19:45 (GMT), Saturday 26th May, NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium (Kyiv, Ukraine), BT Sport 2
On Sunday, Europe will have new champions.
Will it be Real Madrid lifting their fourth Champions League title in five years -their third consecutively- or Liverpool, who last won the honour in 2005, 13 years ago to this very day?
Liverpool dispatched Porto, English champions Manchester City and Roma on their journey to Ukraine, whilst the holders, Real Madrid, had a significantly tougher route, having to beat the French champions Paris Saint-Germain, Italian champions Juventus and German champions Bayern Munich.
It’s argued that Los Blancos rode their luck to reach their third consecutive Champions League final, but they have a tangible arrogance to their European performances. They believe it’s their trophy.
Can Liverpool dethrone Europe’s kings?
Last Time Out
Liverpool 4-0 Brighton & Hove Albion [Premier League]
The Reds secured their spot in next season’s Champions League with a top four finish in emphatic style, thumping Premier League new boys Brighton 4-0.
Mohamed Salah opened the scoring in the 26th minute and, in doing so, set a new Premier League scoring record, netting 32 times, the most by a player in a 38-game season.
The Egyptian was also presented with the Golden Boot and Liverpool’s Player of the Season award.
It was Salah’s goal that set the Reds on a path for destruction, with Dejan Lovren heading in the second and Dominic Solanke, a summer acquisition from Chelsea, scoring his first for the club with a powerful effort crashing off the underside of the bar. Andrew Robertson also secured his first and Liverpool’s fourth.
Villarreal 2-2 Real Madrid [La Liga]
Los Blancos sealed a disappointing season domestically with a yet another disappointing performance, letting a two-goal lead slip against fifth-placed Villarreal. The result ensured bitter local rivals Atletico Madrid finished above them in second.
Gareth Bale, who has looked in fine form since coming back into the starting XI, with four goals in his last three La Liga games, opened the scoring, with Cristiano Ronaldo doubling the lead through a simple header.
However, disorganised defending let substitutes Roger Martinez and Samu Castillejo level the scores. Such chaos in defence made for worrisome watching ahead of Saturday’s date with destiny.
Real Madrid Lineup
Zidane could opt for either a 4-3-3 to match Klopp’s formation, or his typical 4-4-2 diamond, with a midfield three and Isco behind the two strikers.
In a 4-3-3, however, it’s difficult to see how Isco will fit into the midfield; he may either find himself shunted out wide or dropped altogether.
There’s debate, too, over whether Gareth Bale will force his way into the starting XI after an impressive end to the La Liga campaign. If the Welshman misses out, expect Lucas Vasquez or Marco Asensio to start.
Klopp will likely select a similar XI to the one that has brought him to the Champions League final. To that end, there’s very few headaches he’ll face in terms of selection.
Joe Gomez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Matip will be watching from the stands, whilst Emre Can and James Milner are touch-and-go, but Klopp will be encouraged by the fact that they’ve been training this week.
Key Battle: Mo Salah vs Cristiano Ronaldo
The Champions League is a battle of key moments; who can take advantage when said opportunities arise?
Who better to have in such moments that Mo Salah and the Champions League’s historical top goalscorer, Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese has 15 goals in this year’s competition, whilst Salah impressively has ten, as does teammate Roberto Firmino, with Sadio Mane trailing slightly behind on nine.
With such importance, however, placed on the goal-scoring exploits of both Ronaldo and Salah by their respective teams, they’re the two most important players in the final, with the game itself touted as a Ronaldo vs Salah battle.
Neither side will face a shortage of chances or ‘key moments,’ but in terms of accuracy, Salah edges it. In the Champions League, the Egyptian hit the target with 74% of his efforts, with Ronaldo forcing a save only 49% of the time.
Ronaldo, however, is the man for the occasion. An expert, well-versed in winning. It remains to be seen whether Salah has the composure for the biggest stage of them all.
Defence wins titles
Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.” Nothing could be truer when Real Madrid play Liverpool on Saturday.
The Reds’ 84 goals were second only to Manchester City in the Premier League, whilst only Barcelona scored more than Los Blancos in La Liga.
Neither side, therefore, is goal-shy, as there scoring records indicate. It’s at the back where the problems both begin and end – both Liverpool and Real Madrid conceded the most goals in their respective top fours.
Saturday is both a singular game and a title, hence the necessity of both attack and defence. The Champions League is a tournament of moments. One lapse in concentration could cost the game, despite 89 minutes of sustained effort.
For instance, Dejan Lovren’s two errors leading to two goals in the Champions League semi-final were, arguably, the reasons Roma found a way back into the tie at 5-0 down, whilst Villarreal capitalised on disorganised defending in Los Blancos’ final La Liga game of the season.
Goals are a given, but the eventual winner will ultimately boil down to which side can exercise a greater degree of defensive control.
Despite the previous success of Zidane’s 4-4-2 diamond, the system seems to have lost its way both in Europe and domestically and the narrowness of said formation perhaps isn’t the best combatant for the width Klopp deploys in his 4-3-3. Matching the Reds man-for-man in a 4-3-3, therefore, is the best solution.
This is because it deploys two wide forwards to match Liverpool’s final third trident, but crucially it puts bodies in the middle of the pitch to deny the Reds the midfield control they crave.
To this end, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos -who averaged a 91% and 94% passing accuracy, respectively, in the Champions League- are natural picks. It means Zidane must either choose between Casemiro at the base of a deeper midfield three, or Isco at the pinnacle of a more attacking selection.
Isco’s ball retention skills are something to be considered, but so, too, is Casemiro’s ability to break-up play. However, Mateo Kovacic is another player for Zidane to consider because of his nous in retaining the ball under pressure.
Given Klopp’s preference to press high and fast in the centre of the pitch, having three players able to withstand this pressure could be the key to gaining a foothold in a frantic game.
The battle of the fullbacks
Perhaps the one of the most interesting talking points ahead of Saturday’s final is the somewhat pronounced contrast between both sets of fullbacks.
Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, for example, boast 129 Champions League appearances and six winners’ medals between them. Contrastingly, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have played just 16 games combined.
When Marcelo and Carvajal won their first European title in 2013/14, moreover, Robertson was still in the Scottish Premiership, whilst Alexander-Arnold made six England U16 appearances.
Despite the ridiculousness of the differences, both sets will be vital in Kyiv. Jurgen Klopp often relies on the overall athleticism of his fullbacks to create width in his centrally-focused style of play, whilst Zinedine Zidane instructs his duo to whip testing crosses in for the aerially strong Ronaldo to attack.
Will Marcelo and Carvajal’s experience trump Robertson and Alexander-Arnold’s youthful exuberance?
Prediction: Real Madrid 3-2 Liverpool
Given both sides’ attacking prowess and lack of defensive nous -and the fact it’s a European final- it’s hard to predict an exact result. One thing that can be predicted, however, is goals. Lots of them.
Such a high-scoring game could swing either way, but Real Madrid’s recent experience in Champions League finals stands them in good stead when it comes to the game’s key moments. Los Blancos are so assured in their European performances, whilst Liverpool will be hoping and believing they can win.
The difference, therefore, is that Real Madrid know they will win. It’s their trophy.
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