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How will Real Madrid deal with Liverpool's 'Red Arrows'?

Match of the Day

Everyone is expecting more explosive attacking play from Liverpool in the Champions League final, but what we don’t know is how Real Madrid will try to deal with it.

Reds manager Jurgen Klopp is not going to change his team’s style of play or his 4-3-3 formation for Saturday’s game, and injuries mean he does not have many options in terms of different personnel either.

In contrast, Real Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane has some big decisions to make about who to pick in Kiev and what shape to play, but he will make them with the way Liverpool are set up in mind.

Zidane has had moments this season where his side have struggled but, especially in Europe, he has turned it around.

He has got Real to the final not by concentrating on one system to play with but by focusing, round-by-round, on the opposition’s set-up instead and each time finding a way to nullify their strengths.

By doing that, and changing Real’s formation depending on who they are playing, he has shown he is not a coach who just sends his team out there and tells them to do what they do, despite the brilliant individuals in his squad.

Likely Liverpool XI against Real Madrid in the Champions League final: Loris Karius, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Dejan Lovren, Jordan Henderson, James Milner, Georginio Wijnaldum, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino

Real have to outnumber Liverpool’s lightning front three

One of the pivotal battles will be down Liverpool’s right flank, where Mohamed Salah will be up against Real’s Brazilian defender Marcelo, who is the most attacking full-back in world football.

Marcelo creates so much for Real, but getting the best out of him without leaving his side exposed will play a big part in how Zidane decides to structure his whole team.

He has been cautious before against sides who try to play counter-attacking football like Liverpool – and he could repeat that approach.

Zidane might be thinking that if Marcelo is going to get forward, he can give his side some added protection by playing with an extra holding midfielder like Mateo Kovacic as well as Casemiro in a 4-4-2 – like he did in the second leg of their victory over Paris St-Germain in the last 16.

They would sit tight and allow Real to really go for it out wide, but the downside of that for Zidane is it means he potentially does not have room for Toni Kroos or Luka Modric in his team.

Real Madrid XI v PSG: Keylor Navas, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Mateo Kovacic, Lucas Vazquez, Marco Asensio, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema

Another option is the 4-1-4-1 shape that Zidane went with in the away leg of Real’s win over Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. If he does that again, he could put Casemiro in front of the back four to protect them because he knows how dynamic Liverpool are.

But he has to help his defence somehow because, otherwise, if Marcelo is going to go forward then he is leaving three at the back against Liverpool’s attacking trio of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane, or the ‘Red Arrows’ as I call them.

Liverpool have scored 40 goals in 12 Champions League matches this season – and Salah (10), Firmino (10) and Mane (nine) have scored 29 of them.

The biggest fear for any team facing Liverpool is that front three – especially Mane and Salah – are so quick that it doesn’t matter how good a defender you are, their pace will always cause you problems.

To cope with that, Real will have to outnumber them one way or another, depending on what system Zidane chooses.

Real Madrid XI v Bayern: Keylor Navas, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, Lucas Vazquez, Cristiano Ronaldo

Bale is key man if Zidane decides pace can hurt Reds

Liverpool have to get the balance right down their right too, of course.

Salah is always going to stay high up the pitch, but that leaves Trent Alexander-Arnold exposed at right-back.

If James Milner is fit to play then I would expect him to play further over on the right side of midfield so they can leave Salah upfield to exploit any space behind Marcelo, but have some protection for Alexander-Arnold too.

That might not be a massive issue because, depending on the team Zidane goes with, Real might not be as quick to break forward as Liverpool are.

They have got a lot of very technical players who are brilliant at keeping the ball but are not fast enough to hurt you on the counter-attack.

Things will be different if Zidane looks at Liverpool’s set-up and feels that pace is the way to hurt them.

Gareth Bale is the key man there because, if Liverpool commit men forward the way we know they do, there will be space behind them for him to exploit.

Asensio is very direct and runs with the ball very well but I don’t think he will get the nod in a big game like this, so it comes down to a straight choice between Isco and Bale.

And with Bale back in form in recent weeks – he scored five goals in Real’s final four La Liga games of the season, starting all four fixtures on the right wing – I actually don’t see how they can start without him in a game like this.

Real will get past the Liverpool press at some point because their players are so good, but the question is what happens when they do? If Bale is on the pitch, they will be very dangerous.

If he isn’t, then, up front, Karim Benzema is a great manipulator of the ball but he is not going to run away from anyone and the same goes for Cristiano Ronaldo, who is more of a penalty box player these days.

There is another way, without pace, if Real decide not to play out from the back and beat the press by going long to Benzema and Ronaldo instead.

But in that scenario I would expect to see Liverpool’s centre-halves – Virgil van Dijk and Dejan Lovren – win that battle nine times out of 10.

Reds look composed at the back, but will Ramos be run ragged?

Real Madrid XI v Juventus: Keylor Navas, Dani Carvajal, Marcelo, Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos, Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric, Isco, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema

The only other way I see Real lining up without Bale is if they play with Ronaldo and Benzema up front, with Isco behind them, and a three-man midfield of Modric, Kroos and Casemiro to protect their defence.

Even then Bale would still play a big part because, if Real are still in the game, Zidane can wait until the last half hour then send him on to really stretch things.

That could work, because the high-pressing game that Liverpool play means they do tire. There is no way they can do it effectively for 90 minutes.

Another issue I think will be crucial on the night is how Sergio Ramos handles Firmino, Mane and Salah – and how he reacts if he starts to get run ragged by them.

We know Ramos gets very frustrated – he has been sent off 24 times in his 13 years at the club – and the question will be whether he can stay on the pitch. It is another potential problem for Real.

These days Liverpool look a bit calmer at the back, and the partnership between Van Dijk and Lovren is working very well.

Don’t get me wrong, the Reds still look vulnerable defensively, but that is just down to the style of football they play and the number of players they commit forward when they attack.

The same could be said for Real, depending on the tactical decisions Zidane makes, which is what makes this game so difficult to call.

There are so many factors that could decide it and you could make a convincing argument for either team.

I think Liverpool will have to start well if they are going to come out on top.

They cannot win the game in the first half, but they have to put themselves in a strong position going into the closing stages, which is when they might tire and Real’s experience will tell.

Stephen Warnock was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.

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