The UEFA Champions League final is one match on the annual footballing calendar which rarely disappoints.
And Saturday’s fixture between Real Madrid and Liverpool promises much in terms of entertainment and drama.
Real Madrid go into the match having lifted the trophy on three of the last four occasions, including last season’s competition, when the Spaniards became the first team since 1990 to win back-to-back titles.
The next target for Zinedine Zidane and his players is to emulate the great Bayern Munich side of the mid-1970s and win the European Cup for a third successive season.
Standing in the way of what would be a truly remarkable achievement in the modern era, is Liverpool, a team who have arguably been the most impressive side in Europe this season.
Helped on by the prolific attacking trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah, Liverpool have reached the final having scored at least five goals against every opponent they have faced, something no other team have done since Benfica in 1965 – though with only three two-legged ties required to reach the final at the time.
Porto were as good as eliminated after a first leg of the last 16 tie with Liverpool, who inflicted a record home defeat on the two-time winners.
Man City went into the quarter final first leg at Anfield knowing exactly what would be thrown at them, having suffering their first domestic loss of the season on the same ground earlier in the year. But being able to stop Liverpool at their very best has been a task easier spoken of than executed, and even Pep Guardiola had no answers.
A semi final against Roma in which Liverpool led 5-0 in the first hour was ultimately a lot closer in the aggregate score than what was reflected on the pitch over the two legs, but the outcome of Liverpool progressing was thoroughly deserved.
The loss against Roma did show that some vulnerabilities remain, even if Liverpool have made progress in addressing some of the defensive issues that were holding the team back prior to the January arrival of Virgil Van Dyk for a world record fee. It may even be of some benefit that Liverpool have experienced defeat, in highlighting areas that needed further work on the training ground, and enabling the team to arrive in Kiev better prepared for the final.
Not that Real Madrid have themselves been perfect this season. The most successful of all teams in Europe’s top footballing competition may be in a position that is more familiar in recent years than it is for Liverpool, but some degree of luck has been with Real through the knockout stages.
The last 16 match was expected to be a closely-contested duel between Ronaldo’s Real Madrid, and Neymar’s PSG. Instead, the competition holders won comfortably, aided by an injury to Neymar which kept him out of the second leg. It was to be the only comfortable progression through a tie in the knockout round for Real Madrid.
A Ronaldo-inspired performance in Turin helped secure a 3-0 first leg advantage against Juventus in a rematch between the two teams who contested last season’s final. But Real Madrid were completely overrun by Juve in the second leg, and after Juve built up a three goal lead in front of stunned Madridistas at the Santiago Bernabeu, the tie was, unbelievably, heading into extra time. That was until the conceding of a penalty by Juventus, and the subsequent sending off of Gianluigi Buffon. Ronaldo, again, was the difference, confidently dispatching a tie-deciding penalty in the 8th minute of added time.
In the semi final, Bayern Munich were beaten at home in the first leg, but came within a goal of securing an away goals win in Madrid. 39 shots at goal over the two legs, compared to Real Madrid’s combined 16, is a statistic that underlined the dominance over the two legs of the German champions.
As was the case in the previous round against Juventus, Real Madrid edged it, but this time without having to rely on the goals of Ronaldo, who played the two semi final legs without recording either a goal or an assist.
If Liverpool have been the team of the tournament, Ronaldo has been the player of the tournament. Arguments might also be made for Mo Salah and Sadio Mane, who have delivered a host of man of the match performances themselves during Liverpool’s run to the final.
Ronaldo, though, has been the standout player on so many occasions for Real, and added two more individual records to his ever-growing list of personal accolades after scoring in all six group games, before going on to net in 11 successive matches.
His bicycle kick goal against Juventus will forever be among the great goals ever scored in the competition, and his tally of 120 Champions League goals is a record that may never be broken.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Ronaldo to Real Madrid, just as it is to do so with Messi and Barcelona. However, it would be unfair to characterise Real Madrid as a one-man team, for the experience throughout the squad is another important factor in them returning to play in another Champions League final.
Whatever domestic issues Real Madrid have endured, they have found a way to progress in Europe, and Liverpool will need to be wary of being overconfident. If a football fan had watched only this season’s Champions League, without knowledge of events prior to this season, they may be rather emphatic in declaring Liverpool as the match favourites.
But Real Madrid’s participation in three finals since 2014 is not to be dismissed, no matter how many occasions they have failed to reach the same standards during matches this season.
If Liverpool have the opportunity to play in a similar way to that which has carried them to Kiev, sweeping aside all who they have faced, I’d expect that Jurgen Klopp’s team will be too much for Real Madrid.
Real Madrid will have their own chances though, and if they can deal with Liverpool’s potent attack and limit the number of chances falling to Salah and co, it could be an occasion for Ronaldo to once again be the match-winner.
What’s fairly likely is that it will be an exciting final. And what’s almost certain, is that it won’t be a goalless draw.