The time has come. A magnificently romantic European final between two storied and legendary football clubs will take place in just a few hours time.
If we wind the clocks back to the opening months of the season, very few would have thought these two sides would be facing off in Kiev for all the glory. Regardless of Madrid’s Champions League title defense last season or the Reds’ blossoming attacking trio, both sides were porous and vulnerable defensively and had a tendency to concede late decisive goals.
That being said, both clubs have reached Kiev thanks to ruthless attacking and scoring ability. The Reds’ front three of Salah, Mane, and Firmino have combined for an all-time European Cup/Champions League record of 29 goals this campaign. Madrid are a bit more polarized in attack, with Ronaldo scoring half of Madrid’s 30 UCL goals himself. Real have also scored in every single Champions League game in the past two seasons.
Plagued by consistently poor defensive positioning this year, Liverpool’s super-press to fast-break counter methodology is Madrid’s worst nightmare. Despite the Merseyside clubs’ flawless tactical and individual masterclass this term, their good fortune in the group/round of 16/semifinal draws cannot be ignored as a major factor in their advancement to the final.
To reach or win a cup final, some amount of fortune is always involved. Injuries, favorable draws, or blown referee decisions are all relatively uncontrollable factors that have major implications on results. None of this is to take away from the Reds’ incredible rebuild and breakout season: but in this version of the most prestigious club tournament on Earth, it’s dishonest and inaccurate to say Liverpool had to climb as steep of a mountain their Spanish counterparts climbed.
Let’s start with the group stage. Liverpool were drawn in Group E, the weakest of all, one of two groups that had universally-predictable results (The other being Bayern/PSG’s Group B). Along with Sevilla, the Reds had the daunting task of finishing ahead of Maribor and Spartak Moscow to make the knock-out stage. Madrid had the not-so-similar task of finishing above quality European clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Borussia Dortmund.
The city of Liverpool and their global fanbase received an early Christmas gift by avoiding Juventus and Real Madrid to draw Porto in the first round. And, well, we all know what happened next. In the quarterfinals, there really were no easy opponents Liverpool could have drawn. Much credit to them, they out-pressed and out-played Pep Guardiola and his Premier League champions against widespread expectation of a City victory.
The Reds’ most significant stroke of luck came in the semifinal draw, where they avoided Bayern Munich and (yet again) Real Madrid to face Roma. According to fivethirtyeight’s Soccer Power Index (SPI), no team that reached the quarterfinals benefited as much as Liverpool did from fortunate draws.
Although the reigning European champions had a more treacherous path to Kiev by having to advance past PSG/ Juventus/Bayern after making it out of a loaded group, they weren’t without a hint of fortune themselves. Dearly missing captain Sergio Ramos, Madrid were on the brink of being pushed to extras by Buffon and Juve. A controversial late decision reduced the quarterfinal to a penalty, converted by Ronaldo. The victory over Bayern was arguably slightly fortunate as well, as Madrid were pressured into mistake after mistake the Bavarian giants failed to capitalize on.
It’s tough to remember a European final more difficult to predict. If Liverpool can execute their press effectively and capitalize on transition opportunities, Madrid’s lack of defensive solidity could cost them el decimotercera. If Klopp and his side allow the Merengues to dictate flow in midfield and manage Liverpool’s counters, the BBC could deliver an uppercut that’d be impossible to recover from.
All the good and bad fortune is now in the past and contextually irrelevant. The attacking heavyweights of world football collide shortly to produce either an eternal result for Liverpool, or the solidification of Madrid’s status as the greatest European dynasty of the modern and all-time history of the sport.
HOW TO WATCH, STREAM CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL
Time: 21:45 local, 20:45 GMT+2 (Spain), 02:45pm EST, 11:45am Pacific.
Venue: Olimpiyskiy Kiev, Kiev, Ukraine.
Available Streaming: FOX Match Pass (USA), Fubo.TV (EVERY Real Madrid game with a high-quality and legal stream, click here to sign up and benefit from a spring discount for new members and Managing Madrid readers).