Saturday’s showdown between Liverpool and Real Madrid is a repeat of the 1981 European Cup Final. That game was a tight affair, which was settled by Alan Kennedy’s late goal for Liverpool. Many will hope the 2018 edition will be far more compelling, and there are several subplots which could make for a pulsating Final.
For Madrid, the Champions League represents a opportunity to salvage an underwhelming domestic season. Los Merengues could only finish third in the league, three points behind their city rivals Atletico Madrid - and 14 behind League winners Barcelona. Furthermore, they were knocked out in the Copa del Rey quarter-finals, losing to Leganes at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Such was their inconsistent form in La Liga that some wondered if Los Blancos would finish outside the Champions League spots. However, if their League form was of great discomfort to Coach Zinedine Zidane, the Champions League served as a perfect tonic.
Although Los Merengues didn’t have it their own way in the group stages, finishing behind Tottenham Hotspur in their group, they were brilliant in the knockout stages. Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern Munich were all dispatched on their way to the Final. Cristiano Ronaldo was at the forefront, scoring 15 goals overall in Europe, with six from the last 16 onwards.
Supported by Isco, Marco Asensio and Karim Benzema – not to mention Gareth Bale and Lucas Vazquez – Madrid’s attacking options are endless. Yet the role of Casemiro is just as important for Real Madrid. The Brazilian defensive midfielder sits infront of the back four, breaking up opposition attacks, which will be important when dealing with Liverpool’s attack. The vulnerabilities of Los Blancos’ defence makes Casemiro's role all the more crucial. If they can nullify the Reds’ much-vaunted attack, it will put them in the ascendancy.
Winning the Champions League would be important for Zidane as they could become the first team in the modern era to win three straight European Cups. Moreover, such a feat would surely allay speculation about the Frenchman’s future at Madrid, although lifting the jug-eared trophy wasn’t enough to spare predecessor Jupp Heynckes his job in 1998.
As for Liverpool, things haven’t been dull under Coach Jurgen Klopp. At the start of the season, talk centred on the future of playmaker Philippe Coutinho as the Reds rejected several huge bids from Barca last summer. Come January 2018, the Blaugrana would get their man, with observers wondering how Liverpool would fare without the Brazilian. In fact, Coutinho’s departure allowed Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to thrive – especially Salah.
The Egyptian has enjoyed a brilliant first season at Anfield, scoring an astonishing 44 goals in 51 games overall. Meanwhile, ‘triumvirate have run riot in the Champions League. Only Ronaldo has scored more goals in the Champions League than Firmino, Salah and Mane. In addition, the No 11 has been effective in creating eight assists in Europe, but James Milner has created the most in the competition with nine. Despite their attacking prowess, however, Liverpool do have some chinks in their armour.
Defence has always been a vulnerability for the English side in the last few years, whether domestically or in Europe. One stark example was against Sevilla in the group stages, when they raced into a 3-0 lead, yet were pegged back to 3-3. Nonetheless, Klopp rectified this issue by using the funds received from selling Coutinho to sign Virgil van Dijk from Southampton in January.
The Dutch centre-back has helped shore up the defence and Liverpool now look less vulnerable than before. On the other hand, there are still concerns in goal, with Klopp not entirely sure on Loris Karius and Simon Mignolet, hence why they have been linked with several goalkeepers in the transfer window.
With both sides confident they can win the Champions League, it should be a wonderful spectacle in Kiev.