Football Across Europe: Champions League Final Preview – Liverpool vs. Real Madrid

Two of Europe’s most prestigious football clubs descend upon Kiev, Ukraine for the 2018 Champions League Final, as Liverpool FC and Real Madrid are set to battle Saturday at 2:45 p.m. ET on Fox. The English-Spanish clash promises to be a perfect send-off to the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Real Madrid enter as the dynasty on a historic tear, having won three of the lats four Champions League titles. Los Blancos are hoping to remedy their domestic failures with a 13th European championship, led by legendary forward Cristiano Ronaldo and a squad that features world-class names at every position.

Liverpool boast the third-most European trophies in the sport (5), but their run to Kiev has shocked world football. After qualifying for the UCL for the first time since 2014 and selling Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona for $140 million in January, passionate manager Jurgen Klopp and English Golden Boot winner Mo Salah galvanized the Reds and have brought their ravenous supporters to the doorstep of European glory once again.

Fanatics has been with you throughout this epic UCL season, and we aren’t leaving you now as we break down the ins and outs of an exciting Champions League Final.

 

When: Saturday, May 26, 2018 at 2:45 p.m. ET

Where: Kiev, Ukraine

Watch: Fox

Projected Lineups

 

Real Madrid CF

The Journey

After winning La Liga and the Champions League a season ago, 2017-18 has become a season of perseverance and endurance for Real Madrid. Los Blancos were considered huge domestic favorites after rival Barcelona’s sale of Neymar last summer, but Barca flipped the script by finishing 17 points clear of Madrid and also claiming the Spanish Cup. Despite that, Zinedine Zidane’s men have once again shown their class in Europe’s chief competition and navigated through a treacherous draw to get in position for a third-successive UCL title. After dispatching of Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus in the knockout rounds, Madrid etched past Bayern Munich in the semifinal to reach Kiev. While mighty Real have appeared far from their usual powerhouse self throughout this season, their continued successes on the biggest of stages lends them to enter the 2018 final as proper favorites to claim the crown once again.

 

The Squad

Defense: No club in the world boasts more world-class names at the back, but Real Madrid’s defense remains somewhat of an enigma entering Saturday. Captain and center-back Sergio Ramos provides a blend of brains and strength and his pairing with Raphael Varane can make for an impenetrable line in front of goalkeeper Keylor Navas, but aggressive attacks can stretch them out. Marcelo is the world’s best left-back and Dani Carvajal should provide pace on the right, but the goals inevitably find their way in. Five La Liga clubs conceded less goals than Real’s 44 this season, and late goal-scoring surges from Juventus and Bayern in the knockout stages show they are vulnerable. If Real’s back four aren’t at their best for 90 minutes, Liverpool’s opportunistic attack will find a way in.

 

Midfield: The middle third should provide Madrid with their best opportunity to take advantage of a personnel mismatch. Luka Modric‘s creativity and quickness, along with Toni Kroos‘ vision and savvy, make up two-thirds of a midfield core that has provided the skill Real needs to dominate the middle of the field with possession and forward-thinking play. Casemiro has thrived as the defensive midfielder, becoming the rock that protects the back line and pushes things forward, but Isco gives the middle some extra attacking flair if Real choose to go that route. Even when Liverpool are playing at their best in the middle, they may not be able to keep up with the Madrid middle that might boss the match and help to prevent chances for the Reds attackers.

 

Forwards: Anything to do with Real Madrid starts and ends with Cristiano Ronaldo, the international superstar who’s going for his sixth Ballon d’Or trophy as the world’s best player and fifth Champions League crown. He leads the all-time UCL goals tally with 120, with 15 this campaign. Thoughts of him running at Liverpool’s inexperienced, albeit impressive, full-backs should strike fear in any Reds supporter. As if Ronaldo alone isn’t enough of a threat, Real’s attack features Karim Benzema as the central striker with Gareth Bale likely to take up the right wing, opposite of Ronaldo. The Reds’ big weakness in recent years has been their back line, which could decide the game if Liverpool don’t come out with a blistering defensive mentality.

 

Liverpool

The Journey 

The second full season of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure in Liverpool has been, by any account, largely positive. After securing Champions League football with a top-four finish in the 2016/17 campaign, Liverpool had the signing of the summer when they inked former Roma winger Mohamed Salah. All he did was win the Premier League’s Golden Boot, set the English domestic record for goals in a 38-match season, and help the Reds advance all the way to the Champions League Final. Though Liverpool only managed a second consecutive fourth-place finish domestically, the January addition of former Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk helped improve a suspect defense and further establish Liverpool as a genuine threat to the global elite clubs. In the Champions League, it was a play-in victory over German side Hoffenheim, winning their group, and then dispatching FC Porto 5-0, English champions Manchester City 5-1, and AS Roma 7-6 on aggregate. Liverpool already have more European trophies than any other English club with five, but what stands in the way of their sixth is no small obstacle. Spanish giants Real Madrid are seeking their 13th European trophy, and Liverpool will need to play mistake-free football to win the day.

 

The Squad

Defense: In recent years, the glaring and oft-discussed weak link of Liverpool has been their defense. Fans and pundits often questioned if the goalkeeper was good enough, if the team would ever find a center-back replacement for 500-appearance stalwart Jamie Carragher who retired in 2013, and if the club truly had the necessary ambition to compete at the highest levels. No doubt some of those questions persist, but young German keeper Loris Karius, given a second chance and the starting job, has looked infinitely better this season than last, growing into a comfort level with his teammates while leading this Champions League campaign with six clean sheets. His back line will likely feature two young and rangy fullbacks, including the 19-year-old Liverpool native Trent Alexander-Arnold and Scotland international Andy Robertson on the left and right respectively. In the middle will be Dejan Lovren, often criticized by fans in recent years but who has looked much better since being joined by his new partner and unquestioned captain of the Liverpool defense, January signing and Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk. Klopp’s main transfer target for more than a year, he’s been everything the team wanted since the move and will need to play with toughness, poise, and leadership against the awesome attacking firepower of Real Madrid.

Midfield: The major concern for Liverpool going into this match from a midfield perspective is depth. Emre Can has been cleared to play, but hasn’t seen game action in over a month. He and James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, and captain Jordan Henderson constitute the whole of Klopp’s legitimate midfield options for the match. A season-ending injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was a major blow, and recent injury issues for Can and Milner must have given Klopp some restless nights in recent weeks. That said, the group is led by team captain Henderson, who is no stranger to criticism but has been widely praised by his attacking teammates ahead of him to his credit. Milner, too, has been hot, leading this Champions League campaign with nine assists. The Real midfield is one of the world’s best, and it is very possible that the tempo and flow of the game will be dictated by this group’s ability to rise to the occasion.

Forwards: If the rest of this Liverpool squad invokes questions about their true quality, much of that has been covered up by what has become a truly elite attacking line. In fact, Liverpool have broken the all-time Champions League record for most goals in a single campaign, besting the 1999/00 Barcelona team’s total of 45 in two less matches, averaging more than three per match. While it’s true Cristiano Ronaldo leads this Champions League campaign with 15 goals, Liverpool’s entire attacking line are right behind him. Mohamed Salah and striker Roberto Firmino have ten goals each, and Sadio Mané is alone in fourth with nine. Firmino has added eight assists, the second most in this entire campaign, and Salah has added another four. As a unit, their interlinking play and tenacious goal-hungry pressing in the opponent’s box has simply been too much for any opponent thus far. If Liverpool are to hoist their sixth European trophy, it will no doubt feature one more dazzling display from this unit.

 

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