UCL final key battles include Ronaldo vs. Barzagli, Marcelo vs. Dani Alves
Saturday night’s Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus has the makings of a true classic: two league champions, two excellent sides playing a very different brand of football and plenty of fascinating individual battles. Here are four that may have a significant bearing upon the destination of the European Cup.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Andrea Barzagli
Even by his standards, Cristiano Ronaldo’s form throughout this season’s Champions League knockout stages has been incredible. Hat tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid have won matches almost single-handedly: when Real aren’t playing well, Ronaldo has been their saviour, and when they are playing well, he makes them almost unstoppable.
Ronaldo is now playing almost as a conventional centre-forward. Throughout the course of his career, he’s increasingly evolved from a proper winger to a pure goal scorer but now, he’s essentially a penalty box operator, waiting for service in the middle before using his incredible physical attributes and powerful shooting to crash home goal after goal.
His battle against the Juventus centre-backs — particularly right-sided centre-back Andrea Barzagli — will be fascinating. On paper, an aerial threat is precisely what the Italian defenders (and 35-year-old Barzagli) would like to face. But Juve’s second-leg performance against Monaco was curious: while Barzagli surprisingly coped against the speed of Kylian Mbappe extremely well, they looked uncharacteristically nervous when defending crosses. If they hesitate this weekend, with Ronaldo lurking, they’ll be punished.
In truth, Ronaldo has rarely performed particularly well in a Champions League final but he’s almost always decisive in some way. He powered home the opener in the 2008 final against Chelsea in his Manchester United days, scored in extra-time against Atletico in 2014 and converted the decisive penalty against the same opposition in 2016. Only in 2009, when United were defeated by Barcelona, has he failed to influence the game. You suspect, this weekend, Ronaldo will find the net even if Juve keep him quiet for long periods.
Marcelo vs. Dani Alves
One of the most exciting battles in Cardiff will be between two international teammates, with Marcelo and Dani Alves going head-to-head down the flanks. Indeed, such is the quality of Brazilian full-backs that we’re likely to see four on the pitch here, with former Porto colleagues Alex Sandro and Danilo doing battle down the opposite flank. But it’s Marcelo vs. Alves that feels particularly exciting.
The latter has often been excellent against Real Madrid over the years, having regularly faced them in his Clasico days, and he’s demonstrated over the course of this season that he remains a tremendous attacking threat. His performance against former club Barcelona in the quarterfinals was outstanding: he essentially served as Juve’s main attacking force.
In this game, he could be fielded in three separate positions: as a wide midfielder in a 4-2-3-1, a wing-back in more of a 3-5-2 or even as a conventional right-back. Whatever his position, however, he’ll be up against Marcelo.
Marcelo will be fielded at left-back but because Real Madrid are likely to use a narrow midfield, he’ll be asked to push forward regularly and provide left-sided width. In that sense, he might appear as much a wing-back as a full-back. While Real’s midfield is overloaded with playmakers, Marcelo is as technically gifted as most and will play a crucial role in Real’s passing triangles as they set up camp in Juve’s half. Alves, however, will be looking to speed in behind on the counterattack. He might prove the game’s key player.
Isco vs. Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira
If Zinedine Zidane could select a 100 percent fit Gareth Bale, Isco would probably be the man to miss out. But Bale’s absence might prove to be a blessing in disguise because Isco has been in sensational form over recent weeks: he was absolutely outstanding in the semifinal against Atletico Madrid, positioning himself between the lines, knitting together midfield and attack.
It feels peculiar that Real are so much better with a player in Isco’s mould considering that they already use Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, two outstanding playmakers, but Isco is different. He plays higher, he slaloms away from challenges quickly and he provides the missing link when Real are constructing passing moves. With Bale playing out wide, Ronaldo and Benzema sometimes feel disconnected from the rest of the side. With Isco in the side, everything feels more cohesive.
He will seek to overload Juve’s midfield, and this could prove very tricky to cope against. Casemiro will be concerned with Paulo Dybala but Modric and Kroos will go up against Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira. Isco is almost a “bonus” midfielder and Juve might struggle to track his movement, which might tempt one of Juve’s centre-backs up the pitch, subsequently leaving the back line understaffed.
Always something an outsider in this system, Isco might be Real’s main man this weekend.
Gonzalo Higuain vs. Sergio Ramos
All 22 starters here will be desperate to win, but Gonzalo Higuain might have more incentive than most. This is a man who was ditched by Real Madrid three years ago, a player who has been constantly criticised for his poor performances in big games: he wasted Argentina’s best chance in the 2014 World Cup final and while he’s banged in plenty of league goals ever since, it still feels like he needs a big game performance to prove his quality on a global level.
He’ll be up against former teammate Sergio Ramos, who is the opposite type of player. Wildly inconsistent over the course of a campaign and incredibly prone to getting himself into bother with referees, Real’s captain is nevertheless among the greatest “big game” players of his generation having scored crucial goals in the Champions League finals of 2014 and 2016.
This weekend, though, Ramos will be primarily concerned with stopping Higuain. The Argentine tends to play in that inside-right channel, with Mario Mandzukic drifting inside from the left into a second striker position alongside him. Higuain’s game has changed since moving to Italy: he’s slimmed down slightly and found an extra yard of pace, which might prove crucial for a Juve side likely to play on the counterattack here.