/ 25 May 2018

Reds vs Real: The key battles

Madrid has won a total of 12 Champions League cups
Madrid has won a total of 12 Champions League cups

Will tomorrow’s Champions League final collapse into a contest of outscoring bravado between two fallible teams? Or will their rhapsodic reputations cancel each other out and engender caution?

Of the two managers, Real Madrid’s Zinedine Zidane has the greater power to answer these questions. Gareth Bale’s lowly position in the Madrid food chain is a perfect demonstration of just how deep his options run. Meanwhile, injuries, on top of an already shallow squad, have robbed Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp of the ability to tinker with the line-up already conjured in the minds of most.

While the neutral prays for anarchy to prevail in this one, we’ll probably see two sets of 11 finely tuned to battle for every metre.

A different Ronaldo tale

Thank God for Virgil van Dijk. That is undoubtedly one of the predominant thoughts in Klopp’s mind; the £75-million spent on him long forgotten. Signed in January, the intimidating Dutchman has helped to steer Liverpool to 17 Premier League clean sheets this season, their most since 2009.

But no deity will be receiving thanks for the loss of Joël Matip. His thigh injury forces Dejan Lovren into the side, a player regularly exposed this season for his lack of positional awareness and his proclivity for lackadaisical man-tracking. You could hear the Van Dijk cheque being scrawled when Harry Kane made Lovren look like a store mannequin in October.

He would notably repeat the static stance as the ball floated over him in Rome last month.

Zidane will elect to go with either two or three up front, but either will see Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo fulfil their traditional transitional roles. Van Dijk will probably be tasked with denying the Portuguese superstar space in the predatory role in which he has so flourished in this season. Which leaves Lovren to keep track of the runs of Karim Benzema — who will be well aware that luring him out of position will create space for a player like Isco to run into.

Another option for Madrid would be to play a 4-4-2 with Lucas Vázquez and Marco Asensio out wide. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson have been solid but Zidane will feel their inexperience is a point that’s vulnerable to exploitation.

Between the sticks, Loris Karius has hardly done his bit to dispel notions about Liverpool’s porous backline.

Recruited last season as an improvement to the error-prone Simon Mignolet, he has instead rotated in and out with the Belgian. He’ll start on Saturday in all likelihood and needs to deliver the game of his life.

Opposite number Keylor Navas’s mixed performances have courted transfer rumours but the belief remains that a major blunder from him is not of immediate concern.

Centre duel

When it comes to ball-playing, there is no competition in the midfield. Toni Kroos and especially the silky Luka Modric nonchalantly weave patterns of destruction with the flick of a boot. Jordan Henderson and James Milner are as English as 3pm tea and crumpets at Downton Abbey (read: plenty of rudimentary hustle). Which is not necessarily an indictment. That alone may be enough to force Zidane’s hand. Casemiro, first choice for much of the season, is a wall in front of the back four but lacks the composure on the ball that might prove essential in such a game — evidenced by his substitution at half-time in the second leg against Juventus.

In anticipation of rabid pressure from Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, Mateo Kovacic might be deployed in the holding position. The Croat is a smooth ball player and was trusted to control play from deep in the 2-2 against Bayern Munich.

Henderson, who will also be urged to press, will probably find himself regularly occupied with watching that Benzema’s havoc is limited when dropping deep.

Salah against the world

If it is going to happen, Mohamed Salah will be the man who brings a sixth European trophy to Merseyside. That much is no secret. Man for man, Los Blancos are undoubtedly the superior outfit, but the 44-goal Egyptian has proven he has no interest in reputations.

His presence will have knock-on effects throughout the Madrid team — particularly on their left-hand side. Marcelo has cemented himself as one of, if not the, supreme attacking full-backs in the world. Venture forward too much, though, and risk Salah viciously consuming the free space. Zidane may well choose to deploy a 4-4-2, playing Asensio on the left to mitigate the risk while allowing the Brazilian to contribute valuable marauding runs. On the other side we have an intriguing battle between Sadio Mané and Dani Carvajal. The Senegalese has had the spotlight stolen from him this season but is still venomous when attacking a defender on the backfoot. Again, Vázquez might be called in for assistance to shore up the wing.

Sergio Ramos has built his legend on standing up when the occasion matters, scoring in two finals already. This time he and partner Raphaël Varane are faced with a different prospect — Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian, unlikely to beat either for pace, will be instructed by Klopp to work the gaps, finding the space they leave with strolling forward to play a pass. From there Firmino is one of the best in the game, acting as a pinging board for Salah and Mane, often playing the perfect pass for the pacers to break through.

Should Salah latch on to one of those, Madrid may well be denied a third consecutive Champions League. Should Ronaldo triumph instead, he’ll have as many European cups as the whole of Merseyside.