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The Mother Of All Champions League Final Previews

Kiyan’s final column before the season concludes — a mammoth Champions League final preview, looking at the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Let’s go.

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

This is it. An entire season on the line, with no games left to play but this one — a Champions League final between two of the most successful teams in European history, boasting an absurd amount of game-changing talent, in a final that means everything. For Real Madrid, anything but lifting a third successive European crown would be failure. They go up against a team that’s hungry, confident and lightning quick on the counter-attack. It will be good, it will be awesome, it will be fun, and it will cause your organs to spill out of your mortal frame.

Real Madrid are essentially built for moments like this. Historically, they’ve never needed to be good domestically in order to wipe the floor with their European rivals. In their first ever European Cup triumph in 1956, Di Stefano’s men finished third domestically — 10 points behind champions Athletic Bilbao. In the 1998 Champions League Final, when Predrag Mijatovic scored one of the most emotional goals in Real Madrid history (against Zinedine Zidane’s Juventus, no-less), the team finished fourth in La Liga. Two years later, when they won their eighth European crown — a 3 - 0 win over Valencia at Stade de France on the back of a brilliant Raul — they finished fifth in Spain. Had they not won the final, they wouldn’t have even qualified for the Champions League the following season — and who knows what the butterfly effect of that would’ve been, with Florentino Perez and Luis Figo arriving the following summer with the expectations of Champions League football.

There is a sense of versatility to Zidane’s blueprint. No one, not even his wife — much less us — has been able to decipher his brain. Jurgen Klopp will guess Zidane’s scheme up until the opening kick-off in Kiev. Whether it’s a diamond, a 4-3-3, a 4-4-2, or something else, Zidane promises an open game with some chaos sprinkled in. Klopp is Klopp — he probably blasts heavy metal behind the scenes so that his players play it in their minds during their furious, in-game gegenpress. We guess what Real Madrid will do; but we know Liverpool will press high, force defenders into passing it out wide to their full-backs, and close the passing channels to the defensive anchor — likely Casemiro. Throughout, they’ll look to blitz Real Madrid in transition.

Liverpool relish big games, particularly when they’re not favoured. Klopp has experience eliminating Real Madrid. The Reds are built to thrive in big games despite laying eggs against weaker opponents domestically. They also have weaknesses, and it would be naive to only swoon over their attacking trio (and several other excellent parts) when both Roma and Manchester City made them suffer along the way; just as Bayern unnerved Real over two legs.

It’s unlikely that Klopp will deviate from his 4-3-3. Oxlade Chamberlin’s injury is a blow, given how much he excelled as a key cog in Liverpool’s midfield in the last few months, but they can continue to sling this formation by inserting Georginio Wijnaldum into midfield. Both Ox and Wijnaldum occupy the same space on the right side of a midfield trio, but Klopp would’ve preferred to have Ox — a human-bowling-ball who can shoot from range and cause offensive chaos with his runs. Wijnaldum brings a different dimension — a more calming presence who can distribute and slow down the tempo but can also join the attack and meet crosses.

Milner (who had injury concerns, but should be back in time for Kiev) should start alongside Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson in midfield. (Emre Can and Adam Lallana lack full health and match fitness heading into the final). Everything else is routine for Liverpool. The excellent Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino, and Mohamed Salah will start up top. Andrew Roberston and Trent Alexander-Arnold will provide overloads and defensive stability as the full-backs; and Virjil Van Dijk and Dejan Lovren will command the back-line in front of goalkeeper Loris Karius.

There are concerning things that Real Madrid will have to deal with against this Liverpool scheme — none moreso than the transition defense and coverage on the flanks. Liverpool can retain possession and counter at lightning pace. Alexander-Arnold has been a revelation, and, Andrew Robertson has stepped in the past few months to the point where Alberto Moreno (heavily criticized for his brain farts and all) has disappeared into the dust. Liverpool’s right flank, where Salah and Alexander-Arnold roam, will be a handful to deal with. Salah tends to prowl without many defensive duties — exploiting high-lines in his way and latching onto through-balls; while Arnold is a quick, two-way wing-back who was marvellous in containing Leroy Sane in the Champions League quarter-finals. Anything but Zidane’s diamond would be conducive to Real Madrid nullifying the threat on Marcelo’s side.

Playing against Liverpool, a team that is just fine with ceding possession, will be an interesting change of pace to playing against Bayern Munich — a team that stole control and kept the ball. It has its perks; but also its perils. Real Madrid like controlling the tempo, something they struggled to do against Heynckes over 180 minutes. But facing a lower block will mean playing a higher-line. Real Madrid may be the best team Liverpool have faced this season, but Klopp’s scheme does feast on high defensive lines.

Zidane can’t make the same mistake he made early in the Camp Nou, where Real Madrid hedged high, and Sergi Roberto exploited space in-behind Marcelo. Salah will always be in that area as an outlet.

This is not a sound way to zip up against Liverpool. It would be like throwing gasoline on a campfire. When Salah breaks, Mane’s jets turn on parallel on the far side. Firmino is almost always in a good position to support the attack. If Carvajal and the central midfielders are already in a high position like City’s players are in the above sequence, Zidane will be asking for those famous, last-ditch, heroic defensive efforts from Varane and Ramos often. Carvajal, the wing-back who somehow always manages to have the most pertinent dual of the entire match, going toe-to-toe in a marquee fracas with an opposing star, will have his hands full with Mane on the opposite flank, particularly in moments like this where Liverpool retain possession and Real Madrid have to backpedal:

Below, Kolarav switches off, letting the passing lane free. Marcelo and Kroos can’t have these moments when working in unison on the left:

Neither can Carvajal do what Fazio does here, not reacting quick enough to the vertical pass on the counter:

One of the most impressive traits about Liverpool’s front three, particularly Mane and Firmino who roam deeper, is how quickly they transition on either side of the ball. Defensively, they get back and defend, and when Liverpool break, they arrive in the final-third in record time. This is one of Gareth Bale’s most underrated traits which further advocates him starting as a two-way presence. Against Barcelona, he would help Carvajal retain possession deep, and seconds later, would be darting high up the pitch off the shoulder of Barcelona’s defensive line. Likewise, Liverpool don’t just blitz — they dispossess first. Firmino is a master of dropping to unnerve attackers or to help evade a press:

Firmino dropping to help Liverpool is a big asset for Klopp. He has high IQ without the ball, and Klopp finds relief knowing the Brazilian’s work-rate won’t hurt his attack too much given Mane and Salah can fly, and that Firmino can get back up the field quickly. He’ll do things in a pinch unprompted just to give The Reds some security. No ball-carrier is safe, even when Firimino is completely off-screen at the beginning of a sequence:

Counter-attacks and cutting runs behind the full-backs — how could you possibly consider rolling out a diamond to combat this? Celta’s front-three eviscerated Real Madrid at Balaidos against the positional wonkiness of the diamond. With Asensio and Kovacic replacing Casemiro and Isco in the same scheme, Bayern took a pickaxe and carved their way vertically unchallenged. Luka Modric can’t spend every ounce of his energy chasing Mane alongside Carvajal; and Kroos can’t be relied on to jog back and cover for Marcelo’s gambles with Salah lurking. You might as well dangle Ramos and Varane upside down and ask them to Houdini their way out of volcano.

In order for Modric and Kroos to be freed and relieved to pull strings, they’re better off tucking in to dictate flow and (get ready, big gulp) cover for Casemiro’s bombing runs. Almost no one wants to see the Brazilian anchor be the spearhead of a midfield trio (at times), but it’s going to happen, and when it does, Modric and Kroos can cover for him if they have more help on the flanks. What can’t happen: Casemiro making these forward runs while Modric and Kroos are already in the opponent’s final third, and the fourth midfielder is roaming. See: Often.

Zidane doesn’t have to get too complicated with the scheme, he just has to ensure the coverage from the flanks is there, and that if the team decides to go through a back-and-forth war, it’s not just a matter of ‘we’ll score more than you’; it needs to be pragmatic enough to plug leaks and increase the chances of keeping a clean sheet. It’s not like Liverpool can’t defend in transition. They get back behind the ball quickly and in large numbers. They have scored, far and away, the most goals in this year’s Champions League — 10 more overall and on two fewer attempts per game than Real Madrid. They’ve scored the most counter-attacking goals in this year’s competition while conceding zero, per WhoScored. An open game sounds nice in theory, if you’re Real Madrid and have Cristiano Ronaldo, among other ridiculous offensive weapons, but it’s not that simple.

Attacking Liverpool, Zidane could be better off just keeping possession and being patient in build-up — which is the most likely outcome to begin with. It’s almost too simplistic, but if you strip everything down to its bare bones, this game could be won based on who spends the most time in the opposition’s third. Liverpool are much more efficient when they’re gegenpressing rather than sitting deep with numbers. When the tempo is slow, and Modric and Kroos have time to calculate things and snipe out off-ball runs, Liverpool will surface bad habits. Roma made life difficult for Klopp’s backline when Dzeko and Under pressed high, with Nainggolan, Strootman, and De Rossi following cohesively. The answer was to use Karius more than their comfort zone would’ve wanted, and consequentially, possession would be lost. They also suffered some blows during stretches where they allowed Roma to recycle possession.

When the opponent has time to move, they can make runs in the half-spaces. There are moments where players can waltz into dangerous positions undetected, like Cesc does here:

Those are the kinds of off-ball runs that gave Real Madrid their third goal against Juventus in Cardiff -- with Modric moving to the flank and putting in a low cross at the near post. Moments like that should present themselves in Kiev. There will always be an avenue or two to attack from, and while Lovren’s play has been boosted since the arrival of Van Dijk, he’s still old-Lovren at times — a player that Real Madrid can look to hurt, even moreso if they keep the offense dynamic with lots of off-ball movement.

One potential (and underrated wrinkle) that Liverpool have is defending set-pieces. They’ve improved dramatically with Van Dijk’s arrival. Zidane has not always tried to match-up, pound-for-pound, physically, just for the sole purpose of staying staunch on set pieces (see: taking off both Bale and Casemiro at half-time against Juventus when Ramos was already absent), but there is a case, again, that fielding Bale, alongside the rest of the behemoths — Ronaldo, Ramos, Casemiro, Varane — could give Real Madrid an edge against Liverpool dealing with corners. Liverpool really unsettled Roma on corners in the first leg, getting on the end of almost everything.

Liverpool don’t like to be pinned. City completely rattled them in the second leg of the quarter-finals. Guardiola nullified the press by taking the game to the final-third. Klopp likes his team in a higher block. They are not an Atletico who thrive with their backs against the wall, with heat maps coaxing you into thinking their defenders were Jan Oblak. They are also a much deadlier counter-attacking team than Atletico, and emphasize their shape in a way that maximizes outlets in positions to counter as quickly as possible.

There is probably no greater recipe (again, to simplify it) to beating Liverpool than scoring first and letting the possession-hoarding begin. Klopp did not taste that (on aggregate) against Roma, City, or Porto. They did against Chelsea, and couldn’t recover as Chelsea countered and took The Reds out of their comfort zone. Again, taking away Liverpool’s strength -- counter-attacking, counter-pressing — by scoring early and pinning, is not easy, it’s just a way.

The key is to get out of Liverpool’s initial press. Few press better Liverpool, and few suck in presses and break your spirit better than Real Madrid:

It will be interesting to see how Klopp manages this kind of passing -- something he really has no control over. That entire sequence was laborious. Bayern did everything they were supposed to do, and they sustained it for an untold amount of time. Real Madrid just kept going, refused to hoof the ball into oblivion, and decided that no matter what, they would persist to find outlets and pass it out. Their reward: Asensio in space on the right flank and a goal-scoring chance. If Wijnaldum, Milner, and Henderson aren’t cohesive with the front three all the way, they’ll concede dangerous chances.

But flipping all this is equally scary. If Real Madrid switch off defensively, the eye-test and numbers suggest Liverpool will pounce and finish. They are absurdly efficient. Salah was gifted room by Manolas in the first leg as he scored a gorgeous far-post curler. Real Madrid completely ignored Joshua Kimmich in the box as they conceded early in the Bernabeu. Salah would be licking his lips when looking at the chances Bayern had throughout.

Underrated in Salah’s slingshot against Roma: Everything that Wijnaldum did. Liverpool fans may prefer having Ox still available, but Wijnaldum did a lot of good things when coming on the pitch, including winning possession in midfield before creating space for Salah with a tasty off-ball run:

Wijnaldum may not be as dynamic as Ox, but he has his perks. Salah is almost always playing on the shoulder of defenders on the right flank. Wijnaldum shows good awareness to get out of a tight spot quickly and hit the right pass (and it’s passes like this Marcelo needs to be conscious of constantly):

The higher the line, the more vulnerable Real Madrid will be defending the flank, and sometimes even in front of a slow-paced build-up, they struggle knowing when to hedge on and off or how to cover without getting exploited:

Roma and Manchester City found out the hard way that playing a high line will effectively be the end of you if you do it against Liverpool. Will Real Madrid take note? They’ve been exposed in the exact same way multiple times this season.

Zidane has to be careful with his gung-ho, kamikaze tendencies. He’ll be tempted to go for the kill. Roma effectively destroyed themselves by pushing both Kolarov and Florenzi up the pitch, while the midfielders failed to stay back and cover. Only De Rossi stayed back for large stretches, and there was little he could do to thwart Liverpool on his own. Hits home? It should. De Rossi is Casemiro here, only De Rossi actually played like a defined anchor while the Brazilian can’t help but uproot himself to other areas high up the pitch.

Again, all of this is more reason to light up the bat signal and hope for a Gareth Bale start. The Welshman frees Modric, sets dominoes for better coverage both for the full-backs, but also internally, has the pace and multiple lungs to track and attack, has high defensive IQ, is an aerial threat, and will keep both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson honest — making them think thrice about how much they can venture forward and provide overloads.

Any winger on Real Madrid’s roster, Bale or not, can play this role, to be sure. When Asensio came on at half-time against Juventus and Zidane switched to a 4-4-2, he started covering for Marcelo on the left and the Brazilian immediately stopped getting torched. Lucas Vazquez has been one of the best individual defenders on the roster this season. His work-rate is second only to his commitment to win every challenge and helping out Dani Carvajal. But healthy Bale is the team’s only reliable goalscorer not named Cristiano Ronaldo, and when healthy, turns a game on its head. Bale covers more bases than one.

What Liverpool have achieved on a European level this season is remarkable. They deserve to be here, and will have less pressure than Real Madrid to finish the job. They had some luck along the way, but who doesn’t, at this stage? Real could say the same, and Liverpool have been smashing goals at a ridiculous pace. But it’s easy to forget, amid their pillaging, that they are vulnerable, struggle defending incisive off-ball runs, and feel uncomfortable when pinned in their own half. What makes this match-up so fascinating is that Real Madrid’s weaknesses plays into Klopp’s hand, and vice-versa. Added plot twist: Klopp will have no idea what iteration of Zidane’s scheme(s) he’ll have to mentally prepare for until he sees the final team sheet an hour before kick-off. Zidane meanwhile, has ample time to pull out the scouting report.

There is little margin of error at this stage for Zidane. He can’t put the team in a position to fall in the same bad habits of not defending the flanks, not communicating properly who goes forward and who covers, or disjointed presses that unglue the team’s defensive structure. All of that has to go out the window.

One recurring question if Zidane rolls out the 10 outfield players we saw against Villarreal: Will Ronaldo be isolated without Benzema? He shouldn’t, theoretically. The (small) sample size we have when Isco and Bale play together without Benzema shows that it works well. Both can feed Ronaldo the ball plenty. Both create well, and their contrasting styles keep defenders guessing. They also provide a nice balance of controlled possession and blitzing counter-attacks. In the 61 minutes Ronaldo played against Villarreal, he slung five shots, nicked a beautiful goal, and looked comfortable on the pitch. Benzema may or may not start. The Frenchman is generally conducive to bringing out the best out of Ronaldo — but he’s also not the only way Ronaldo can thrive. In a pinch, if Zidane starts with Isco and Bale over Benzema and Asensio / Lucas, he won’t be shy to pull a quick trigger and bring on Benzema at half-time if Ronaldo is isolated. Obviously this is a situation he’d like to avoid altogether, but if the question is about Ronaldo’s isolation, Bale and Isco together has worked.

Klopp would presumably rather see Bale on the bench. He’d be relieved to not have to deal with someone extra to worry about defensively. The diamond is what he’ll hope for, as that will provide the best opportunity for him to push his full-backs higher and un-cuff Firmino and Mane. Maybe, umm, don’t give him his wish.

The quickness in which Liverpool break is staggering. Again, pragmatism from Zidane might trump his black magic, just for once. Numerical superiority in midfield might be needed. Liverpool read the game well and are always in a position to counter.

James Milner has racked up a record amount of assists during this campaign, but Jordan Henderson in midfield is key in igniting so many attacking sequences for Klopp’s men:

There is a lot here that Liverpool fans should be proud of, from Henderson and Salah, to Milner and Firmino. They all play their part. We barely talked about the Robertson / Alexander-Arnold tandem that have been so important for Klopp’s scheme on both ends of the field. Liverpool are good, they’re vulnerable, and the fact that they’re so storied historically makes this final special.

For Zidane, it’s time to shake off any doubt — make history in the modern era, win convincingly, and prove why you’re the best team in the world.

Saturday is going to be fun.

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