Jurgen Klopp knows Real Madrid. He knows how much experience their players have of playing in the latter stages of the Champions League and their ruthlessness while at it. He said that they have “no weaknesses” and appreciated the fact that they are a “good football team” in the pre-match press conference. Then, one half of his mouth curled revealing a small section of the teeth that gnash and grind while he stands on the touchline during most matches. That half-smile – almost a sneer – served as a short preview to his next sentence, “The good news is, we are also a good football team.”
Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Raphael Varane and Cristiano Ronaldo would conversely remember Klopp, or rather a Klopp-led side. They are the surviving members of the 2013 version of Real Madrid that was sculpted by Jose Mourinho and ripped apart by Borussia Dortmund. Marco Reus and Mario Gotze danced about in the midfield and Robert Lewandowski pumped four goals into the back of the net to ensure that Real would be knocked out of the Champions League in the semi-final stage for the third consecutive season. It was an astonishing result, one that made the world sit up and take notice of Dortmund, their players and their manager. Rarely have Real been schooled like that in a tournament that is firmly entrenched in their identity.
But these are different circumstances and Klopp faces a different opponent. The Real Madrid his Dortmund faced was a team that had been knocked out in the semi-final stage of the previous two seasons and never got beyond the Round of 16 for six years before that. His Liverpool, on the other hand, are about to face a Real Madrid vying for a third consecutive Champions League title. As far as experience goes, Real have already won this match.
But football matches are never won by experience. If that was the case then Barcelona should never have been dumped out of the competition this year by Roma. In fact, in this Champions League season-for-the-ages, in which teams have rammed in goals and relegated defending to an afterthought, matches have been won in moments. A set-piece routine that worked, an incident that led to a penalty or a red card or both, a goalkeeping error, a missed chance; results of matches that have lasted two legs and separated by two countries can be triangulated to sequences that lasted mere seconds. These are the moments that Klopp and his opposite number Zinedine Zidane will hope their players make their own.
The War in the Air
Liverpool have a tendency to lose aerial battles and Real have Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos to take advantage of that weakness. It is for this very reason that Zidane might mull giving Gareth Bale a start, not withstanding the Welshman’s encouraging performances in Real’s recent La Liga matches. Using Bale would mean that Zidane would have to bench Benzema, so that he can play the former alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Isco in the 4-4-2 diamond that he has preferred in the Champions League. On the other hand, he could also go for a 4-3-3, which he has used mostly in the league. Here he drops Isco – who otherwise plays as the head of the diamond – Bale and Ronaldo occupy the two flanks with Benzema in the centre. This is a formation that allows Real to make Liverpool search for chances and hit them on the counter.
Apart from the aerial advantage, another reason why Zidane might opt for the latter formation is to ensure that Mohamed Salah does not do to them what he did to Roma in the first leg of the semi-final at Anfield. Roma were guilty of giving the Egyptian too much space down the right for much of the match and he took them apart, scoring two and assisting two more in a stunning Liverpudlian goal-burst. Marcelo has a tendency to play forward and a number of attacks against Real have started with a midfielder running in behind the defence due to the space left empty by the Brazilian. They may have also got away with it on a number of occasions but Zidane would not be foolish enough to risk that against a player who has scored 44 goals in all competitions this season.
Real’s formation could hence contribute to them winning or losing this match but, if they do manage to hold Liverpool down to even terms until the last minute, it becomes a mental battle.
Jurgen Klopp knows Real Madrid. He knows of their ruthlessness and experience and if his team are on level terms with Zidane’s charges in the final five minutes of the match, Liverpool might need to channel the spirit of Istanbul and more to win a seventh Champions League title.