EUROPEAN football expert Mark O'Haire (@MarkOHaire) runs the rule over Saturday night's Champions League final between Juventus and Real Madrid.
Juventus v Real Madrid | Saturday 19:45 | BT Sport
The climax of the Champions League pits together the kings of Spain and the conquerors of Italy in what feels like a fitting finale in Cardiff.
There can be little doubt that Juventus and Real Madrid have been the best two sides on the continent this season and so there’s plenty to whet the appetite ahead of Saturday night’s showdown.
Scene-setting and sub-plots
La Liga clubs have claimed 11 of the past 18 Champions and Europa League crowns and defending champions Real Madrid are aiming to become the first side since AC Milan in 1990 to retain the title.
Los Blancos – playing in their third final in four years – are also bidding for only a second La Liga/ European double in 59 years whilst Welshman Gareth Bale will be hoping to play a part in his principality home.
The Spaniards met Juventus in the 1998 final, pocketing a 1-0 triumph thanks to Pedrag Mijatovic’s goal but the Old Lady are bullish about their prospects in lifting Europe’s most prestigious trophy for only a third time.
The Bianconeri arrive on the back of a historic sixth successive Serie A success and are chasing a unique treble for the first time in their star-spangled 119-year history; should they achieve the feat they’ll be only the second Italian club to do so after Inter Milan in 2009/10.
There’s also Gonzalo Higuain facing his former team as well goalkeeping great Gianluigi Buffon searching for the one elusive medal in his glittering trophy cabinet – should Buffon succeed, he’ll become the oldest winning player in the competition’s history, eclipsing Paolo Maldini.
Juventus' stats and team news
Juventus’ social media and stadium choreography claim, ‘it’s time’. The Old Lady haven’t been crowned as Europe’s best for 21 years but Max Allegri’s men arrive in their best possible condition.
Unbeaten in this year's competition, the Bianconeri are bidding to become the first side since Manchester United in 2007/08 to take top honours without losing a match and the Old Lady have won all of their knockout ties by three clear goals.
Juventus have shipped just three goals in 18 hours of Champions League action this term – only one of those three goals was conceded from open play – and Allegri’s charges have only been behind for only 39 minutes across their continental campaign.
The Italians are only the third side in history to silence Barcelona in back-to-back fixtures during the Champions League era, arrive having suffered only two losses in 29 across all competitions and have a full squad available for Cardiff.
Old Lady’s style
The Serie A side’s defensive prowess has been well documented but it’s Juventus’ tremendous tactical discipline, flexibility and control that marks them out as major dangers for Real Madrid here.
Following a dismal defeat to Fiorentina in mid-January, Allegri switched from a back three to 4-2-3-1, using Mario Mandzukic in an unexpected left-sided role. The Old Lady went on to win 10 games on the spin and were transformed from challengers to serious contenders.
Allegri return to a back-three against Monaco in the semi-finals to nullify the French outfit’s 4-4-2 and counteract their flying full-backs with a marauding wingback system that worked a treat on the counter-attack. How the Juve coach approaches the Dani Alves v Marcelo match-up will be fascinating.
The Monaco matches was further evidence that the Bianconeri have the ability to seamlessly transition between a range of systems but what’s often ignored amongst the many tributes towards the defence is Juventus’ balance, control and ability when in possession.
As well as Mandzukic’s obvious aerial threat, Paolo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain should ensure the vulnerable Madrid defence is kept honest throughout whilst the set-piece delivery of Miralem Pjanic is as good as any on the planet. And that’s even before the accolades arrive for Alves.
Real Madrid's stats and team news
Real Madrid have triumphed in 11 of their previous 14 Champions League finals and start here as slight favourites; Los Blancos will be keen to learn that only one pre-match favourite failed to deliver the trophy in the past seven seasons – Bayern Munich falling to Chelsea on penalties.
Zinedine Zidane’s squad have scored in each of their last 64 fixtures across all competitions and are the tournament’s top scorers having blasted 32 goals en-route to Cardiff. The capital club scored in all 12 of their continental clashes and also notched 106 goals during their victorious La Liga campaign.
Los Blancos have bagged 17 wins from their last 21 games and one of their two losses in that sample came against Atletico Madrid when they went through reasonably comfortably on aggregate anyway. Under Zidane’s tutelage, Real’s record reads a stunningly strong W64-D15-L7 – a 74% win ratio.
However, there are flaws in the armoury. Madrid recorded a sole shutout in 12 Champions League matches and actually fell behind in five of their six encounters in the knockout stages. The Spaniards also shipped 41 goals in La Liga – more than any other top-five side barring Sevilla.
Los Blancos' style
Whilst there’s justified scepticism as to whether Real are one of the great sides, it’s hard to dismiss their achievements on the road to Wales. Los Blancos ousted Atletico, Napoli and Bayern Munich, often out-gunning excellent opposition.
I remain unconvinced in Madrid’s approach; the lack of midfield control was apparent in both ties against Bayern before red cards changed the flow and in the return semi-final leg at the Vicente Calderon, Real were on the ropes until the away goal killed the contest.
The final third of the campaign saw Bale crocked but it allowed Zidane to bring Isco into the side, pushing Cristiano Ronaldo up alongside Karim Benzema. Isco has grabbed his opportunity, flourishing in his preferred role whilst also giving the group a more solid platform in a 4-3-1-2 structure.
Dani Carvajal has returned to full training but seems unlikely to be selected ahead of Danilo and Los Blancos’ insecure and sieve-like backline has to cause concern coming into this clash – even Legia Warsaw scored in their two meetings with Madrid so Juventus will fancy their chances going forward.
But an open, counter-attacking game should suit the Spaniards. Real will bid to overcome Juve’s renowned defensive guard with sheer explosive final-third power and their obliteration of the attacking stats – no side scored more, created more chances, landed more on-target efforts – suggests they’ll be capable of landing a blow or two.
As already mentioned, Madrid have been chalked up as slight 7/4 (Matchbook) favourites with Juventus available for support at 2/1 (Bet365). Based on the stats extracted from the two teams’ routes to the final, the value is actually with Real here.
During eight games against elite European opposition – Dortmund, Napoli, Bayern and Atletico – the La Liga winners returned a very strong 61% expected goals ratio (18.10 – 11.56).
Juventus’ path featured fixtures against Barcelona, Sevilla, Monaco, Lyon and Porto – not quite as tough as Madrid’s – and the Old Lady’s expected goals ratio across those 10 tussles was a reasonable – but far from flashy – 53.77% (12.48 for, 10.73 against).
Obviously we can’t be blinkered in our approach to the stats but what’s certainly clear here is, Madrid pack an almighty punch going forward and therefore it’s difficult to really oppose them at the prices on offer.
My hunch was to support Juventus with a +0.25 start on the Asian Handicap market at 8/11 (188BET) – making money should the Old Lady avoid defeat. But I’m going to swerve taking sides as reviewing the Monaco matches it was apparent the French champions deserved more and I just can’t envisage Madrid failing to fire.
With Real Madrid almost a guarantee to score this season and a defence that’s conceded against 16 of their 19 La Liga rivals, it wouldn’t be wrong to overlook the even-money (Bet365) available on Both Teams To Score.
This selection has paid out in 11 of Real Madrid's 12 games in the Champions League, each of the last six Champions League finals and, going back a little further, in nine of the last 11 curtain closers.
In fact, all 13 finals since 2003 have featured at least two strikes with 10 of those matches delivering BTTS profit whilst only one of the previous 25 European Cup/Champions League finals finished 0-0.
With the three 90-minute outcomes almost a pick ‘em job, the draw has to be considered as a strong runner – it's won in seven of the past 16 Champions League finals. And with three of the previous five requiring extra-time – two of which were decided on penalties – a repeat is well worth an interest at 5/1 (Bet365).
The 5/1 implies just a 16.7% chance of reaching spot-kicks but 11 (33%) of the previous 33 editions of this competition's final has ran its full course, including seven (29%) in the past 24 years since rebranding under the Champions League umbrella.
Both trends suggest there’s significant value in supporting the 5/1 on a penalty shootout settling the sides whilst the 11/5 (Coral) on a 90-minute draw is fair enough.
Man of the Match
Ronaldo, Bale, Isco and Dybala make up the first four in the market but Gianluigi Buffon’s prospects should require little introduction.
The Champions League crown is the only piece of silverware missing in the legendary cat’s cabinet and should Juventus seal the deal, a Man of the Match performance from the 39 year-old stopper would go hand-in-hand.
At 10/1 (Betfair), it’s as much a romantic punt as it is an intelligent play.