One of the deeper concerns coming into the Champions League final was, ironically, the very identity of the contestants.
Beyond even the fact that it was a one-country final, and all that that entails in terms of familiarity and a weird dynamic, there was the specific history of contests between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in the last four years.
Meetings between both clubs, particularly since they have been helmed by Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino respectively, have been poor spectacles. Sure, they have contained drama and incident – one has only to think Harry Kane’s two penalties and Salah’s goal at Anfield in 2017/18, and Hugo Lloris’ late, grave error in the same venue this past season – but for all the crash bang wallop, the games themselves have been a bit dreary in terms of quality.
Knowing that, it was always clear this would be decided by who made the fewer mistakes at the back. This made Liverpool favourites instantly, with the towering Virgil Van Dijk already being spoken of as a potential Balon d’Or winner.
Imagine, then, that such a game managed to surprise still, in spite of its unceremoniousness.
On the night, the star was not the robust Dutchman, but his considerably less feted partner Joel Matip.
For all that Mohamed Salah became only the fifth African in history to score in a Champions League final, and for all Sadio Mane’s enterprise (it was he who won the penalty his Egyptian teammate so emphatically crashed home from the spot) and endeavour, it was the Cameroon international who truly towered above all, not just within the context of the Reds’ African contingent, but with the entire outfield team in frame.
The 27-year-old has come a long way within the course of the season, having begun behind Joe Gomez and Dejan Lovren in the pecking order at Anfield. When the latter returned from the World Cup in a less than sterling physical state, and the former fractured his leg in December against Burnley, it fell to the former Schalke man to step into the breach.
Having been in the first 11 for only three of the Reds’ first 21 league matches, Matip went on to start in 14 of the final 17. He also starred in Europe, a veritable colossus at the back as Klopp’s side came through tough ties against Bayern Munich and Barcelona in the knockout rounds.
His adaptation in terms of style is just as impressive; more of a covering defender by nature, Matip has been forced to alter his game somewhat: Van Dijk’s reading of the game, superior speed and positioning has dictated a subtle shift in emphasis for the Cameroon international to a more aggressive style.
It has brought him to an even higher level, as he is able to execute without the rashness that defines Lovren, while displaying greater consideration and experience than the immensely talented Gomez.
Here in Madrid, he casually defied the received wisdom. Whereas the story of Liverpool’s startling defensive improvement has been written as Van Dijk taking the defence by the hand, and tutoring the team in a new solidity, it was Matip who looked like the leader, and upstaged his teacher. Either way, as a triumph of the human will or of learning, it was a triumph on the biggest stage of all.
On every measure, he excelled. As Tottenham came into the game more in the second half, Liverpool were confronted with increasing pressure: not a problem, as Matip completed a game-high 14 clearances.
In a meeting of two teams keyed into the ways of the press, it became imperative to go long from back to front: not a problem, as no one on the pitch played more accurate long passes (four) than Matip.
In a game of few chances and scant creativity, Matip played two key passes (more than any other Liverpool player), and set up the clincher, playing in substitute Divock Origi down the side to arrow in the second goal.
It was a night to first confound, and then rise above expectation: the hallmark of the big-game player.
One wonders just what Cameroon national team coach Clarence Seedorf made of it, having been unable to lure Matip back to the Cameroon fold ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations, or if indeed he was watching at all as the defender ascended to the very pinnacle of the modern game.