Real Madrid will have a really difficult job trying to break Juve down, writes Liam Brady.
On paper, tonight’s Champions League Final has an epic look, with Real Madrid and Juventus, two of the great names of the European game, going head to head for the biggest prize in club football.
But, from experience, I’ve learned to tread carefully when it comes to predicting a final that will live up to billing – we’ve seen great teams reach finals before only for us to end up having to endure an underwhelming game.
But I do think this one will be fascinating, not least because it pits probably the best attacking team in Europe against the best defensive side. More than that, Real Madrid and Juventus have formidable squads and great players to choose from – there’s no fluke in either team reaching tonight’s decider in Cardiff. That’s a credit too to the two managers, Zinedine Zidane and Massimiliano Allegri.
I don’t think Allegri was the most popular choice for Juve fans at the outset but he has won them over with the way his team has played, the success he’s had and how he has built on what he inherited.
As for Zidane, finally you can put him in that special category: a great player turned great manager. Of course, being in charge of Real Madrid, you’re always going to have quality players at your disposal but it’s still one of the most high-pressure jobs in the world game and I think he has handled it brilliantly, doing it his own way and without resorting to any histrionics or courting any controversy.
Both managers have big decisions to make before they settle on their starting line-ups in Cardiff. I can see Juventus playing two centre-backs rather than three. If Sami Khedira is fit enough to return in midfield, alongside either Claudio Marchisio or Juan Cuadrado, then Allegri may leave Andrea Barzagli out, and only use him if Juve get in front. For Real, Zidane has to decide if he brings Gareth Bale back into the team after his injury or sticks with Isco – who has played so well of late – as the third forward with Karim Benzema and Ronaldo.
At the other end of the pitch, there are different question marks over this Madrid team. Sergio Ramos may have calmed down somewhat in the last couple of seasons but, because of that hot-headed streak of his, you can never be sure what you’re going to get from him in any given 90 minutes. As well as that, both full-backs, Dani Carvajal and Marcelo, are obviously very attack-minded.
Tonight, the Madrid defence will be up against a wily old centre-forward in Gonzalo Higuain. He’s not the quickest but he’s intelligent, takes up good positions in the box and knows how to work effectively with his back to goal so that he can bring others into play.
In Paulo Dybala, Juventus have their most creative player, but Allegri’s team will also pose Madrid real problems with their height: consider, for example, Mario Mandzukic who, while successfully operating in that strange left-sided role for a centre-forward, also represents a threat at set-pieces along with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. But Juventus will have their hands full too, of course. Ronaldo and Benzema might hog the headlines for Madrid but someone else on Allegri’s mind, I’m sure, is Luka Modric who, for me, will be the most talented midfield player on show this evening.
In the semi-final second leg against Atletico, particularly when Real went behind to that early goal, Modric showed great composure and great responsibility in his willingness to receive the ball. He was the one who organised his team, calmed things down and played Madrid back into the game. And it’s because of him that I can see Allegri sacrificing a centre-back to put in a strong-arm midfielder like Marchisio in an attempt to nullify the Croatian’s influence. Defensively, this Juventus team belongs to an enduring tradition in Italian football, something which I experienced first hand in my time playing out there. Probably the only Italian side of note which departed from that philosophy was the Milan team of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard. But even with that attacking Dutch influence, it was a side which still boasted outstanding players in their defence.
Whether under Allegri, Conte or even going back to my time with Trapattoni, Juventus have always believed the structure of the team begins at the back. You get that right first and then you take it from there.
But while this current side adheres to that principle through its collective defending, it is also capable of brilliance on the counter- attack. When there is a break on, they don’t hold back, they get plenty of people forward. And I can see that being difficult for Madrid to handle.
A case in point: Dani Alves. He was superb doing that for Barcelona and has carried on in the same way at Juventus. Certainly, Barca have found it very difficult to replace him because he’s that rare thing: a wonderful attacking full-back who also knows how to do his job defensively. Like Ramos, though, he can lose the head bit – so that’s another thing we should look out for tonight.
No preview of this final would be complete without a special word for Juventus’ legendary ‘keeper Gigi Buffon. If Juve could win this trophy – and even if it turns out to be a poor game - I think a lot people would accept that simply because it would mean Buffon finally getting his hands on that elusive Champions League medal. If ever someone deserved it, for what he’s given to football throughout his long career, it’s this guy.
And he’s still a wonderful goalkeeper. Normally, when ‘keepers are getting on in years, you see certain failings creep into their game – it might be a slowness coming off the line, for example. But he hasn’t shown any weakness and, without doubt, he’s one of the reasons Juventus have been so formidable defensively in this competition. I really don’t think anyone would begrudge him a medal.
So how do I call the 2017 Champions League Final? As you would expect given my time with the club, my heart says Juventus - but so does my head. I think Real Madrid will have a really difficult job trying to break them down and, while Juve won’t concede easily, I think they will also have enough going forward to get the one or maybe two goals which will bring the Champions League trophy back to Turin.
Listen to a preview of the Champions League final with European football writer Paul Little of the Daily Star and backpagefootball.com, Spanish-based football writer Dermot Corrigan and Italian football journalist Emanuele Giulianelli. Presented by Peter McNamara and Larry Ryan of the Irish Examiner.
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