Wales’ premier venue, the Principality Stadium sees the action commence at 19:45, Saturday 3rd June.
The last mesmeric Champions League theme-tune of the season is due to echo throughout Cardiff’s Principality Stadium as Wales’ capital welcomes European football at its ultimate. The champions of Spain, Real Madrid, face the champions of Italy, Juventus, in a titanic clash to claim club football’s greatest trophy – The UEFA Champions League.
Real Madrid’s remarkable season could reach even greater heights as they attempt to consolidate their legendary status by becoming the first team in history to retain the Champions League and in the process attain a remarkable 3 European Cups in 4 seasons.
Manager Zinedine Zidane has already led his side to a first La Liga title in 5 years in his first full season in charge but the astronomical expectations at the club inevitably see claiming a 12th European Cup glory as a key objective.
Juventus themselves have once again established domestic supremacy and this campaign astonishingly became the first Italian side to ever win 3 consecutive league and cup doubles.
Known as the girlfriend of Italian football, Juventus have been the bridesmaid in Europe in recent times; losing their last 4 Champions League finals and agonisingly yearn for the opportunity to return to the European glory years of Giovanni Trapattoni or Marcello Lippi.
The wonderful occasion sees the competition’s most potent attack in Los Blancos versus it’s most resilient defence in the Bianconeri; this match truly is a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.
The 32 goals plundered by Zinedine Zidane’s men illustrates the team’s ability to break through defences – a skill that requires mastery to do so against Juventus.
In contrast, Massimiliano Allegri have astoundingly only conceded one goal in the tournament’s knockout stages (against Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe) and astoundingly just three times in the entirety of the tournament.
Route to the Final
Juventus topped Group H which contained Sevilla, Lyon and Dinamo Zagreb – finishing with a total of 14 points.
This saw Allegri’s men meet Porto in the last 16; comfortable dispatching the Portuguese side 3-0 on aggregate to move into the last 8.
The quarter-final stage was the point at which The Old Lady made the world take notice; outclassing Barcelona by not allowing them to even score – winning 3-0 in the first leg and comfortable resisting their advances in a 0-0 draw in the second to eliminate the tournament favourites and avenge the 2015 final defeat.
Monaco were the prize in the semi-finals but once again Juventus’ immense defence capabilities were on show – defying one of Europe’s most effective attacking sides and emerging 4-1 victors on aggregate – courtesy of Dani Alves’ brilliance.
Real Madrid found life a little more difficult on their path to club football’s greatest stage – coming 2nd to Borussia Dortmund in Group F alongside the eliminated Legia Warsaw and Portuguese Sporting CP.
Napoli were the first of the stern tests for Madrid in the knockout stages in the last 16 but Zidane’s men eventually overwhelmed the Italian’s with two 3-1 victories in a 6-2 aggregate win.
The competition’s most played fixture was next up; as German powerhouses Bayern Munich were the quarter-final opponents. After both 90 minutes matches ending 2-1 a piece; the match went to extra-time. Amidst controversy with refereeing decisions, Ronaldo added a vital hat-trick to his brace in the first leg to earn a semi-final berth with a 6-3 aggregate score-line.
For the fourth consecutive season, Real Madrid would meet local counterparts Atletico in Europe and would succeed in removing Diego Simeone’s men from the competition as they had done the three previous times before. Ronaldo once again exuded his dominating aura with a first-leg hat-trick in a 3-0 win; rendering the 2-1 reverse in the second leg meaningless and booking Los Blancos’ place in Cardiff.
Past European glories
Both sides have extreme pedigree when it comes to this competition and its previous formats.
3-time consecutive European Footballer of the Year Michel Platini scored the only goal in the 1985 final against Liverpool to lead Juventus to their first European Cup triumph – however the match itself was marred by disastrous off-field events.
The Turin side also claimed victory over Ajax in the 1996 final in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico; Ravenelli’s opener proved equal to tournament top-scorer Jari Litmanen’s equaliser and the Italian side won 4-2 on penalties.
The Old Lady have, however, been perennial underachievers in Europe’s elite competition, earning the unfortunate accolade of runners-up on no less than a record 6 occasions; in 1973, 1983, 1997, 1998, 2003 and most recently in the 2015 defeat to Barcelona.
Real Madrid have claimed European Cup glory an unprecedented 11 times, four more than any other team.
This success started by winning the tournament 5 consecutive times from its conception in 1956 claiming that year’s trophy, and in 1957, 1958, 1959 and 1960.
Los Blancos then claimed the 1966 trophy before a 32-year barren spell in the competition, beating no other than Juventus 1-0 in the 1998 final. This sparked a revival of European dominance for the Spanish giants, and saw them claim another two European cups in 4 years: the 2000 title against domestic rivals Valencia 3-0 at Stade de France before 2002’s triumph in a 2-1 defeat of Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park – a game remembered for (now Madrid manager) Zidane’s sublime match winning volley.
This left Madrid just one European Cup away from claiming the famous la decima, but it took an exhausting 12 years to achieve the monumental feat – beating local rivals Atletico Madrid in the tournament’s first one-city final 4-1 after extra time in 2014.
Last season, 2016, also saw the two Madrid sides do battle again for the crown – again Real were victorious, beating their neighbours on penalties after the game finished 1-1 after extra time.
Zinedine Zidane has a full squad of players to choose from but the main (and perhaps only) selection dilemma is whether Real Madrid’s record singing Gareth Bale will be allowed the scripted homecoming in Cardiff. The Welsh international is fit now but has been injured since 23rd April and faces firm opposition for his place in Isco – the Spaniard has scored 5 in his last 8 games and has been in scintillating form in the final stretch of the season.
Allegri also has a full squad to choose from; resting key players such as legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon, Mario Mandzukic, Alex Sandro and defensive duo Leonardo Bonnuci and Giorgio Chiellini for the season-ending match against Bologna on Sunday. Former Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira featured in that game and is expected to feature Saturday.
Players to Watch
It would be impossible to overstate Cristiano Ronaldo’s contribution to not just Real Madrid but to football as a whole. In an exhaustive list of accolades headed by 4 Ballon d’Or trophies, Ronaldo truly is one of the beautiful game’s greatest-ever players. His influence season on season is incredible with this campaign being no different – Madrid’s No.7 has been imperious in Madrid’s run to the Champions League final; a brace in the first leg v Bayern just the calm before his storm of consecutive hat-tricks in both the second leg against the Bavarians and then to tranquilise rivals Atletico in the semis. The 32-year-old is the tournament’s all-time record goal-scorer with an outrageous 103 strikes – currently 9 more than nearest rival Lionel Messi. The Portugal captain has also found the net 10 times and added a further 6 assists in this season’s competitions – a direct involvement of 16 goals more than any other player. It would take a brave person to back against the legendary forward to be the decisive factor on the big occasion once again.
Scarcely will you find a footballer so universally liked as Gianluigi Buffon. Aged 39 and still the world’s most expensive goalkeeper, Italy and Juventus captain Buffon is still one of the best in the business and produces commanding and inspiring performances game-on-game, year-on-year. Searching for the famous Champions League crown to complete his set; 2 UCL final defeats in 2003 and 2015, do nothing to tarnish his outstanding career – 8 Serie A ,4 Coppa Italia, 6 Supercoppa Italiana and a UEFA Cup alongside his 168 caps and World Cup crown for Italy cement Buffon’s place in history as one of the best goalkeepers and most consistent footballers in history. In what could be his last ever opportunity to do so, football would be the winner should we see Juventus and Buffon lift the Champions League.