Ahead of the Champions League final, Spanish football expert Sid Lowe provides Liverpoolfc.com with a detailed analysis of Real Madrid's strengths, weaknesses and possible approach to facing the Reds.
Jürgen Klopp takes his team to Kiev on Saturday night with the task of wrestling Real’s grasp off the European Cup, with the La Liga giants having won the trophy in three of the previous four seasons.
But what is the best game plan for Liverpool? How is Zinedine Zidane likely to line up his side? And just how do Los Blancos keep doing what they do?
Over to Sid…
What is the mood in Madrid at the moment and what are the expectations?
I don’t think it would be fair to call it arrogance but there is a very clear sense that Madrid are favourites. There is a huge amount of admiration for Liverpool and respect for them, not just in terms of what they’ve done this season but in terms of what they represent. This is genuinely being seen in Spain as a big, historic final between two proper European Cup clubs. But I don’t think there is too much doubt that the expectation is that Real Madrid will win. I think that’s seen in the way that this is kind of being talked about almost not just as this final but as the third of three. It is being talked about as part of that record, part of that run, and the idea that Real Madrid are now dominating an era. Obviously there’s recognition that Madrid’s season hasn’t been that good in the league and in domestic football Barcelona have been the better team for a decade now. But Real Madrid have something. And there is a sense that if Real Madrid don’t get it wrong, they probably should win the European Cup.
Could that be their undoing?
I suppose on the face of it you would say that’s something that could have an impact, but the strange thing about Madrid is that their undoing quite often this year is that I think there’s a slight difference between the way they have done it in La Liga; you can call it confidence but I’d almost call it ‘not-that-botheredness’. In the league it’s kind of like, ‘it’s another game’ and it kind of drifts and becomes normalised. One of the things that makes Madrid different in the European Cup is that the Champions League always feels different to them and they have this way of somehow finding a way through; they were dreadful against Juventus in the second leg, they were pretty poor against Bayern Munich in both games. But they have got something, and the ability to hang on in there and know the quality will come through at some point. So I don’t think there will be an undoing. They will look at Liverpool and say, ‘This is big, this is the European Cup, this really matters and yes, we expect to win’ but that won’t make them relax, it won’t make them be lazy, it won’t make them not take Liverpool seriously. They will take Liverpool very, very seriously.
What do you make of the perception of Real?
Different people will see it differently but, broadly speaking, most people in Spain would see it more or less the way I do. You watch them in the European Cup over the last four or five years and it’s difficult to conclude that Real Madrid are the best team in Europe because over the last four or five years they haven’t been. And yet, they are the only team that are always there; they’re the only team that somehow always finds a way. There has been quite a lot of talk this year about how they do this, how does this keep happening, why does this keep happening? Obviously one of the reasons it keeps happening is because they’ve got brilliant players. They’ve also got this thing about the European Cup, this sense of identification that it’s their tournament and this is what really matters. This is what really gets them going, there’s something about Europe that’s different to the league – which I wouldn’t necessarily say bores them.
It’s worth pointing out that fans of Barcelona, in particular, are right to get annoyed with the idea that Real Madrid don’t win the league because they don’t want to. Real Madrid do want to win the league. But there is something about the league – that regularity, that consistency – that they don’t really have. Whereas in Europe, if you can play three or four good games a season that’s your season done. And of course, they have the players to do that. So the sense of it is that this is a team that hasn’t always impressed but always finds a way, partly because they have great players and partly because there is an element of luck. Of course, there has been a backlash from Real Madrid fans and Real Madrid-supporting media to this analysis of luck – “you can’t get to three finals in a row by luck”. And of course you don’t get to three finals in a row by luck but each one of them has certain lucky elements en route. Last year, they played really good teams and in the end got to the final. This year, they have played good teams and been pretty lucky. The first one, the year they beat Manchester City in the semi-final, this might be a slight exaggeration but I genuinely think they didn’t play a single good game, they didn’t play well once. Yet they kept on playing teams that weren’t that good and, fundamentally, Real Madrid have better players.
What sort of team selection issues does Zidane have?
Personally, I think there is not very much doubt. There is one fundamental doubt. You’ll see the back four as always, you’ll see Kroos, Modric and Casemiro as always, and you’ll see Ronaldo and Benzema. The question mark is whether that extra player is an extra midfielder – as in, Isco – or an extra midfielder and they play more of a flat midfield, so maybe they put Asensio or Lucas Vazquez in, or whether it’s a forward and it’s Gareth Bale. I personally don’t think there is very much chance of Bale starting; it could happen but I don’t think it’s going to. I think we’ll see the same team as last year’s final in Cardiff.
Where do you think Liverpool can hurt Real Madrid most?
I actually think, in a way, Liverpool can hurt Real Madrid by doing what they’ve done. I’ve always thought this: teams seem to be slightly slow to see where it is you can catch Real Madrid out. As Madrid’s style has shifted, it has always seemed to me it has taken a little bit longer than it should for others to notice it. So, for a long time Real Madrid were a counter-attacking team so you sit deep and you don’t let them have the space behind you to run into, because that way you stop them having the impact they can have. But actually, Bale is not playing and Ronaldo is not as fast as he once was, so that is actually the wrong idea because then you allow Ronaldo to hang around in the penalty area and there he is an absolutely astonishing finisher. He has learned to become much more of a penalty-area player. So I think the way you attack Madrid now is go for them, you go at them and don’t worry that you might get caught on the break. Of course, you still might and that’s still dangerous – any team is dangerous on the break – but it’s not what Madrid do as a matter of course anymore, not quite as often anyway.
So Liverpool can do them damage by going at them; the intensity and the speed of the way they play genuinely isn’t something Madrid have to face very often, if you go into the spaces really quickly behind Marcelo in particular. Marcelo is a brilliant player but by definition he is a player that steps out and leaves you room to run into. My guess is that he will be told not to go so far, he’ll be told to wait. The speed of the way Liverpool play, the intensity and the relentlessness of going at them is actually very beneficial, I think. The problem in all of this is that one of the things Real Madrid have that makes them so difficult to beat is a bit of everything. They have lots of great players and they have lots of different types of great players. So what tends to happen is: if they play really well, they beat you; if they play really badly, maybe they catch you on the break; if they play really, really badly, maybe they catch you from a set-play. But at some point they are going to catch you. I sort of feel like Liverpool need to be two or three up, not least because we’ve seen what happened in Seville and Rome. I feel like Liverpool’s best way of doing this is to go for them and to keep on going for them, even if that feels like it carries a risk – which, of course, it does. I still think the way that you do Madrid is to go and go and go.
Finally, what is your prediction?
My sense of it is that probably what will happen is that Liverpool will come flying at Madrid. I’ve seen this a million times in my head already. They will go bam-bam-bam and maybe score the first but the second just doesn’t quite come – they hit the post or miss a few chances – and then I reckon Madrid score an equaliser just before half-time and that changes everything psychologically. And then Madrid come out in the second half, take control of it and win 3-1. One of the things about what’s happened with Madrid this year is that the way they keep getting away with it – sometimes you watch and say, ‘I don’t believe it, how has this happened?’ – gives them the confidence that if they hang in there, at some point something will happen. And I also think it damages the confidence of the other team; there is a sense of, ‘if we don’t get away from them they’re going to catch us’. What worries me is if Liverpool don’t get the second goal. If they score first but don’t get the second, there will come a point when it’s on edge. It’s natural for that to happen.