Published On: Sun, May 20th, 2018

UCL Final: Is Real Madrid really the underdog?



After the second leg European Champion League semi-final match between Liverpool FC and AS Roma on May 2 at the Olympic stadium in Rome, ace sportscaster and analyst, Mr. Charles Anazodo, tweeted that for the first time, the defending champion, and particularly, Real Madrid, will be going into the final encounter as an underdog. His position trended heavily; I too held similar position before the match. However, at the end of that match, I had cause to reexamine my previous position.

His opinion is that given Liverpool’s scoring prowess, and the one match-decider nature of the game, the odds favour Liverpool to carry the day in Kyiv on May 26, 2018. For him, winning is about scoring and any team that can score against its opponent at will is sure to guarantee victory.

But for any dispassionate and objective analyst, Liverpool did not discharge itself most creditably in that clash giving cause for serious concern over its ability and capacity to withstand a formidable opposition which Real Madrid constitutes. Indeed, no team can win a match without scoring goals but scoring goals is not just all it takes to win.

In the 2004 Euro Cup championship, Greece won with the least number of goals scored by the quarter-finalists – in fact, by previous winners. Again, Portugal won the last edition in 2016 with just five goals in six games. Brazil had a free-scoring team in 1982 World cup, but it was undone by its defensive fragility. A team may not be the most prolific in goal scoring and still win a game. It is all a matter of strategy.  Athletico Madrid is not usually a high scoring team but they are dangerous to face because they always grind a result.

Admittedly, Liverpool possesses the most lethal attacking forward in this year’s championship and post the highest number of goals scored per match and have scored against every opponent without losing any game. In fact, some of the top teams, such as Porto FC, Man City, and AS Roma, went down to Liverpool by as many as five goals. This is an incredible performance and should be appreciated.

But against a Real team that is tested, experienced, motivated and gunning for a most distinguished record of a treble, it will be a different kettle of fish altogether. Liverpool’s ability to score gives a false sense of invincibility, but without an effective Mo Sallah, as in the Roma game, Liverpool is vulnerability.

A team can know to score but it must also be able to defend; this was Liverpool’s underbelly until they bought the highest paid defender, Virgil van Dijk.  A team must be able to take as it gives; otherwise, it would crumble like a pack of cards. Against a team like Real Madrid that is double defending champion with some of the best players in the world, Liverpool will do more than just scoring.

Real Madrid showed some great quality against Bayern Munchen and the credit goes to one man – Ramos. Some analysts have based their judgment of the strength of Real on their performance against Juventus in the second leg home game which they were losing 0-3 until the dying minute penalty award.  But they forget one thing: What almost cost Real Madrid that game was their defence; Real Madrid actually played a good game and missed so many scoring chances and the penalty was a product of their pressure.

On the balance, Bayern played better than Juve against Madrid and completely dominated the game but was thwarted by Madrid’s defence. Ramos, who missed the Juve match under a suspension, was instrumental to the victory over Bayern. Without his solid defensive covering, the outcome would have been far different.  Liverpool can score, so can Real Madrid; but can it defend like Real? That is the million dollar question.

There are several reasons to doubt Liverpool’s ability to beat Madrid in the final. The question that easily comes to mind is; why did Liverpool almost unravel against Roma after going ahead twice? Many people agree that with a further 10 minutes, they would have lost the game.

The first reason is that unlike Porto and City, but like Roma, Liverpool plays direct football; it does not build up gradually which affords opponents time to recover and regroup. They come at you frontally giving your defence no time to fall back. So does Madrid, and like the Roma game, it will be a clash of similar style – overwhelming the defence through fast counter-attack. Also, Roma used long- thrust passes and height advantage; this also is Madrid’s style.

Secondly, the game will be won from the bench. The quality of Madrid’s bench is far better than Liverpool’s. The changes Jurgen Klopp made in the Roma match had little or no impact; while in most Madrid’s games, their substitutions were usually match winners. So can the well known first team players of Liverpool deliver the game or do they have the extra bench support to turn a bad situation around?

Again, Klopp is technically weak and sentimentally attached to attacking football that even when he should dig in and wrap up the game, he prefers to attack, putting everybody under unnecessary pressure; which is probably why he struggled in the premiership.  This same tactical deficit is allegedly responsible for his inability to win any major championship in spite of coming close to it severally.

Without a clear defensive strategy when needed, any team can be exposed as the Roma game demonstrated. Seasoned coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourhino, Benitez, Ancelotti etc would not consistently throw away a two-goal advantage as he does. And often his substitutions like in the first leg of the Roma match left most people bewildered, and gave their opponent the opportunity for a near-comeback.

Thirdly, the experience will count much in this match. Liverpool score goals but they are also generous in missing opportunities; this worked so much against Bayern. No one should expect a goal feast in the match. Apart from 1994 final which AC Milan won 4-0 against Barcelona, and effectively retired their coach, Johann Cryuff; the 2005 3-3 Liverpool’s incredible come back against Milan, and the disappointing 4-1Madrid win against Juve in 2017, finals hardly produce more than three goals. So the side that takes its chances will win, and the odds again favour Madrid.

Finally, the game will be played for a full 90 minutes and even extra time, not less. Can Liverpool withstand a 90 minutes onslaught by one of the deadliest striking force in the game? Against Roma in both legs, Liverpool almost expired after about 70 minutes. And the reason is simple: The players run a lot and few people can sustain such level of performance for the whole duration of play.

So watch it; Madrid will drag the game toward the end before delivering the sucker punch as they did against Athletico in 2016. Never conclude about the outcome until the final whistle. Remember, Liverpool cancelled three goals against AC Milan with just 25 minutes to go.

In the final analysis, my heart roots for Liverpool because of their fantastic play and run in the championship, but my head is squarely secured for Madrid. If you ask me I will go with my head, although there could be a surprise.

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