This morning I tried to guess Real Madrid’s starting XI for the Champions League final on May 28, but everyone inside and outside of Madrid thinks they could guess manager Zinedine Zidane’s lineup and their specific positions without mistaking a single player. They might be right.
Keylor Navas, probably Real Madrid’s best performer this season after Cristiano Ronaldo, will indeed start in goal. Even though rumours still abound regarding the potential signing of David de Gea, it’s hard to believe the Costa Rican’s amazing campaign won’t be rewarded with more trust next season. Navas’ one-on-one saves kept Real Madrid alive in La Liga for most of Rafael Benitez’s tenure and then helped Zidane cut down the difference against eventual La Liga champions Barcelona. The keeper’s performances in Europe have been as consistent, with no goals conceded at the Santiago Bernabeu all season, and only two in the whole competition.
The back four positions also have clear starters.
Daniel Carvajal, deserved owner of the right-back position, has relegated the disappointing Danilo Silva to the bench. Carvajal has played over 2,200 minutes so far, something that looked unlikely when the Brazilian arrived to the tune of €30 million.
After a rough start, Pepe eventually earned the prerogative to occupy the right centre-back spot in the Champions League final. At 33, it looked as though his age was taking its toll, but an impressive run of form over the past two months shows that he can still be a force of nature against opposing strikers. Similarly, Sergio Ramos, whose hesitant displays at the beginning of the season made his contract extension look like a huge mistake, started to play at his best over the final third of the season. Neither Raphael Varane nor Nacho Fernandez has done enough to move off the bench.
Probably the starter with the biggest claim to his position in the back four is Marcelo Vieira. The Brazilian not only keeps improving with time but also has no real replacement on the bench. Whenever Marcelo hasn’t been able to start, both Benitez and Zidane had to improvise, using right-footed players such as Alvaro Arbeloa or Danilo. Even if Marcelo’s defending still can’t be totally trusted, the fact that the rest of the team knows him so well makes his concentration lapses less damaging than they were a few seasons ago.
In midfield, Zidane found the solution to the riddle right after the 1-0 defeat vs. Atletico Madrid at the Bernabeu. Just as Benitez had done, the Frenchman chose Casemiro as a holding midfielder and gave more freedom to Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. Benitez didn’t stick to this formation as much as he should have, but Zidane has used it often given injuries and suspensions. Real Madrid have won all 12 La Liga matches since Casemiro regained his starting position, conceding only nine goals. This defensive improvement should not hide Casemiro’s biggest effect: offense through Kroos and Modric now flows more easily than ever before this season. The Brazilian midfielder is probably the most difficult starter to replace at this point.
Off the bench, James Rodriguez and Isco are potential options if Real struggle, but the starting midfield trio is written in stone at this point.
Finally, the “BBC” (Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo) will no doubt occupy the front three positions. This has been Zidane’s preference since he took over — he’s started them every single time all three were available. Although injuries have limited their time together on the pitch, it seems that all of them will be ready and fit for the final. In the case of Ronaldo and Bale, they look as sharp as they ever have in a Real Madrid uniform. Benzema has had more physical issues after a couple of knocks, but his impressive scoring form this season makes him a safe bet to start.
Off the bench, Lucas Vazquez and Jese Rodriguez possess enough hunger to be able to have an impact if the match so demands.
As I mentioned earlier, if you ran a survey about the starting lineup among Real Madrid fans, most would recite this same group of players and would have similar ideas regarding the best options to replace them if necessary. That is Zidane’s merit: He has built a strong, empowered group of starters while keeping his second unit motivated enough in case they need to step up.
Even though there’s usually an adjustment to make here and there, an established lineup has been instrumental in every single successful Champions League campaign. But the question still remains: Will Zidane’s men be able to defeat Atletico, arguably the strongest side in Europe this season?