2018 UEFA Champions League Final Preview

The major European domestic leagues have ended but one club fixture remains – the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League final in Kiev on Saturday, May 26th.  Two of Europe’s most decorated clubs will meet in the showpiece event as Real Madrid attempts to win their third Champions League trophy in a row, and fourth in the last five years, while Liverpool are looking to claim their first title since 2005.

Liverpool’s squad should pick itself, but Zidane will have a headache picking Madrid’s team as he contemplates his best starting XI. Two world-class players, Ronaldo and Salah, are set to take center stage in what is sure to be a thrilling match!

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Journey to the Final

Both Liverpool and Real Madrid have experienced up and down seasons highlighted by their struggles domestically. Real finished 3rd in La Liga – 17 points adrift of winners and bitter rivals, Barcelona. Liverpool finished 4th in the English Premier League, 25 points behind runaway winners Manchester City. But disappointing domestic seasons have been made up for in successful UCL campaigns. Liverpool convincingly knocked out EPL rivals Manchester City in the quarterfinals while Madrid emerged after being tested against the likes of PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich on their journey to the finals. 

Real Madrid has demonstrated a resilience that has served them well this campaign. While there is still plenty of flash and attacking power from Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema, their ability to advance was characterized by unity, grit and expectation to win. While not playing at their best and seemingly on the ropes vs. Juventus in the quarterfinals, they managed to stave off a comeback that would have ended their hopes for a three-peat.  

Liverpool has been on a dream run this season, led by Mo Salah, who has catapulted the Reds into an unlikely final. Not many expected the tremendous impact he’s had in his first season – breaking the Premier League goal record, winning PFA Player of the Year, and partnering with Firmino and Mane in one of the most dangerous attacking trios in Europe.

The Reds' attacking front three have combined for 90 goals in all competitions this season. Their place in the finals marks the first time an English club has reached the finals since 2012 when Chelsea beat Bayern Munich in Munich. While the UEFA Champions League has recently been characterized by the dominance of the established elite (Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich) this season’s knockout round has featured thrilling ties and surprise victors. Among them is Liverpool, who will hope to repeat Chelsea’s success on Saturday.

Tactics and Lineup

How will Madrid deal with the threat of Mo Salah? Salah could not be stopped in the first leg of the semi-finals against Roma, scoring two and assisting two at Anfield. Marcelo has stated this week that there is no special plan for Salah. Liverpool will be pleased to hear this as the offensive mindset of Marcelo and Carvajal could stretch Real’s backline as Liverpool will look to break quickly and decisively on the counter attack. But Roma did well to neutralize Salah in the reverse leg in Rome, giving him little space to create and combine with Firmino and Mane. Madrid would be well suited to copy this blueprint.

Liverpool will have eleven players running like wild animals, they will be driven for the full 90 minutes and they’ll be playing at 100% or more if possible
— Toni Kroos

How will Liverpool deal with the uncertainty of Real’s starting XI? Zidane’s fully fit squad is causing a selection headache. Gareth Bale’s recent form should see him start which would likely mean an attacking front three of Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo in a 4-4-3 formation. But that potentially leaves Isco, Asensio and Vazquez on the bench. Bale has strongly been linked with a summer move back to England and Isco has also expressed his frustrations with not regularly being featured. While not like for like players, the selection of Bale or Isco will be Zidane’s biggest decision and may prove vital in determining their futures at the club.

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Both sides feature impressive attacking options – Liverpool scored the most goals in the UCL this season with 40 while Real is led by Ronaldo, who could become the tournament’s all-time leading scorer if he adds two goals to his tally on Saturday. The weakness of both sides appears to be the backline as defensive frailties have undermined their offensive threats. Liverpool has been boosted by January signing, Virgil Van Djik, who has helped to embolden the back line. Liverpool has kept 11 clean sheets in their last 20 games in all competitions. And Madrid will have the experience of Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane, mainstays during Madrid’s recent success.

Toni Kroos is very familiar with how Liverpool will operate as he played against Klopp’s Dortmund in the Bundesliga during his time in Munich. “Liverpool will have eleven players running like wild animals, they will be driven for the full 90 minutes and they’ll be playing at 100% or more if possible.”

Will Madrid match Liverpool’s tenacity and tempo for 90 minutes? While both teams are dangerous on the counter, Madrid will likely slow down the pace hoping the qualities of Kroos and Modric can unlock Liverpool’s defense.

Real Madrid’s Arrogance vs. Liverpool’s Belief

Anything can happen in a final. An individual moment of class, a costly error or simply a stroke of luck can separate the sides. The margins are narrow but the stakes could not be higher. To etch your name into the coveted Champions League trophy stakes your claim in European club football’s eternal folklore.

Experience is important in life, but it’s not the only thing. You can level it with desire, attitude and work rate – and that is why I love football.
— Jurgen Klopp

Real Madrid is familiar with this success. It is in the club’s DNA – they expect to be on this stage. The European Cups are synonymous with Real Madrid – winners of 12 trophies in total including two in a row and three out of the last four years. This level of success breeds confidence, which borders on arrogance for Madrid – shared by the players and supporters alike. This utter arrogance has propelled Los Blancos to victories over Juventus and Bayern Munich in the previous legs. Without playing their best football, they found a way to grind out victories. Their recent dominance over both European giants is impressive – beating Bayern Munich for the sixth time in a row while again breaking Juventus’s heart in the Champions League.

In contrast to Real, experience is not on Liverpool’s side; not a single member of the squad has previously played in a UEFA Champions League final. Jurgen Klopp alluded to Real’s familiarity on the big stage, “they are more experienced – that is a fact. Experience is important in life, but it's not the only thing. You can level it with desire, attitude and work rate – and that is why I love football.” Liverpool supporters will be lifted by the comments and would agree that there is a feel good attitude on Merseyside. The desire and overall belief is strong within the group. It has served them well in their campaign and they hope it will be the difference on Saturday.

 

Author: Mike Daly