This Saturday night two of Europe’s most successful teams will go head-to-head when Liverpool play Real Madrid in the Champions League final.
The clubs have a massive seventeen European Cups between them and the match certainly promises some fireworks. Jurgen Lopp’s Liverpool have won the title five times while Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid are the current holders and are aiming for their record thirteenth title and their third consecutive success.
Last year Real Madrid became the first team to win the Champions League in back-to-back seasons in its current form. However, Klopp’s highly aggressive Liverpool will put this out of their minds when they face them in Kiev.
Neither side have been particularly impressive defensively this season, but have been scoring heavily, and this match is sure to be highly attacking.
Ahead of the game both sides have been stepping up their rhetoric and claiming that they will win. Earlier this week Sadio Mane insisted that Liverpool have the belief and quality to win the title. It will be one of Mane’s biggest games so far and he will be hoping to add to his tally of 19 goals this season.
“For us, it is one of the most important games in our career,” Mane said.
“It will not be easy. They have experience and we respect them a lot but we have the players to beat any team in the world. We will go to try and cause them as many problems as we can. It was not easy against Hoffenheim (in the qualifying round) and now we are in the final. We have always been believing. I think there are more goals to come. I am happy, especially as striker you love to score in every single game and help your team. Now we have one more important game. I am always happy to play alongside these great players and they make everything easier for me. Everyone talks always about the front three but the power of Liverpool FC is the quality and we try always to do everything together.”
Meanwhile Real Madrid goalkeeper Keylor Navas has claimed that he isn’t worried about Liverpool’s attack as he has the best defence in the world in front of him.
“I have the best defence in the world, I trust my teammates fully,” he explained. “It’s very nice to play a third successive final, we’ll approach it with humility because we always respect our opponents, even when we’re considered the favourites. We have a team with players that have lots of experience, but this doesn’t mean we’ll relax.”
However, he did concede that the trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino can be extremely dangerous, “The challenge in the final is significant. We know exactly the type of team they are. They have players who can make a difference.”
Regardless of what the players have been saying over the last few days, at the end of the day it will all come down to what will happen on the pitch. With both teams home to some major talent, there are some key battles that fans should keep an eye on.
Virgil van Dijk vs Cristiano Ronaldo
This year Cristiano Ronaldo, the five time Ballon d’Or winner, has once again shown himself to be Real Madrid’s leading man. He has scored an incredible forty-three goals so far this season and is aiming to win his fifth Champions League title this weekend.
On occasion Zidane has deployed Ronaldo on the left hand side of a front three, but he is usually given the freedom to move into positions where his impressive athleticism and great range of finishes can cause maximum damage to the opponents.
Ronaldo is already 33 years old and he is not the fresh, speedy youngster he once was. However, his ability to make a huge impact on games remains undiminished. This was evident in the quarterfinal against Juventus when he scored an overhead goal so incredible that it would not have looked out of place in a mocked-up promotional video for Champions League excitement.
Furthermore, over the past season Ronaldo has come into form as an excellent penalty-box predator and it will be up to Virgil van Dijk to try and deny him the space needed to score.
Thanks to Van Dijk’s calming influence and presence at the heart of Liverpool’s defence the team has managed to keep the most clean sheets recorded by a Liverpool side in the Premier League since 2009 with seventeen.
This is sure to be the biggest game of Van Dijk’s careers so far, but the world’s most expensive defender, at £75 million, was brought to Liverpool exactly for this kind of game. If Van Dijk can keep Ronaldo under control then it will be a huge boost to Liverpool’s chances.
Speaking to LFCTV this week Van Dijk said, “He [Ronaldo] has been scoring goals for fun over the last few years and he has a lot of quality obviously. He is one of the best players in the world at the moment but I need to deal with him like the rest of the team needs to deal with their other players, who have a lot of quality too. We need to be ready but that’s part of the game. They will be aware of our team as well. It’s going to be a very good game, both teams have a lot of quality. I’m looking forward to it but the most important thing for us as a team, as Liverpool, we need to look at ourselves and play our game rather than doing different things.”
Jordan Henderson vs Luka Modric
Since Luka Modric joined Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur in 2012 he has been a huge success. The 32-year-old is the team’s playmaker and is able to get attacks started thanks to his impressive passing range.
If Liverpool give Modric too much space then it could be fatal and team captain, Jordan Henderson, will have to use his massive reserves of energy to stay on top of him.
Klopp is a huge fan of gegenpressing, trying to win back possession after losing it instead of falling back to regroup, and this technique will have to be perfectly implemented to deal with Modric. However, Henderson will be faced with a dilemma if Modric drops in front of his own back four to find time on the ball.
If they choose to follow Modric deep into Real Madrid’s half then Liverpool’s defences could be left depleted if the Spaniards launch an attack. Real Madrid have players such as Toni Kroos, Isco and Casemiro in midfield and it will require a huge effort from Gini Wijnaldum, James Milner and Henderson to maintain control in midfield.
Marcelo vs Mohamed Salah
Many people consider the Brazil international Marcelo to be the best left-back in the world and he has shown time and time again how he is a key part of the Madrid team.
His style of play is likely to give Trent Alexander-Arnold a challenging evening at right-back on Saturday, but there could also be a real battle between Marcelo and Mohamed Salah.
If Marcelo pushes forward in his trademark style then Liverpool’s superstar will have plenty of space to make use of if the attack fails. Salah, with 44-goals to his name, will be looking forward to the chance to attack Madrid’s defence together with Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane. However, if they leave Alexander-Arnold exposed against the left-side of Real Madrid they will be taking a considerable risk.
Salah will have to work hard in Kiev, but he can be relied upon to punish Real Madrid if they give him too much space. Liverpool’s hopes of winning largely rest on Salah’s shoulders and the player has the chance to make himself into a team legend just 11 months after signing.
Roberto Firmino vs Sergio Ramos
Sergio Ramon, Real Madrid’s captain, is another footballing legend. He has won 15 major honours for club and country and has made close to 600 appearances for Real Madrid. Furthermore, he has over 150 caps for La Roja and is widely considered to be one of the best centre-backs of his generation.
Despite recently turning 32, Ramos remains a top-level centre-back and he has scored more than his fair share of goals. Furthermore, he is one of just two players to have scored in two Champions League finals.
Dealing with him will be Liverpool No. 9 Firmino, who is having the best season of his career. He has scored 27 goals so far and proved wrong those who were claiming that the team need a ‘real’ striker.
Ramos won’t be scared by Firmino, but the Madrid player is unlikely to have faced many centre-forwards who match the skill level of Liverpool’s star.
Firmino’s hard working style of play should prevent Ramos and his centre-back partner Raphael Varane from starting attacks easily from the back as they do in La Liga. However, Firmino will have to work extremely hard to prevent Madrid finding the time and space they need.