Paris, France is of course set to act as the venue this weekend, as two of world football’s most historic clubs prepare to do battle on the grandest stage of them all.
Real Madrid vs Liverpool. Spain vs England. Ancelotti vs Klopp. And, most notably, the most successful club in the history of European competition, up against the third-placed outfit in the same category.
This year’s Champions League finale will see rivalries renewed, with Jurgen Klopp’s Reds of course out for revenge, after being put to the sword by Real in the tournament’s showpiece just four years ago, owing to a Gareth Bale special.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 26, 2021
Ahead of the fast-approaching Stade de France clash, we at 101, in turn, have delved into which of the individual battles across the pitch could ultimately prove decisive in the latest Champions League winner being crowned.
Below, check out our picks for the five key matchups set to play out during Liverpool’s meeting with Real Madrid.
Vinicius Jr vs Trent Alexander-Arnold
If ever there was a time for Trent Alexander-Arnold to silence the doubters – of which there remain many – when it comes to his abilities on the defensive side of the ball, Saturday’s showdown with Real is it.
The English international is set to be tasked with one of the toughest assignments in world football at present, in keeping Vinicius Jr. quiet on Liverpool’s right flank.
Real’s explosive wide-man has added a long overdue finished product to his game across the season to date, on his way to a head-turning haul of 21 goals and 16 assists across all competitions.
And ‘Vini’ will no doubt be keen to add ever further to this tally on Saturday night, up against a player who has throughout his fledgling career been accused time and time again of being suspect when faced with one-on-one situations.
Alexander-Arnold was provided with a masterclass in precisely how to deal with Los Blancos’ wing wizard by fellow countryman Kyle Walker just weeks ago, but may well need to make use of an extra yard of cover, with Walker one of few defenders in world football who can compete with Vinicius from an athletic standpoint.
It must also be noted, though, that at the other end of the pitch, Vinicius will no doubt be under strict instruction to provide at least some form of cover for Ferland Mendy, leading us onto our next key battle…
Mohamed Salah vs Ferland Mendy
On the flip-side, here we have a full-back whose offensive production has for some time been singled out as the lone shortcoming in his game.
Ferland Mendy has long flown under the radar as one of Europe’s most impressive left-backs, owing to the fact that his numbers in the attacking third simply don’t compare with the Joao Cancelos and Andy Robertsons of the world.
One would be hard pressed, though, to find a more defensively capable full-back in the modern game.
And all of Mendy’s nous when out of possession will be required on Saturday night, with the Frenchman set to be tasked with keeping quiet a Mohamed Salah with revenge firmly on his mind.
Memories of Liverpool’s heartbreak at the hands of Real Madrid in 2018 will of course remain fresh in the memory of the Reds’ star attacker, after he was forced to limp out of the action in Kyiv in a flood of tears, on the back of an altogether questionable challenge courtesy of Sergio Ramos.
Salah, though, revitalised after finding the net versus Wolves at the weekend, has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
Backed by a rampaging Trent Alexander-Arnold behind him, the battle for supremacy on Liverpool’s right side could ultimately prove the deciding factor in which side emerges from the Stade de France with fresh Champions League glory to their name.
Luka Modric vs Fabinho
Shifting attentions towards the middle of the park, any one of a trio of individual matchups set to unfold in 24 hours’ time could have been chosen for our next key battle.
In the end, though, we at 101 opted for the impending showdown between Luka Modric and Fabinho.
Though the pair may not spend the entire night in direct competition, Modric’s penchant for breaking the lines of opposing midfields to set Real on their way towards goal will undoubtedly have been identified by Jurgen Klopp and co. as an aspect of Los Merengues’ game in need of containment.
And Fabinho, whose ability in the tackle and reading of the game remain near unrivalled across the continent, looks set to be tasked with keeping Modric quiet in the attacking third.
The Brazilian is fresh off a spell on the sidelines, but will without question be thrown back in from the off in Paris, with his importance to Liverpool on both sides of the ball highlighted each and every time boss Klopp is forced to rotate at the base of his side’s engine room.
Will Fabinho prove his worth once more this weekend? Or will Modric roll back the years once more to add ever further to his resume as one of the greatest midfielders of a generation?
Virgil van Dijk vs Karim Benzema
Two players regarded by many as the very best in world football in their respective positions, going one-on-one on the biggest stage… What more could a football fan ask for?
Karim Benzema has of course carried Real Madrid’s European campaign on his back in 2021/22, on his way to an eye-watering 15 goals in 11 appearances.
Even more impressive than the numbers themselves, though, are the pivotal points at which the Frenchman’s goals have arrived.
With his side’s back against the wall in each of the last-16, quarter-finals and semi-finals, Benzema stepped up when it mattered most, to piece together a genuine contender for the greatest-ever individual Champions League campaign.
Standing in the 34-year-old’s way in his bid for not only a 5th title in Europe’s most prestigious competition, but also a first Ballon d’Or, though, is set to be Virgil van Dijk.
If any defender in world football bears hope of keeping ‘Benz’ quiet across 90 minutes, it is Liverpool’s talisman and leader.
After bouncing back from a long-term injury last season, van Dijk has quickly gone about reestablishing himself as a giant at the back for the Reds, with his ability in one-on-one situations, aerial prowess, and above all football brain potentially set to prove key to holding Benzema, and, in turn, Real, at bay.
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— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 27, 2022
Eder Militao vs Sadio Mane
Last on our list of key Champions League final battles comes the predicted clash between Sadio Mane and Eder Militao.
Whilst not as direct an individual showdown as some of those mentioned above, the ability of Liverpool’s explosive frontman to unsettle matters at the heart of Real’s backline could prove just the formula required for the Reds to emerge triumphant in Paris.
Owing to Luis Diaz’s January arrival, Mane, once more, will be expected to take up a central role on Saturday, drifting between the lines to link with the likes of Diaz, Mohamed Salah and Thiago Alcantara.
It is the Senegalese’s unrelenting nature, though, which will no doubt have more than a few Blancos supporters concerned heading into tomorrow’s action.
Mane, both in and out of possession, is the kind of player who simply never affords an opposing defender a minute’s rest.
And whilst the experienced David Alaba will no doubt be confident in his ability to deal with as much, partner Eder Militao could be in for an altogether more testing 90 minutes.
Although fully capable of backs-to-the-wall brilliance, Militao has been responsible for more than one costly lapse in concentration over the course of the last couple of months, precisely the kind of lapse which Mane will be primed to take full advantage of…
So, where will the Champions League final be won and lost? Whatever the case may be, each and every one of the individual tussles outlined above looks set to play a key role on Saturday night…