Toni Kroos used four adjectives to describe Liverpool on Tuesday during Real Madrid’s media day ahead of the Champions League final. “They’re tough, competitive, aggressive and very strong,” he said while also suggesting that Real Madrid have better technique. It might be true regarding the overall quality of both squads, but Zinedine Zidane has to ensure his side don’t go out thinking they are facing a bunch of uncontrolled madmen on Saturday night in Kiev. Los Blancos will need to be hungry, savvy and balanced in their approach if they are to win their third Champions League trophy in a row.
It’s not the job of former managers and players to be diplomatic with their predictions in the days leading up to the final. Vicente del Bosque and Jose Antonio Camacho, who spent time playing and coaching on the sideline at the Santiago Bernabeu, have already had their say and predict easy wins for the Spanish side — both believe Real Madrid will win by three goals, 4-1 and 3-0. Diplomacy is left to managers and players so nothing they say can be used against them in the build-up to the game and so they won’t be ridiculed if they lose afterwards.
It is, however, telling of what the general feeling is around the game, and it is obvious that Liverpool are seen as underdogs. Kroos delivered a particularly condescending comment: “It’s a great achievement for Liverpool to reach a Champions League final,” he said during the media day in Madrid as his side prepare to play their fourth UCL final in five years and third in a row. “It’s very difficult to play in one final,” he said. “Two is very hard, and three is just craziness,” he concluded with more than a hint of humblebragging.
You can also tell, based on these news conferences, what kind of message the managers are trying to send. And for Zidane, the message is no surprise. He’s giving nothing away and said a couple of times during the question session that he wouldn’t say anything about his lineup for Saturday. He knows that his options and the variety in team selection during the year can give Real Madrid an advantage, and he plans to use it.
Isco, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo all started against Villarreal in a team that looked conspicuously like a trial run XI sent out for one last dress rehearsal. But during the chat that took place on Tuesday afternoon, Zidane assured everyone that “the BBC are the best as they have shown many times.” Zidane is sending out mixed messages to perfection because a team with Isco in it is an entirely different proposition than one without him.
There is a notion that Liverpool are a crazy blend of players running around with no game plan, no tactics and are built entirely on energy. “They will be 11 plugged-in animals,” Kroos said about Klopp’s side. Zidane was keen to labour the point that Liverpool are more than just a team that press their opponents to within an inch of their lives in the hope of getting lucky.
“All the talk is about the three up front or that they are weaker at the back. … No, they deserve to be in the final just like us, they are a close group,” Zidane answered when asked what he feared about his opponent.
The Real Madrid manager seems to appreciate the task ahead of him. He knows he’s not the best tactician in the world and said as much during the same news conference. But he knows how to meld a dressing room towards a goal. In that way, he is like Klopp, who has often been accused of relying on emotion rather than systematically figuring out the best way to beat an opponent.
But this will be a game of chess. Sergio Ramos said a couple of weeks ago that Real Madrid don’t need Marcelo for defending, though his absence in the left full-back position has caused problems before for his side. He’s not going to change now, though, and the Spanish international might be the man tasked with sliding over to stop the runs of Mohamed Salah, the most revered footballer in Europe at present.
His absence in the middle might be the key as Casemiro will then have to slot in at the back. With the movement of Roberto Firmino, who much like Karim Benzema is a man who cannot be put into a singular category as a striker, Casemiro providing cover could prove decisive. He moves and drops out to the left, right and centre and causes headaches for opposition. This movement and everything that happens as a result could define what happens during the game.
Nobody is more aware of the importance of a striker like this then Zidane, who has constantly played Benzema to baffle opponents. He needs to make sure he has his team ready for the tactical battle in store on Saturday. And he will, just don’t expect him to give too much away regarding preparations beforehand.
Robbie is based in Madrid and is one of ESPN FC’s Real Madrid bloggers. Twitter: @robbiejdunne