Tuesday 11 December 2018

Brian Kerr: Romantic Liverpool can edge humdinger in Kiev - and it's all down to the defences

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Brian Kerr

It remains an abiding image of the 2013 Champions League final in Wembley.

Not the joy unconfined amongst Munich following Arjen Robben's late winner but the sight of the losing Dortmund manager, his bright white teeth reflecting the sheen of the floodlights, smothering everyone in bear hugs.

After being acclaimed at one end by his adoring faithful, what then followed surprised us even more, as Jurgen Klopp went to the other goal to applaud the fans from his nemesis club, who were still stripping his side of their best players.

They hailed him in equal measure. Such dignity in defeat after a devastating ending, a broad smile pinned to his features.

We were sure Dortmund were unlikely to return to this stage again any time soon. Klopp, soon to move on himself, was perhaps uncertain too.

This was no longer his club. Would he ever get another opportunity?

In that season's semi-final, Klopp's side had easily despatched Real Madrid, who included Zinedine Zidane amongst their coaching staff.

Unlike Dortmund, Madrid would have presumed they would return and, sure enough, they did so 12 months later which prompted another stirring, dramatic image in Lisbon.

Sergio Ramos had just produced one of his charismatic Champions League final moments with the 93rd-minute headed equaliser to push the game into an extra-time period his side would ultimately dominate.

Familiar

My eyes were drawn to a familiar figure - with the unmistakeable bald crown last seen propelled into Marco Materazzi's midriff in a World Cup final - racing on to the field in demented jubilation, so manically it was odd that the referee didn't send him to the stand for delaying the restart.

Marcelo is flippantly hailed as a defender who cannot defend but a brilliant attacker. Image: AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson
Marcelo is flippantly hailed as a defender who cannot defend but a brilliant attacker. Image: AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson

An assistant is supposed to know his place but under the becalmed Carlo Ancelotti, Zidane had barked instructions all night. It was a clear statement of intent: This is my club.

Soon, it would be his team, too.

Four years on, Klopp and Zidane will lead their teams into this evening's Kiev final, a contest brimming with so much attacking intent and individual flair that it promises to be a game for the ages.

Zidane inherited a modern dynasty and this is another golden age in their European history; he has never lost a knockout tie as the Spaniards chase a hat-trick of titles, and a fourth in five years.

From Alfredo Di Stefano to Cristiano Ronaldo, Real's royal reign reeks of outstanding pedigree.

Liverpool had their glory days, too; indeed, this is a repeat of the 1981 final that marked the middle leg of five wins in eight seasons during the late '70s and early '80s.

But while the club may boast of a proud European history, their current team has none.

Nobody within their ranks has played in a final before.

In stark contrast, seven players - Ramos, Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo and Isco - could feature in a fourth final for Madrid. Ronaldo has played six in all.

Remarkably, Zidane may start nine of the side who played in that 2014 final.

Experience matters.

When Zidane became the main man, you wondered how he managed to justify the promotion but he has done remarkably well within a club where the president often possesses more power - often in selection - than the coaches.

And considering their reputation as an ever-changing cast list of egotistical 'galacticos', the consistency of their squad since that 2014 final reflects well on Zidane's intuition and knowledge of the game.

He has earned the right to be his own man and hasn't obtained near enough praise for doing so.

Both clubs are bound by the same true faith - an all-out attacking intent which acknowledges defensive frailties, even if those defences can prove disciplined once they apply themselves to the task.

Essentially, this match will not necessarily be decided by the outrageous attacking talent but rather which defence can prove itself to be more resilient in defying the hottest hit-men in the game.

Liverpool's 40 goals (46 if you include the two legs of the Hoffenheim play-off) highlights their ability to swamp opponents with panache, pace and precise finishing which has often been enough to win games, regardless of lingering defensive frailties.

Even though Klopp knows Real can hardly be as loose as Roma or Man City in the wide defensive positions, his approach will retain its unwavering commitment to try and out-gun the gunslinger with deadly strikes.

And their front three are the deadliest trio in the business, nabbing 31 of their record campaign haul.

Another five were bagged in five games before Christmas by a certain Philippe Coutinho. Remember him? Liverpool have had little difficulty in forgetting him.

Liverpool's starting XI will boast a familiar appearance today despite its relative youth and inexperience. However, depth remains an issue.

Will Emre Can and Adam Lallana be fit enough to be on the bench? Injuries to Joel Matip and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain already leave them well short. Nathaniel Clyne and Lallana have been fitful contributors.

Zidane, on the other hand, has no such worries, although this presents its own challenge as whatever side he selects will dictate his tactical approach.

Madrid could opt to line up with a 4-4-2 in a quest to dominate midfield, which they would expect to do with the individuals they have, leaving Casemiro, Raphael Varane and Ramos to mind the house.

The diamond-shaped four of Casemiro, Modric, Toni Kroos and Isco that demolished Juve in the second half last year may have to bide their time here and hope Liverpool's 'gegenpressing' runs its course and loses steam.

The problem with this approach is when Liverpool hunt them down in the middle, as is their wont, then there is space for their front three to deploy their speed and directness.

Alternatively, Madrid could start with a more disciplined 4-5-1, as in the first leg against Bayern, allowing them greater balance in midfield - even though they allowed Munich more possession.

Then, Isco was withdrawn at half-time for Marco Asensio - the latest clever tactical change from Zidane - and he ended up getting the decisive second goal.

It would make more sense to provide that type of cover. But this is Real Madrid so I suspect they will go for the 4-4-2 line-up that started last year's final.

Nonetheless, there has to be an element of caution in their approach and Zidane will get the message across to his defenders not to play too high a line or follow Roberto Firmino into midfield because this creates dangerous space behind.

Normally, we talk about control in midfield being key but arguably tonight the key factor will be dominance of the flanks.

The battle between Marcelo and Mohamed Salah offers a snapshot of how this final will be played by two players who typify their manager's approach.

Marcelo, like many Brazilians still tainted by the shocking World Cup implosion against Germany, is flippantly hailed as a defender who cannot defend but a brilliant attacker. But his consistency and persistence betrays such lazy analysis.

As far back as that 2014 final, he was influential in changing the tide upon his second-half arrival along with Isco, before scoring the third goal in extra-time.

He has scored eight Champions League goals - three in the knockout stages this season - although admittedly the occasional price is paid for his innate instinct for all-out attack.

But against Bayern in the first leg of the semi-final, he was totally out of position for Joshua Kimmich's goal, leaving a yawning gap on the right-hand side from a slow enough build-up, beginning with the goalkeeper, not exactly a classic counter-attack.

But then he produced a brilliant strike before half-time to change the tie, confirming the impression that when he advances, both his and the opposition defence are equally as vulnerable.

If he can replicate his superb performance in last season's final, when he dominated the second half against Paulo Dybala initially and then Juan Cuadrado while also reining in Dani Alves from his usual roaming brief as a wing-back, his side can prosper.

It was his late run which set up Asensio's fourth goal in injury-time, too.

Even in 2016, as Atletico chased a winner, and when Modric, Bale and Ronaldo were flagging, Marcelo was still haring up and down the flanks.

Madrid - and Marcelo - need to be disciplined, especially against Salah. But the Egyptian has been so inventive in finding a way to goal this season that it is hard to see them doing that for the entire match.

Because of his speed and movement behind defenders, with or without the ball, he is a far superior opponent than Edinson Cavani, Gonzalo Higuain and Robert Lewandowski, who Real have already faced in the knockout stages. And his mates will make sure he'll never walk alone.

The death knell for Madrid could be the sight of Salah racing one-on-one beyond Marcelo and against Ramos; on the other side, Real might try to expose the inexperience of Trent Alexander-Arnold.

The young Englishman struggled occasionally against Roma but then again he did smother Leroy Sané for 180 minutes. On Liverpool's left-hand side, there should be fewer problems for them defensively.

In attack, Madrid will have to deal with Andrew Robertson and Sadio Mané raiding on this wing; an area where Modric, playing in advance of Lucas Vazquez, struggled in the semi-final against David Alaba and Franck Ribery.

Zidane will need Dani Carvajal to tame Mané but the young Scot will provide a threatening over-lap as he did against Roma.

There will be periods of dominance for both teams in this match where it may appear their attacking football could give them the edge and this is where defensive discipline will be just as vital as clinical finishing.

Produced

Liverpool have regularly produced a machine-gun flurry of goals that have flattened all-comers.

Their ability to drown opposition in goal gluts sometimes offsets their own inability to keep things tight at their own end. Although buying Virgil van Dijk has helped.

Real were handed a goal in each semi-final leg by Bayern; Liverpool must avoid similar errors from the inconsistent Dejan Lovren and the unreliable Loris Karius.

After all, they did concede six goals against Roma so the doubts are still there; Real have defeated the champions of France, Italy and Germany to get to this stage so their confidence is well-placed, even if Liverpool possess more attacking threats than any other team in Europe.

Liverpool may have the world's best player at the moment in Salah but Real still have Ronaldo. Another abiding image of that 2014 final is Ronaldo's post-penalty pouting pose. This is his stage and he still believes he is still its lead actor.

He did it again in 2016 with the winning penalty and last year he scored twice in the final. He has 15 goals in 12 games until now, none more important than the spot-kick in the quarter-final, won by a trademark header, then delivered with utter calm amidst the madness.

Despite not being the creative force of old, he remains a devastating finisher. He is a big man for big moments and he regularly produces them. So do his team.

Whether it is Ramos at the death or Ronaldo keeping his cool to despatch a penalty, they always find a way, as champions do.

Since falling 14 points behind Barcelona after the 3-0 defeat in December, everything has been geared towards peaking at the end of May, as has been the case for three of the last four seasons.

Liverpool will need to produce something special to quell them but we know they have that within them, which is what makes this such a special occasion.

Five years after their fleeting meeting in the semi-final, Klopp and Zidane take charge on the grandest club occasion of all.

One of them has never tasted defeat in a Champions League knockout tie; the other has only won one of six cup finals.

Who will leave us with the abiding image of triumph? Real's experience against the romance of Liverpool's march on Kiev. Their hunger can win the day but it will be a humdinger.

Strap yourselves in for the magical mystery tour.

Who is your sportstar of the year?

Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.

Prizes include, a trip to Old Trafford to watch Man United take on Liverpool in the Premier League, tickets to Ireland's home games in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.

Simply click here to register your vote

Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport