Real Madrid are chasing a third Champions League final win in Kiev. It would be an unprecedented achievement, should it come to pass, in this era. Indeed, it has only been done in the competition’s previous instantiation, the European Cup, three times: by Real Madrid themselves, five times between 1955/56 and 1959/60, by Ajax between 1970/71 and 1972/73, and by Bayern Munich between 1973/74 and 1975/76.
While Real chase that milestone, Cristiano Ronaldo has his own target to pursue: he has already scored in every game in the Group Stages, netting nine in total, becoming the first player in history to achieve this; Ronaldo has also become the first player to score 15 or more goals in three Champions League seasons and, unless Mohamed Salah or Roberto Firmino score an unlikely five goals in the final, he will also finish yet another Champions League season as the top scorer, to add to the five previous, consecutive seasons.
It is easy to say that Ronaldo is an extraordinary footballer, but what has been so marked this season, in a transition that began last season, is his move away from the powerhouse winger or inside forward who caused havoc down the left-hand side, to playing as a striker. Real have, this season, used a 4-4-2 or a diamond form of the 4-3-1-2, with Casemiro screening the back four, flanked by Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, and with Marcos Asensio or Isco playing in the hole. Ahead of them, Karim Benzema plays as a deeper-dropping forward, leaving Ronaldo to prowl the penalty box himself, using his undoubted aerial ability and knack for being in the right place at the right time, to pop up and score crucial goals for Real.
Zinedine Zidane is sometimes accused of being excellent at reacting during games, but needing to because he has set his side out poorly or unimaginatively at kick-off. This is nonsense, as his redeployment of Ronaldo shows. Real now take their width from the full backs pushing up, especially the pulsating Marcelo, from Isco or Asensio drifting into the wide spaces to combine with them, or, in the 4-4-2, from Lucas Vasquez and whoever plays on the left getting forwards. This is because, for a long time, Benzema was Real’s only out-and-out forward, and so the 4-2-3-1 that was previously popular relied on him dropping off the link play and create space for Ronaldo or Gareth Bale to cut inside – this is how Real played in 2015/16, when they saw off Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid on penalties to win the first leg of their possible hat-trick of Champions Leagues. Bale has had issues with injury and Ronaldo is no longer as dynamic for long stretches of the game, and so Zidane has adapted and coaxed superb performances from Ronaldo as a nine. He always had the ability to score goals, and he has always been excellent in the air; what Zidane has done is to use the development of Isco and Asensio to shift the creative burden away from his Portuguese talisman and let him focus on scoring.
For this to work, as stated above, the team still needs width, and it is here that the excellent Marcelo and the more solid, but less exciting, Dani Carvajal come in (though Vasquez can and has played at right-back as a more attacking option). These two must get forward to allow the drifting attacking midfielder, or the outer central midfielders, to have options to play off or forwards to, and to create overloads in the wide spaces. This has two effects: Marcelo especially can keep an opposition right-back pinned in a defensive line, limiting the opponent’s forays forwards from that position, but he is also very capable of crossing well or even cutting inside from the inside forward position to shoot or create a pull-back cross. Marcelo’s athleticism and skill are extraordinary, not just by the standards of most full-backs, and his ability to pin back Trent Alexander-Arnold in Kiev will help Real keep Liverpool on the back foot. He may just create a chance for his long-standing teammate Ronaldo to score, as well, wrapping up yet another a personal milestone and helping Real secure a Champions League triple.
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