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Champions League: A grand finale of many contrasts

LiveMint logoLiveMint 31-05-2017 Pulasta Dhar

After 621 appearances and 293 clean sheets, he has won almost everything football has to offer: from the Uefa Cup to four Italian Cups and eight Serie A titles. Even a World Cup with Italy in 2006.

The greatest of modern-day strikers have found it hard to beat him, but the trophy with the big ears has—time and again—proved elusive for one of the greatest goalkeepers in football history. Gianluigi Buffon has not yet won the Champions League. It will be him against Real Madrid in a fitting finale in the last throes of his career.

But it’s not just Buffon and Real Madrid who will battle. Come 4 June, it will be a team which has scored the most number of goals (32) against one which has conceded the fewest (3) in the tournament.

An electric attack against a trip-wire defence. A skilful quartet of forwards against a trio of tough Italian defenders. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Gianluigi Buffon. Spain vs Italy. The team with the most number of Champions League titles against the team with the most number of runners-up medals. A team which is managed by Zinedine Zidane against one marshalled by Buffon—who was on the pitch when the French midfielder slammed his head into Marco Materazzi in the World Cup final in 2006.

Gianluigi Buffon. Photo: Alessandro Di Marco/AP

This time, Zidane will be in the dugout. Buffon will still be on the pitch. Zidane won it as a player in 2001-02 and is currently defending the title he won as manager last season. On both occasions, it was his first attempt at winning the Champions League with Real Madrid. But these titles came 14 years apart. As for Real, their 2013-14 win came after a 12-year wait. That’s how hard it is to win it.

That’s why no team has been able to defend their title in the Champions League era. That’s why, despite being at a top club, Buffon is still waiting to win his first one.

Both teams are on a high, having won the leagues in their respective countries. It is now time to decide the champion of Europe. Real Madrid, who had to wait 12 years after Zidane’s stunning goal led them to the title in 2001-02, have now appeared in three of the last four finals in a return to their powers of the past.

If they beat Juventus on Sunday night, it will mean they will not have lost a Champions League final in six attempts—a staggering record of converting finals into titles. For Juventus, it would mean winning it for just the third time. The last time they played the final was in 2015, against Barcelona, losing 3-1. But in the two finals they won, they beat the holders.

Since 1989, an Italian team has won the Champions League every seven years. History suggests it is Juve’s turn.

But for many, it will come down to wanting to see the combination of Zidane and Ronaldo lift the trophy once more, against wanting to see Buffon win it for the first time and become a real contender for the Ballon d’Or next season. No goalkeeper has won it since the legendary Lev Yashin and a glorious night on 4 June could well be the final chapter to seal the Italian’s legacy.

In the current season, Juventus have been impeccable. They have trailed in a game just once and are not just about their defence. Juventus are like transformers.

Against Monaco in the semi-finals, they changed their shape five times, and did it seamlessly. If Zidane knows how to keep big egos happy, then Massimiliano Allegri knows how to make his team shape-shift.

Juventus have kept teams second-guessing, whether it was plucky Porto, mighty Barcelona or the free-scoring Monaco. While Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema are big names, Juventus have their own attackers in Mario Mandžukić, Paulo Dybala and ex-Real striker Gonzalo Higuaín.

This is a Juventus team with hard-working attackers who have outsmarted some phenomenal teams on their road to the final.

Real Madrid’s problem is that they’re top-heavy—they have kept just one clean sheet in 12 outings. They’re also over-reliant on Ronaldo, who has scored eight goals across the quarters and semis. Real seem one-dimensional in the way they play—Zidane is not one to spring surprises. But it has worked wonders for them.

They’ve beaten Napoli, Bayern Munich and Atlético Madrid in the knockouts, scoring 16 goals in six matches. The sheer winning mentality in that team—right from the manager to centre-back Sergio Ramos—is their 12th man.

That said, this has been a tournament of goals—only two of the eight round of 16 matches saw less than four goals scored over two legs. But the gap in quality is reducing in Europe and it’s wonderful to watch.

Leicester City gave a fine example of their quality before bowing out to Atlético in the quarters by a single goal. Borussia Dortmund made the quarters once again but were blown away by the story of the Champions League so far—Monaco.

The French side have been magnificent to watch, with their bunch of young players showing us that playing with joy can still get you results. One of them, Bernardo Silva, has already been signed by Manchester City for £43.6 million (around Rs362 crore).

Kylian Mbappé went from a talented 18-year-old to the most wanted teenager in the world in the space of a season which saw him score six goals in nine Champions League games (26 goals, 14 assists in all competitions).

Atlético were once again undone by their city rivals in what is become an annoying undertone to their seasons. As for England’s uber-rich clubs, it’s now been five years since they won the Champions League—the last time was when Chelsea conquered Bayern Munich in 2012.

Champions League 2016-17 has certainly brought to the fore stars of the future. But come the final, it will be players like Ronaldo and Buffon—those who’ve dominated world football over the past decade—who will ascend the greatest stage of club football once again.

Pulasta Dhar is an I-League commentator and news editor (sport) at ScoopWhoop

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