Four key battles that could decide the Champions League final

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MADRID, SPAIN - MARCH 08: Mohamed Salah of Roma skips a challenge from Luka Modric of Real Madrid during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Real Madrid and Roma at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on March 8, 2016 in Madrid, Spain.
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Caislin Boyle takes a look at which players will be crucial for Liverpool to overcome in the Champions League final.

With the Champions League final mere days away it’s time to look at the key battles that will help decide who wins the biggest trophy in European club football.

While the entire Liverpool team will have to be at their best to beat a Real Madrid team aiming for their third successive Champions League, certain battles will dictate the destination of the big-eared trophy. Here are my key battles:

Salah vs Marcelo

Zidane must be ruing the fact that both his full backs love to attack high up the pitch given Liverpool’s strength on the counter attack. Marcelo is particularly known for his regular dereliction of defensive duties, and we as Liverpool fans must hope he leaves space in behind within which Salah can thrive.

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Should he do so, Salah can undoubtedly add to his outrageous scoring tally this season, in a year where he averaged a goal every 91 minutes in the Premier League & Champions League respectively. Occupying a space so high up the pitch may also lead to risky attempts to play the offside trap, which proved hilariously futile in Madrid’s final La Liga game against Villarreal on Saturday.

However, Madrid will be preparing for this – the hope is that one of their midfielders will be instructed to cover the space vacated by Marcelo and/or Carvajal. That, in turn, will free up space in the middle of the park for our midfield to dictate play.

Whatever Madrid decide to do, Salah can single-handedly destroy the ‘Los Blancos‘ (with or without space). Let’s hope Marcelo’s marauding instincts pay dividends for the Reds.

Henderson vs Kroos/Modric

It may be unfair to pit Henderson against two supreme midfielders, but that is the reality facing our captain from the base of midfield.

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Kroos and Modric have been ever-present this season, featuring 9 & 10 times in the Champions League respectively. From a Liverpool perspective, their pass completion rate is a huge threat, indicative of their ability to control a game.

As with Salah, if given space to cause damage they absolutely can do so – Kroos has an average pass success percentage of 93.2%, with Modric on 89.6%. The only thing that can hamper those numbers on Saturday is extreme gegenpressing.

In this respect the onus is also on Wijnaldum and Milner, but the ultimate burden will lie on Henderson as Milner and Gini traditionally operate further forward. If Liverpool set up as they did in the second leg against Roma, Wijnaldum will have to help Lovren and Alexander-Arnold, who will be targeted as the alleged ‘weaker‘ side of the defence.

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If Henderson can provide an effective shield, this will relieve the inevitable pressure on the defence.

Van Dijk vs Ronaldo

The front three for Real Madrid remains the only mystery ahead of Saturday, with the remainder of the team seemingly clear. On Saturday, Madrid played Isco behind Bale and Ronaldo, but in the semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich, Benzema played alongside Ronaldo in a conventional 4-4-2.

My belief is that Isco will play behind Ronaldo and Benzema in a 4-3-1-2, with Bale an explosive option from the bench.

Irrespective of the lineup, our Dutch colossus will have to deal with Ronaldo. He has dealt with everything throw at him this season; since van Dijk signed, our defence has improved immeasurably – he heads crosses, barks instructions and has almost bulletproof confidence.

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He has been instrumental in a Liverpool defence which went from being the 6th worst in the league after the drubbing against Spurs to being the best during the remainder of the season. In the 29 games following that Spurs game, Liverpool conceded a meagre 22 goals. Van Dijk has been integral to that.

Yet Ronaldo is Ronaldo. He didn’t score in either semi-final but still has 15 goals in this year’s competition. He is a big game player and will want his name etched into Champions League folklore.

Karius vs Navas

Time for Karius to put the no.1 issue to bed. Both keepers have been dogged by accusations that they are not good enough, and Karius will want to demonstrate his improvement on the biggest stage.

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There will be an onslaught of Madrid pressure at some point and Karius will have to display the form that has seen him keep clean sheets in 16 of his 32 appearances, recording a percentage only bettered by Jan Oblak this season (amongst keepers with 30+ appearances).

Navas is a known weakness within this Real team, and most recently looked unconvincing in the first leg of the semi-final where Joshua Kimmich scored past him at his near post.

Liverpool will have their own spurt of pressure where Navas will be tested – Bayern Munich had a combined 15 shots on target over the two-legged semi-final. Halving that total to account for the one-off final, Liverpool may have 7+ shots on target.

Navas will not save them all – his oft-displayed weaknesses offer proof of that. This is a hugely exploitable area for Liverpool.

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