With just over two weeks to go until the UEFA Champions League final, it’s difficult to visualize anything other than Real Madrid captain, Sergio Ramos, hoisting the Champions League trophy high above his head yet again. While Liverpool have enjoyed an extraordinary season, most notably in this competition, Jurgen Klopp’s side is yet to face a team as determined and clinical as this Madrid outfit. And with the eyes of Los Blancos firmly fixed on winning the most prestigious title in club football for a third consecutive year, there will likely be no stopping Zinedine Zidane’s men on May 26 in Kiev.
Ronaldo is peaking at just the right time
While Liverpool do have the attacking qualities to cause this experienced Madrid defence at least some problems — most notably through the prolific Mohamed Salah — when the shoe is on the other foot, Liverpool will struggle to keep a clean sheet for ninety minutes. True, Benzema has not been in the form of his career for the last two seasons, but five time Balon D’or winner, Cristiano Ronaldo, has peaked since the turn of the new year. He clearly favours playing in this competition over any other, being the record all-time scorer, with 120 goals. If Zidane reverts back to the 4 – 3 – 3 that brought him success in the last two finals, either one of Gareth Bale or Marco Asensio will occupy the final attacking position — something that Liverpool should not be looking forward to seeing.
Based on the form of Ramos and Varane this season, Liverpool fans have been vocally optimistic about their front three’s chances, but seem to forget that Lovren and Van Dijk sit in front of Karius. To be fair, Van Dijk has been decent since arriving and is a solid centre-half, but he is carrying both his and Lovren’s weight, something which is sure to backfire in Kiev.
A clear advantage in midfield
If Zidane opts for the 4–3–3, Casemiro, Kroos and Modric will start in midfield, barring any injuries. If he instead decides on a flat 4–4–2 (something he may well do to minimize the space the Liverpool players have to work with), either Isco or Marco Asensio will line up alongside them. Either way, Madrid have got the clear advantage in this area of the pitch. Casemiro provides the perfect link from defence to attack, Kroos and Modric ooze class and dictate play with their skill and passing, and Isco/Asensio are experts at prying open defences.
For Liverpool, the most likely trio is that of the bland Jordan Henderson and James Milner, alongside Dutch international Georginio Wijnaldum or Englishman, Adam Lallana. Since the departure of Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool have lacked that player capable of controlling the midfield, and while Wijnaldum does possess creative ingenuity, he is nowhere near the level of the Brazilian and most likely will not have a major say. As for Henderson and Milner, they put in work in the middle of the park for their side but, other than Henderson’s brilliant passing, are relatively average. Van Dijk has shown at times that he is capable of playing the ball and stepping up to support his midfield, but, doing that with Cristiano Ronaldo lurking, is suicide.
Madrid play right up to the end
If both sets of players were of equal quality and this boiled down to a tactical battle, there would be only one winner. Both sets of players are definitely not of equal quality, however, and if Liverpool do manage to gain early superiority, you can be sure it will not last.
Take a look at any Real Madrid game, be it against the small Eibar or the brilliant Barcelona, and you will constantly see the sight of Zidane patrolling his touchline yelling at his players. His man management has been excellent, particularly that of the 33 year old Cristiano Ronaldo – which mirrors the protection given by Ernesto Valverde to Andrés Iniesta – and he has somehow managed to keep his entire squad satisfied with their playing time. As was evident last season with a lot of their title winning points being won in the final moments of games, they play to the end and play to win. ‘Zizou’ did have his detractors early on in his managerial reign at the Bernabéu for his tactical naivety — and he still occasionally does. But take a look at them playing and it is evident how much the players admire him and leave it all on the line for him on the pitch.
As I said, there will be only one winner. Liverpool and Klopp deserve an enormous amount of credit for getting to the final, but they will be found out by this Madrid side who seem to always find a way to win in this competition. Madrid fans believe that this cup belongs to them, and that they will get their hands on it again. Mohamed Salah can try as he likes, but one of the all time greats play for the opposition, and I’m sure he will be looking forward to going up against that defence.