By James Martland
Saturday sees Real Madrid attempt to become the first side in the Champions League era to retain the trophy, with a victory which at the same time would continue the recent Spanish dominance of European football. Despite many consecutive successes before its rebranding in 1992-93, no club has managed the feat since, with Milan, Ajax, Juventus and Manchester United all failing in their attempts to do so. However, Madrid are the bookies’ favourites for the final against Juventus and many expect them to complete their third triumph in the last four years.
Not only does Real’s recent success in the competition perhaps give them the upper hand, but Juventus’ performance on the biggest stage is also a cause for concern for the Italian champions. Juventus have lost their last four European Cup finals, while Madrid have won their last five. In a repeat of this year’s final back in 1998, Real recorded a 1-0 victory over the Italian side who had also lost in the final the previous year. Indeed, if recent history is anything to go by, Real Madrid do look the more likely victors.
Fortunately for Juventus, this would be poor grounds on which to predict the outcome of the final in Wales. When examining the two club’s records in the competition this season, the game appears a very difficult one to call. Both sides completed an unbeaten group stage, with Juventus winning four and drawing against Sevilla and Lyon. Real Madrid were only able to finish second in their group, however, drawing twice to Borussia Dortmund and once to Legia Warsaw. Nevertheless, both sides had to overcome strong opposition in the knockout stages, with Juventus defeating Porto, Barcelona and Monaco, conceding just one goal in process. Real Madrid’s knockout campaign was arguably more laboured – despite comfortable victories over Napoli and Atletico Madrid, they profited from some horrendous refereeing and two offside goals to defeat Bayern Munich in the quarter finals. Despite this, it could be argued that Real have faced harder opposition, with Barcelona seemingly in crisis at the time of their 3-0 hammering by Juventus.
Real’s knockout campaign was perhaps more laboured than their opponents’, profiting from some horrendous officiating in the quarter finals
Despite the depth of quality in both squads, it is possible to highlight a few key men for each side who could make the difference.
Cristiano Ronaldo is once again the obvious name to mention. 25 goals in the league this campaign is a barren season by his standards, having scored more than 30 league goals in his previous six campaigns. Nevertheless, Ronaldo has again excelled in Europe, perhaps even more so than usual. So far the Portuguese star has netted 10 times in 12 games, a poor return compared to the 17 and 16 goals he scored in Real’s last two winning campaigns. This season in particular, however, he has come to life in the knockout stages, scoring five against Bayern Munich and three against Atletico Madrid to fire his team to the final. Ronaldo has appeared in four previous finals of this competition, twice for Manchester United and twice for Real Madrid, winning three times and scoring twice.
Captain Sergio Ramos is the other Madrid player who deserves a mention. The defender is crucial not only defensively, but also going forward, and netted his side’s goal in the final last year as they went on to win on penalties. Ramos leads by example, driving his team forwards, and despite a relatively poor defensive record in the competition this season, conceding twice on both meetings with Dortmund, twice at home to Bayern Munich and three times to Legia Warsaw, he was key to Madrid reaching the final. Ramos has an incredible ten goals this season, his greatest return in a single campaign for the club, and boasts a funny habit of popping up with goals at important times. Don’t be surprised if he scores another late header again on Saturday.
Most neutrals will want to see Buffon lift the trophy come the end of the night
No preview for this game would be complete without discussing Gigi Buffon. Since signing for Juventus from Parma in 2001, Buffon has gone on to make over 600 appearances for the club, winning every possible domestic trophy on offer. Even so, the Champions League has eluded him so far, despite two previous appearances in the final. Buffon started in the 2003 and 2015 finals, losing on both occasions. Although he is not due for retirement after the final, it only seems fair that a true legend of the sport should win Europe’s greatest competition. As mentioned, Juventus have only conceded one knockout goal in this tournament, shutting out a free-scoring Barcelona and conceding just once against a bright Monaco side. Aided by a strong defence, Buffon has been vital for Juventus’ success thus far and most neutrals will want to see him lift the trophy come the end of the night.
With Juventus, as well as Real Madrid, there are a number of other players who could be mentioned. Since their final defeat in 2015, Patrice Evra, Paul Pogba, Andrea Pirlo, Carlos Tevez, Alvaro Morata (now at Real Madrid) and Arturo Vidal, all of whom started in Berlin that night, have left the club. They have been replaced by a blend of youth and experience with Dani Alves, Sami Khedira, Miralem Pjanic, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala all expected to start. Indeed, this is a very different Juventus side to the one which experienced defeat two years ago. A system of three at the back means they are now defensively stronger, while a front three of Dybala, Mario Mandzukic and Higuain is more likely to penetrate an often-shaky Madrid back line.
And so the upcoming final in Cardiff looks set to be an intriguing tactical battle. Zinedine Zidane’s men will have to break down a stubborn Juventus defence, and despite the star qualities of Ronaldo, Isco, Benzema and others, it will be a difficult task. Juventus have already shown this campaign that they are also a threat in attack, scoring three against Barcelona and two away at Monaco. Despite Real being favourites in most people’s eyes, this game is too close to call.
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons