On Saturday, the curtain comes down on the European club season as Cardiff plays host to the UEFA Champions League final. Max Allegri’s Juventus take on Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid.
It’s a very difficult game to call as one of Europe’s best defences takes on one of it’s best attacks. Juventus come into the game with the competition’s best defensive record having conceded just three goals in this season’s tournament, including a run five of consecutive shutouts in the knockout rounds. As ever, their BBC partnership of Bonucci, Barzagli and Chiellini backed up by Buffon have been instrumental in this. Most impressively, shutting out Barcelona in both legs of the quarter-final tie despite conceding well over 60% of possession in both ties. Their resistance was finally broken by Kylian Mbappe in the semi-final second leg but Juve still ran out comfortable 4-1 winners.
They will come into the game with confidence too as they eye a treble, having already claimed the Serie A title for the sixth consecutive time this season as well as the Coppa Italia with a 2-0 victory over Lazio just two weeks ago. They have recent experience of playing in a Champions League final too, having contested the 2015 final with Barcelona but goals from Ivan Rakitić, Luis Suárez and Neymar were enough to see off Juve that night. They have in fact won only two of their previous eight European Cup or Champions League finals, the last of which coming all the way back in 1996 with a penalty shootout triumph against Ajax. A record Allegri is keen not to dwell upon insisting “Negativity breeds negativity and positivity breeds positivity… I don’t like negativity.” However, he did admit that “Real Madrid are favourites.”
There is certainly a strong case to be made for Real, the club are playing in their third final in four years, having claimed the trophy with victories over Atletico Madrid in both 2014 and 2016. The club have won their last five Champions League finals dating back to 1998 and victory on Saturday would move them further clear of AC Milan’s seven titles with an unprecedented 12th title. Zidane will be confident of a win to add further to his trophy-laden time in charge of the club. Despite only taking over in January 2016, he has already guided the club to the Champions League, UEFA Super Cup, Club World Cup and La Liga title. That La Liga victory ended a period of supremacy for Barcelona who had won six of the eight previous championships prior to this season; Real claimed their first title since the 2011-12 season. There is also a personal element for Zidane, as a player, he represented and reached the final with both of these sides. His only appearance in the final for Juventus actually came against Real Madrid in the 1997/98 season. He was on the losing side that night thanks to a Predrag Mijatović second half strike.
If Real are to win, they will look to the BBC of their own (Bale, Benzema and Cristiano). Ronaldo, in particular, has been in fine form this season, off the back of his Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of the Year win. He has scored 40 goals in 45 club matches this season and has extended his lead at the top of the all-time Champions League scoring charts. His 10 goals season have taken his total to 104, 10 ahead of Lionel Messi’s total of 94. As a club, Real scored a mammoth 106 league goals as well as a further 30 in the Champions League and they just need a single goal in the final to bring up their 500th Champions League goal of all time. Therefore, their attack will be keen to give a thorough examination to Juve’s demon defence.
Likely Line-up: Buffon; Bonucci, Chiellini, Barzagli; Sandro, Khedira, Pjanić, Alves; Mandžukić, Dybala, Higuaín.
Juventus are in a strong position heading into the final, long-term absentee Marko Pjaca is their only injury concern. Even manager Max Allegri has passed himself fit for touchline duty after limping out of a recent charity match with a muscular injury. Allegri has been rotating his key assets in the final weeks of the domestic season so expect the whole squad to be well-rested.
Likely Line-up: Navas; Carvajal, Varane, Ramos, Marcelo; Kroos, Casemiro, Mordić; Isco; Ronaldo, Benzema.
Heading into the game, all the talk in the Madrid camp surrounds the fitness of Welshman Gareth Bale. He is understandably desperate to get onto the pitch, considering he was born and raised in Cardiff. He could become only the sixth player in history to lift the Champions League trophy in his hometown. The odds are against him though as he has spent the last six weeks out of action with an ankle injury. He has not played since picking up the injury in the Classico on 23rd April, a recurring theme of a frustrating campaign that has limited him to just 19 league appearances. Bale admits “I am not 100 percent, I haven’t played for six or seven weeks. I obviously had my operation which still really hasn’t recovered.” If Bale is not fit, expect Real to continue with their 4-3-1-2 formation with Isco playing in behind forwards Ronaldo and Benzema. A team with Bale included would most likely line up in a 4-3-3 with Ronaldo pushed wide. Elsewhere, the only other concern for Real is the absence of Pepe with broken ribs so Varane and Ramos are expected to start.
Route to the final
Group stage: Group H winners (4W, 2D)
Last 16: Porto 0-2 Juventus, Juventus 1-0 Porto (3-0 agg)
Quarter Final: Juventus 3-0 Barcelona, Barcelona 0-0 Juventus (3-0 agg)
Semi Final: Monaco 0-2 Juventus, Juventus 2-1 Monaco (4-1 agg)
Group stage: Group F runners-up (3W, 3D)
Last 16: Real Madrid 3-1 Napoli, Napoli 1-3 Real Madrid (6-2 agg)
Quarter Final: Bayern Munich 1-2 Real Madrid, Real Madrid 4-2 Bayern Munich aet (6-3 agg)
Semi Final: Real Madrid 3-0 Atletico Madrid, Aletico Madrid 2-1 Real Madrid (4-1 agg)
In the build-up, Allegri has heaped praise upon his squad “My players have been fantastic. They’ve had an extraordinary year and I thank them for that, but now we need one final effort and we need to be more motivated than they are.”
“It was a difficult season in the league and we’ve done great things. Winning the Coppa Italia for a third year running was crazy, as was winning the Scudetto. We’ve filled our agenda month on month, which is how we wanted it, and now we are just lacking that final piece before we can go on holiday.”
He as also been keen to stress the importance of learning from the 2015 final. He said “This is the second biggest game of my career. I lost the first in Berlin and on Saturday, we’ve got to win. We’ve got to win with great humility and determination. We need to keep a good balance and ensure we are always in the game. Finals can take a turn at any moment. We go there with more conviction than we had two years ago. We’ve developed more positivity and conviction. Our self-belief has grown since Berlin, and this is an important thing when it comes to games like these.”
Giorgio Chiellini then echoed this sentiment. “We do not want to repeat the mistakes we made in Berlin. It is in my nature to try and take the positives out of every experience, even from the bad times.” (Source: ESPN)
When asked about selection, Zidane was rather bullish. He insisted “Gareth doesn’t have to say anything to me. He’s ready, he’s back training with us and he is hugely excited about the game. The important thing is that they are in good shape at the end of the season. Gareth maybe a little less because he has been injured but he has recovered well.” He didn’t even appear to rule out both and Isco making the line-up by insisting “They are both very good players, people talk about one or the other but they can play together, they have played 16 games together.” (Source: DNA Sports)
In typical Cristiano Ronaldo style, he was much more forthcoming about his side’s chances. He stated “too much humility isn’t good. We have to prove our character and who is the best. The final is won by scoring goals. I have the feeling that we are going to play a great game and we are going to win.” (Source: Reuters)
In a hard fought game, I predict Juventus to win 2-1.