Liverpool will meet holders Real Madrid in the 2018 UEFA Champions League final in Kiev, Ukraine, after the Reds beat AS Roma 7-6 on aggregate in the semi-final, despite losing the second leg 4-2 at the Stadio Olimpico on Wednesday.
Real booked their place a day earlier but endured a similarly tough night when Bayern Munich earned a 2-2 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium. The result was still good enough to take the holders through 4-3 on aggregate.
The showpiece game will be highlighted by some of football’s outstanding attacking talent, with Cristiano Ronaldo still the talisman for Real, while Mohamed Salah leads a devastating Liverpool forward line.
Here are the schedule details for the final:
Date: Saturday, May 26
Time: 7:45 p.m. BST/2:45 p.m. ET
Venue: NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium, Kiev, Ukraine
Free-Scoring Liverpool to End Real’s Winning Run
Los Blancos may be aiming for a hat-trick of trophies, as well as a fourth Champions League win in five years, but there is a vulnerability at the back Liverpool are sure to exploit.
After conceding three during the wild quarter-final win over Juventus, Real shipped the same number of goals during their 4-3 aggregate victory over Bayern. It’s hardly ideal preparation for facing a Liverpool side resembling something of a scoring juggernaut in this season’s tournament.
The Reds hit five past Roma in the semi-final first leg and built a 2-1 half-time lead in the return match in the Italian capital. Goals from Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnadlum helped the Anfield club set a Champions League landmark, per Squawka Football:
Liverpool are the fastest team in Champions League history to score 40 goals in a single campaign. Just the 12 games needed. 🔥 https://t.co/LGOv7HOqhI
In Mane, Salah and Roberto Firmino, Liverpool possess three of the four top scorers in the tournament. This team has more than enough firepower to unsettle a Real back four shaky in previous rounds.
More encouragement for the Reds comes from Real not being quite as strong as the teams that won the trophy in 2016 and 2017. A squad one year older has begun to show signs of a slow decline.
The symptoms of wear and tear were summed up in the second leg against Bayern, where Los Blancos “had to make seven blocks, had only had 40 percent of the overall possession and made more than 150 fewer passes than their opponents,” per BBC Sport.
Bayern showed the way to overwhelm Real at the back, according to Barney Ronay of the Guardian. He identified how left-back David Alaba exploited an obvious weakness Liverpool could also target: “Alaba drove outside where Sadio Mane or Mo Salah can be expected to hare infield.”
Significantly, Ronay also noted how Bayern let Real off the hook “when they let their high press drop.”
By contrast, Liverpool’s commitment to pressing from the front is relentless on manager Jurgen Klopp’s watch. Expect Salah, Mane and Co. to keep the pressure on Real and force mistakes and chances.
If there is a drop from Real, it is only slight since they have still managed to reach another final. Yet being even a fraction below their best levels will doom the holders against an opponent with this much scoring potential.
Salah and Ronaldo Will Both Score
No two players have found the net as often in the Champions League this season as Salah and Ronaldo, so it’s no stretch to predict each will etch his name on the scoresheet in the final.
Finals have been the ultimate stage for the tournament’s definitive star, Ronaldo. The Portuguese powerhouse bagged a brace during last season’s 4-1 win over Juventus, adding to the goals he scored in the 2008 final (for Manchester United) and in 2013 for Real against Atletico Madrid.
The 33-year-old also punished Atleti in 2016 when he struck the winning penalty in the shootout.
The message is clear: Ronaldo delivers his best when it matters most in Europe’s top club competition.
However, Real’s prolific No. 7 was far from at his best during the second leg against Bayern. In fact, he was downright anonymous for large portions of the match.
BBC 5 live Sport summed up how subdued he was:
A rare pic of Cristiano Ronaldo on the ball! 📸 He's touched the ball 14 times so far – the fewest of anyone on the pitch, including goalkeepers. 📻📱 https://t.co/PBGa0biHSO ⚽️ #RMAFCB 🏆 #UCL https://t.co/qHrd0AYRyd
Similarly, Salah was also uncharacteristically quiet during the second leg against Roma. While his touch let him down on occasion, the Egypt international’s pace always had the Serie A side worried, creating space for Mane to exploit.
Yet while Mane and Firmino are both excellent supporting acts, Salah is the star for Liverpool. Like Ronaldo, he has come good when it’s mattered in the tournament, scoring twice in the semi-final and also netting twice when the Reds beat Premier League champions Manchester City in the last eight.
Neither defence is good enough to keep two of the game’s best forwards in check, so expect both Ronaldo and Salah to score.
Ultimately, though, the latter will be the one smiling at the end as in-form Liverpool finally loosen Real’s vice-like grip on the trophy.
Prediction: Liverpool 3-2 Real Madrid