Real Madrid v Liverpool: Key battles in the Champions League final
Football is a team game, but the stand-out individuals often have their say.
In the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool in Kiev there will be plenty of potential match winners on show.
Will Mohamed Salah cap a campaign laden with individual honours with collective glory? Will Cristiano Ronaldo maintain his exceptional form and lead the Madrid juggernaut to an unprecedented third successive Champions League crown?
We take a look at the key battles that could decide where the trophy ends up this weekend.
Marcelo v Mohamed Salah
If there is one winger giving defenders across the world nightmares it is Salah. The Egyptian proved one of the bargains of the season after a move from Roma worth an initial €42million (£36.9m), scoring 44 goals in all competitions and setting a new record with 32 in the Premier League.
He will need to play with trademark positivity to keep the pressure on Marcelo, one of the best attacking full-backs in the game, to restrict his supply to Ronaldo from the left wing.
Otherwise, Salah could find himself operating from a far deeper position than he would like. The Brazilian, meanwhile, can ill-afford to get caught too high up the pitch against such a rapid and clinical opponent.
Sergio Ramos v Roberto Firmino
Salah’s sensational season has taken the spotlight away from Firmino, though he received recognition for his integral contribution in the shape of a new five-year contract last month. The Brazil international ensures Liverpool’s attack gets as much as possible out of the likes of Salah and Sadio Mane, and previously Philippe Coutinho – he counts 17 assists in addition to his 27 goals in all competitions this term.
In Ramos he will find an uncompromising defender who will be intent on disrupting the focal point of the Reds’ front three. Furthermore, the Madrid captain is a threat at the other end, having scored in the Champions League triumphs of 2014 and 2016. Ramos is always liable to run into trouble with the referee, though, and Firmino would be wise to play on that.
Toni Kroos v Jordan Henderson
A cool, crisp passer in central midfield, Kroos plays an important role in orchestrating Madrid’s attacks and managing their tempo. His classy distribution is vital to keeping Zinedine Zidane’s side moving, so Liverpool must do their utmost to stop him from dictating the terms of the match.
Henderson will be key to that aim. Klopp’s captain must keep on top of the Germany midfielder and replicate his display from the first leg of the semi-final against Roma, when he bossed the centre of the park and laid the foundations for Liverpool to flourish. Henderson is an exceptional leader and extracts the best from those around him, but Kroos is a World Cup winner and has the nous to make an impact on the grandest of stages.
Cristiano Ronaldo v Virgil van Dijk
This is the type of match Liverpool bought Van Dijk for. Having struggled defensively in the early stages of Klopp’s tenure, particularly from set-pieces, Liverpool made the imposing centre-back the world’s most expensive defender when he joined from Southampton for £75m (€84.4m) in January. Less than five months later and he is facing the greatest challenge of his career in Ronaldo.
Questions about Ronaldo’s longevity arose during a stuttering start to the season, but the 33-year-old arrives in Kiev on the back of a typically prolific season with 44 goals 43 games – 28 of his strikes have come since the turn of the year, a tally no other player in Europe’s top five leagues can match. The Portuguese could start his bid for an historic sixth Ballon d’Or with glory in Ukraine.