Barcelona fans might not accept it – especially with their recent history – but no team is as synonymous with the European Cup/Champions League as Real Madrid. They dominated the early years and have dominated the last 5 years of it.
No other English side is as familiar with the Champions League as Liverpool Football Club. They taught the rest of the country how “to play in Europe” with their patience and possession winning them 3 in 5 seasons between 1977 and 1981.
On Saturday these two behemoths of European Football meet in Kiev, Ukraine for the 2018 final – their second meeting at this stage after the 1981 match in Paris, France.
At the start of this season many thought that after winning the Champions League and LaLiga Double Zinedine Zidane and Real were about to start dominating Spain and European football. The total destruction of Barcelona over two legs in the Super Cup led to some of us even crowing about a bloodless coup.
It did not prove so as Barcelona walked the league while Real seemed to be staggering around like a badly beaten heavyweight boxer in the 8th round of 12 rounder.
Two matches stand out during that period when Madrid were staggering all over the place this season: UEFA Champions League Match Day 4, Wembley, London. The European Champions were battered 3-1 by Spurs. It was a superb performance by the London side but what was so obvious was how shambolic Real Madrid appeared all match.
First el clasico of the season in Madrid. The home side needed to win to try and stop Barcelona’s march towards the title, two days before Christmas. After a first half in which Real marginally shaded the play, Sergio Busquets took hold of the match and elegantly ushered Barcelona to a comfortable 3 nil win.
No one saw Real Madrid being in the Champions League final in May. It is to their great credit that they have made it this far. Juventus and Bayern Munich not being able to stop the White Van men.
Real Madrid arrive confident. They are defending champions and will be wanting to win the Champions League for a record 3rd successive year – Bayern Munich 1974 – 1976 the last team to win the Cup three times in a row.
They possess in Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro a midfield trio so comfortable in their roles with the Croat one of the best ball huggers ever. Throw in the likes Marco Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Isco allied with the power, pace and sometimes arrow like precision of Gareth Bale and you can understand their optimism, confidence even. Then there is a certain C Ronaldo.
The Portuguese seems made for the Champions League ever since he won with Manchester United a decade ago. Liverpool seem to have it all to do.
Virgil van Dirjk arrived Anfield in the January transfer window for 75 million pounds to bolster Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool defence line. The Dutch man seems a throwback to the legendary Liverpool centre-backs of the Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson days.
An unlikely but tactically perfect partnership with the much maligned Dejan Lovren has helped the Anfield club go past Man City and AS Roma – conquerors of Barcelona no less – to get to Kiev. He will need to play his best game yet against Ronaldo and co.
The Premier League side have not gotten a bye to get this far so they certainly have a chance. Those two matches Vs Spurs and Barcelona show how Madrid can be played.
The opposition need to be confident in what they have planned to do and be ready to withstand Madrid’s early pressure. The Champions are fast starters, attack incessantly and in the words of Sky Sports LaLiga expert, Terry Gibson “recklessly and are quick to lose shape”.
Mo Salah has had an incredible season but he needs to muster one more great performance if Liverpool are going to win their sixth Champions cup/Champions League. He is very important in that the pathway for Liverpool into Madrid in this match is on their right side of attack – Madrid’s left.
Marcelo is nominally the left back for the European Champions but he is also one of their best attacking threats. If Liverpool can exploit the gaps that will inevitably be left by the Brazilian’s sorties upfield then they are in with a good chance.
One expects an open game with lots of chances and goals. Frankly, with the style Klopp plays I am expecting a high octane match. The odds favour Madrid but Liverpool arrive with nothing to lose and that must be seen as some advantage. Freedom to play under no pressure.
Finishing 4th in the Premier League has also eased the pressure of this match for next season for Liverpool.
The trio that Klopp decides to go with in midfield could decide this match for Liverpool as they will need to play well: harry incessantly, protect the back four and also shuttle the ball forward quickly to Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino.
I am backing Liverpool to lift a 6th European Cup/Champions League