On Saturday, Real Madrid will play Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League final in Kiev, Ukraine. In Madrid, they couldn't be more composed at the thought of it. There is a sense of stillness in the air. You could almost reach out and touch it. There's little to trouble the mind about the prospect of facing Jurgen Klopp's freewheeling Liverpool side.
"There isn't any sensation of fear in Madrid about Liverpool—among the directors, among the players," says Diego Torres, a journalist with El Pais. "They're relaxed in Real Madrid before this final. They've never been so calm and confident in the club before a final than now. This final is the easiest final they have in front of them, all of them—[club president] Florentino Perez, the captains. Everyone."
Real Madrid have history on their side. It's a theme that the press in the city is playing up. "Liverpool will be crushed by Real Madrid's legend," Julian Ruiz wrote in El Mundo once the final pairings were decided. Real Madrid have been here before. They know how to win. They have played in 15 European Cup finals. They have won 12 of them.
"People say history and statistics don't necessarily play a part, but it does," says Phil Kitromilides, presenter on The Spanish Football Podcast. "Maybe not for the opponents—maybe they can block it out; maybe they can't—but for Real Madrid, it certainly plays a part in their self-belief, in believing their own hype. They believe they are the kings of Europe—the fans sing, 'We are the kings of Europe.' They believe they are the strongest team in this competition. And history shows they are."
"Real Madrid are favourites because of the weight of history and because of the experience the players have in these finals," added Tomas Roncero, a journalist with Diario AS. "The other day they did a study and the Real Madrid squad has 46 Champions League-winning medals; Liverpool don't have a player who has won the Champions League."
Roncero points towards the doggedness that dragged Real Madrid through previous finals against Atletico Madrid in 2014 and 2016, for instance, in which they were under the cosh but pulled through.
"They learned how to suffer and to win," he says. "Liverpool may have the dream and the hunger, but Madrid have the experience—they know how to deal with the pressure of a match like this.
"Real Madrid have been created to play finals. Sometimes they might play poorly in second legs en route to the final—in the second leg this season against Juventus, for example, and also in the second leg against Bayern Munich, but it's very hard to see them playing so badly in a final. Real Madrid in finals are very secure, very competitive. The whole team are convinced they are going to win. They never play with a fear of losing. In a final, that makes their rival shrink."
When assessing Liverpool's mindset, critics in Madrid see a team with a soft underbelly, says the English broadcaster Kitromilides: "Liverpool are viewed as being a bit fragile mentally. If they were a boxer, they might have a glass chin. They can be got at. If it gets tough, they don't necessarily find a way to grind out results and hold on, like Real Madrid do.
"Even in the semi-final tie against AS Roma, in the first leg, once those two second-half goals went in, there was a sense of, 'Uh-oh, Liverpool could throw something away here when they'd played so well.' It's the two sides of Liverpool, which people are aware of here—that this is an incredibly exciting, attacking side but one prone to big, defensive lapses and one that is weak mentally. Even if Liverpool take the lead, Real Madrid won't be too terrified because of their strength mentally and Liverpool's perceived weaknesses."
Real Madrid also have a full deck to play with. There are no injury concerns. Their manager, Zinedine Zidane, has the pleasant problem of choosing between Isco, Karim Benzema and a resurgent Gareth Bale—who has scored four goals in his last three games—for the final two pieces of his attacking jigsaw alongside perennial Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
When pundits in Madrid consider the squad at Jurgen Klopp's disposal, however, they see it is riddled with flaws. Apart from the vaunted attacking front three—Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane—it smells of mediocrity. It's a team made up of more artisans than artists.
"Liverpool probably is not even among the top 10 teams in Europe," says Torres, "because it doesn't have a good goalkeeper. It doesn't have a good defence. It only has one international-class defender—Virgil van Dijk. Its full-backs are very limited. Maybe they're strong, fast; they're able to do OK in the English Premier League, but none of them signed for Chelsea or Manchester City or Manchester United because they don't have the level to play for those teams. The full-backs for Tottenham Hotspur are much better than Liverpool's.
"Liverpool's midfield has players who are also forceful, disciplined, self-sacrificing. They know their profession. They are tradesmen. Footballers like Jordan Henderson and James Milner are footballers that lack creativity. There are other British teams with better midfielders. Liverpool doesn't have a player like [Paul] Pogba, nor [Ilkay] Gundogan, nor [Kevin] De Bruyne nor [David] Silva, nor Dele Alli in the centre of their midfield. Liverpool is missing footballers in this part of the pitch with ingenuity."
Torres admires the pragmatic mind of Klopp. He is a coach whom Roncero believes will be first in line to replace Zidane when the Frenchman leaves Real Madrid. There is nothing wantonly cavalier about Klopp's philosophy of football, argued Torres. The gung-ho brand of football Liverpool play springs from necessity; Klopp makes do with the resources at his disposal. He is compelled to make his team adventurous.
"Klopp couldn't come from any other place in the world than Germany," says Torres. "He's from a very defined school. He places a lot of emphasis on physicality. He's modern. He understands contemporary football very well. He's not crazy. The other way around—if he were crazy, he wouldn't have been able to get a team with a lot of deficiencies to the final of the Champions League. He's a very rational coach even if he seems very boisterous and sentimental.
"Klopp has no other option than to be reckless—reckless in the sense of being very attacking. It's a calculation. If his team doesn't attack like crazy, they're lost. They're dead because they don't have players who can defend a lead. They don't have a competent defence. They don't have a midfield that can dictate the rhythm of a game. This is the reason they attack like crazy."
In Salah, Liverpool has a player who has wreaked havoc on defences in England and around Europe this season in an unexpected, thrilling manner. A defining performance in the final at Kiev could put him in the shop window as a future Real Madrid player, reckons Roncero, although both Roncero and Torres say Neymar Jr. is the Real Madrid president's prime target in this summer's transfer market.
"I don't think Mo Salah will be a Galactico in the future," says the well-informed Torres. "Florentino wants to buy other footballers. Florentino wants to buy Neymar. He doesn't have the money to buy Mo Salah. If he can't buy Neymar, he intends to buy Harry Kane or Eden Hazard. Real Madrid have never been interested in buying Mo Salah from what I know."
All eyes will be on Salah to see if he can be decisive in Saturday's final (7:45 p.m. BST, 2:45 p.m. ET). He's part of an irrepressible attacking trident that threatens to derail Real Madrid's ambition to win a fourth UEFA Champions League crown in five seasons. It would be an achievement Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos stated would cement their place in the history books as the defining team of an era, per Marca. It all hinges on which Liverpool turns up.
"Real Madrid have respect for Liverpool because they are a team, who, if they are inspired, they can make your evening bitter," says Roncero. "Man City saw that at Anfield in the quarter-final. Some people here have that match in their mind as an example of what Liverpool are capable of or the 60 minutes they played against Roma at Anfield. Liverpool have a lot of football, and for that reason, Madrid have respect, but not fear."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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