Attack the best form of defence for Real Madrid and Liverpool in Champions League final

Tom Biggs 3/05/2018
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On Tuesday night, as Real Madrid kitted themselves out in special t-shirts to celebrate their progression to a fourth Champions League final in five seasons, you couldn’t help but think Liverpool – should they reach the final – would have nothing to fear in Kiev.

24 hours later, and following another crazy semi-final tie between Jurgen Klopp’s men and Roma, you would have been forgiven for thinking that it was Zinedine Zidane and his players who shouldn’t be worried.

But, after two semi-final ties that saw 20 goals scored and defensive solidity seemingly abandoned throughout by all four clubs involved, perhaps an element of trepidation is exactly what both sides need ahead of the final in Ukraine later this month.

Both must embrace the challenge and play to their obvious strengths, but a level of respect, which appeared non-existent in the semi-finals, must be evident.

Liverpool will be coming up against Europe’s dominant force over the last five seasons. With Cristiano Ronaldo the man for the big occasion, and an apparent invincibility in the Champions League, Klopp must recognise the size of the task at hand.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid have plenty of Champions League final experience

Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid have plenty of Champions League final experience

Madrid meanwhile have to stop Liverpool’s attacking trio – without question the most formidable in the world right now – when the two face off at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium on May 26. That in itself is hard enough.

Madrid and Liverpool may be in the final, but both sides appear vulnerable.

The forward movement from Bayern against Los Blancos was excellent, but too often Zidane’s side were caught out by switches of play and quick interchanges in the final third, with Keylor Navas – mocked for his failure to keep out Joshua Kimmich’s strike in the first leg – standing tall, making an impressive eight saves at the Bernabeu.

Bayern got plenty of joy down their right. Mohamed Salah, especially, will be licking his lips at the prospect of coming up against Marcelo and Madrid. The Brazilian left-back abandons his defensive duties at every opportunity, and was left brutally exposed for Kimmich’s opener in Munich a week ago.

But while Salah will look to make the most of Marcelo’s advances forward, they too could pose a problem for Liverpool defensively.

Trent Alexander-Arnold, brilliant in both legs against Manchester City in the quarter-finals, found Roma’s direct approach too tough to handle in the Stadio Olimpico. With Marcelo getting forward at every opportunity, and Ronaldo drifting out to the left, the 19-year-old will need protection – something Salah doesn’t offer.

Mohamed Salah should get space going forward, but will he leave Trent Alexander-Arnold exposed?

Mohamed Salah should get space going forward, but will he leave Trent Alexander-Arnold exposed?

While the battle between Marcelo and Liverpool’s main man could be a decisive factor, an inability to defend crosses in both boxes could have just as much of an impact in Kiev.

Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos flapped every time Bayern looked to get the ball into the box from wide positions, with both Kimmich and James Rodriguez making the most of their indecisiveness in Madrid.

And while Virgil van Dijk has aided Liverpool’s defensive improvements, they too looked susceptible to balls into the penalty area, both from deep and from wide, with Edin Dzeko and Cengiz Under so nearly benefitting in the second leg in Rome.

Tactically, Zidane perhaps has more to think about than Klopp. The Liverpool boss, who has lost his last five finals as manager, will set up in his trusted 4-3-3 system. Zidane meanwhile will need to decide whether to play a flat or diamond 4-4-2.

If the Madrid boss goes with the former, Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum could well dominate the middle of the park, whereas a diamond formation will present opportunities to either Isco or Marco Asensio in attacking areas, but could leave Marcelo and Dani Carvajal exposed against Salah and Sadio Mane.

The frantic semi-finals left us with more questions than answers ahead of the final, but with uncertainty and vulnerability at the back for both sides, attack may well be the best form of defence.

Those watching will be in for a treat come crunch time in Kiev – goals are guaranteed.

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Liverpool chairman Tom Werner revels in side's 'truly deserved' Champions League final qualification

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Werner (L) is over the moon with Liverpool's progress to the finals.

Liverpool chairman Tom Werner has spoken of the joy of securing a “truly deserved” Champions League final place.

The 7-6 aggregate win over Roma, achieved despite a first European loss this season with a 4-2 reverse in the Stadio Olimpico, has set up a repeat of the club’s 1981 final triumph against Real Madrid.

It will be their first appearance in 11 years, which precedes the ownership of Fenway Sports Group, and Werner – a key figure in the American set-up – revelled in the moment.

“It was thrilling to beat Roma and our play in the Champions League was such that we truly deserve to be going to Kiev,” said Werner. “What a joy to experience this moment with our away supporters.”

Midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum admits they face their most significant challenge tackling the defending champions and 12-time winners who have lifted the trophy in three of the last four seasons.

“Probably the biggest test we could have had, the biggest I’ve had as a player,” said the Holland international. “We have to be aware of their quality, but they have to be aware of ours.

“The Champions League is the biggest competition you can play at club level, so if you can go in your first season to the final it’s a great feeling but then you want to win the final now, so you can’t relax.”

Wijnaldum’s first away goal for a club in three years put Liverpool 2-1 ahead on the night and was ultimately crucial in sending them through.

But the Dutchman played down ending his 1,081-day wait, saying: “It’s great but people make it bigger than it is. There are players who never score!”

After heading in he raced to embrace head of fitness and conditioning Andreas Kornmayer, who had been predicting Wijnaldum would end his poor run away from home.

Wijnaldum had scored his first away goal in three years.

Wijnaldum had scored his first away goal in three years.

“We already had an agreement a few games ago that I would run to him if I scored but it didn’t happen,” he said.

“He said it a few times, but then he forgot. Then on the day he said I would score, so I had to.”

Leading scorer Mohamed Salah insists Kiev will not be a head-to-head battle with Cristiano Ronaldo.

“It is not going to be a final between Mohamed Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo, I am playing for a great club and we have great players, so qualifying to the final came with great team work. I cannot do it alone.” he said.

Liverpool still have to secure Champions League football next season, although a draw at Chelsea on Sunday should be enough to do that.

Manager Jurgen Klopp admits their Kiev date has left them with some extra preparation.

“You cannot plan a Champions League final if you are not Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich,” said the German, a beaten finalist as Borussia Dortmund manager in 2013.

“They are constantly in the last four; going there is not normal for them but much more normal than it is for us.

“We had to play in the qualifiers but I knew that the competition and the football in the competition would suit us.

“The boys still had to do the job but it is not too bad for us, for sure.

“Now we go to Chelsea and, again, they will have the knife between the teeth and will fight for everything.

“We cannot go to the Champions League final with nice football, constantly being better than the other team.

“That’s not possible and you have to suffer from time to time. These boys are constantly over their limit. Constantly. I am really proud of that.

“We have to do it three more times and then we can be part of the Champions League again next season.”

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Watch: AS Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco slams lack of VAR in Champions League

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Eusebio Di Francesco hands out instructions

After seeing his side knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool, despite a 4-2 second-leg victory, Roma boss Eusebio Di Francesco slammed the lack of VAR in the competition.

The Italian side lost 7-6 to Jurgen Klopp’s men on aggregate, but Di Francesco felt his side may have had a chance of progressing to the final, had VAR been in use in the Champions League.
In the second leg in Italy, Edin Dzeko was incorrectly flagged offside before being tripped in the penalty area, while Trent Alexander-Arnold handled a shot towards goal, as Roma fell just short.
Watch as Di Francesco discusses VAR in the Champions League in the video below.

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