The anticipation ahead of this Saturday’s Champions League final is almost unrivalled in recent years. The champions of Spain face the champions of Italy. These are truly the two best teams on the planet right now squaring off in Cardiff, and that’s something that we don’t always get in a final. It’s Juventus’ staunch defense and efficient counter-attack against Real Madrid’s possession-based build-up play. Both teams are healthy, both teams have had ample rest. In other words, Cardiff will be lit.
Since the mid-90s, when Juventus appeared in three consecutive finals, only two teams have been able to reach three finals in four years — Bayern Munich, and this current Real Madrid side. That two of the three teams to have done it since then appear in the final this season, tells you how much history lies between these two teams.
To help us set the stage, and get a different perspective from our own, we reached out to Daniel Penza of SB Nation’s Black White & Read All Over. He was ‘extremely’ confident about Juve’s chances.
Kiyan: Daniel, we have a very storied history together. Juventus have dominated Real Madrid in the Champions League, while Real won the final in ‘98. How confident are you heading into this game?
Daniel: Extremely confident. Not that I'm overlooking Real Madrid by any means, but Juventus have as good of a chance as they've had in years of winning this whole tournament. They're in much better shape than they were in 2015 when they faced a machine-like Barcelona side that beat them 3-1. Juventus are the clear-cut underdog. If anything, it seems like just as many folks are picking Juve to win as there are people favouring Real Madrid. It's got all the makings of a great game, and a lot of that has to do with how Juventus has reclaimed its place as one of Europe's true elite clubs. They aren't just dominating domestically anymore, folks.
Kiyan: What weaknesses (if any) does Juventus have, and how can Real Madrid possibly exploit them?
Daniel: The one weakness that Juve does have, and it's been on display both domestically and in Europe for much of the season, is that they really have a tendency to not put away a good number of their quality scoring chances. It sounds weird that I'd say that about a team that has Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, but it happens. So much attention has been put on the defensive efforts Juve have put forward against Barcelona and Monaco — and rightfully so knowing how good those teams can be offensively — that their attack hasn't really been in the spotlight. As good as Higuain is he has been rather wasteful in front of goal the last month or two. (And that's not necessarily feeding into the "Higuain chokes in big games" narrative that everybody loves to use whenever he misses his first scoring opportunity.)
Kiyan: Does Higuain have a photo of Benzema on a dart board which he uses as fuel? How hungry will he be to score against Real Madrid?
Daniel: Hungry! Higuain! I get it!
Okay, now that I've gotten a Higuain fat joke out of the way — and if you're lost just fire up the Google machine and do a simple search or two — I will answer the question.
Higuain has truly been one of Juve's best players this season. And when he's been hot goal-scoring wise, he's really been fantastic to watch. He enters the game in not all that great of form, but he's so much of a threat to score that he always carries that possibility of grabbing a brace whenever he steps onto the field. I have no idea how much playing against his former side will motivate him. But I do know that if the Higuain that we've seen a lot of this season shows up in Cardiff, then it's going to be good news for those of us who root for Juventus.
Kiyan: 4-2-3-1 or 3-4-3 for Juve? It seems like Alegri can morph into either formation if needed.
Daniel: If I had to guess, it will be a combination of the 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-2-1 that Allegri has been using in Europe the last few knockout rounds. It will be relatively easy to figure out which formation will be used based on how the right wing is aligned. If Andrea Barzagli starts, it's probably a three-man backline with Dani Alves playing as a winger. If Juan Cuadrado starts, then Alves will be at his customary fullback spot. Both have obviously helped turn Juve's season around from a performance standout point, but it's been the 3-4-2-1 hybrid that really limited Monaco from doing much of anything in the semifinals.
Kiyan: Is there anything about this Real Madrid team that has you salivating? Things that you think Juve can exploit?
Daniel: Real Madrid's defense, definitely. It's not that they're terrible, but they do seem susceptible to mistakes. And even though Juve's attack hasn't been out-of-this-world kind of good like a certain No. 7 for Real Madrid has been in Europe, they're more than capable. Dybala and that left foot of his is magic. And like I said, Higuain can turn nothing into something in the blink of an eye.
Kiyan: What worries you most about Rea Madrid?
Daniel: That Cristiano Ronaldo fella who scores 20 goals every game.
Kiyan: Call it.
Daniel: 2-1 Juve. And no matter what I'm going to have heart burn and no fingernails left.
LET’S FLIP IT.
Daniel: Obviously we know about Cristiano Ronaldo's dominance in the Champions League of late. But how has he been able to sustain this insane goal-scoring pace throughout the tournament?
Kiyan: Two reasons: 1) He’s a unicorn, one of the greatest players of all-time, takes an injection of cojones before every big game, and wears extra CR7 underpants to keep his balls from hanging out of his shorts and drilling a sinkhole into the earth; and 2) Zidane’s gotten Ronaldo to buy in to taking more rest. Ronaldo only played 28 of the 38 league games this season, which has kept him fresh for the timeless European nights. Zidane deserves a lot of credit for this.
Daniel: There are a lot of people around BWRAO who still love them some Alvaro Morata. Even though he hasn't been a full-time starter this season, how would you say his return to Madrid has gone?
Kiyan: Mixed bag. Everyone loves Morata here too. We all want him to succeed, and depending on what your expectations were of him, he’s either succeeded or not. On one hand, he’s the second highest scoring player this season behind Ronaldo in the league. On the other hand, most of his minutes have come against smaller opponents, and he doesn’t get a sniff in big games. For me, that’s disappointing — even if it’s not his fault — because his reputation at Juve was built on his ability to step up in big games.
I don’t imagine he’ll play much on Saturday. I mean, it’s not set in stone, but Zidane’s second-choice striker behind Benzema has been... Ronaldo. Zidane likes to sub Benzema off for an extra midfielder like Asensio; simultaneously packing the midfield and pushing Ronaldo up top as the ‘nine’.
That’s something that Morata has going against him, particularly because there are so many impressive options in midfield who can allow Zidane to alter the scheme mid-game.
Daniel: What's Real Madrid's biggest weakness?
Kiyan: In the last month-and-a-half, with Bale’s injury, and also Isco’s emergence, Zidane has morphed the team into a diamond. It’s been a refreshing scheme that has its perks. Isco acts as the spearhead and roams around productively. Kroos has a more offensive role with less defensive responsibilities. Modric, while not in his preferred role, has been fantastic on the right flank playing as a non-traditional right midfielder who can create from deep and help defensively while providing outlets in midfield. But, defensively, it’s a narrow formation, which should worry Real Madrid given the strength and two-way presence Juve’s flanks possess.
Unless Zidane has something up his sleeve to mend the issue defensively on the flanks, I think Allegri can exploit the inefficient coverage from Carvajal and Marcelo’s bombing runs in the diamond. If Real Madrid really want to combat this caveat, Kroos needs to have a shorter leash offensively, or, Zidane would have to field both Bale and Isco together while benching Benzema to strengthen the defensive blueprint and secure the flanks. I don’t see that happening, though.
Daniel: What scares you the most about Juventus?
Kiyan: Kind of already talked about this before, but, I’ll shoehorn it in again: Higuain’s hunger. I really think that’s a real thing. He’ll have a chip on his shoulder. Of course, there’s always the other obvious things which I won’t rehash too much: Juve’s flanks, which are pretty well built to deal with Real Madrid’s elite wing-backs and wingers; and their defense, and ability to keep their shield without sacrificing much offense.
I think that last point is what makes Juve so good. Atletico, for example, on their day are one of the best defensive teams on the planet -- but they cede their offense in doing so. Juve’s attack is much more incisive with all their off-ball movement and dynamic counter-attack.
Daniel: How has Zidane grown from his first to second season as manager?
Kiyan: Tactically, he’s diversified. He has different schemes for different situations, players, and opponents. But, I think most of his improvements were actually implemented over the summer. It was always going to be intriguing to see what the team looked like if they gave the keys to Zidane and let him build. He opted for continuity and investments in the youth system. And, as we mentioned before, twisting Ronaldo’s arm to rest more (which stemmed all the way back to the summer), was a big shift.
Daniel: Real Madrid's midfield seems to be really well constructed from the outside looking in. What is it about that group of players that makes them so good?
Kiyan: Modric refuses to age. He’s been incredible this season. And as is tradition with Toni Kroos, he’s peaking at the apex of the season. You could make a case for both of them being the two best players in their position, so when you throw them into the same midfield — that helps.
Then you have some dominoes set off — the supporting cast has aided a lot. Casemiro has relieved those two of a lot of defensive duties; while players like Isco and Asensio have been tremendous all season in providing outlets and helping Modric and Kroos bind the transition in attack.
Daniel: You asked for my prediction. So, what's your prediction?
Kiyan: 3-1 Real Madrid.