What is the value of a manager? Every game Real Madrid play under Zinedine Zidane is a referendum as to what he does or does not do for the team. The latter stages of the Champions League are being used to find evidence of luck and favourable refereeing decisions in order to form an opinion on the Frenchman because nobody seems to have a definitive one.
You could replace Zidane’s name with Jurgen Klopp for that matter and it wouldn’t change. The latter even poked fun at the insinuation in the news conference before the Champions League final when he quipped, “Two coaches in the final who know nothing about tactics. What would that say about the game?”
At Real Madrid, there is a suggestion that the players don’t need to be told what to do but made to feel comfortable. At Liverpool under Klopp, it’s pretty much the same with a focus on energy and aggression. Forget the fundamentals of defending. The fundamentals of football are all that matter: score more than the opponent.
That’s why, while tactics and team selection have been given some thought ahead of the showdown in Kiev, most of the emphasis has been on the mental side of the game. Who has more hunger, who can control their emotions better, can Real Madrid keep dredging their innards as they muster the will to win and lastly, do Liverpool really feel like they belong here.
It’s not revelatory stuff to find out that elite football players are starving for success regardless of how much they’ve experienced in the past. But in the week leading up to the Champions League final, Real Madrid have been forced to explain why they are so successful in Europe. A lot of it comes down to being able to remain hungry as they forget the past. “I am never satisfied,” said Luka Modric in an interview with El Pais on the day before the game. “I always want more. When I do something, I want to do it in the best possible way.”
A similar question was sent Sergio Ramos’ way, and he responded by saying he didn’t think it was humanly possible for Liverpool to be hungrier than Real Madrid. “On Saturday,” he said, “we will leave our souls on the pitch.”
Zidane has a full complement to pick from and called up every player in the squad to travel to Ukraine in what has become a performative tradition of team unity even if he will have to leave some of them out. Zidane said he would have a headache picking the team and is not looking forward to the decisions that lie before him.
As far as those decisions go, if you were to rank Real Madrid’s players based on form, Gareth Bale would be in the top three. But this is not a simple algorithm and traditional logic does not apply. Karim Benzema needs to be inserted into any potential scenario and that affects everyone’s value and place within the team. That is provided Zidane still counts on him. One of Isco, Bale or Benzema will be left out and that’s the decision that will cause Zidane the most trouble.
It also seems as though an omission of Casemiro to potentially accommodate another attacking player would be a mistake by Zidane and seems unlikely given the problems caused by Marcelo’s absent-mindedness at the back and the focus that has been on him in the build-up to the game. The Brazilian defensive midfielder will have to have his peripheral vision finely tuned for Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino buzzing around him in search of space and an advantage. Zidane’s job is to fill those areas where the two tend to pop up.
The physiological side of the game will be seen in how the teams line up and how they go about trying to win. If Liverpool do feel, as some suggest, blessed to be in a Champions League final, then losing won’t seem all that bad. They can play with a devil-may-care attitude and you could argue that this is when they’re most dangerous.
Real Madrid, who have a milestone of epic proportions within touching distance, will have to double down on Ramos’ promise that they will leave their souls on the field because nothing else will do on the biggest night of the year in European football.
As Zidane and Klopp go out to try to end the debate over what they actually do on the bench, the winner could kill that chat abruptly. The loser, however, might be answering questions about his value long after the lights turn off at Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex on Saturday night in Kiev.