Taking a look at the key factors which could determine the biggest footballing war of the season
Right then ladies and gentlemen, the Champions League final is almost upon us. It’s fitting that the two most exciting teams this season clash against each other to grab the biggest trophy in club football. Liverpool vs Real Madrid, Ronaldo vs Salah, Zidane vs Klopp, Firmino Vs Ramos and what not. If this doesn’t excite you, trust me, folks, nothing ever will.
We look at the key aspects of the game which could well determine which team lays it’s hands on the trophy when Milorad Mažić blows his final whistle on the night.
#5 Liverpool’s inexperience:
Since that magical night in Istanbul, rightly called as the greatest night in the rich history of Liverpool FC, the Anfield faithful have waited for 13 long years to see their team compete in another final.
This in itself might be Liverpool’s undoing on the big night as, on nights having magnitude as big as this, it’s the players’ experience which helps in soothing the nerves, getting into stride quickly and rising to the occasion.
The fact that no one in this Liverpool squad has played a Champions League final before makes Klopp’s task all the more important as it’ll be his duty to maintain his player’s resolve, not allowing to succumb to such immense pressure et al.
These are the matches where players turn into legends; the ones that distinguish the true greats from the mere mortals. Klopp himself had to face defeat in his lone appearance in 2013 when his Robert Lewandowski-led team were comprehensively beaten by Bayern Munich, which was a perfect example of the Bavarians using their big match experience to snarl away Dortmund when Robben scored with the last kick of the game.
Madrid, on the other hand, are the most successful team in the history of this competition and will be looking forward to lifting the trophy for a record-extending 13th time. Marcelo, Ramos, Kroos, Modric and Ronaldo among the other Real players have played in numerous finals prior to this and it’ll be interesting to see if they can bring their experience to the fore one more time.
#4 Real Madrid’s shaky defence
Real Madrid’s backline has been defensively poor throughout this season, letting in goals by the dozen. Opponents have found the back of Madrid’s net a staggering 15 times this season in the Champions League.
Keylor Navas has managed to keep just 2 clean sheets in 10 matches played this term, which pales in comparison to the competition high 6 he had managed in last year’s triumphant campaign.
The full-backs Carvajal and Marcelo have put in commendable performances going forward, but it has been their defensive showing which has left a lot to be desired. Their defensive lapses almost cost them against Juventus, who were cruelly kicked out of the competition when Ronaldo scored the last-ditch penalty.
Even in their last league game of the season, they blew a two-goal advantage, highlighting their defensive frailties. The huge acres of spaces left behind by the full backs were quite smartly exploited by all the teams, but Madrid being Madrid, survived by the skin of their teeth.
However, they’ll have to be at the top of their game in order to stop the marauding trio of Salah, Mane and Firmino. Klopp would consider himself a relieved man if the two are kept busy on the night as Real are bound to suffer going forward if the two are negated.
In the absence of Carvajal for the second leg against Bayern, Madrid were found woefully short of quality, both in defence and attack. Bobby Firmino has been the standout performer for the Reds this year and has troubled every defence with his directness and subtle movements.
Salah and Mane both use their supreme pace to run defences ragged and their combination will be fundamental to Liverpool’s chances. The center-backs Ramos and Raphael Varane will have their hands full throughout the course of the match and if they manage to come out of the battle unscathed, which quite frankly seems unlikely at the moment, this final will surely be Madrid’s for the taking.
#3 The midfield battle
Though the front three of Liverpool have rightfully gained plaudits from their fans and football pundits alike both domestically and in Europe, their midfielders have performed exceedingly well, both in attack and defence.
Their captain James Milner has registered the most assists this season (8). The captain’s armband has seemingly taken his game to a higher level and his immaculate performances on the pitch are a testament to that fact.
Jordan Henderson has been the defensive rock in the midfield three. The much-maligned England international has overcome a torrid start to the season and looks set to finish the season with a flourish.
Georgino Wijnaldum has enjoyed a breakthrough season, earning Klopp’s trust and has become an instant hit with the fans. In absence of the Ox, he’ll be the one tasked with dictating play and carrying the ball forward.
Madrid, however seemingly have the edge in this area of the pitch, thanks to the effortless style of play and insane reading of the game displayed by the midfield double pivot of Kroos and Modric.
The delicious outside-of-the-foot passes, amazing through balls, calmness on the ball and telepathic connection on the pitch has been a sight to behold. Casemiro, who has been brilliant in patches, symbolising Madrid’s year, remains Zidane’s best bet to play the role of a destroyer at the heart of Real’s midfield.
The Whites will be praying for Casemiro to churn out a repeat of last year’s final in which he was at his belligerent best and scored an absolute screamer during a critical phase to give Madrid some breathing space.
#2 Team selection, tactics and formation
After an underwhelming end to a torrid domestic campaign on Sunday, Zidane stated that he had all the 24 players available for the big night and summarised his feelings about it by blatantly moaning that he was ‘fu**** up’.
That’s what the problem of plenty does to you more often than not. Klopp, on the contrary, might go with the traditional 4-3-3 with Wijnaldum playing behind the front three and Milner playing with Henderson in the central midfield.
Virgil Van Dijk ought to start as central defender along with Dejan Lovren while Alexander Arnold may start with Robertson as the full-backs. Bale looks set to regain his place in the starting XI given the breathtaking form he is in.
Another thought doing the rounds is that we might get to see the famed trio of ‘BBC’ back again which seems quite logical as well, but I personally feel that Benzema will have to make way for Isco given the scanty amount of game time he has had in the past few fixtures.
Also, it will be quite interesting to see will be how Klopp manages to make use of his substitutions if the game goes into extra time. That, although seems unlikely given the number of goals that will be plundered within regulation time.
Contrarily, Zidane has made a living out of his timely and tactical substitutions who have time again bailed his team out, with Marco-wonderboy-Asensio and Lucas Vazquez providing the fresh legs and width required on the pitch late in the game.
As far as tactics are concerned, the “geggenpressing” style of Klopp has stuffed the momentum out of many a side in Europe and against Madrid, the Reds will surely look to harass the Madrid players on the ball.
Casemiro, of all Madrid players, always seems a bit uncomfortable on the ball and I won’t be surprised if he’s touted as the trigger point for Klopp’s hounding boys.
A riveting off-pitch encounter awaits us, innit?
#1 Is there any stopping Mo Salah or Cristiano Ronaldo?
Both Liverpool and Real Madrid have qualified to the Final primarily due to the blistering form their respective talismans, Salah and Ronaldo.
While Cristiano has always amazed the football audiences around the world with his unparalleled consistency and a burning desire to win everything, the Egyptian king has been nothing short of a revelation in his debut season at Anfield.
Destroying defences in England and Europe alike, Salah has racked up the numbers (and trophies) at an astonishing rate this season. The Golden Boot winner scored a mind-boggling 32 goals in the Premier League this season, overtaking the record of 31 goals held by a certain Cristiano Ronaldo.
However, when it comes to the Champions League, there hasn’t been a better player than Ronaldo in its history. Even after he failed to score in two legs against Bayern Munich in the semifinals, he has already plundered 15 goals this term, 5 more than the PFA Footballer of the year.
While Salah has never reached this stage of the competition in his career, it will be the 5th time when Cristiano steps out to play the final for Madrid. He has ended up winning the trophy on four occasions and the Liverpool defence will have to defend for their lives if they are to stop the man from scoring in a competition in which he has scored 121 times.
They might follow the Bavarians’ strategy of tightly marking the Portuguese and closing out the passing lanes to him if they are to prevent him from finding the back of the net. As in Mo Salah’s case, there haven’t been many teams who have kept a lid on him.
Even if teams make a conscious effort to shut out Salah, he still manages to serve goals on a platter and that is the reason why he is so hard to defend against. For all the goals and assists which salah has against his name, he has shown this tendency to miss some easy chances as well.
Klopp would be wary that in a Champions League final against Real Madrid, there won’t be many chances on offer and he’ll require his sensational forward to be at his imperious best if Liverpool are to lift the trophy after 13 years.
When these two met last time around in an international friendly, it was the Madeira born player who hogged the limelight with his twin headers in stoppage time to overcome the deficit created by none other than Salah. Will Mo get his revenge in Kiev on the grandest of stages on Sunday night or will it be the Madrid superstar who will come out trumps again?
Your guess is as good as mine folks!