FEATURED | INTERIVEW: STEVE MCMANAMAN

Why we watch football

Steve McManaman’s former clubs Liverpool and Real Madrid have already provided their share of drama in this most unpredictable and compelling of seasons. As the 46-year-old looks ahead to the final, he anticipates another twist in this extraordinary tale

Even for a player who has won this competition twice, this season has been something else. Steve McManaman lifted the trophy with Real Madrid CF in 2000 and 2002 and watched in awe in the second of those finals as Zinédine Zidane unleashed the spectacular volley that defeated Bayer 04 Leverkusen. But nothing, he says, compares to this “freak year” of thrills and spills.

“From the quarter-finals onward, the games have been incredibly exciting, with lots of goals – but also big turnarounds in goals,” says McManaman, who has kept on top of the action as a television pundit for BT Sport. “All the football we’ve seen has been very good, and the entertainment value has been brilliant, and that’s what we watch football for.”

There is no doubting that. There have been 397 goals scored in the 124 matches since the start of the group stage. The average of 3.20 strikes per game is a record in the UEFA Champions League era. Last season yielded 3.01 per game.

“You look at the likes of Barcelona, when they won and lost home and away by big margins,” he says, recalling the Blaugrana’s quarter-final exit to AS Roma in a tie that produced eight goals. “That was unusual, as was Madrid beating Juventus away from home, then losing at home. I think it’s been a bit strange this year, but nevertheless more exciting. 

“Sometimes teams think they’ve won after one game and that they’re through, and their attitude and application is probably not the same the second time around. But you’re talking about vastly experienced sides like Real Madrid and Barcelona and that normally doesn’t happen. So maybe this is a freak year.”

It is tempting to wonder how McManaman himself would have thrived this season. Quick, creative and a superb dribbler of the ball, the winger was never happier than when terrifying defenders – as he did for eight and a half years in the red of Liverpool before joining Madrid in 1999. Surveying the UEFA Champions League this term, he sees more and more players surging forward, and more defenders struggling to cope.

“The likes of Madrid and Liverpool like to pour forward when they get the opportunity,” he explains. “I don’t want to say the defending has got poorer, because sometimes the defence is a bit isolated as so many players want to go forward and try to score. But there probably have been a lot of mistakes as well, which has resulted in a lot of the goals.”

He is now looking forward to the final itself, a stage he graced with a stunning volley as Madrid defeated Valencia CF 3-0 in the 2000 showpiece. One of English football’s most successful exports, McManaman collected his second winner’s medal as a substitute two years later, when the Spanish giants overcame Leverkusen thanks to that jaw-dropping winner from Zidane.

His old team-mate is back in the final as coach of Madrid, and McManaman feels that both of the clubs closest to his heart have earned their presence in Kyiv. “The final has the two teams that deserve to be there, and two really good teams,” he says, before predicting another roller-coaster match in keeping with the rest of this season. “I think it’ll be a high-scoring game and I think it could be 3-2 to Liverpool.”

Talking points

From wonder goals to lifting the trophy, Steve McManaman picks his UEFA Champions League highlights, both past and present

RONALDO TAKE A BOW

Cristiano Ronaldo is just a superstar. He doesn’t really surprise me, but I think his goal against Juventus was one of the iconic moments. I was there for the Zidane goal in the 2002 final, which I thought was an amazing goal, but I thought this Ronaldo goal was better. I was at the stadium, and as far as I’m concerned that’s one of the iconic moments in Champions League football, because not only did he score that goal with that degree of difficulty, but all the Juventus fans stood up around me – not to shout, but they stood up and clapped. I haven’t seen that in a long, long time. And that only made it 2-0 in the first leg, so they were still well in the game, but their appreciation of such an incredible moment really stuck with me.

SENSATIONAL SALAH

Mohamed Salah has been phenomenal. He’s been absolutely incredible. I watch Liverpool a lot, I’m a Liverpool fan and I know them all. If anyone’s not been surprised by his performances this year, then I’d say they’re a liar. Nobody in their right mind would have expected Liverpool’s new signing from Italy to adapt to the Premier League and hit the ground running like he has done. Is he up there in the Lionel Messi and Ronaldo bracket? Not yet. If he does it next year and the year after and the year after that, then we’ll be having a completely different conversation, but you can’t have someone who scores amazing goals for nine or ten months and put them in the same bracket as Leo or Ronny, who’ve done it for ten years. It’s not fair on Mohamed Salah, it heaps pressure on him. He’s had an exceptional season, but when you have an exceptional decade, that’s when we can have this conversation.

ZIDANE LEADS THE WAY

I always knew Zidane was a leader. He was fairly quiet in the Real Madrid dressing room, because that was dominated by a lot of the Spanish players. But when you think about the stature of the man, the fact that he was an incredible footballer – a leader for his country and a leader for one of the best teams, Real Madrid – it hasn’t surprised me whatsoever that he’s become a great coach. He took the job from Rafa Benítez under difficult circumstances, then won the Champions League, won the double last year as well as other

trophies, and could win it for the third year. In this day and age, I just think it’s an incredible achievement. I personally think it would be better than the Alfredo Di Stéfano era or the Bayern era in the 1970s. It’s really something to win a third straight title, and without really buying a lot of players since he took over. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

KLOPP FACTOR

Jürgen Klopp’s attitude and enthusiasm are impressive. I know Jürgen very well. It’s hard work in his team, I tell you that. You have no passengers. He demands it from his players. They go out, they press, they work hard. They work hard on the training ground to try to jump on the other teams’ weaknesses. Whether Jürgen Klopp is with the press or the public, his interviews are always very enigmatic; he’s very charismatic. The overall package at the moment has been great for Liverpool.

Steve McManaman and Zinédine Zidane were Madrid team-mates between 2001 and 2003

DIVIDED LOYALTIES

I’ll have split loyalties for the final. I work with Liverpool and I go to the Liverpool academy to help out with some of the younger players, so that’s why my loyalty lies there, but I still have a lot of friends at Madrid. Some of the kit men there were the kit men when I was at the club. I know the likes of Zizou, of course, and I know Roberto Carlos, who’s now an ambassador, Emilio Butragueño, Raúl … Santi Solari, who was my team-mate and room-mate, is now manager of Real Madrid Castilla, so I’ve got a huge amount of friends at the club. When you have friends there, you always want them to do well, especially when they’re nice people. The fact that I have so many friends in the two camps means I have my loyalties are divided, without a shadow of a doubt.

BLUE AND RED

My first memories of the European Cup are of watching Liverpool. Even though I was an Everton fan when I was younger, I was a huge fan of watching Liverpool’s European victories. I remember watching Everton win the European Cup Winners’ Cup and I was a teenager then, 12 or 13, when Everton were going through their glory years. I remember that vividly. Of course, when you’re 12, 13 or 14, you can remember all the finals, going through to playing in them and wanting to win them, and eventually getting there.

Steve McManaman clasps the trophy after Madrid's 2000 final triumph

WINNING MENTALITY

It’s amazing to score in a Champions League final as long as you win. It’s as simple as that. I was lucky enough to score, but more importantly win the game. I’ve played in big games and I’ve scored goals, but if I lost the game I couldn’t care less about the goal I scored, even if it was brilliant. It doesn’t register in my memory at all. The main thing is not the scoring, it’s the winning. Then you can reflect on the goal, but it’s incredible, as you can imagine. To win the trophy is brilliant. To add your little name to winning that trophy is something special.

DATE WITH DESTINY

Everybody remembers the day you lift the European Cup. To hold the trophy and lift it aloft, for me as a club footballer – aside from playing for your country – is the most important thing you can do. Everybody wants to be successful, whether it’s the players, the staff or the fans. You are cast in the history of the football club. Your name will go down with the rest. It doesn’t come around often. Liverpool have won it five times, so if they have the chance to win it, some of the Liverpool players will rewrite history. Somebody on that day, at any given moment, can be a hero – whether it’s the goalkeeper or the centre-forward. That’s what they’re playing for. 

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