Holders Real Madrid aim to be the first side to retain the Champions League title as they collide with Juventus at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff next month.
The defending champions have been on a historic tear after winning the premier European competition twice in the last three years, and becoming the first club to successfully defend the throne will be a great addition to the historic feats the club have amassed.
Real won La Decima, their 10th European Cup/Champions League championship, in 2014 and lifted another last season. Italian club Milan, the next winningest team in the competition, have only seven. Barcelona, Real’s arch-nemesis, only have five.
To be clear, there have been teams who successfully defended their European championships in the past, but no side have been able to do it since the competition was rebranded as UEFA Champions League. Real Madrid (of course, who else?) won five straight from 1956 to 1960, followed by Benfica’s championships in 1961 and 1962. Ajax pulled off a hat-trick of championships from 1971 to 1973, then Bayern Munich won the next three seasons.
Milan won in 1994 and went to the final of 1995, but lost to Ajax, who also got to defend their title in the final of 1996 but lost to Juventus. The most recent club to get close to defending their title were Manchester United, who had a young Cristiano Ronaldo (now with Real), in 2008 and 2009. They defeated Chelsea in the final of 2008, but lost to Barcelona in 2009.
Real Madrid have secured a third Champions League final in the last four seasons, and are currently three wins away from winning their first La Liga title since 2012. They set a record of 40 games unbeaten earlier this year, and Isco’s strike saw Real score at least a goal for the 61st straight fixture.
In front of their vaunted attack is Ronaldo, who has 31 goals across 40 competitive games this season, including a Champions League-leading 10 goals. His hat-trick in the first leg against Atleti was actually his second of the season, as he also put three past Bayern Munich. With Ronaldo in the attack are Karim Benzema (17 goals), Alvaro Morata (20 goals) and a group of the best players that the world collectively call as the Galacticos. They are doing all these without former most explensive player Gareth Bale, who only has played in 21 competitive matches this season.
They also have a star-heavy backline that includes veteran Sergio Ramos, Ronaldo’s lifeline Marcelo, Daniel Carvajal, Nacho and a platoon of defenders that are good enough to start in other clubs but are just second-stringers in Madrid’s team.
But manager Zinedine Zidane played down the strengths of his club, claiming they are not the favorites in this titanic clash in Cardiff because Juventus’ all-around performance is not something to take likely.
“Real Madrid are absolutely not the favorites,” said Zidane, who once played and starred for Juve from 1996 to 2001.
“It’s very difficult to score against this Juve side,” explained Zidane. “The defence isn’t their only strength either. They have great players in attack too.”
THREE YEARS IN THE MAKING
Zidane can be understood for thinking his side are not better than Juventus, since the Italian giants are really the more terrifying squad in the Champions League this season.
Juventus, who are three wins away from winning their sixth straight Serie A title, are still licking the wounds from their 1-3 defeat to Barcelona in the 2015 final at Berlin, and their performance in the Champions League this season is giving proof to the ancient adage that wounded beasts get more dangerous as it suffers more.
They failed to bounce back from that loss and got kicked out in the round of 16 in the 2016 season, but Juve’s European campaign this term has been nothing short of fantastic, a vengeful performance that also put them on the path to win the Coppa Italia.
The Italians are unbeaten in the Champions League, and have won nine of 12 games they played. They clamped down on teams all season long, and have become the first club in the last 10 years to shut down Barcelona over two legs. They conceded a consolation goal to Monaco’s Kylian Mbappe in the semi-final, but prior to that they have been unbreakable for 689 Champions League minutes.
Juventus’ backline is famed for its unforgiving attitude, and their offense is now spearheaded by an in-form Gonzalo Higuain, who scored a double in their visit to Stade Louis in Monaco.
But even their veteran keeper Gianluigi Buffon knows their job is just halfway done. “We are in the final, but now reaching the final counts for nothing,” said the wizened 39-year-old stopper.
Max Allegri wants his men to try and win everything they could, because a year like this might be hard to produce again.
“Gigi is right, we are in the final and must try to win it,” Allegri echoed Buffon’s statements. “Hopefully this is the right year. I think Juventus have a very good chance of winning.”