April and May were supposed to bring the soccer world an action-packed slate with the Champions League knockout rounds taking place and European national leagues drawing to a close. However, predictable outcomes proved disappointing to the beautiful game’s fans. There were no late-season comebacks in the national leagues and most of the favourites advanced in the Champions League.
Soccer fans will finally be treated to an exciting fixture on June 3 as offensive powerhouse Real Madrid takes on Juventus of Turin and their stalwart defensive corps in the Champions League final. Unlike previous Champions League contests this year, there is no clear favourite heading into the match; sports gambling sites have placed near-even odds for both teams to win while FiveThirtyEight, an industry leader in statistical analysis, actually forecasts this matchup as the tightest of any Champions League knockout game this season.
To fully appreciate the matchup, one must also look back at each team’s journey to the final. Real Madrid’s strength lies in their offensive line, composed of Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Cristiano Ronaldo. Historically, Madrid has had difficulties finding a sustainable balance, with a disproportionate emphasis on its offence. This imbalance can be partially attributed to the structure of the club: It is a registered association, meaning supporters own part of the organization and elect its president. In order to stay in power, presidents have incentive to please fans by blowing excessive amounts of money on high-profile, offensive stars, such as Bale and James Rodriguez, instead of improving each position to the same extent.
Halfway through last season, the typical volatility calmed as new head coach Zinedine Zidane took charge. His aura brought stability to the club and his experience allowed him to make hard decisions, such as rotating his starting 11. By benching his marketable superstars to bring on under-the-radar players, he has kept Ronaldo, Benzema, and Bale in top form while also allowing new faces like Alvaro Morato and Mariano to gain valuable first team experience. His impact was immediate, as Real Madrid won the Champions League six months later. They’ve enjoyed great success this season, too, winning three of four possible trophies—including the prestigious Spanish League title.
Juventus has also reaped the rewards of a sophisticated shift in attitude. The Italian side made the Champions League final in 2014-2015 but suffered a definitive 3-1 loss to Barcelona, epitomizing a crucial need for change. Since then, they’ve earned experience, changed their mentality, and adopted a smart transfer policy. The club sold Paul Pogba to Manchester United for a record-setting 105 million euros and used the funds to sign a multitude of talented players—including Gonzalo Higuain, Juan Cuadrado, Dani Alves, and Medhi Benatia—in his place. While the short-term marketability of the team has diminished, Pogba’s sale was a worthwhile sacrifice considering the highly-skilled supporting players that were brought in.
Apart from their recent upward trajectories, Juventus and Madrid are polar opposites on the pitch . Juventus finds strength in their defence—specifically the Buffon-Barzagli-Chiellini-Bonucci back line. This quartet has been together since January 2011 and has won six consecutive Italian Serie A titles, with their latest triumph occurring just weeks ago. The unit has guided Juve to the final by allowing just three goals in twelve Champions League games.
With such a sharp divide in strengths between the two sides, spectators will get to enjoy a classic struggle between the unstoppable force and immovable object. Besides, Madrid’s defence and Juve’s offence are exceptional in their own right against almost any team. In such a tight matchup, the difference could come down to health, where Juventus appears to hold an advantage when considering Bale’s discouraging ankle status. Nonetheless, his probable replacement—Francisco Suarez—is more than capable, and the Champions League finale will not be tarnished by one hobbled star.
The 2016-2017 season will come to an exhilarating conclusion on June 3 in what promises to be a breathtaking matchup between up-and-coming Juventus and the experienced Real Madrid