Saturday’s Champions League final may very well be decided by the full-backs – it was last year, after all. With both sides playing a 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 and both gameplans reliant on positioning all of their front three inside the penalty box, Liverpool and Real Madrid will each be looking to their talented, adventurous full-backs to provide width in the final third, while having enough nous to be ready to sprint back down their wing without missing a crucial half-step. It’s going to be a long, lung-busting day at numbers 2 and 3.
Michael Cox argued after last year’s edition of the greatest game in European football that after having to soak up early pressure from Juventus, it was Dani Carvajal’s performance down the Real Madrid right – and particularly his combination with Luka Modric – that turned the game and led to Zinedine Zidane’s side ending up as comfortable 4-1 victors.
The opposing wing-backs to Carvajal and Marcelo in that game were Alex Sandro and Dani Alves, two richly experienced players who at the time had claimed 11 league titles, seven major domestic cups, three Champions Leagues, two UEFA Cups and a Copa Libertadores between them. This time, with the Madrid full-backs both appearing in their fourth Champions League final in five years and having been victorious on all three previous occasions, their direct opposition will be Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.
On paper, it should be a bloodbath. Between them, 26-year-old Carvajal and 30-year-old Marcelo have amassed 613 appearances for Real Madrid alone; the equivalent Liverpool pair (aged 19 and 24) have racked up 136 appearances in all competitions for English top-flight clubs, and 63 of those came for Robertson at Hull in two seasons that both ended in relegation.
In about three years, Marcelo will return to Brazil but insist on being played as No 10, and he'll be the best No 10 in the league
— Michael Cox (@Zonal_Marking) April 25, 2018
Marcelo has more caps for Brazil (52) than Alexander-Arnold has made in all competitions across his entire senior career. Of the 736 players at the World Cup next month, there will only be between two and six players younger than Liverpool’s local right-back, depending on how the provisional squads for Australia, Nigeria, Panama and Poland shake out. The only one of those younger players with a realistic chance of lifting the trophy in July is France’s Kylian Mbappe. Most damningly, I’ve only just been able to stop mistakenly calling him Trent Alexander-Armstrong.
If this game had (bafflingly) been played at the start of the season, Liverpool fans would quite rightly be dreading the prospect of such an inexperienced pair starting in the club’s most important single game since 2007. Yet both Alexander-Arnold and especially Robertson have shown an ability not just to hold it together on the big stage, but to thrive.
Alexander-Arnold was man of the match in Liverpool’s 3-0 quarter-final first leg win over Manchester City last month and has been impressive enough to earn the distinction of being the only uncapped outfielder in Gareth Southgate’s England World Cup squad. Meanwhile, in possibly the most dramatic transformation since Sherman Klump turned into Buddy Love, Robertson has been exceptional since delivering a breakout performance in the 4-3 league win over the same opposition in January. Given the alternatives, you would be entirely credible in saying the Scot would be the player Liverpool would miss most from their line-up on Saturday.
Who would you rather have playing at left back in a Champions League final?
— Steven Chicken (@StevenChicken) April 28, 2018
It would be heartless to blame either Alexander-Arnold or Robertson if the occasion got to them, particularly given that Real have appeared and triumphed in Champions League finals with such regularity over the last four years that it is the psychological equivalent of a home game for them, despite the neutral venue. But by now, we have learned to expect the unexpected from the inexperienced full-back pair to the extent that it would now be more surprising if they failed to turn up for the biggest game of their careers.