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Way too early questions for Champions League final as Real Madrid face Borussia Dortmund at Wembley

The Champions League final is set, perennial contenders Real Madrid set to face off against surprise package Borussia Dortmund on June 1 at Wembley. What can we expect from this clash between the champions of Spain and a side who most expected wouldn’t even make it out of the group? Here are three key questions ahead of the final.

How to watch

Date: Saturday, June 1 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
Location: Wembley Stadium — London, England
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+

Will Madrid need their flair for the dramatic?

Here we are again, a Real Madrid side that hasn’t really profiled as one of the very best in Europe over the last 10 months still finding themselves right where they need to be come the defining night of the continental season. It is just what they do even if they rarely do so in the easiest of ways. Another side might have buckled under the late pressure from RB Leipzig. Many would never have been able to hold firm when Manchester City swung haymaker after haymaker in their direction for two hours at the Etihad. No one other than Madrid would have believed it was their manifest destiny to reach Wembley when a goal down to Bayern Munich, Europe’s masters of defensive possession, with eight minutes and added time on the clock.

This is just how Madrid do things. Except, surely they won’t need to at Wembley, will they? Make no mistake, Carlo Ancelotti’s men are prohibitive favorites, -350 in the early betting against a side that might not even make the top four in the Bundesliga this season (it is their Champions League excellence and that of their contemporaries in European competition that mean Dortmund will be back in the big time no matter what in 2024-25). BVB might have held firm against the likes of Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe but in the final they will face an opponent that does not tend to be quite so heliocentric.

Madrid can just give the ball to Vinicius Junior and watch him cook — it worked well enough to leave Joshua Kimmich a smoldering wreck in the Santiago Bernabeu — but they can grind teams down with their possession, exploit the predatory instincts of Rodrygo and Jude Bellingham or unleash a bench that always seems to offer different looks for Ancelotti. Pound for pound (and Madrid have spent a lot more of them), the Spanish champions are far better than their opponents. Indeed, would anyone in the Dortmund side displace their Madrid counterpart? Perhaps Ian Maatsen, Gregor Kobel if Thibaut Courtois is not back to full fitness by June 1.

The 14-time champions should win this handily and that fact, in and of itself, offers one a curious pause for thought. Madrid’s greatness in this competition post-Cristiano Ronaldo has been defined by their flair for the dramatic, continually finding themselves in spots where they are on the brink against teams they perhaps ought to lose to anyway. Can they cope with circumstances where everyone, probably even Dortmund players in their most candid moments, expects them to win it? Or are they just going to have to manufacture another underdog scenario for themselves? 

Can Dortmund ease the defensive pressure?

Borussia Dortmund wouldn’t have gotten this far were it not for the age-defying excellence of Mats Hummels, man of the match in both legs of the semifinal and the win in Milan during the group stages, and the defense he has marshaled. Nico Schlotterbeck looks like a man who has imbibed every lesson his veteran partner has to offer. Kobel has been the best goalkeeper in the Champions League this season.

Where the back three have led the rest have followed. Not just the full backs but those ahead of them, the triumph over Paris Saint-Germain all the more possible thanks to the diligence of Jadon Sancho and Karim Adeyemi, neither of whom were known as industrious wingers before they arrived at the Westfalenstadion.

Dortmund deserve praise for what they have done defensively but boy have they done a lot of it, even while still giving up an average of 1.7 expected goals (xG) per game. In recent years, most winners have made it to the final off the back of one of the best, if not the very best, defense in the competition. Think Chelsea in 2021 or Manchester City two years later. What neither of those teams had to do is ride the almighty cold streak that PSG displayed in front of goal in the semifinals. It had been five years of Champions League football since a team had put up as much xG as the 3.25 Kylian Mbappe and company registered without finding the net.

There is only so long you can live this dangerously for. Dortmund prove as much in the Bundesliga. That they sit fifth in the table is in no small part down to the fact that they have given up 50.9 xG across 32 games, a bottom-half return that is about two-thirds more than Bayern Munich or Bayer Leverkusen allow. Hummels, Schlotterbeck and Kobel have been excellent too in the Bundesliga but expand that sample size sufficiently and individual excellence can only get you so far. For all the industry that Emre Can and Marcel Sabitzer have displayed on European nights, there is not quite enough in midfield to stop the best of the best getting into shooting positions. Edin Terzic will have to find a workaround.

Who shuts down Kroos?

With a month to go, it might be premature to dive into the minutiae of this occasion. Terzic has two more games to hone his selection or lose players to injury, Ancelotti four. For the former in particular, there is such an abundance of riches that it is hard to know how he will set up his midfield. Federico Valverde, Eduardo Camavinga, Aurelien Tchouameni and Luka Modric are all battling for perhaps just as few as two spots in the XI. That is because if anyone seems like a lock for selection it is Toni Kroos, somehow hitting the prime of his career at 34. Though I suppose when your greatest qualities have always been between your ears it doesn’t matter that your legs have robbed you of any real propulsive force.

Anyway, Kroos did not really need to move forward in his second-leg masterclass against Bayern Munich. Dropping deep enough that he sat on the left side of a three-man defense in build-up, the German had all the time he wanted to take a touch, check where the space was and, quite frequently, drop a dime in just the right spot for Vinicius to go straight at Joshua Kimmich. On most occasions, it need not be a five-alarm fire when the sitting midfielder moves so close to his center backs. It should have been harder for Kroos, if nothing else the distances between him and his teammates were greater. But when you have the precision of the German you can create all sorts of problems for the opposition.

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Toni Kroos’ pass map in Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League semifinal second leg TruMedia

His positioning on the left of the backline seemed particularly deliberate. The obvious solution would be to get Dortmund’s right winger Sancho to deal with that but that makes it altogether easier for Vinicius to isolate Julian Ryerson. The combined efforts of Julian Brandt and Niclas Fullkrug might not be enough either given that Madrid will have a one-man advantage in their deepest line of three. Someone is going to have to go to Kroos though. Given space and time, he can apply a stranglehold to any defense, the sort that Dortmund cannot reasonably hope to survive for the hour or so the veteran has in his legs.

Quieten Kroos and they will at least have stopped Madrid’s most vital weapon in their build-up. Do the same to Vinicius, Valverde, Bellingham, Rodrygo and a few others and Dortmund might have something going.

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