It will be the clash of the titans at Stade de France on Saturday night as Liverpool and Real Madrid battle it out to be crowned the Champions of Europe.
32 teams, 124 matches, 379 goals, and it all comes down to this. Saint-Denis in France will provide the setting for the last game of the 2021/22 European football season on Saturday night as English Cup double winners Liverpool square off against La Liga champions Real Madrid in the final of the UEFA Champions League.
It has been a long and arduous journey to this showpiece event for both teams with their own set of challenges. For Liverpool, it has been the case of playing every game possible throughout the season as they have made it to three cup finals, winning two already, and they also ran Manchester City close in the Premier League title race.
Jurgen Klopp’s men overcame the group of death containing Atletico Madrid, AC Milan and FC Porto to make it to the knockout stages, where they first saw off Inter Milan. Liverpool then defeated Benfica in the quarter-finals despite a nervy finish in the second leg, before seeing off the challenge from a spirited Villarreal side in the semi-finals, who made life difficult for the Reds in the second leg in Spain.
As for Real Madrid, they might have wrapped up the La Liga title race fairly early. But the Spanish heavyweights have been on the brink of elimination from Europe on multiple occasions, only to showcase a tremendous spirit and mental strength to claw their back into contests and will their way to the finals of the competition.
Having topped their group containing Sheriff Tiraspol, Shakhtar Donetsk and Inter Milan, Real Madrid faced PSG in the Round of 16. After losing the first leg in France, they bounced back to eliminate them before seeing off current holders Chelsea in a thrilling quarter-final tie. But the creme de la creme of their triumphs came in the semi-finals as they pulled off a comeback for the ages to oust Manchester City.
Liverpool come into the game on the back of an 18-game unbeaten run across all competitions. Real Madrid, meanwhile, have lost four of their last 15 matches in all competitions. However, the recent form will count for little when the whistle blows at Stade de France on Saturday night. Ahead of what will be a rematch of the 2017/18 Champions League final, The Hard Tackle takes a closer look at both teams.
Team News & Tactics
In a major boost, Liverpool will likely have midfield mainstay Fabinho fit and available for the game. The Brazilian had been out of action after sustaining an injury against Aston Villa on May 10 but has trained with the team and is in contention. Fellow midfielder Thiago Alcantara, who was injured on the final matchday against Wolves, has also returned to training and looks set to be involved.
Liverpool will set up in their usual 4-3-3 formation in France against Real Madrid and will look to take the game to the Spanish champions. Alisson Becker is a permanent fixture between the sticks for the Reds, while there is no looking past Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson out wide as the full-backs.
Virgil van Dijk is a certainty at the heart of the defence. Ibrahima Konate has been preferred over Joel Matip in several Liverpool’s Champions League fixtures in the knockout stages. And that might turn out to be the case again on Saturday, as Jurgen Klopp could find the Frenchman’s pace useful as he will need to support Alexander-Arnold in his battle against Vinicius Junior, which could be a defining factor.
The fit-again Fabinho slots back into the deepest position in the centre of the park and will be accompanied by Thiago and captain Jordan Henderson, who will likely be preferred over Naby Keita due to his experience.
The attacking trident of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Luis Diaz pretty much picks itself with Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino options from the bench. Divock Origi misses out with an injury.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Konate, van Dijk, Robertson; Henderson, Fabinho, Thiago; Salah, Mane, Diaz
David Alaba has missed Real Madrid’s last six games due to an injury but is expected to be ready for the finale in France. Apart from the Austrian, there are no other injury concerns for Carlo Ancelotti heading into the blockbuster contest against Liverpool.
Like Liverpool, Real Madrid will also set up in a 4-3-3 formation, with the focus likely to be on exploiting Liverpool’s high backline by releasing their speedy wingers into space with through balls or long passes. As iterated earlier, the battle between Vinicius Junior and Trent Alexander-Arnold, in particular, could hold the key to the outcome of the contest.
The Brazilian will line up on the left flank as usual, while Federico Valverde should occupy the right wing ahead of semi-final hero Rodrygo Goes. Leading goalscorer and talisman Karim Benzema is the undisputed starter in the No. 9 role.
The rest of the team pretty much picks itself as well, with Luka Modric, Casemiro and Toni Kroos forming the central midfield partnership. Eduardo Camavinga has been mighty impressive towards the backend of the season but will have to suffice with a place on the bench on Saturday night.
Dani Carvajal and Ferland Mendy will have their task cut out against the deadly duo of Luis Diaz and Mohamed Salah, respectively. Eder Militao, who has had a few scratchy performances of late, will need to be at his best against an in-form Sadio Mane. He should be partnered by Alaba, but in case the Austrian is not fully fit, Nacho Fernandez should step in to shield Thibaut Courtois in goal.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Courtois; Carvajal, Militao, Alaba, Mendy; Modric, Casemiro, Kroos; Valverde, Benzema, Vinicius
- This will be the ninth meeting between Liverpool and Real Madrid in the European Cup/UEFA Champions League. After winning the first three contests between 1981 and 2009, the Reds are winless in the last five meetings (D1 L4), losing the final in 2018.
- Liverpool are looking to win the European Cup/UEFA Champions League for the seventh time in their history. A victory in France will take them level with AC Milan as the joint-second most successful team in the competition behind Real Madrid (13).
- Real Madrid winger Vinicius Junior has been directly involved in nine goals in the UEFA Champions League this season (three goals, six assists). The last South American footballer to be directly involved in 10+ goals in a single campaign in the competition while 21 or younger was Lionel Messi in 2008/09.
- Since the start of the 2017/18 season, Mohamed Salah has scored 33 goals and assisted 11 more for Liverpool in the Champions League. Only Robert Lewandowski (55) and Kylian Mbappe (47) have been involved in more goals during this period.
- Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti has lifted the trophy in three of his previous four UEFA Champions League finals. The only time he failed to do so was against Liverpool in 2004/05, when he was in charge of AC Milan.
Player to Watch
Karim Benzema has scored 15 goals for Real Madrid in the UEFA Champions League this season and is the leading goalscorer in the competition this term. The striker is only two behind the all-time record in a single European Cup/Champions League campaign set by Cristiano Ronaldo (17) in 2013/14.
If he scores in the final on Saturday, Benzema would also become the third-highest on the all-time goalscorers list in the Champions League behind Ronaldo (140) and Lionel Messi (125).
The Frenchman has been in absolutely red-hot form this season, scoring against both the English opposition he has faced in Chelsea and Manchester City. On top of that, he was on target versus Liverpool in the 2017/18 final. For Real Madrid to stand a chance of winning the 14th European crown, they will need the 34-year-old Benzema to be at his belligerent best.
Liverpool 2-1 Real Madrid
It is a difficult one to call. Liverpool have played and won two cup finals this season, pushed Manchester City to the brink in the Premier League title race and have not lost a game in over three months. But, counting out Real Madrid on a Champions League night can be foolhardy, as they have proven time and again throughout this season against PSG, Chelsea and Man City, pulling off victories from the unlikeliest of positions.
Both teams have class oozing through across all areas of the pitch, and there is not much to separate them in terms of the quality of the players, especially with the returns of Fabinho and Thiago coming as a timely boost for Liverpool. However, the Reds have proven to be a difficult team to play against, once they settle into their rhythm and go about their task with their unmatched intensity.
In Vinicius Junior and Karim Benzema, Real Madrid have two of the most in-form forwards in Europe, while Rodrygo has shown that he can do plenty of damage when called upon. So, we can expect Carlo Ancelotti’s men to breach the Liverpool defence at least once.
However, Luis Diaz could prove to be a menace for Dani Carvajal, while Mohamed Salah will be gunning for revenge after the 2017/18 UCL final when he had to be taken off injured. Sadio Mane has been in top form, and with David Alaba returning from an injury layoff and Eder Militao’s form being a bit dodgy of late, Liverpool might end up clinching European title #7 on Saturday in France.