By Simon Evans
KIEV (Reuters) – Real Madrid face Liverpool in the Champions League final in Kiev. Below are five key tactical factors that could affect the outcome of Saturday’s match.
Can Real handle Liverpool out wide?
Liverpool’s attacking threat hinges largely on their ability to attack in pairs down the flanks with speed and directness that several teams have found impossible to handle this season.
In the knockout phase of this year’s Champions League, Liverpool have put five goals past both Porto and AS Roma in single legs while their three goals in 19 first-half minutes in the quarter-final, first leg against Manchester City effectively decided that tie.
On the left, Andy Robertson powers forward from fullback to give support to the lightning quick Sadio Mane, meaning it could be a busy night for Real right back Dani Carvajal.
On the Liverpool right, Trent Alexander-Arnold can quickly provide a double-threat with the prolific Mohamed Salah.
What makes that pairing particularly dangerous to the Spanish side is that Real’s left back, Brazilian Marcelo, is brilliant going forward but often absent from defensive duties.
While Juergen Klopp will hope his team’s ability down the wings will create scoring opportunities, it could also have the valuable side-effect of restricting the forward forays of Carvajal and Marcelo, who are so important for Zinedine Zidane’s formation in providing width to Real’s attacks.
The reverse also applies of course — if Real’s wide-men can be effective that could pin back Alexander-Arnold and Robertson and leave Salah and Mane more isolated.
So often games are decided in midfield – this one could well be decided on the wings.
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Is Liverpool’s defence capable of neutralising Ronaldo?
Much has been written and spoken about the improvement in Liverpool’s previously frail central defence since the arrival in January of Dutchman Virgil van Dijk, who has formed an impressively solid pairing with Croatian Dejan Lovren.
There is no doubt that the days of hesitation and confusion at the heart of Klopp’s back four have gone but will Van Dijk and Lovren be able to keep out the well-established and highly effective strike pairing of Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo?
The pair make up for a lack of devastating pace with a great understanding and a very effective use of space.
There has been some talk in the Spanish media of Zidane opting for Gareth Bale ahead of Benzema, but while the Welshman would ask different questions of the Liverpool defence, there are few strike pairings in world football that have as good an understanding with each other as the Portuguese and Frenchman.
This final will be a supreme test of Liverpool’s new-found defensive strength.
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Will Kroos and Modric be able to control midfield?
While Liverpool may feel they have the edge out wide, Real will be hoping that their evident superior quality in central midfield will prove to be decisive.
Liverpool’s James Milner and Jordan Henderson have won plaudits for their hard-working displays but Real possess two world class creative midfielders in Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who are capable of dominating possession and providing ammunition for the Spanish side’s attack.
If Zidane’s team can find a way to slow the game down and concentrate the game in the centre of the field they will have gone a long way to nullifying Liverpool’s strengths.
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How will Real’s defence cope with Liverpool’s pressing
Real’s backline may not be as shaky as some suggest but they are not used to playing against the kind of aggressive pressing that Klopp’s team deliver.
It will be fascinating to see how they cope. A key element in handling Liverpool’s relentless harassment of defenders on the ball is having a good escape route. Holding midfielder Casemiro will have to provide that out-ball and his effectiveness in that duty will be crucial.
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He who laughs last, laughs loudest
The final 10 minutes are likely to be even more decisive than usual in this final.
Real have a habit of playing modestly and then winning with a late goal — as in their last-gasp win over Juventus in the last eight. Liverpool are sometimes vulnerable late in games after dominating earlier, as they showed in conceding two late goals against AS Roma in the semi-final, second leg.
Don’t think this match is over until referee Milorad Mazic blows the final whistle.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Toby Davis)