Kiev awaits for Liverpool.
The Champions League final against Real Madrid is now only hours away, with a potential sixth European Cup awaiting the Reds in Ukraine.
For Loris Karius, if someone told him in December that Liverpool would be in the Champions League final the goalkeeper would have been delighted, but equally worried about whether he would start the final as Liverpool’s number one goalkeeper.
Since arriving for less than £5m in 2016 from German club Mainz, Karius has faced a constant tug-of-war with Liverpool’s previous number one, Simon Mignolet, whose inconsistency led to Jürgen Klopp signing a new goalkeeper.
However, Karius, who was a Manchester City player in his youth, struggled in his return to England, and towards the end of last season it appeared that Mignolet had seen off the German to hold onto his position in the side.
Mignolet continued as number one into the start of the season, confirming suspicions that Karius was now the number two, although Klopp did play the latter in the Champions League group stages while Mignolet handled the Premier League.
Yet in January, Klopp decided that he had seen enough from Mignolet – with the Belgian’s error in the 3-3 draw against Arsenal possibly the final straw – and threw all his weight behind Karius as number one until the end of this season.
Mignolet’s Liverpool future was numbered from that point onwards, while Karius had a few months to prove whether he could be Liverpool’s long-term number one and a true replacement for Pepe Reina – who Mignolet replaced in 2013, but could never emulate on the pitch.
Mignolet has handled the demotion with class and will leave with good wishes from Liverpool fans in the summer, but what of Karius?
Since becoming Liverpool’s undisputed number one, Karius has undoubtedly improved, despite the continuous rumours of endless goalkeepers who have been linked with a move to Anfield.
However, there has been a subtle changes in the types of goalkeepers tipped to arrive at Liverpool.
Initially, rumours surrounded Roma’s Alisson, who has enjoyed a wonderful season in the Italian capital and is keeping Manchester City’s Ederson out of the Brazil team, but would cost the earth given his form and Liverpool’s ‘steal’ of Mohamed Salah (although speculation on Alisson has just begun to build again).
Jan Oblak of Atletico Madrid, who is rated alongside Manchester United’s David De Gea as the best goalkeeper in the world but has a release clause of one hundred million euros, was another name mentioned and lapped up by the fans.
Yet as the season has progressed and Karius has become more consistent, the names have altered to those who could provide competition to Karius, such as Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Barcelona’s Jasper Cillessen, or guide the German international as an experienced number two, with Iker Casillas regularly mentioned for this type of role.
Most Liverpool fans would still like a goalkeeper, but it is no longer seen as the priority it was in January, and that is testament to Karius’ improvement, helped by Liverpool’s strengthened defence that sits in front of him, led by Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson.
Karius has not been perfect, making mistakes along the way against teams such as Manchester City and Roma, therefore, despite the improved goalkeeping statistics, some doubt remains as to whether he should be Liverpool’s long-term number one, which makes the Champions League final on Saturday so important for him in particular.
Liverpool may feel as a team that the pressure is off, given they will have Champions League football next season and are underdogs against Real Madrid (although equally it’s hard not to expect success when you are only one game away from glory), but Karius needs to perform well.
As with the rest of the Liverpool team, Saturday will be the biggest game of his career, and he will have to be at his best to have any chance of stopping Madrid’s array of attacking talent. Cristiano Ronaldo is the obvious threat but Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Marco Asensio, Lucas Vázquez and Isco are all quality players who pose their own individual goal threats.
Karius will need Van Dijk and co. to have their own career-best performances in front of him, otherwise Real’s offensive power will be too much for Liverpool’s goalkeeper.
However, even if Liverpool’s defence remains robust, Madrid will create chances, so Karius will need to stand up and be counted when it really matters most.
If he does, and Liverpool bring home a sixth Champions League crown, then Karius will have proven to Klopp that he only needs to sign a replacement for Mignolet instead of the 24-year-old.