Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff pits. The champions of Spain, against the champions of Italy in what will be a fitting finish to the 2016/17 season.
For Real Madrid, Dani Carvajal and Pepe are doubtful, but the biggest question looms over the fitness of Gareth Bale. Will Zinedine Zidane throw the Welshman back into the starting line-up immediately? Bale has not featured for Madrid since the 3-2 loss to Barcelona in April, and hasn’t completed 90 minutes since the 3-0 win over Alaves almost two months ago.
His alternative, and an in-form one at that, is Isco. The Spaniard has sparkled in recent months, scoring four times and laying on three assists in his last eight appearances for the club, leading many to believe he is worthy of a starting berth in the Champions League Final.
Juventus have few injury concerns barring the exclusions of Marko Pjaca and Rolando Mandragora, and are heavily boosted by the news of Sami Khedira and Daniele Rugani’s availability.
Real Madrid’s attacking front three of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo is synonymous with a 4-3-3 system, but with the Welshman’s inclusion from the start doubtful, Zidane’s unit could take on a slightly different look on Saturday.
Indeed, midfield general Toni Kroos publicly discussed his preferences when comparing 4-4-2 with 4-3-3, and many believe the former could be Zidane’s preferred system to start with.
Four players in the middle will help Real Madrid in central areas, allowing them to not only field an extra midfielder, but enable even more freedom for talisman Cristiano Ronaldo to roam wherever he chooses.
In a 4-3-3 system, Real look incredibly dangerous going forward, but would place a sizeable burden on whatever three central midfielders are named. The wide players would need to track back to cover Juventus’ dangerous attacking wing-backs, something Ronaldo is not suited to doing as he progresses through his 30’s.
There is, of course, a double-edged sword to opting for the four-man midfield. It would still require a solid defensive shift from the outer central midfielders in the diamond (likely Kroos and Modric) to ensure that Casemiro isn’t overloaded in his task of covering the attacking runs of Danilo and Marcelo.
Juventus are incredibly fluid tactically, thanks in part to Massimo Allegri’s cultured understanding of the game and the range of options they have across the park.
He could choose to start with a 4-2-3-1 if he hopes to play adventurously from kick-off, while at the same time have a reliable and balanced outfit, particularly with the striker-turned-winger Mario Mandzukic offering fantastic work rate from the left flank.
Though I suggested that Juventus would be numerically outnumbered by Real’s four-man midfield, this isn’t necessarily the case if Allegri wants to compress the midfield.
By playing narrower through the middle and asking Mandzukic and Cuadrado to tuck inside, it would create space for Juve’s wingbacks to push on aggressively. This would create a 4 v 4 centrally, or even 4 v 5 in favour of Juve depending on how deep Dybala chooses to drop into midfield.
Again, seeing as the beauty of football is that there’s no ‘correct’ way to play the game, there are downsides to this choice.
Downsides which could be potentially catastrophic for Juventus. The narrow midfield would create acres of space for the wingbacks to advance into, but would in turn leave Juventus’ centre-halves painfully exposed against Real’s front two in a 2 v 2 situation.
Juventus could compensate for this by fielding a back-three, something they will likely do if they want to sit back and soak up pressure to see out a favourable result.
In return, they would give up their numerical advantage in midfield and swap that to defence, where they would have the added presence of another centre-back (likely Andrea Barzagli) to track the dangerous movement of Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema.
This would create a direct 1 v 1 match-up on the flanks with only one set of strictly wide players for either side, and perhaps give Real a slight advantage in containing Paulo Dybala, who will have slightly less support in building up attacking play with one less player in midfield.
Overall, Saturday’s Champions League Final will place the best side from La Liga against the best side from Serie A. Though one manager is vastly more experienced than the other, Zinedine Zidane could walk away with his second Champions League trophy in as many seasons, while Massimiliano Allegri is seeking to go one better than his best efforts in the competition to date: a runners-up medal with La Vecchia Signora in 2015.