It’s been a long road to Kiev. Seventy-nine teams began qualification in June 2017 – 32 made it in to the competition proper, and now, after 124 matches, 397 goals, and nine James Milner assists, Real Madrid or Liverpool stand on the brink of glory. Real are chasing their third title in a row in the Champions League, and their 13th European Cup or Champions League overall, Liverpool their second of the Champions League era and their sixth overall.
Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid qualified as Spain’s La Liga winners in 2016/17, but would have done so anyway as holders of the Champions League.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool have had a slightly longer journey to the final. The English side finished fourth in the English Premier League last season and, as such, went in to the play-off round to face TSG 1899 Hoffenheim, who had reached that phase of the tournament for the first time in their history under Julian Nagelsmann. Trent Alexander-Arnold scored a free kick on his European debut to secure a 2-1 away win, before goals from Emre Can, Mohamed Salah, and Roberto Firmino against his former side secured a 4-2 home win and a progression to the knockouts.
In the play-off round, 57 teams competed for 10 spots in the Group Stages of the Champions League, scoring 246 goals in 94. Celtic’s Scott Sinclair and Patrick Twumasi of Astana top scored with five each.
Five English teams made the Group Stages of the Champions League: Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, and, of course, Liverpool. Only Chelsea failed to win their group, though they did see off Atletico Madrid in the process. Manchester City, many pundits’ tip for the English club most likely to succeed, saw off Feyenoord, Napoli, and Shakhtar Donetsk, while Europa League winners United topped a weaker group featuring Basel, CSKA Moscow, and Benfica.
Liverpool were unbeaten in their group, qualifying top, winning three and drawing three and, in the process, managing the second best goal difference of the stage, plus 17, after Paris Saint-Germain’s plus 21. Opening their account with draws at home to Sevilla and away to Spartak Moscow, Liverpool then hammered Maribor 7-0, a record away win for English clubs in the European Cup or Champions League. Maribor were then beaten 3-0 at home, before another draw with Sevilla. The Group Stages finished with a 7-0 thrashing of Spartak at Anfield. Roberto Firmino helped himself to six Group Stage goals, Mohamed Salah five, and Barcelona-bound Coutinho netted five as well.
Real Madrid had a trickier time in Group H, facing Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund, as well as APOEL. Real could only finish second after drawing at home and losing away to Spurs; they did, however, beat Dortmund home and away, and hammered APOEL 6-0 in Nicosia. Ronaldo scored in every game in the Group Stages, netting nine in total, becoming the first player in history to achieve this. Ronaldo scored 19 Champions League goals in 2017, the most by any player in a calendar year.
The Round of 16 – Liverpool faced Porto, while Real Madrid took on the big-spending Paris Saint-Germain. Four of the eight ties saw seven or more goals on aggregate, and Real’s 5-2 win over PSG, 3-1 at home and 2-1 away, was one of them. Ronaldo scored in both legs, obviously. Liverpool obliterated Porto away, with Sadio Mane grabbing a hat-trick, before securing progress with a 0-0 at Anfield. For all their attacking flair, Liverpool were the only side not to concede a goal in the Round of 16.
April saw the Quarter-Finals take place. Real Madrid played Juventus in a replay of last season’s final, while Liverpool and Manchester City scrapped in all-English affair.
Liverpool pressed City until Pep Guardiola’s men folded. A 3-0 win at Anfield was followed by a 2-1 win at the Etihad, with Gabriel Jesus scoring City’s solitary goal. The tie was effectively won in a 19 minute salvo in the first leg, from Salah’s 12th minute opener to Mane’s goal to make it 3-0 in the 31st minute – after that, even a great early start from City in their home leg could not prevent Klopp’s team coming out on top as first Salah and then Firmino put the tie out of reach of the Premier League Champions.
Real Madrid had a far tougher time, beating Juventus 3-0 away with two goals from Ronaldo and one from Marcelo despite hanging on for large patches of the game. Real’s home leg saw the Italian Champions sweep to a 3-0 lead, with two Mario Mandzukic goals and one from Blaise Matuidi. In perhaps the most dramatic moment of the competition, though, Real were awarded a penalty deep into stoppage time – Ronaldo scored, of course, against Wojciech Szczesny after Gigi Buffon had been sent off for his protests against the decision.
The Semi-Finals saw, once more, Real looking like second best before coming through against Bayern Munich. The German side out-passed, out-shot, and out-thought their Spanish opponents, but fell to goals from Marcelo and Asensio in the first leg and a brace from Karim Benzema in the second, helped by a bizarre piece of goalkeeping from Sven Ulreich.
Liverpool and Roma played out a barn-storming two legs. Roma had surprised everyone by overturning a deficit against Barcelona in the Quarters to progress and almost managed to take Liverpool to extra time in the second leg in Rome. Liverpool looked to be cruising after a 5-2 win at Anfield, with all goals coming from the Mane-Firmino-Salah trident but, as Barca learned to their cost, a three goal aggregate lead is the most dangerous score against Roma. Eusebio Di Francesco’s team fell behind in Rome to an early Mane goal but never gave up and two late goals from Radja Nainggolan led to a heart-stopping finale. Klopp’s side hung on, though.
And so, to Kiev. It’s been quite the journey. No side has scored more goals in the competition than Liverpool’s 40, with Firmino and Salah each bagging 10. No individual has scored more than Ronaldo’s 15. Indeed, Ronaldo has become the first player to score 15 or more goals in three Champions League seasons, adding 2017/18 to 2013/14 and 2015/16; barring a serious effort from Salah or Firmino, Ronaldo will also finish this season as the top scorer, having also been the top scorer in the five previous, consecutive seasons.
Ronaldo against Liverpool’s defence. Reals’ back line against Salah, Mane, and Firmino. James Milner against Toni Kroos. This game will have everything, a fitting end to two long, exciting, and very different routes to the chance to be Europe’s best.
Also published on Medium.