We are just over a week away from the Champions League final in Kiev, and all eyes will be on the continental showpiece on Saturday May 26. Liverpool are the underdogs with the bookmakers, and yet there is a feeling that our vibrant attacking play could cause the shaky Real Madrid defenders plenty of headaches in the Ukraine.
Zinedine Zidane’s men also have another league date to prepare for; an away day at Villarreal to conclude their La Liga campaign. There is very little riding on that match – Real need to win and hope Atletico Madrid lose in order to leapfrog their neighbours into second, but who knows they may pick up an extra injury or two….and that would be most welcome!
The Champions League final should, in theory, be a pulsating, breathless affair between two teams known for their attacking play. If styles make fights, as the boxing parlance goes, then these two should provide one almighty dust-up!
So who are the key men who will take to the Kiev turf, and how will the battle be won?
Portuguese Man of War
There is a long, tiresome debate about who is the better footballer: Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi.
Rather than appreciating them both for their unique gifts, we have to draw comparison between them when, in many ways, they are completely different players.
That said, it is hard to think of anyone who is more impactful on the big stage than Ronaldo. He was colossal in Portugal’s Euro 2016 win, and was at his very best in helping Real see off Juventus in the quarter finals of this competition: an audacious overhead kick and an injury time penalty winner par for the course.
So it would be huge if the Portuguese ace was unavailable….
He is another of Zidane’s squad who has been struggling with injury lately, and had to limp down the tunnel at half time in the El Clasico clash with Barcelona. He did not return for the second half.
The signs suggest that he will be in Kiev, but if he is anything less than 100% fit then it has to be considered a royal result for the Reds.
One area in which Real Madrid have really struggled this season is in defence, where a lack of authority will be of concern to Zinedine Zidane.
The Galacticos are an attacking side, so it won’t be of too much concern, and in Marcelo and Dani Carvajal they possess two attacking full backs of the highest order.
But Sergio Ramos remains as brilliant and yet ill-disciplined as ever, and his usual central defensive partner – Nacho – is yet to convince the masses.
Carvajal injured his thigh in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Bayern Munich, and his absence has hit Real hard. They don’t have a ready-made replacement, with Lucas Vazquez – a dashing winger by trade – and the youngster Achraf Hakimi filling in.
Sadio Mane up against either of those two will be lip-smacking for Reds fans, and while Zidane is confident that Carvajal will be fit – “everyone will be okay for the final – Cristiano, Isco and Carvajal. Nobody will have any problems for the final, they will all be at 150%” – he is, of course, bound to say that in the hope that his opponents don’t smell blood.
If the Spaniard does miss the final, it could be curtains for the Galacticos.
To the Left, To the Left
The bulk of Real Madrid’s attacking play will come down their left-hand side.
That’s where Cristiano Ronaldo will peel off, with Karim Benzema taking up a more central role, and it’s from where Marcelo will launch his trademark runs from deep.
And so the onus will be on Mo Salah to track back and assist Trent Alexander-Arnold in his defensive operations. The Englishman is maturing into a fine player, but he is still occasionally naïve in his work, and there are few better than Ronaldo and Marcelo to take advantage.
On the flipside, the Portuguese winger isn’t known for his efforts in tracking back, and so there is the possibility that Salah could be left one-on-one with Marcelo. The Brazilian will try and close down the space afforded to the Egyptian and put a foot in before he brings the ball under control, but you always fancy Salah to find a way in those situations.
That side of the pitch will be an intriguing battle for supremacy, and it may just separate the sides when all is said and done.
Set Piece Showdown
In the Spanish La Liga this season, almost a third of Real Madrid’s goals have come from set pieces or the penalty spot (28 of 92).
There is a slightly cynical narrative to explore here, and that’s that maybe the Galacticos get awarded cheap penalties and free kicks in and around the 18-yard box.
But it also confirms that we mustn’t dive into tackles against their trickier players in key areas, and also that we must be on our guard from set plays: Ramos and Nacho are both powerful forces in the air, as is Ronaldo.
Preparation will be key to defending set plays in a game where a single goal could be the difference-maker.