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 three 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.
Liverpool always faced a tough task against the most successful club in European Cup/Champions League history but it could have been different if they had not lost top scorer Salah midway through the first half.
The forward landed heavily on his shoulder after getting into a tangle with Real defender Sergio Ramos and, despite initially attempting to continue, he had to be replaced by Adam Lallana.
Up to that point, Liverpool had been the better side. They had had nine shots on goal with Salah on the pitch – but none up to half-time following his injury.
The Egypt international’s departure clearly boosted Real Madrid, who had been struggling to deal with Liverpool’s high press, but Jurgen Kopp’s side were still in the game despite offering less of an attacking threat without Salah.
However, Bale’s introduction and Karius’ two costly mistakes ultimately proved the difference as Zinedine Zidane claimed his ninth trophy in just 28 months as Real Madrid manager.
Bale’s best-ever goal? What they said
Real Madrid forward Gareth Bale on BT Sport: “Obviously I was very disappointed not to start the game. I felt I deserved it but the manager makes the decisions. The best I have been doing is to come on and make an impact, I certainly did.
“It has to be the best goal in a Champions League final, there is no bigger stage. I am just happy to get the win.
“It is a team game but when you are a substitute, it is a game of more than 11 players. I made an impact.
“We know what we have achieved and how good we have been. The league was disappointing but we won the Champions League. It turns out to be a great season.
“We let everyone else speak. We know how hungry we are in the changing room, how prepared and motivated we are.”
Asked about his future: “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.”
A first in 42 years – the stats
- Real Madrid have become the first team to win the European Cup/Champions League in three successive seasons since Bayern Munich between 1974 and 1976.
- 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).
- Zinedine Zidane is just the third manager to win the European Cup/Champions League three times (after Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti), but the first to win it in three consecutive seasons.
- Jurgen Klopp has now 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).
- Gareth Bale scored just two minutes and two seconds after coming off the bench. It was the second-fastest ever by a substitute in a Champions League final, after Lars Ricken for Borussia Dortmund against Juventus in 1997.
- Bale is also only the second British player to score twice in a European Cup/Champions League final, after Bobby Charlton for Manchester United in 1968.
- 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).