We have the final European football needed: a game to give one last fizzle and pop before club world is snuffed out for three months.
The predictability of the continent’s top leagues has been in another tier in 2017-2018, breeding stagnation and boredom. Barcelona, Manchester City, PSG and Bayern Munich for practical purposes all had their respective leagues in a bow by January at the latest. Ironically, it’s been only Italy, so long a serial monopolist, that has offered us an elite, capricious title race.
Kiev will host the antidote. Real Madrid vs Liverpool. Two historical titans of the competition. Seventeen European Cups between them. You’re safer picking a roulette number than predicting this score. It’s exactly that volatility that will, if we’re lucky, give us one of the most entertaining finals in years.
Zinedine Zidane wasn’t supposed to be here. Nor was Jürgen Klopp, really. They lead sides that staggered and floundered out of the opening curtain. But here they are imperfect, flawed, exciting and audacious.
Throughout the pitch there are battles that induce anticipation for thrill, and others should provide alluring doses of tactical warfare.
Ruthlessness has taken Madrid to their third final in a row. Whether Cristiano Ronaldo is flanked by Isco, Lucas Vázquez or Marco Asensio, or partnered by Karim Benzema, a shred of space is all he needs in the box to apply a deadly finish. That’s the catch-22 of stopping the Portuguese: focus the defence inwards, suffocate him in the box, but risk your wings being marauded by Marcelo Vieira and Dani Carvajal.
Klopp will rue the absence of Joël Matip, out for the season with a thigh injury. Dejan Lovren, against Roma in both semifinal legs, once again exposed his ability to compromise a game with his lack of concentration. The performances were reminiscent of his circus display back in October at the 4-1 Tottenham Hotspur humbling. His bird-watching while the ball floated over his head and into Harry Kane’s path has likely been used at many a defence seminar.
On the other end, Mohamed Salah’s performances have seen him compared to Ronaldo: he could rival the galactico and Lionel Messi for the Ballon d’Or. The Egyptian and his cohorts, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané, have ripped many a defence apart this season with their pace and barbarous counterattacking efficiency. In Sergio Ramos and Rafaël Varane, Real have two centre-backs capable of keeping pace with the trident, while equally capable of losing shape. Keylor Navas has a front-seat view for what could devolve into fast-paced, all-out havoc.
Both sets of attack have their midfields to credit for their proficiency. Casemiro is a grafter adept at snapping at heels and capitalising on the subsequent destruction. Toni Kroos and the silky Luka Modric spray the ball intelligently into attack. Klopp will likely line up with Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson and James Milner in midfield. All three are non-flashy grinders who will try to disrupt the Real flow. It’s in their ability to distribute that Liverpool will sorely miss some of their injury-laden creative midfielders.
The midfield battle is the less flashy, though no less important, ingredient. Real has the indisputable Champions League final experience, but can that drown out the walking frenzy that is Liverpool? Zidane has nothing to prove, but Klopp has nothing to lose. One thing’s for certain — it’s going to be a cracker.