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THE 2018 Champions League Final was not really a Champions League final. It was a Disney cartoon with 2D characters. There was Mo Salah and Sergio Ramos, the most simplistic delineation of good and evil since Red Riding Hood commented on Grandma’s huge teeth.
Even now, the childlike characterisation lingers, outlasting goalkeeping blunders and bicycle kicks. It really was a tale of two men.
There was Real Madrid’s Ramos, the bully, cackling maniacally in the wings, waiting to pull an arm from a socket like a petulant Chewbacca. And there was Liverpool’s Salah, the victim, draped in angelic robes, blissfully unaware of the impending violence.
Four years on, Ramos’ gamesmanship and utter indifference to the basic laws of the game – and decency generally – are almost titillating. He wasn’t just someone who cheered the bad guys in the movies. He was the bad guy that cheered himself. Literally.
As Salah headed down the tunnel, teary-eyed and broken, Ramos shared a joke with an assistant referee, very much the serial killer having a laugh with a detective after his capture.
Only Ramos wasn’t caught. He wasn’t even penalised. Real’s Liam Neeson utilised his particular set of skills to lock arms and end Salah’s European odyssey. The Egyptian left with a dislocated shoulder. The Spaniard left with the trophy, struggling to contain his indifference.
In fact, his eventual response was to double down on the cartoonish villainy, as if he were standing over a litter of dead puppies, waving his Champions League medal at them. He said, “When Ramos does something like this, it sticks a little bit more. I am only missing Roberto Firmino saying he got a cold because a drop of my sweat landed on him.”
Unrepentant. Unmoved. The man who shot Liverpool’s Bambi has loved playing the bad guy in the prologue, setting up the revenge flick poised to play out in Paris on Saturday. In the shadow of the Stade de France, Salah waits.
He’s been waiting for four years.
Ramos no longer plays for Real. He maims people for Paris Saint-Germain now, a poetic turn of events, as he may be in the vicinity, a witness to a victim’s resurrection.
Yes, it’s all a bit melodramatic, veering towards the soap opera hyperbole that’s required ahead of these showpiece occasions, as we pretend to hear the internal monologues of men like Salah and Ramos (the latter of whom just hears ‘kill, kill, kill’ on repeat, surely.)
But internal monologues are not required for Liverpool’s avenger. Salah has shared his thoughts on the subject. He called his enforced exit from the 2018 final “the worst moment of his life”, presumably because Ramos’ foul curtailed the most prolific season of his life.
He scored 44 goals in 52 appearances in his first campaign with Liverpool, making PlayStation football a weekly reality for the disbelieving Kop. They’d not seen anything like it since Luis Suarez - and even the Uruguayan never took the Reds to the Champions League Final.
Plus, Suarez was a little Marmite outside of Anfield, a bit too durian for idealistic types who preferred footballers that kept their teeth in their heads. You either loved him or you didn’t. Suarez always polarised.
But Salah united. An uplifting force for good, an Egyptian with a god-like first touch, or just a decent bloke with a human touch, giving back to the less fortunate he left behind in Africa. Take your pick. He was all of the above.
It wasn’t just the nature of Ramos’ attack, but its target that alienated so many, including Salah’s team-mates. Later in the year, Dejan Lovren, playing for Croatia against Spain, found himself facing Ramos. Inevitably, his elbow found Ramos’ face.
Lovren accepted the red card as the least he could do for his then-Liverpool team-mate, later revealing that he purposefully went after Salah’s aggressor.
There was a sense, back then at least, that Salah needed protection. His performances displayed the carefree exuberance of an innocent toddler, scampering after the ball in search of nothing but pure joy. It was infectious. His 44 goals were intoxicating, showcasing the best of the game.
So his deliberate removal was the worst, just the worst, a truly dispiriting example of the brutish cynicism that impresses only the partisan faithful.
(Salah is) no longer the callow waif taking on those mean bullies from the Bernabéu, but an avenging warrior ready to give his tormentors the cold shoulder.
But Salah doesn’t need protection anymore. With his 30th birthday two weeks away, he has promised to honour the year left on his contract. He has unfinished business. He has since won the Champions League with Liverpool, of course, but not against those who once engineered his downfall. And he’s older now. Wiser. Tougher.
His current statistics might suggest a dip in form. The joint Golden Boot winner scored 15 of his 23 English Premier League goals in 2021. The Africa Cup of Nations in January took its toll. An early departure in the FA Cup final only underlined the weariness.
But he’ll be fine for Real Madrid. Salah is effectively facing Blofield, the architect of all his pain. In the dugout, Carlo Ancelotti might as well be stroking a white cat.
But Real’s existential threat feels less intimidating now. Ramos has gone. And Salah scored 19 of his 23 goals with his left foot, four with his right and gave out 13 assists (making him the first Liverpool player to top both the scoring and the assist charts in the EPL). The scoring phenomenon of 2018 has given way to a complete footballer with no weaknesses.
The former Disneyfication of Salah’s relationship with Real has been replaced with something more balanced. He’s no longer the callow waif taking on those mean bullies from the Bernabéu, but an avenging warrior ready to give his tormentors the cold shoulder.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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