Liverpool are back. In a UEFA Champions League final. Against the undisputed Kings of Europe at this point. Kyiv is going to be a sea of red on Saturday night as the Reds face Zinedine Zidane’s all-conquering Real Madrid side.
Los Blancos are gunning for an unprecedented 13th UEFA Champions League title, and their third in a row. They have rode their luck a little in the last two rounds in the midst of a thoroughly underwhelming La Liga season.
Juventus in the second leg of the quarter-final and Bayern Munich for large parts of the semifinal tie completely outplayed Real, and had only themselves to blame for not finishing off their chances, and putting Real to the sword.
For the Reds, there is a little additional cheer as Adam Lallana and Emre Can will come back to make the bench, giving Jurgen Klopp a few additional options to bring on from the bench.
Here are the key individual battles ahead of the big day in Kyiv.
MO SALAH v MARCELO
This is the most key of all the individual duels across the field on the biggest day. If Marcelo can keep Salah quiet, that is possibly half the job done for Real.
But, Marcelo isn’t going to alter his game just out of fear for Salah. He is still going to take the game to the Reds, and look to put pressure on Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back.
Marcelo’s adventure will definitely mean that Salah will have space in behind the full-back for him to use his pace and put the other Real defenders under pressure.
It is going to be interesting to see how Marcelo manages to balance his defensive and offensive duties. Real wouldn’t be naive enough to allow Salah too much space to run into, especially given the destruction he caused in the first leg of the semifinal against Roma when he was afforded that space to run into.
Maybe, one of the Real midfielders will also be used to fill that gap on their left wing, when Marcelo goes on his forward raids. Luka Modric played a similar role on their right flank in the second leg of their semifinal, when Lucas Vazquez was getting intermittently troubled by David Alaba and Franck Ribery.
For Salah, it is important that he doesn’t neglect his defensive duties in the midst of the attacking responsibility that he is going to shoulder. Alexander-Arnold behind him is going to need all the help he can get against the rampaging Marcelo and Cristiano Ronaldo.
DEJAN LOVREN v CRISTIANO RONALDO
15 goals in the Champions League this season. It has just continued from the last few seasons when Ronaldo has made this his own competition. The tie against Bayern was the first time in a long time that Ronaldo didn’t score in a Champions League tie.
What Ronaldo excels at, will test what Lovren is most suspect at – his ability to concentrate. From the left wing, Ronaldo will continually cut in and become a poacher in the box trying to get on the end of crosses from the other side.
The communication between Lovren and Alexander-Arnold will be critical, given the absolute explosion in Ronaldo’s movement when he senses an opportunity to poach a goal.
It is important that Lovren keeps track of Ronaldo when the ball is in wide areas because there is a good probability that Ronaldo is going to be sniffing around for a header, and Lovren is better suited to dealing with the sheer aerial prowess of Ronaldo than Trent is.
JORDAN HENDERSON v LUKA MODRIC
Modric is the engine of that Real Madrid side. He is going to be covering the most ground for them and given his prowess in both halves, he is the player Liverpool will have to worry about the most. He will also be the man in the Real midfield tasked with nullifying the Liverpool press, with his athletic ability coupled with his passing range making him a man to fear for the Reds.
The skipper for Liverpool, Henderson has put in a real leader’s performance in the last two rounds of the Champions League, and once again, it is going to be important for him to be a tall presence in the centre of the park.
Modric’s engine would mean that he is going to be lingering around the box, waiting for any slack clearances from the Liverpool defenders, which would then enable to use his bullet of a right foot to test Loris Karius in the Liverpool goal.
For Henderson, in the deepest role in midfield, it’s going to be important to win those second balls and make all the 50-50s his own. In possession, with Modric and Toni Kroos, Real have the quality to hurt any side in the world, so it is going to be important for the Reds to ensure that Real don’t get possession of the ball in areas where the quality could hurt them.
It is also going to be important for Henderson to try and win balls back in midfield, and set off Liverpool’s counter-attacks a little earlier, unleashing the pace of the wingers against the full-backs.