Breaking News: Champions League final: The decisions and battles that will separate Liverpool and Real Madrid
When Real Madrid and Liverpool parade out onto the Olympic Stadium pitch in Kiev on Saturday, they will do so for a Champions League final drenched in history – more than ever before. The two have 17 European titles between them. The rest of their combined trophy ledger extends into triple digits. One is the reincarnated king of Europe. The other spent a decade on the throne.
And yet on that field, for 90 minutes – and maybe more – after 9:45 p.m. local time (2:45 p.m. ET, Fox), the two will be polar opposites. They’ll clash philosophically and stylistically. One will lift the most coveted club trophy in the sport. Both, though, should give us a treat. Because that clash is as intriguing and enticing as can be. Let’s dive in.
We know exactly what Liverpool is going to do
OK, not exactly. Not down to every last minute detail. There are variations on the theme, and varying degrees of the “heavy-metal football” Jurgen Klopp has implemented. But the starting 11 picks itself (see below). And the style is ingrained.
We know Liverpool will press. We know the Reds will stir up as much chaos as possible. We know they will try to strike on the counter. They will chop up 90 minutes into has many unpredictable swings as possible, and bet on themselves to win those transitional moments more often than they lose them.
We have no idea what Real Madrid is going to do
Madrid, on the other hand, is a mystery. The back five are set. The front six is anything but. Both the personnel and shape fluctuate. There are nine players for six spots, and at least three different formations in manager Zinedine Zidane’s arsenal. We have no idea which one he’ll load up. We have no idea what Madrid will do.
Then again, sometimes Madrid doesn’t quite know what Madrid is doing. As Real Betis manager Quique Setien wrote in the Guardian, Los Blancos are “not guided by tactical rigor or a specific structure.” They just play. Two simple characteristics make them what they are. Tactics aren’t one of them. Talent and familiarity are.
The mastermind vs. the muppet
Because Real is relatively unstructured, narrative has a tendency to push Klopp and Zidane to opposite sides of the managerial continuum. The former is the mad scientist, his laboratory now based at Anfield, and his ingenious innovation “gegenpressing.” (His bespectacled appearance surely feeds that perception.) The latter is the novice, the in-over-his-head former player who steps aside and lets his players succeed in spite of his limitations.
And to some extent, those characterizations are fair. To some extent. Zidane might even admit that. “I’m not the best coach tactically,” he said during a news conference earlier this week. “I can say that. I don’t have to say it, though, because all of you say it!” And then he went on to make his actual point: “Motivation and passion are values that I have, and that is worth a lot more.”
But what happens when an opposing manager – such as the one who’ll stand 20 yards away from Zidane Saturday in Kiev – possesses those same qualities, plus a refined tactical approach? We’ll find out soon enough. But chances are that the intricacies will matter.
The antithetical midfields
The contrast between the midfields of Real Madrid and Liverpool could not be starker. On one side, there are two of the best ball-players in the sport. On the other, there are zero playmakers – or at least not in the traditional sense.
Giorginio Wijnaldum and James Milner can create chances. Heck, Milner has set a single-season Champions League assist record. But not because he dictates games on the ball. Instead, he, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson press high up the field, win duels, and spring counters from the attacking half. That’s their form of playmaking.