Premier League rivals Tottenham and Liverpool meet in an all-English UEFA Champions League final in Madrid on Saturday night, in what promises to be a high-octane climax to the European club season.
Liverpool are aiming to add a sixth top European title to their stacked trophy cabinet – but a first since they triumphed in the famous ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ in 2005.
Jurgen Klopp’s men were beaten finalists last season, losing 3-1 to Real Madrid in a game that will mainly be remembered for Mo Salah’s early injury, goalkeeper Loris Karius’ two howlers, and Gareth Bale’s stunning overhead kick.
German boss Klopp is hoping to break his unwelcome personal streak of six defeats in consecutive finals, while his players will be fired up to erase the hurt of one year ago in Kiev.
For Tottenham, few would have predicted they would take their place in the final at Atletico Madrid’s magnificent Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
They were on the verge of heading out at the group stage of this year’s competition with just one point from their opening three games, and famously came through a pulsating quarter-final against English rivals Manchester City before incredibly coming back from 3-0 down on aggregate in the second half of their semi-final second leg at Ajax.
For Spurs, victory in Madrid would be a first European Cup/Champions League title, to add to their two UEFA Cup titles (from 1972 and 1984) and Cup Winners’ Cup title (from 1963).
It would also be a first title for popular Argentine boss Mauricio Pochettino, who has had such a huge impact at the club since arriving five seasons ago.
But who prevails on Saturday night in Madrid will depend on the key battles all over the pitch. Here, we break them down for you.
ON THE FLANKS
In Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, Liverpool possess perhaps the most exciting full-back pairing in world football.
The marauding, all-action pair have racked up 28 assists between them across all competitions this season, and have been key to allowing Liverpool’s fabled attacking trident of Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane to flourish.
Robertson, 25, is tireless down the left, while Alexander-Arnold, 20, glides along the right with almost effortless ease. Both maraud forward relentlessly while also tracking back when needed.
Spurs possess two full-backs of distinction of their own in England internationals Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier, although the latter in particular has struggled at times to reach the heights of last season’s campaign – in particular his form at the World Cup with England.
The Spurs pair will likely be kept particularly busy with defensive duties, and will need to make sure that, first and foremost, they do not allow Robertson and Alexander-Arnold time and space in danger areas to deliver crosses that have led to so many goals for Liverpool this season.
BLUNTING THE TRIDENT
While Liverpool are dangerous on the flanks, their final incision almost inevitably ends up coming from one of their heralded attacking trident of Salah, Mane and Firmino.
Brazilian Firmino is a goal threat, but is just as likely to drop off and link play, meaning Spurs center-defensive pairing – likely to be Belgians Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen – will need to be most wary of Salah and Mane.
The Egyptian often ghosts in from the wing, to devastating effect, and has netted 22 Premier League goals this season and four in the Champions League.
Mane has been equally blistering, matching Salah’s tally in the Premier League and Europe.
Keeping those two at bay in particular will be crucial to Spurs’ chances of success.
THE MIDFIELD BATTLE
Spurs’ Moussa Sissoko has been key to driving his club the final, with the big Frenchman putting in some huge performances in the middle of the park.
He breaks up the play expertly and can drive forward with pace and power, causing havoc among the opposition.
How Liverpool cope with the Spurs lynchpin will largely depend on who Klopp deploys in the center of the park. It may well fall to Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson to control Sissoko’s threat, or one of Georginio Wijnaldum and Fabinho – although the latter is typically used in a deeper role to cover the backline.
Further up the park for Spurs, in Danish star Christian Eriksen they perhaps have the one type of player really lacking from the Liverpool ranks.
Eriksen glides around the pitch gracefully, picking his passes and unlocking defenses, but also chipping in with important goals – especially as a threat from set-pieces and long range.
Liverpool will need to shackle the Dane – likely through Fabinho – while at the same time keeping a firm eye on England star Dele Alli, who typically plays a similar role as a creative force, albeit with a little less free rein than his teammate.
THE KANE CONUNDRUM
The game in Madrid pits two of the game’s most respected, charismatic managers against each other as Klopp and Pochettino lock horns.
They are, of course, familiar foes from the Premier League, but Saturday’s one-off will test their tactical nous to the limit, as well as ability to draw every last ounce of energy from their team.
Klopp has the deeper well of talent to draw from, and with the exception of the injured Naby Keita, he has a full squad to call on as Firmino is said to have recovered from a muscle injury and is fit to face Spurs.
Pochettino faces a far bigger selection dilemma with his line-up, namely over whether to restore England star Harry Kane to the team after his return to fitness following an ankle injury sustained in the second leg against Man City at the end of April.
Kane has been in full training for a week, but questions remain over whether he can be risked to start a game that is likely to be full-throttle from the outset.
Returning the prolific Kane to the line-up would mean finding space somewhere, most likely by dropping either Lucas Moura or Sin Heung-min – a highly undesirable choice for Pochettino.
Both have been superb in seeing Spurs into the final, with Son the hero against Man City in the quarterfinals and Moura netting an unforgettable second-half hat-trick in Amsterdam.
How Pochettino deploys Kane could be key to the clash with Liverpool’s vastly improved backline, with central defensive pairing Joel Matip and the currently peerless Virgil Van Dijk set to be Klopp’s central defensive pairing.
It will take something special to circumvent a defense – marshalled by Van Dijk – that was the tightest in the Premier League this season, meaning Spurs’ selections up front will be crucial.
Pochettino has kept his selection cards close to his chest, but it would seem to make more sense to start with Son and Moura up front, hassling and harrying the Liverpool defense, before bringing Kane on later in the game when legs are wearier.
With key battles all over the pitch and on the touchline, it promises to be an intriguing night in Madrid.