In less than 2 hours we will all collectively be eyeballs deep in the Champions League Final between reigning champion Real Madrid and Juventus FC. It is the match-up the soccer world has been waiting for since October. The final duel we deserve. The Cavs – Warriors of European finals.
When group stage began 9 months ago, all 32 teams, or let’s be real, more like 20ish teams (Dinamo Zagreb never had a chance) felt like they could reach the first benchmark of finishing in the top two of their group to qualify for the knockout stage. I’d like to call it the “Arsenal Achievement.” If a team can at least do that they give themselves a chance to play Cinderella (See: Leicester) or at least take solace in making it to the Round of 16 even if the knockout is the end of the road.
As a Spurs fan, this is the first time I watched the tournament with a vested interest. Most years Tottenham has finished outside the top 4 or had a Champions League qualification stripped away from them by a BS rule that has since been struck down. In all honesty, I had no idea what to expect going in. Do we need to win every game? Can we afford to lose or draw a few games and still advance? Who the hell is Club Brugge?
I was left with an apprehension similar to how I felt about the Europa League the last couple seasons – is it really worth it to be flying to Turkey midweek in November just to tire out our players and drop valuable points in the domestic league?
(The answer is yes, yes it is)
But what I quickly came to find is that this tournament is hard. There are no guaranteed games, and your team has to be deep, diverse, and mentally tough to even advance. Spurs were none of those things and before we knew it we were bounced out of a seemingly winnable group.
Despite the disappointment of yet another year in Europa League for Tottenham, the tournament rolled into the knockout stages highlighted by three Leg 2 comebacks in Round of 16 by Leicester City, Monaco, and Barcelona.
The only English team to advance to the quarters, Leicester City, was galvanized by the firing of Claudio Ranieri after the new year and used one last pinch of Cinderella dust to eek past Sevilla and secure a spot in the quarterfinals.
The Barcelona triumph was particularly mind-boggling as they scored 6 home goals to shock PSG in one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. Though Barcelona soon met their fate against Juventus in the quarters while failing to score a single goal across two legs.
This was also the beginning of Monaco’s run of brilliance that saw them stun Manchester City in extra time, systematically dismantle of a favored Dortmund team, and eventually flame out against Juventus in the semifinals.
Juventus brought a lethality to the knockout stages that no other team came close to solving. Their defense went 700+ minutes of game time without allowing a goal before tournament darling Kylian Mbappe netted a consolation goal in the semifinal’s second leg. Juve deserves to be in the final without question and they can thank their defensive unit for getting them there with relative ease.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid made quick work of Napoli, Bayern Munich, and Atletico Madrid to stroll unfettered into their second consecutive final. They too were never truly challenged, but that may change in this final.
Often times the final game fails to deliver on drama or intrigue; those shades of Shakespeare are usually reserved for the quarter and semifinal games. However, this year could be different.
Both of these teams are used to deep and often fortuitous runs in this tournament. Real Madrid is seeking a 12th title while Juventus hope to add a third Cup to their cabinet and avoid a record 7th defeat in the final game.
Living legends Cristiano Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon look to each further cement their legacies with a victory. Ronaldo has won the competition three times (twice with Madrid – the other came in 2008 with Man U) and a fourth would add yet another seemingly unnecessary layer of icing to an already frosted cake. While the 38-year-old Buffon has seen his fair share of success having won every conceivable title for club and country. Every single one except for the UCL title. A victory in this game would be a cherry on top of his equally fondanted baked good.
Or what about Welshman Gareth Bale facing the prospect of missing out on the biggest game in the city he was born and raised in? Yet another injury for the former Tottenham man could endanger his position as the apparent heir to leading man Ronaldo in Madrid.
An equally compelling story is Bale’s replacement, the Spaniard Isco, who has not missed a beat in his stead. Madrid may be better served to go with the hot hand (or foot?) and leave Bale on the bench. Isco’s brilliance has been too good to deny in favor of a knocked up Gareth Bale. He adds another offensive option to an attacking unit is already overflowing with talent.
And that brings me to what I think will be where this game will be decided – Juventus’ defense. The Italian backline gave up just two goals in 12 tournament games while shutting out offensive powerhouses Barcelona and Monaco. The quartet of Dani Alves, Leonardo Bonnuci, Giorgio Chiellini, and Andrea Barzagli will be asked to quell one of the most devastating attacks ever comprised. They will be tested for 90 straight minutes and it will require a titanic effort to be triumphant, but if anyone is up to the task it’s these four.
Brooks: Juventus 2 – 1
Dustin: Real Madrid 2 – 1