Canelo v Saunders: Simmering rivalry to be settled in unification clash

By Sports Desk May 07, 2021

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  • The Numbers Game: Liverpool plot revenge as Real Madrid look to continue incredible finals streak The Numbers Game: Liverpool plot revenge as Real Madrid look to continue incredible finals streak

    European club football's main event is almost here, with two bona fide giants of the game set to face off at the Stade de France on Saturday.

    Either Real Madrid or Liverpool will be crowned champions of Europe in Paris; whichever team manages it will be providing their fans with a glorious end to a tremendous season.

    Of course, Madrid did what Liverpool could not on the domestic front, as Los Blancos head into this game as LaLiga champions – the Reds ultimately missed out to Manchester City on the last day of the Premier League campaign.

    But this has still been a successful season for Jurgen Klopp's side, who could yet claim a treble having already lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup in England.

    It promises to be an immense spectacle, with Opta's pre-match facts highlighting the wealth of footballing greatness that is set to be on display.

    The history

    Much of the build-up to this match has centred around two separate narratives of "revenge" relating to the 2018 Champions League final meeting between these two.

    The first obvious desire for retribution comes simply from the fact Madrid won 3-1 in Kyiv – the other surrounds Mohamed Salah, whose match was ended early on that occasion after a collision with Sergio Ramos.

    Either way, if Liverpool – and Salah – are to have their vengeance, they'll need to contend with Madrid's astonishing record: they have won each of their previous seven Champions League/European Cup finals.

    To put that stat into context, no other team have even won the competition more than seven times, let alone won in seven consecutive final appearances.

    But if you're looking for omens, answer this: who last beat Madrid in a European Cup/Champions League final, and where was it played?

    Liverpool, in Paris (1981)…

    The managers

    For about 24 hours, Klopp had joined an exclusive list of managers who had reached the European Cup/Champions League final four times.

    But then Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid pulled off their third great escape in as many knockout ties, meaning the Italian would set a new record for the most final appearances as a manager in UEFA's flagship competition.

    But the historic achievement he'll no doubt be craving is still up for grabs.

    Victory on Saturday will ensure Ancelotti is the first manager to lift the trophy four times, having won the competition in 2003, 2007 and 2014.

    But here's another omen. The only club to beat an Ancelotti team in a Champions League final? That's right, Liverpool in 2005.

    Nevertheless, Klopp doesn't have a particularly encouraging record against Los Blancos. He's faced them nine times in the Champions League, with his 33 per cent success rate the worst among teams he's faced at least three times.

    The danger men

    It would be fair to bill this match as something of a Ballon d'Or shootout.

    Certainly, ahead of Saturday, the favourite is Karim Benzema, and with good reason. The France striker has enjoyed an incredible season and been central to Madrid's route to the final – he has scored 15 goals, two behind the all-time record for a single Champions League/European Cup campaign.

    What helps make that such a remarkable achievement is the fact he would become the second-oldest scorer in a Champions League final (34 years, 160 days) after Paolo Maldini (36 years, 333 days) if he does net in Paris.

    Madrid will likely need to keep the vengeful Salah in check, however.

    Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Egyptian has 44 Champions League goal involvements, a tally bettered only by Robert Lewandowski (55) and Kylian Mbappe (47).

    If Liverpool are successful, Salah will surely become the frontrunner for the Ballon d'Or – unless Sadio Mane, who has scored three in his past four Champions League games and won the Africa Cup of Nations, has a decisive impact.

    The prize

    Liverpool are bidding to join Milan with seven European Cup/Champions League crowns, the second-most in the competitions' collective history.

    Of course, the only team with more than seven are Madrid. Victory for them will take them to 14 titles, remarkably twice as many as any other club, a fact that really highlights their obsession with the competition.

    Either way, a behemoth of European football will enjoy another memorable occasion in Paris on Saturday.

    But if it's Liverpool who succeed, it'll be difficult to look at this as anything other than the early stages of English domination in the Champions League, given Premier League teams have won two of the past three already.

  • Champions League final: Camavinga and Rodrygo, the wildcard exceptions to Ancelotti's rotation reticence Champions League final: Camavinga and Rodrygo, the wildcard exceptions to Ancelotti's rotation reticence

    Regardless of what occurs on the pitch at the Stade de France on Saturday, the 2021-22 season will have been a good one for Real Madrid.

    Even if they are ultimately left with only the Spanish top-flight title to show for their efforts, there's an argument to be made that Carlo Ancelotti has defied expectations in his first campaign back at the Santiago Bernabeu.

    Given the important losses of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos coupled with the fact only two new players were incoming, it would've been understandable if fans were less demanding than usual in their pre-season predictions.

    After all, Ancelotti was seen as a safe pair of hands rather than someone who was going to come in, shake things up and preside over a philosophical overhaul – and looking back over the course of the season, he's been the perfect appointment.

    Of course, the turmoil at Barcelona helped Madrid's cause, while Atletico Madrid's title defence fell flat early on. For a while Sevilla looked to be the only challengers to Los Blancos, but given they ran out of steam in the previous campaign, it's unlikely Ancelotti and his team will have been unduly worried by them – they ended up scraping a top-four spot.

    As composed and dominant as Madrid were at LaLiga's summit, fans, pundits and journalists alike did go searching for potential weaknesses, or reasons for the chasing pack not to give up hope.

    One area that appeared to be brought up more than most was rotation and the risk of burnout.

    Full steam ahead

    Between the start of the season and the end of December, six Madrid players had featured for more than 1,400 minutes in LaLiga. There are no surprises in this list: they would be considered the majority of the team's core players.

    In the same period, only Espanyol (seven) had more players feature for at least 1,400 minutes in LaLiga, but they didn't also have Champions League football to contend with. Sevilla had three players meet the criteria; Barcelona had two and Atletico Madrid just one, goalkeeper Jan Oblak. 

    Similarly, Madrid named the same starting XI three times in LaLiga this season. While that doesn't sound a lot, only Celta Vigo, Getafe, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna have done so more often.

    It's clear to see Madrid have relied on a bigger group of core players than their rivals, and as such concerns about fatigue appeared astute earlier in the season.

    But here we are, right at the end of the campaign: Madrid won LaLiga with four games to spare and are preparing to play in the Champions League final – and their route to this stage has relied on the ability to laugh in the face of fatigue, with Los Blancos coming back from the brink three times.

    In that sense, you have to praise Ancelotti's squad management. Whether their lack of injuries has been by design or a fluke is difficult to speculate about, but there's clearly an element of Ancelotti swiftly establishing his preferred XI and then only wavering from it when absolutely necessary.

    And when he did have to look elsewhere, there's no doubting who his favourites were.

    Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga have come off the bench 23 times each across all competitions this season, the joint-most in the Madrid squad.

    Granted, it's not as if they're two hopefuls promoted from the academy – both were expensive additions to the squad. But the frequency Ancelotti has turned to them as substitutes shows his belief in them to either carry out his instructions or make a difference.

    Nowhere was that clearer than in the latter stages of the Champions League. Five of Camavinga's nine appearances in this season's competition have been in the knockouts, while Rodrygo has come off the bench four times in Europe since the turn of the year.

    The latter has, understandably, taken a lot of plaudits in the second half of this season. He scored the vital aggregate equaliser against Chelsea, the brace that flipped the City tie on its head, and was inspirational off the bench away to Sevilla in the 3-2 win that essentially wrapped up the title.

    Before the turn of the year, Rodrygo appeared to be struggling for relevance at Madrid. There will have been some wondering if he had a long-term future at the club, but he knuckled down after Christmas and has become a genuine weapon, seemingly embracing the fact you can still be decisive even off the bench.

    On a per-90-minute basis, he heads into Saturday's game ranked fourth at Madrid for open-play chances created (1.4) and goals (0.34), joint-second for assists (0.34, behind Benzema on 0.35) and third for shots (2.4). He's beginning to show his worth.

    Ancelotti's choice

    Some might have generally expected more from Camavinga since joining from Rennes last year. He's not been able to establish himself as a regular in midfield at the expense of his more senior colleagues, perhaps unsurprising given he lacks the metronomic abilities of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and the grit of Casemiro. However, his impact shouldn't be overlooked.

    In the second-leg clashes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, every single one of Madrid's eight goals came after Camavinga's introduction. Those goals ensured Ancelotti's men produced great escapes in each tie.

    In fact, over the 146 minutes both Camavinga and Rodrygo have been on the pitch in the Champions League in 2022, Madrid have scored eight times and conceded none. Over 502 minutes without at least one of them on the pitch, they've scored six and let in 11.

    Of course, it's not as if Camavinga himself has been a central figure to all eight goals. His importance in these scenarios is more centred on the wide-ranging skillset he instantly brings to Madrid – he can pass, he's confident on the ball and is a hard-working competitor.

    His contributions were notable in all three second legs, but it was against City when he really forced people to sit up and acknowledge him. In the three and a half minutes that followed his 75th-minute entrance, Camavinga showed his poise with a nice switch of play, swept up effectively in midfield as Phil Foden looked to pounce on a loose ball, and then tackled Rodri out wide.

    He was happy to accept possession under pressure several times, with one occasion seeing him turn and lift a wonderful pass over the City defence in the 82nd minute as Karim Benzema tested Ederson in goal. A minute later he was darting back in pursuit of Bernardo Silva, ultimately producing an exceptional sliding tackle to win the ball back.

    Camavinga then played a vital role in Madrid's first goal in the 90th minute. His inch-perfect lofted pass to the back post allowed Benzema to turn the ball into the danger zone where Rodrygo was on hand to flick home.

    Rodrygo's second in quick succession forced extra time, and Camavinga helped bring about Madrid's crucial third. It was he who carried the ball over half the length of the pitch before finding the Brazilian to cross towards Benzema, who won the penalty from Ruben Dias.

    But he showed his value off the ball as well. His four tackles from 45 minutes on the pitch was bettered by only Federico Valverde (five) among Madrid players, and he played the full 120.

    His showing was another reminder of the supreme talent Madrid brought in last year and, for many it might've even been enough to earn a starting spot in the final.

    Both Camavinga and Rodrygo certainly deserve at least the chance to impact proceedings in Paris, but don't expect Ancelotti to lose faith in his preferred XI at this stage.

  • Champions League final: Flashback to Real Madrid's last European Cup final defeat in Paris… to Liverpool Champions League final: Flashback to Real Madrid's last European Cup final defeat in Paris… to Liverpool

    We've been here before. Saturday's Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid will be the third instalment of the two clubs tussling for European football's biggest prize.

    That will make this the most common European Cup/Champions League final contest in the competitions' collective history.

    There was Madrid's 3-1 win in Kyiv four years ago, and in 1981 Liverpool emerged 1-0 victors. And it is that Reds success many will be reminiscing about this week.

    The 1981 edition was the last European Cup/Champions League final that Madrid lost – their seven such appearances since then have all been won.

    To put that stat into context, no other team has won UEFA's elite competition more than seven times, yet Madrid have done so just since 1998.

    But given that defeat came to Liverpool and also in Paris (at the Parc des Princes rather than Stade de France, but still…), the focus on that occasion is likely to be a little greater this time around.

    La route de Paris

    The paths of Madrid and Liverpool to Paris in 1981 were significantly less long-winded than in 2022.

    With no group stage to traverse, the old European Cup went straight into a knockout competition and both sides enjoyed some one-sided scorelines along the way.

    Finnish club OPS were first up for Liverpool. While the Reds could only return home with a 1-1 draw, any chances of an upset were emphatically blown away at Anfield – Bob Paisley's men won 10-1, though it wasn't quite good enough to break the club's record for biggest European win: an 11-0 defeat of Stromsgodset seven years earlier.

    Little did Liverpool know that their next opponent would one day be the club's greatest nemesis. Alex Ferguson and Aberdeen faced the Reds in the second round, but once again Paisley's men claimed an emphatic win, going through 5-0 on aggregate.

    CSKA Sofia didn't put up much more of a fight as Liverpool beat them home (5-1) and away (1-0) as well. Bayern Munich did prove a tougher nut to crack in the semi-finals, but after a 0-0 stalemate at Anfield, a 1-1 draw in Germany ensured the Reds progressed thanks to the away goals rule.

    Madrid first crushed Ireland's Limerick 7-2 over two legs, before then seeing off Honved (3-0) and Spartak Moscow (2-0).

    Inter awaited in the semis and did at least become the first side to beat Madrid in the competition that season, but their 1-0 win in Milan was insufficient to send them through as Los Blancos' star men Juanito and Santillana had earned a 2-0 victory in the first leg.

    An underwhelming final

    It's fair to say the build-up to the 1981 final – played on this day 41 years ago – was rather less expectant than for this season's.

    Liverpool had struggled with injuries over the course of the season, with their fifth-placed finish in the league an indictment of their situation at the time.

    They had won each of the previous two First Division titles and would go on to win the next three as well, so 1980-81 was a particularly low ebb when it came to the extended competition of domestic football.

    As for Madrid, Vujadin Boskov's team were more renowned for being tough rather than silky, and they had just missed out on the Spanish title to Real Sociedad due to their head-to-head record – Los Blancos didn't get their next LaLiga crown until 1986.

    Similarly, this was hardly a Madrid side that was revered on the continental stage at the time. Of course, they had won the first five editions of the competition, but since that run between 1956 and 1960, their only other triumph had been 15 years earlier in 1966.

    The match didn't exactly surpass expectations as a spectacle, even if it proved a glorious night for Liverpool.

    There were few chances of note in a cagey first half and not many more after the break – Jose Antonio Camacho's chip did at least cause some worry for Reds fans, but he got too much on it as his attempt flew over.

    Another defender, Alan Kennedy, made no such mistake, however. The Liverpool full-back raced into the left side of the Madrid area, making the most of a failed clearance attempt by an opponent and smashed into the net from an acute angle with under 10 minutes to go.

    They might have picked Madrid off on the break late on, but their inability to do so didn't matter as the Reds were European champions for the third time.

    While that match was ultimately deemed an end of an era in some regards for an ageing Liverpool team, they weren't gone for long...

    A sign of things to come?

    This particular period was something of a golden era for English clubs in the European Cup. Liverpool's 1981 success was the fifth consecutive edition of the competition to be won by a team from England.

    The Reds had won their first European titles in 1977 and 78, before Nottingham Forest claimed back-to-back crowns – in fact, they were the fourth team in a row to lift the trophy at least twice in succession after Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Ajax.

    Aston Villa prolonged the English dominion in 82 and, although Hamburg were victorious in 83, the European Cup was back in Liverpool's hands again the following year – that would be the last English triumph until Manchester United's treble winners won the Champions League in 1999.

    It seems astonishing now, given how synonymous Madrid are with the competition, but it took them 17 years to reach another European Cup/Champions League final. That 1998 victory over Juventus in Amsterdam reignited the club's obsession, however, with six more titles arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu since the turn of the century.

    But Madrid arguably head into Saturday's showdown as the underdogs, with English football seemingly entering another era of domination.

    If Liverpool win, they'll be the third English team in four years to win the Champions League – it'll also be the first time since the 1980s that England has had back-to-back winners.

    Granted, English clubs threatened to establish a similar stranglehold over the competition earlier this century, with seven of the eight finals before 2013 containing a Premier League team, but such is the financial gulf these days, it's difficult to see the rest of Europe resisting for long.

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