Even though both Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah have been at pains to insist that Saturday’s Champions League final does not come down to a battle between the Real Madrid and Liverpool talismen, there’s no doubt that those two will be the most crucial players on the pitch.
The fortunes of both teams are riding on their star players’ performances, but there are plenty of other duels in Kiev too
Here, we take a closet look at all the key battles for the final.
CRISTIANO RONALDO V MOHAMED SALAH
It might be difficult to remember, but there was a time when Ronaldo’s big-game credentials were questioned. A goal in three separate Champions League finals has put that notion to rest (indeed, it was put to rest long before last season’s brace against Juventus in Cardiff).
He’s an old nemesis of Liverpool’s, from his Manchester United days, and he enjoyed success against them when Madrid and the Reds were drawn together in the 2014 Champions League group stages. Ronaldo will fancy his chances against young Reds right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold and the rest of the Merseysiders’ often suspect defence.
That Ronaldo isn’t the player with the most hype surrounding him heading into Saturday’s final speaks volumes of how stunning Salah’s debut season for Liverpool has been. The Egyptian has scored 43 goals across all comps this season, beating Ronaldo’s best mark as a Premier League player when he struck 42 times in 2007/08. His 10 Champions League goals put him behind only one player – Ronaldo again – this season.
With Madrid left-back Marcelo often caught up the field, Salah could have plenty of freedom to roam during Saturday’s final, which is a dangerous proposition. Stopping that from happening will be Madrid’s biggest headache on the night.
MARCELO v ANDY ROBERTSON
Marcelo serves as a bellwether for Madrid’s fortunes. At his best, he’s unplayable as an attacker, and is just about diligent enough defensively to keep Los Blancos’ back line solid. Otherwise, he’s a defensive liability and doesn’t do enough going forward to make up for it.
The semi-final against Bayern Munich summed him up. In the first leg, he was caught high up the pitch when the Bavarians scored the opening goal, but then scored Madrid’s equaliser. It’s a trade-off Madrid will gladly accept on most days and have done for a decade. But with Salah attacking his flank, his defensive ability will be under the spotlight on Saturday.
Marcelo’s counterpart has been one of the finds of the season. Robertson is tenacious defensively and a tireless runner in attack, as well as a lethal crosser.
His performance against Dani Carvajal and whichever Madrid attacker starts on their right will be an engrossing contest. If it’s Bale, that will come with added intrigue: two British players against each other, Madrid’s decorated if not maligned Welshman against Liverpool’s unheralded Scot.
It’s also worth taking a moment to appreciate the left-back’s journey. A year ago, his Hull City side were relegated from the Premier League. Now, he’s in a Champions League final.
LUKA MODRIC V JAMES MILNER
Earlier in the season it seemed Modric had just dipped from the outstanding level he’d hit during last season’s league-and-European-double-winning campaign. As the season has gone on, however, and especially over the last couple of months, he’s been looking again like the player hailed by some last year as the world’s best midfielder.
His ability to find pockets of spaces, remain calm on the ball in the face of pressure, and distribute the ball through quick, clever passes will be key to Madrid counteracting Liverpool’s intense press. The way he can control a game from midfield is exactly what Madrid need.
Modric may be among the world’s leading players in his position, but in the Champions League this season, nobody’s been better than Milner. His eight assists is a single-season record for the competition. Who would have thought Milner would be breaking a record previously held by Neymar – as well as creating more assists than all of Madrid’s midfielders simultaneously?
Observers have been saying for a while that Milner is Liverpool’s best midfielder. Last season, he didn’t get enough of an opportunity to show it. Now that he has, he’s led them to a Champions League final. Madrid have been forewarned.
Here, our team of writers have their say on the showpiece clash and make their predictions.
Who do you agree and disagree with?
Stuart Appleby (@Stuart_Appleby)
Champions: Real Madrid
Real Madrid are closer to the end of their cycle of European dominance than the start but this will not be the night when Zinedine Zidane’s men are dethroned.
The prospect of winning three titles in a row does not come around too often, so expect the Whites to demonstrate their typical ruthlessness and continue the Frenchman’s super winning streak in final matches.
Few teams have the capability of out-scoring Liverpool but Real, with Cristiano Ronaldo, can do just that while Sergio Ramos raises his game in these matches.
Andy West (@andywest01)
Champions: Real Madrid
Everything is pointing towards this being one of the most open cup finals in history, with two teams who are far better going forward than in defence.
The old adage that the first goal will prove vital becomes irrelevant for this game – it’s a question of who can score last. And with their wider range of firepower and superior midfield, that will be Real Madrid.
Chris Bailey (@chrisjebailey)
Champions: Real Madrid
This all hinges on how Real Madrid’s defence deals with that electric front three. Should they play too high a line without the required discipline, or be caught out of position (here’s looking at you, Marcelo) then it could all go horribly pear-shaped for Real.
But this time, they’ll retain their shape. Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric should keep Liverpool at arm’s length in midfield, even for all the gegenpressing in the world.
And though giant strides have been taken in defence thanks to Virgil van Dijk, the lack of experience could well be telling.
Alex Rea (@AlexReaSport)
Difficult to predict the score, easy to forecast the type of game we’re going to get. Liverpool’s strengths play into Real Madrid’s weaknesses and vice versa which means goals will be on the menu. Real Madrid have the experience but the Reds have more tools to win.
Expect an early storm from the Premier League side before tiredness inevitably let’s Real back in but the first-half should see Klopp’s side secure a sixth European title.
Tom Biggs (@TWKBiggs)
With 70 goals between the two teams in the competition so far, goals are guaranteed in Kiev. Real Madrid are likely to adopt a more cautious approach – just as they did in the away legs against Juventus and Bayern Munich – in a bid to stop Jurgen Klopp’s side from ruthlessly punishing them on the counter.
Both sides will be under no illusions about the importance of scoring first.
Alex Broun (@alexanderbroun)
To me this is a match which could go either way and is very hard to predict. Real are understandably favourites as they possess a seasoned squad of world class professionals who continue to produce under enormous pressure.
Whereas Liverpool are young, raw and woefully inconsistent – breath-taking one day, banal the next. There is also no form-guide between the teams as the last time they met was 2014. I’ll go for Liverpool to get two early goals and cling on to win 2-1.
Brendon Netto (@BrendonNetto)
Champions: Real Madrid
From a tactical point of view, Liverpool are probably the side most equipped in this moment in time to dismantle Real Madrid. But none of their players have played in a Champions League final before and I can see the occasion affecting their approach.
Whenever they aren’t on the front foot, they’ve looked vulnerable and Madrid are seasoned pros in this competition who will show no mercy.
Aditya Devavrat (@AdityaDevavrat)
Champions: Real Madrid
For all the talk of how this match could easily end up 4-4 – and both teams’ attacks are capable of producing that sort of display – the truth is, Real Madrid have the edge, if only a small one, in every department.
Even if the attacking duel can be declared a draw on paper, Madrid have the stronger midfield, and less weak defence, especially considering how Sergio Ramos turns up for big games.
Saturday in Kyiv is not the first time Liverpool and Real Madrid have met in a European decider. The two sides met 27-years-ago almost to the day in the 1981 Final of the then titled European Cup at the Parc de Princes in Paris.
Back then the circumstances were a complete reversal – Liverpool were appearing in their third European Cup Final in five years after claiming the trophy in both 1977 and 1978. While for Real Madrid it was their first final in 15 years.
Los Blancos were already European royalty, appearing in their ninth final, and winning the competition six times, including a record five successive victories from 1956 to 1960.
But they were enduring of a lean spell with their last appearance in the final – and sixth victory – in 1966.
Liverpool, also like Real Madrid this season, had experienced a poor year in the league.
The Reds finished fifth, Aston Villa were champions, in the 1980–81 Football League and thus they needed to win to ensure they would play in the European Cup the following season. But the Reds had won the League Cup for the first time that season, defeating West Ham in a replay.
Real Madrid had only finished second in the 1980–81 La Liga, and thus qualified for the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) as a result, but victory would also enable them to compete in the Champions League the following season – so both teams had even more to play for.
Both sides had injury worries – Liverpool had doubts over Kenny Dalglish and Alan Kennedy while Real had concerns over striker Laurie Cunningham who had been out since November.
In a sign of how different the times were – the entire Liverpool squad of 16 was made up of English men except for three Scots (Alan Hansen, Dalglish and Graeme Souness) while Real were entirely Spanish players except for West German Uli Stielike and Englishman Cunningham.
In 2018 the teams have a far more international flavour.
Liverpool’s likely line up has one player from Germany, Croatia, Brazil, Egypt, Scotland and Senegal, two from the Netherlands and just three from England.
Real Madrid’s likely XI, unless Zidane pulls a swifty, has one player from Costa Rica, Portugal, Croatia, Germany, two from France and Brazil and just three from Spain.
Liverpool’s manager back in 1981, Bob Paisley, like Zinedine Zidane was chasing his third European crown while Yugoslavian Vujadin Boškov was in his first European final.
In stark contrast to what is expected in Kiev, the 1981 final was a dour affair with very little goal mouth action.
Liverpool controlled the opening passages with an 11th minute 30 yard shot from Alan Kennedy saved by Real goalkeeper Agustín Rodríguez. Terry McDermott and Dalglish also had chances.
Real started to exert more of an influence and a pass found José Antonio Camacho who beat Hansen but put his shot wide. Real had another problem as they were unable to get the best out of their winger Cunningham who, not fully fit, was tightly marked and made little impact.
Souness had a good chance before half time but Real had the first chance of the second half as Camacho attempted to lob the ball over Ray Clemence but again his shot went over the goal.
The tactical approaches of the two sides were cancelling each other out – Real’s slow pace interspersed with high speed bursts, while Liverpool preferred a more deliberate approach, keeping possession and making use of their wingers.
Finally the deadlock was broken in the 81st minute with a superb strike from the most unlikely of sources – Alan Kennedy. The left back on a rare sortie up the field Kennedy got the ball from a throw from Ray Kennedy, then went past Real defender Rafael García Cortés into the box, and slammed the ball into the top right corner from a tight angle to give Liverpool the lead.
Liverpool then held on to win their third European Cup, the first British club to do so, and Paisley became the first manager to win the European Cup three times.
Will the result be the same Saturday night? We will know very soon. (Check out the full line ups for both teams below.)
GK 1 Ray Clemence
RB 2 Phil Neal
LB 3 Alan Kennedy
CB 4 Phil Thompson (c)
LM 5 Ray Kennedy YC 29′
CB 6 Alan Hansen
CF 7 Kenny Dalglish Substituted off 85′
RM 8 Sammy Lee
CF 9 David Johnson
CM 10 Terry McDermott
CM 11 Graeme Souness
MF 12 Jimmy Case Substituted in 85′
GK 13 Steve Ogrizovic
DF 14 Colin Irwin
DF 15 Richard Money
FW 16 Howard Gayle
GK 1 Agustín Rodríguez
DF 2 Rafael García Cortés Substituted off 87′
DF 3 José Antonio Camacho
MF 4 Uli Stielike YC 59′
DF 5 Andrés Sabido
MF 6 Vicente del Bosque
FW 7 Juanito
MF 8 Ángel de los Santos
FW 9 Santillana (c)
DF 10 Antonio García Navajas
FW 11 Laurie Cunningham
GK Miguel Ángel González
DF Isidoro San José
MF García Hernández
MF 16 Francisco Pineda