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Sunday, 14 May 2017

Looking Forward to Juve-Real in the Champions League

You know what I just realized earlier this week, when I was going through my old blog posts? I failed, unaccountably, to write a post-match report on last year's Champions League final!

In my defense, it was a bit of bad scheduling on my part - I found myself at SFO on the day of the game, watching bits and pieces while waiting to get called to my gate for my flight to Buenos Aires. Then, when I did head to my gate, I kept up with things on my phone, and can now definitively report that if you ever want to ratchet up the tension of watching a penalty shootout, do it on the BBC's or the Guardian's minute-by-minute reports while waiting to board an international flight.

Also, let's be honest, what takeaways could there be from an almost note-perfect rematch of the 2014 final? Well, okay, loads - the fact that it was, as I say, almost note-perfect in how it played out. Sure, 2016 didn't feature three extra-time goals like the previous meeting, but morally it might as well have done.

Funnily enough we got another rematch this year, of sorts, though in the semi-final instead of the final. Real once again beat Atletico, this time over two legs, though Atleti gave their rivals a big scare in the second leg. This puts Real in its second final in as many years, and its third in four years, as well as its first time defending its title in the Champions League era (and its first time since winning it in each of the first five times the tournament was held).

They meet Juventus on 3 June, which also marks Juve's second final in the last three years. This makes it my home team's most dominant period in the competition since the late 90's, when it made the final three times in a row and won it once.

So what does this year hold? I'm obviously hoping for a Juventus victory, though I understand that Real Madrid probably have the odds in their favor. The bods at Wildstat.com aren't much help in their head-to-head ranking of the two teams' meetings: Juve has the slight edge over all, with 9 wins in 19 meetings, but Real has more experience winning this competition. In fact, Real's gotten to the final 14 times compared with Juve's 8, but once there has won the competition 11 times, whereas Juve's won it just twice.

Stats are maybe not the best indicators of future results, but they certainly give an indication of what's likely to happen, and my suspicion is that Real's going to win this one. As I said, they have more experience playing in the Champions League final, and more experience winning it. One need only look at 2014 and 2016 to see that even if they are held to a standstill in the regular 90 minutes, they always have enough left in the tank to win it in extra time or penalties.

I don't doubt that Juventus have that level of professionalism and energy, but I think that Madrid are just better at showing up for these kinds of games, and I also think that playing over one leg, rather than two, means Real will be on their guard to avoid slipping up. Moreover, comparing this match with Juve's previous appearance at this stage, against Barcelona in 2015, we're once again pitting one of the best attacks in Europe against one of the best defenses in Europe (if not the best).

That match ended 3-1 to Barcelona, and the Juve backline that night will likely still be playing on 3 June, though they'll each be two years older. That age, of course, hasn't stopped them from being the stingiest back line in this year's tournament, with three goals conceded all season (and a 3-0 shutout of Barcelona themselves over two legs). And Cristiano Ronaldo is also starting to slow down a little, though that's meant he's deadly in a different role than what he used to play - and he's still surrounded by an amazing forward line for Real.

And yet...

That slight edge does go to Juventus, with 23 goals for and 19 goals conceded. Will it be enough to win the tournament, or will Spain's dominance of the Champions League extend to a fourth year?

We'll find out in just under three weeks.