A Song of Fire and Ice: Real Madrid vs Liverpool
If you are George RR Martin's solicitor, please ignore the title. This article is not a blatant ripoff of your client's work. How could it be? Each team has only three substitutions. Although the thought occasionally enters my head with certain players, I can't keep killing footballers willy-nilly.
And there are no Dragons here. Liverpool knocked Porto out in the Round of 16.
There, that's the disclaimer done. Now for the metaphor.
Real Madrid sit on their Iron Throne, of late, after conquering all who came before them in the last two seasons. Just as the balance of power was threatened from over the Wall in Westeros, Zinedine Zidane’s European hegemony is under attack from attacking creatures on the other side of the Chunnel. They come from a northern waste known as Liverpool. They're not all white, but they never walk alone.
Madrid’s empire has looked vulnerable this season, its nominal ruler performing an acute balancing act. A miserable winter in La Liga has been compensated by a third consecutive Champions League final. But this is not the same Madrid that won the previous two.
If imperious strength, durability to withstand, and a potent attack characterised the Merengues of previous seasons, they now tease this formidability. There are glimpses but Real are, to use a footballing cliche, ‘get-at-able’.
Zidane’s men were one goal away from elimination against Bayern Munich after conceding two at home. They hung on with all the alacrity of Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to quit the Labour Party pre-election. It’s not that Madrid were an immensely stoic, impenetrable unit before this season, but they look distinctly open this time around.
If there is anything that whets the appetite of their three-headed Cerberus of an attacking line, it is openness, space, room for movement, interchange.
Liverpool’s 4-2 defeat to Roma (6-7 aggregate win) was a game drunk on the inviting nature of space. You felt the Reds could have, probably should have, scored more. Instead, a worrying trend has crept into their game. They've been taking their foot off the gas, showing mercy, letting their enemies live. They need to rediscover their Targaryen ruthlessness.
Whereas Jurgen Klopp’s team are fuelled by fire, an explosion of attacking force, Zidane’s Madrid are cold, calculated and clinical. They take their chances when they arrive. They know how to kill off a game. You don’t claim back-to-back European trophies without being able to close out matches.
Given the frailties of both side’s defences this season and the attacking forces at play, conventional wisdom suggests this game will be laden with goals.
Sergio Ramos is prone to a reckless outburst, but the biggest concern this term is the absence of a permanent partner beside him. There is none of the steel that defined Ramos and Pepe’s relationship. Raphael Varane is a cultured centre-back but he has failed to demonstrate defensive consistency.
Liverpool’s worries linger. Despite the discernible improvements made since Virgil van Dijk's signing, they can be overrun. If the Reds had two of him, they’d be fine. Instead, they have a Dejan Lovren.
Despite evident weaknesses, Real remains imbued with the sauntering arrogance that only consecutive European victories can produce. They go into every game with an ice-cold mindset, believing they have won the game before a ball has been kicked. Liverpool won’t be daunted, or at least they claim they won’t, but Madrid are a unique proposition.
It fits then that the final will be played against a backdrop of Machiavellian politics. Ukraine is a proxy for Russian power. That freezing stare that has come to define Vladimir Putin finds resonance in the calmness of Los Blancos. The question is whether Liverpool’s fire will burn hot enough to melt Madrid’s ice?