Champions League final: Liverpool could stun heavyweights Real Madrid with fearless, direct approach
The match is a battle between two historically great Champions League teams, one that is trying to rewrite history with their dominance in the modern era, while the other tries to fight their way back to glory in a competition they have a glorious past in.
In many ways, it is fitting that Real Madrid will have to defeat Liverpool to become the first team to win the title three years in a row in the Champions League era. After all, the Reds are the most successful English side in the competition's history, having won it five times. Real, of course, are a different kettle of fish altogether, as they have won the Champions League 12 times in their history, the most of any European club, and exude a confidence that only clubs with a proven track record will possess.
After winning the Spanish league and the Champions League last season, this year has been a let-down for Zinedine Zidane and his side, as they failed to provide any challenge to Barcelona in the league. The European Cup, however, always brings out the best in them, and they showed that, overcoming three powerhouse teams in Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich to reach the final. Their opponents on the night, Liverpool, had a much easier run to the final, defeating Porto, Manchester City and AS Roma to cement their place in Kiev.
Zidane has a fully-fit squad to choose from and he will have a tough decision to make as he figures out whether to go with the big names of Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema over diminutive attacking midfielder Isco and the dynamic Marco Asensio. So far, this season, whenever it has been a choice, it has been Bale who has been left out as Isco has performed admirably in all the knockout stage matches in the Champions League. Asensio and Benzema have also chipped in regularly when picked and that has been the characteristic of this Real side. Their next man up attitude has helped them get this far in the competition and will benefit them against Liverpool as well.
Los Blancos could become the first side since Bayern Munich did it from 1973-76 to win Europe's top club competition three years in succession. The only other teams to have achieved that feat are the Johann Cruyff-led Ajax side from 1970-73 and Real Madrid themselves, when they won it five times in a row from 1955-60. The scale of that achievement is so big that it is very easy to lose sight of the fact that winning the Champions League is very, very tough, as you have to overcome one great opponent after another. To do that three years in a row, is monumental.
Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp have been on a path to discovering their identity. In the three years that the German has spent at the Merseyside club, they have finished eighth, fourth and fourth in the Premier League, indicating steady progress. Most of this progress has been built on the team's attacking abilities, as Klopp has ingrained his gegenpressing, counter-attacking style of play in his team.
The Reds' forward-line is one of the most dangerous in Europe, with the trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane offering pace, penetration and power, combining to score lots of goals. They come into this final as the team having scored the most number of goals in this season's competition, 40, averaging more than three goals per game. In a one-off final, they will have just as good a chance at winning the trophy as Real Madrid, as their fearless, direct approach is ideal to winning in big games.
On the other side is a team full of players who have seen this occasion three times in the last four years, and have come out on the winning side every single time. European pedigree flows through this Real Madrid side and they will not feel the nerves, they know they belong and what they need to do to achieve the result they want.
To add to a team full of superstars, they have Cristiano Ronaldo, a man built for the biggest stage of club football. He has scored in the Champions League final on four occasions, once for Manchester United and the rest for Real Madrid. Ronaldo scored the dagger in their 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid in 2014, he converted the final penalty in the shootout win over Atletico in the 2016 final. The Portuguese superstar provided a telling contribution in the 2017 final, scoring a decisive brace as Real defeated Juventus 4-1. What makes him so dangerous is his consistency and ability to come up with the telling blow even if he isn't very involved in the game. It is his ability to stay ready that has driven him, and with 15 Champions League goals this season, has scored four more than Salah, who is next on the list.
Another aspect of this encounter is the coming together of two coaches who have never really got the credit they deserve for their achievements. Despite implementing his gegenpressing style of football at both Borussia Dortmund and Liverpool, European success has eluded Jurgen Klopp and has painted a picture that says his teams are defensively suspect. Though that argument has its merits, he has worked hard to remedy the Reds' defensive weaknesses and this particular team has shown that it has the defensive wherewithal to withstand long spells of pressure from the opposition.
His counterpart on the night, Zinedine Zidane, could move ahead of managers like Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho, if he helps his team win the Champions League this season. If his team manage to achieve that incredible feat, it would be his third Champions League title, pushing him on level terms with Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti. As a manager, a lot of Zidane's success has been attributed to the fact that he has a team full of superstars, with many doubting his tactical nous to manage a team at the highest level. However, Real's success shows that the Frenchman has the perfect blend of man-management and tactical understanding to set his team up in the best manner possible to achieve greatness in Europe. Another Champions League title would make Zidane a great manager as well, in addition to being one of the greatest players of all-time and a Real Madrid legend.
The match is a battle between two historically great Champions League teams, one that is trying to rewrite history with their dominance in the modern era, while the other tries to fight their way back to glory in a competition they have a glorious past in. A win for Real Madrid adds to their reputation as the best team in European Cup history and helps them set a marker as the only team in the Champions League era to win the title three years in succession. A win for Liverpool cements their status as the best team from England in European competitions, and gives them the chance to build on their success for what could be a glorious future.
Madrid reached the semi-finals last season but were resoundingly beaten by Chelsea, whose 3-1 win on aggregate would have been more emphatic had they not missed a cluster of chances in the second leg.
The 18-year-old was carried off during Sunday's 3-0 win at Elland Road with an injury that caused visible distress to his team-mates.
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