Football Features

Real Madrid united by Mbappe and Liverpool confidence? The view from Spain on the Champions League final

By Sam Leveridge, from La Liga Lowdown

Published: 13:37, 27 May 2022

This year provides us with a repeat of the 2018 Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool — and while only four seasons have passed, much has changed for both teams.

An era has come to an end for Real, who have had four different coaches since that victory in Ukraine and many of the star names have moved on, while Liverpool have evolved their same core into a squad of winners, who won the trophy 12 months later in the Spanish capital.

Here, we share the view from Spain on a very different Champions League final in Paris as Real Madrid go for their 14th European Cup, up against the last team to beat them in a final, way back in 1981… also in Paris.

1. How on earth have Real made it through to this final in the first place?

Good question, and one that Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City fans will be asking themselves too. Maybe even Sheriff Tiraspol, the Moldovan side who humiliated Real Madrid with a shock win at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu earlier this season.

The answer is pretty simple: this is Real Madrid. Los Blancos believe that they have a divine right to win this competition, and their season will be judged as a success or a failure by the result of this final, regardless of winning LaLiga with several games to spare. That divine right is what has seemed to give them that extra edge in the crucial moments.

More objectively, Madrid have played very well in short bursts. Against PSG, their three goals came in 17 minutes. Against Chelsea, Karim Benzema scored two in three minutes in the first leg, and there were two in 16 minutes in the return fixture. Against City, all three goals came in five minutes. Across all three encounters, Madrid have failed to boss a tie or dominate as they once did, but have instead turned it on with bursts of intensity and belief that has seen them through.

2. How highly rated is this Real team compared to previous UCL-winning sides?

It doesn’t even begin to compare, but that’s part of the threat. The core of this team remains similar in midfield, with Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, alongside other regulars like Dani Carvajal and Karim Benzema — and you could argue that all five are past their peak, although the French forward would certainly contest that point.

Across the rest of the squad, there is a mix of a few world-class players at their best, like Thibaut Courtois and David Alaba, and a host of younger talents, such as Éder Militão (24), as well as Brazilian duo Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo Goes (both 21).

Where the three-peat side of 2016-2018 was full of players at the height of their careers, this side is full of experienced veterans and young stars. It’s a mix which has served them well to this point this season, and in Carlo Ancelotti they have the perfect coach to bring together such a diverse squad.

3. What’s their reaction to Mohamed Salah’s ‘revenge’ comments?

There’s been some rather sharp comments coming out of the Real Madrid camp towards Liverpool, in particular relating to Salah’s quotes. “I’m a rival and it’s disparaging of the Real Madrid crest, our players. All we need to do is give our best and show why we are in the final,” Fede Valverde said. Benzema later came up with a rather vague comment saying that “it sounds like Liverpool think they’ve already won the trophy.”

It’s clear that the camp want to paint themselves as the underdogs in this encounter, and there will certainly be an edge to this clash. Sergio Ramos was the protagonist (or antagonist if you’re of a Merseyside persuasion) in Kiev in 2018 and will no longer be around, but the tie at Anfield in 2021 got tasty too when James Milner clattered Benzema, and Casemiro sought out revenge on behalf of his team-mate shortly after.

4. Who’s Real Madrid’s weak link?

Real Madrid are weakest in the full-back positions, particularly on the left with Ferland Mendy. Neither him nor Carvajal have been consistently fit or enjoying their best form this season and that has had an impact. Both are more than capable of producing top-level displays, but have not done so regularly for much of this season.

Mendy is defensively reliable and his greatest criticism this season has been that he fails to contribute in attack. Coming up against Salah on Liverpool’s right flank, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

5. Who’s Liverpool’s scariest player?

Salah could cause Real Madrid some real problems. He scored Liverpool’s only goal when the two sides met in 2021 and has made no secret of the fact that he is out for revenge against Los Blancos. His reputation is the one that stands out in the Spanish press beyond all others, including even Spaniard Thiago Alcántara or former Real Madrid player Fabinho.

Also worthy of a mention is that man Luis Díaz. Given that Carvajal in particular has struggled up against lightning pace, his tricky footwork and ability to create half a yard will look to open up gaps in the Madrid defence. With Carvajal’s inconsistency and Militão’s recent drop in form, there could be openings on the right of their backline.

6. Which opposing player will Real Madrid try to exploit?

The battle which could decide the victors of the Champions League will come down Madrid’s left flank as Vinícius looks to exploit any pockets left in behind by Trent Alexander-Arnold. Vini’s pace makes him a real threat to capitalise on any spaces that do open up, and he’ll be giving Liverpool a headache throughout. His brace when the two teams met last season showed just how lethal he can be.

Equally, Alexander-Arnold may feel that he could make the most of Vinícius’ weaknesses. The Brazilian isn’t the best at tracking back and often leaves Mendy isolated, and that could give Alexander-Arnold the opportunity to get into the kind of areas where he can play a killer ball into the box.

7. How much has the Kylian Mbappé snub fired up Madridistas?

A lot. The self-proclaimed “kings of Europe” have been humiliated by Mbappé and, for a club who don’t know the meaning of the word “failure”, to miss out on their star signing and a Champions League trophy in the space of a week doesn’t bear thinking about. It’s brought more unity to the fans and the club than at any other time this season.

The players have insisted that the game at hand is the only thing on their minds. “Mbappé? We’re focused on the final, not little things,” Benzema responded when asked about the potential distraction. Even so, there’s a clear feeling that Real Madrid have a point to prove that they are the biggest and the best in Europe.

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8. What should Liverpool expect from Real Madrid’s line-up?

There are only two real doubts in the Real Madrid team. One is the fitness of Alaba, who hasn’t played since the semi-final first leg against Manchester City in April. He has been back in training for some time now and is expected to start, but Nacho will be waiting in reserve if he isn’t ready in time for this fixture.

The other is in attack, where we expect Valverde to start on the right. He provides a more conservative option and can drop back to form a midfield four, with his impressive engine meaning he will cover more ground than anyone. Rodrygo might feel harshly treated to be left out, but his growing reputation as a super-sub following goals against Chelsea and City means that he’s almost certain to make an appearance off the bench.

9. What is the expected Real Madrid starting XI?

Thibaut Courtois; Dani Carvajal, Éder Militão, David Alaba, Ferland Mendy; Casemiro, Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos; Fede Valverde, Karim Benzema, Vinícius Júnior (4-3-3)

10. Who does La Liga Lowdown see winning?

This is, arguably, the first time in decades that Real Madrid have gone into a Champions League final as underdogs. On paper, making predictions with our heads, this should be a Liverpool win. They have the quality across the pitch and the winning mentality that should give them the edge compared to the recent meetings between these two sides.

With our hearts, it’s hard to look beyond Real Madrid in Europe. They have defied logic against Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City already this season, and it would be no surprise to see them do it again.

Having to go one way or another, Liverpool’s performances in big games and cup finals shows that they will look to shut down the game and that will not feed into Real Madrid’s strengths. Unlike PSG or City, their experience of matches like this could give them the composure to withstand any bombardment from Real Madrid and secure a narrow win.

Article produced by Sam Leveridge in partnership with La Liga Lowdown, your home for Spanish football in English with reporters based in Spain. Find them on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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