Few would have listed Liverpool as favourites for the Champions League title at the start of the season, but such has been the Anfield outfit’s steady improvement throughout the campaign – largely fuelled by Mohamed Salah’s Ballon d’Or-contending form – that manager Jurgen Klopp finds himself preparing for a showdown in Kiev on Saturday, with the competition’s first ever back-to-back champions Real Madrid.
The prevailing question then, is an obvious one; can Liverpool continue to surpass expectations by beating a side whose Champions League experience and proven record in the competition is currently unrivalled, or will Los Blancos make it an unprecedented third consecutive European crown? This week’s experts, Football FanCast’s Liverpool-mad Danielle Joynson and former Live4Liverpool editor George Dagless, share their thoughts and predictions ahead of 2017/18’s biggest clash…
There’s understandably an optimism surrounding Liverpool heading into Saturday’s game. While Real Madrid are utterly formidable opposition, this Reds team is clearly on the rise – built around young, attack-minded players who will offer far more energy than Los Blancos’ ageing side. And yet, while Klopp is one of the best around when it comes to building fascinatingly futuristic teams, his record in one-off games isn’t quite so impressive. The German has lost six of seven cup finals, including the 2013 Champions League final and last season’s Europa League final.
Why does Klopp struggle so much in finals and is there anything he needs to do differently on Saturday compared to last season’s Europa League final?
Danielle: “Klopp’s style of play is certainly easy on the eye, but it allows the opposition to find a way through, and I think in a one-off game like a final, it leaves his teams more vulnerable to defeat. Also, it is worth noting that in many of the cup finals he has lost, he was coaching the underdog. With regards to the Europa League final, I personally think that mentality played a huge part in the collapse. The players may have felt a bit complacent after Daniel Sturridge took the lead, but Kevin Gameiro’s equaliser 17 seconds into the second half completely stunned them. The team were unable to recover from the shock, whereas I think the XI heading to Kiev are better equipped to deal with any setbacks during the match.”
George: “It might seem a cop-out but I’d argue he’s not had the strongest sides in his European finals and, though that can’t excuse everything, it’s a factor. Bayern Munich were treble winners and Dortmund were coming to the end of their dominant period in 2013 for example. Meanwhile, though the Reds were at least matched to Sevilla on paper if not favourites, the Spanish side had the more recent experience of winning European finals – particularly the Europa League. We’ve a similar situation on Saturday where Liverpool are the underdogs, so all I’d say Klopp can do is forget what’s happened before and, arguably, with this being the best side he’s had in a European final, be brave.”
Klopp once again finds himself overseeing the underdog, and while Liverpool will feel their strongest starting XI can be competitive with any team in the world – especially going forward – perhaps the biggest indicator of the gap between Liverpool and Real Madrid is their squad depth. Zinedine Zidane will likely end up leaving one of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema or Isco on the bench, while Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez will be used as impact players as well. In comparison, Klopp only really has Danny Ings and Dominic Solanke to turn to in attack; Liverpool’s squad isn’t the biggest anyway, but they’ve finished the season with a raft of injury problems.
Do you think we’ll see a few surprise selections and tactical calls from Klopp?
George: “The only one I can see having legs at all is Adam Lallana coming into midfield. Many are talking about this potentially being the most open Champions League final we’ve had in years in terms of playing styles and so playing Lallana could play into Liverpool’s hands with the way he finds pockets of space. To be honest, though, I don’t think we’ll see any drastic changes and I’m comfortable with that.”
Danielle: “I don’t envisage Klopp making any surprise calls with regards to team selection. It was a blow to lose Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the semi-finals against Roma, but Georginio Wijnaldum has stepped in and done a decent job. There is talk that Emre Can could be fit enough to make the squad, and regardless of the speculation over his future, it would be a relief to have the midfielder as an option off the bench.
“Klopp has generally stuck with the same team throughout the knockout rounds, and it’s worked so there is no need to make any drastic changes, and the same can be applied to tactics. The only slight concern is Trent Alexander-Arnold having to cope with Real Madrid. The 19-year-old has been fantastic, particularly in the second half of the season, but he has not yet had to deal with a game of this magnitude up against this level of opposition. Despite that, he warrants a starting spot ahead of Nathaniel Clyne.”
For all their undoubted talent, prestige and progress in the 2017/18 Champions League, there’s little doubt Real Madrid haven’t been at their best this season. Rather than the attacking football that accompanied their previous European triumphs, Los Blancos have relied upon experience, shape and individual brilliance to get through their games – not to mention Cristiano Ronaldo’s incredible consistency in front of goal.
What weaknesses have you seen in this Real Madrid side that Liverpool can really exploit?
George: “It’s obviously a tad ironic given it’s Liverpool’s glaring weakness, but their defence. Sergio Ramos is a top defender but can be rash when players get the wrong side of him and Liverpool’s forwards are so good at doing just that. Really, Bayern Munich should have beaten them given the chances they had whilst Juventus also could have knocked them out but for that last minute penalty. Marcelo and Dani Carvalhal are top full-backs but they can be exploited by top wide-men and we’ve got two of the best in the business.”
Danielle: “The obvious weakness is Marcelo’s defensive qualities, or lack thereof! There is no doubt that the Brazilian is one of the best attacking full-backs around, but his tendency to push up and leave open spaces could work wonders for Salah. Everyone knows that the Egyptian possesses pace as well as skill, and he will certainly pounce if given a way through by Marcelo. Also, a lot of pundits and ex-players connected to Madrid have been suggesting in the media that the final will be a stroll in the park for Los Blancos, so if the team also adopt that mentality, it could work in Liverpool’s favour.”
In many ways though, the fact Real Madrid have reached this season’s final despite not being anywhere near their best only pays testament to the level of quality at the Bernabeu. On paper, every player belongs to the world-class bracket for their respective position, and they’re a stunning collection of individuals even if they sometimes appear to not be the greatest team.
Aside from Ronaldo, which Real Madrid player should Liverpool fear most?
Danielle: “Toni Kroos. Liverpool like to close down opponents, but they will struggle to put Kroos under pressure. The midfielder rarely labours on the ball as he releases quickly to help set up attacking moves. So, if Liverpool’s players press on the German World Cup winner, they risk getting left behind, with the ball already at the feet of one of Madrid’s attacking stars. Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Isco are all obvious threats, but the Reds’ biggest task is thwarting the supply. The forward line cannot cause damage without the ball.”
George: “Gareth Bale if he plays could cause us real issues as he’ll have a point to prove after a tough year but it’s Isco and the pairing of Kroos and Luka Modric we have to disrupt. Our midfield will obviously be tasked with harassing and pressing them but they’re good enough to play around it for sure. Liverpool’s midfield three will have to coordinate their press perfectly to win the ball off of them. I’ve obviously suggested Ramos can be got at, too, but from corners up the other end he has to be watched – especially given our sometimes fragile set-up at set pieces.”
And where will this game be lost and won?
George: “Central midfield and Sadio Mane and Salah vs the Madrid full-backs are areas I’ve touched on, whilst I also think how Casemiro and the centre-half pairing deal with Roberto Firmno’s movement will prove important. Stopping Ronaldo is a given but I really think what will decide the game is what goes on in the players’ heads. Madrid have been here all before in recent years, they know what they’re doing. This, however, is an inexperienced Liverpool side that’s looking to firmly establish itself among Europe’s elite. If they embrace it and channel the performances against Man City and Roma at home for this one, we’ve a chance. If they crumble under the pressure, though, Real will take it – they’re so strong.”
Danielle: “Tactics will play a huge part, particularly Liverpool’s ability to cope with Madrid’s ever-changing formation. Klopp will almost certainly stick to his 4-3-3 system, but Zidane could opt for a 4-3-3, 4-4-2 or diamond. I already mentioned the battle between Salah and Marcelo, which on paper should fall heavily in the Liverpool star’s favour, but Alexander-Arnold will have the task of trying to stop five-time Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldo. This will be the biggest test that the youngster has faced, and it is safe to say that Madrid will try to expose him as often as possible. In addition, a big key factor could be the respective benches. Los Blancos are littered with world-class talent, and that includes their substitutes, while Liverpool’s squad is threadbare. If there are some tired legs out there, Madrid are sure to have the advantage with regards to player personnel.”
Finally guys, let’s hear your score predictions…
Danielle: “I think it is safe to say that a boring goalless draw is not on the cards! I envisage a high-scoring game as both teams are likely to get chances and they certainly have the players to bury them. The question will be, who is the most clinical? If Liverpool’s trio of Firmino, Mane and Salah are on top form, then you would expect them to find the back of the net, and the same can be said for Ronaldo. It will be an exciting contest for the neutral, but a nervy one for the fans. Given how the campaign has gone, though, there is a sense that it is Liverpool’s time again. 3-2 to the Reds.”
George: “The big question. I’m going to give you two answers – sorry! If Liverpool can manage the pressure and adopt their usual game – unsettling Madrid – we could be looking at something like 3-2 to the Reds. If, however, Real whether any storm or the Reds just don’t get going, they’ll kill the game off. If they get in front I only see them winning, too. 2-0. For me, who scores the first goal here ends up winning the game. Over to you, Mo…”