Heavy metal vs Rock ‘n’ Roll; Mohamed Salah vs Cristiano Ronaldo; Jurgen Klopp vs Zinedine Zidane; upstarts vs galacticos – the UEFA Champions League final between Real and Liverpool is a multi-layered narrative. But the path ahead won’t be as straightforward in Kiev. Here is a look at the possible tactics and pitfalls that both teams may encounter in Saturday’s match:
Permutational flexibility: Jurgen Klopp has almost always adhered to gegenpressing— incessantly pressing forward, ratcheting up pressure on the opposition defence and forcing a mistake or two. Even when they lose the ball, the prerogative is to win the ball back and not keep the defensive shape. A 4-3-3 formation facilitates this method, though Klopp showed his tactical flexibility with a more guarded approach in the second-leg against Manchester City. Klopp could adopt a similar ploy against Real Madrid, a side that transitions spell-bindingly from defensive positions to rousing counter-attacks.
Unlike Klopp, Zidane has been tactically flexible, though he compulsively underplays the merits of his systems. Resultantly, he has flitted between a dynamic 4-3-1-2, a conventional 4-4-2, a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield and a more attacking 4-4-3. Given Liverpool’s frontline prowess, he could employ a more pragmatic 4-3-3 with a deep defensive-line, cutting down width on the flanks to nullify the threat of Salah and Mane. It also lets Gareth Bale play a more incisive role in the inside right channel. Karim Benzema can be the target man while it affords Ronaldo the creative freedom in the box, a free-roaming space that could amplify his threat.
Real’s full-back weakness: Marcelo is arguably the swiftest left-back around, and is a genuine goal-scoring/hatching threat, but can occasionally drift away from his defensive duties, which is dangerous when you’re assigned to counter the threat of someone as clever as Salah. He has, on an average, spent more time in the opposition half than his own.It means, the left-sided centre-back Rafael Varane and defensive-screen Casemiro will have to track back and supplement him. Right-back Dani Carvajal too can be flimsy at times, and this vulnerability was ruthlessly exposed by both Juventus as well as Bayern Munich. The blinding Liverpool forwards too would home in on this weakness. Meanwhile, Liverpool counterparts, Andrew Robertson and Alexander-Arnold have been quite consistent, though not entirely error-proof.
Aerialy challenged: Real has possibly the finest assemblage of headers—Ronaldo, Bale, Benzema and Ramos around while Liverpool’s central defenders Dejan Lovren and Virgil van Dijk can be highly susceptible to high balls (remember how Jose Mourinhio exposed them in their second EPL meeting this year). Recently, Roma too gashed forth their aerial incompetence. Also, Real have been exceptionally surgical with their crossing, from either flank, especially Marcelo and Lucas Vazquez. It would concern Liverpool in set-pieces too.
Midfeld boss: Both the central midfielders, Johan Henderson and Toni Kroos had exceptional seasons. Kroos has completed 766 of his 811 attempted passes, Henderson’s corresponding numbers read 473 out of 552 . But Kroos is quicker and cleverer with a wider range of passing, besides being a sharper goal-scoring threat. Henderson, though invaluable, is more functional, more like text-book distributor. If Kroos is not stifled, he could dictate the tempo and the three-peat champion elect could run away with the game.