By Abiodun Adewale.
It all comes down to Kiev on Saturday night. All roads will lead to the NSK Olimpiyskiy Stadium in the Ukrainian capital for the 2017/18 UEFA Champions League Final.
Kiev, will be the world’s centre of attraction as twelve time champions, Real Madrid will be up against five time winners Liverpool for the ultimate prize in European club football.
It is not the berth anyone would predict ten months ago. Although it was hard for anyone to bet against Real Madrid, it was quite easy to write Liverpool off. But football does not allow perfection, yet this will go down as one hell of a final.
Real Madrid are on the brink of another milestone. After back-to-back triumphs in 2016 and 2017, the Los Blancos are aiming for a third consecutive Champions League title. So does their coach, Zinedine Zidane who is looking to become the first manager to achieve that unprecedented feat, only in the third year of his first team coaching career.
Standing in their way is Liverpool, a spirited team that last won the coveted title in 2005. Following another defeat in 2007 and an unceremonious exit in 2009, Liverpool has been absent from the biggest stage but their five titles on deck stands as the best amongst English clubs on the continent. Now they want a sixth.
On the road to the final, Real Madrid beat the champions of France, Italy and Germany. The journey was a bit bumpy from the group stages and in the last eight particularly, but Real Madrid, even at their worst performance have conquered PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich. It’s not an easy route.
Liverpool began their quest from the playoffs. They went about their business quietly until they were drawn against Manchester City in the quartre finals. While everyone saw pressure, the Reds saw opportunity and opened the eyes of the world to champagne football. They got City out of the way with victories on both legs but they had to hang on against AS Roma. The two legs against Roma showed Liverpool’s strength and also exposed their weaknesses.
Now against Real Madrid, the biggest game of Liverpool in the last decade can’t come against a more lethal opponent.
A lot of people started worrying about Liverpool’s defense from the second leg against Roma. While it was obvious they would be playing in the final, there were doubts if their shaky back four can stand the pressure of an attack spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo.
But come to think of it, is Madrid’s defense anyway better than Liverpool’s? The difference is simple though. Sergio Ramos marshals a composed but attack minded defense line for Real Madrid. That might be their edge but such a line can be erased by the directness of Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane and who would even tame Roberto Firminho?
Talking attack and defence, both Real Madrid and Liverpool are potent and vulnerable. Cristiano Ronaldo in a final of the Champions League is a nightmare for any centre half pairing. You don’t know where he’s running from, he’s on the right now and comes through the left later. And when a cross is coming in, it’s hard to beat him to it. Besides, he’s going to have either of Isco, Bale and Karim Benzema in support.
On the other side, Marcelo must play differently in order to be able to curtail Mohammed Salah. Four at the back for both teams are ideal but their respective attacks can split them up in different fashions.
The game might be won or lost in the middle and that’s where Madrid have the edge visible. Toni Kroos and Luca Modric with Casemiro sitting at the base is an unmatched tandem. Strong defensively and precise offensively. James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Giorginio Wijnaldum press high and know the inside out of ball retention. But against a crafty opponent, the steel of Emre Can might be needed. Whichever way, Liverpool don’t look like they can win the midfield battle.
In the dugout, Jurgen Klopp is known for his hard pressing and heavy metal football. Zinedine Zidane on the other hand can mould a compact team from start to finish. He’s so lucky with the players at his disposal.
On that premises, Liverpool as usual will likely use their juggernaut with urgency in the opening thirty minutes. It’s hard to survive it, so the amount of saves Keylor Navas can pull off will be key. Real Madrid do not need a specific part of a half to do the job, it could be anytime. So against a team that could go on and on, Liverpool must hold their nerves. Every Madrid player is a specialist of one-off.
However, they’ve shown that concentration against Manchester City.
A saying has become popular since 2016; they say the only way to deny Real Madrid of a cup is to stop them from reaching the final. They are in another final in 2018 but they might be stepping on banana peels.
Check your time, we are some hours away from a treat.