Sadio Mané stood with his arms folded, weight on one foot, his features loaded with frustration and disdain. The Liverpool forward looked a little like the punter being ignored at the bar but he was actually about to play a Champions League final against Real Madrid.
Behind him in the tunnel at the Stade de France, Mohamed Salah was perfectly still, eyes shut, trying to remain focused; to process it all, perhaps. Because this really ought not to have been happening.
It was 9.30pm Parisian time on Saturday, the final having been delayed initially by 15 minutes and then a further 15 as chaos took hold outside the ground, thousands of Liverpool fans having been locked out – and placed into a dangerous situation – as the authorities failed on so many levels.
Now, at last, the team was about to enter, although it was difficult to get too excited because thoughts were elsewhere – specifically around Gate Y, which had been closed, an alarming bottleneck forming. Mané and Salah were Exhibits A & B for the body language experts but what was in their minds, and those of their teammates, ahead of the biggest game in club football?
Liverpool had been out to warm up and they would go out again at 9.06pm after the delay was first announced. They could not fail to have noticed that it was the end housing their supporters – most likely including their family and friends – which contained the empty seats. The Real enclosure had been packed for some time.
Andy Robertson, the Liverpool left-back, makes the point that “obviously none of us were on our phones” in the dressing room. But if the game was being delayed because of a security issue and the players could see that it was plainly affecting the Liverpool section, it feels reasonable to wonder whether it unsettled them.
Earlier, the Liverpool team bus had been held up on its way into the stadium, TV pictures showing it hemmed in by other vehicles at 7.35pm. It would make it inside at 7.40pm, thanks in part to the frantic efforts of one particular steward, who charged about, clearing away supporters. It was a ludicrous scene.
Real’s players and management, meanwhile, were already strolling on the pitch, getting their bearings. They did not appear to have experienced any difficulties with their travel or police escort.
“You do your warm up, you run and get ready for the game and get told it is half an hour’s delay … it is not ideal when you are playing the biggest game of your season,” Robertson says. “You have to press the reset button, get ready again.
“In the dressing room, we just tried to keep our legs moving, tried to stay warm as good as we could. Obviously, we decided to go back on the pitch and tickle over. It is not great. When you are playing the biggest game, when you are refereeing the biggest game … to have that delay, it shouldn’t really happen for me.”
It was the same for both teams and, as Robertson points out, Liverpool were good at the outset. They bossed the opening 20 minutes, Mané and Salah being denied by Thibaut Courtois – setting in train a key theme. “I thought we started the game really well,” Robertson says. “So I don’t think it impacted us for the start – that is not the reason we lost.”
The 1-0 defeat was a death by numerous cuts, the early impetus fading, Real coming to look assured on the ball – as if they knew that it would play out in their favour. The Spanish champions would muster just four shots, two of them on target, but the statistics did not tell the story of their confidence and game management, their latent menace.
Trent Alexander-Arnold had spoken beforehand about Liverpool’s defeat to Real in the 2018 final, how they had been “taught exactly how to win a game, how to win trophies,” and, also, his team’s evolution into a more controlling force, which did not simply out-score opponents.
There was never the sense that Liverpool had the control they wanted here, even though they created chances – all of which were repelled by Courtois. Liverpool looked jaded towards the end, a consequence, surely, of the emotional and physical strain of their epic season, each of the 63 matches seemingly more intense and significant than the previous one. Real had again shown them how they get it done.
“It’s gutting,” Robertson says. “When you have the chances we have had, it is always that bit harder to take. But their goalie had an absolute worldie and the longer the game went, it just looked as though we weren’t going to score and we weren’t going to have enough, which is obviously devastating.”
For Robertson – and, doubtless, his teammates too – the final insult came when he switched on his phone afterwards to be assailed by the grim stories from outside the ground. One of his friends, he said, had initially been denied entry, accused of having a counterfeit ticket when it was clearly nothing of the sort, having come from Robertson’s club allocation.
It was one of the very many anecdotes that made up the collage of misery for Liverpool; a night when nothing went right for them. They have been here before and they have bounced back, winning the Champions League final in 2019. There will be plenty of talk of how they intend to do so again, how a season like few others must be seen as a triumph – two domestic cup wins and only four matches lost. But hard on the heels of coming up agonisingly short in the Premier League title race, it feels more like a time for introspection.
“You can’t reflect on it now, you are not in the right frame of mind,” Robertson says. “You have to let all the emotion you are feeling come out and, when you do, that is fine. The bounce back will happen next season – not tomorrow and not the next day. We’ll pick ourselves up and go again in pre-season but now is not the time for that.”