The Champions League final is almost upon us. With a couple of weeks separating Liverpool and Real Madrid from a potentially tense night in Paris the two managers- Ancelloti and Klopp- will be arriving with a sense of expectation. While Madrid has cantered to their 35th la Liga in an otherwise underwhelming Spanish league season, Liverpool is still in contention for an unprecedented quadruple. However, their untimely draw to Spurs has left them hoping for a miracle in the Premier League. Further, Ancelotti enjoys the freedom to focus his energies on the summit clash. In contrast, Liverpool has other preoccupations, most notably tonight’s FA Cup final against Chelsea and a pair of crunch league fixtures (which might still come to naught). With all said and done, now would be a good time as any to dive into some of the key tactical battles that might settle the final.
One would expect both teams to retain the same XI and keep to their standard principles. In effect, expect Liverpool to squeeze the pitch, press high and suck the living soul out of Madrid. On the other hand, Madrid is most likely to stay deep and cut off passing lanes inside their half, aiming to hit Liverpool on the counter. While there can be much back and forth on this, it is likely that the final will hinge on the following duels:
1. Alcantara vs Valverde
While Henderson and Fabinho impose themselves physically on the ageing Madrid midfield, Thiago will remain central to their forward play. In an otherwise industrious midfield, he brings the craft to pierce open any defence. The conductor in the Liverpool orchestra, stopping Thiago is crucial to keeping a lid on Liverpool’s lethal forward line. While Madrid might nominally line up with a midfield three, expect Ancelotti to task Valverde to tuck in to the left of midfield and shade every blade of grass Thiago trods on.
2. Benzema vs Liverpool CBs
Benzema is playing through the season of his life. Madrid will be relying on their talisman to deliver in the crunch tie. With Liverpool’s CBs expected to push high and squeeze the pitch, Benzema’s hold-up play and partnership with Vinicius will be central to their chances. For Van Dijk and Matip (or Konate), they will be wary of the threats posed by Madrid’s twin daggers but will trust their height, pace and nous to keep things under control. This has a spiky affair written all over it.
3. Vinicius Jr. vs Alexander-Arnold
Just two young chaps, steadily approaching the peak of their powers. What is not to love? TAA for his part would love to romp forward, move into half-spaces, and spray delicious passes for the rest of the world to frame into their heads. Of course, the flipside to this is that Vinicius will be ready to pounce on all the acres that he may leave behind him. Hark back to Madrid’s second goal at the Etihad, and we can sense how the tide may flow. But again, TAA has pace to burn and might summon the kind of desperation that makes him a reliable enough defender .
4. Salah vs Mendy
You can bet your house on it, but Salah will be really up for this! It’s evident that he is still smarting from the loss at Kyiv, specifically how he was wrestled out of the final. While potential arch-nemesis Sergio Ramos has moved into the shadows of the football verse, there is blood to settle still. Ferland Mendy struggled against Mahrez, and will perhaps tremble at the sight of a scuttling Salah. However, expect Ancelotti to make necessary tweaks to provide cover for the Frenchman. One wonders if Casemiro can channel some of the dark arts his once captain had in abundance.
5. Carlo Ancelotti vs Jurgen Klopp
With this pick, I can almost hear the groans. A bland, cliched choice if there ever was one. But let’s face it, the managers are locked in a match-long duel. And what’s a better contrast than the ice-cold, I-see-your-mother-get-pickaxed-and-don’t-bat-an-eyelid Ancelotti or the raging froth that is Klopp. To draw in some memespiration, Fifa Hegelianism compared Ancelotti and his opponent in the previous round Guardiola to different strands of leftist thought: the former as The Leninist versus the over-excited Catalan syndicalist. While the parallels were quite apt, it’s perhaps even more accurate this time around.
Coming back to the nitty-gritty of the match itself, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ancelloti shifts to a midfield four or a diamond even, purely to nullify the threat of Alcantara and provide cover to his full-backs given how Liverpool looks to overload the wide areas.
Liverpool (4-3-3): Alisson Becker (GK); Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Joel Matip, Andy Robertson (DEF); Fabinho, Henderson (C), Alcantara (MF); Salah, Mane, Diaz (FW)
Real Madrid (4-3-3/ 4-4-2): Thibaut Courtois (GK); Dani Carvajal, Eder Militao, David Alaba, Ferland Mendy (DF); Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Federico Valverde (MF); Vinicius Jr., Karim Benzema (FW)
May this be as chaotic and borderline dangerous as any good final should be!