's competition Real found a way back into the clash with a 82nd minute Benzema penalty reducing the deficit to just a solitary goal as the sides headed to the Spanish capital with City with their noses in front having secured a nervy looking 4-3 lead.

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Watching the two teams warming up on the Santiago Bernabeu turf, ahead of the second leg, one could not help but notice just how Real Madrid seemed so relaxed and this was obviously due to the fact that they had been on this stage so many times before.

In front of an expectant Bernabeu, the home side toiled diligently enjoying several spells of possession which led to a flurry of chances for both the in form Vinicius Junior and the deadly Benzema to drag them back into the match, but the longer it remained goalless at the Bernabeu the more Guardiola's men confidence rose and with just 15 minutes left of regulation time Riyad Mahrez appeared to have delivered the fatal blow meant to suck the life out of the vociferous Madridistas packed inside majestic Bernabeu.

However, as Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea respectively learnt when they looked home and dry in their round of 16 and quarterfinal ties against Real, if there is still time on the clock Ancelotti's men are never dead and buried. And this is the challenge that Jurgen Klopp and his Reds troop face in Paris tonight.

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As City looked set for a second successive appearance in the Champions League Final, the men in royal white once more sprang to life when it looked like their demise was a foregone conclusion.

With 90 minutes on the clock substitute Rodrygo Goes, another Brazilian sensation proving incredibly important to Real Madrid's quest for a 14th European Cup win, stabbed home from close range after Benzema had delivered a cross into the box from an impressive diagonal ball from another one of Ancelotti's substitutes Eduardo Camavinga, giving hope to the home crowd whose rip-roaring support had reached fever pitch.

Despite the fourth official signalling an additional six more minutes to be played it still looked as though City would hang on and the tickets to the showdown against Liverpool at the Stade de France, in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, this evening would still be destined to be rubber stamped in City blue.

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However, barely a minute from pulling once back the Bernabeu was sent into dreamland when Rodrygo rose majestically above City's towering defenders to head home the equaliser for 5-5, miraculously sending the match into extra time.

Just five minutes into extra time a Benzema penalty, calmly slotted in past Ederson, would see the Frenchman net his 43rd goal of the season in all competitions and his 15th in the Champions League this season, completely knocking the wind out of the patchy sails of the Cityzens.

It is a comeback not only right up there with those that Real have pulled off against both PSG and Chelsea this season, but it can also take pride of place alongside Barcelona's famous comeback against PSG when the Blaugrana overturned a 4-0 deficit suffered at the Parc de Princes to slaughter the Parisians 6-1 at the Camp Nou in their Champions League round of 16 second leg clash.

Documentaries ought to be made about the resolve and never say die attitude of this juggernaut of world football called Real Madrid and their exploits in this season's European Cup.

This definitely has to be destined to be etched into the annals of football folklore for how, when they have been backed into a corner and up against the ropes, they have somehow managed to find the extra gear to repeatedly administer the pain in Spain against incredibly talented teams, including Pep Guardiola and his men in a season to remember in European football's premier club competition.

Real's heroics on that balmy Madrid evening in early May can also be counted in the same breath as the comeback lodged by Liverpool, their opponents in the final, against Barcelona three years ago.

The Reds staged a remarkable comeback in the semifinal second leg of the 2019 edition of the Champions League winning 4-0 at their hallowed Anfield home having been brushed aside 3-0 by Barcelona in a ruthless first leg showing by Ernesto Valverde's men at the Camp Nou.

Jurgen Klopp’s men would then go on to win a sixth European Cup title after beating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at Atlético Madrid's beautiful new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid in June of that year.

A date with destiny beckons tonight and Real will look to ensure that there is another party with their legion of fans at their customary point of title celebrations, the Cibeles Fountain in the heart of Madrid, come the early hours of Sunday morning when they return from the French capital.

Liverpool's star man Mohamed Salah remarkably declared that he would prefer to face Real instead of City in the climax of what has been a Champions League campaign to remember. Will his words come back to haunt him after the game tonight?.

The fleet footed Salah, nicknamed the "Egyptian King" by the Anfield faithful, is man fueled by revenge ahead of the trip to Paris as he yearns to finally exorcise ghosts of their 3-1 defeat to Real in the 2018 Champions League Final in Kiev, where he had to go off injured after then Los Blancos skipper Sergio Ramos had tackled him and fallen on his arm, dislocating the Egyptian international's shoulder.

As the English adage goes "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it", Salah will do well to be cognizant of the quality and big match experience that the Spanish giants possess.

In rightback Dani Carvajal, reserve leftback Marcelo, reserve utility man Lucas Vázquez, the versatile defender Nacho Fernández, the ever impressive central midfield duo of Casemiro and Luka Modric, and the goal banging Benzema they have a mixture of veterans of the 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018 Champions League title wins. It is the experience of this core that Real Madrid is able to rely on when the going gets tough in key matches.

The final tonight will be no different, in fact with several Real players including Benzema, and central defensive pairing Éder Militão and David Alaba, who have been mainstays of this incredible run to the final, all fit for service following niggling injuries Los Blancos will have their experienced core to call upon.

Klopp will be gracing the final stage of world football's most prestigious club competition for the fourth occasion and seeking a second title following his indelible first in Madrid in 2019.

His defeat to Bayern Munich at Wembley, London, in the 2013 Final whilst still managing Borussia Dortmund and with Liverpool against Real in Kiev in 2018 will be the motivation that the German uses to propel his charges to hopefully seal a treble following their two domestic cup triumphs in England.

If Carlo Ancelotti plays his cards right, then the Real’s Italian veteran manager, who is making his fifth trip to the Champions League Final having previously won three and lost just one, will ensure that there is a party to remember at the Cibeles Fountain on Sunday morning.

There will be some hard questions to answer for both the Italian and German managers in what is widely expected to be an epic encounter in Paris, but it is what they are paid for.

It is what they have proven so capable of repeatedly answering with aplomb as they have possessed the shrewd tactical nous and squad management in their decorated careers over the years to see them reach such dizzy heights of football management.

Whatever happens during the course of that Champions League Final tonight in Saint-Denis, Paris, the best thing to do for any neutral or fan of the two finalists is to not under any circumstances sound Real Madrid's death knell while there is time on the clock.

IOL Sport

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