By Daniel Ghorbal
After a long season in which Liverpool have played every single game available to play, just one more awaits as the showpiece Champions League final is upon us. Played in Paris, the most acclaimed game in Europe between the reds and Spanish giants Real Madrid is arguably the most archetypal final possible, and a chance for Liverpool to write the wrongs of the heartbreaking 2018 defeat.
Real Madrid have pulled off some major scalps in reaching the final this season, and although a club of their prestige and history should expect to reach finals regularly, beating PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City has proven just how much this competition means to that club. In all of the games mentioned, Madrid have had to show huge resilience and fight to come back from losing positions, none more so than the most recent semi-final against Manchester City. A dramatic late comeback saw Los Blancos reach yet another final and a chance to win a staggering 14th Champions League, an unprecedented amount.
Recently, Carlo Ancelotti’s side have been afforded the luxury of being able to rest and rotate key men, having already secured the La Liga title with a few games to spare. His side raced to the title and deservedly won it, holding off the competition of Atletico, Sevilla and Barcelona.
Having exerted so much energy in those aforementioned champions league ties, allowing the likes of Kroos, Modric and Benzema to recover and be as fresh as possible for the weekend has been something that their opposition Liverpool certainly haven’t been able to. Chasing the title until the final day has meant that the likes of Thiago and Fabinho are facing late fitness tests to see if they will be available for the final, much to the relief of Madrid players and fans.
Although complacency will never be an issue for two sides of this class, a weakened Liverpool midfield will certainly give Madrid confidence that they can dictate the play and really attack the game, unlike the tie against Manchester City where they were bailed out by moments of individual quality. Similarly to that infamous Liverpool front three of 2017/18, Real Madrid have a similar fate in midfield, with Casemiro, Kroos and Modric being mainstays in the centre of the park, but the form of Camavinga and Valverde has certainly given Ancelotti a selection headache prior to the weekend.
Although it is likely he will go for his experienced heads in a pressured situation, both Camavinga and Valverde especially have excelled when called upon, most notably in the Manchester City tie as they showed exceptional levels of energy and composure to just give the Spanish champions an extra 10%. As mentioned though, the rest afforded to Kroos and Modric means they will be fresh and ready to face yet another final, and with both players winning bundles of Champions League’s in their career, they will help settle the nerves of some of the more inexperienced players.
The combination of youth and experience within the Madrid set up has been admirable this season, most notably in the forward areas where Vinicius Jr and Karim Benzema have formed an incredible partnership. Both players have had terrific seasons, scoring 65 goals between them whilst tormenting some of the world’s best defenders. The Benzema display in the away leg against Chelsea was a show of true class and if he can replicate those levels on Saturday, then Liverpool have to make sure that chances are limited.
If the Madrid counter press sees Vinicius and Benzema afforded with the ball in front of goal, then the most likely scenario is that they will take that chance. Vinicius’ youthful exuberance has drove the side forward at times, and in a game where they may be pegged back, his pace as an out ball will be vital and something Trent Alexander-Arnold needs to be permanently switched on too. Madrid have been ruthless in front of goal this season, especially in games where they have struggled. Even the staunchest Madrid fans will admit that all three of their knockout ties saw the team outplayed in large spells of the tie, but ultimately the quality and nous shone through, and that is something they can certainly take into the weekend.
Ancelotti will know that there will be spells within Saturday’s game when his side are really up against it. Ultimately, they are playing against unquestionably one of the worlds best teams and have to be prepared to suffer on and off the ball. The energy levels of players will have to be at a premium to ensure that they are not overran at any point, and the added bonus of having five substitutes is huge for Ancelotti who can bring on fresh legs in many key areas. As we saw in Kiev 2018, an early injury can automatically limit potential options off the bench, so having the additional changes is huge and will play a massive role in the overall outcome of the game.
If you were asked to pick the most romantic Champions League final possible, Liverpool up against Real Madrid in Paris would most probably be the desired outcome, and this clash between two of Europe’s greatest clubs will be a fascinating tactical battle. Across the pitch, there are so many interesting head to heads and the State de France will host a truly monumental clash. Ultimately, it will come down to who turns up on the day, everyone knows how much quality both sides have, but it is so easy for even the greatest players to go hiding on the grandest of stages. Paris awaits.