CL final tale of the tape: Juventus hold the narrowest edge vs. Real Madrid?
Saturday's UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff, Wales, pits the best two teams in Europe against each other for the continent's top prize, as Juventus and Real Madrid do battle. So which team holds the edge for this winner-take-all clash? Nick Ames break down the two sides and picks a winner.
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL: REAL MADRID 4-1 JUVENTUS
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There are few words left to describe Gianluigi Buffon, who is now in his 40th year and (surprisingly) still awaiting his first Champions League winner's medal. Putting that right on Saturday would crown a brilliant career in which he just gets better and better, his maturity and composure underpinning the competition's most uncompromising defensive unit.
Buffon has bailed Juve out with some crucial saves in previous rounds, too, particularly during rocky patches at the start of each half in the semifinal first leg against Monaco. Buffon has both the ability and personality of a winner, and should he prove that again in Cardiff, there will be few more popular men in the stadium.
It's no secret that Real Madrid will be looking for a goalkeeper this summer and that Keylor Navas may be on borrowed time. He has had a difficult season, and even when setting records at home and abroad for clean sheets in 2015-16, his face has never seemed to completely fit at the Bernabeu. Yet he is not preparing for a second Champions League final by accident: Navas's reflexes are among the very sharpest, and he has saved Real in a number of games by staying alert even when the team have dominated. If this is to be his last game for the club, or at least his final game as first choice, it would be the perfect occasion to remind everybody of his undoubted quality.
Juventus comfortably defeated Monaco while using a back three but have otherwise favoured a 4-2-3-1 of late. Whichever setup Max Allegri chooses, one thing should remain the same: Juventus have an outstanding defence, breached just three times in 12 Champions League games this season. It can play a bit, too.
Dani Alves, now 34, rolled back the years with two decisive performances on the flank as a wing-back in the Monaco tie; Alex Sandro, who will start on the left, was exceptional on the front foot, too. Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci are perhaps the world's best centre-back partnership, the latter particularly at ease bringing the ball out to start attacks, while the veteran Andrea Barzagli would add know-how if selected. Juve have unrivalled depth and quality at the back, but the number of chances they gave up to Monaco might offer Real some encouragement.
In sharp contrast to Juve, Real kept only one clean sheet in this year's competition -- during the semifinal first leg victory at Atletico Madrid -- and have often wobbled when put under significant pressure. They have an outstanding leader, though, in Sergio Ramos -- a centre-back who, like him or loathe him, would improve any side in the world and has a track record of scoring big goals on this stage. Raphael Varane, who has been in good form himself, will partner him.
At left-back there is considerable adventure in the high-tempo Marcelo, who is an indispensable attacking outlet and a prolific assist-maker, with more than any other La Liga defender over the past season; he was particularly integral to the quarterfinal win over Bayern Munich. On the other side, Dani Carvajal, another full-back who is at his best on the front foot, should start despite missing Real's last five games through injury. He is similarly important to the team's approach; it would be a gamble to select the relatively inexperienced Danilo instead.
Juve should line up with Miralem Pjanic partnering Sami Khedira in the middle. The 30-year-old Khedira, who has recently returned from injury, provides stability in front of the defence and calm, unflustered distribution; Pjanic is the more creative force and has a decent goal-scoring record, although he has not found the net since Jan. 9.
The Bosnian playmaker can sometimes be careless with the ball though, and Allegri was "very angry" with his reaction to a few minor mistakes in the victory at Monaco. He is a reliable supply line for the forwards, though, and will seek to combine with Paulo Dybala, who is nominally an attacker. If Juventus start with a back four, Dybala will play at the tip of the midfield three and seek to exploit gaps between the midfield and defence. Dybala is an explosive performer with a brilliant appreciation of space, and his two goals against Barcelona in the last eight put Juve forward as genuine contenders for this year's trophy.
Real's midfield three have exceptional balance and control. Casemiro, once deemed unlikely to make the grade at the Bernabeu, is the deep-lying metronome who holds it all together and allows those ahead of him to express themselves. That is something Luka Modric, who took command of what had become a tricky semifinal second leg at Atletico Madrid to run the midfield for the final hour, needs little invitation to do. It helps that the Croatia international, at 31, is playing some of the best football of his career.
Modric is such an instinctive, rhythmic player, and in a tense final, his influence may well be decisive. Toni Kroos is a capable accomplice and rediscovered his goal-scoring touch with two in the final three games of the La Liga season. Kroos has had a superb overall campaign, with his engine and passing range setting attacks in train from all over the pitch.
Edge: Real Madrid
Gonzalo Higuain has sometimes been regarded as a flat-track bully, and there was certainly pressure on him to deliver when he joined Juve in the summer for a mind-boggling €90 million from Napoli. But he has been excellent this season, scoring 32 goals in all competitions -- including the crucial pair that provided that unassailable lead at Monaco. He has missed big chances in finals before but looks mature now, and it would be no shock if he came good once more against the club he was so sad to leave in 2013.
To Higuain's left will be Mario Mandzukic, who has been the season's surprise package in a previously unfamiliar role. What Mandzukic lacks in fluidity he makes up for in work rate and defensive support; he is also an unselfish provider of chances and, as he has shown during his career, is no slouch in front of goal either. Assuming Juve line up in a 4-3-2-1, Juan Cuadrado will be the right-sided attacker. He gives the team a directness that is not always present elsewhere and is a mesmerising creative talent at his best, though he rarely scores.
Real will wait on the fitness of Gareth Bale, but with the Welshman well short of match fitness, it seems certain that Isco will start in a roaming role behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. That might have seemed like a problem several months ago, but Isco has been superb in recent weeks and played a big part in getting Real back into a semifinal tie with Atletico that threatened to run away from them -- even before his deciding goal. He dovetails effectively with both the midfield and the front line, and his carrying of the ball can relieve pressure.
Benzema remains a key component of the attack even if this has not been the most prolific of seasons for the Frenchman, but then there is the totemic figure of his partner in crime. Ronaldo does not quite have the explosiveness of old, but his eye for goal is virtually peerless; after his hat tricks against Bayern Munich and Atletico, he has now scored 106 Champions League goals. Even if he fades out of games for longer periods these days, nobody would bet against him adding to that tally on Saturday.
Edge: Real Madrid
Massimiliano Allegri is an impressive figure who has proved doubters wrong since replacing Antonio Conte in 2014. Three Serie A titles, three Coppa Italias and now a second Champions League final are testament to the work he has done in developing a squad that was already dominant domestically. Allegri is tactically flexible, as he showed in the semifinals, and cuts a calm and controlled figure both on and off the touchline. Juve could not have a steadier hand in charge.
There are those with an interest in Real Madrid who suggest the team succeeds despite Zinedine Zidane. The thought process is that a team this talented and battle-hardened couldn't flounder, but few can argue with the bare facts of their success since the former player took the reins a mere 17 months ago. He stands on the verge of winning a second successive Champions League title, to add to this season's La Liga trophy. Even if there really is an argument about the precise level of Zidane's managerial ability, he could hardly have done any more, and his status as a bona fide Real legend from his playing days also does wonders for the club's identity and image.
Edge: Dead heat
Might Juventus feel the pressure brought on by past failures? They have lost their last four Champions League finals, and although Bonucci and Buffon are the only starters from the most recent one (Barcelona in 2015) likely to begin Saturday's game, a number of other squad members, as well as Allegri, are still involved.
They also need to hope that Higuain, whose previous high-profile instances of the yips include a fluffed one-on-one in the 2014 World Cup final, is not affected by memories of previous near misses. This is not a problem that Real, with their two recent victories after that 12-year wait for La Decima, really have -- the winning culture in this fixture is already established, and Saturday's side will only differ in Isco's and Varane's positions from the 2016 victors. It is 21 years since Juve's last Champions League title and expectations are high.
Yet Real have (first leg against Atletico aside) not quite been as commanding as Juve so far in this competition. They will need to be tighter at the back than in previous games and may find their attacking shape compromised if Isco cannot get the better of Khedira in particular. The likely absence of Bale, a reliable match-winner, from the start may yet be important against their toughest opponents this season.
Edge: Dead heat
This looks likely to be the tightest of finals, with knife-edge variables everywhere you look. Juventus, who have purred through most of this Champions League and feel it is their time to rule Europe once again, arguably look a slightly better-balanced outfit across the pitch and will just about edge it.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.