Signs of a Storm

Form, fatigue, experience, commanders and the battlefield – five things shaping all football battles since the game was invented. Before we call it quits and move on to witness the Russian World Cup, they shall all come into play again to decide the Champions League final. Thirteenth time for Real Madrid or sixth time for Liverpool – take your pick, for it is bound to be close. Judging all pros and cons, the mixture of various conditions seems to give the title-holders an advantage. Especially in one, particular department…

 

The Annual Shape

On a good run, despite heavy criticism: Karim Benzema stepped up in the year 2018.

Ever since the 2018 has begun, The Reds and Los Blancos have suffered five defeats each. Interestingly enough, merely two days after LFC’s January astonishing failure at Swansea, Madrid has been eliminated from Copa del Rey by Leganés in one of the biggest upset away wins in Estadio Santiago Bernabéu’s history. Beyond that, Zinedine Zidane’s men have experienced the wrath of Villarreal, Espanyol, Juventus and Sevilla while Jurgen Klopp’s lads have been exposed by West Brom, Manchester United, Roma and Chelsea. In terms of losses, one might call it an even split here.

On the other hand, this years’ Madrid has managed to heavily outscore their English opponents. Delivering 84 goals in 32 matches, Ronaldo & Co. have produced an impressive average of 2.625 successful strikes per game. Thirteen (!) times, Real would bag three goals or more; at the same time, only Villarreal and Espanyol have managed to shut them out completely. Compared to Liverpool’s nine 3+ goalfests and five blanks (Swansea, Porto, Everton, Stoke and Chelsea), Zizou’s lot has displayed significantly more firepower – even if the Champions League stats alone indicate the opposite:

Things are looking far better for the Merseysiders in the defensive department. 25 goals conceded in 25 matches isn’t exactly the Atlético Madrid level of performance but it still holds the advantage against Real’s 41 goals in 32 matches. On the top of that, Reds have piled up eleven clean sheets to RM’s six; in fact, counting the last 11 clashes, only Celta Vigo have failed to put a single ball past Keylor Navas. On Saturday, even despite not being able to field Joel Matip and Joe Gomez, it will be Klopp, who’s going to be more reassured about the resilience of his five-man safeguard.

Real Madrid: 8/10; Liverpool: 7/10.


The Heavy Legs

No-look goal from a no-rest forward: Roberto Firmino beats Swansea’s Łukasz Fabiański.

As usual: the issue of fatigue is paramount the way the match pans out. Liverpool are on a thirteen-day break; Real Madrid are on a week-long one, though they rested Navas, Asensio and Benzema against Villarreal. Alas: this topic goes far deeper than a single rest.

Up to this this point, Madrid’s expected starting eleven has played the combined 38455 minutes (640 hours and 55 minutes) of club football this season. Liverpool’s probable lineup has 55443 minutes (590 hours and 55 minutes) under their belts. Which, in turn, means that every Madrid started has clocked, on average, over 270 minutes of football more than his English counterpart. Even without the inclusion of the international caps, it’s plain to see that LFC are enjoying fairly comfortable edge here:

There’s a catch, though. The Reds’ key forwards, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah, have both been involved in more game time than any of Madrid starters. In fact, Bobby’s been out there for 68 hours and 18 minutes; Mo – 68 hours and 9 minutes. Even injury-struck Sadio Mané has produced 56 and a half hours of play. Cristiano Ronaldo (59 hours and 40 minutes) or Karim Benzema (52 hours and 28 minutes) aren’t nearly as overworked.

Still: the bigger picture is marked by The Reds’ superiority.

Real Madrid: 5/10; Liverpool: 8/10.


The Splendid Records

After countless games won and limitless experience gained, Ronaldo is hungry for more.

If fresher legs were significantly favouring Liverpool, richer Champions League experience favours Real Madrid so overwhelmingly that there’s simply no comparison. Cristiano Ronaldo alone has played only sixteen UCL games less than the entire LFC’s predicted starting eleven; in fact, when the Portuguese star was lifting his first, big-eared trophy in Moscow, Trent Alexander-Arnold still attended St. Matthews Catholic Primary School as a fifth-grader.

It isn’t all about the age difference, though. Madrid’s persistent European success, combined with Liverpool’s failed league campaigns and squad changes have created a brutal disparity of UCL experience all across the finalists’ squads. 25-years old Raphaël Varane has twice as many appearances than 32-years old James Milner; at the current rate, Andrew Robertson would have to play until the age of 39 to match the continental record of his left-back counterpart, Marcelo. Even the substitute Marco Asensio ranks ahead of captain Jordan Henderson when it comes to the minutes played in the competition they’re about to contest:

As a unit, The Reds are still work in progress. Lovren picked up some of his first Champions League apps at Olympique Lyon; Milner – at Manchester City; Salah – at Basel and Roma; van Dijk – at Celtic. This is effectively their breakthrough season – but can they outwit the absolute veterans of the struggle?

Real Madrid: 10/10; Liverpool: 4/10.


The General Command

Solid squad player: The Normal One before emerging as a world-class manager.

The careers of these two never overlapped directly. Five years older than his adversary, Jürgen Klopp would join the football youth system in a small town in Baden-Württemberg when Zinedine Zidane was three months old. While Zizou was about to make a senior-level breakthrough at Cannes, his German colleague spent time fruitlessly trying to climb out of reserves and into the starting eleven of Eintracht Frankfurt. And the summer ZZ broke the world transfer record by joining Real Madrid, JK called it quits at Mainz, transitioning from The O-Fives’ solid centre-back to the club’s new manager.

And now, here they are. Klopp – motivational genius with a keen eye for young talent but also a serial loser of the finals, crumbling to Bayern in Champions League, Sevilla in Europa League, as well as in two German Cup contests and one Capital One Cup clash. Zidane – absolute managerial prodigy, moving through the ranks of of Madrid youth teams to turn his senior underlings into serial winners within few months. Both finished more than a dozen of points behind the winners of their domestic leagues; both experienced shocking cup losses too. This is their final chance to turn around otherwise imperfect seasons.

At the moment, it is impossible to separate those two. Zidane might have won UCL twice but it’s Klopp whose team is now breaking the goalscoring records of the competition. Zidane needed two offside goals, two rejected penalty calls and an unjust red card to coast twice past ageing Bayern Munich – meanwhile, Klopp has outplayed prime Manchester City fair and square. Zidane gets the nod for picking up the silverware; Klopp – for creating progress in a fairly difficult environment. Could there be a better duel to settle this winded comparison?

Real Madrid: 9/10; Liverpool: 9/10.


The Foreign Venue

22° C, sunny, no wind – will this be the weather for Madrid to finally take Kyiv by storm?

Considering their stature, Real Madrid have a history of underperforming in the capital of Ukraine. Forty five years ago, they drew 0-0 at Dynamo’s Olimpic Stadium and took the Champions League quarterfinal tie to the second leg, which was won 3-0. In March 1999, things went even more sour: 22-years old Andriy Shevchenko scored a brace following a penalty and a marvellous Serhij Rebrov’s pass. Thus, Sheva secured a sensational 2-0 scoreline that eventually saw his side coast past Los Blancos to the UCL semi-final.

After that, things weren’t much better. One win and two draws in which the visitors needed to overcome 0-2 deficits are hardly impressive for a team aspiring to win every single match in every possible venue. On cold November and December evenings, often thrown on muddy or half-frozen pitches, the Spaniards looked vulnerable. In two days, the weather conditions shall not be nearly as harsh – but then, Liverpool (one win in Kyiv, back in 2002) are far tougher than any national champion Ukraine can field these days.

Real Madrid: 6/10; Liverpool: 8/10.


TOTAL POINTS: REAL MADRID: 38/50; LIVERPOOL FC: 36/50.

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