On Saturday, the season for Europe’s major leagues will come to a close with the Champions League final taking place in Kyiv, Ukraine. It will be between Real Madrid, seeking their 13th Champions League title, and Liverpool, seeking their 6th.
The build-up to the final has been somewhat overshadowed by fans facing ticketing and logistical problems which have meant that what should be a happy, enjoyable occasion has turned into a stressful and expensive trip for many.
Sadly, relatively low ticket allocations for fans at UEFA finals has become par for the course, with both sets of fans only receiving about 16000 each in a stadium that holds over 70,000, but the real problems for this final have been transport and accommodation.
Local hotels have well and truly cashed in on the event, by not only raising their prices to exorbitant rates. Rooms that were $25 per night are now going for closer to $2500 per night. People who had booked rooms at the lower rates before the semi-finals had been played have found their bookings has been cancelled and their rooms have been re-sold for more money. Despite this, most of the rooms have been sold; some to ticketless fans, many, many more to UEFA’s battalion of sponsors and officials, which means that there are people in possession of tickets who can’t find accommodation.
It should be noted that many Kyiv residents have been horrified by the price gouging and are appalled that it could lead people to think of Ukrainians as exploitative, have been kind enough to invite fans to stay in their own homes, but for people attending the game to be reliant on the generosity of complete strangers is a situation that should never have been allowed to happen.
That of course assumes fans can get there in the first place. Flights have been chartered, but there are only limited slots available for chartered flights at Kyiv’s airports; as I’m writing this, Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson and Mayor of Kyiv, and former World Heavyweight Champion, Vitaly Klitschko are trying to find a solution to help the 1000 Liverpool fans who’ve had their chartered flights cancelled due to a lack of landing spots in Kyiv. Real Madrid have returned around 1000 tickets because their fans can’t get there, Liverpool may end up doing the same.
Other fans have found creative ways to get there; some have flown to neighbouring countries and are taking colossal train journeys, renting motor homes are chartering buses to get them there and back.
Now to the game itself. I’m probably jinxing it by writing this, but this has the potential to be a truly great final. Real Madrid will be the clear favourites; they come into this game looking for their third successive Champions League title, have better players than Liverpool and a ton more experience.
But, Liverpool will be happy to be the underdogs. Had you asked them earlier in the season. Most Liverpool fans were just happy to see them back in the Champions League and would have settled for getting out of the group stages. What Liverpool lack in experience- they have an average age of 24, they make up for in enthusiasm. What they lack in individual playmaking flair, they make up for in having a system that creates a lot of chances.
Having been able to see both teams in person this season, I think that they are far more equal than people may think. Both teams have the same weaknesses and inconsistencies as each other, which will mean that neither side will be afraid of the other and each will have worked out several ways they can win.
Finals can often be quite tight and cagey games, I think this one will be much more flowing and open (may have jinxed it again). Most Liverpool games descend into barely-organised chaos at some stage, and this game will probably be the same. Real Madrid will be looking to attack and Liverpool don’t have the players to be able to sit back and defend.
Even though Liverpool’s defence is far better than it’s given credit for, Real Madrid will be confident that they will get chances. They will probably aim to go after Liverpool’s 19-year-old right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had his first really shaky game since breaking into the Liverpool team in the semi-final second leg in Rome, betting that his inexperience may give them a way in. Also, Real Madrid will know that Dejan Lovren can be extremely error-prone at times and will look to capitalise.
On the other hand, Liverpool will be equally confident that their pressing game, superior pace and rapid counter-attacks will see them have a lot of the ball in the final third of the pitch and that the guile of Roberto Firmino and the blistering pace of Sadio Mane and Mo Salah will see them have chances to score. In the game I saw Real Madrid in a few months back, they lost to a goal on exactly the sort of counter-attack that Liverpool specialise in.
For Liverpool to win, they probably need to be leading at half-time. Liverpool’s Champions League run has largely been due to the blistering starts they have made in games that has blown teams away. Liverpool play with their defence stepping up and compressing the pitch, and then the midfield and attack pressing to win the ball and then going forward in waves. If Real Madrid can figure out how to stop that, or pass around it, then they can stop Liverpool.
If the game comes down to substitutions, then Real Madrid will probably win as they have far better players to bring on than Liverpool do. Liverpool’s decision to have a small squad, coupled with a few injuries means that they have extremely limited options in terms of making substitutions to change the game. If anything happens to one of the front three, they don’t have anyone who can provide anywhere near the same attacking threat.
In the semi-finals and for the last few games of the season Liverpool played the midfield trio of James Milner, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum in every game, with no midfielders on the bench because they had no more midfielders available to use. Liverpool’s midfield options have improved due to Adam Lallana and possibly Emre Can being back from injury, but even so their bench contains nowhere near the quality of the Madrid one.
Similarly, Madrid’s superior experience will come into play if they are in front coming into the later stages of the game. They know how to see games like this out. Liverpool’s worst moments in the Champions League this season is when they have been caught in two minds between carrying on attacking and sitting back to defend, so if Liverpool have a narrow lead in the late stages of the game, Real Madrid will still fancy their chances.
I don’t think anyone will pretend that this year’s Champions League finals contains the best two teams in Europe. I also don’t think anyone can deny that Real Madrid have the better players. But, Liverpool will be quietly confident their team matches up against Real Madrid’s weaknesses well and Liverpool have found ways to overcome more talented teams than them before.
Either way, this game has the potential to be a classic.