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London (UNN): Real Madrid face Liverpool in Saturday’s Champions League final bidding to be crowned European champions for an unprecedented 13th time. Zinedine Zidane can complete a hat-trick of titles, after overcoming Atletico Madrid and Juventus in 2016 and 2017, and deny Jurgen Klopp his first major trophy as Reds boss. The German has lost his last five major cup finals, including the 2013 Champions League final when manager of Borussia Dortmund. Yet he could join a list of managers which includes the likes of Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Rafael Benitez by winning Liverpool’s sixth title in Europe’s premier club competition. But where will the showcase occasion in Kiev be won and lost? Here is our guide to the key duels for the clash at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium……
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Trent Alexander-Arnold
‘With Ronaldo being one of the greats, probably one of the best players ever, it’s going to be an honour to hopefully play against him.’ Trent Alexander-Arnold’s breakthrough season, which last week was rewarded with an England call-up for the World Cup, ends against one of the greatest players of his generation. Cristiano Ronaldo might not be the titanic force he was even last season – he was alarmingly poor during the first half of the campaign – but he thrives on the big occasion. He needs one more goal to tie with Alfredo di Stefano for the most goals in European Cup finals, while victory will see him go within one of Franciso Gento’s six winners medals. Real Madrid will actively look to isolate Alexander-Arnold and expose his inexperience at this level, with Ronaldo central to those efforts. Whether Klopp calls on James Milner or even Mohamed Salah to assist the 19-year-old remains to be seen but it promises to be a big night for the Merseysider.
Karim Benzema vs Virgil van Dijk
Real’s desire to pit Ronaldo up against Alexander-Arnold will probably be enough to ensure that Benzema starts in Kiev, despite enduring a campaign which is likely to be his last in the Spanish capital. Not since his first season at the Bernabeu has Benzema scored fewer goals – just 11 in 46 appearances – or looked more insipid as the focal point of the Real attack. Yet his fortuitous double against Bayern Munich in the semi-final proves he is still capable of a timely intervention when his team needs it. Meanwhile, Virgil van Dijk has been largely credited with Liverpool’s defensive revival which has seen them transform from an error-strewn back-four to an organised, cohesive unit. Granted, they still lack necessary protection ahead of them, but Van Dijk proves assurance and a dominating physical presence which could be key.
Luka Modric vs Jordan Henderson
If Jordan Henderson wants to silence the doubters once and for all, snuffing out Real’s creator-in-chief will go a long way to doing so. Painted so often as a midfielder capable of hassling opponents into mistakes, it will take all of Henderson’s gusto to ruffle the feathers of one of the most composed players in world football. Four years ago, Modric and Germany’s Toni Kroos dominated Henderson and co during a 3-0 win to the point that even parts of Anfield stood and applauded the control exerted by the pair. The Croatian is arguably the most understated member of Real’s Champions League winning squad yet he is maybe the most important. If, as many anticipate, the final descends into a basketball match then periods of considered possession to stem the flow will be key. And while Liverpool only know one way, Zidane possesses two players capable of taking the heat off his back-four. And that could prove crucial.
Marcelo vs Mohamed Salah
The status as the best attacking left-back in the world comes with a major caveat. For all Marcelo’s thrust going forward, he is regularly left exposed by the gallivanting Ronaldo. And that could spell danger for the reigning champions. Beyond the goals plundered by Mohamed Salah during his debut campaign with Liverpool – he is just three away from matching Ian Rush’s all-time single-season record – he has instilled fresh belief within the Merseysiders. They travel to Ukraine not in hope but in expectation thanks to the superstar Egyptian who can claim to the best player in the world right now. But producing on the very biggest of stages is what sets players apart, and there would be no better time to start delivering than this weekend.
Lucas Vazquez vs Sadio Mane
If Dani Carvajal is unable to prove his fitness before the final, then Zidane will turn to Lucas Vazquez to fill the void at right-back. A thigh strain had forced Carvajal to miss five games in a row and though he came through the draw with Villarreal unscathed he lacks genuine match sharpness. Either way, Carvajal and Vazquez face a test of their fortitude against the pace and directness of Sadio Mane, often the overlooked figure of Liverpool’s front-three. Roberto Firmino’s movement and Salah’ss goals often grab the attention of defenders, allowing the Senegal international more space to weave his magic. Attack may be the best form of defence however and with Vazquez a winger by trade it is in his make-up to try and push Mane back the other way. How Liverpool are going to tackle Real’s threat from wide positions is uncertain and he could be poised to take advantage of any uncertainty.
UNN News Agency. All Right Resered. 2018.