Champions League Final Preview: Battle at Midfield – Part 1

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The Champions League final in Cardiff will be decided in the middle of the Millennium Stadium’s perfectly groomed pitch. A battle will take place between elite midfielders as Luka Modric and Toni Kroos stare down Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira. 

Of course goals win games, and the final will feature the best striker of all time on one side, and some very dangerous goalscorers on the other. But the midfield battle will be an epic undercard. Both Real Madrid and Juventus rely heavily on the collective talents of their central midfielders.  Let’s start with the recently crowned Spanish champions.

It’s easy to assume that Real Madrid’s success begins and ends with Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese Terminator scored his 100th Champions League goal in April and has been lethal heading into the final. But don’t let Real Madrid’s firepower upfront fool you. Despite all their attacking talent, Zinedine Zidane puts all his faith in Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, perhaps the two best central midfielders on the planet. The French manager’s go-to formation may look like an attacking 4-3-3 on paper, but it’s really a defensive-first 4-4-2 that asks Modric and Kroos to do what they do best: two-to-three touch football that dictates pace and stretches the field to a streaking Marcelo or Dani Carvajal. They take little risks, but have the freedom to play direct and at pace in front of an always prowling Casemiro. The Brazilian’s defensive responsibilities are so important tactically, that creative players like James, Isco and Asensio can only hope for the occasional cameo (Isco may start in Cardiff). With Gareth Bale out since April 23rd, Zidane has relied on this setup even more, especially in the Club’s most important matches. And the results speak for themselves. Plus, Zidane has the personnel to morph his 4-4-2 into almost anything he wants.

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Modric is world-class and he’s made his living by consistently exceeding expectations since taking over for Xabi Alonso. The Croatian might be the least flashy galáctico ever. He’s had two haircuts since arriving in Madrid in 2012, and looks more like a Night’s Watch extra on Game of Thrones than a millionaire footballer. His German counterpart is quite the opposite. Always sporting a fresh-cut, at times I wonder if Kroos even breaks a sweat during games. He’s a polished professional and an extremely accurate passer. Mistakes are almost completely foreign to him. He’s not an enforcer, instead the 2014 World Cup winner relies on zonal positioning and well-timed pressing to disrupt the opponent’s attack. Kroos can also pick a corner of the opponent’s net with the inside of his right foot with relative ease. The game seems very simple for him.

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Real Madrid could become the first team in the modern era to win back-to-back Champions League titles. If they win their 12th orejona on June 3rd, their Hollywood strikers will no doubt attract all the post-game flashbulbs. But it’s their midfield that has quietly led this team from behind the scenes.

Come back on Wednesday for Battle at Midfield – Part 2: Pjanic & Khedira take center stage.

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