Liverpool face Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League on Saturday as the club football season draws to a close with a tantalising title match.
The two European heavyweights last met in UEFA’s showpiece event in 1981, at the Parc des Princes in Paris, when a late strike from marauding left-back Alan Kennedy secured a 1-0 win for Liverpool.
That’s the last occasion on which 12-time champions Real lost a European Cup final.
Five-time winners Liverpool will be aiming to repeat that triumph in Kiev and here are five key battles that could decide the outcome of the 2018 Champions League final.
Cristiano Ronaldo vs Trent Alexander-Arnold
This will undoubtedly be the biggest test of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s fledgling career. The teenage right-back has met every challenge he has faced in his breakthrough season at Liverpool and now has the opportunity for a showdown with five-time Ballon d’Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
Quick, skilful, strong in the air, physical and a prolific goalscorer, there is not much that hasn’t been said about Real Madrid’s talismanic No.7.
There was a slight question mark over Ronaldo’s participation in Kiev after the 33-year-old limped off with an ankle injury during the 2-2 Clasico draw with Barcelona two weeks ago, but he returned to action on Saturday and scored his 44th goal of the season – matching Salah’s tally for the campaign.
Usually starting on the left of a three-pronged attack in Zinedine Zidane’s preferred 4-3-3 formation, Ronaldo has scored an incredible 15 Champions League goals this term. Headers, tap-ins, long-range strikes and overhead kicks are all in his repertoire.
But while Salah (10), Firmino (10) and Mane (nine) have shared out their portion of Liverpool’s 40 goals in the Champions League proper, Ronaldo has scored half of Real’s 30 strikes. Karim Benzema is their next best goalscorer with four.
If Alexander-Arnold and his Liverpool teammates can put the shackles on Ronaldo, it would nullify a huge part of Real’s attacking threat. Easier said than done, of course, but it’s a task that the LFC full-back is relishing.
“I want to challenge myself and test myself against the best players in the world and there’s not many people better than the likes of Ronaldo,” the World Cup-bound Englishman said. “It will be a huge test for everyone and hopefully we come out on top.”
Marcelo vs Mohamed Salah
Ranked as the best left-back in world football by FourFourTwo earlier this year, Real Madrid’s Marcelo has faced off against some of the best players on the planet en route to winning three Champions League titles with Los Blancos.
However, the last time the attack-minded Brazilian lined up against Mohamed Salah, in the last 16 of the 2015-16 Champions League campaign, he was given a torrid time by the then-Roma forward, who only lacked a telling end product that night.
Since then, Salah has honed his finishing touch to record-breaking levels under Jürgen Klopp and if he manages to break free of Real’s rearguard in Kiev he’ll be expecting to add to his astonishing tally of 44 goals in all competitions this season.
This will be a particularly intriguing battle as LFC’s fleet-footed Egyptian seeks to test a full-back who likes to keep his opponents busy with their own defensive duties by making marauding runs down the flank.
And 30-year-old Marcelo is very effective at it too, providing five goals and nine assists this season.
He crossed for Cristiano Ronaldo to head home against Villarreal in Real’s final La Liga game of the season on Saturday, but that match also highlighted defensive lapses from the left-back.
Marcelo was caught out trying to play Samu Castillejo offside late on and allowed the winger to score a late equaliser in the 2-2 draw at La Ceramica.
Any similar errors, or gaps left at the back, are unlikely to go unpunished by Salah, who excels at exploiting the space behind an opposition defensive line.
Sergio Ramos vs Roberto Firmino
Real Madrid captain and centre-back Sergio Ramos is another player with incredible experience at the top level for both club and country.
The World Cup winner, who has played 41 games for Los Blancos this season, is aiming to secure a third successive Champions League title, at the stadium where he also won the Euro 2012 final with Spain.
But the 32-year-old says he expects “the toughest final we have ever had” when they step out against Liverpool at the NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium and has picked out Roberto Firmino as one of the “quick, forward-thinking and difficult to control” threats he and his defensive colleagues must deal with.
Playing in a central role as the spearhead of Liverpool’s attack, No.9 Firmino will come into direct conflict with Ramos and both players are fairly evenly matched in terms of athleticism, physicality, aerial ability and their respective technical traits.
Although Ramos, who will feature in his fourth Champions League final, is the experienced veteran, talented newcomer Firmino has flourished in his debut season in the competition.
The Brazilian moved level with Inter Milan’s Adriano as the fastest player to 10 Champions League goals and laid on eight strikes for his teammates to put him joint-second in the all-time list for assists in a single campaign.
Real may be renowned for their attacking play but it is Liverpool who have outscored every other team in the Champions League and Firmino has been the fulcrum of an attack that has netted a record 46 times in the competition.
Luka Modric vs James Milner
With James Milner expected to line up on the right of Liverpool’s midfield three and Luka Modric on the left of Real Madrid’s midfield trio, these two masters of the assist will go head-to-head at the Olimpiyskiy Stadium.
Croatian playmaker Modric is enjoying his best return since joining Real in 2012, having set up seven goals for his teammates this season. Four of those have been for Ronaldo, with Gareth Bale converting three times as the next highest beneficiary from the diminutive midfielder’s passes.
However, only one of those assists has arrived in European matches.
Liverpool’s vice-captain Milner, on the other hand, can boast a Champions League record for the most assists in a single season.
The Englishman, who is possibly more renowned for his defensive qualities, has provided nine goals for his teammates this term to surpass the competition’s previous best of eight in a campaign set by Wayne Rooney (2013-14) and Neymar (2016-17).
Liverpool’s No.7 averages an assist every 87 minutes, which means he could be due one in Kiev. Unless Modric can stop him.
But Milner comes out on top, at least statistically, in the defensive side of the game too. He averages 2.5 tackles per match in Europe, compared to Modric’s 1.1.
Toni Kroos vs Jordan Henderson
While Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson and Real midfielder Toni Kroos both keep their respective teams ticking over with the highest number of passes per game, their roles within similar 4-3-3 systems are markedly different.
Kroos – described as “the engine of Real Madrid’s game” by Barcelona legend Xavi and the “perfect” player by Zidane – prods and probes opposition defences with his silky passing and operates ahead of a deep-lying midfielder, such as Casemiro.
For the Reds, Henderson is the deep-lying midfielder and while he often provides the foundation upon which Liverpool’s attacks are built, he also must offer defensive cover.
He is right up there with Liverpool’s team leaders in terms of tackles (2.4 per game) and interceptions (1.6 per game) in the Champions League and it is this facet of his game that is likely to put him in direct competition with Real’s metronome.
Germany international Kroos has added more goals to his game this season too, netting five times to notch his highest tally since joining Los Blancos in 2014.
Henderson will be aiming to make sure he doesn’t make it six with his first strike in the 2017-18 Champions League campaign.