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[Tune in to B/R’s LIVE Pre-game show ahead of the UCL Final from 2pm ET, only in the B/R App]
The biggest match on the European club football calendar is finally here.
The UEFA Champions League final is set to take place this Saturday in Paris. The combatants also happen to be among the most successful clubs in the competition’s history, as 13-time winners Real Madrid will square off against six-time champions Liverpool in a rematch of the 2018 final.
Real Madrid came into the season looking like a side that was aging and in decline. However, a La Liga title and a berth in the UCL showpiece has defied expectations. Few expected this side to get as far as it has in Europe’s top club competition, but there’s just something about the aura of Los Blancos that has propelled them through an astonishing campaign filled with comebacks and late goals.
Led by the successful joint-second all-time leading scorer Karim Benzema (more on him later), Real have battled past Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City to get to this point — a journey that seen manager Carlo Ancelotti’s eyebrows put in overtime.
Despite Liverpool being the slight favorite for the match on DraftKings, no one — not even the most ardent of Reds fans — would be comfortable with that tag.
Liverpool field limping toward the finish line after a fantastic season that has featured a remarkable 62 matches. Jurgen Klopp’s side missed out on the Premier League title to Man City by one point — that’s what 28 wins, eight draws and two losses will get you in today’s EPL — but have already won the Carabao Cup and FA Cup.
While those trophies are nice, it’s arguable the Premier League and Champions League titles are the biggest prizes. The Reds have already failed to capture one of them, and they’re sweating on the fitness of two key midfielders in Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara ahead of trying to grab the other. Thankfully, both players have improved dramatically as the week has progressed and should be in line to anchor the middle of the park in Paris.
If fit, Thiago and Fabinho will play vital roles, as will Madrid’s omnipotent midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro. However, it will be the attacking talismans for both teams who will make the difference in this epic encounter. Let’s look more closely at some players you’ll hear from on Saturday.
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Mohamed Salah, the Premier League’s Golden Boot co-winner, makes everything happen up front for the Reds. His movement, ball control and vision get him in the most dangerous places, and he creates massive headaches for defenders everywhere. He also seems to be a really nice guy.
His 23 Premier League goals this season were matched only by Tottenham Hotspur’s Heung-Min Son. Salah also led the league in assists. In 50 overall appearances this campaign, Salah has provided 31 goals and 16 assists.
You may remember the last time these two teams met in the Champions League Final in 2018. Salah was forced off because of an injury in the 31st minute. The aggressor on that night, Sergio Ramos, plays for PSG now, but the memories remain for Mo.
Look for the Egyptian maestro to come out full of energy and drive to make his mark on this contest. Matched up against Ferland Mendy, Salah will look to be creative in his movement and cut inside to find opportunities for himself and his teammates.
Provided he makes it deep into the game this time around, he’ll be central to almost everything going forward for Klopp and Co.
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Speaking of central, Karim Benzema is not just literally central to Madrid’s attack (and chances), he’s central to Madridistas’ hearts after his wonderful run of form this season.
At 34 years old, the Frenchman has been banging them, with 44 goals in 45 appearances — another rock-solid campaign that propelled Madrid to title celebrations and earned well-deserved individual accolades for the No. 9. His teammates also happen to love himwhich helps with the output.
The numbers and nice words from legendary teammates are not only products of Benzema the player, but also Benzema the clutch performer. He has delivered in the moments that matter for Madrid this season, especially in the Champions League, and as such, he is vital to their hopes in the final.
Scoring in his last five UCL matches, Benzema has put goals past the aforementioned trio of PSG, Chelsea and Man City. Not that any team this deep in the tournament has weak defenses, but those three sides are good at the back, and he made it look easy against the lot of them.
Liverpool are no slouches defensively, either, so we are in for a treat. One of those who will be attempting to slow Benzema down is the next player on our list.
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Let’s start here on Virgil van Dijk: Ronaldinho, one of the best attacking players of all time, recently told SportBible some very nice things about the Dutchman. So, yeah, he’s been good lately.
And when you’re among the best players at your position, you would expect a little swagger to go with it. Van Dijk has that in spades and has been with the Reds every step of the way this season, only missing time because of a positive test for COVID-19 in December.
One of his best qualities, though, is how he makes the players around him better. Joel Matip had arguably his best season as a Liverpool player. Ibrahima Konate has stepped in and is so far undefeated as a Red. Andy Roberton had another solid season. It helps to have someone as dominant as VVD next to you, as it takes a lot of the pressure off.
Benzema is going to be quite the test for Van Dijk, without question. The real danger could actually be the delivery into the Frenchman from the likes of Modric, Kroos and the next guy on our list, one Vinicius Jr.
Keeping the variety of angles that the service will come from on lock, as well as tracking Benzema’s sophisticated movement, are the keys to success for Liverpool’s hulking back-line anchor.
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If anyone is going to help carry the load up front with Benzema (outside of a couple WILD cards), it will be Vinicius Jr. The uber-talented Brazilian had his breakout season with Madrid in 2021-22, netting 17 La Liga goals in 35 games. Throw in 13 assists and Vini had a very productive season.
The direct nature of his play and his willingness as a runner make him extremely dangerous, particularly on the break. If he can get into one-on-one situations with Trent Alexander-Arnold (likely distributed by the magic of Modric), that could be trouble for the Reds. Oh, and Benzema will be lurking in the box waiting to pounce.
The pair have had quite the season together, and as such, Klopp’s defense will have to make containing him a priority.
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This is the best Champions League final matchup we’ve had since … the last time these two met in 2018.
This go-around will surely delight all watchers, with legends at play, exciting attacking football and all the drama and intrigue you could ask for.
As much as Liverpool will want to end the season on a high after narrowly missing out on the Premier League title, capturing a massively impressive treble in the process, there is just something about this Real Madrid side.
Knocked down but never out, Ancelotti’s men have willed themselves to victory on more than one occasion and have the intangibles across a massively talented squad to do it one last time this season.
The City of Lights will crown a 14-time European champion on this late May evening, with Real Madrid coming away 2-1 winners at the Stade de France.