The Champions League final Saturday between Real Madrid and Juventus (1:45 p.m., Ch. 9) is the reason European competition exists — to match the best against the best. It’s the reigning European and newly crowned Spanish champion against the team that has won six consecutive Italian titles.
Madrid is, as always, an all-star team, with some of the biggest names in soccer at every position on the field. Juventus can’t match it for star power, but may have the more cohesive squad.
You can expect Real Madrid to have the ball for much of the game. The Spanish side is packed with offensive talent, beginning with striker Cristiano Ronaldo. In previous years, Ronaldo has played mostly on the left wing, but this season, coach Zinedine Zidane has moved him to a more central role. Alongside center forward Karim Benzema, and with either Isco or possibly a returning Gareth Bale playing out wide, Ronaldo will be constantly attacking the Juventus back line.
It should be a fascinating battle because the Italian champions have perhaps the game’s best defense. In 12 Champions League games this year, Juventus has given up only three goals. The “Old Lady,” as Juventus is nicknamed, has trailed for barely a half hour in all of its Champions League matchups.
At age 39, Gianluigi Buffon is into his third decade of being among the best goalkeepers on the planet. Center backs Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci will provide the toughest test yet for Real Madrid’s attacking superstars.
The true battle might be the one in the center of midfield, though, where both teams are accustomed to winning — and keeping — the ball.
Given the teams’ styles, Juventus is unlikely to follow the same plan in this game, and likely will play more of a counterattacking game. That means the onus will be on their midfielders to identify breakout opportunities without giving up meaningful space to the Real Madrid attack.
Similarly, though, the Madrid midfielders could be lulled to sleep by constant possession, and will have to work hard to get back into position when they lose the ball. If the don’t, the Juventus front line, with free-scoring Gonzalo Higuaín and tireless Mario Mandzukic, could punish them on quick-fire opportunities.
A victory would give Real Madrid its third European title in four years, but Juventus has the feel of a team of destiny. After six consecutive Italian titles for Juventus, only a European crown will do. Since the team’s last title in 1996, it has lost four finals, including the 2015 edition. If it can knock off mighty Real Madrid, Juventus surely will be deserving champions and take its rightful place among the European elite.
Those sort of stakes, with one dynasty pitted against another, is the reason the Champions League final is perhaps the most important club match of every season.
• Lyon did win the Women’s Champions League title, completing its near-perfect season, but Alex Morgan wasn’t on the field by the end of the game. The striker’s hamstring injury flared up after 30 minutes, and so she could only watch from the bench as her team beat Paris Saint-Germain on penalties. Nevertheless, her French season will end with three medals — one each for the league, cup, and Champions League — so it’s hard to see it as anything but a success for her.
• This summer’s top transfer saga will be that of Monaco teenager Kylian Mbappé, who is coveted by almost every team in Europe. Arsenal is reported to have bid $113 million for him. You can expect other teams to make record-breaking bids for the 18-year-old, who scored 26 goals for Monaco this year.
• Meanwhile, an arbitrator upheld Atlético Madrid’s ban on transfers for this summer, upending two heavily rumored transfers. Chelsea striker Diego Costa appeared to be all but set to go back to Atlético, but now will have to stay at Chelsea. Meanwhile, Antoine Griezmann, who appeared headed for the Manchester United locker room, decided he couldn’t leave Atlético in the lurch, and announced that he would stay in Madrid after all.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
NWSL: Kansas City at North Carolina, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Lifetime. After North Carolina, the reigning NWSL champions, started the season 4-0, many were penciling in the Courage for a playoff spot. Since then, NCFC has lost three of four and needs to get back on track. Kansas City can’t score — it has only five goals in seven matches — but its defense is excellent.
Friendly: Venezuela at USA, 9 p.m. Saturday, FS1. The all-important World Cup qualifiers come later in the week, with the United States aking on Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday and Mexico on Sunday. This, then, is the team’s one chance to warm up together. U.S. national team fans are desperate to see how the team will play, and whether it will be ready for Thursday.
U-20 World Cup: USA vs. Venezuela, 1 a.m. Sunday, FS2. The South Korean locale for these games makes them fit mostly for night owls and die-hards. But if you can manage the middle-of-the-night time slot, you can see the so-far-undefeated young Americans on the world stage. It has been 28 years since the U-20 team made it past this quarterfinal round.
MLS: Chicago at Orlando City, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1. These standings can’t be right. The Chicago Fire – long a laughingstock in MLS, a team known for starting slowly and ending even slower – in second place? The Fire’s four-game winning streak, in which it has outscored opponents 10-2, argues that it’s no mistake.