With the first legs of the Champions League semi-finals completed it is most definitely advantage Liverpool and Real Madrid, the surprise package of the competition and the perennial challengers and winners of the last two competitions. Those descriptions also feel appropriate for the individuals driving these two so far successful European campaigns. We should take nothing for granted, for this competition has surprised on an industrial scale this year and both Roma and Bayern have already shown their powers of recovery in this tournament, but this may also now be a straight shootout for the Ballon d’Or.
It was expected that two men would contest the award once more, given that it has passed between the same pairs of hands since KakÃ¡ became the last mere mortal to win the award in 2007, but barring a rash of votes from Messi loyalists the Argentine may have to make do with third place. Indeed, if sentimentality reigns, it may be Andres Iniesta who completes the triumphant trio with what would remarkably be only his second top-three placing in a high-class, trophy-laden career. This is no ordinary year.
If Roma cannot launch another stirring, dramatic comeback against Liverpool and Bayern fall once again to Real after an error-strewn first leg, the final will be contested by two of Europe’s most historic clubs and prolific European Cup winners. It will be a match for the purists and historians or, as is the case for me as a Manchester United fan, a contest played at the gates to the End of Days, with only Zinedine Zidane’s White Satan between Jurgen Klopp’s men and a sixth continental title for my club’s most bitter of enemies. It does not bear thinking about.
And yet it is impossible to argue that Liverpool do not deserve their place in the final – subject to the avoidance of a second leg calamity. They have lit up the competition with their attacking flair, giving notice of what was to come in a magnificent 5-0 thrashing of Porto in Portugal before their stunning two-legged humbling of Manchester City. The 5-2 first leg victory against Roma has surprised no-one who has seen Klopp’s ‘heavy-metal football’ at its peak this season, a distinctly average group of players emboldened and energised by their manager’s positive energy and a world class forward line of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah working in perfect harmony. With United serving up some stodgy fare this year I cannot deny experiencing a touch of the green-eyed monster when peering westwards.
If Liverpool have surprised then their star player epitomises that unexpected rise to Europe’s top table this season. Mohamed Salah has taken the long road to becoming one of the very best in world football. Spotted at 19 playing for Egypt Under-23s, he shone at Basel in Switzerland before Chelsea brought him to the Premier League. The move didn’t work out and two loans to Serie A precipitated a permanent transfer to Roma. In his time with I Giallorossi the Egyptian impressed, scoring 34 times in 83 appearances, but still had an erratic streak, particularly where his finishing was concerned.
Whilst I suggested on social media that he may explode in the Premier League following his move to Liverpool last summer, I’d be lying if I expected what has transpired, Salah lighting up both his domestic competition and the Champions League, scoring an astonishing 43 goals in 47 appearances. What has most impressed, his humility aside is the range of finishes he has perfected. Whether it be cutting inside and shooting on his left foot a la Arjen Robben, dribbling through a sea of defenders, poaching close to goal, calmly chipping the keeper or using his head, he has scored goals in every conceivable manner.
His style and strengths are similar to those of Lionel Messi and he is having a season the Argentine would be proud of. Comparisons with perhaps the finest player who ever lived are futile, but at twenty-five, Salah has deservedly taken his seat at the top table. A Ballon d’Or is within his grasp.
The man who may prevent that from happening could not be more different. Like his club, Cristiano Ronaldo is a trophy and goal machine, perhaps the most complete footballer we have ever seen. With an astounding 448 goals in 434 games for Real, the Portuguese is a five-time Ballon d’Or winner and has lifted four of the last five awards. He has won the Champions League four times, including twice in the last two years and at 33, when many thought he may start slowing down, he has matched last season’s goal total with six games to spare, hitting a stupendous 15 goals in 11 games in Europe.
His bicycle kick in his club’s 3-0 win in Italy against Juventus was an astonishing feat of timing and athleticism and few would be surprised were he to fire Real to a frankly ridiculous thirteenth European Cup. Zidane’s team, who have endured a shaky season in La Liga and look more vulnerable than in past years, squeezed through to the semi-finals after a late penalty rescued them when 3-0 down at home to Juventus. And yet, even when rocking, this side has eased past the best team in France, thrashed the Serie A leaders in their own stadium and has now won away against the perennial German champions.
Their performance in Munich was distinctly average and their final opponents -whether Liverpool or Roma – will have noted Real’s defensive vulnerability, but the Spaniards and their Portuguese phenom seem to find a way to win.
With my United glasses on I hope that one of Roma, Real or Bayern find a way to stop Klopp’s runaway train. But the odds now point to a Liverpool v Real Madrid final, Salah v Ronaldo, a straight shootout in Kiev between the season’s surprise package and the established order for the Champions League trophy. If the worst comes to pass and Mohamed Salah rises to the challenge once again, it will be hard to argue against a new name breaking the decade long Ronaldo/Messi Ballon d’Or duopoly. Perhaps only Cristiano now stands in his way.
By Richard Cann – follow Richard on Twitter @RichardCann76