Real Madrid are vying for a third straight UEFA Champions League triumph on Saturday night as they face shock finalists Liverpool in the 2018 final in Kiev, Ukraine.
No team has beaten Real Madrid in a European Cup or Champions League final since Liverpool did it in 1981, and the Reds come into it good form having secured a top-four spot in the Premier League. Whatever happens on the night, Liverpool will be back in the competition they have lit up this season next September, perhaps with a title to defend.
In Spain, the view seems to be that Real Madrid are heavy favourites for the tie. According to a piece in the Bleacher Report, Spanish journalists believe Liverpool should prepare to be “crushed” and are not “among the top-ten teams in Europe”.
“Bar the front three, it [Liverpool] smells of mediocrity,” one journalist was quoted as saying, with another calling it Real Madrid’s “easiest final”.
Liverpool have yet to win a trophy under Klopp despite reaching two finals under his guidance, but they will be hoping to make it third time lucky.
Liverpool’s team selects itself with injuries hampering any options at Klopp’s disposal. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Joe Gomez, who have each played their part en route to Kiev, are both out of both this game and the World Cup too.
Adam Lallana and Emre Can are both now back in full training but are set to begin the game on the bench having not featured regularly from the start for months.
Liverpool’s midfield will contain captain Jordan Henderson, James Milner, who has made a record-breaking nine assists this season in the Champions League, and Gini Wijnaldum, who scored his first away goal for the Reds in the semi-final against AS Roma.
Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino will join Mohamed Salah in the front line, with a defence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Virgil van Dijk, Dejan Lovren and Andy Robertson.
For Real Madrid and Zidane, team selection poses far more of a dilemma. The French coach jokingly bemoaned the fact that he has around 25 players to choose from last week, with Madrid’s bench set to look far stronger than Liverpool’s.
Gareth Bale, who has come back into form after a difficult campaign with five goals in his last four starts, is expected to start the game ahead of Marco Asensio and Lucas Vasquez, who were both named in Spain’s squad for the World Cup earlier this week.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been struggling with an injury that forced him off at half-time in the Clasico against Barcelona a few weeks back, but he will undoubtedly return – for the biggest stage, the biggest players are present.
He played 62 minutes in Real Madrid’s final league game of the season where they drew 2-2 with Villarreal last Sunday, in which he scored Madrid’s second goal.
Marcelo will play at left-back while in midfield Casemiro is likely to be turned to as the main holding player alongside Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, with Mateo Kovacic another option.
The referee for the biggest club game this season is an interesting appointment. Milorad Mazic of Serbia was voted the worst referee at World Cup 2014 following controversial decisions including involving Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, and this will only be the fifth Champions League game he has overseen this season.
The 45-year-old’s previous matches this season were all in the group stage, including Juventus 0-0 Barcelona and AS Roma 0-0 Atlético Madrid.
The Serbian has never officiated either Liverpool or Real Madrid during a defeat. Liverpool have seen him twice previously, during a win against Sparta Prague in 2011, and more recently in their 1-1 draw with Manchester United in the Europa League, where Liverpool went through 3-1 on aggregate.
He has refereed Real Madrid three times. The first was a win over FC Basel in the group stages of 2014, before a goalless draw with Atlético Madrid in the quarter-finals later that season. He also saw them win the UEFA Super Cup in 2016, defeating Sevilla 3-2 after extra-time in Trondheim, Norway.
The winners of this game will face Europa League victors Atlético Madrid in the Super Cup in Tallinn, Estonia, on August 15.
Klopp, Mané and Lovren were all placed in front of the world’s media on Tuesday, where after an open training session at Anfield, the trio were asked questions ahead of the final.
All three are confident that Liverpool can win, in what would cap off a sensational run in Liverpool’s first season in Europe’s elite competition since 2014/15 when they crashed out in the group stages.
Mané said: “For us, it is one of the most important games of our career. It will not be easy. We will go to try and cause them as many times as we can.
“Personally, I don’t know the word pressure. Football is my job. We expect a lot, but we have players and staff to beat any team in the world.”
Klopp was keen to stress the importance of the supporters throughout the run and wants to win the trophy for them.
He said: “The crowd was really good, European nights especially. If you have Wikipedia or Google, the answer to ‘European nights’ must be Liverpool.
“We’ve done a lot of good things together as a group. We know what it would mean for all the people in Liverpool and Liverpool fans around the world.”
Lovren was keen to praise his central defensive partner, Van Dijk, adding: “Virgil has the quality that he helped the team to improve defensively and also to bring calmness into the team.
“I feel also personally much more confident when you know you have a really good partner next to you. He showed already at Southampton that he is one of the best defenders in the Premier League.
“I always dreamed to be in the Champions League and I dreamed one day to lift the trophy. We have the biggest chance in our lives.”
Should Liverpool overcome the odds to win on Saturday, Van Dijk’s decision to join the club would be justified within five months of arriving. Whatever the outcome, it proves to be an exciting watch.