A bizarre Loris Karius mistake allowed Karim Benzema to score the opener early in the second half but Liverpool, who lost PFA Player of the Year Mohamed Salah to a shoulder injury in the first half, responded immediately when Sadio Mane stabbed in from close range.
However, just two minutes after coming on as a substitute, Bale restored Real’s lead with one of the best goals ever seen in a Champions League final, connecting superbly with Marcelo’s defected cross.
Mane hit the post soon after but Liverpool’s hopes of a sixth European Cup were ended when Karius made another costly mistake, this time failing to get any direction on his attempt to push away Bale’s fierce strike, with the ball squirming into the net.
Liverpool famously fought back from 3-0 down against AC Milan to win the 2005 Champions League but there was to be no heroic fight back this time as Real Madrid claimed their 13th European Cup.
It is also the second time Real have won three European Cups in a row, having gone on to win five in succession from 1956, and only the fourth time it has happened in 63 years.
Calamity for hapless Karius
When the story of this Champions League final is told from a Liverpool perspective, it will be the tale of Karius’ nightmare alongside that of Salah’s injury.
The 24-year-old German has been shown huge faith by manager Jurgen Klopp, who brought him in from Mainz and made him first choice ahead of Simon Mignolet.
He has never fully convinced and on this, the biggest night in Liverpool’s recent history, he had the sort of night to leave you wondering how he will rebuild his Anfield career.
Karius inexplicably threw a clearance against Benzema for Real Madrid’s opener six minutes after half-time before fumbling Bale’s speculative, long-range effort into the net with seven minutes to snuff out any hopes of a comeback.
The keeper lay flat on the turf at the final whistle, being consoled by Real Madrid’s players before apologising tearfully in front of Liverpool’s fans.
Klopp clearly rates Karius but there are too many holes in his technique. That, along with his temperament, must be questioned after a complete horror show here in Kiev.
Salah setback shifted the balance of power
The whole emphasis of the final shifted as Salah slumped to the turf for a second time after realising he could not carry on with the shoulder injury sustained in the tangle with Sergio Ramos.
Liverpool had started well and Real’s deep defending hinted at the apprehension they were felt faced with the attacking trio of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.
As Salah left the pitch, inconsolable and in tears, even Liverpool’s fans were temporarily hushed and it was clear Real had suddenly been given fresh impetus.
Liverpool, with the magnificent Mane leading the fight, showed commendable heart but they had been robbed of their world-class talisman who, before his substitution, had scored 33% of their goals in all competitions.
It will be the great unknown as to what might have happened had Salah stayed on but there is no question his departure was a savage blow to Liverpool and a lift for Real Madrid.
Bale bounces back
Bale’s Real Madrid future has been under constant scrutiny this season – a quirk at a club that lives by its own rules.
The Welshman did not even make the starting line-up here and only emerged just after the hour – but within two minutes he scored one of the great Champions League goals, an overhead kick that was a triumph of athleticism and technique, and begged the question as to how Real could even contemplate life without him.
As for Bale’s second goal, make no mistake – when he took on that long-range shot, he would have been street-smart enough to know Karius was living on his nerves after his earlier error.
Bale delivered a reminder, if it were needed that he remains a world-class player.
It may just have been an expensive night for suitors such as Manchester United as his display here will have added millions to any potential transfer fee.
When asked about his future after the game, Bale told BT Sport: “I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season.
“I had an injury five, six weeks in but have been fit ever since. I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it.”
Zidane the history man
Zinedine Zidane has joined Liverpool’s Bob Paisley and his Real Madrid predecessor Carlo Ancelotti in the elite ranks of managers to win this tournament three times – but added extra gloss by becoming the first to win it in three successive seasons.
Zidane has often been damned with faint praise about his abilities and record, despite his Champions League invincibility, by those who claim he simply keeps an outstanding team on track but he makes a nonsense of that with his tactical approach, handling of world-class players (and world-class egos) and a very happy knack of making decisive substitutions.
Three Champions League wins in three seasons ends all argument about his greatness as a coach. He is in charge of a team who know how to get the job done.
Man of the match – Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
A first in 42 years – the stats
- English teams have suffered a defeat in their past seven UEFA club competition finals against Spanish opposition (four Champions League finals and three UEFA Cup/Europa League finals).
- Jurgen Klopp has lost six of his seven major finals as manager, only winning the DFB-Pokal with Borussia Dortmund in 2012.
- Real Madrid started with the same XI as in the 2016-17 Champions League final; the first time a team has started with the same 11 players in different European Cup/Champions League finals (excluding replays).
- Karim Benzema has scored four goals against Liverpool in the Champions League; no player has managed more (also four for Didier Drogba).
- Liverpool became the first team in history to see three players score 10-plus goals in a single Champions League season (Salah 10, Firmino 10, Mane 10).
- Sadio Mane is only the fourth African player to score in a European Cup/Champions League final and the first since Didier Drogba for Chelsea v Bayern Munich in 2012. The other two were by Samuel Eto’o for Barcelona in both 2009 and 2006, and Rabah Madjer for Porto in 1987.
- Mane became the third Liverpool player to score 20-plus goals in all competitions this season (Salah 44 goals and Firmino 27 goals); the last time that three players hit the 20-goal mark for the club in a single campagn was 1981-82 (Dalglish, McDermott and Rush).