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Far too early questions for the Champions League final when Real Madrid face Borussia Dortmund at Wembley

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Far too early questions for the Champions League final when Real Madrid face Borussia Dortmund at Wembley

The Champions League final has been announced, eternal contenders Real Madrid will face surprise package Borussia Dortmund at Wembley on June 1. What can we expect from this clash between the champions of Spain and a team we most expected not to even leave the group? Here are three important questions ahead of the final.

How to watch

Date: Saturday June 1 | Time: 3:00 PM ET
Place: Wembley Stadium – London, England
TV: CBS | Current: Biggest+

Will Madrid need their flair for the dramatic?

Here we are again, a Real Madrid side who haven’t really established themselves as one of the very best in Europe over the last ten months, but who are still exactly where they need to be on the decisive night of the continental season. It’s just what they do, even if they rarely do it in the easiest way. Another team could have succumbed to RB Leipzig’s late pressure. Many would never have been able to hold out as Manchester City swung haymaker after haymaker in their direction for two hours at the Etihad. None other than Madrid would have believed it was their manifest destiny to reach Wembley when Bayern Munich, Europe’s masters of defensive possession, conceded a goal with eight minutes and extra time on the clock.

This is exactly how Madrid does things. But surely that won’t be necessary at Wembley, right? Make no mistake, Carlo Ancelotti’s men are prohibitive favourites, -350 in the early betting against a side that may not even crack the top four of the Bundesliga this season (it’s their excellence in the Champions League and that of their contemporaries in the European competition meaning Dortmund will be back in 2024-2025 anyway). BVB might have been able to hold their own against the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé, but in the final they will face an opponent who is not so heliocentric.

Madrid can simply hand the ball to Vinicius Junior and watch him cook – it worked well enough to leave Joshua Kimmich a smoldering wreck at the Santiago Bernabeu – but they can crush teams with their possession and exploit the predatory instincts of Rodrygo and Jude. Bellingham or unleash a bench that always seems to offer Ancelotti a different look. Pound for pound (and Madrid have spent a lot more of it) the Spanish champions are much better than their opponents. Could someone in Dortmund’s side displace his Madrid counterpart? Maybe Ian Maatsen, Gregor Kobel if Thibaut Courtois is not fully fit again on June 1.

The fourteen-time champions should win this handily and that fact in itself gives one a curious pause for thought. Madrid’s greatness in this post-Cristiano Ronaldo competition has been defined by their flair for the dramatic, constantly finding themselves in places where they are on the edge of teams they should perhaps be losing to anyway. Can they cope with circumstances where everyone, probably even Dortmund players in their most candid moments, expects them to win? Or should they just create a new underdog scenario for themselves?

Can Dortmund relieve the defensive pressure?

Borussia Dortmund wouldn’t have gotten this far without the age-old excellence of Mats Hummels, man of the match in both legs of the semi-finals and the group stage win in Milan, and the defense he put in place. Nico Schlotterbeck looks like a man who has absorbed every lesson his experienced partner has to offer. Kobel was the best goalkeeper in the Champions League this season.

Where the back three have led, the rest have followed. Not just the full-backs, but those ahead of them. The victory over Paris Saint-Germain was made all the more possible thanks to the dedication of Jadon Sancho and Karim Adeyemi, neither of whom were known as industrious wingers before arriving at the Westfalenstadion.

Dortmund deserve credit for what they did defensively, but they did a lot of it even though they still conceded an average of 1.7 expected goals (xG) per game. In recent years, most winners have made it to the finals thanks to some of the best, if not the very best, defense in the league. Think of Chelsea in 2021 or Manchester City two years later. What neither team had to do was endure the almighty cold streak that PSG displayed in front of goal in the semi-finals. It had been five years of Champions League football since a team had posted as much xG as the 3.25 that Kylian Mbappe and company registered without finding the net.

You can only live so dangerously for so long. Dortmund also proves this in the Bundesliga. Their fifth place in the table is in no small part due to the fact that they have given up 50.9 xG in 32 games, a bottom half return around two-thirds more than Bayern Munich or Bayer Leverkusen allow. Hummels, Schlotterbeck and Kobel have also done very well in the Bundesliga, but if you expand that sample size enough, individual excellence can only take you so far. For all the effort Emre Can and Marcel Sabitzer have shown on European nights, there isn’t enough in midfield to stop the best of the best getting into shooting positions. Edin Terzic will have to find a solution.

Who will shut down Kroos?

With a month to go, it may be premature to dive into the details of this opportunity. Terzic still has two games to tighten his selection, otherwise he will lose players to injuries, Ancelotti four. There is so much wealth for the former in particular that it is difficult to predict how he will organize his midfield. Federico Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Luka Modric are all vying for perhaps two spots in the XI. That’s because if anyone looks like a marquee player, it’s Toni Kroos, who is somehow reaching the prime of his career at the age of 34. Although I suppose if your greatest qualities have always been between your ears, it doesn’t matter that your legs have robbed you. of any real propulsive force.

Regardless, Kroos didn’t really need to progress in his second-leg masterclass against Bayern Munich. The German dropped deep enough that he was on the left side of a three-man defense in the build-up and had plenty of time to tap in, look where the space was and, very often, drop a dime into the net. right spot for Vinicius to go straight at Joshua Kimmich. In most cases, it doesn’t have to be five red flags when the incumbent midfielder gets so close to his central defenders. It should have been more difficult for Kroos, because the distances between him and his teammates were certainly greater. But if you have the precision of the German, you can create all kinds of problems for the opposition.

Toni Kroos’ pass card in Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final

TruMedia

His positioning on the left side of the backline seemed particularly deliberate. The obvious solution would be to let Dortmund’s right winger Sancho deal with this, but that makes it much easier for Vinicius to isolate Julian Ryerson. The combined efforts of Julian Brandt and Niclas Fullkrug may not be enough either, as Madrid will have a one-man advantage in their deepest row of three. Someone will have to go to Kroos. Given space and time, he can put a stranglehold on any defense, the kind that Dortmund cannot reasonably hope to survive an hour or so of having the veteran in his legs.

Calm down Kroos and they will at least have stopped Madrid’s main weapon in their build-up. Do the same with Vinicius, Valverde, Bellingham, Rodrygo and a few others and Dortmund might have something going on.