Thursday, 24 May 2018

Une Nuit a Paris Was Unlike Any Other Night

One May night in Paris thirty-seven years ago Liverpool left full back Alan Kennedy struck a low driving shot eight minutes from time that sealed a somewhat unlikely European Cup victory given they were playing against European aristocracy in the Champions League, Real Madrid - or the European Cup as it was known then. With a side that included Laurie Cunningham, German international Uli Stielike and a host of Spanish internationals such as Camacho, Vicente del Bosque, Juanito and Carlos Santillana. Having eliminated Limerick City in the opening round, Madrid travelled mostly behind the Iron Curtain that season to finally meet Inter in the semi-final and reach the final in Parc des Princes in Paris in the middle of May. 

After surviving some early pressure from the Spanish side, the Merseyside’s began to take control with the combativeness of Graeme Souness, Terry McDermott, Sammy Lee and Ray Kennedy gaining hold in midfield and eventually taking the trophy home to Anfield. On Saturday the same two clubs meet again - three decades later – on neutral ground in Kyiv, Ukraine, in a game that on paper promises an explosive spectacle. But like that night in Paris could turn out to be a stilted and anticlimactic affair. Yet looks unlikely simply because of Jürgen Klopp. 

For one, bar the first half semi-final in the second leg against Roma the German coach is unable to play a defensive game for 90 minutes. Trusting his players work rate and ability to swamp midfield and a talent for scoring more goals than their opponents. All this season since even the qualifying stage it has been the same scenario. At times surrendering valuable leads only to squeak through in the end with an immutable self-belief. The trio of Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane and Mo Salah acting a tsunami up front and delivering goal after goal when required. This time also has real bite in the middle from a rejuvenated James Milner who does much of that heavy lifting that Souness and Co did last time out against Madrid. With the able support of Jordan Henderson and up to recently the Arsenal recruit Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Unfortunately, now injured and out for the season. 

As in 1981 the Reds face world class players in the white jerseys that include a host internationals. All of whom have played in consecutive finals over the past few seasons and arrive in Kyiv no doubt with much confidence. Perhaps too much confidence and not taking the Liverpool threat seriously enough. Their weakness being that Real Madrid are less system and more a group of freedom fighters which this season has edged very close to defeat against Juventus and Bayern Munich. With fortune working in their favour each time. 

Their opponents this time on the other hand have a system and a Klopp philosophy that relies on a high work rate, with fast touch and a defensive burden as part of each man’s role in the team. However, it is the sight of Mane, Firmino and Salah turning the Madrid back four that could prove an exciting spectacle and one that could decide the match over the ninety minutes. Against Barcelona in their last game a few weeks ago the Catalan attack with the force of Leo Messi and Suarez caused havoc with Real defenders Rafael Varane and Sergio Ramos. With left back Marcelo exposed on several occasions as Liverpool deportee Philippe Coutinho went chasing his fellow Brazilian down the flank. But already Zidane has indicated it is an area that concerns him, and it remains unclear how his side will line out to minuses the impact. Yet he knows clearly it is the elephant in the room. Andy video this season of Salah shows the clear and present danger 

"I have 25 players, and everyone has to have an opportunity because otherwise my message is not valid," said the Frenchman. "Benzema Bale Cristiano (BBC) for me are the best, by far they have shown more often that they are very good, but then there is the day-to-day and I have to do what I say to the group, I have to show it with my selection.”, explained Zidane at the Real Madrid media day, "That doesn't mean that the three of them won't play together again. I won't tell you who is going to play." 

However, Zidane exudes confidence in his squad and that tends to be his management style:  "The truth is that nothing happens if they don't get along, it's silly, but to regularly win like this dressing room does, that is how it is," added Zidane. "It's a very good, united team. They work very well. When you have talent it's not enough and they have talent and work hard and, with those two things, you can win a lot." 

So, the sight of Marcelo chasing Mo Salah in the final is an option that faces Madrid if Zidane chooses to play him the final. There is a chance though that Madrid reshuffle their line-up if neither Isco nor Dani Carvajal are fully fit. The left flank though is still vulnerable especially given Cristiano Ronaldo these days takes on very light defensive duties with Casemiro strictly anchored in the middle of the park. It may be up to Tony Kroos to cut off supply on that side from the Liverpool back four and try to close-down Milner. But then by forcing Liverpool to go long and that would release Salah more easily if the midfield is bypassed. In the second semi-final against Bayern at the Bernabeu it was clear that a faster tempo showed Real as less comfortable. Indeed, Juventus proved the same algorithm true when they turned up the heat in the second half of their second leg quarterfinal in Madrid. 

Obviously, this is all in keeping with Klopp’s view of the best way to play the game. Therefore, Madrid need to find a way to adapt to the onslaught if they can. Pep Guardiola found it impossible even over two matches as did Roma in their semi- final meetings. The memories of 1981 versus Madrid, 1984 versus Roma and the infamous Istanbul final of 2005 against Milan will remind Liverpool that they are not fazed by meeting Europe’s elite. Nor will they be intimidated in Kyiv this time around. In addition, the manager himself hopes to secure a trophy to prove that he is not a willing loser in this European showdown either. After losing in 2015 to Bayern Munich and Jupp Heycknes followed in 2016 in the Europa Cup final to Sevilla - then managed by the new Arsenal manager, Unai Emery. So, Klopp more than Milner, Henderson will want to etch that memory out of their minds of a failed night in Basle and join the pantheon of Liverpool’s European champions. 

In Madrid this week it has been all quite calm and the news of a revitalised Gareth Bale posing a selection question for the manager who is very attached to his fellow countryman, Karim Benzema as the choice up-front. Although if Luka Modric is loaded with more defensive workload for Madrid Gareth maybe the choice on the right given his higher work rate and understanding of the English game. His speed, strength and ability in the box - with either foot - and also in the air possibly causing Dejan Lovren a horrid ninety minutes. Whether someone else deputises for Marcello in the end is the only major doubt. If there is a slight change in the traditional 4-4-2 formation, then it will show that Zidane is somewhat concerned by the Liverpool attack. 

The central defenders will be Sergio Ramos and Varane, both of whom have their moments with Varane failing to progress into the obvious replacement for Ramos that everyone at the club hoped. But then Liverpool have a similar issue with Lovren, who can be easily bullied off the ball as Luakaku showed in the meetings with Manchester United in the Premier League. A job which would be grist to the mill for Welshman Bale on Saturday night. However, the new Red safety is dutchman, Virgil van Dijk and that will keep things very calm at the back for Klopp. Their attacking full backs looking reminiscent of Phil Neal and Alan Kennedy able to run teams ragged. In other words, ably defend and attack with speed in the shape of Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson. Real Madrid need to be wary of their threat. As Dani Carvajal and Isco were up to recently on the injury list it could be a baptism of fire if they play in Kyiv. 

Not unlike some, there is a belief that the Madrid club could be sleep walking into a trashing and already dreaming of the three in a row. They may also be underestimating the red side of Mersey as last year’s final was a disappointment in so far as Juventus never showed up in Cardiff to make a game of it. 

In 1981 Real Madrid were passing through a transition and not the strongest squad in their history. Unlike Liverpool who from the back four of Phil Thompson, Alan Hansen, Neal and Kennedy were the basis on which the force started through Liverpool and a forward line of Kenny Dalglish and Dave Johnson. This side have a touch of that and Real Madrid are the club in transition with a number about to leave after the summer break it appears. Indeed, the manager is possibly also on his way too after not winning the La Liga title this season. It may be though that history favours neither club and the game will have to be won on the field of play as always. Somehow Liverpool look the hungrier and more desperate side and Klopp the more astute manager in a tight spot. Adversity and defeat do that to you it is said. 

“We will try in a very positive way, to show the boys why it makes so much sense to be really brave,” said Juergen Klopp at the Liverpool media day, “It was not easy to be brave against Manchester City, it was not easy to be brave against Roma. But the boys did it.”, he explained, “Real Madrid are more experienced,” admitted Klopp. “Experience is important in life, but it is not the only thing. You can level it with desire, attitude and work-rate. and that is why I love football.” 

“Let’s go there and try to perform on a level which maybe people would say is not possible for us but it is possible,” said Klopp, who guided Borussia Dortmund to the Champions League final in 2013. “We did all the things we need to do plenty of times already in the Champions League campaign and now we need to do it again. 

In contrast Zinedine Zidane has yet to taste being knocked out of the Champions League in his three seasons at the helm of Real Madrid. But there is a first time for everything and it might be third time lucky for Klopp in European finals also 

Liverpool squad: Karius, Clyne, Van Dijk, Wijnaldum, Lovren, Milner, Firmino, Salah, Henderson, Klavan, Moreno, Mane, Lallana, Mignolet, Can, Robertson, Ings, Solanke, Phillips, Jones, Ward, Woodburn, Camacho, Alexander-Arnold. 

Real Madrid squad: Navas, Casilla. Luca, Carvajal, Ramos, Varane, Nacho, Marcelo, Theo, Vallejo, Achraf; Kroos, Modric, Casemiro, Asensio, Isco, Ceballos, Llorente, Kovacic, Cristiano Ronaldo, Benzema, Bale, Lucas Vazquez, Mayoral.

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