Published On: Wed, May 2nd, 2018

Tale of the tape: How Real Madrid, Liverpool stack up

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Let’s get ready to rumble.

One is a European behemoth well familiar with going the distance, the other a continental heavyweight who has enjoyed a stunning return to prominence under a spirited German gaffer.

Record 12-time Champions League winner Real Madrid and five-time victor Liverpool are set to do battle in the Ukranian capital in a matchup ripe with storylines that may very well resemble a classic title bout. With the winners of 17 of the 60 top-tier continental clashes set to do battle, here’s a look at five criteria that could decide the match:

Goalkeepers


Pity Los Blancos’ first-choice shot-stopper Keylor Navas. No matter how well the Costa Rica international plays, his next gaffe is the one that will again spur talk of David De Gea‘s much-speculated move to the Santiago Bernabeu. A proficient short-range suppressor, Navas’ virtues were on full display Tuesday against Bayern Munich when he thwarted a Robert Lewandowski 33rd-minute attempt five yards from goal to maintain Real’s advantage. That set the table for a stunning diving save on Corentin Tolisso 15 minutes from time.

Related: Frequent fall guy Navas silences doubters with prodigious performance

Amid perpetual job security speculation, Navas has been between the sticks for both of Real’s last two Champions League conquests, and that’s enough to earn the advantage over Loris Karius.

To Karius’ credit, the German has deservedly snatched first-choice duties from Simon Mignolet, overcoming some early-season hiccups – including a curious hesitance to claim crosses – to register a tournament-best six clean sheets.

Advantage: Real Madrid

Defence


A Champions League specialist, Los Blancos skipper Sergio Ramos has won the tournament on three occasions with Real, scoring massive goals in both the 2014 final against rival Atletico Madrid and again the following year against its capital city foe.

Those attacking additions tell but a fragment of Ramos’ story, and while the dapper Spaniard score much of the praise, his centre-half partner, Raphael Varane, has emerged as a perfect complement this season. The two players made 24 clearances between them on Tuesday and won nine aerial duels, repeatedly snuffing out Bayern’s countless second-half attacks.

Pair that with influential full-backs Marcelo and Dani Carvajal, and, on paper, Real has a clear superiority over Dejan Lovren, Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, who were at best shaky on Wednesday against Roma.

Advantage: Real Madrid

Midfield


Nowhere is the gap between the two sides as evident as in the middle of the park. Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, and Casemiro patrol a three-man midfield that has started each of the last two continental finals.

In the second leg against Bayern, Mateo Kovacic started for Casemiro in a 4-4-2 with the Croatian international in a central role alongside Kroos and with Modric out wide right. Pair that with the 4-1-4-1 employed in the first leg that engaged Casemiro as a buffer for the backline, and the 4-3-1-2 that saw off Juventus, and Zinedine Zidane has an abundance of options in midfield.

With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain‘s domestic campaign and World Cup done and dusted and Emre Can‘s return uncertain, Liverpool is a bit thin in the midfield. Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, and James Milner are certain to feature in the starting XI, and with Adam Lallana short of match fitness, the Reds cannot afford to pick up another injury. Against Roma, Liverpool had success bypassing the midfield with long balls, tasking Henderson and Milner with recovering possession from the Italians. That tactic may not be as profitable against Real.

Advantage: Real Madrid

Forwards


With a Champions League-best 40 goals through the semi-final stage, not including the quintet hung on Hoffenheim in the qualifiers, Liverpool’s three-man attack of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino have formed the tournament’s most lethal attack.

Their success is a testament to a complete and willful understanding of Jurgen Klopp’s tactical ethos, where a traditional No. 9 is abandoned for a fluid and organic front three. Salah deservedly gets the praise for a stunning campaign both in the Premier League and on the continent, but it’s the versatility of Firmino that makes it all work.

Liverpool’s attack has combined for 28 goals and 11 assists compared to 21 and 10 among Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale, Isco, and Lucas Vazquez, and with Real leaning heavily on its Portuguese star, the Merseyside lot pose a greater threat up front.

Advantage: Liverpool

Manager


With all due respect to continental specialist Zidane, no manager in the Champions League has gotten as much out of so little as Klopp.

Liverpool’s first team has drunk the kool-aid, and to great effect, as the Reds operate as an expeditious and unrelenting pressing unit that has gotten the better of squads rife with more experienced and celebrated players. Only Klopp could turn Alexander-Arnold and Robertson into an effective full-back pairing, and only the German could transform an athletically unimpressive midfield into versatile match winners.

For all the plaudits aimed at the impassioned touchline tactician, five successive cup final defeats with Dortmund and Liverpool stand in the way of Klopp’s place among Europe’s greatest managers. No time like the present.

Advantage: Liverpool

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)



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