LLiverpool-Real Madrid will be decided by the best margins, so it is good news that Jürgen Klopp has one of the best forward lines in Europe at his disposal. Whichever combination he chooses, it will be first class, but I think he will select one of the three forwards from Mohammed SalahSadio Mane and Luis Diaz.
Salah has unfinished business after being forced out early with a shoulder injury the last time these teams met in a Champions League final in 2018. That will be a powerful influence for a player who, after a long season, needs to find one last bit of energy in the hope of getting another trophy.
If you look at modern goalscorers like Salah or Son Heung-min, who shared this season’s Golden Boot, they’re not centre-forwards, they’re wide players coming out of the wings to score. Salah is a revolutionary who can activate it at any time and make a difference. When I saw him in the semi-final first leg against Villarreal, he was calm for 85 minutes, but in the five minutes when they won 2-0 he was fundamental. He’s like a PlayStation gamer: as soon as you hit the forward button, he just gets down to business.
Diaz has been doing very well since he arrived from Porto in January. He has brought a different dynamic to Liverpool’s attack and he should rightly start in Paris. The Colombian has the pace and freshness that will make him a threat. in Villarreal changed the game and you’ll be sure you can do the same on Saturday. The winger has pushed Mané into a more central role where he has been very impressive, scoring 13 goals since he returned in February from the African Cup of Nations.
Playing against Díaz could be better for Madrid than if Liverpool he used Roberto Firmino as a false 10, which would allow Mané to get back into a wide area and allow Salah to play even more in the preparation phase. Mané and Salah could be even more effective there, but I would be surprised if Klopp made a change for the final.
Liverpool can face a team that will happily sit deep and be compact, as they were against Chelsea and Manchester City at times. Liverpool will want to keep Thiago Alcântara fit because he is key in midfield when it comes to finding holes in defences. If Thiago can’t start, there will be more emphasis on getting players into wider areas. Jordan Henderson will open up more, Naby Keïta will try to get through the lines and Fabinho will be in that pocket protecting the defense.
If they sit deep, Henderson will look to create overloads down the flanks, allowing room for Trent Alexander-Arnold and Salah down the right. I think Liverpool will try to work on the flanks, but with Thiago they can also go through the centre. It would be a big mistake for them if he can’t play or is fit enough for just, say, 20 minutes. In this type of game, they need it.
Diogo Jota and Firmino have not let anyone down this season and could be poised for a crucial role. The two forwards have the ability to come off the bench and make a difference. In recent times we have seen how many great games have gone the distance, from the FA Cup Final to the England penalty shootout loss to Italy at Euro 2020. Substitutes can play an important role: if the score is 0-0, you need them to come in and open things up; if you are losing, you need to change it; and if you’re winning, you need the drive to keep going the right way.
Liverpool’s forwards have impressed all season, but their most important player is Virgil van Dijk. He is your most valuable asset. Salah, Mané and Thiago rightly get a lot of applause, but if I had to pick one player from the Liverpool team, it would be Van Dijk. He will need to be at his best because Liverpool will have to keep Karim Benzema quiet. when I saw Real Madrid at Chelsea, it was a one-man show by Benzema. He is the best player I have seen live in 18 months.
Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Casemiro in midfield will not want to get into a ground battle because they will lose. But Madrid will hope that their defensive structure will allow Rodrygo and, most likely, Vinícius Júnior to break the rhythm and turn Liverpool around.
When I have seen Real I have been very surprised; they lure you into a false sense of security where you think they’re not interested in or not in the game, but then all of a sudden they turn it on. I’m not sure if they can feel a bit of pressure and just shift gears, but it’s an amazing ability. They are not dominant for 90 minutes, but they do it when they have to. You can never rule them out.
Liverpool will not want to miss out on the Premier League for one point and continue with a Champions League final loss because that would turn a potential great season into a good one. Luckily for them they have players who can make a difference in Paris. It is up to them to rise to the occasion.