By Martyn Herman
CARDIFF – Real Madrid’s irresistible attack slams into Juventus’s seemingly immovable defence on Saturday when the free-scoring Spanish aristocrats hope to become the first club to win the Champions League in successive seasons.
Cardiff’s iconic Millennium Stadium provides a fitting venue for a mouthwatering final full of delicious sub-plots, one of which could see Welsh wizard Gareth Bale make a triumphant return to the valleys of his birth.
Others include Juve keeper Gianluigi Buffon potentially becoming the oldest player to lift the trophy or Real coach Zinedine Zidane, twice a Champions League runner-up with Juve, contriving to break the hearts of those who once idolised him.
Centre stage, as he so often is, will be Cristiano Ronaldo, whose lust for goals has taken Los Blancos to within touching distance of a 12th European title after they took their 11th a year ago by beating Atletico Madrid.
Arrigo Sacchi’s great Milan side were the last to be crowned European champions for a second year running in 1990, but since the competition morphed into the Champions League that feat has proved beyond even the most expensively assembled teams.
Real, crowned La Liga champions for the first time since 2012 last week, are the favourites after banging in 32 goals in 12 games in the competition this season.
Ronaldo has scored 10 of them, and two more in the final would see him move above Barcelona’s Lionel Messi to top this season’s Champions League scoring chart.
The irrepressible Portuguese is the only player to have scored more than 100 goals in the competition.
But he still appears to want more.
“Too much humility isn’t good. We have to prove our character and who is the best,” Ronaldo said this week as he eyed a third Champions League triumph with Real to add to the one he secured with Manchester United in 2008.
“The final is won by scoring goals. I have the feeling that we are going to play a great game and we are going to win.”
He is not wrong about the goals: No Champions League final has ended goalless since Milan beat Juve on penalties in 2003.
Yet while Ronaldo’s infectious confidence will sweep through Zidane’s side, Serie A title winners Juventus are unbeaten in Europe this season and are going to their second final in three years having conceded only three goals.
Only Arsenal, in 2005-06, reached the final in more miserly fashion, conceding two goals before falling at the final hurdle against Barcelona.
No wonder Buffon, aged 39, looks like he could play forever, such is the strength of the defence Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri has erected and which Barcelona’s Gerard Pique described as a “mountain” after their quarter-final loss.
A 2006 World Cup winner with Italy, for whom he remains first-choice keeper, Juve’s grand old man Buffon craves a Champions League medal to add to his glittering array of silverware after twice suffering heartache in the final.
“If I’d already won the Champions League I’d be drained,” he said in a recent interview.
“The fact that I’m still to win it pushes me on.”
While Buffon bleeds black and white stripes, team mates Sami Khedira and Gonzalo Higuain once played for Real.
Khedira conquered Europe with Real in 2014 but never really cut it at the Bernabeu, while Higuain, despite scoring more than 100 goals for the club, is still looking for a Champions League medal.
They will be spurred on by facing their old club while former Barca full back Dani Alves, will not want for motivation as they seek to end Juve’s 21-year wait for the title.
Sadly for Bale, his role in this fairytale final looks like being of the cameo variety as he has yet to fully recover from the ankle ligament injury he incurred in November.
Livewire Isco is likely to get the nod in Zidane’s starting line-up, but if the scriptwriters get their way, the local boy will come off the bench to spark a fiesta the likes of which Cardiff has never seen before.(Reuters)