Real Madrid are on the cusp of history. But will their indifferent league form rear its ugly head when they meet Liverpool in the Champions League final?
True modern day greatness awaits Real Madrid this Saturday as they look to win their third successive UEFA Champions League final. This time, Liverpool stand in their way, with the Reds in quite a buoyant mood following what has been an unexpected journey to Kiev.
Jurgen Klopp’s men took the tougher route to the final, having had to qualify for the group stages before going unbeaten till their semi-final second leg against AS Roma. Real Madrid, on the other hand, have been the more assured of the two sides in the knockout stages, finding a stable footing after a sub-par group stage campaign.
But, can Liverpool learn anything from Los Blancos‘ disastrous league campaign? Indeed, it was a league campaign that saw Zinedine Zidane’s men meekly surrender their title and finish third on the La Liga table, failing to string together an extended run of positive results at any point of the season. We take a look at the factors that could come into play.
A Look at the Difference in Domestic and European form
A points tally of 76 from 38 games is paltry, judging by the lofty standards that Real Madrid have set for themselves over the years. In fact, the return is their lowest in more than a decade, although the last time they ended a league campaign with 76 points was in the 2006-07 season, when they won the title.
During this period, Real Madrid have finished lower than second just once – a crazy 2013-14 season that saw them finish level on points with second-placed Barcelona as local rivals Atletico Madrid won the title with 90 points on board.
A deeper look into their performances over the course of the season shows just where they faltered, with a lack of consistency constantly pegging them back – the longest winning run that Real Madrid embarked on was for four games, on two occasions, with 16 winless results in all in their league campaign.
The Copa del Rey campaign was catastrophic too, as Real Madrid bowed out in the quarter-finals at the hands of Leganes. But, the signs were already visible in the previous rounds, where they disappointed in their draws against Numancia and Fuenlabrada.
Their form in Europe hasn’t exactly been deadly either, in stark contrast to the last season when they met with little resistance enroute to defending their Champions League title. Indeed, Real Madrid failed to beat Tottenham home or away as they finished runners-up in their group.
But, they quickly shrugged off their early season European slump to come through largely unscathed. PSG were brushed aside easily, losing 5-2 on aggregate as talks of their own Champions League title tilt soon dissipated following some clinical work by Zidane & co.
Juventus did run Real Madrid close, with the defending champions needing a stoppage time penalty by Cristiano Ronaldo to win 4-3 on aggregate. But, as they showed in the dying minutes of the tie, as well as both legs in the semi-final clash against Bayern Munich, they find ways to score and stay ahead of their opponents, something they struggled to do in domestic football.
But, the two legs against Bayern Munich also showcased that their shortcomings in the league might be starting to appear in Europe as well. Will Real Madrid be able to continue the trend against Liverpool? Or will the Reds find a way to halt Zidane’s golden run in the Champions League?
The Brittle Real Madrid Defence
It’s no secret that defence has been the Achilles heel for Real Madrid this season, a right mess on most occasions while simply failing to turn up at certain times. When a side concedes 68 goals over the course of the season, it is clear that there are problems in defence – problems that are unlikely to be solved mysteriously by Saturday.
Los Blancos’ defensive output at times is downright criminal, leaving opposition attackers acres of space to exploits, which has seen them concede chances aplenty. In fact, Bayern Munich had ample opportunities to put the semi-final tie to bed much before half-time in the second leg, only to be sent packing due to their own profligacy.
In particular, the left side of defence is a true weakness for Real Madrid, with Marcelo nothing short of a liability at the back, as much as he is an asset in the final third. Just one look at the goal that Real Madrid conceded against Villarreal recently would be enough proof of the fact.
As Rodrigo played a searching ball to Samu Castillejo, Marcelo inexplicably forgot to play the offside trap and was then caught unaware like a deer in the headlights as the Yellow Submarine punished Real Madrid and earned a 2-2 draw. Moments like those would leave a certain Mohamed Salah licking his lips at the prospect of facing up against the Brazilian.
Then, there is Sergio Ramos who for his experience often shows a lack of composure that makes a mockery of his tag of being one of the best defenders in the world. Not to mention the odd error that Raphael Varane is prone to, and it’s clear to see that Salah & co. will be relishing the opportunity to pick apart a helter skelter Real Madrid defence.
Crumbling Under Pressure
A running theme in Real Madrid’s disappointing league campaign was their inability to come out scot-free from periods of domination for the opposition attack, crumbling under the pressure of sustained attacking spells.
The Villarreal game, again, was a prime example as Zidane’s men seemed to be cruising to a win before they threw away a two-goal lead in the second half. There are countless such examples of the same over the course of the season, with the likes of Sevilla, Girona, Levante and several others taking points off Real Madrid.
A key weakness exposed by these draws and losses was crosses, which have hurt Los Merengues quite regularly over the course of the season. The same was prevalent in the semi-final second leg as well as David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich exploited Real Madrid’s frailties on the flanks constantly.
Unsurprisingly, Marcelo comes up short here as well, showing little urgency to stop the crosses from going in. Inside the box, Ramos and Varane are often seen scrambling to clear the ball away. All this could prove to be good news for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson, both of whom are known for their crossing abilities.
The Need to Provide More Support to Ronaldo
There were a number of games over the course of Real Madrid’s league campaign when the attacker have seemed clueless in front of goal. Karim Benzema’s struggles, in particular, have piled on the pressure on talisman Cristiano Ronaldo, with Gareth Bale’s constant battle with injuries have only compounded the problem.
That the Welshman is the second highest scorer for Real Madrid this season despite missing a major chunk of the season only stands to highlight just how grave the problem in front of goal is for Zidane & co. as well. Other than Bale and Ronaldo, only Benzema and Marco Asensio have got double figures for goals this season.
The same problems have been prevalent in the Champions League as well, with Ronaldo scoring half of Real Madrid’s goals, with Benzema second behind him with four – half of those came in the second leg against Bayern.
Judging by the numbers, and as has been evident on a number of occasions this season, if Liverpool manage to stifle Ronaldo, and that is a big if, they will stand a really good chance of coming away from Kiev with their sixth Champions League title, although they might have a big problem in Bale should he be given a start.
The evidence is laid bare in front of Jurgen Klopp. If his side can manage to exploit the many weaknesses that Zidane’s men have shown this season, Liverpool could well be on their way to a stirring title win. But, Real Madrid have often shown that the experience matters on the big stage. It all sets us up for a nerve wracking final on Saturday.