It was his time. There was no other way to look at it, nothing else to expect.
Mohamed Salah had earned this stage for himself, his team, and for thousands of Liverpool supporters. No matter where they watched this game unfold, each were dreaming of a sixth European crown, and they had reason to believe those dreams would come true . After all, he had made them believe.
It’s been a stunning year for the Egyptian. 32 Premier League goals is a new record for a 38 game season, and he’s carried that goalscoring form into Europe too, tearing apart the likes of Manchester City and former club Roma in the Champions League knockout stages. Nobody could have ever believed he’d enjoy a season like this one.
He’s won all of the individual awards, all of the plaudits, all of the Liverpool fans’ hearts. But it was time to win that one final prize on the biggest stage in club football on Saturday night.
That thing football, though, has a funny habit of surprising you. It can surprise you with the wonderful – see Gareth Bale’s perfect bicycle kick – or with those moments where you realise that the thing you dreaded would happen, actually did happen. That Loris Karius would actually throw the ball at Karim Benzema’s foot and watch it trickle in, or that he would drop a simple shot into his own net – in quite literally the biggest game he’ll ever play in.
We shouldn’t have been surprised, but we were. Nobody could ever comprehend that one (quite likeable, despite his obvious flaws) man’s career could crumble so quickly, with so many eyes watching. And surely there weren’t too many of us who, despite seeing his character develop this way over the better part of 15 years, could believe Sergio Ramos would do what he did, either.
“Sometimes football shows you it’s good side and other times the bad. Above all, we are fellow pros. #GetWellSoon”, was his message to Salah just hours after almost dislocating the guy’s shoulder during a coming together in the 26th minute in Kiev. On the face of it, a well-wish from a man who meant no harm, but most of us see through it.
He’s public enemy number one at the moment, in Liverpool especially. Ramos’ literal elimination of Liverpool’s shining light was as pre-meditated an incident as you can imagine. Sure, he likely didn’t mean to risk his hopes of playing in his first World Cup, but you’d be forgiven for thinking his primary objective was to remove Salah from the game by any means necessary.
It’s not in the spirit of the game, especially for the football purists. Jurgen Klopp has prided himself and his team in doing things “the right way” since taking over on Merseyside, and by playing thrilling attacking football which he describes as “all-inclusive”. It’s a collective effort, where no one individual is greater than the sum of the parts.
But as much as we’d all love to see a victory for the team, Real Madrid have again made themselves cast-iron proof that a group of individuals can be just as strong. Bale will steal the headlines for Los Blancos, Ronaldo will try to by drawing attention to his future, but it was Ramos who swung this game in the Spaniards’ favour.
Ramos spent ten years playing alongside notorious bastard, Pepe. But when he was ordered to come to Besiktas, it was time for Ramos to lead the dark arts alone in all white. He knew at the time that it was his objective to soak up all of the sheer bastardry his Portuguese colleague had transmitted, and use it to his own, and his team’s, advantage in his absence. He’d eaten Pepe up, took what he needed, and watched him leave for the place where careers go to die.
You may believe Ramos to be the baddest of all men, but there’s an alternative point of view. Behind Mohamed Salah’s tears, there’s the most professional of footballers who will do whatever it takes to win. An absolute warrior, but one with all the tricks Ric Flair made famous on his way to becoming known as the dirtiest player in the game.
You could tell from Ronaldo’s look at Salah in the tunnel prior to the game that there was something extra special planned. But like any team of winners (remember when Alex Ferguson told his Man Utd players to kick Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal off the park?) Ramos had identified the primary issue standing between him and his fourth Champions League crown.
It was Salah. And it didn’t take long for the Ramos masterplan to rear its ugly head.
Ultimately, Salah’s substitution proved to be the turning point. The momentum Liverpool had built up in the first 25 minutes had disappeared, their fans were shocked, and the players took it harder. Meanwhile, that team of old experienced individuals took control of the confusion and bossed the game from there, scoring three times before the night was over.
It’s the dream to win a football match “the right way”, but rarely is it ever done.
There’s nothing perfect about this Real Madrid team either, but there’s a reason why they simply have to be considered one of the greatest teams of all time – they know how to win, and they will do anything to ensure it happens.
Liverpool, in their chase of winning exactly the right way, could learn a thing or two.