BY DICKSON AGBO
The big finale of the European club season will hit Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium tonight when the Spanish and Italian champions clash, in what promises to be one of the most engaging finals of recent years.
Real Madrid have the chance to become the first team to successfully defend the Champions League in its current format when they face Juventus in tonight’s final. Since the reincarnation of Europe’s top competition in 1993, no team has ever managed to win the trophy in consecutive years, with AC Milan the last team to do so in 1989 and 1990 when it was the European Cup.
Zinedine Zidane’s men won their 11th European trophy – their fifth Champions League – when they beat Atletico Madrid last season and victory against Juventus in Cardiff will see them make history by defending their title.
Bianconeri fans will hope to see Gianluigi Buffon with a Champions League winner’s medal around his neck for the first time. Juventus last won the competition in 2006 under Marcello Lippi and have been beaten on their past four appearances in the final, including a 2015 loss to Barcelona. The Serie A champions could also become the ninth team to achieve the treble of league, domestic cup and European titles and only the second Italian club in history to do so after Inter Milan in the 2009/10 season.
When asked about Juventus’ history in Champions League finals, manager Massimiliano Allegri said: “Juventus haven’t lost six finals, we’ve been involved in eight! Making the final is incredible.
“There’s only one Champions League like there’s only one Superbowl and what matters is being in the right place at the right time. I’m delighted to be in the final and I feel fortunate to be leading a team out in Cardiff on Saturday.”
This feels like it might be the most evenly matched – and difficult to predict – Champions League final for several years.
The past few editions of European club football’s biggest game have all involved either an underdog or a team – such as Inter in 2010, Chelsea in 2012 and, to a lesser extent, Atletico Madrid in two of the past three finals – with a more defensive, reactive outlook.
Atleti have twice attempted to shock their more prestigious neighbours Real Madrid, Juventus were powerless to resist Barcelona’s ‘MSN’ forward trio in between and going further back, Bayern Munich and Barca had too much for Borussia Dortmund and Manchester United (twice) respectively.
This time, though Madrid are slight favourites, it is hard to say with much certainty on whose terms the final will be played.
Juventus look tighter at the back, but having a formidable defence is not the same as being a defensive team and in Dani Alves, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain they possess plenty of attacking firepower.
Madrid have the game’s best player in Cristiano Ronaldo and a star-studded midfield, but are not the dominant force that Juve tried and failed to stop when they faced Barca in Berlin two years ago.
It would be a surprise if more than one goal separates these two sides and perhaps Gareth Bale, likely to come off the bench in his home city, will have the chance to decide it.
Gareth Bale has trained and is fit to play some part but has admitted he may not be able to last 90 minutes, meaning Isco is likely to start at the top of a midfield diamond.
Otherwise Madrid are at full strength, with Dani Carvajal ready to go after a hamstring problem and only Pepe and Fabio Coentrao, both of whom appear set to leave the club this summer, absent from training.
Massimiliano Allegri has had success with more than one formation in this season’s competition but speculation has suggested he will deploy a three-man defence for the final.
That would mean the only real selection dilemma the Italian has is whether to field Sami Khedira or Claudio Marchisio next to Miralem Pjanic in midfield.
..Juventus bar Zidane’s path to history
Only Zinedine Zidane’s former club Juventus stand between the Real Madrid coach and football history in tonight’s star-studded Champions League final in Cardiff.
A head coach for only 17 months, the former France playmaker can become the first manager to win back-to-back European Cups in the post-1992 Champions League era.
Zidane had a hand in Madrid’s ninth, 10th and 11th European triumphs — as a player, assistant coach and head coach — and the quest for the ‘Duodecima’ (12th) brings him up against an old flame.
“I played at Juventus for five years and I’ve got good memories of that time. It’s a special final,” said the Frenchman.
“We’re very close to doing it (winning successive finals) and we’re the first to be so close to doing it for so many years. But we haven’t won anything yet.”
Victorious against city rivals Atletico Madrid in the 2014 and 2016 finals, Real are chasing a third success in four seasons.
It would allow them to proclaim European dominance with a conviction they last possessed during Alfredo Di Stefano’s five consecutive wins of the late 1950s.