The time has almost come — the Champions League final. Liverpool will meet Real Madrid at the Stade de France in a rematch of the 2018 final which the Spaniards won in Kyiv. Much has changed since the night that Loris Karius gifted Madrid two goals, Mohamed Salah was stretchered off with a dislocated shoulder, and Gareth Bale scored perhaps the best goal you’re ever likely to see in a Champions League final.
Liverpool will be out for revenge and have become a winning machine since that night in Ukraine. Defeat to Zinedine Zidane’s side perhaps served as a catalyst for their future success and the signing of Alisson Becker that summer following Karius’ blunders only strengthened the Reds, who are vastly more experienced heading to Paris and just edge it as favourites amongst the Liverpool v Real Madrid odds.
For Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti is back in the dugout and has already led Los Blancos to the La Liga title in his first season back at the Bernabéu. While the Italian delivered La Decima he has also tasted defeat to Liverpool in a European final before, back in 2005. Fine margins may well prove the difference in this one, so let’s take a look at the key battles in this year’s UEFA Champions League final.
Vinícius Júnior vs Trent Alexander-Arnold
Many forget these two sides actually met last year in the quarter-finals, albeit the Liverpool side was one decimated by injuries. Jürgen Klopp was forced to play Ozan Kabak and Nat Phillips in the absence of Virgil Van Dijk and it led to a difficult first leg at the temporary Estadio Alfredo Di Stefano Madrid used for that campaign.
Liverpool’s makeshift back four led to a difficult night for Trent Alexander-Arnold at right back, who had lots of defending to do against Vinícius Júnior. The Brazilian scored a brace on the night and all but secured his side’s passage to the semi-finals. Alexander-Arnold will get more cover in Paris but with Vini Jr enjoying his best campaign to date, and an in-form Karim Benzema available for him to pick up, it will be an interesting encounter whenever the ball goes down that side of the pitch.
Dominating the midfield
We’re not quite sure how they do it, but every season when questions are asked of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, the trio always manage to deliver. The Madrid midfield seem to age like a fine wine. Arguably the most press-resistant midfield in Europe, the triumvirate won three consecutive Champions Leagues together, and Liverpool will need to be at their best to compete with such an experienced midfield.
Thiago and Fabinho are all but guaranteed to start for the Reds, with the Spaniard putting in a scintillating display in his last Champions League final as Bayern Munich beat Paris Saint-Germain in 2020. But the real questions will be asked of Jordan Henderson. The industrious captain has come under scrutiny in recent weeks and while he is a leader on the pitch, the performances of Naby Keïta could twist Klopp’s arm into starting the Guinea international, although he did struggle the last time the sides met, being hooked after half an hour. Whoever starts, if Liverpool can win the midfield battle, they’ll have a much better chance of winning the game.
Which Salah will turn up?
Since the turn of the year Salah has suffered a dip in form. The Africa Cup of Nations loss and failure to qualify for the World Cup have clearly taken their toll on the Egyptian, who has scored just twice since the international break. However, you can see by his recent performances, where he proved a crucial assist against Villarreal and looked dangerous in the Premier League that Salah is hungry to gain revenge in Paris. He’s spoken about his burning desire to face Madrid and if he can rediscover that goalscoring proficiency in the last few league games, it could be a tough night for Ferland Mendy and Éder Militão, who won’t expect much cover from Vinícius Júnior.