Juventus will have their task cut out when they meet Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane at the Millenium Stadium (called the Principality Stadium for sponsorship reasons) on Saturday as they try to stop them from becoming the first club and manager respectively to win the UEFA Champions League in back-to-back seasons when the two sides lock horns. But how will they shape up tactically against a line-up studded with stars?
Juventus – inspired by their seemingly impenetrable defense – have managed to cruise into the final, conceding just 3 goals throughout their Champions League campaign. Having topped Group H consisting of Sevilla, Dinamo Zagreb and Olympique Lyonnais, Massimiliano Allegri’s side overcame Porto in the Round of 16 before a defensive masterclass helped them register a famous 3-0 aggregate victory over FC Barcelona. A young and vibrant Monaco side failed to dampen their spirits, as the Old Lady ran out 4-1 aggregate winners to deservedly book their place in Cardiff.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, fumbled in their title defense initially, failing to keep a single clean sheet in Group F that included Borussia Dortmund, Sporting CP and Legia Warsaw. They overcame scares in each leg of their Round of 16 ties against Napoli, before Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show with 5 goals in a somewhat fortuitous 6-3 aggregate victory over Bayern Munich. Ronaldo took all the plaudits in the semi-final as well, scoring a first-leg hat-trick to help his side beat city rivals Atletico Madrid and give them a shot at retaining their title – something no club has been able to achieve in the Champions League era.
An analysis of the key tactical battles in what promises to be a pulsating and tactically intense encounter at the Wales’ National Stadium on Saturday:
1. Dani Alves must stop Marcelo from getting the crosses in
This encounter will witness arguably the two best full-backs in European football come head-to-head.
Dani Alves’ transfer from Barcelona to the Turin club last summer has impacted both clubs – by shoring up Juventus’ defence, Alves’ absence from Barcelona’s back four has made them vulnerable to the counter-attack on a plethora of occasions this season, with Aleix Vidal injured and Sergi Roberto unable to provide the adequate cover up expected of a full-back when his side attacks set-pieces. Apart from his excellent ability to track back, he has contributed up front with delightful crosses, setting up Mario Mandzukic to open Juventus’ scoring in the second leg of their semi-final against French champions Monaco. He showed that he is able to score a screamer or two as well; putting his laces through the ball into the back of the net after Danijel Subasic punched away a Juventus corner. His role as a wing-back rather than a full-back with Barcelona gives him the license to surge forward and join the attack.
Marcelo has been equally brilliant on the flanks all season, displaying the ability to press high up the pitch and locate his target with well-timed crosses into the box. His pace and stamina mean that he does not have to worry about the counter-attack, considering that he is as able as Alves to retreat and catch up with the opponent advancing down the wide area. His attributes have also allowed Cristiano Ronaldo to maneuver into the striking positions as the Brazilian fullback is able to supervise the entire left side.
The Marcelo-Ronaldo combination has led to many goals for Zinedine Zidane’s side this season, and Dani Alves has a critical role in ensuring that the duo is unable to set up a partnership in providing for and attacking Gigi Buffon’s goal. Playing in his 100th Champions League game, Alves must make his experience count by suffocating his Brazilian counterpart for space on the left and giving him no room to put a cross in. Having played a lot forward on an average at Juventus than at Barcelona, Alves may well be forced to resign himself to mostly defensive duties as he looks to cancel out Marcelo’s attacking threat.
2. Madrid’s defense need to keep an eye on Chiellini and Mandzukic
One of Juventus’ greatest strengths is their aerial firepower when it comes to attacking from dead ball situations. Apart from his excellent leadership in defense, Giorgio Chiellini – who suffered the heartbreak of missing the Champions League final in 2015 due to injury – must be regarded as Juventus’ primary threat during indirect free-kicks and corners. He has the knack of roaming about the box and losing his marker in the process, something that was evident when he was able to head in unmarked to score Juventus’ third goal in a remarkable first-leg quarter-final victory over Barcelona. Sergio Ramos, in particular, must be wary of Chiellini’s movement in and around the box to prevent him from winning the first ball. Forward Mario Mandzukic is also a major threat in the air, as Monaco found out when they failed to mark him during the second leg of their semi-final against the Italian champions. Zidane’s side has been guilty of conceding from set-pieces this season due to lack of decisive man-marking and Juventus will be looking to exploit just that weakness in Cardiff.
3. Will Juventus play a 3-4-1-2 formation to nullify Madrid’s conventional 4-3-3?
Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri has enjoyed considerable success with playing three at the back, with Alves and Sandro operating as wingbacks and giving them the approval to make high presses. It will be no surprise if the ex-Milan boss deploys a similar set-up in front of Real Madrid’s orthodox 4-3-3 formation, with Casemiro sitting in front of the back four and Toni Kroos and Luka Modric pulling the strings on either side of the Brazilian in attacking midfield.
Ronaldo’s aerial attributes when on the offensive is second to none and Juventus’ revered back three of Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leo Bonucci are experienced enough to organize themselves to neutralize the Portuguese’s threat. Bonucci’s world-class ability to read the game will be vital for Juventus to ensure that Ronaldo and Karim Benzema is kept at bay when the full-backs Danilo and Marcelo get upfront and deliver crosses. He was immense when Juventus shut out Barcelona in the return leg of their quarter-final tie, having an answer to every cross – aerial or ground – to ensure Luis Suarez and Neymar were left cutting frustrated figures in the end and the 30-year old will hope to leave Madrid’s frontmen equally exasperated at the Principality Stadium.
Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic will play a vital role in ensuring that Modric and Kroos are stifled of room in midfield to make the incisive pass to set up Madrid’s front-men like Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale. Modric and Kroos enjoy taking on opposition players one-by-one and making forward runs with the ball on their own, thus that freedom of midfield will have to be seized from them by the usually reliable Khedira and Pjanic
Should Bale be deemed unfit in what would be a ‘home’ final for the Welshman, Real Madrid are likely to play a 4-3-1-2 formation, where Isco will play in a central role, behind Ronaldo and Benzema. In such a case, Khedira will have to mark Isco all game thanks to his fantastic ability to dribble past opponents with pace. One of the wing-backs will then have to step into midfield alongside Pjanic to guard Modric and Kroos.
In both cases, Juventus seem well drilled and prepared in defence to answer Madrid’s attacking pursuits. It will be fascinating to see how Juventus set up their defence in reaction to Real Madrid’s team-sheet that will be released prior to the game.
4. Real Madrid need to be extremely careful on the counter-attack, with Danilo as the prime target
This Champions League final promises to be a battle between attack and defence, with Real Madrid taking all the initiative against Juventus’ starlet defence.
Of course, it requires no reiterating that a team is as vulnerable to being caught out in the counter-attack as it is high on the attack index. Madrid may well dominate the statistics when it comes to chance creation, passes completed and forward sprints. However, once the danger is cleared, Juventus are likely to have three men ready to pounce upon Madrid’s lack of cover at the back – Mario Mandzukic, Paolo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain. Dybala’s low centre of gravity and tireless legs mean that he has the upper hand against Danilo, who is not the quickest of fullbacks. The Argentine can run the Brazilian down with his pace and open up a goal-scoring chance in the process for the likes of Higuain to finish.
Casemiro’s presence is critical in such conditions. He may well face a situation where if Danilo struggles, he has to haul down Dybala and earn a yellow card for the team. With Mandzukic the most likely to initiate the counter-attack by retrieving the ball from defence, Casemiro must put his excellent ball-retrieving skills into action and ensure that Dybala gets as little of the ball as possible. Considering Marcelo is more than capable of tracking back without much trouble, Juventus’ main counter-attacking prospects are likely to originate from the other wing, with Danilo the prime target.
A defensively resolute Juventus will accept that chances may be few and far between for them, so it is imperative that Higuain, Dybala and Mandzukic’s communication in the attacking third is effective to complete swift counter-attacks and give Keylor Navas a test in goal.
One side looks to achieve a treble they missed out on by losing the Champions League final in 2015, whereas the other strives to become the first club to defend the Champions League crown. To suggest that the incentives are massive is an understatement. Juventus’ world-class defence or Madrid’s excellent scoring form — the one that prevails is likely to take their team home.