Champions League final preview: The Real Madrid view
Ahead of Saturday’s Champions League final in Kiev, we take a look at back-to-back reigning champions Real Madrid, who are aiming to become the first team since the 1970s to win the European Cup three times in a row. Preview by Jamie Braidwood.
Route to the final
Real Madrid have made it to this year’s final despite not finishing 1st in their group. The 12-time European champions were drawn alongside Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund and Apoel Nicosia in what was considered as this season’s ‘group of death’.. Real were perfect against their German and Cyprus opponents, but drew at home and lost away to Spurs to finish runner up.
A mouth-watering tie against Paris Saint-Germain, who at the time were Europe’s most attractive team, followed. PSG were without the injured Neymar for the second leg, with Real Madrid already in the lead from the first, and the tie was effectively killed following Marco Verratti’s red card. The Spanish side went on to win 5-2 on aggregate.
Next Real faced Juventus, in a repeat of last year’s final. The Italians were blown away 3-0 in the first leg in Turin, but battled back on a dramatic night in Madrid to level the scores in the second leg. The match was decided in controversial circumstances after Real were awarded a penalty in the dying seconds of the game. Cristiano Ronaldo kept his head to dispatch the spot-kick as Real won 4-3.
In the semi-finals, Real faced German champions Bayern Munich. They were outplayed by their Bavarian opponents for much of the tie, but over the two legs Real were at their clinical best; capitalising on critical Bayern errors at crucial times to seize control. Real’s second goal in the first leg was a clear example of that, as Marco Asensio raced from one end of the pitch to the other after latching onto a loose Bayern pass to dispatch a devastating counter attack.
At some point in each of this season’s knockout ties, Real have looked vulnerable and there for the taking. But this team are serial champions, having won this competition in 2014, 2016 and 2017, and have a found a way to win time and time again. They have a knack of scoring vital goals at hugely important points in the game, such as just before half-time or in the last 15 minutes. On the way to the final in Kiev Real have scored 30 goals and have eliminated this season’s champions of France, Italy and Germany. Now only Liverpool stand in their way of a third Champions League title in a row.
In many ways, Zinedine Zidane is the perfect manager for Real Madrid. His exemplary playing career demands the total respect that is required to manage a team of modern-day superstars while he has demonstrated shrewd tactical acumen in this season’s European campaign.
The 45-year-old is not afraid to make big decisions when it comes to team selection or substitutions, and at times this season has made the call to leave out players like Isco, Casemiro, Toni Kroos or Gareth Bale for someone like Mateo Kovacic or Lucas Vazquez – only to then bring them on to devastating effect. The clearest and most obvious way for a manager to demonstrate his ability is through the effectiveness of his substitutions and Zidane this season has got these big decisions right time and time again.
Curiously, even after Real won back-to-back Champions Leagues in 2016 and 2017, Zidane still came under pressure this season when his team failed to challenge Barcelona in La Liga. He had become the first coach since the ‘90s to win consecutive European titles but people were still questioning his impact.
It’s often a no-win situation when managing a team like Real Madrid. If you win, well of course you won, you’ve got a great team. If you don’t, then why the hell didn’t you win? But Zidane, with his status and cool personality, rises above it all. He is the best possible manager for Real Madrid and is on the verge of history once again.
The one to watch
There’s only one answer, right? At the age of 33, Cristiano Ronaldo is symbiotic of this Real Madrid team. They don’t dominate games high-profile games like they used to, but they score big goals at crucial times, often out of nowhere and against the run of play.
Ronaldo has scored half, 15, of Real Madrid’s Champions League goals this season, which is the 7th season in a row he has reached double figures in Europe. His overhead kick against Juventus was his personal highlight of the campaign so far, as the Portuguese forward prepares to make another significant impact on a major final.
Area for concern
Marcelo’s offensive input to this Real Madrid team has been appreciated for some time – he is regarded as the best attacking full-back in world football – but he has been known to switch off from his defensive responsibilities.
Bayern Munich’s opener against Real in the semi-finals came from Marcelo not tracking back, allowing Joshua Kimmich the space to score. The Brazilian left-back can not afford to allow Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah the same space to run into in the final.
You can read a preview of Real Madrid’s Champions League final opponents Liverpool, here.