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Champions League 2017/18 Final: 1 player from each side who could prove to be the game-changer

Ritwik Kundu
ANALYST
Feature
24 May 2018, 12:23 IST

Will Ronaldo claim a fifth title, or will it be Salah's first?
Will Ronaldo claim a fifth title, or will it be Salah's first?

The UEFA Champions League 2017-18 final will see two of Europe's biggest teams - Real Madrid and Liverpool - go head-to-head in a humdinger of a clash.

While Real Madrid will be playing for a 13th European trophy in what will be their third straight final under Zidane, Klopp's Liverpool will be lining up at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium for a first finals appearance since the miracle in Istanbul, 13 years ago.

The two teams will go into this game on the back of contrasting domestic campaigns. While Liverpool finished fourth in the Premier League, fans of the Merseyside club have been treated to glorious, free-flowing attacking football right through the season. Real Madrid, on the other hand, have huffed and puffed to third in La Liga Santander, finishing 17 points behind Barcelona.

Each side has plenty of proven game-changers, none more so than Cristiano Ronaldo and Mohamed Salah. But as we have often witnessed, on the biggest stage, it is not the biggest name who steals the show, but the much less-fancied footballer, the one whom the press rarely talks about, the one whose contribution oft goes un-noticed.

On that note, here is 1 player from each side that could steal the spotlight.


REAL MADRID:

LUCAS VAZQUEZ (RIGHT-BACK):

Going into this final, almost all the talk has been about Salah, the Egyptian King. And deservedly so. The diminutive forward, who was often a subject of ridicule in England, is now a beacon of hope for an entire country.

Scorer of 43 goals across competitions this campaign, Salah is rightly regarded as Liverpool's most potent threat. Much less focus, however, has been on another member of Liverpool's feared attacking triumvirate - Sadio Mane.

Will the Senegalese add to his tally of nine goals?
Will the Senegalese add to his tally of nine goals?
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The hard-working, energetic Senegalese winger has scored 9 goals in this tournament, and is only one behind Salah. With Marcelo and Ramos set to occupy Salah down the right-hand side of the pitch, Mane may be a bigger threat with the ball than the Egyptian.

Gifted with pace and quick feet, Mane is more than capable of running away from defenders in a jiffy. With Robertson overlapping on the left, Real Madrid's Lucas Vazquez will be the man tasked with keeping Mane at bay.

With Carvajal injured and Achraf Hakimi unlikely to start, Zidane will once again turn to the winger to do the job at right-back.

Can the winger make a telling contribution at right-back?
Can the winger make a telling contribution at right-back?

The Spaniard will have a busy night trying to cope with both Mane and Robertson. He must prevent Robertson passing him on the overlap, and will have to try and block as many crosses as he can.

Mane, however, prefers to drive at the defence with the ball at his feet, linking up with Firmino or Salah in the process. Young Lucas can't afford to back off, as it will only invite more pressure. He'll have to stand up tall, and try and edge Mane away from the goal-box by any means necessary.

Vazquez did a more-than-decent job against Bayern in the semis, dealing with the combined Ribery-Alaba threat well. The Champions League final, however, will be a completely different ball-game. One misstep, one poorly timed challenge or one lapse in concentration could have disastrous consequences.

Vazquez will need to be at his most disciplined self, and communicate well with the back-line to hold the right shape, without dropping too deep. The young winger will also have a tough time playing out of the back, with Liverpool set to press high. If the Spanish winger can hold the fort down on his end, it would allow Modric more time on the ball going forward, instead of tracking back and helping out against Liverpool's swift movement.

In this match of epic proportions, right back could well be where the game is won, or lost.


LIVERPOOL:

LORIS KARIUS (GOALKEEPER):

Initially brought in to be Simon Mignolet's back-up, Karius has cemented a spot in the starting eleven for Liverpool in the Premier League. The German shot-stopper started 19 matches for Liverpool this season, keeping 10 clean sheets and conceding only 14 goals.

In the Champions League, however, Karius has been Liverpool's undisputed No.1, starting every single game. He has conceded 13 goals only, whilst making 22 saves. The Champions League final will undoubtedly be the biggest game of the German's career thus far.

The players Karius will be up against? Just 120 European goals scorer Cristiano Ronaldo, an in-form Gareth Bale, and two supremely talented wingers in Isco and Asensio.


Ronaldo has 15 already this season, will he score in the final, again?
Ronaldo has 15 goals already this season, will he score in the final, again?

Liverpool have been linked with moves for goalkeepers like Alisson, Donnarumma and now, even Gianluigi Buffon! In such a situation, the Champions League final is the perfect opportunity for young Karius to establish himself as Liverpool's No.1 - not just for next season, but for the foreseeable future as well.

Strong in the air with sharp reflexes, Karius is talented. His poor decision making, however, has often let him down and Liverpool have conceded silly goals as a result.

There will be no room for such errors in Kyiv on the 27th of May, something Karius should certainly be aware of. With an inconsistent defence in front of him, Karius will have to put in the best shift of his career if he wants a winner's medal at the end of the game.


Can Karius shut out Ronaldo and Co.?
Can Karius shut out Ronaldo and Co.?

The most critical aspect of the German's performance on Saturday night will be his positioning and decision-making, particularly from set-pieces. With Ronaldo and Bale always prepared to take a punt, Karius will have to be in the right position and react quickly to get to the ball, and must choose whether to grab, punch or deflect.

The likes of Marcelo and Vazquez will surely try and deliver crosses into the Liverpool box to test Lovren and young Alexander-Arnold. From corners, Toni Kroos will be targeting one man and one man only - captain Ramos. Karius will have to absorb all the pressure that comes with playing a fixture of this magnitude, and will need to be the dominant force in the box, by calling early and meeting the ball well

Apart from his shot-stopping, the German's goal-kicks and distribution of the ball will be key. Salah, Mane and Firmino are devastating on the counter - something Zidane will be well aware of.

Whenever Karius finds himself in possession, he must try and find one of his own players with a 50-yard goal-kick or accurate long throws, in order for Liverpool to dictate proceedings.

Liverpool have scored freely this campaign, notching up 40 European goals. In a tense final though, goals may not come with such regularity, in such numbers, as it has in the past for Klopp's side. This may well be a case of grinding out a performance and Karius will be key.

Irrespective of what Mo Salah does, Liverpool need Karius to perform.

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