By Peter McNamara
Ah yes, we are now hours away from the most important match in the soccer calendar so far in 2016.
And no, we’re definitely not talking about any of the three international friendlies involving Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and England on Friday night.
And yes, international friendlies have, as you now may suspect, always been treated with contempt by this column.
And yes, even the ones pencilled in as direct tournament preparation.
And yes, with good reason – they simply fail to stir the soul.
At the end of the day you can’t beat competitive fare.
And it doesn’t get more competitive than the Uefa Champions League final on Saturday night.
That’s no less than the start of the opening seven sentences with words beginning with ‘A’.
We were going to attempt the first 19 sentences with the first words starting with the letter.
‘Where’s he going with this?’ we hear you say.
Well, it’s all to do with the Grade A performance expected from a man with No 19 on his back in the San Siro.
Luka Modric can light up the Milan venue to confirm his place at the top table of players across the globe.
The Croatian’s presence in midfield for Real Madrid has been vital en route, in particular, to this final.
Modric, one of the greatest playmakers on the planet, has attempted 732 passes in the competition this term and completed 674 of them at a rate of 92%.
Against the most effectively structured defensive unit in European football currently, Modric’s ability to sweep telling passes through the key lines and sectors of the field could be a definitive feature of the game.
If any Real player can unhinge an outstanding Atlético Madrid outfit it is Modric.
Real are the favourites at 6/4 with Atleti 9/4.
The draw is 11/5 and said quote is bound to attract interest.
At the Estadio Vicente Calderón last October the sides met in La Liga and drew 1-1 with Luciano Vietto notching for Atleti in the second half after Karim Benzema had given Real an early first-half lead.
However, in the reverse fixture at the Santiago Bernabéu Antoine Griezmann rifled in a 53rd-minute goal as Atleti won 1-0.
Recently, Real’s head-to-head record with Diego Simeone’s men has been unconvincing.
And Griezmann, scorer of seven Champions League goals in 12 appearances this season, will need plenty of minding by Zinedine Zidane’s unit.
Yet, so will the likes of Koke, Augusto Fernández, if he starts, Yannick Carrasco and Fernando Torres.
Basically, for nearly every argument that can be made regarding Real’s offensive capacity to hurt Simeone’s team, there is a viable counter-argument.
What is interesting though is that Atleti have not won any of their road-trips in the knockout stages in this campaign.
Away from the Calderón, therefore, they have been a little more vulnerable.
And, obviously, the other man, aside from Modric, capable of exploiting this, is Cristiano Ronaldo.
This represents the fourth season in the last five that the Portuguese will be the top scorer in European football’s flagship tournament.
Were Ronaldo to score again on Saturday night he will match his personal best record of 17 goals in a Champions League campaign.
He also has four assists to his name in this elite company throughout the 2015/16 renewal.
Furthermore, Ronaldo has found the net on 15 out of the 24 occasions he has encountered Real’s major city rivals.
However, those that feel Ronaldo should also own this game may think twice after he hobbled out of training on Tuesday morning following a collision with back-up goalkeeper Kiko Casilla.
This is an extremely tricky final to call.
But Modric may show his star quality, especially if Casemiro can produce another brilliant screening performance in front of their defence.
Anybody that has seen Casemiro in the last few months couldn’t help but be impressed by the positive impact his combative nature has had on this Real team.
His indefatigable persona has also enabled Modric to operate a crucial five yards higher up the pitch where he is even more effective.
The Casemiro-Modric axis is arguably the most vital asset Los Blancos possess outside of Ronaldo.
The insatiable work-ethic of Casemiro, combined with the incisive and creative eye of Modric allows Gareth Bale, Benzema and Ronaldo to do their thing in the opposition’s defensive third.
However, the determination of the Atleti players to avenge their loss to Real in the 2014 version of this decider will be palpable in the San Siro, illustrated by the superb Diego Godín.
“Our big secret is the effort the team puts in,” Godín said, speaking to uefa.com on Wednesday.
“The way the whole team works to help the defence is incredible; the forwards – Fernando Torres, Antoine Griezmann or Yannick Carrasco – are always with us, defending in our box, because that's what we have to do. That shows how committed we are as a team, and how much we believe in our style of play.
"This final is going to be very fiercely contested, and very physical – it will be very tactical, but there'll be a lot of physical effort, too. It would be a dream for me and for the team to win the trophy this time, as well as for all our fans. It's a dream, just like winning a World Cup with my national team, and I'll work towards it until the last day of my career.”
Similar to the final two years ago, this might require extra-time and possibly even penalties before an outcome is reached.
The slightest suspicion is Real will eventually lift the trophy for an 11th time.
And rest assured, it’ll have been Modric conducting the star-studded orchestra.