Champions League Final
Soccer fans will have plenty to do this Saturday with a number of MLS matches on TV. Then Saturday night the US MNT will face Venezuela in a friendly run up to their next two WC qualifiers. Interestingly enough, that friendly will take place just a few hours ahead of the same two sides meeting in the U-20 World Cup knockout stage match early Sunday morning. An aside note for Baltimore soccer fans – the U20 team includes University of Maryland star midfielder Eryk Williamson, who played a strong match in this mornings first knockout stage match against New Zealand. But before we drfit too far from the real story of Saturday let get to it.
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THE soccer match to not miss Saturday is the final of the UEFA Champions League pitting Real Madrid against Juventus at the National Stadium of Wales, in Cardiff. Kickoff is slated for 2:45pm EDT and will be shown live on FOX. This match has all the makings of a classic. The relentless attack of Real against the stout defense and counters of Juventus. So just how does this match look?
They have won the current format once (1996) but they have lost in the final four times. Most of any club. And their lone victory was a penalty kick win over Ajax. This season they have won nine of their twelve UCL matches so far and drawn the other three. They are looking to be the first Cup winners to go undefeated since Manchester United in the 2007-2008 season.
So how does Juventus win? They will need to be in top defensive form and have a standout game from keeper, Gianluigi Buffon. At 39, Buffon is the lone remaining player from the Juventus squad that lost in the 2003 final. Still considered one of the top keepers in the world and in fact might be the starting keeper for Italy in next summer’s WC in Russia at the age of 40! Continue to play stiffling defense which they have done throughout the tournament allowing only 3 goals in their 12 matches. They may have ‘only’ scored 21 themselves but when you limit the opposition to a measly 0.25goals/match you don’t have to score many. In their previous 18 head to head matches both teams have won eight and and their have been two draws but Juventus has actually outscored Real 21 goals to 18. Other defensive keys will be Brazilian defender Dani Alves and German midfileder Sami Khedira. They will be tasked to ensure the Real attack doesn’t penetrate the penalty area. Real will get their chances but Juventus will want to limit those to long range attempts.
In the attack Juve will look to a pair of Argentinian fowards in Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala who have combined for nine goals so far. While not the flashy and flamboyant style of Real they are dangerous players when given space especially on counters.
Bottom line – defense. Remember this is the team that shut out pre-season favorites Barcelona winning their home and home series on a 3-0 aggregate. Nobody else handled Barcelona and Lionel Messi like that.
Lets get right to the bottom line for these guys. They are the defending champions and are attempting to be the first squad to win back to back UCL trophies ever. They are in their third final in the last four years having beaten cross town rivals Atletico Madrid in both 2014 and 2016. This will be the sixth UCL final for Real and they have never lost a final. So how does Real win? They are a strikingly different team than Juventus. They score and then score some more. They may allow a few goals, 16 in their 12 matches so far but they have scored 37 times. Any time you average over 3 goals/match at this level you have an offensive juggernaut. And they do led by Cristiano Ronaldo and his 10 UCL goals. In fact Ronaldo became the first player ever to record 100 goals in UCL play. When Real dispatched Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals Ronaldo upped his career UCL tally to 103 goals. MORE than the Atletico have managed as a club in their history of UCL play.
The problem for teams facing Real is that its not simply good enough to focus on Ronaldo. They have other dangerous players who relish the space and freedom they get when teams work to hard to shut down Ronaldo. And two of those players will be a key storyline heading into the match. Just who will manager Zinedine Zidane start? Gareth Bale has been injured but has been working hard to get healthy and fit, running double training sessions daily. But he is also rusty. On the other hand Spandish midfielder Isco has been playing very well and scored the clincher against Atletico. This will be a tough decision for Zidane. Only he and the trainers can trully assess Bale’s fitness. If they deem him unfit then clearly Isco starts. But it gets a bit tougher if they view Bale as ready. The simple view says you go with experience and nod to Bale. But many forget that while Isco is young this will be his third UCL final. I think the decision will come down to this. How many minutes does the Real staff think they can get from Bale. If he is ready to go 75 minutes then perhaps he gets the start. If not then I think Isco gets the start. But at some point Bales has to see the field if healthy. Bales, after all is Welsh, and this game is played in front of his home fans. Having the crowd on your side should not be underestimated in a match like this one.
In the back the Real defense is anchored by Spanish defender and team captain Sergio Ramos. It will be his role to keep communication with the trailing midfielders and defenders to ensure enough players track back to deal with the Juve counter attack. Real will not sit back and wait. That’s just not their style. They will attack but they also need to be careful and not get caught flat footed. If they do then they are going to need Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas to come up big. If Juve gets a lead they can be very difficult to break down. Even for Ronaldo. Brazilian midfielder Marcello will be important in this area. He is very good going forward and attacking. And he is a decent defender. But he can tend to drift a bit upfield and get caught out of position. Ramos will need to ensure they have coverage if that happens.
So in the end its a tale of two great soccer clubs. The classic Italian defensive style of Juventus against the aggressive attack of Real Madrid. The saying “defense wins championships” isn’t without merit, especially in this match. The longer the match stays scoreless or if Juventus scores first then they hold the cards. But in the end I think Ronalod and Isco/Bales are going to prevail.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.