Champions League final early look: Real Madrid or Dortmund?

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The 2024 Champions League final is set — 14-time winners Real Madrid will face 1997 champions Borussia Dortmund at Wembley on June 1 aiming to succeed Manchester City by lifting the trophy in London.

Madrid be overwhelming favourites with Carlo Ancelotti’s side having just clinched a record-extending 36th LaLiga title. In contrast, Edin Terzic’s Dortmund sit in fifth position in the Bundesliga, 24 points behind unbeaten champions Bayer Leverkusen.

Despite their poor domestic campaign, Dortmund have defied the odds to make it all the way to Wembley. They will be seeking to make it second-time lucky at Wembley after their loss against Bayern Munich in the 2013 final.

For Madrid, however, the motivation is the same whenever they reach the Champions League final: to stretch their already huge gap over the next-most successful club, AC Milan with seven titles, by winning it for a 15th time.

It will the first meeting between Madrid and Dortmund in a European Cup/Champions League final, so here’s the way-too-early preview of next month’s showpiece clash.

How the two teams got there

Madrid cruised into the knockout stages by winning all six games in Group C against Braga, Napoli and Union Berlin.

Ancelotti’s team, who last lifted the trophy in 2022 by beating Liverpool 1-0 in Paris, scored 16 goals and conceded seven in a routine group stage campaign.

Dortmund emerged as winners of Group F, with home and away victories against Newcastle United proving key to their success in sealing qualification from a group that also included Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan.

In contrast to Madrid’s free-scoring qualification from their group, however, Dortmund scored just seven goals in their six games, but kept it tight defensively by conceding only four goals.

Both teams have had to fight their way through the knockout rounds to reach the final, however.

Madrid secured a narrow, and at times tense, round-of-16 tie victory against RB Leipzig by progressing 2-1 on aggregate, before eliminating holders Man City 4-3 in a penalty shootout following a 4-4 aggregate draw.

And Madrid’s semifinal win against Bayern was pure drama, with two late goals from substitute Joselu sealing a 2-1 second-leg win at the Bernabeu, and 4-3 aggregate success. Bayern looked set for the final until Joselu scored in the 88th and 91st minutes.

Meanwhile, Dortmund benefited from being in the easier half of the draw, avoiding all of the tournament favourites, and started out with a 3-1 aggregate win against Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in the round of 16.

A 5-4 quarterfinal triumph over Atlético Madrid followed before Terzic’s team eliminated PSG with two 1-0 wins.

Who has the edge?

It has been a long time since Real Madrid went into a Champions League final as anything other than favourites but no team has been such heavy underdogs as Dortmund will be, perhaps since Liverpool faced Ancelotti’s all-conquering AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005.

That final 19 years ago turned out to be one of the most memorable of all time, with Liverpool fighting back from 3-0 down at half-time to beat Milan on penalties, so Dortmund certainly know where to look for inspiration at Wembley.

Madrid have the tournament pedigree. This will be their sixth final in 11 years — and they won the other five. Madrid haven’t lost a Champions League final since 1981, winning eight since then.

Dortmund have only won the Champions League once, in 1997, when Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team beat Juventus in Munich. Their only other appearance in the final ended in defeat against Bayern at Wembley in 2013.

So history is clearly on Madrid’s side, but they are also favourites because of the here and now.

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Burley: Dortmund deserve to be in the Champions League final

Craig Burley breaks down Borussia Dortmund’s 1-0 win over PSG, and explains why the German side deserves a place in the final.

Ancelotti’s team possess superstars in the form of Jude Bellingham and Vinícius Júnior, world-class players such as Toni Kroos and Antonio Rüdiger and experience throughout the squad.

Midfielder Julian Brandt is Dortmund’s star player, and they have top-class experience in Mats Hummels and Marco Reus, but they have also reached this stage because they have gambled on the loan signings of Jadon Sancho and Ian Maatsen from Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, and benefited from the astute signing of Marcel Sabitzer from Bayern.

Ancelotti will be chasing a record fifth Champions League title against a coach who has won just one trophy on his résumé — the German Cup in 2021.

Everything points to Madrid having the edge.

What are the teams’ strengths and weaknesses?

Only Man City (28) have scored more goals than Madrid (26) in this season’s competition, so the attacking threat posed by Ancelotti’s team is clear.

Vinicius, Rodrygo and Joselu have all scored five goals, while Germany centre-forward Niclas Füllkrug is Dortmund’s leading scorer with three.

Madrid can score goals, they have the ability to control games from midfield with Kroos, Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde. In defence, Rudiger has been arguably the outstanding defender in the competition this season.

But despite their many strengths, Madrid have conceded eight goals in six games during the knockout stages, so Dortmund will have chances to score. A big dilemma facing Ancelotti is whether to restore fit-again goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois following a season-long injury absence or stick with Andriy Lunin, the penalty-saving hero of the semifinal win against City.

Dortmund are all about work rate and the team ethic. Terzic has developed a team that is greater than the sum of its parts.

According to official UEFA stats, no team have made more tackles (207) than Dortmund and they also top the charts in terms of balls recovered (529). Dortmund also lead the way in tackles won (108) and clearances (251), while their six clean sheets is two more than the next best (Arsenal, Internazionale, Real Sociedad, Bayern.)

Dortmund are not free-scoring, so if Madrid take the lead at Wembley, it will be a test of their ability to create opportunities.

Key players and battles

Bellingham left Dortmund for Madrid last summer in a €103 million transfer and the England midfielder has already established himself as their most-important player.

Although the 20-year-old’s incredible early season form has levelled off, he has still scored 22 goals in 39 appearances in all competitions and registered 10 assists. His performances in his first season at the Bernabeu have marked him out as a leading candidate to win the Ballon d’Or.

Madrid have key players throughout the team. Rudiger is the rock of Ancelotti’s back-four while Kroos dictates the tempo with his unflappable temperament and passing range. The pace, skill and goals of Vinicius give them a cutting edge capable of hurting any side in the world.

Dortmund have relied on their team collective to reach the final, but 35-year-old defender Hummels has been outstanding at the back. The Germany international lacks pace, but his reading of the game ensures he remains a crucial element of Terzic’s team.

Brandt’s creativity, in tandem with the energy, composure and reliability of Sabitzer, give Dortmund strength in midfield, while Füllkrug offers an old-school threat as a classic No. 9 and his battle with Rudiger will be a fascinating sub-plot.

Sancho has rediscovered his best form on Dortmund’s right flank and given the team an unpredictable attacking threat.

Dortmund will need Sabitzer to nullify Kroos, and Hummels to keep it tight at the back when Real attack from all angles. From Madrid’s perspective, they need to ensure that they have a plan to counter Dortmund’s aerial threat at set pieces.

The fairy-tale ending?

Everyone loves a sporting fairy tale, right? Good, because both Madrid and Dortmund have players in their team who will complete a remarkable journey if they lift the trophy.

For Dortmund, it is all about Sancho rebuilding his career back at his former club after spending the first half of this season training on his own at Man United following a public dispute with manager Erik ten Hag. United loaned Sancho back to Dortmund in January, 2½ years after signing him in a €85m deal, with little expectation that the 24-year-old would end the season in a Champions League final.

But Terzic has coaxed Sancho back to his best and Sancho now has the chance to end what looking like being the worst season of his career with a winners’ medal.

The romantic story in the Madrid camp centres around Joselu, the two-goal hero of the semifinal win against Bayern.

Two years ago the 34-year-old former Stoke City forward watched Madrid beat Liverpool in Paris as a fan before signing for Espanyol later that summer, following the expiry of his contract at Alaves.

Despite Joselu scoring 16 goals, placing him third behind Barcelona‘s Robert Lewandowski and Madrid’s Karim Benzema in the scoring charts, Espanyol were relegated. But after losing Benzema as a free agent, Madrid bolstered their attacking options by signing Joselu on loan as cover for their more celebrated forwards.

Yet he now ends the season as a Madrid hero, one win from ultimate glory for Los Blancos.

Prediction

Everything points to Real winning their 15th European Cup/Champions League. It will take the performance of their lives for Dortmund’s players to overturn the odds. They have a fighter’s chance and will be backed by some of the most passionate supporters in Europe.

But Real Madrid are the kings of the Champions League, and it’s almost impossible see anything other than white ribbons on the trophy once again.

Real to win 3-0.

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