And then there were two. Both traditional giants of the sport. Both enter the final fresh off completing their league campaigns as champion. Both with a rich history in the competition.
The defending champions Real Madrid face off against the superlatively tactically configured Juventus in a final befitting of the goal flush tournament we’ve witnessed thus far, and so many intriguing narratives exist within this contest.
UEFA Champions League Final Preview
Below we preview the final of the UEFA Champions League 2016/17.
Real Madrid: History Repeating?
Los Merengues are once again the taste of the town. 2016/17 wasn’t always coloured with optimism or comfort, but Zinedine Zidane clearly has managed to set in the right formula to ensure the club’s return to prominence. Real Madrid managed to complete their first La Liga title since 2011/12, oddly only the 2nd title earned since superstar Cristiano Ronaldo joined the club. They’ve managed to reach their 3rd Champions League final in 4 years, becoming the first defending champion to do so since Manchester United in 2009. They’re seeking to establish new records too. Real Madrid have won their last 5 final appearances, including the 1998 encounter vs Juventus in Amsterdam where a goal from Mijatovic gave Los Merengues their 7th European crown. Zidane’s side will also be keen to become the first side to successfully defend their Champions League title since Milan last did so in 1990. A win for the La Liga champions would also reinforce the hold Spain has over European football’s highest prize; Spain currently enjoys a 3 year win streak in the competition.
Juventus: History being written?
The Bianconeri could be forgiven for believing 2016/17 to be a romantic tale of footballing destiny, but it really is difficult to disagree with the broader charm and success of the tactical machine that Massimiliano Allegri has assembled. They topped Serie A, achieving a record 6th Scudetto. Added to this was their 12th Coppa Italia, a record 3rd in a row. They now face their 9th European final, with an opportunity to become the 5th club to win a treble of a league title, national cup and Champions League. They also face the prospect of winning the trophy unbeaten in their European campaign, and would be the first to manage this since Manchester United in 2008. Allegri is also the last manager to successfully eliminate the Spanish champions from the Champions League, having masterminded Real Madrid’s exit in the semi-finals of 2014/15.
History however, seems to be unfavourable to them in finals; Juventus have lost more European finals than any other club, and their last 4 finals have ended in defeat to Dortmund (1997), Real Madrid (1998), Milan (2003) and Barcelona (2015). Juventus have won 2 of their 8 finals overall, their last win having been achieved over Louis Van Gaal’s star studded Ajax in 1996.
Tactical Focus and Players of Interest
Tactically, Real Madrid have been fairly stable. They enter the final as the top scorers in the Champions League this season, and there’s been very little variance in the approach the Spaniards use to ensure the likes of Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale, Isco, Morata and so forth share in the large spread of goals. The setup is well balanced for all its criticisms and lack of rotation, but especially in midfield, it’s hard to see why Zidane would interfere with the system that fully leverages Casemiro’s defensive industry, Kroos’ attacking nuance and Modric’s playmaking vision.
Allegri, meanwhile, has happily operated a dynamic configuration between a back 3 and back 4 depending on what each match requires. What’s been consistent is a careful balance between defensive solidity and attacking efficiency, and their ability to control both games and opponents has been obvious to behold. That they’ve only conceded one goal in the knockout stages is no accident; it’s a clear manifestation of a very deliberate and well orchestrated tactical design.
Juventus will be keen to maintain their game management advantages, particularly against the counter-attacking threat of Real Madrid, and for that, Miralem Pjanic once again becomes a critical part of the Bianconeri engine room in the way that he dictates play with excellent playmaking vision and passing ability. Likewise, regardless whether Allegri chooses a back 3 or back 4, the critical battle likely can be expected between Cristiano Ronaldo and Dani Alves; the Brazilian’s form has once again drawn high praise from peers and pundits alike, and his attacking threat is likely to be a key part of nullifying fellow countryman Marcelo, who like his opposite number for Juventus, has been excellent for Real Madrid in both defensive recovery and attacking support from fullback.
It goes without saying that the battle on Real Madrid’s left will be spectacular and important to watch, particularly as Ronaldo’s outstanding finishing and threat from the left of the attacking line will be expected to break any defensive gridlock posed by the Serie A champions. If Dani Alves fails to contain the Portuguese superstar, it may likely fall to Leonardo Bonucci to shift across to ensure the threat is effectively managed in the central channels of the Juventus defence. It’ll be especially interesting to see if the Spanish side use the aerial route to get their goals, where Ronaldo in particular clearly appears to possess the advantage over the Juventus’ defence.
Goals of course, rely on good supply, so it’s critical to isolate just how crucial midfielder Toni Kroos could be to a 12th title for Real Madrid. The midfielder may not have produced the same share of assists in Europe as he has in La Liga, but it’s clear that his range of passing, intelligence, all round play and tenacity have culminated in making him Real Madrid’s most important player after the goalscoring hero. He’s likely to be a massive part of disrupting whatever game management approach is employed by the Italians.
That said, another battle of interest in tactical respects is that of Paulo Dybala. The Argentine’s style of play has already been likened to other dribbling wizards both past and present from his native land, and Dybala’s form has seen his star shine brighter in the currency of football in recent weeks. He’s been instrumental in taking the attacking load off Higuain, and where Real Madrid leave spaces exposed and vulnerable to attacking transition, don’t be surprised to see Dybala given the responsibility to lead such transitions in search of a goal. In these situations, the Spanish side will be greatful to have Sergio Ramos in the backline to help prevent such moments. The captain of Los Merengues has found a tendency to deliver in finals, especially when attacking set pieces in the dying minutes of a match.
This match couldn’t be more fascinating and more difficult to call. Juventus’ tactical balance has been a marvel to behold, and while their dispatching of Porto was clinical and tepid, their management of free scoring Barcelona and Monaco felt at times like a clinic in defensive authority and game control. There’s also a considered hunger and ambition at the club to right the wrong of 2015, to deliver on their first treble and to ensure that veteran goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon finally earns that long overdue Champions League title.
Equally experienced though, are the stars of Real Madrid who may not have been as lauded as Juventus for their tactical strengths, but yet still possess a very well balanced team with real options off the bench that can meaningfully change games (Isco in particular has shown this in recent weeks). Chasing a first successful title defence since 1990 is in itself a good incentive for the most successful club in European history terms.
Both sides have strong, well balanced midfield options capable of dealing with possession of a lack thereof. Both sides have strong players in wide positions, capable of handling a 90 minute battle in creating scoring opportunities and recovering to support defensive responsibilities. Both sides have great attacking options; granted, Juventus have scored less, but then, they’ve needed less, and Allegri’s side is beautiful in its efficiency as much as Zidane’s side is in its entertainment.
Perhaps it is in defence where the key gaps lie; where Real Madrid arguably cannot boast as skilled and capable a backline as the well oiled pair or trio of Chiellini, Bonucci and Barzagli. Yet, perhaps this is irrelevant, when Real Madrid have Cristiano Ronaldo and his record breaking scoring boots.
In other words, like the 18 encounters these two sides have previously shared, where both sides have won 8, this one is probably just a little too close to call.