The stage for the biggest match in European football is set. Come tomorrow, two of Europe’s best teams go head-to-head at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Real Madrid on one hand have the opportunity to win the UEFA Champions League for a record 12th time. They would also be the first team in the revamped European trophy’s history to defend it. On the other hand, Juventus have the chance to end their Champions League final misfortune. The “Old Gray Lady” has lost four times at the ultimate stage since last winning it in 1996.
Odds may favor the Spanish giants on Saturday. One can’t deny the fact that this year’s final is probably the most balanced tie in the last few years. Some pundits state the match perfectly sits the description of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. The two sides have shown these traits moreover in the knockout stages of the competition. Real Madrid have scored a total of 16 goals in the knockouts of the Champions League this year. Juventus have conceded just one goal through the same period of time. It is the perfect set-up for an enthralling encounter.
Yet when it comes to cup finals, history has a huge role to play. And if the past is anything to be believed in, Real Madrid stand clear favorites. Real Madrid have reached the final of the UEFA Champions League five times before, and have won on all occasions. It won’t be a surprise if after the final whistle, Real Madrid’s name would be etched on the famous trophy once again. And Real Madrid certainly go into the final with confidence in their abilities.
Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos in an interview said that the team is enjoying the period of dominance at home and in Europe. Ramos even spoke about the challenge that Real Madrid faced in Juventus. He aptly described the opposition’s best quality being their collectiveness.
For Madrid the stakes are so high, that manager Zinedine Zidane has taken a unique strategy to motivate his team. According to Spanish newspaper Marca, Zidane showed the Madrid players scenes from the movie ‘300’ with his voice dubbed over it; pushing them to “fight for the team and for our families”. Zidane knows the challenge more than anyone else, having played for Juventus for five years between 1996 and 2001, and coincidentally lost a Champions League final in 1998 to his current employers.
On the other hand, Juventus have been a tough unit to break. In the entire competition starting with the group stage, the Italian champions have conceded just two goals. They have even managed to keep out Barcelona from scoring over two legs, a testimony to a defense that has stood rock solid to any challenge that has come across their way. But the steely performance doesn’t end at their back line. The attacking quartet of Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic have steadily troubled defenses and have stepped up with equal deadly efficiency. The rebirth of Mandzukic has also been a key component in the Juventus side that is looking to secure a treble.
Defender Giorgio Chiellini said during a press conference early this week that he feels Juventus has improved in the last two years. He also said that the key to everything will be a willingness to go the extra yard,. Speaking about the Champions League final defeat two years ago, Chiellini stressed on the importance of learning from their mistakes. Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri said that for Juventus to learn about the importance of the stage they are in, they only have to look back to the agony of 2015.
As far as the squads that would grace Millennium Stadium’s pitch on Saturday, both teams are expected to field their maximum strength. Real Madrid had some doubts about Gareth Bale earlier, but his return to fitness has given Zidane a relief as well as a selection headache – choosing between an in-form Isco and a world-class Bale. But Zidane might opt for Isco on the right side of the attacking trio which also includes Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo considering the fact that Bale is not yet ready to play 90 minutes. Pepe is still out injured which would mean Raphael Varane starts alongside Sergio Ramos.
Juventus on the other hand have had no major injury worries through the campaign. That has allowed manager Massimiliano Allegri to switch between formations. The only question would be whether he would play three at the back or play four. It is likely that Allegri would continue with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Using that formation helped his side dismantle the likes of Barcelona and Monaco in the last two rounds respectively.
The talent at disposal for either managers is abundant. And with the Champions League trophy in clear sight. The options ahead of the teams are not much – to either make history for themselves or be forgotten. As the “unstoppable force” meets the “immovable object”, the greatest prize in European football waits for its next champion.