Gareth Bale or Isco?
It is the only selection dilemma for Zinedine Zidane, but the most difficult call of all. Real Madrid’s record signing hasn’t played since injuring his calf in El Clasico on April 23, but has made himself available and will be fit to start the game if required. Yet the magnificent form of Isco in Bale’s place makes the Welshman’s place in the team far from secure. Zidane is hardly likely to bear where the final is being played in mind.
Nor too will Zidane cave into pressure to play one of Real’s stars, a good as indication as any that the Galactico era has been firmly consigned to the past. “It’s normal that there’s this debate, they’re both very important players and everyone can give their opinion but it’s not going to influence me,” Zidane said during one of his pre-match press conferences. “The most important thing is that everyone is available and prepared for the game.”
It is a wonderful ‘problem’ for any coach to have, but Zidane will surely lean towards the player fully match-fit and in form. Bale’s place on the bench will inevitably lead to rumours of a summer move to Manchester United, but there is no indication that he is unhappy at Madrid. Trusted by Zidane before, Bale can be both Real’s impact substitute in the final and a key player again next season.
Which Brazilian full-back comes out on top?
Has there been a better left-back in world football this season than Marcelo? Has there been a better right-back in world football this season than Dani Alves? Brazil might have been spoilt with Roberto Carlos and Cafu for the best part of a decade, but they must surely have the best pair in the world now too.
The form of Alves and Marcelo has surprised this season. Both were viewed as past their prime, and yet not only have they been among the standout performers for Europe’s two best clubs at the ages of 34 and 29, but been the driving forces too.
“I suppose it will,” joked Marcelo when it was suggested that his task would be to thwart his international teammate, but the truth is that neither has ever focused too much on their defending. If the evolution of the full-back into an attacking force is the biggest systematic change in the game over the last 20 years, Alves and Marcelo are perfect poster boys for the revolution.
Saturday’s final contains any number of one-on-one tactical battles, but Marcelo and Alves running at each other down the right flank might be the most absorbing of them all. If the latter can win his fourth Champions League final, he would surely pip Andrea Pirlo as the greatest free transfer of all time.
Does Buffon finally earn his crown?
The deification of Gianluigi Buffon has been building towards this moment. Dino Zoff and Lev Yashin may lay claim to the title of the game’s greatest ever goalkeeper, but Buffon is surely the finest of the last 30 years. Only Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio in the modern age could be considered as rivals for the greatest player to have never won the European Cup. Saturday could change all that.
Buffon is the most consistent goalkeeper in world football now. He was the most consistent goalkeeper in world football three, five and ten years ago. Nobody can rival his positioning, composure and shot-stopping in perfect harmony. If the role of a goalkeeper is to inspire confidence in those in front of him, nobody does that better either.
Real Madrid are not the gold-plated, glittery team of seasons past that stuck in the throat of many supporters, but there is still no doubting who are the people’s favourite in Cardiff on Saturday. That is down to the quiet magnificence of one of football’s greatest servants. If footballing karma exists, this is Buffon’s time.
Can Higuain rubbish his reputation?
In an age where extreme views sell, a player with 290 career goals at the age of 29 is labelled as a bottler. Gonzalo Higuain has scored four goals in 24 Champions League knockout games, and has picked up a reputation for missing chances in high-profile matches both for club and country. That’s an uncomfortable knack for the most expensive South American player in history.
“When Higuain is taking a crucial penalty or standing in front of the goal in an important game, and all he has to do is kick the ball straight, there’s a trigger mechanism and the ball flies up way over the bar,” says sports psychologist Phil Johnson, hardly making Higuain feel much better. “This is the sub-conscious brain in action, when the two hemispheres are not connecting.”
On Saturday, Higuain could finally put those accusations to bed. Two of those four Champions League knockout goals came against Monaco in the semi-final, and Higuain has scored 60 Serie A goals in his last two seasons. If he is a bottler, every side would like one.
No player in a Champions League final needs added incentives, but Higuain has more motivation than most to beat Real Madrid having been sold in 2013. Real chose to stick by Karim Benzema, a decision that has still not been proven as unqualified success. Score against his old club, and you should expect to see El Pipita go wild. No muted celebrations here.
Are we set for another Ronaldo coronation?
Heading into Real Madrid’s quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich, Cristiano Ronaldo was under some pressure. He had scored only twice in eight Champions League matches so far that season, and there were again doubts about his ability to halt the inevitable decline that comes with advancing years. At 32, could Ronaldo drag himself to peak performance in the biggest matches?
Well yes, probably. Ronaldo scored five of Real Madrid’s six goals against Bayern, before another hat-trick in the semi-final first leg against Atletico secured Real’s place in the final. Having converted from winger to all-round forward and all-round forward to remarkable target man, do not bet against Ronaldo making this his night again.
It is this battle that will be the most fascinating, the greatest goalscorer of the current generation against the best defence in world football. Football is increasingly no country for old men, and yet Ronaldo (32) will battle against Giorgio Chiellini (32), Leonardo Bonucci (30), Andrea Barzagli (36) and Gianluigi Buffon (39). If Ronaldo can again come out on top, it should be the crowning achievement of his career.