Preview: Who’ll win the Champions League Final?
May 24, 2018
In many ways, this year’s Champions League final is the celebration of two of the tournament’s most successful and prestigious clubs.
Including its former iteration as the European Cup, these clubs have contested an impressive 22 finals since 1955, with Real Madrid featuring in 15 and Liverpool seven. Both sides also boast an impressive win rate in the showpiece match-up, with Los Blancos having won a record-setting 12 titles and the Reds emerging victorious on five occasions.
As you would expect, there’s an incredible amount of speculation surrounding this year’s final, with Madrid and Liverpool having scored a combined total of 70 tournament goals in just 24 group stage and knockout phase outings.
But, will the game produce the festival of attacking football that some pundits are anticipating, and who will emerge victorious at the end of the game?
Madrid will start as favourites
There’s no doubting that Los Blancos have tremendous pedigree in the tournament, having won three of the last four finals dating back to 2014. In fact, Zinedine Zidane’s men became the first ever side to retain the title in its modern iteration of the Champions League last season, as they swept aside Serie A giants Juventus with a 4-1 win.
Given that Madrid will arrive in Kiev in search of a third consecutive title, it’s little wonder that the bookmakers have made them marginal favourites for the win at 8/11. In contrast, Jurgen Klopp’s attack-oriented side are priced at an average of 9/7, as Liverpool pursue their first UCL crown since that historic night in Istanbul back in 2005.
While English fans may be talking up the Reds’ chances of prevailing in the Ukraine, the odds may also reflect the obvious flaws in Liverpool’s potential challenge. After all, Liverpool’s star-studded attacking triumvirate of Mohamed Salah (10), Roberto Firmino (10) and Sadio Mane (9) have plundered 29 of the Red’s 40 tournament goals so far, leading to suggestions that they are far too reliant on their front three.
This also highlights the chasm that exists between the breath-taking quality of Liverpool’s attack and the other areas of their side, including an energetic but workman-like midfield and a questionable defence (despite the improvements that have been made since the additional of Virgil van Dijk and Andy Robertson). Because of this, the Reds have largely based their surge to the final on explosive bursts of ferocious intensity and attacking intent, rather than an innate ability to control games.
No single game reflected this better than the group stage game with Sevilla in Spain, when Liverpool roared out of the blocks in the first half and surged to a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead after 45 minutes. The sheer intensity of this effort left the Reds tired and off the pace in the second half, while an inability to retain possession enabled the Spaniards to take charge of the game and ultimately earn a well-deserved draw.
This trend was reflected in subsequent knockout ties against Manchester City and Roma respectively, where Liverpool rode their luck at times and veered between the extremes of relentless attack and occasionally desperate defence.
The game will be won and lost in midfield
In contrast, Zidane’s seasoned and multi-talented Madrid side are perfectly equipped to manage games during the heat of knockout football, as they have demonstrated in Europe over the course of the last four years.
At the heart of this is their midfield, which is arguably one of the most skilled and diverse units in world football. Typically, Zidane has fused the combative talents of Casemiro with the technical brilliance of Luke Modric and Toni Kroos to help Los Blancos retain and dominate possession, while the occasional addition of the supremely gifted Isco also provides a seamless link between the midfield and the attack.
When you also throw in the dynamic and industrious talents of Mateo Kovačić, it’s clear that Madrid have a vast range of midfield options that enable them to take command of games in any given situation.
The same cannot be said for the Reds, who have a dearth of quality ball-players and defensive specialists in the heart of their midfield. Instead, skipper Jordan Henderson and Dutchman Georginio Wijnaldum provide an energetic, box-to-box presence in the middle of the park, with Emre Can offering minimal variation with his superior range of passing. This creates a slightly one-dimensional engine, and one that may struggle when confronted with skilled and experienced technicians like Modric and Kroos.
The Reds have hardly been helped by their injury situation, with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain having been unfortunately ruled out of the final by injury and the creative Adam Lallana having struggled with his fitness throughout the season.
After all, the powerful Chamberlain boasts a unique ability to carry the ball at pace in central areas, which would have proved crucial when the Reds looked to break through Madrid’s midfield lines. Lallana may prove an even bigger miss if he is deemed not fit enough to feature in Kiev, as his vision, passing range and eye for goal would have enabled the Reds to retain a greater semblance of possession at key times.
Make no mistake, this could well be where the game is one and lost, with Madrid’s greater control and range of midfield options offering them a key advantage over the Red’s strained playing squad.
The last word: it’s Madrid’s to lose
Given this, and the ability of Madrid to play equally well in possession and on the counter-attack, it’s little wonder that Los Blancos remain the favourites to prevail in Kiev.
In short, Madrid have the experience and the tactical flexibility to adapt to any in-game situation, while the leadership and defensive ability of players like Sergio Ramos should enable them to cope with the Red’s bursts of high-intensity attacking.
Of course, there’s no denying that Liverpool’s explosive front three have the potential to destroy any defence within a relatively short period of time.
They’ll need to lay a solid defensive and midfield foundation to achieve this against Madrid, however, and this may prove beyond Jurgen Klopp’s men given the quality of the opposition.