Liverpool or Real Madrid to win final? Benzema the star of knockout phase? Good riddance to away goals?
The Champions League final will be between Liverpool and Real Madrid — a rematch of the 2018 final — in Paris on May 28 after two thrilling semifinal second-leg clashes ended with Manchester City and Villarreal eliminated.
ESPN’s Gabriele Marcotti, Mark Ogden and Julien Laurens give us their thoughts on the knockout phase and which team they think will lift the trophy at the Stade de France.
Who will win the final, and why?
Marcotti: Logic says Liverpool. I think they’re just a better side, top to bottom. But having seen Real Madrid’s comebacks, I’m not sure to what degree logic comes into it. I also wouldn’t underestimate the fact that, after winning LaLiga already, Real Madrid have no real competitive games between now and May 28, whereas Liverpool have a Premier League race going down to the wire and an FA Cup final as well as they chase the quadruple. That can work both ways: It either drains you emotionally and physically, or it keeps you match-fit and sharp (unlike Madrid). So I guess I’m sitting on the fence but, because you don’t want me to, I’ll stick to logic.
Ogden: I have to say Liverpool. Virgil van Dijk can look after Karim Benzema in the final, Thiago Alcantara can take on Luka Modric in the battle to dictate the game in Paris, while the forward line of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Luis Diaz, plus Diogo Jota, has the edge on Real’s attacking options. It’s a close run thing in all those areas, but I just feel that Liverpool have the edge, a bit more zip to their game. But while Liverpool can usually point to their European pedigree as giving them an X factor in the Champions League, it doesn’t count against Real. Nobody has more X-factor in this competition than the 13-time champions and it’s why they never know they are beaten, so of course they can win it. But if we take away the emotion and the history and judge it purely on football, Liverpool have the edge and should win a seventh European Cup.
Laurens: After everything that has happened with Real Madrid in this knockout stage — the magic, the immortality, the irrational, the surreal — they will go and win the final. This is their destiny; it is written in the stars. They didn’t produce one miracle to get to the final, but three. Against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, they overcame everything to go all the way. They have this armour which makes them immune, invincible. Liverpool are probably a better team overall this season, but they don’t have paranormal powers like Carlo Ancelotti and his team. And once again, Benzema, Thibaut Courtois and Vinicius Junior will carry this team. Real have won their past seven Champions League finals (1998, 2000, 2002, 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018, against Liverpool). Their experience and belief are huge. The last one they lost was all the way back in 1981 in Paris at the Parc des Princes against … Liverpool (1-0). They will make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Who was the best player of the knockout phase?
Ogden: It can only be Benzema. Back-to-back hat tricks against PSG and Chelsea, a stunning display (and the Panenka penalty) against Manchester City at the Etihad and an all-round streak of performances that have put the Real Madrid forward among the front-runners for this year’s Ballon d’Or. Benzema has been at Real since 2009 and you don’t stay at the biggest club in the world for that long unless you are a world-class player. Benzema has always been in that bracket, but because he spent so many years playing alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, the credit and acclaim that he deserves have been a long time coming. But he has proved his class beyond doubt this season.
Beyond Benzema, honourable mentions should go to Modric, Diaz, Villarreal’s Arnaut Danjuma and Benfica‘s Darwin Nunez, but this category is a one-horse race and Benzema wins all day long, with his decisive spot kick against City at the Bernabeu crowning his remarkable run in the knockout rounds.
Laurens: Are you really asking the question? Surely everyone knows the answer. There is no debate here. Benzema has been on a different planet all season but especially since the round-of-16 second leg against PSG. He scored a hat trick then and another one against Chelsea in the quarterfinal first leg. He has 10 goals in total in this knockout round! He has been unplayable, unstoppable. He led his team by example like a boss. He dominated every defender he faced, like a boss. And even when he was not at his best, like against Manchester City in the semifinal second leg, he still found a way of assisting a goal and scoring another after winning a penalty. He has just been phenomenal. He is Kariiiiiiiiim the Dream!
Marcotti: Come on now. It’s Benzema. It’s not even remotely close. Take Benzema out of Real Madrid and they’re playing Europa League because they haven’t gotten out of the group stage. I can give a shoutout to Fabinho, who is still criminally underrated, and maybe if Kevin De Bruyne had not come off City would have been through and we could have a conversation. But, no, it’s Benzema.
Alejandro Moreno explains how Real Madrid pulled off the unthinkable comeback against Manchester City in the Champions League semifinals.
Has scrapping the away goals rule had a positive effect? What else would you change?
Laurens: 100%. Scrapping the away goals rule has been one of the best decisions taken recently. Finally, there are no calculations necessary. You have to go for it and play your football everywhere, home or away, and try to score as many goals as you can. I can guarantee you that we would have had very different games in this knockout phase with the old rule. Instead, this was probably the best we have ever had in the Champions League. Everything was exciting. We have had 82 goals scored so far in 28 matches — almost three goals per game. We basically saw teams playing on the road like they would do at home. Surely this is what any football fan wants, no? It wouldn’t make sense to want the return of a rule under which you can go all the way to a Champions League final without actually winning a single match.
Marcotti: Absolutely yes. At least this season. Longer term, we need a bigger sample size. The away goals rule made sense back in the day, when you were going abroad to a stadium that seemed exotic, with rival fans setting off fire alarms at 3 a.m., a hostile atmosphere, vicious home fans. That’s when home advantage was a thing and, to counter that, the away goals made sense to encourage visiting teams to attack. But times have changed. Liverpool are in the final, yet they lost at home to Inter Milan and drew 3-3 at home with Benfica. Real Madrid lost at home to Chelsea and to Sheriff Tiraspol (!). When clubs travel in the Champions League, they go to the same grounds and stay in the same hotels, over and over again. That’s just the way it is. So better scrap this entirely, go with the aggregate score and make this more fun and easy to understand for everyone.
What else would I change? I’ve been arguing for “ball-in-play” time (two 30-minute halves, clock stops when play stops) for a long, long time. For one thing, we wouldn’t have had any controversy as to why City only got three minutes of time added on and referee Daniele Orsato blew the final whistle with eight seconds left to play. We’ll get there one day.
Ogden: No, it’s been a bad decision and taken away one of the unique elements of European football. We can argue all day about whether the away goals rule encouraged teams to attack or worked the other way and made them more defensive if they had the advantage of an away goal from the first leg, but football is supposed to be about excitement, tension and jeopardy. The away goals rule gave us all those things. Just imagine the scenes had the rule still stood when Rodrygo headed in Real’s second goal on Wednesday to level the tie on aggregate, but with Real winning on away goals. Scoring away from home is more difficult and, if a game is tied, it is a legitimate way to decide the outcome — much fairer than a penalty shootout, which ultimately places all the responsibility for defeat on the player who misses their spot kick. I’d bring it back, but to balance it out, any goals scored in extra time would not count as away goals because it would be unfair for an away team to have 120 minutes to score a goal whereas the home side only had 90 minutes in the first leg.
What else would I change? I’d end the idea of a “festival of football” that would give us one-legged semis and the final condensed into a mini-tournament, which is reportedly being considered by UEFA. Let’s stick with two legs and the return of the away goals rule.
Nedum Onuoha and Steve Nicol dissect the latest Manchester City capitulation in the UEFA Champions League.
Based on the timing, context and size of the comeback required, was Real Madrid’s semifinal comeback over Manchester City a greater one than Liverpool’s over Barcelona in 2019?
Marcotti: You guys may be too young to remember, so I’ll give you a little history lesson. The greatest comebacks are Manchester United scoring twice against Bayern Munich in the last 60 seconds of the 1999 final to win the treble, and Liverpool coming back in Istanbul from 0-3 to 3-3 in their 2005 final triumph over AC Milan. But if you’re just comparing these two comebacks, Liverpool may have had a greater mountain to climb in 2019, needing to overturn a 0-3 deficit from the first leg. But by the hour mark they were 3-0 up and Barca were nowhere, plus we knew we’d probably get extra time. This was more dramatic. The goals came later, Real Madrid had been outplayed, and just as important as the goals that were scored were the ones that weren’t: Think of Jack Grealish being denied twice in quick succession by Ferland Mendy on the goal line and Courtois’ save.
Laurens: Definitely not. Liverpool’s 4-0 destruction of Barcelona at Anfield will forever be one of the greatest European comebacks of all time. This Real Madrid vs. City was epic but not as big and not even as big as the one they performed against PSG earlier in the season. So Liverpool vs. Barca is better than Real Madrid vs. City for many reasons. First of all because Real Madrid went into this semifinal second leg with just a one-goal deficit. Liverpool were 3-0 down after the first leg at Camp Nou. Then, apart from David Alaba, the Spanish champions had all their players available while the Reds had to face Lionel Messi and Barcelona without Salah and Roberto Firmino. The two Rodrygo goals and the Benzema penalty are good goals but nothing extraordinary like the quick corner played by Trent Alexander-Arnold and finished by Divock Origi to make it 4-0 and to make the impossible possible and the dream a reality. Finally, Liverpool’s “remontada” was made extra special (and extra worthy) by the fact that Jurgen Klopp and his players then went on to win the final against Tottenham Hotspur.
Ogden: I’m with Gab and Juls on this: Real’s comeback against City probably isn’t even in the Champions League top five. On top of those games already mentioned by Gab, what about PSG throwing away a 4-0 first-leg lead against Barcelona to lose 6-5 on aggregate in 2017, or United’s 3-2 semifinal second-leg win against Juventus in Turin in 1999 having trailed 2-0 on the night against one of the best teams of the decade? And let’s not forget that Spurs were 3-0 down on aggregate with 35 minutes to play against Ajax in Amsterdam in the 2019 semi second leg before Lucas Moura scored a hat trick to complete an amazing fightback. Maybe the only thing that will make Pep Guardiola and City feel slightly better is knowing they did not commit the biggest Champions League meltdown — but it will still haunt them for a long, long time.