Champions League final: The decisions and battles that will separate Liverpool and Real Madrid

When Real Madrid and Liverpool parade out onto the Olympic Stadium pitch in Kiev on Saturday, they will do so for a Champions League final drenched in history – more than ever before. The two have 17 European titles between them. The rest of their combined trophy ledger extends into triple digits. One is the reincarnated king of Europe. The other spent a decade on the throne.

And yet on that field, for 90 minutes – and maybe more – after 9:45 p.m. local time (2:45 p.m. ET, Fox), the two will be polar opposites. They’ll clash philosophically and stylistically. One will lift the most coveted club trophy in the sport. Both, though, should give us a treat. Because that clash is as intriguing and enticing as can be. Let’s dive in.

We know exactly what Liverpool is going to do

OK, not exactly. Not down to every last minute detail. There are variations on the theme, and varying degrees of the “heavy-metal football” Jurgen Klopp has implemented. But the starting 11 picks itself (see below). And the style is ingrained.

We know Liverpool will press. We know the Reds will stir up as much chaos as possible. We know they will try to strike on the counter. They will chop up 90 minutes into has many unpredictable swings as possible, and bet on themselves to win those transitional moments more often than they lose them.

We have no idea what Real Madrid is going to do

Madrid, on the other hand, is a mystery. The back five are set. The front six is anything but. Both the personnel and shape fluctuate. There are nine players for six spots, and at least three different formations in manager Zinedine Zidane’s arsenal. We have no idea which one he’ll load up. We have no idea what Madrid will do.

Then again, sometimes Madrid doesn’t quite know what Madrid is doing. As Real Betis manager Quique Setien wrote in the Guardian, Los Blancos are “not guided by tactical rigor or a specific structure.” They just play. Two simple characteristics make them what they are. Tactics aren’t one of them. Talent and familiarity are.

The mastermind vs. the muppet

Because Real is relatively unstructured, narrative has a tendency to push Klopp and Zidane to opposite sides of the managerial continuum. The former is the mad scientist, his laboratory now based at Anfield, and his ingenious innovation “gegenpressing.” (His bespectacled appearance surely feeds that perception.) The latter is the novice, the in-over-his-head former player who steps aside and lets his players succeed in spite of his limitations.

And to some extent, those characterizations are fair. To some extent. Zidane might even admit that. “I’m not the best coach tactically,” he said during a news conference earlier this week. “I can say that. I don’t have to say it, though, because all of you say it!” And then he went on to make his actual point: “Motivation and passion are values that I have, and that is worth a lot more.”

Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp will square off in the 2018 Champions League final. (Getty)
Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp will square off in the 2018 Champions League final. (Getty)

But what happens when an opposing manager – such as the one who’ll stand 20 yards away from Zidane Saturday in Kiev – possesses those same qualities, plus a refined tactical approach? We’ll find out soon enough. But chances are that the intricacies will matter.

The antithetical midfields

The contrast between the midfields of Real Madrid and Liverpool could not be starker. On one side, there are two of the best ball-players in the sport. On the other, there are zero playmakers – or at least not in the traditional sense.

Giorginio Wijnaldum and James Milner can create chances. Heck, Milner has set a single-season Champions League assist record. But not because he dictates games on the ball. Instead, he, Wijnaldum and Jordan Henderson press high up the field, win duels, and spring counters from the attacking half. That’s their form of playmaking.

Real Madrid, on the other hand, is the rare modern giant that doesn’t really press. Its adventurousness all occurs in possession. But like Liverpool’s out of possession, it engenders open games, and forces defenders to shoulder heavy loads.

The game could be won or lost by center backs

Klopp’s main failing during his first two seasons at Liverpool wasn’t his system; it was an incompatible marriage between system and personnel. The ravenous press leaves center backs isolated, and therefore requires center backs who can win individual battles in space. Klopp, though, refused to buy a center back who fit that description – until this past January. Virgil van Dijk has fortified Liverpool’s foundation. He’s a big reason we aren’t talking about the Reds as a woeful defensive unit who’ll be exposed by the two-time defending champs.

But he and Dejan Lovren are still the inferior center back pairing in the game. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane are put under similar pressure week in and week out, because the midfield in front of them is often invisible. Modric and Kroos are as close to defensive nothings as elite central midfielders can be. That’s why Real has leaked more chances than Liverpool this season. But among the four, you’d still bet on Ramos to make the game-saving intervention, and on Lovren to make the costly error.

Tempo

There’s a thought that, fearing Madrid’s high-powered attack, Klopp could rein in his press on Saturday. He has done so more often this year than in his first two seasons combined. He did so in two league matches against Manchester City, opting for controlled chaos, selectively triggered, rather than all-out mayhem. But he’d be misguided to slow the game down against Real Madrid.

Because Liverpool’s advantage on Saturday is pace. It’s legs. It’s an average age under 26, as opposed to Real Madrid’s, which will likely be over 29. A willingness to go anything less than full-bore is a gift to Madrid, whose talent thrives when given time, regardless of space. Cristiano Ronaldo conjures space out of thin air. Liverpool’s best hope is to play the game as far away from its own penalty area as possible. Madrid no longer has the horses to hit back over the top on the counter.

Unless, that is …

Real Madrid’s decision

The one Madrid player who can still singlehandedly stretch the field is Gareth Bale. He’s therefore the one player who could force Liverpool to ease off the gas pedal. Having scored four goals the past three weekends, he’s clearly fit. So he should start.

Whether he will depends on how Zidane wants to attack – or cope with – Liverpool’s press. Does he want to try to bypass it, and risk short-lived, fruitless spells of possession? Or does he want his team to play through it? The first option requires Bale. The second probably calls for Isco and Karim Benzema.

Klopp has the advantage in the chess match here, because his adjustment – tweaking the level of aggressiveness – doesn’t require a personnel change. Zidane’s does. So Zidane is on the clock. His opening move will set the stage.

The decisive battles

If Madrid decides to play through – and it probably will – the abilities of Kroos and Modric to evade pressure, hold the ball and carry it forward will be pivotal. Modric, if he can spin away from Milner with the Englishman breathing down his neck, can be a one-man press-break. He can turn controlled possession into an attack by carrying the ball forward. Kroos can do so with one or two clever touches and a seeing-eye pass. It will be up to Milner, Wijnaldum and Henderson to cut off that back-to-front connection in midfield.

The other key battle is self-explanatory: Marcelo, the world’s best attacking fullback, will be matched up with Mohamed Salah. He must be smart.

Liverpool lineup projection

The Reds will line up as follows (4-3-3): Loris Karius; Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Dejan Lovren, Andy Robertson; Giorginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, James Milner; Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane.

Real Madrid lineup projection

Here’s what Zidane should do (4-3-3): Keylor Navas; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo; Luka Modric, Casemiro, Toni Kroos; Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo, Marco Asensio.

Here’s what Zidane might do (4-1-2-1-2): Keylor Navas; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo; Casemiro; Luka Modric, Toni Kroos; Isco; Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema.

And then there are about a dozen variations of those two 11s. There’s a version of the former with Lucas Vazquez replacing Bale in what looks more like a 4-1-4-1. There’s a version of the latter with Bale preferred to Benzema, or with Isco dropped for Asensio. Then there’s the scenario where Casemiro gets left out, and the midfield turns into a flat 4-4-2 with Asensio and Vazquez as defensive wingers. There’s no telling which Zidane will choose.

Prediction

Liverpool has all the tools. But so have others in the past against Real. Liverpool will hold at least one lead, but the game will go to extra time at 2-2. Madrid will claim a 13th European crown, either on penalties or via an Asensio winner. Either way, at the final whistle, Ronaldo’s shirt will be nowhere to be found.

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

More Champions League final coverage from Yahoo Sports:
The glory and downfall of 1970s and 80s Liverpool
How 2013-18 Real Madrid stacks up against history’s best
Why Mohamed Salah is more than just the Prem’s best player
Why Real Madrid’s dynasty is on its last legs

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