This Saturday Cardiff will host the Champions League final. Much of the build-up has focused on whether Gareth Bale will feature in his home country, but while the Welshman has hogged the headlines, Real Madrid and Juventus have been studiously analysing every inch of each another. Finals are the home of fine margins.
“I like to watch videos at home, or when I’m away with the team, of the strikers that I’m going to have in front of me,” Sergio Ramos told Onda Cero’s El Transistor radio show this week.
He already knows one of his opponents this weekend inside out. Gonzalo Higuain spent seven seasons at Real Madrid before moving on to Napoli and Juventus, where he has showcased his lethal finishing ability. Ramos is certain to have passed on any crucial information about how Higuain likes to play to his teammates, but the other leading attacking talent in the Juventus side, Paulo Dybala, is harder to predict.
Forty-five of Dybala’s 46 Serie A goals have come with his left foot. In that sense it should be easy to guess what he’s going to do. And yet his diminutive presence can conjure up far more than a curling finish. The Argentine’s first touch can deceive, as can his range of passing, with his free-kicks bound to test Keylor Navas in the Madrid goal.
The narrative of this Champions League final is one of an organised team playing against a collection of unquantifiable talent. But the players that could make the vital difference ooze style and ease. Dybala, dual bands tattooed around his forearm, can thrill and excite, while for Madrid Isco is very much from the same strand of footballing theatre.
Amid the battle at hand, a more intricate and delicate contest will be played out. This is not Dybala versus Isco, of course, but these two players could have a telling impact beyond the more direct approach of Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo. They will occupy the pockets of space between midfield and attack, looking to find the killer pass in the final third or a chance to shoot.
Isco has spent the last couple of months giving his team greater control and influence in midfield, providing time for their dangerous wing-backs to get up in support of the attack and deliver crosses into the box. Dybala has added dynamism and invention behind a strike partner he has developed a compelling chemistry with.
Both are arriving in the Champions League final in great form, as are their respective squads. Domestic league winners as they are, Juventus and Real Madrid have shown that they are more than capable of holding their nerve and maintaining a level of consistency over a long campaign.
But it is during the fleeting moments of Saturday’s final where Dybala and Isco must display their calm and control. Often making the game look effortless, their season has reached its climax, where technique can only matter if coupled with decisive purpose.