It will be battle royale today at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv, Ukraine, as the UEFA Champions League, unarguably the greatest club competition in the world, reaches its climax. Real Madrid of Spain and Liverpool of England will serve as the final combatants in what is expected to be a fascinating final to end the 2017/2018 European football season.
This year’s final is between two teams who have a rich pedigree in Europe’s elite competition. The Spanish team has won the competition a record 12 times, three of those trophies won in the last four years, while the English team has won five European titles, with their last triumph being in the 2004/2005 season, defeating AC Milan.
Both clubs also have history, especially in a European final. Liverpool remains the only team to have beaten Real Madrid in a European final, in 1981.
Getting to Kyiv for today’s final was not a smooth ride for both teams. Real Madrid, who entered this year’s competition as defending champions and La Liga champions, got paired in group H alongside Tottenham Hotspurs and Borussia Dortmund. The Spanish side’s biggest loss was its 1-3 defeat to Spurs. Despite the defeat, the Los Blancos qualified for the knockout phase, scoring 17 goals, but only behind the English side.
Real’s round of 16 game against Paris Saint Germain, was literally a stroll in the park as they won both legs, getting a 5-2 aggregate win against the French side. Their journey continued in the quarter-final as they blazed to a 3-0 win at the Juventus Stadium over the Italian champions in the first leg but barely survived a 1-3 loss in the second leg at their Santiago Bernabeu home, coming out tops 4-3 on aggregate. They got an invaluable 2-1 semi-final 1st leg win over Bayern Munich in Germany but just managed to hold their own in a 2-2 draw at home to claim a 4-3 aggregate win and qualify for today’s final, their third consecutive final in five years.
Liverpool, on the other hand, had to go through a tougher route to reach this season’s final. They began their campaign in the play-off qualifying round after finishing fourth in the 2016/2017 Premier League season. Drawn against Hoffenheim, they comfortably dispatched the German team 6-3 on aggregate, winning both legs.
The Reds were drawn in Group E alongside Sevilla, Spartak Moscow and Maribor. The English club’s games against Sevilla were the highlight of the group as they ended in a 2-2 and 3-3 draw respectively. Liverpool finished top of their group with 12 points and did not lose a game.
Liverpool only needed the first leg in the round of 16 as they trounced Porto 5-0 at the Estadio Drago and played a stalemate at Anfield. Their magnificent run continued in the quarter-finals when they defeated fellow English rival Manchester City in both legs, winning 5-1 on aggregate. The Reds had a spectacular semi-final first leg when they trashed AS Roma 5-2, but struggled in the second leg as they lost 2-4, narrowly qualifying for today’s final 7-6 on aggregate.
The build-up to today’s match has, unarguably, been largely dominated by two players; Liverpool’s Mohammed Salah and Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Both players have had a sizzling season, scoring a combined total of 90 goals. This season’s competition’s leading scorer with 15 goals, Ronaldo carries Real’s hope of winning a 13th European title. Meanwhile, Salah, with 10 goals in this season’s campaign, leads the arrow front which includes Robert Firmino and Sadio Mane. The trio are the most lethal strike force in Europe having scored 29 goals between themselves in this season’s competition, and represents Liverpool’s best chance to win a sixth European title.
But the game could, however, be decided by the tactical geniuses on the bench of both teams.
Real’s Zinedine Zidane has tasted Champions League victory both as a player and as a coach, winning the last two editions as a manager. Zidane will be hoping to emulate the late Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti in winning the Champions League as a manager for the third time. And one thing that may count in Zidane’s favour is his unpredictability in setting out his team, especially in his preferred 4-3-3 or tactically purposeful 4-4-2 formation, but he must shore up his leaky defence.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp has not had enjoyed success in cup finals and earnestly wants to break that voodoo. The German-born coach lost the 2012/2013 Champions League final with his Dortmund side and has also lost four other major cup finals, two of which were with his current team. Klopp’s dynamite attack holds the key to his plain 4-3-3 “genepressing” formation but the backline is where his input would be much needed.
Potential Key Battles
Salah vs Marcelo
The mesmerising Egyptian forward will have to be at his very best against the energetic Brazilian defender in what should be a clash of titans. Marcelo, on the other hand, will have to check his booming forward runs in order not to leave space at the back for Salah to exploit.
Ronaldo vs Lovren
Knowing that strikers prefer to match up against more fragile centre-backs, Ronaldo will surely leave Virgil van Dijk to square up against Dejan Lovren. The Croatian defender is defensively strong but to compete against Ronaldo, he must ensure that his concentration span is fully at 100 percent as he tends to lose focus at certain periods. To win his 5th Champions League title tonight, Ronaldo will have to turn up in another major cup final.
Casmiero vs Henderson
This is a battle between two workaholics in the midfield. But while Casmiero will act as the defensive conduit of Real, Jordan Henderson will be spurring Liverpool’s attacks from the engine room. The Brazilian has a simple task to perform tonight: stop the marauding runs and forward passes of the Englishman.
Milner vs Kroos
The combatant versus the artiste. This sums up one of the game’s most interesting match-ups. James Milner has been an energetic defensive screen in Liverpool’s midfield this season, but he would have his work cut out when Toni Kroos, whose range of passes and movements leaves opponents confused.