Liverpool vs. Real Madrid: who are the star players to watch | Salah, Benzema, Mané…
Who will be the stars in Saturday’s Champions League final? Here are the Liverpool and Real Madrid players to keep an eye on in Paris.
Liverpool and Real Madrid, two of the historic clubs in this competition with a combined 19 titles between them, will meet for the third time in the final on Saturday in Paris. With the potential of club and individual records to be set, it has all the ingredients of being a classic.
The game is bound to throw up some interesting contests out on the pitch - especially on both flanks where both teams rely on much of their service. In attack, both teams’ forwards test their rivals’ offside trap to the absolute limit - on numerous occasions this season Mané or Salah have been just a whisker offside, or onside - Benzema does the same, playing the defensive line right to the limit.
One thing’s for certain, Liverpool’s full-backs are going to be kept busy for the full 90 minutes. Madrid could target Trent Alexander-Arnold, who sometimes tends to be caught higher up the pitch. The Liverpool right-back will need to keep a close eye on wherever Vinicius is roaming - Modric and Kroos will be looking to release the Brazilian with lofted balls over the top whenever Klopp’s back four are playing a high line.
Andy Robertson will have a similar job dealing with Rodrygo’s pace and dribbling. Anticipating a high-octane game, Ancelotti vaguely hinted that he will be trying to find ways to pace the game to suit his players - and will decide who to reserve and bring on later when players start to tire. He could decide to start with the naturally left-footed Marco Asensio on the right and introduce Rodrygo later although it’s been a mixed season for the Spaniard, who has made just two starts in the Champions League this season and 19 in LaLiga.
For Madrid, Férland Mendy will need to keep his wits about him as Mohamed Salah will be lurking on his wing - Mendy will likely be supported by Alaba (who is back training after overcoming a groin problem) and Casemiro. Dani Carvajal will be tasked with anticipating run into the box from either Sadio Mané or Diogo Jota, depending on which attack Klopp decides to field.
Liverpool have learned their lessons from the last time they met Madrid at this stage in the 2018 final. Klopp’s team struggled after losing Mo Salah on the half hour but now they have much greater depth in their squad. The Reds boss has several options to move his bench although unfortunately cult hero Divock Origi won’t be one of them - he suffered a muscle injury in training last week and is ruled out.
Liverpool’s players to watch
Mohamed Salah: The Egyptian King, Kop idol, joint-top scorer in this season’s Premier League and Liverpool’s all-time top goal scorer in this competition with 34 goals. Salah’s pace, close control, lightning footwork and vision has given rival defenders many a sleepless night. Even on rare occasions when he appears to be on the fringes of the game, he can suddenly pop up with a decisive goal or assist. He will be especially looking forward to this as he was denied the chance to play the 2018 final in its entirety after being taken out by Sergio Ramos. It’s been another good year for Salah, who for the second season running hit 30+ goals for the Reds - he also picked up the Premier League Golden Boot and Playmaker of the Year awards.
Sadio Mané: Liverpool’s mentality monster par excellence. Agile, alert, razor quick to respond, ice cool and unflustered, Mane can punish opponents in the blink of an eye. He has forged an almost telepathic understanding with his strike partners and both full-backs Trent and Robbo. He has improved as the season wore on, reaching his peak just when it mattered most. What a year it’s been for him - in February, he won the Africa Cup of Nations with Senegal, slotting home the deciding penalty and was voted player of the tournament. He also added the EFL Carabao Cup and FA Cup to his honours. So far he is on 23 goals in all competitions, including five in the Champions League.
Luis Díaz: The Colombian winger has been without any doubt the revelation of the season. He only arrived at Anfield in January but his adaptation has been astonishing. The majority of players, especially foreign ones, need time to settle in but Díaz has looked completely at him since Day One - watching him, you would think he had been at the club for years. Pace, dogged determination, skills… he’s fearless, a total team player and brings something extra to Liverpool that they didn’t have - acrobatic overhead-kicks, shots from distance… and better still, he seems to have drawn the very best out of Thiago, who has gone up a level or two since Díaz arrived.
Thiago: Liverpool’s Xavi, the pass master who controls the tempo, speeding play up or slowing it down. Thiago can play it long or short, thread the ball through a tight defence, or dink it over the top. Now in his second season, he is starting to show why Klopp wanted him in the first place. It was a tough adaptation for the Spain international but now he is looking more confident than ever and that is precisely what the coach and the fans want to see. Sometimes has a tendency to be late in challenges and he will need to be very careful about that against Madrid.
Trent Alexander-Arnold: Local lad, the pride of Liverpool’s youth academy, who has shown that he is one of the best attacking full-backs in the world. He has supplied 45 assists in the Premier League since he came into the side - setting up 12 goals for his team mates this season alone. In terms of vision, he is streets ahead of the opposition - as he demonstrated with his quick-thinking corner in the 2019 semi-final against Barca. His precision passing is another of his greatest assets - his through-ball played with the outside of his boot in the recent FA Cup final was a delight to behold. His distribution might remind older Liverpool fans of Alec Lindsay, another great passer of the ball during the 70s but on the opposite flank. Trent has sometimes been targeted as the weak link in Liverpool’s high line defending - he will need to be alert when Madrid seek out Vinicius with lofted balls from Modric, Kroos, Casemiro, Valverde…
Real Madrid’s players to watch
Benzema: Like a vintage reserva, Karim just keeps getting better and better. Finally unshackled and out of Cristiano’s shadow, he is the commander-in-chief in Madrid’s attack. His figures are extraordinary - he recently overtook Raul to become the second top scorer in club history with 323. What is even more surprising is what he brings to the team apart from scoring goals. He is a selfless player - he doesn’t care who put the ball in the net but he plays a key role in all of Madrid’s attacking moves. It’s what he does off the ball which makes him special. He will draw rival defenders away so his team mates can score, hold the ball up until the team regroups, lay off passes, create spaces, dribble past opponents… He’s strong in the air - powerful header of the ball, can shoot with both feet, has exquisite skill as well as an assassin’s eye for goal. His is the top scorer in this year’s tournament and with 15 goals, he looks likely to collect the Golden Boot. On top of all of that, Benzema’s confidence and experience will make him a serious threat for Liverpool on Saturday...
Vinicius: It’s taken Vini some time to carve out his place in the side. He has excelled this season and is the first choice on the left wing ahead of Eden Hazard. The Brazilian has quicksilver pace, vision, finishing and silky skills and is growing in confidence after a shaky couple of seasons. He has scored three goals and supplied seven assists in this edition; in LaLiga, his figures for the season were 17 goals and 13 assists. Both he and Rodrygo gel well together with Benzema.
Rodrygo: Vinicius’ team mate in the Brazil national team. His figures are nowhere near as impressive but he has scored some decisive goals during the past season. He saved Madrid with a late strike on 89 minutes in the Matchday 1 group game against Inter Milan and stunned Pep Guardiola’s City with two goals in as many minutes in the semi-final. Another complete player who has everything and will be scrapping it out with Andy Robertson on the night.
Modric: The only Ballon d’Or winner who will be taking to the pitch in Paris, the evergreen Luka Modric, Croatian football legend, is the unassuming midfield marvel, who dictates the rhythm for Madrid. He has racked up years of experience at the Bernabeu and it shows out on the pitch. He will be releasing the front three with his full repertoire of passes - the threaded through-balls, chipped balls over Liverpool’s defence, raking long balls to Vini and Rodrygo. Like Toni Kroos, Modric is also dangerous when given space on the edge of the penalty area as he can find the top corner from anywhere in and around the D. He’s been rewarded with a one-year extension which will keep him at the club until he is 37.
Courtois: Solid, dependable and one of the toughest keepers on the planet to beat. Thibaut Courtois will be key in helping Madrid keep Liverpool’s forwards out at Stade de France. He conceded 29 goals in LaLiga, only just missing out on the Zamota Trophy which went to Sevilla’s Yassine Bounou. In the Champions League, the Belgium No.1 has shipped 14 goals in 11 games - the same as last season, but he has also pulled out key saves which enabled Madrid to get this far - including one right at the end of the semi-final against City, sticking out a leg to divert a Jack Grealish effort past the post.