Real Madrid, nearly overwhelmed by Liverpool, steals yet another Champions League title

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They had not unleashed a single shot for nearly 60 minutes. They'd been saved by a post, and by the sprawling limbs of a goalkeeper, but for almost an hour, the underdogs in the 2022 Champions League final seemed to be delaying the inevitable. They were outclassed, overrun, undermanned, and they would, surely, at some point, succumb to Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool machine.

But on 59 minutes, they offered up the ultimate counterpoint: They are Real Madrid.

And as that heroic goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, had said a day earlier: "When Real Madrid play a final, they win it."

Because they are Real Madrid, the most successful club in European soccer history, winners of a 14th European title on Saturday, beating Liverpool 1-0 at the Stade de France in Paris. With the match marching toward its second hour scoreless, Vinicius Junior crept behind Trent Alexander-Arnold at the far post. Their first shot of any kind was his tap-in, and the only goal of a chaotic game on a chaotic night.

They are Real Madrid, and they have now conquered Europe twice as many times as the second-winningest club. But for interminable stretches along the way, they didn't play like it. They opened their Champions League campaign at a stunned Santiago Bernabeu with a loss to Moldovan minnows Sheriff Tiraspol. They ultimately qualified for the knockout rounds, but seemed destined to exit at every stage.

They trailed PSG by two goals with a half-hour to go in the Round of 16, then Chelsea with 15 minutes to play in a wild quarterfinal.

They trailed Manchester City by two with two minutes remaining in a semifinal that ebbed throughout the second leg, and that would certainly, it seemed, finally, dump Real out of the competition.

But up popped Rodrygo, then Karim Benzema, again and again. And it became clear that the only inevitability was that they would never succumb; that they would, somehow, win a 14th continental crown, no matter how many times they wobbled and stumbled.

Liverpool, with perhaps its most ferocious team ever, probed the boundaries of inevitability. Mohamed Salah sent Courtois lunging to his left, then his right, to keep the Reds at bay. Courtois' right fingertips were particularly sturdy and, to Liverpool, vexing. He pushed Sadio Mane's first-half shot onto the post, and prevented Salah's second-half curler from nestling into the side netting.

Real Madrid, the Spanish champions, hinted at their own potency, but rarely followed through. Ibrahima Konate, Liverpool's right-sided center back, devoured every Real Madrid attack down Vinicius' left. And that, precisely, was why Klopp had started him, to dominate the space that Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool's right back, so often vacates. After 35 minutes, Liverpool had eight shots, five on target, and complete control.

But Benzema sent the first reminder just before halftime. He snuck behind Liverpool's center backs amid a lull in play. After a mad scramble in the penalty box, he swept the ball into Liverpool's net — but, as he wheeled away in celebration, he immediately spotted an offside flag.

Then he waited. And waited. And waited.

Replays showed that, although Benzema had been in an offside position when the ball squirmed toward his feet, it had emerged not off a Real Madrid foot but off the knee of Liverpool defensive midfielder Fabinho. The offside rule, which exempts players who "receive the ball from an opponent, who deliberately plays the ball (except from a deliberate save)," seemed to clear the French striker of wrongdoing.

Video assistants reviewed the play for agonizing minutes. They essentially had to decide whether Liverpool defenders had "saved" an attempted shot from Real Madrid's Federico Valverde, and the save itself had sent the ball toward Benzema; or whether the save occurred, and then another distinct, "deliberate" play pushed the ball into Benzema's path.

They stuck with the former interpretation, and the call on the field. The teams trudged to their locker rooms deadlocked at 0-0.

But Liverpool had been warned. In the 59th minute, warning became punishment. Valverde picked his head up and fizzed a cross-shot toward the back post. It's unclear whether he picked out Vinicius. What is clear is that Alexander-Arnold didn't.

Liverpool, for months, had been a team of few frailties, Klopp's "top squad, best I ever had," as the manager said. It had been expertly drilled since July, and expertly managed throughout 10 months. It had reached all 63 games available to English teams, and had come within one league point and one Champions League win of a quadruple.

But it, like any team, has holes and lapses. And Real Madrid, perhaps more so than any team in modern soccer, seeks out and exposes them. Alexander-Arnold's defensive brain was one of the few weaknesses, and Vinicius pounced on it.

Liverpool tried to rebound, as it had so often in previous months, and as recently as last weekend. But Courtois was too big, too brave, too sharp. He lifted Los Blancos to the trophy he'd known all along they would win.

He'd been on the wrong side of their inevitable supremacy back in 2014, with Atletico Madrid, which had a Champions League in its grasp until stoppage time and extra time, when Real stole it.

"Now," as Courtois said with a prophetic smile on Friday, "I'm on the right side of history."

Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior celebrates scoring the only goal of the Champions League final. (REUTERS/Molly Darlington)
Real Madrid's Vinicius Junior celebrates scoring the only goal of the Champions League final. (REUTERS/Molly Darlington)
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