If this Saturday’s Champions League final is a drab goalless affair then a hat will be eaten, writes Stephen Tudor.
Made whole again by Carlo Ancelotti’s arch pragmatism, Real Madrid’s imperious title-winning campaign harvested 2.1 goals-per-90 across all competitions, racking up a 74.3 xG in La Liga alone. Liverpool meanwhile, as ferocious and relentless as ever, have only lost three in 62 matches and remarkably scored three times or more in 43.5% of their fixtures. In short, these are sides that adhere to the old-fashioned axiom that if you score goals you tend to win football games.
When such prolificacy is broken down to individuals it startles all the more. From the season’s curtain-raiser to the middle of March, Mo Salah converted 28 in 33, assisting on 11 occasions for good measure. And even if the goals have since relatively dried up for this term’s joint-Golden Boot winner he found the target in a rousing cameo v Wolves last Sunday. The Egyptian hit-man will be hell-bent on revenge after being fouled out the 2018 Champions League final featuring these same sides.
Karim Benzema opened the scoring on that landmark evening and four years on, the enduring French striker has been doing little else, with a career-high of 44, fifteen of them in this competition.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 25, 2022
Yet even this lofty figure pales to the plot-twist of Benzema striking up a phenomenal partnership with Vinicius Jr, a winger who was publicly shamed by the veteran front-man in 2020. Emerging for the second half of a European venture, a goal down, the 34-year-old was overheard saying to Ferland Mendy – within earshot of Vinicius – “On my mother’s life, he is playing against us.”
This year, they have clicked and quite spectacularly so, sharing a sensational and quite frankly ludicrous 100 direct goal involvements between them. Had one not assisted the other on numerous occasions – rendering this stat moot – they would be responsible for a goal every 45 minutes all season long.
Benzema and Vinicius should also be front and centre of our thoughts because of their likely participation in duels that could determine this showpiece event.
Not many forwards, elite or otherwise, overly trouble Virgil Van Dijk and the Dutch colossus will no doubt be charged with quietening Real’s main attacking threat in a match-up that genuinely intrigues. Yet, Liverpool’s defensive rock has sat out his team’s last two fixtures with a knee problem and though he’s available again, will he be match-sharp? As demonstrated so well in his first of three strikes against Manchester City across Real’s semi-final legs, Benzema typically requires only a millisecond of hesitation or deviation to pounce.
As for his 21-year-old attacking cohort, the lightning quick Brazilian will constantly be seeking to capitalise on the vast swatches of space afforded behind Trent Alexander-Arnold when the Reds’ right-back pushes up. Apologies to Liverpool fans for leaning on a stereotype there but it’s true nonetheless.
Naturally however, that is only half of the narrative with Alexander-Arnold also pushing the boundaries of stat exceptionalism in 2021/22. This season the England star has created 90 chances in the Premier League, more than anyone else, and for a player who principally is a defender that truly astounds. His 12 assists meanwhile are only bettered by one peer – his team-mate, Salah – and to put that number into perspective it is more than Bruno Fernandes and Phil Foden combined.
If these pair of duels entice there are of course others elsewhere that are just as pertinent, namely in midfield, so it’s unfortunate for Jurgen Klopp that it’s here where concerns lie. Having picked up an Achilles strain last weekend, Thiago Alcantara is a serious doubt and though Fabinho is expected to feature, his fitness hangs in the balance.
What the treble-chasing Reds will lose should either or both be unavailable is exacerbated hugely when Real’s experienced and brilliant midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are rightfully acknowledged. This is a triumvirate who demand to control the rhythm of any game and it takes an elite mind set and rare ability to deny them that. Does Naby Keita possess such heightened traits? Does Curtis Jones? James Milner certainly does but at 36 can the old stager be relied on to tread every board of the biggest stage one last time?
Casemiro loves a foul and loves to make his mark early. The Brazilian is -200 to commit over 1.5 fouls and this is a great shout for any bet builder.
Again though, there is a counter narrative, with the average age of Real’s sublime midfield collective being 33. And besides, Milner will probably do just fine.
On reflection, while Benzema’s momentous tussle with Van Dijk is an exciting proposition, and while Trent vs Vinicius will surely tilt the outcome one way or another, this is a contest that might ultimately come down to who takes charge of the centre-circle. Such is the way with finals.
As to which side prevails, that’s a difficult one to call. What can be stated for certain is that Los Blancos head to the Stade de France grossly underestimated on our side of the Channel, and that means value in backing them. And there will likely be goals. Lots of goals.