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UEFA Champions League Final preview

The UEFA Champions League Final is set. Real Madrid vs. Liverpool FC. One game, winner is showered in glory, loser goes home in disappointment. Real Madrid are looking to win their third straight UCL title. Liverpool are looking to cap off an exciting season and begin a new era at Anfield. Both teams are filled with history. Both teams have the two best scorers in the world at the moment; Mohamed Salah (43 in all competitions) and Cristiano Ronaldo (41 in all competitions). The anticipation built once the final whistle blew of the semifinal between Liverpool and Roma. Now we get to mentally prepare ourselves for the best football the world has to offer at the club level.

How did each team make their way to Kiev?

Los Blancos finished second in their group behind Tottenham and drew Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16 to begin their run towards the Ukrainian capital. On experience alone, Real Madrid was able to blow away the smoke emitting from the mouths of the players on French outfit, including one Brazilian mega-star in Neymar, advancing 5-2 on aggregate. In the round of 8, Real Madrid squeaked by Serie A champions Juventus on a last-second penalty taken by who else, but Cristiano Ronaldo.

The two legs of the tie could not have been more different; First leg, Real Madrid blank Juventus 3-0, but the second leg, Juventus staged what would have been a great comeback to force extra time tying the aggregate score at 3-3, until Ronaldo’s penalty in stoppage time of the second leg that sent Real through to the semifinal.

In the semifinal, Real Madrid again edged their opposition by controversy and a goal. Bayern Munich goalkeeper Sven Ulreich’s blunder in the second leg that handed Los Blancos the one-goal lead on aggregate (advancing 4-3) could go down as the ultimate gift to Madrid in route to their third straight UCL title.

Overall, Real Madrid’s 2018 UCL campaign has yielded the results they wanted, but how they got those results would be more than likely undesirable. Zidane’s side did not seem to play consistently well in the knockout rounds and the trail they left has been littered with controversy. And just think, by the start of the knockout stages, rumors were speculating that Zidane would lose his job as the manager if Madrid had been knocked out by PSG early on. It is safe to say now that his sacking has been saved for another year with a third straight UCL final appearance and looking to complete a three-peat.

Real Madrid looking to win three straight UCL titles.

Liverpool FC took a slightly different route to Kiev. The English side finished fourth domestically last year, so they drew Hoffenheim in a preliminary round to get into the group stage. Liverpool advanced convincingly with a 6-3 aggregate score. Liverpool finished top of Group E that included Sevilla (Spain), Spartak Moscow (Russia) and Maribor (Slovenia).

In the round of 16, the Reds rolled over Portuguese side, Porto, in a 5-0 route and exciting display of attacking football. Liverpool drew the soon-to-be Premier League champions in Manchester City for the round of 8; a tie that was easily dubbed matchup of the season prior to kickoff. The Reds had taken an astonishing 3-0 lead heading into the second leg and was able to hold off Man City advancing on aggregate 5-1.

Liverpool faced off with fellow American-owned Italian side, AS Roma, who had just completed an incredible comeback against Barcelona. Roma would have to complete another comeback in the second leg as Liverpool had a 5-2 lead. Liverpool was able to hold on to that lead and advanced to the final on a UCL semifinal record aggregate of 7-6 (most goals in the semifinal of the competition). To summarize Liverpool’s journey to Kiev, it boasted a lethal attack and a defense that could crack at any moment given enough pressure. Fortunately for the Reds, their offense was their best defense; the greatest the UCL has ever seen having their front three slot home 31 of their 40 UCL goals this season.

Likely Line-ups

Madrid will most likely deploy a 4-4-2 with diamond. Most of the 11 will be easy to predict to start barring any injury. Keylor Navas will be in goal and in front of him will be Marcelo, Sergio Ramos and Rafael Varane; the fourth member of the backline will be Theo Hernandez if Dani Carvajal is unable to go. The midfield diamond will be made up of Casemiro (back of the diamond), Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and if Isco cannot play due to injury, expect Lucas Vasquez to take his place at the front of the diamond. Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo will be the attacking forwards.

Liverpool will probably stick to their same formation of a 4-3-3. Due to injury, this lineup is easier to predict. Loris Karius in goal with Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk, Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold in front of him. The midfield will be made up of Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum. The front three will be Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah.

Strategy: Real Madrid

Real will have to control the midfield with Kroos and Casemiro and trust them to find Modrić to help distribute to the front three. Casemiro drops back to help Varane and Ramos defending against the LFC front three when they try to counter; this helps cover for Carvajal/Hernandez and Marcelo wanting to push forward in attack. Isco/Vasquez and Ronaldo will create chances for themselves and Benzema. Apply constant pressure to the Liverpool defense, do not allow them to counter and it’ll be smooth sailing for Los Blancos

Strategy: Liverpool

Coach Jurgen Klopp has created this captivating Liverpool team with his pressing all-out attack style. They will need that energy to put Madrid’s age to the test. The midfield needs to outpace and outwork Modrić and apply as much pressure as they can to Kroos to force turnovers. Henderson or Milner may need to assist Lovren and van Dijk in closing up the holes Madrid may create on the attack. Similarly to their first leg performance against Roma, they should let Real Madrid’s full-backs press forward and utilize the long ball to hit Real’s backline with the pace that Salah and Mane offer. This forces a 3v3 with Casemiro dropping back with Ramos and Varane to spread the back line out. Marcelo and Carvajal will be running up and down the field all evening. Trust Robertson and Alexander-Arnold to stall, agitate and compete with the Madrid flanks and unleash the counter when they are able to win possession and unleash the best front three in the UCL.

Image courtesy of: https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcR1am9Plt1oD7LaD4vd3Ul4E8VFYd7qJ4pa9TwxJG439phbJoQzEw
(From left) Firmino, Mane and Salah have made plenty of noise this season and look to cap it off with a UCL trophy

So who wins?

For Madrid to really stall Liverpool’s front three, Marcelo and Carvajal will have to be conservative when going forward. Zidane cannot expect Ramos to keep up with either Mane or Salah in a foot race. This point becomes irrelevant though if Madrid can control the midfield; Madrid would prefer it if Casemiro and Varane are the ones chasing the two wings leaving Ramos to mark Firmino, a much better matchup for Madrid. Both defenses can be exposed as Liverpool proved last round against Roma. Both attacking thirds have proven what they can do so this game will be won in the midfield.

So who wins? Can Liverpool end the reign that Spanish football has had over the UCL? A reign lasting almost five years (La Liga has produced the last four champions, three of them being Real Madrid). Given that their style of play suits the competition they’ve faced, I think Liverpool win their first trophy in 13 years as a result of their high pressing and deadly front three. Real Madrid have just escaped elimination the past two rounds and haven’t been punished for playing poorly. Liverpool only know how to play one way and while that may leave them vulnerable at the back, they boast the most dangerous front three in the world at the moment. You know what they say, the best defense is a good offense. Liverpool is the more consistent team than Madrid. While Madrid is more experienced at this stage of the competition in recent memory, they have limped their way to Kiev and haven’t been punished for their poor play. Liverpool wins 3-2 with goals coming from Salah, Firmino and van Dijk.

 

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