Robbie Dunne reports from Spain as Zidane's side get set for a potentially historic final in Bale's hometown
Real Madrid aim to win their first league and European double since 1958 on Saturday when they take on Juventus in Cardiff in the Champions League final.
Despite the fact that there are questions about team selection, there is a sense of serenity around the team that is hard to attain and even harder to keep with a team full of world class talent. As the season draws to a definitive close on Saturday, Real Madrid’s ambiguous lead up to the game could hold them in good stead when Zidane and Allegri go toe-to-toe in the battle for supremacy on the tactical front.
Gareth Bale told Zidane he was fit and ready to start against Barcelona in El Clasico before a moment of Messi magic almost derailed their season long after Bale had been substituted early in the first half with a recurrence of his calf injury. Zidane, you feel, won’t risk the Welshman again despite admitting that he has “great hope of playing in his home town”. Zizou, unmoved by the wisdom of crowds and the general consensus will make up his own mind on Bale and it seems Isco will start the final.
“Bale doesn’t need to tell me he wants to play,” was how Zidane put it as the French manager once again proves he is a man on an island when it comes to upper echelon decision-making with titles on the line.
The only problem with Isco over Bale is that we saw in the quarter-final against Barcelona that the intricate and close-quarter passing that Isco excels at might not be enough to break down Juventus’ rock solid defence. The speed and explosive power of a player like Bale on the wing could highlight a problem for Juventus as the Welsh man has the ability to exploit the space vacated by left wing-back Alex Sandro, provided he is 100%.
If Zinedine Zidane is anything, however, he is both logical and learns from his mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes he made was playing Bale too much too soon when he returned from his initial ankle injury and while he scored against Espanyol on his return, frustration boiled over against Las Palmas as he kicked out at Jonathan Viera and spend the next two games suspended. With one last game to play in a season sullied by injury, Bale might be a little over-eager to impress in his hometown on Saturday night.
Another injury concern for Real Madrid is that of Dani Carvajal. He declared on Tuesday that he was 200% fit and while that sounds impressive, it hints at a player trying not only to convince the listeners but also trying to convince himself. The problem is that while Real Madrid are spoiled for choice in the debate over that third spot beside Benzema and Ronaldo, they have no direct replacement for Carvajal. Danilo should play in his place but that is a problem in and of itself with the Brazilian looking flaky at the best of times despite an improvement in recent weeks.
Max Allegri says his team should in no way be considered favourites and insists that the underdog tag is firmly placed on the Italians shoulders in the build-up to the final while also coaxing Zidane into playing Isco, stating he was more technically capable than Bale. Zidane, however, is more realistic and says that in a final, it can only be 50-50 and the two best teams in Europe are there on merit with the mind games ramping up.
Real Madrid tend to score early recently and that does a lot to force the opposition into changing tact. Juventus, however, are hard-boiled, seasoned veterans and will be keen to keep their sheet clean in the early going. Barcelona and Monaco failed to break Juventus down and had no Plan B to execute as they continued bang their head against the wall. If Juventus can keep it scoreless, then we will see the true depth of both Zidane’s bench and his tactical acumen with Bale, Asensio, Morata and James likely to be considered.
Zinedine Zidane says he knows how Juventus will play. Dani Alves will play in that free-wheeling way that he has made his trademark, Allegri’s very own BBC in Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini or Benatia and Buffon - he says they have plenty of lovely sounding acronyms to match Real Madrid’s BBC - will hold down the fort and their idiosyncratic front three of Mandzukic, Dybala and Higuain will be hoping for Pjanic to provide the supply.
Juventus and Real Madrid will be a showcase of footballing excellence and the tactics and decision-making of the two managers for either side, under the microscope, won’t be bad either.