A couple of days ago, a loyal twitter follower reminded me of the closing tweet in my summary thread after last season’s Champions League final in Cardiff, in which I explained how the gentleman next to me said: “See you in the next Final!” as a manner of farewell. We were simply ecstatic, and indeed overconfident.
And that is exactly Real Madrid’s biggest threat for Saturday’s match in Kiev. If we have to judge by what we’ve seen and heard in the last few days, the over-optimistic, self-aggrandising Madrid media has taken a number of Real Madrid players for a ride in their “This match is a mere formality” way of seeing this final.
One hopes that Zinedine Zidane and the most senior members of the squad have put some sense into the rest, with sentences such as those constantly repeated by Carvajal and Ramos in Cardiff’s dressing room (“We have won nothing” or “Remember some people out there have spent two months’ salary to be here tonight”). However, overconfidence is an illness not easily eradicated with a couple of sentences. Every team member must feel the need to win for the side to perform, and in this case it seems as though victory is being taken for granted.
Of course, a large section of the Madrid media thinks that Liverpool aren’t a worthy rival, and that does not help to keep the competitive flow up and running. Santiago Segurola, a widely respected football journalist, said on Thursday that Klopp’s side is the worst Real Madrid have faced in their last four finals played. According to him, a bunch of high school kids would score at will on Lovren & co, although Segurola failed to explain why the already mythical, theoretically unstoppable Manchester City offence of his beloved Pep Guardiola wasn’t able to defeat that Liverpool’s shambolic back four when they had 180 minutes to do so. In fact, Segurola seems to forget that City lost both matches and scored only once.
Knockout tournaments allow for upsets because some teams know how to hide their weaknesses and leverage their strengths for spells long enough to defeat apparently superior opposition. If you take a look at Real Madrid’s squad and compare it to Liverpool’s, it should win easily in a league tournament, the same way that Barcelona would do versus Roma. But when you play “only” 180 minutes, Dzeko and his colleagues or Salah and his mates can drive any back four nuts, throw you off your game, make you doubt, lead you to lose your focus until it’s too late and you can’t react. And in the case of a single-match final, the potential of an upset becomes even bigger.
Granted, Liverpool’s back four is far from perfect. Aside from the world’s most expensive defender, Mr van Dijk, the remaining trio becomes hesitant under pressure, their passing iffy, and they aren’t the kind that inspires calmness among their teammates and goalie. Nothing has allowed Liverpool fans to liberate more toxins with screams of anger than Lovren’s mistakes in the last few seasons. But while they’ve allowed their opponents quite a few bizarre wins with stunning lapses of concentration, City simply could not score against them at Anfield when it mattered .
I don’t think I’m saying anything new with this: Liverpool’s line-up improves as you move forward on the pitch. Their defence is ok, their midfield is competitive, their front three is simply outstanding. Henderson, Milner and whoever Klopp chooses – probably Georginio Wiljnandum, although Emre Can and Lallana could make a cameo – guarantee plenty of work and sweat, and reasonable – not great – service for their strikers.
And the dynamite is upfront. Firmino, Mane and Salah are so good that they don’t need much from their teammates to wreak havoc in any defence. Salah deservedly gets all the accolades, but Firmino is the one who covers for the lack of a more skilled offensive midfielder with an amazing ability to move 10 metres back and disorganise the opposition’s back four with his passing. He’s a joy to watch, especially with two partners as fast and physical and Salah and Mane. And the latter’s speed is the kind of feature which Real Madrid’s defence struggles to contain.
It sounds like a cliché, but in this case it applies perfectly to the match: if Liverpool score first, the final will become a nightmare for Real Madrid. They are so fast and well-coached to play at the counter that the possibility of Zidane’s team trailing is the Madridistas’ worst nightmare.
That is why Real Madrid’s level of focus, especially at the beginning of the match, is key. This season, we’ve seen too many poor starts that ended up with Real Madrid trailing, often at the Santiago Bernabeu. Zidane can’t afford that against Liverpool, not against Firmino, Salah and Mane.
Even if the French manager is keeping his cards close to his chest, I would be shocked if the line-up were any different from: Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos, Isco; Bale and Cristiano.
The three midfielders with Isco in a free role is the combination that makes Zidane feel more at ease with regards to keeping possession and attacking with patience. I’m betting on Bale over Benzema even though the latter would theoretically improve the possession aspect because, as you’ve read in this column, the French manager has never given up on the Welshman, and Bale has responded with goals and hard work in the last few weeks. He adds a dimension of threat that Benz no longer offers, and against Liverpool’s back four Bale can punish any lack of attention as Lovren & co focus on Ronaldo.
The 4-4-2 with Asensio and Lucas that he’s used in a few Champions League matches obligates him to take out one of the three midfielders, and that makes no sense, especially against Liverpool’s hard-working, but limited three-man midfield. That could become an option in the second half if things don’t go well or if he wants to play some counter attack with the dynamic duo.
On paper, it’s easy to understand why the Real Madrid front can feel optimistic. These players have already starred in quite a few top-level matches, know well how to manage the pressure, and as Klopp himself said, they’re ready for almost any eventuality that may happen during the match. Liverpool’s squad lack this top-match exposure and that could cost them dear at some point.
But this Real Madrid have also lost more times than usual this season, and have been prone to lapses of concentration that no team can afford in a final. It’s a question of focus, of tight lines, of high pressure and the ability to finish. If they play like they did in the second half of the Cardiff final, they have all the cards to win. If they become the self-assured, passive Real Madrid we saw against Villarreal, Barcelona, Betis or Leganes this season, they’re dead meat, even if you believe that Dejan Lovren can’t possibly start for a Champions League winning team.