A Tale of Two Teams: Real Madrid vs Liverpool
The 2018 UEFA Champions League final in Kyiv will see two European giants go head-to-head in a battle of 'winner takes all,' as 12-time winners Real Madrid clash with 5-time champions Liverpool, the first English team to play this showpiece fixture since Chelsea's historic night in Munich, six years ago. The two sides, however, couldn't have had more contrasting campaigns going into this final.
Real Madrid came into this season on the back of a league and UCL double. With Neymar departing for Paris in a shock $222 million move and Barcelona's subsequent Super Cup defeat to their arch-rivals, there was even greater optimism among Real Madrid fans than usual.
Fast forward 12 months, and it appears that everything that could have gone wrong for Real in their title defence did go wrong. A stunning loss of form for super-star Cristiano Ronaldo, coupled with below-the-par performances from the fringe players had Madrid bow out of the title race before the turn of the year, even while Barcelona pursued an unbeaten season.
Keeping with recent history, Real's European form told an entirely different story, however, as Madrid overcame the eventual French, Italian and German champions, albeit with some luck, en route to the final. Ronaldo rediscovered his scoring touch and senior players like Ramos, Modric, Marcelo and Kroos got their heads together as they focused only on the European campaign.
While Zidane has been nothing short of prolific during his barely 2-and-a-half-years long tenure in the Madrid hot-seat, many of the Bernabeu faithful will be left scratching their heads as to why the gaffer chose to get rid of important backup options like James and Morata.
The club officials will surely introspect as to why one of the world's biggest teams finished 17 points behind their fiercest rivals. Many have speculated that 'Papa Perez' could launch another series of Galactico signings to remedy Real's poor domestic form, with the likes of Neymar, Hazard, Salah, Lewandowski, De Gea and Courtois being just a few of the high-profile names linked with moves to the Bernabeu.
What remains to be seen is whether Zinedine Zidane is the man to lead Madrid forward, not just in pursuit of more European glory, but also to transform them into serial winners of the La Liga, a competition they have won only 4 times in the last 15 years.
Although a win in Kyiv would be Zidane and Madrid's third in a row, this could be their most significant campaign yet, with an interesting tactical battle on the cards against Klopp's Liverpool. If Zidane can lead his side to #AporLa13, it may be the clearest indication yet that Real have found the perfect man to lead them to the pinnacle of footballing achievements and that Zidane truly compares to the likes of Jose and Pep.
Defeat, however, would not just mean a first season under Zidane without a trophy, but the added humiliation of Barcelona losing just once during their entire record-breaking league campaign could throw the gaffer's job into jeopardy. With Ronaldo not fit enough to play more than 40 games a season, Real will be desperate to identify their next super-star.
All the talk this season has been of Pep Guardiola's record-breaking, all-conquering Manchester City team. Yet, the team that has gone farthest in the world's premier club competition is Klopp's boys from Liverpool, reaching an eighth European final.
The spectacled, eccentric German has taken his own sweet time to adapt, but there can be no doubt: Klopp's gegen-pressing is just as exciting as Pep's total football, and can bring great success to teams brave enough to implement it.
Although Liverpool haven't won a trophy yet and only finished fourth in the Premier League, the team has played with an identity and confidence not seen for a very long time.
There can be no question that much of Liverpool's success has been down to one man: Mohamed Salah, the 'Egyptian King.' Not even the most optimistic of Liverpool fans would have expected the $37 million man from Roma to make such an impact, with pundits considering him to be a genuine Ballon d' Or contender, such has been the man's influence!
Also, less glamorous players like Robertson and Oxlade-Chamberlain have found new levels to their football, putting in gritty performances, game after game. Even Lovren's sporadic defensive calamities haven't been able to stop this Liverpool side from securing wins in stunning fashion, none more so than the win against City in the first leg of the quarter-final, when a brilliant 30 minute-three goal salvo all but secured passage to the semi-finals.
Coutinho's departure was hardly felt, and the team has also managed to cope with injuries to Can, Lallana and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Irrespective of the result in Kyiv, Klopp will be aware of the enormous progress he has made, secure in the knowledge that the club and the players are fully committed to his vision.
As far as the next season is concerned, Liverpool are thought to be the side most capable of challenging City for the title. Liverpool fans would have been delighted with Klopp's announcement that the club would definitely sign more players to strengthen the squad.
With Naby Keita confirmed to arrive from Leipzig, Liverpool are being constantly linked with the likes of Fekir and Dembele, proof of the fact that the world's most exciting prospects would jump at the chance of joining Juergen Klopp's Liverpool, not just because of the football they play, but because of what Klopp brings to the table.
What City can do, Juergen's Liverpool can do better, is the thinking around most parts. After several seasons of disappointment and heartbreak, the Anfield faithful can finally believe that if not in Kyiv, next year will certainly be their year.