There is a sense Real Madrid could be sleepwalking towards a hammering in the Champions League final but Liverpool showed against Roma they cannot be trusted either
There was a point on Tuesday night when the thought occurred that this Real Madrid are like Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, a gifted but complacent side who could be sleepwalking towards a hammering.
Marcelo’s “We are Real Madrid” comment, and the sense of entitlement it implied, suggested he had learned nothing from the humiliation of Belo Horizonte. But then came Liverpool’s anxiety-riddled progress on Wednesday and the realisation that even after the improvements of the past four months, they still cannot be trusted. Either side could score six in Kiev; both may. Nobody can control games any more.
It remains possible that Liverpool will simply overwhelm Real. An ageing Bayern Munich seemed to have a physical edge over them and Juventus certainly did; Juventus were outmatched by Tottenham in the last 16 and Liverpool are at least their equals in terms of pace, power and aggression. Premier League teams have underperformed yet again in Europe this season but there has been a distinct sense that their football is played at a higher tempo than elsewhere.
The thought of Sadio Mané running at Lucas Vázquez (if Dani Carvajal fails to recover from a thigh injury in time) should terrify Real, although no more than the prospect of Mohamed Salah frolicking in the space Marcelo should have been occupying if he had not decided to wander forward and join an attack a couple of minutes earlier.
Like so much in this game, though, the flanks are a battle that could go either way. Both late on at Anfield, after the reversion to 4-3-3, and throughout Wednesday’s second leg, Roma caused problems by getting in behind the full-backs, Trent Alexander-Arnold in particular. The 19-year-old had an uncomfortable night at the Stadio Olimpico but that was in part a result of him being left isolated by the lack of support he received from Salah, itself presumably a deliberate ploy to have the Egyptian stay high up the pitch to try to exploit the space left when Aleksandar Kolarov advanced.
A similar calculation is likely in the final. Given Marcelo is such an attacking full-back, Jürgen Klopp may decide it makes sense to have Salah sit in the space he will inevitably leave behind him. If he does, though, it will probably require an adjustment in midfield so that Georginio Wijnaldum offers Alexander-Arnold more support than he did on Wednesday.
Much, though, depends on Real Madrid’s shape. To play the 4-4-2 they did against Bayern on Tuesday would seem to play into Liverpool’s hands. Not only would it not put direct pressure on the full-backs, forcing them, at the very least, to engage in a game of chicken every time they ventured forward, it would cede control of the midfield to Liverpool, who would have three men in the middle of midfield against two.
Zinedine Zidane may opt for the 4-3-3 he deployed in the Champions League this season at Borussia Dortmund in the group stage and Bayern in the semi-final, but although Real won both fixtures they were defensively convincing in neither. It may be, then, that Zidane prefers a 4-3-1-2, probably with Isco operating behind Cristiano Ronaldo, who could pull left to pressure Alexander-Arnold, and Karim Benzema.
That would, admittedly, give Andy Robertson a certain freedom on the Liverpool left, a particular issue if Carvajal is not back or if he is not fully fit, but it would threaten Liverpool in another area where they have looked vulnerable – at the back of midfield. The problem of their highly mobile and aggressive central midfield three is they can leave the back four exposed, and it is easy to imagine Isco finding space in front of Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren and orchestrating Liverpool’s destruction.
But those doubts are all the result of Liverpool’s timorousness in the second half in Rome, where they seemed to become caught between the two stools of playing with their usual verve and trying to stifle the game. A tentativeness crept into their play and their counterattacks, usually so fluent, began to break down amid indecision around the edge of the box.
Ronaldo and Benzema will do minimal defensive work which means there will at least be occasions when Liverpool have an extra man in midfield. Marcelo will get caught upfield. Depending on the progress of Carvajal’s injury, Real may have a weakness at right-back.
Liverpool should offer more of a threat on the flanks. They certainly have a physical advantage. If they can play with the pace and conviction they showed in the first half of the first leg against Manchester City or the final 15 minutes of the first half against Roma at Anfield, they could blow Real Madrid away. But they do have defensive vulnerabilities and Real, as Marcelo noted, have a habit of winning games they have in no way controlled, largely by dint of having some very, very good players.