Choose your color – red or white. The bars and stands around the Stade de France in Paris, the venue for the Champions League final on Saturday, have certainly nailed their colors to the mast.
Walk past some and you can hear Liverpool’s famous anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, blare from outside loudspeakers. Others had opted for Real Madrid’s ‘Hala Madrid y nada más’.
Thursday evening in the French capital had been somewhat quiet; It would certainly have been hard to guess that the showpiece event in European football, moved from St Petersburg after Russia invaded Ukraine, would take place on Saturday.
Coming Friday morning, however, was a completely different story. Hundreds – if not more – of fans from both sides started arriving and started filtering through town.
Some found themselves in bars and pubs, others headed to the Stade de France at the gates of the city, already eager to soak up the atmosphere before what promises to be a memorable final.
This, after all, is a rematch from 2018. Real got the better of Liverpool that day, largely thanks to Gareth Bale’s sublime aerial kick, perhaps the greatest goal to ever grace a Champions League final.
Liverpool, however, had an idea of what might have happened following Mo Salah’s early exit due to an injury caused by Sergio Ramos. You can call it revenge or, as Salah said following Real’s semi-final comeback against Manchester City, there’s a ‘score to settle’.
LILY: Luis Diaz’s family gripped by his son’s football odyssey as they watch from afar in Colombia
On paper, it would be hard to argue that Liverpool have the better team, both individually and collectively – but Real’s run to the final has been as unlikely as it has been entertaining.
Three comeback victories in successive rounds, against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and then Manchester City, have given this side – who have won the European Cup 13 times – an aura of invincibility in this competition. In an attempt to offer an explanation, Real defender Nacho simply said there was ‘magic’ at the Bernabeu on nights like these.
Whether that magic can be bottled up and transported from Madrid to Paris for Saturday’s final remains to be seen, but it appears to have given fans unshakable confidence ahead of the game.
“3-0 Madrid!” shouted a noisy group of supporters when asked for their score predictions outside the stadium. “A hat-trick from Benzema.”
Claude Makelele, the former Real star and one of the most iconic midfielders of all time, is decidedly less confident.
After winning the Champions League with Los Blancos in 2002, narrowly beating Bayer Leverkusen 2-1, he knows those finals don’t often turn out the way many predict.
Makelele admits his allegiances lie with Real on Saturday but was captivated by the football played by Jürgen Klopp’s side.
“They reached the final playing the way they want to play, as they’ve shown over the past three years,” Makelele told CNN. “Going back to the final, it will be a different Liverpool [to the team that lost to Real in 2018] I’m sure, 100%.
“But it will also be a different Madrid. Now they play in a different way; possession, transition… I think it will be very interesting. Liverpool may be a small favorite but I believe with Madrid they always play finals, they always know how to play finals and win.
LILY: Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp questions ticket allocation for Champions League final after group of fans slams UEFA
“The team will be [most important] for both, it is not just individuals attacking and defending; both teams are teams, from forwards to midfielders and defenders. Both teams have a good balance – for me it’s 50/50, it’s hard to pick a winner.
Real players also know exactly what awaits them.
Speaking to CNN earlier this week, striker Rodrygo said playing against Liverpool in the final was “the toughest test” this team has faced in the Champions League this season.
“If they’re in the Champions League final now, it’s because they’re the toughest,” he said. “We went through Paris [Saint-Germain]Chelsea and yes they are great teams, but Liverpool are also there, they are a great team.
“I didn’t want to play against Liverpool, but now we have to play them and we know it’s going to be difficult.”
Real had Rodrygo to thank for helping them snatch victory from the jaws of defeat to Manchester City in the semi-finals.
With the team leading 5-3 on aggregate, manager Carlo Ancelotti brought the Brazilian off the bench with just over 20 minutes to play and he completely changed the game.
Two goals, one either side of the 90-minute mark, secured extra time, where a Karim Benzema penalty secured Real’s passage to the final in Paris.
Ancelotti may not have a reputation for being a tactical mastermind like Klopp or Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, but Rodrygo says the camaraderie the Real manager has built within the team is truly unique.
The 21-year-old insists there will be no sulking from players who are not selected to start on Saturday.
“I always try to give my best, starting or coming later,” says Rodrygo. “I think we have a very good group, everyone is very focused and we know that if we start the game or arrive, we have to help the team, we have to help Real Madrid.
“I think the coach makes it a bit easier because we have players who are really close friends, we’re friends too and that helps a lot. The times when whoever comes in, the opponent is already a little more tired.
“There the substitute has more space and that’s where the player who came in later can decide the game – that’s what happened with me in the other knockout rounds. We know at how important the whole team is, those who start the game and those who arrive later, and we all have to be always ready.
Like Makelele in the past, Rodrygo is hoping to engrave his name in Real history and while the former France international knows the joys of winning a Champions League final, he has also known the heartache of defeat.
The Frenchman was part of the Chelsea team that lost to Manchester United in 2008 and still vividly remembers the feeling of that night in Moscow.
“When you win, you don’t understand [what you have achieved] until the next day,” he said. “When you lose, you understand right away. It’s the difference between winning and losing.”