As the globe prepares itself for one of the greatest spectacles in sports, the World Cup, two of the biggest clubs in soccer have had to remain focused on their more immediate task: the Champions League Final.
Real Madrid of Spain and Liverpool of England will meet in Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine, on Saturday to crown the top club in Europe. The victor of the massive tournament is widely accepted as the best club in the world, with club tournaments in other regions of the world not stacking up to the talent pool possessed by Europe’s famously wealthy clubs.
As kickoff approaches, the two sides enter with striking differences in experience. Real Madrid has already won back to back Champions League Finals after defeating Atletico Madrid and Juventus in the prior two years. No team had ever won back-to-back Champions League Finals, and Los Blancos will now look to even further cement themselves in soccer lore as they aim for an unprecedented three straight seasons as Europe’s top club.
Liverpool, on the contrary, has not won the Champions League since 2005 and enters the final with hopes to become the first English club to win the competition since Chelsea back in 2012. “Real Madrid are more experienced,” said manager Jurgen Klopp, “experience is important in life but it is not everything.”
While the Reds’ players may lack some big game experience, Klopp does not. The German rose through the coaching ranks by managing Mainz (his former club from his playing days) and Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga before taking over the reigns at Liverpool in 2015. He helped Mainz get promoted to the Bundesliga and upon joining Dortmund he led them to two league titles as well as an appearance in the Champions League Final in 2013. Despite losing to German giants Bayern Munich in that game, Klopp has proven himself as a world-class manager and has repeatedly expressed his confidence in his younger roster.
With kickoff scheduled for Saturday at 1:45 pm CDT, fans can expect a fantastic game that should be full of scoring chances. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo leads the Champions League in scoring once again, boasting 15 goals and three assists so far in this year’s competition. Liverpool rely on a more balanced goalscoring attack, with Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane contributing a combined 29 goals and 12 assists. The two clubs are the top scoring teams in the Champions League as well. Liverpool leads the competition with 40 goals, and Real Madrid are a distant second with 30 goals.
Recent form is often an important indicator of which team will come out on top heading into such an important matchup, but with league play coming to an end and the World Cup stuck in the backs of many players’ minds, perhaps this year it does not apply as much.
Liverpool stumbled their way through the second leg of their semi-final matchup with Roma one month ago, sneaking by 7-6 on aggregate to make the final. They have since lost to Chelsea and defeated Brighton playing in the Premier League, where they locked up the fourth spot to guarantee them a spot in next year’s Champions League.
Real Madrid has been an interesting case all year long. FC Barcelona ran away with the league title, and Zinedine Zidane has seemed comfortable with coaxing his team into a third-place finish in La Liga, ensuring that they too will be a part of next year’s Champions League. The French manager was once a star for Real Madrid himself, and understands the importance of having his best players fit for the final, so he has rested the likes of Ronaldo and fellow forward Gareth Bale often.
After defeating Bayern Munich 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-finals, Real Madrid has drawn twice (Barcelona and Villarreal), lost once (Sevilla) and won once (Celta Vigo). Inconsistent performances by Real Madrid tend to create more controversy than inconsistencies by smaller clubs, and if the Spanish side loses on Saturday they will have failed to win any of three major trophies they usually contend for as Barcelona already won the league and the domestic tournament, the Copa del Rey.
Neither team has any players suspended for the final, but Liverpool faces more concerns with injury problems. Joe Gomez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joel Matip have all already been ruled out for the final, but midfielders James Milner and Emre Can recently returned to training. Whether or not Klopp decides to play the hampered midfielders in the final will come down to his reactions leading up to and during the game, the manager has said.
Zidane has been careful with injuries all season long, and will lead Real Madrid out of the tunnel with the team at full strength. “I haven’t got the starting eleven for the Champions League Final in my head,” the manager said on Saturday after a draw against Villarreal. “We’re ready. Also we haven’t picked up any injuries tonight which was important.”
Real Madrid has the deeper, more talented roster from top to bottom and heading into the final at full strength gives them an advantage. They were already favorites and should remain favored leading up to Saturday’s game. The starpower will be ready to rock for both teams come kickoff, however, and with both sides showing that their back lines can be shaky at times, it is anyone’s game to win.
Unlike the knockout stages of the Champions League, the final is decided by one game. Fans supporting both sides have purchased up all the tickets for the match despite it taking place in the Ukraine, and the stadium should have an intense atmosphere. Will Mohamed Salah and Liverpool run rampages with their stifling attack and bring the Reds their first Champions League title in over a decade? Or will Cristiano Ronaldo add to his already overflowing trophy case by leading Real Madrid to a third consecutive victory in Europe’s biggest tournament final? Nobody can know for sure until the ball gets rolling Saturday in Kiev.
Quotes courtesy of BBC Sport and Managing Madrid. Statistics Courtesy of UEFA.com.