The day after it advanced to a fourth Champions League final in five years is no time to belittle Real Madrid. It is no time to suggest that the most prosperous team in the history of the competition, in the midst of that competition’s most dominant run, is anything less than spectacular. It is no time for defamation or aspersions, nor suggestions that Madrid doesn’t deserve its success.
But after Liverpool dispatched Roma to lock in a date with Real in Kiev, it is time to talk about vulnerability.
It is time to talk about vulnerability, because when Madrid goes for a third Champions League title in a row, and a fourth in five years, on May 26 at Ukraine’s Olympic Stadium, it will have to overcome an opponent that might as well be engineered to end its run.
Liverpool is the Kryptonite. It is the nemesis. Its style is Real Madrid’s Achilles Heel. Frame the final however you want, with whatever metaphor or cliché. Just don’t scoff at the notion. Don’t assume that Real Madrid’s past triumphs ensure one more.
Liverpool has a real chance to prevent the three-peat, because its up-tempo, “heavy-metal football” is the exact type to which Real has become susceptible. Against worthy opponents this year, Madrid has staggered like a king fighting with waning might to maintain control of his kingdom. It has survived, but shown more signs of weakness than ever.
A once-great midfield has become a liability. Its beautiful lack of structure has become a problem as players like Luka Modric have lost an ounce or two of physical ability. Never before in the Modric-Toni Kroos era has Madrid’s midfield line been so easy to break, and never before has it so often failed to seize control of games.
Los Blancos struggle, in particular, in transition. Kroos and Modric require freedom and options ahead of them. But their use of that freedom is problematic when they lose the ball. And those are precisely the times when Liverpool excels. Its high press forces turnovers. Its front three explode forward with menace. Wherever Madrid loses the ball, whether in the middle of the park or in the attacking third, it will have trouble cutting off supply to Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah. It will therefore have trouble stemming Liverpool’s counterattack.
There are possible alterations, available countermeasures for Real manager Zinedine Zidane to employ. He could play Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez as defensive wingers in a classic 4-4-2, with either Isco or Karim Benzema partnering Cristiano Ronaldo up top. But in that case, central channels would still be wide open.
He could go even more conservative, to a 4-5-1 with the two defensive wingers, Casemiro behind Modric and Kroos, and Ronaldo up top alone. But in that case, Real Madrid wouldn’t be Real Madrid. In theory, Madrid might prefer a slow, defensive slog. But such a game is so out of the ordinary for a club accustomed to superiority and attacking flair that it might not be feasible.
Zidane has sought this balance – between solidity and proactivity – throughout the European season, but hasn’t really been able to find it. Score lines have been deceiving. Real was on the back foot for at least half of its ties against PSG and Juventus, and all of its semifinal matchup with Bayern Munich.
The defending champs have won Champions League games at either end of the field. They have scored more ridiculous individual goals than anybody else, punished mistakes with more ruthlessness than anybody else, and saved themselves with more last-ditch defensive interventions. Ronaldo has been Ronaldo. Sergio Ramos, when not suspended, has been Sergio Ramos. Keylor Navas has been Good Keylor Navas.
Some would call Madrid’s success lucky. And they wouldn’t be wrong. It’s been a combination of luck and skill, just as almost all success is. Madrid has made use of opponent mistakes whereas others haven’t. And we should keep in mind that Liverpool has been prone to the very defensive slip-ups off of which Real has profited.
But Liverpool can also force errors at the other end as well as anybody in the world. The Reds have done it against Man City, soccer’s most domineering attacking unit. If they have their way – and there is little to suggest they won’t – they will turn the Champions League final into chaos. And they are far more equipped to win a chaotic, helter-skelter game than Real Madrid.
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