By Ron Shillingford
The Real Madrid-Juventus Champions League final is only a few days ago and the excitement and intrigue is building up.
It is in Cardiff at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, June 3 – the culmination of a four-day festival of football.
Real Madrid are on course to become the first team to retain the Champions League in its modern format.
The newly-crowned La Liga champions can win a historic double and end a magnificent campaign under Zinedine Zidane to win his fifth major trophy in only 18 months in charge.
They have a number of selection issues to decide from though, with Gareth Bale recently stepping up his bid to be fit in time to play in his homeland.
Isco has flourished in Bale’s absence, scoring key goals in the league and in Europe to drive them to the brink of another remarkable season.
But Gale is not even guaranteed a place on the bench. Ronaldo is leading calls for Isco to start against Juventus. The former Manchester United star feels Isco has warranted a starting berth and Bale should be benched even if the final is in Wales.
Sergio Ramos and Marcelo, influential figures at the club, also think the Spain international has impressed enough to deserve a place in Zidane’s side.
The trio are also still unhappy with Bale’s decision to play against Barcelona last month, despite being injured at the time. They feel he is cherry picking his appearances.
Bale had to be replaced early on as Real saw their La Liga title hopes dealt a blow, and has been sidelined ever since. It may be Bale’s last involvement with Real as he is wanted at Manchester United and they are prepared to pay any price to secure his signing.
Whatever happens, Zidane can etch his name into the history books with a cup triumph against his old side.
Real are firm favourites but Juventus head coach Massimiliano Allegri is playing mind games by insisting the Spanish side will win this showpiece.
The Italian champions will face Real two years after they lost to Barcelona under Allegri in the Berlin final.
Juve have had slightly less time to prepare as they concluded their successful Serie A campaign with a win at Bologna on Saturday, while Real wrapped up the Spanish crown on May 21.
Allegri has called for calm, however, telling a pre-match press conference: “We have to approach this week with great serenity, heading towards the game without anxiety.
“We must be optimistic but it does not seem fair to say that Juventus will be the favourites.
“Real are in their third final in four years and are used to playing in them, even though we have been there twice in three years. It will be a wonderful event and we deserve to be there.
“The boys have given their all and we go there with greater knowledge and conviction than we had two years ago, even though we are playing against Real and they are the favourites.
“Getting to the Champions League final gives me great joy, and I’m lucky to be able to sit on the bench in Cardiff on Saturday.”
Defender Giorgio Chiellini added: “We do not want to repeat the mistakes we made in Berlin.
“It is in my nature to try and take the positives out of every experience, even from the bad times.”
Gianluigi Buffon could become the oldest player to win the Champions League if Juventus triumph, eclipsing Paolo Maldini, who won the last of his five titles in 2007.
The Italian goalkeeper and Juventus captain is already the fifth oldest player to appear in the match, having featured in the Bianconeri’s 3-1 defeat by Barcelona in 2015, aged 37 years, 129 days. However, two years on Buffon – who will be 39 years, 126 days old on the day of the final – can surpass another Italian great, Maldini, should he captain Juve.
Maldini was aged 38 years, 331 days when he skippered AC Milan to victory against Liverpool in the 2007 final, the defender’s fifth triumph in the competition.
Regardless of the outcome in Cardiff, Buffon will become the second oldest player to figure in a UEFA Champions League final – a record currently held by Edwin van der Sar, who was aged 40 years, 211 days in Manchester United’s 2011 loss to Barcelona.
No team has won the European Cup in successive seasons since Milan (1989, 1990).
Because of their success in the Champions League in recent season, Real have many players used to this level. Dani Carvajal, Raphaël Varane, Ramos, Fábio Coentrão, Luka Modrić, Ronaldo and Karim Benzema started the 2014 final for Madrid, with Marcelo and Isco coming off the bench and Pepe an unused substitute.
In 2016, Madrid’s victorious final starting line-up included Keylor Navas, Pepe, Toni Kroos and Casemiro, plus Carvajal, Ramos, Marcelo, Modrić, Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema, with Danilo, Isco and Lucas Vázquez making substitute appearances. Kiko Casilla, Nacho and James Rodríguez were unused replacements.
Should Madrid triumph in Cardiff, it will be the tenth UEFA Champions League win for a Spanish side – twice as many as the next highest-ranked nation, Italy.
This match pits the season’s top scorers, Madrid, against a Juventus side who have conceded just three goals en route to Cardiff.
This match is a repeat of the 1998 final in Amsterdam, won 1-0 by Real Madrid against a Juventus side featuring current Merengues coach Zidane. That gave the Spaniards the seventh of their record 11 European Cups.
Juve have won the trophy twice, in 1985 and 1996, but have lost in the final six times – more than any other club.