Preview: Liverpool v Real Madrid
The journey to the Olympiyskiy Stadium in Kyiv has been enlivening for Liverpool simply because they have been nothing short of absolute candy to the eye.
The Merseyside outfit almost ended the route to Kyiv undefeated until they lost 4-2 at the Estadio Olympico in Rome.
For their opponents Real Madrid, it was inconsistent performances from the group stages especially in games vs. Tottenham Hotspur and in the quarter and semi-finals vs. Juventus and Bayern Munich respectively.
Their journey, simply put, was nerve-racking.
Journey of Liverpool
Liverpool had to play the qualifying tie with German club TSG Hoffenheim which they won both games (1-2 and 4-2 in first and second legs respectively) before they made it to the group stage of the Champions League.
The Reds’ first two games in the month of September were disastrous. In fact, Liverpool’s September results were completely unacceptable in both the Premier League an in the Champions League where they did not win a single game though they avoided a defeat.
2-2 vs. Seville at Anfield and 1-1 vs. Spartak Moscow in Otkritie Arena before sharing the spoils with Newcastle and Manchester United in the Premier League at St James Park and Anfield. The major concerns were primarily on their defensive frailties. Fortunes changed for the better the following months and Liverpool never looked back in their Champions League adventures and in the process absolutely eviscerated Maribor 7-0 in Stadion Ljudski vrt in Slovenia and beat them 3-0 in England.
Liverpool proceeded to face their Spanish opponents who actually exposed them in their very first meeting and repeated it once more at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan in a 3-3 drawn game. In the final game of the group stages Liverpool ended strongly in a commanding 7-0 victory at Anfield to finish top of the table with 12 points, 23 goals scored and 6 conceded. Remember, that they conceded 3 in their first two games.
The draw for the round of 16 couldn’t have been any favourable when they were paired with FC Porto. Liverpool made sure the task to qualify for the quarters was done at the Estadio do Dragao.
It remains one of their highest points of their 2017/18 champions league campaign in an awesome 5-0 demolition exercise. The return leg was just a formality. Liverpool didn’t break a sweat to see out a 0-0 result.
In the quarter final, the only two English sides left were drawn to play for a place in the semis. Pep Guardiola’s Man City were in the form of their lives blowing teams away in all fronts and understandably were regarded as favourites by many but Klopp and his army had other ideas.
Three quick unanswered goals in 30 mesmerising football from the Kops in a breath-taking fashion rendered the tie almost over and handed Pep an immeasurable pressure. As it was almost impossible to stop Liverpool from scoring, they back from a goal down to win 2-1 at the Etihad to book a place in the semis against AS Roma who had done the unthinkable vs. Barcelona in Rome overturning a 4-1 defeat and winning 3-0.
Even though Liverpool were the favourites vs. Roma because of their attack, there was the element of surprise lingering on the minds of football fans.
As expected the tie ended in a 13 goal thriller with both clubs wining at home 5-2 at Anfield and 4-2 at the Olympico. Liverpool finished the eliminating stage with 17 goals and shipped in 7, 6 of them against AS Roma. In total the Reds scored a total of 40 goals and conceded 13.
Journey of Real Madrid
The Los Blancos began the campaign as the defending champions and the only team to win a record back-to-back UCL titles. Madrid dealt majestically well with Apoel Nicosia and Dortmund 3-0 and 1-3 at the Santiago Bernabeu and the Signal Iduna Park.
Their next two games were just shambolic as they drew 1-1 and lost 3-1 home and away accordingly, to Tottenham Hotspurs. Their form in the La Liga contributed to their dour outings in the UCL as they slumped to drawn games against Valencia, Levante and a defeats Real Betis.
They were able to gather some momentum in their last two as they won 0-6 at the GSP Stadium and 3-2 at the Bernabeu vs. Apoel and Dortmund respectively, finishing second on the table behind Spurs with 13 points, 16 goals for and 5 against.
The draw to play PSG in the round of 16 to many, was the nail in the coffin of Madrid’s bizarre season. Someway somehow Madrid exhausted every ounce of energy, physically and mentally and most importantly, pedigree to oust the French side.
3-1 in Spain and 1-2 in Parc de Prince took Madrid to the quarter vs. Juventus which was an undesirable fixture. As underdogs of some considerations, Madrid went to Allianz Stadium and won 0-3. The tie was seemingly over but hold on! It wasn’t. After AS Roma had engineered one of the greatest comebacks in the competition’s history against Barcelona, it presented the right tonic for Juve to invigorate themselves going into the game in Spain.
The Italians ahead 0-3 in the first half. Madrid were in trouble. The game was destined to travel into extra time until Medhi Benatia fouled Lucas Vazquez in the box for a very late penalty. Ronaldo stepped up and unerringly tucked it home to send Madrid to the semis on 4-3 aggregate.
Against Bayern in the semis, it was the third time Madrid would face a league leader and made the journey to Kyiv even more difficult but they won 1-2 in Germany and drew 2-2 in Spain to make the final slot in Kyiv managing 13 goals and conceded 8 in the elimination round and in totally in the competition, scored 29 and picked 12 from their net….11 fewer and 1 more than their final opponent Liverpool in terms of goals scored and conceded.
Where do the goals come from?
In any football team, there are particular individuals who are reliably constant suppliers or sources of goals in terms of either scoring or providing them.
The front trio of the Reds is clearly their most deadly ammunition and the best in the entire competition. The three have combinedly scored 72.5% of the total goals scored, 10, 10 and 9 for Firmino, Salah and Mane respectively. Roberto Firmino has been the most productive of the trident with exactly 45% contribution to goals and assists. With regards to regards to the top 3 assists for Liverpool, Milner, Firmino and Salah, they contribute 52.5% to goals scored. 9, 8 and 4 respective. Obviously, Milner and Firmino who lead the pack on assist level are the key source of goals for Liverpool, 42.5%
Cristiano Ronaldo is the primary source of goals for Zidane’s team. Without him, Madrid are an ordinary team. He has contributed 61.9% to total goals and assists and it is staggering, 15 goals, 3 assists. Karim Benzema and Marcelo come closer with identical 17.2% 4 goals and 1 assist from the French man and 2 goals and 3 assists from the Brazilian.
One aspect Madrid have contributions from a lot of players, is the assists department. Dani Carvajal, and Ronaldo have 3 each, Vazquez, Isco, Bale and Marcelo all have 2. This makes them a little unpredictable and provides them with options because any of the six players can provide at any moment.
Marcelo vs. Mo Salah
If there is one duel very much anticipated globally, it is the battle between the full back and the wing forward. Mo Salah without a shred of doubt is in his best shape ever domestically and in Europe racking up 42 goals and 14 assists in both Premier League and UCL. He inevitably would give Marcelo something to chew over. He’s not the kind of forward you can afford to offer him even a marginal space. If Marcelo goes into this game as he did the last time he faced a typical wing forward in Douglas Costa, Madrid are in for a long night. In an event where the full back succeeds in pocketing Salah as Ashley Young did, then, Madrid have taken the first step to nullifying the threats of that particular duel. Marcelo vs. Salah definitely has a bearing on where the coveted trophy lands.
Firmino vs. Sergio Ramos
Ramos in his illustrious career has competed against the very best of centre forwards and to some considerable extent has succeeded in neutralising most of them to best effects but he has yet to meet Roberto Firmino. The Pardo-Brazilian is a different type of striker to the likes of Luis Suarez, Lewandawaski, Eto’o, Aguero, Diego Costa, Aubameyang etc. He is one of the few who uses the ball very well to his advantage as a false 9. The last time Ramos had troubles dealing with such type was when he came up against Messi in similar role. These types of strikers aren’t stationary, therefore becomes difficult keeping close eyes on them. They are scorers and providers and the statistics of Firmino goes to support that point. 28 goals, 14 assists in both the Premier League and the UCL makes him a very dangerous forward, one who is going to have a big say in the final. On his day, he destroys central defences with his clever movements and positioning. Keep an eye on this battle.
Modric-Casemiro-Kroos vs. Wijnaldum-Henderson-Milner
These are the engine rooms of both clubs, the hub and their very souls. The qualities of the Madrid midfield trio is simply, world class. The passing skills of Kroos and the gliding runs of Modric are well documented and together with Casemiro, they make Madrid very formidable.
Their Liverpool counterparts on the other hand, are efficient in every sense of the word. They are tireless workers and very much underrated. Milner has 9 assists, the best in the competition, 7 more than what the Madrid trio have managed. 1 each for Modric and Kroos and none for Casemiro. Since Milner was moved back into midfield beginning of the season, his transformation is incredible.
Casemiro since he became an integral member has been a blessing. His destructive quality was the one Madrid lacked and he hasn’t put a foot wrong since Zidane trusted central defensive midfield duties in his care. Similarly, Henderson is a smooth operator, goes about his business quietly with Wijnaldum providing the needed aggression.
Whoever seize control in midfield, keeps things tidy, cover spaces and cut the supplies to the forwards would emerge victors.
Ronaldo vs. Alexander-Arnold-Lovren-Van Dijk
Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t operate from one position. He’s your complete forward who uses all front three positions well but largely hovers around the left side of attack and centrally. It means that, occasionally, he’d be up against young but reliable Trent Alexander-Arnold on the left of attack, Lovren and Van Dijk. He has excelled in all these areas and a close attention must be given to him. He can dribble his way through defence, shoot from almost every angle with the least sight on goal, draw fouls in dangerous areas and a dead ball specialists. It is an intriguing contest between one player and three. Watch out!
Bale MUST start
The Welshman has found form at the appropriate time scoring goals and playing so well. His presence especially on the right of attack would dwarf the marauding runs of Andy Robertson who often teams up with Mane and double up on opposing right back. The less pressure Carvajal endures, the better for Madrid. Again, the inclusion of Bale in the starting XI gives Mane defensive duties, an area he’s not good at. In an event where Marcelo is occupied by Salah, Bale can switch to the left side of attack and have a go at Alexander-Arnold and that area is one Bale and Ronaldo would relish.
Why Liverpool will win
Their attack!! It is all about their attack. They can’t stop scoring and they score all kinds of goals from corners, counter attacks, crosses and what not. Firmino and Salah requires very little space and they hit the back of the net. Milner with his creativity is another weapon for Liverpool. Their defence isn’t as bad as what is perceived to be though the conceded six times against Roma. If the Reds can avoid conceding late goals, they have a chance of winning the tournament for the sixth time.
Why Real Madrid will win
They are the defending champions and chasing their 4th in five seasons and 14th in total. Their dominance in the last five seasons is no fluke. They have developed the penchant for winning the big ones in these periods coupled with the fact that, they have got experience on their side. If Ronaldo and Bale can find form for the very last time in the most crucial game of the season, considering the sloppy goals Liverpool conceded against Roma for example, would have their hands full and Madrid will win.
When the curtains are drawn, there will be one team standing being crowned as the champions of Europe’s elite football for either the 6th or 13th time.