The stage for the biggest match in European football is set. Come June 3, 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 (counting the European Cup wins too) for a record 12th time, and 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, having lost four times at the ultimate stage since last winning it in 1996.
Odds may favour the Spanish giants on Saturday but one can’t deny the fact that this year’s final is probably the most balanced tie in the last few years. And to quote Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’, 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. While 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. A 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 favourites. 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 on June 3, 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 thoroughly enjoying the period of dominance at home and in Europe. In an interview to Real Madrid TV, Ramos said: “We had to suffer a lot when other teams won and it’s true that we enjoy it now.”
Ramos even spoke about the challenge that Real Madrid faced in Juventus and aptly described the opposition’s best quality being their collectiveness.
For Madrid the stakes are so high, that manager Zinedine Zidane, who as a player barring the ‘headbutt’ incident in the 2006 World Cup final was known for his calm demeanour, 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 defence that has stood rock solid to any challenge that has come across their way. But the steely performance doesn’t end at their backline. The attacking quartet of Gonzalo Higuain, Paulo Dybala, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic have steadily troubled defences and have stepped up with equal deadly efficiency. The rebirth of Mario Mandzukic has also been a key component in the Juventus side that is looking to secure a treble.
“We feel we’ve improved in the last two years and the squad has got better, but the key to everything will be our willingness to go the extra yard,” defender Giorgio Chiellini said during a press conference early this week.
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.
“Have we learned anything from losing in the 2015 final? You learn something every day, never mind in a Champions League final!” Allegri was quoted as saying by Daily Star.
“Only a few people get to lift this trophy. It’s not something that happens every year. In the last three years, we’ve played in one final and this will be our second. But this time we have to lay our hands on the trophy,” he said.
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, which 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, which has 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. And as the “unstoppable force” meets the “immovable object”, the greatest prize in European football waits patiently for its next champion.