Saturday represents the final curtain for the 2017-18 European football season. The Champions League final, which pits Real Madrid against Liverpool, will be contested in Kiev, Ukraine. The winners’ names will be etched into history. They will be crowned kings of the continent.
It promises to be a thrilling final—and it’s not every year we can say that. Some past Champions League finals, such as Chelsea vs. Bayern Munich (2012) and Real Madrid vs. Atletico Madrid (2016) have been a grind, but this one will not fall into that category.
It features two attacking sides who can only operate one way: streaming forward in numbers, seeking simply to outscore the opposition. Real Madrid fans tend to whistle if the ball is played sideways too often at the Santiago Bernabeu; while at Anfield, Liverpool fans chant “Attack! Attack! Attack!” and “Allez allez allez!”
Here, we preview the impending collision of two titanic European sides, detail how both will approach this final and pick out three key areas where the game will be decided.
Real Madrid: Setup and XI
Manager Zinedine Zidane has changed the shape of his side frequently during the Champions League knockout stages, cycling through his deep, talented squad in the process.
In their six-game march to the final following the group stage—against Paris Saint-Germain (round of 16), Juventus (quarter-final) and Bayern Munich (semi-final)—he switched liberally between a front three, a front two and a midfield diamond shape.
What formation and personnel he begins with in Kiev—and ends with, for that matter—is tough to figure. But in previous years, Zidane has tended to go with the in-form players heading into the final, which would suggest Gareth Bale will beat Isco to a place in the XI.
If that’s the case, expect a 4-3-3 formation, with Bale to the right of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo to the left. The usual triumvirate of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro will man the midfield. Sergio Ramos will lead a defensive line with no surprise selections.
That would leave Isco, Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio—three players who have played a definitive part in getting Los Blancos to this stage—on the bench, but they’re still game-changing options for later on (particularly Asensio).
Liverpool: Setup and XI
In stark contrast to Real Madrid, Liverpool’s XI and formation picks itself. That’s partially because they’ve settled so well into a particular rhythm, but also because injuries have robbed Jurgen Klopp of the chance to rotate or spring a surprise.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain would have been a surefire starter had he not been injured in the semi-final first leg against Roma; Georginio Wijnaldum will take his place in midfield again. Likewise, Emre Can likely isn’t fit enough to start—he hasn’t played since March!—so there’s no decision to be made about whether he or Jordan Henderson should anchor the midfield.
The front three we’re so well acquainted with—Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane—has had two weeks to sharpen up. Virgil van Dijk will command a defensive unit no one truly expected to see jell together in this fashion back in August—mostly because Van Dijk wasn’t present at the time.
The shape will be 4-3-3, though Salah’s movements and attacking tendencies mean it warps into a 4-4-2 at times.
1. Can the full-backs cope?
Confidence is high that this final will be a high-scoring affair. One of the prime reasons is that the contest will pit three, perhaps four, elite wingers against a group of full-backs who lack either experience or defensive discipline.
Salah will play off the right flank of Liverpool’s 4-3-3, and he’ll likely be given plenty of space to operate given his nominal marker, Marcelo, tends to race forward without any care for his defensive responsibilities.
Nothing underlined this more than Bayern Munich’s first goal in the semi-final first leg, when right-back Joshua Kimmich sprinted into a massive gap on the counterattack and fired beyond Keylor Navas. Replays showed Marcelo jogging back as Die Roten steamed forward and scored from his area of the pitch.
Giving Salah this much space is akin to a death wish. Not a single opponent this season, in whichever competition, has done so and survived to tell the tale. Only those who focus so intently on him that he’s practically suffocated—Manchester United and Swansea City are two examples—manage to reduce his impact.
On the opposite flank, reigning Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo will come up against 19-year-old Trent Alexander-Arnold—a player with fewer than 50 senior appearances for Liverpool. The teenager has been doubted at every turn, predicted to collapse against the likes of Manchester City’s Leroy Sane in previous rounds, but he’s held firm. Will he, though, continue in that vein on such a stage and against such a formidable big-game player?
In one-on-one scenarios, he can be overeager when trying to dispossess runners, which can see him beaten or forced into a foul. He has the speed to stay with Ronaldo; he just has to ensure he doesn’t overcommit.
These two battles have been set in stone for a month, but a third has reared its head of late. Bale has reverted back to his dynamic, ruthless best recently, producing four goals in his last three matches. Should he be given the nod on the right, the committed, yet modest, Andy Robertson will face the toughest task of his career.
2. Harness the chaos
Marcelo’s laissez-faire attitude to defending doesn’t seem to overly concern Zidane and Real Madrid. His approach would be called out at most other clubs, but at the Bernabeu it is embraced, even harnessed.
The truth is Los Blancos don’t really concern themselves with defending. It’s not an insult to say that, as their unrivalled success over the last half-decade speaks for itself. It’s just the way they operate. The fashion in which they attack, press high with their central midfielders and swarm to the box when the ball moves forward lends itself to a lack of defensive structure.
Zidane deploys Casemiro as his midfield firefighter, but he’s often overwhelmed. Centre-backs Ramos and Raphael Varane are forced to make a lot of difficult decisions high up the pitch, committing themselves to risky tackles and often sprinting wide to cover for absent full-backs.
It is, quite frankly, a ridiculous way of playing football at the top level—but it works. Where other teams become cagey and careful, withdrawing into their shells, Madrid shed their layers and fly forward, trusting themselves to outscore their opponents. The prowess of Ronaldo in front of goal justifies the approach.
With Zidane’s men opening up in such a fashion, Klopp’s men will likely follow suit. They’re a measure more organised defensively than Los Blancos, owing a lot to the serenity Van Dijk has brought to the setup. But his partner, Dejan Lovren, is known for his proneness to error, and Alexander-Arnold’s inexperience may result in mistakes.
Expect pockets of space to open up all over the pitch as both teams attempt to assert their influence on the game, vying to become the dictating force.
3. Shuffle the deck
Zidane has developed a reputation for turning games by using his substitutions. Over the last few years we’ve seen him use his bench expertly, utilising the immense squad depth open to him.
Last year’s Champions League quarter-final was a prime example of this: With his side in a tight, tense battle with Bayern Munich, he picked the perfect moment to send on dynamic dribbler Asensio, who would punish them on the counter. Against tired legs he looked unstoppable, and he scored a memorable goal to finish off the German giants.
If these two sides go blow-for-blow as expected, there could well have been five or six goals already scored by the time Zidane turns to his bench in search of extra juice. When he does, he’ll see Asensio, but also Vazquez, Mateo Kovacic and one of Isco or Bale.
Conversely, Klopp won’t be able to call upon nearly as much. Adam Lallana is set to be named on the bench, but he’s the only real catalytic player of note. You wouldn’t expect Danny Ings (one goal scored in two years) or Dominic Solanke (still a relative rookie) to be able to change the course of a game at the highest level.
This is where Zidane holds his final edge. Not only does he have the electric personnel to shift the course of a match on his bench, but he’s clever enough to wield the power effectively. It could prove the different in what is expected to be a 90-minute shootout of the most entertaining nature.