Karim Benzema is continuing to grow as a leader on and off the pitch after inspiring Real Madrid to the Champions League final, according to head coach Carlo Ancelotti.

The France international leads the scoring charts in this season's competition with 15 goals, which is just two behind Cristiano Ronaldo's all-time record in a single campaign.

That includes back-to-back hat-tricks in the knockout-stage wins over Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, and three goals across both legs against Manchester City in the semis.

Benzema is enjoying his best campaign yet in front of goal and will look to round off 2021-22 in style when Madrid face Liverpool in Saturday's final at Stade de France in Paris.

Asked what improvements he has seen in Benzema this season, Ancelotti said: "He has more personality and leadership now on and off the pitch.

"What has not changed is his quality, which is still top, and also his humility."

At 34 years and 160 days, Benzema is out to become the second-oldest player to score in the Champions League final after Paolo Maldini (36y 333d) for Milan – also against Liverpool in 2005.

The 34-year-old has happy memories of playing against the Reds, having opened the scoring in Madrid's 3-1 victory when the sides met in the 2018 final in Kyiv.

Marcelo, who was also on the pitch that day and is seeking an incredible 25th trophy with Los Blancos this weekend, has also been impressed by Benzema's leadership qualities.

"He has shown that [leadership], though it's not just been this season," Marcelo said at Friday's pre-match news conference. 

"His character and presence has helped the team a lot. He doesn't even need to talk for that. He plays great football for us."

Carlo Ancelotti believes the weight of history behind Real Madrid has pushed Los Blancos to another Champions League final.

Liverpool stand in the way of a 14th triumph at the highest level in Europe for Madrid, who have not lost in the final of the competition since defeat to the Reds in Paris in 1981.

The Stade de France will play host to Saturday's clash between Jurgen Klopp's Reds and Ancelotti's Madrid, with the Italian looking to lift the Champions League for a record fourth time as a manager.

Madrid's run in Europe this season has been packed with late heroics, having overturned a two-goal deficit to defeat Paris Saint-Germain and staved off a late Chelsea comeback to triumph in extra-time.

Los Blancos saved their best for the semi-final, though, Rodrygo scoring twice in the dying moments before Karim Benzema sealed a remarkable turnaround with an extra-time penalty against Manchester City.

While questions remain about whether Madrid will be able to pull off another result against Liverpool, Ancelotti insists his side are full value for their place in the showpiece game.

"We deserved to reach the final," he told a news conference on Friday. "Quality and talent is not enough. You have to combine it with commitment.

"The history of this club has pushed us to the final. To win the final you have to deserve it.

"We have to show our qualities, as we have done the whole season. The collective commitment has been great, with a lot of individual quality.

"Liverpool will be intense and direct, that's what they will propose. Whoever is able to show their quality will win."

Ancelotti has succeeded in three of his previous four Champions League finals as a coach, with the one exception when Liverpool completed a Madrid-like comeback to defeat a star-studded Milan on penalties in 2005.

However, the 62-year-old pinpointed that defeat, in which Milan were 3-0 up at half-time before losing, as his favourite European final he has overseen.

"Dreams can't be controlled. I have good memories of my finals. The final that was my favourite was in 2005 when we lost to Liverpool," he said.

"Anything can happen in a final and you have to be ready. We've prepared well and we're going to give the best we have. If it's enough, I don't know, because football has something that can't be controlled.

"The build-up is very nice, you have to enjoy it until the referee whistles the start. Then another story begins."

Ancelotti will perhaps be wished well by Liverpool's Merseyside rivals Everton, whom he managed last season before returning to Madrid for a second spell.

"The Everton fans will go with us. I have great memories. I'm sure they will support me tomorrow," he said.

As for his starting XI, Ancelotti suggested he has made up his mind but not informed his players who will make the cut.

"The line-up is decided, but I'm not going to say it. The players don't know it," he said.

Trent Alexander-Arnold has been impressed by Vinicius Junior in Real Madrid's run to the Champions League final, but says Liverpool have a plan to deal with the Brazilian.

Vinicius has been directly involved in 37 goals for Madrid in all competitions this season, a tally that includes three goals and six assists in the Champions League.

With those nine goal contributions, Vinicius is one short of becoming the first South American player 21 or under to be involved in 10 or more since Lionel Messi in the 2008-09 campaign.

While it may be Karim Benzema who is at the centre of much of the pre-match focus in Paris, Alexander-Arnold will be tasked with dealing directly with Vinicius down Madrid's left.

Asked ahead of Saturday's showpiece at the Stade de France how he intends to go about stopping Vinicius, Alexander-Arnold said: "You expect to come up against the best.

"There will be battles all over the pitch; we have game plans for everyone we face.

"As for Vinicius, he's an exciting player to watch, but we have a job to do as a collective and as individuals. There are individual battles, but it's the team that wins."

Alexander-Arnold is set to start his third Champions League final, which would see him surpass the record for the youngest to do so, held by Bayern Munich's Thomas Muller (23y, 245d). Alexander-Arnold will be 23 years and 233 days old on Saturday.

The England international has started 46 games for Liverpool this season – only Virgil van Dijk (50) and Alisson (53) have been used from the beginning more often.

 

 

The most recent of Alexander-Arnold's starts came in last Sunday's 3-1 win against Wolves, which was not enough to prevent Manchester City from pipping the Reds to the Premier League title.

Despite the dream of a quadruple being ended, Alexander-Arnold insists that loss will not linger over Liverpool in the French capital.

"Not at all. We've put that behind us," he said. "We have the experience this season to focus on the competition we have ahead of us.

"For us, we've found it useful to ignore other competitions. Whatever has happened before last week, yes it was disappointing and hard to take, but you put it behind you.

"We have a Champions League final to prepare for and what better way to make up for it by coming to Paris and an amazing venue to win the best competition in the world."

Andy Robertson will almost certainly be selected on the opposite flank to Alexander-Arnold, with the left-back himself playing a huge part in the Reds' latest European run.

Liverpool are playing their 63rd game of the season – no side in Europe's top five leagues will have played more – having gone all the way in winning the FA Cup and EFL Cup.

Indeed, the last side from across the Premier League, LaLiga, Ligue 1, Serie A and Bundesliga to play more times in all competitions were Manchester United in 2016-17 (64 games).

Madrid have played 55 matches, meanwhile, and sealed the LaLiga title with four matches to spare, allowing Carlo Ancelotti to heavily rotate in recent weeks.

But Robertson is adamant that fatigue will not be an issue for his side against the Spanish champions.

"They've obviously had a bit more relaxed preparation and wrapped up their league two or three weeks ago," Robertson said.

"They've maybe not played as many games and at a high tempo. We knew how hard our run was going to be on our bodies, but we're in the best possible shape.

"We've come through a lot and yes we've had injuries and problems, but the lads are fully fit. It's important we take the competitive nature of a tough season into the last game.

"Real have had a fantastic season winning the league and being in incredible games in the Champions League, they've been a joy to watch.

"We have to stand in their way. Our fans demand a lot this season and we want to win it for them."

Jurgen Klopp described Real Madrid as favourites to win Saturday's Champions League final as he challenged Liverpool to stand up to the Spanish giants' big-game belief.

Madrid are into their fifth final in nine seasons following a series of incredible comeback victories in the three previous knockout rounds.

Carlo Ancelotti's men trailed for 178 minutes in their semi-final with Manchester City, and were 5-3 down going into the final minute of normal time in the second leg, yet they still advanced 6-5 on aggregate.

That came on the back of a Karim Benzema-inspired comeback against Paris Saint-Germain in the last 16 and a similarly impressive recovery effort to see off Chelsea in the quarters.

Indeed, Los Blancos have trailed for 243 minutes in games in this season's competition – 21 per cent of minutes played – compared to 105 minutes in which Liverpool have trailed.

Liverpool are no strangers to digging deep, having already won two domestic cups this term with victories on penalties, and Klopp wants his players to focus on themselves.

"If you look at the history of the clubs and the way Madrid celebrate those comebacks, I would say it's them," Klopp said when asked who he considers the favourites.

"It's because of the experience. I want us to be on the same level in these kind of things. I want us to be completely ourselves in this game.

"If we are on the top of our game we are difficult to play. My main concern is for us to be ourselves and be confident."

Klopp was speaking at a pre-match news conference at the Stade de France on the eve of Liverpool's 63rd and final game of a gruelling campaign.

Saturday's contest will mark the third time Liverpool have faced Madrid in a European Cup or Champions League final, which is the most between two clubs in the competition.

Liverpool won 1-0 when the sides faced off in Paris 41 years ago, with that still the most recent of Los Blancos' major European final defeats.

The Spanish side came out on top in the most recent meeting between the clubs in the showpiece, courtesy of a 3-1 victory in Kyiv four years ago.

That was Klopp's third straight final defeat as Liverpool manager, but his side have since won five major finals in a row, including the 2019 Champions League against Tottenham.

Many pinpoint the loss to Madrid in the Ukrainian capital as a turning point in his tenure, though it was not as important as 12 months later when beating Spurs, in the view of Klopp.

"We delivered that night against Madrid [in 2018] and circumstances hit us," Klopp said. "We couldn't react and arrived on three wheels.

"Things happened. You have to learn to win. The boys developed in the last few years enormously. We are part of a massive club.

"The boys are exactly the right players for this club. People saw that different when I arrived. 2018 was important but 2019 was more important."

The Stade de France is a fitting venue for such a high-profile fixture, but the game was originally scheduled to be held in Saint Petersburg.

UEFA changed the venue in February following Russia's military invasion of Ukraine, and Klopp said his side are looking to perform for the people in the war-torn country.

"Until you ask me now, I'm only focused on the game. I'm happy the game is here for thousands of reasons, and it's a strange one," he said, after a pause to gather his thoughts.

"The war is still going on, and we have to think about that. It being not in Saint Petersburg is the right message Russia should get. Life goes on even when you try to destroy it.

"We play this final for all the people in Ukraine. I hope there are people who can watch it and we do it for you as well."

Jurgen Klopp said he "couldn't care less" about rumours linking Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich ahead of Liverpool's Champions League final against Real Madrid.

The Liverpool manager could be poised to lose one of the most significant players in his squad at the end of the season.

Mane said earlier in the week that he would give "special" news regarding his future after the European showpiece game in Paris.

That and his suggestion it would be "the best answer" sparked speculation he would agree to stay at Liverpool, but it may not be quite so clear-cut, with Klopp having palmed away questions on Friday rather than offered any assurance that the 30-year-old will remain at Anfield.

"This is the wrong moment to speak about that. Wherever Sadio plays next season, he will be a big player," Klopp said.

Bayern raided Borussia Dortmund for talent during Klopp's time with BVB in the Bundesliga, with Robert Lewandowski notably prised away on a free transfer at the end of the 2013-14 season.

With Lewandowski's Bayern future now in doubt, as he seeks a move, possibly to Barcelona, the Bundesliga champions are on the hunt for a goalscorer.

Klopp said: "Sadio's in the shape of his life for sure. He's in brilliant shape. It's a joy to watch him at the moment.

"Football has asked him a lot this season – an incredibly long season, a lot of finals and this kind of things, one of the most successful for him and for us.

"The Bayern Munich rumours, I couldn't care less in the moment. We are all fully focused on the game. Sadio's completely focused on the game; he knows exactly how important it is to him and how important it is to us.

"So no concerns, completely normal."

Klopp said he could cope with the speculation surrounding Mane, who has helped Liverpool win the EFL Cup and FA Cup already this season.

The forward has played 50 clubs games this term, scoring 23 goals, as well as helping Senegal reach the Africa Cup of Nations final, scoring the penalty that clinched shoot-out success.

"It's not the first time in my career before decisive games that Bayern Munich rumours come up," Klopp said.

"I'm not exactly [sure] what I did that [means] it happens, but no problem at all."

European club football's main event is almost here, with two bona fide giants of the game set to face off at the Stade de France on Saturday.

Either Real Madrid or Liverpool will be crowned champions of Europe in Paris; whichever team manages it will be providing their fans with a glorious end to a tremendous season.

Of course, Madrid did what Liverpool could not on the domestic front, as Los Blancos head into this game as LaLiga champions – the Reds ultimately missed out to Manchester City on the last day of the Premier League campaign.

But this has still been a successful season for Jurgen Klopp's side, who could yet claim a treble having already lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup in England.

It promises to be an immense spectacle, with Opta's pre-match facts highlighting the wealth of footballing greatness that is set to be on display.

The history

Much of the build-up to this match has centred around two separate narratives of "revenge" relating to the 2018 Champions League final meeting between these two.

The first obvious desire for retribution comes simply from the fact Madrid won 3-1 in Kyiv – the other surrounds Mohamed Salah, whose match was ended early on that occasion after a collision with Sergio Ramos.

Either way, if Liverpool – and Salah – are to have their vengeance, they'll need to contend with Madrid's astonishing record: they have won each of their previous seven Champions League/European Cup finals.

To put that stat into context, no other team have even won the competition more than seven times, let alone won in seven consecutive final appearances.

But if you're looking for omens, answer this: who last beat Madrid in a European Cup/Champions League final, and where was it played?

Liverpool, in Paris (1981)…

The managers

For about 24 hours, Klopp had joined an exclusive list of managers who had reached the European Cup/Champions League final four times.

But then Carlo Ancelotti's Madrid pulled off their third great escape in as many knockout ties, meaning the Italian would set a new record for the most final appearances as a manager in UEFA's flagship competition.

But the historic achievement he'll no doubt be craving is still up for grabs.

Victory on Saturday will ensure Ancelotti is the first manager to lift the trophy four times, having won the competition in 2003, 2007 and 2014.

But here's another omen. The only club to beat an Ancelotti team in a Champions League final? That's right, Liverpool in 2005.

Nevertheless, Klopp doesn't have a particularly encouraging record against Los Blancos. He's faced them nine times in the Champions League, with his 33 per cent success rate the worst among teams he's faced at least three times.

The danger men

It would be fair to bill this match as something of a Ballon d'Or shootout.

Certainly, ahead of Saturday, the favourite is Karim Benzema, and with good reason. The France striker has enjoyed an incredible season and been central to Madrid's route to the final – he has scored 15 goals, two behind the all-time record for a single Champions League/European Cup campaign.

What helps make that such a remarkable achievement is the fact he would become the second-oldest scorer in a Champions League final (34 years, 160 days) after Paolo Maldini (36 years, 333 days) if he does net in Paris.

Madrid will likely need to keep the vengeful Salah in check, however.

Since the start of the 2017-18 season, the Egyptian has 44 Champions League goal involvements, a tally bettered only by Robert Lewandowski (55) and Kylian Mbappe (47).

If Liverpool are successful, Salah will surely become the frontrunner for the Ballon d'Or – unless Sadio Mane, who has scored three in his past four Champions League games and won the Africa Cup of Nations, has a decisive impact.

The prize

Liverpool are bidding to join Milan with seven European Cup/Champions League crowns, the second-most in the competitions' collective history.

Of course, the only team with more than seven are Madrid. Victory for them will take them to 14 titles, remarkably twice as many as any other club, a fact that really highlights their obsession with the competition.

Either way, a behemoth of European football will enjoy another memorable occasion in Paris on Saturday.

But if it's Liverpool who succeed, it'll be difficult to look at this as anything other than the early stages of English domination in the Champions League, given Premier League teams have won two of the past three already.

Jurgen Klopp is expecting both Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho to be fit to feature for Liverpool in Saturday's Champions League final against Real Madrid.

The two key midfielders were doubts for the Reds heading to Paris this week.

Thiago hobbled out of the final match of the Premier League season against Wolves with a calf injury, while a hamstring complaint means Fabinho has not played since the win at Aston Villa on May 10.

However, Klopp offered a positive update in his pre-match news conference on Friday.

"The mood is good, very good," the Liverpool manager said. "We're really excited about being here now, getting a feeling of the stadium, the location. That's all good.

"It looks good for both Thiago and Fabinho. Fabinho trained completely normal; Thiago trained yesterday with the team, will train today, and then we will go from there."

Liverpool are unbeaten in the nine games they have played this season without either Thiago or Fabinho in the starting XI, although they have drawn three of those matches.

The pair have appeared together in the line-up 20 times in 2021-22, contributing to an outstanding 17 wins.

Teams from Belarus and Ukraine will not be drawn together in future, UEFA has announced.

European football's governing body has already banned Russian sides from appearing in its competitions following the country's invasion of Ukraine.

The role of Belarus in facilitating this invasion also prompted sanctions for Belarusian teams.

UEFA had already decided no matches would be played in Belarus and supporters of Belarusian teams would be banned from attending nominal home games.

And in a further move announced on Friday, UEFA said it would prevent sides from Belarus and Ukraine from meeting in future competitions.

"The UEFA Executive Committee will remain on standby to convene further meetings to reassess the legal and factual situation as it evolves and adopt further decisions as necessary," a statement read.

Meanwhile, UEFA's rules relating to coronavirus for the upcoming Women's Euro 2022 were approved.

Any players who contract COVID-19 or "who have been anyway put in isolation" will be classed as "cases of serious illness", meaning they can be replaced in their nation's squad ahead of the first match of the tournament.

Regardless of what occurs on the pitch at the Stade de France on Saturday, the 2021-22 season will have been a good one for Real Madrid.

Even if they are ultimately left with only the Spanish top-flight title to show for their efforts, there's an argument to be made that Carlo Ancelotti has defied expectations in his first campaign back at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Given the important losses of Raphael Varane and Sergio Ramos coupled with the fact only two new players were incoming, it would've been understandable if fans were less demanding than usual in their pre-season predictions.

After all, Ancelotti was seen as a safe pair of hands rather than someone who was going to come in, shake things up and preside over a philosophical overhaul – and looking back over the course of the season, he's been the perfect appointment.

Of course, the turmoil at Barcelona helped Madrid's cause, while Atletico Madrid's title defence fell flat early on. For a while Sevilla looked to be the only challengers to Los Blancos, but given they ran out of steam in the previous campaign, it's unlikely Ancelotti and his team will have been unduly worried by them – they ended up scraping a top-four spot.

As composed and dominant as Madrid were at LaLiga's summit, fans, pundits and journalists alike did go searching for potential weaknesses, or reasons for the chasing pack not to give up hope.

One area that appeared to be brought up more than most was rotation and the risk of burnout.

Full steam ahead

Between the start of the season and the end of December, six Madrid players had featured for more than 1,400 minutes in LaLiga. There are no surprises in this list: they would be considered the majority of the team's core players.

In the same period, only Espanyol (seven) had more players feature for at least 1,400 minutes in LaLiga, but they didn't also have Champions League football to contend with. Sevilla had three players meet the criteria; Barcelona had two and Atletico Madrid just one, goalkeeper Jan Oblak. 

Similarly, Madrid named the same starting XI three times in LaLiga this season. While that doesn't sound a lot, only Celta Vigo, Getafe, Athletic Bilbao and Osasuna have done so more often.

It's clear to see Madrid have relied on a bigger group of core players than their rivals, and as such concerns about fatigue appeared astute earlier in the season.

But here we are, right at the end of the campaign: Madrid won LaLiga with four games to spare and are preparing to play in the Champions League final – and their route to this stage has relied on the ability to laugh in the face of fatigue, with Los Blancos coming back from the brink three times.

In that sense, you have to praise Ancelotti's squad management. Whether their lack of injuries has been by design or a fluke is difficult to speculate about, but there's clearly an element of Ancelotti swiftly establishing his preferred XI and then only wavering from it when absolutely necessary.

And when he did have to look elsewhere, there's no doubting who his favourites were.

Rodrygo and Eduardo Camavinga have come off the bench 23 times each across all competitions this season, the joint-most in the Madrid squad.

Granted, it's not as if they're two hopefuls promoted from the academy – both were expensive additions to the squad. But the frequency Ancelotti has turned to them as substitutes shows his belief in them to either carry out his instructions or make a difference.

Nowhere was that clearer than in the latter stages of the Champions League. Five of Camavinga's nine appearances in this season's competition have been in the knockouts, while Rodrygo has come off the bench four times in Europe since the turn of the year.

The latter has, understandably, taken a lot of plaudits in the second half of this season. He scored the vital aggregate equaliser against Chelsea, the brace that flipped the City tie on its head, and was inspirational off the bench away to Sevilla in the 3-2 win that essentially wrapped up the title.

Before the turn of the year, Rodrygo appeared to be struggling for relevance at Madrid. There will have been some wondering if he had a long-term future at the club, but he knuckled down after Christmas and has become a genuine weapon, seemingly embracing the fact you can still be decisive even off the bench.

On a per-90-minute basis, he heads into Saturday's game ranked fourth at Madrid for open-play chances created (1.4) and goals (0.34), joint-second for assists (0.34, behind Benzema on 0.35) and third for shots (2.4). He's beginning to show his worth.

Ancelotti's choice

Some might have generally expected more from Camavinga since joining from Rennes last year. He's not been able to establish himself as a regular in midfield at the expense of his more senior colleagues, perhaps unsurprising given he lacks the metronomic abilities of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric and the grit of Casemiro. However, his impact shouldn't be overlooked.

In the second-leg clashes against Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City, every single one of Madrid's eight goals came after Camavinga's introduction. Those goals ensured Ancelotti's men produced great escapes in each tie.

In fact, over the 146 minutes both Camavinga and Rodrygo have been on the pitch in the Champions League in 2022, Madrid have scored eight times and conceded none. Over 502 minutes without at least one of them on the pitch, they've scored six and let in 11.

Of course, it's not as if Camavinga himself has been a central figure to all eight goals. His importance in these scenarios is more centred on the wide-ranging skillset he instantly brings to Madrid – he can pass, he's confident on the ball and is a hard-working competitor.

His contributions were notable in all three second legs, but it was against City when he really forced people to sit up and acknowledge him. In the three and a half minutes that followed his 75th-minute entrance, Camavinga showed his poise with a nice switch of play, swept up effectively in midfield as Phil Foden looked to pounce on a loose ball, and then tackled Rodri out wide.

He was happy to accept possession under pressure several times, with one occasion seeing him turn and lift a wonderful pass over the City defence in the 82nd minute as Karim Benzema tested Ederson in goal. A minute later he was darting back in pursuit of Bernardo Silva, ultimately producing an exceptional sliding tackle to win the ball back.

Camavinga then played a vital role in Madrid's first goal in the 90th minute. His inch-perfect lofted pass to the back post allowed Benzema to turn the ball into the danger zone where Rodrygo was on hand to flick home.

Rodrygo's second in quick succession forced extra time, and Camavinga helped bring about Madrid's crucial third. It was he who carried the ball over half the length of the pitch before finding the Brazilian to cross towards Benzema, who won the penalty from Ruben Dias.

But he showed his value off the ball as well. His four tackles from 45 minutes on the pitch was bettered by only Federico Valverde (five) among Madrid players, and he played the full 120.

His showing was another reminder of the supreme talent Madrid brought in last year and, for many it might've even been enough to earn a starting spot in the final.

Both Camavinga and Rodrygo certainly deserve at least the chance to impact proceedings in Paris, but don't expect Ancelotti to lose faith in his preferred XI at this stage.

Saturday sees Liverpool and Real Madrid go head-to-head in the final of the Champions League.

After the trophy has been lifted, the medals handed out and the confetti all cleaned up, there will be talk of more individual matters.

Discussions have already begun about which player will take home the coveted Ballon d'Or trophy this year, with the goalposts slightly moved for 2022.

As the World Cup takes place in November and December, it has been decided that this year's award will be handed out in October, with the tournament in Qatar being included in consideration for the 2023 gong.

It will also take into account the entirety of the 2021-22 season, rather than just the calendar year period.

Therefore, it is probably safe to say that any players who play a key role in winning the Champions League will give themselves a huge advantage when it comes to voting later this year, and there are three in particular who have already been popping up in conversation.

Here, Stats Perform takes a look at Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Karim Benzema, breaking down the numbers and trying to predict which one might be donning a tuxedo with a beaming smile at October's ceremony.

Mohamed Salah

At the halfway point of the season, you would have been forgiven for suspending betting on at least the Premier League's player of the year, and arguably the Ballon d'Or as well.

Salah was unstoppable as Liverpool looked to push Manchester City in the title race, as well as steer their way through a tricky Champions League group.

The Egypt international scored a hat-trick as Liverpool demolished Manchester United 5-0, becoming the first away player to score a hat-trick at Old Trafford for over 18 years, since Ronaldo did so for Real Madrid back in April 2003 in the Champions League.

At that point, Salah had bagged 15 goals in 12 games for Liverpool for the season, and had only failed to score in one.

He had 23 goals in all competitions to his name by the time he left to compete in the Africa Cup of Nations in early January, where he helped Egypt reach the final in Cameroon.

It was heartbreak for Salah and The Pharaohs though, losing on penalties to Senegal, before experiencing exactly the same outcome against the same opposition in their World Cup qualifying play-off almost two months later.

Salah returned to score crucial goals against Inter in the Champions League last 16 and Norwich City in the Premier League, but after that went 11 games in all competitions without scoring a goal in open play, before bagging another two against United in a 4-0 win at Anfield.

There were a further seven games without a goal at all after that, though when he came off the bench to score against Wolves on the final day of the season, if it had not been for City's comeback against Aston Villa, Salah would have scored the goal to win his team the Premier League title.

Salah ended the season with 31 goals in all competitions, as well as 15 assists. He lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup before missing out on Premier League glory.

If he can get the "revenge" he is openly seeking against Madrid for their 2018 Champions League final victory against the Reds and make it a trophy treble, he could well be top of the list in the Ballon d'Or voting.

Sadio Mane

Like Salah, Mane had an impressive start to the season as he scored in nine of his team's first 16 games in all competitions, though had a drier period just before the Africa Cup of Nations, scoring just once in 10 outings.

Where Mane arguably has the edge over his rivals is his showing in Cameroon. Though he only scored three goals during the tournament, he played a big part in key moments.

He netted a pressure stoppage-time penalty in the opening game against Zimbabwe that turned out to be their only goal in the group stage, therefore crucial in them progressing. Mane then scored the opener against Cape Verde in the last 16, and a late clincher against Burkina Faso in the semi-finals.

Mane then took the weight of a nation on his shoulders as he slammed home the winning penalty in the shoot-out against Egypt in the final.

By the time he returned to club action with Salah, Luis Diaz had arrived at Anfield and already taken up residence in Mane's usual position on the left of the front three.

It wasn't a problem, though, as Mane simply reinvented himself as a central striker, scoring a vital winner against West Ham before repeating the trick of scoring a pressure penalty against Egypt to send Senegal to this year's World Cup.

Mane really started to motor as Liverpool looked to win an unprecedented quadruple, scoring nine goals in his last 13 games, including in both the league draw and FA Cup semi-final win against Man City, and then in both legs of the Champions League semi-final against Villarreal.

His numbers still might not quite match up to Salah or Benzema, with 23 goals and two assists in 50 appearances in all competitions at club level, but he did only score two fewer non-penalty goals than Salah (25).

His ability to turn important games and a potential medal collection of EFL Cup, FA Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and Champions League all since January should put him in a strong position.

Karim Benzema

Calling Benzema the man for the big occasion still doesn't feel like it quite does him justice. The 34-year-old is in the form of his life, showing that age really is just a number.

Benzema has made headlines throughout the season, mostly for his uncanny ability to come up with important goals in the Champions League, and he is without doubt the main reason Madrid made it past the last 16, let alone all the way to the final.

Five goals in the group stages from Benzema helped Los Blancos to a last 16 meeting with Paris Saint-Germain, with Kylian Mbappe and company taking a 1-0 lead into the second leg at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Mbappe was dominating again that night, making it 2-0 on aggregate and getting through time and again, until Benzema took over.

His 17-minute hat-trick turned the tie on its head, and sent Carlo Ancelotti's team through to face Chelsea, who Benzema also scored a treble against at Stamford Bridge.

Though Madrid struggled in the second leg at home, Benzema's extra-time strike sent them into the semis, where Man City awaited.

Two more goals from Benzema in the 4-3 defeat at the Etihad Stadium gave them a fighting chance, and though it was Rodrygo who caused all the drama in the closing stages of normal time of the second leg, it was Benzema from the penalty spot who ultimately took his team to the final.

As this year's Ballon d'Or takes into account the whole season, you would have to assume that includes the 2020-21 Nations League, which Benzema and France won in October, with his goals in the semi-final win against Belgium and the final success against Spain seeing Les Bleus lift the trophy.

Benzema was also unstoppable in LaLiga, with his 27 goals being nine more than anyone else managed in the Spanish top flight, and he scored an incredible 44 goals in 45 games in all competitions.

He has also been almost as creative as Salah and more so than Mane, with 83 chances created and 20 big chances created (a chance from which the attacker would be expected to score), while Salah created 85 chances and 21 big chances, and Mane 63 chances and 14 big chances.

So, there are the three cases. For me, if the Spanish giants win, I think you can close the betting on Benzema.

However, should Liverpool lift the trophy, it could lead to an interesting few months as people debate whether Salah's slightly superior numbers or Mane's international credentials mean more.

Whatever happens, you can be sure that whichever horse you back, you will end up having an argument with someone somewhere who thinks Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo should win the crown again.

Toni Kroos believes Karim Benzema has filled the Cristiano Ronaldo void at Real Madrid "to perfection" after enjoying a stunning 2021-22 season that has him in Ballon d'Or contention.

Heading into Saturday's Champions League final, Benzema has scored 44 goals from 45 matches across all competitions this term, which is 12 more than his previous best for a single campaign.

Similarly, his record of 0.98 goals per game is also comfortably the best he has managed over the course of one season.

Add to that a haul of 15 assists, Benzema's 59 goal involvements is second only to Kylian Mbappe (60 – 39 goals, 21 assists), highlighting just how much of a double threat Los Blancos' talisman has been.

Among his goals have been some crucial strikes as well. He netted consecutive hat-tricks against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea in the Champions League, before also scoring three times over the course of the semi-final defeat of Manchester City.

He has not always been Madrid's main man in attack, with Benzema speaking openly in the past about having to sacrifice his own output for Ronaldo during their time together at the Santiago Bernabeu – he scored just five league goals in the 2017-18 season, for example.

But Kroos admires how the Frenchman has stepped up.

"It wasn't easy to become an even better player," Kroos told ZDF. "I've seen him for eight seasons in all kinds of different roles. Not in other positions, but in terms of the jobs he did on the pitch.

"There were times when he had to pull the bandwagon with his goals and others in which he used to look more to his right and left.

"Cristiano scored 50 goals per season for us and Gareth [Bale] was also on the left in his best years. Those two pillars fell from us.

"Others came like Vinicius [Junior] or Rodrygo, who are evolving very well, but we weren't able to cover Cristiano's 50 goals with just one player until Karim took on that role to perfection."

Saturday's game will be the third European Cup/Champions League final to be contested between Madrid and Liverpool, making it the most common match-up in UEFA's club showpiece.

Although Madrid won LaLiga with four matches to spare, there is a consensus they have exceeded expectations in the Champions League, particularly given they have had great escapes in all three knockout rounds.

Despite that, Kroos does not necessarily consider Liverpool favourites, even if he does accept they have been Europe's best this season.

"Honestly, I think this Liverpool are a better team than in 2018," he added, looking back to Madrid's 3-1 final victory in Kyiv.

"They managed to retain their best players and they signed a few more. Thiago [Alcantara] sets the standards in midfield, they are still very strong at the back and I think that, in terms of record, they were the best team in Europe this season.

"But it's still just one game and you also have to take into account that we eliminated them last season in the quarter-finals. It's 50-50."

He continued: "In a Champions League final you give everything, especially considering that we already had to give everything on more than one occasion to reach the final.

"Now we're there and we want to win the cup, yes, all being aware of the great rival we face."

Luis Diaz insists Liverpool are not favourites to beat Real Madrid in Saturday's Champions League final, as he prepares for a "dream" appearance in European football's showpiece event.

Having already lifted the EFL Cup and FA Cup this season, Jurgen Klopp's team are looking to make up for missing out on the Premier League title by being crowned European champions for a seventh time in Paris.

Such a triumph would see Liverpool draw level with Milan's tally of European Cup/Champions League successes, leaving only Madrid (13) with more titles in the competition's history, as well as avenging their 2018 final loss to Los Blancos.

Liverpool have been touted as favourites after ending their domestic league campaign with a 19-match unbeaten run (16 wins, three draws), while Madrid have already required several spectacular comebacks in the competition, becoming the first team to reach a Champions League final after losing a match in each of the round-of-16, quarter-finals, and semi-finals.

Diaz has been a key part of Liverpool's extraordinary four-front fight since joining from Porto in January, recording six goals and four assists in 17 starts for the club.

But Diaz was cool to temper expectations ahead of an intriguing final.

"Always I have dreamed of winning the Champions League. Even more so against a team like Real Madrid, I am living a great dream," Diaz said. "I want to take advantage of these moments and be happy.

"Are we favourites? No, there are no favourites here. 

"We know that a final is contested minute by minute. We are going to give 100 per cent. We know what we have to do."

When asked if he was the side's most in-form player, the 25-year-old responded: "No, I don't believe so. I think every one of us is in very good shape to compete at a high level, not only me. 

"Everyone in the squad is in good form. I know if I am given the opportunity, I will go out there to take advantage like always."

The winger also highlighted attacking duo Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, alongside midfielder Toni Kroos, as the key threats for Carlo Ancelotti's side, with the former having scored 15 goals for Madrid in the Champions League this season to sit just two strikes shy of Cristiano Ronaldo's single-season record in the competition (17 for Madrid in 2013-14).

"Clearly, we know what Real Madrid have, what a great team they are, the experience they have," he said.

"But we also have a great squad and a great game, and we are going to counteract what they do. Who are Real's best players? I don't know – Karim, Vinicius, I really like Toni Kroos."

We've been here before. Saturday's Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid will be the third instalment of the two clubs tussling for European football's biggest prize.

That will make this the most common European Cup/Champions League final contest in the competitions' collective history.

There was Madrid's 3-1 win in Kyiv four years ago, and in 1981 Liverpool emerged 1-0 victors. And it is that Reds success many will be reminiscing about this week.

The 1981 edition was the last European Cup/Champions League final that Madrid lost – their seven such appearances since then have all been won.

To put that stat into context, no other team has won UEFA's elite competition more than seven times, yet Madrid have done so just since 1998.

But given that defeat came to Liverpool and also in Paris (at the Parc des Princes rather than Stade de France, but still…), the focus on that occasion is likely to be a little greater this time around.

La route de Paris

The paths of Madrid and Liverpool to Paris in 1981 were significantly less long-winded than in 2022.

With no group stage to traverse, the old European Cup went straight into a knockout competition and both sides enjoyed some one-sided scorelines along the way.

Finnish club OPS were first up for Liverpool. While the Reds could only return home with a 1-1 draw, any chances of an upset were emphatically blown away at Anfield – Bob Paisley's men won 10-1, though it wasn't quite good enough to break the club's record for biggest European win: an 11-0 defeat of Stromsgodset seven years earlier.

Little did Liverpool know that their next opponent would one day be the club's greatest nemesis. Alex Ferguson and Aberdeen faced the Reds in the second round, but once again Paisley's men claimed an emphatic win, going through 5-0 on aggregate.

CSKA Sofia didn't put up much more of a fight as Liverpool beat them home (5-1) and away (1-0) as well. Bayern Munich did prove a tougher nut to crack in the semi-finals, but after a 0-0 stalemate at Anfield, a 1-1 draw in Germany ensured the Reds progressed thanks to the away goals rule.

Madrid first crushed Ireland's Limerick 7-2 over two legs, before then seeing off Honved (3-0) and Spartak Moscow (2-0).

Inter awaited in the semis and did at least become the first side to beat Madrid in the competition that season, but their 1-0 win in Milan was insufficient to send them through as Los Blancos' star men Juanito and Santillana had earned a 2-0 victory in the first leg.

An underwhelming final

It's fair to say the build-up to the 1981 final – played on this day 41 years ago – was rather less expectant than for this season's.

Liverpool had struggled with injuries over the course of the season, with their fifth-placed finish in the league an indictment of their situation at the time.

They had won each of the previous two First Division titles and would go on to win the next three as well, so 1980-81 was a particularly low ebb when it came to the extended competition of domestic football.

As for Madrid, Vujadin Boskov's team were more renowned for being tough rather than silky, and they had just missed out on the Spanish title to Real Sociedad due to their head-to-head record – Los Blancos didn't get their next LaLiga crown until 1986.

Similarly, this was hardly a Madrid side that was revered on the continental stage at the time. Of course, they had won the first five editions of the competition, but since that run between 1956 and 1960, their only other triumph had been 15 years earlier in 1966.

The match didn't exactly surpass expectations as a spectacle, even if it proved a glorious night for Liverpool.

There were few chances of note in a cagey first half and not many more after the break – Jose Antonio Camacho's chip did at least cause some worry for Reds fans, but he got too much on it as his attempt flew over.

Another defender, Alan Kennedy, made no such mistake, however. The Liverpool full-back raced into the left side of the Madrid area, making the most of a failed clearance attempt by an opponent and smashed into the net from an acute angle with under 10 minutes to go.

They might have picked Madrid off on the break late on, but their inability to do so didn't matter as the Reds were European champions for the third time.

While that match was ultimately deemed an end of an era in some regards for an ageing Liverpool team, they weren't gone for long...

A sign of things to come?

This particular period was something of a golden era for English clubs in the European Cup. Liverpool's 1981 success was the fifth consecutive edition of the competition to be won by a team from England.

The Reds had won their first European titles in 1977 and 78, before Nottingham Forest claimed back-to-back crowns – in fact, they were the fourth team in a row to lift the trophy at least twice in succession after Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Ajax.

Aston Villa prolonged the English dominion in 82 and, although Hamburg were victorious in 83, the European Cup was back in Liverpool's hands again the following year – that would be the last English triumph until Manchester United's treble winners won the Champions League in 1999.

It seems astonishing now, given how synonymous Madrid are with the competition, but it took them 17 years to reach another European Cup/Champions League final. That 1998 victory over Juventus in Amsterdam reignited the club's obsession, however, with six more titles arriving at the Santiago Bernabeu since the turn of the century.

But Madrid arguably head into Saturday's showdown as the underdogs, with English football seemingly entering another era of domination.

If Liverpool win, they'll be the third English team in four years to win the Champions League – it'll also be the first time since the 1980s that England has had back-to-back winners.

Granted, English clubs threatened to establish a similar stranglehold over the competition earlier this century, with seven of the eight finals before 2013 containing a Premier League team, but such is the financial gulf these days, it's difficult to see the rest of Europe resisting for long.

You could be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu when Liverpool take on Real Madrid in the Champions League final at the Stade de France on Saturday.

The two European giants faced off in 2018 in Kyiv, with Los Blancos running out 3-1 winners thanks to, among other things, a sensational Gareth Bale overhead kick.

Four years later Liverpool and Madrid ready to battle it out to be crowned kings of the continent, with 19 European Cups/Champions Leagues already between them.

Just how much have the two teams changed since then, though? Stats Perform has taken a look at both to see if there are any similarities and marked differences to expect in Paris.

From nearly men to trophy collectors

One of the many reasons defeat in Kyiv hurt for Liverpool was it would have not just been another Champions League success, but the first trophy won since Jurgen Klopp had taken over.

The German coach had been at Anfield since October 2015, and while there had been clear progress, it had not yet manifested in the form of silverware.

The idea that the loss was merely a bump in the road on the start of a journey has since been proven correct, as Liverpool have since hoovered up a Champions League, Premier League, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup, EFL Cup and FA Cup.

At the time, though, it may not have felt that inevitable given the Merseyside club went into the final having finished fourth in the league, 25 points behind champions Man City, having also been knocked out of the EFL Cup in the third round and the FA Cup in the fourth round.

As well as making the final, the 2017-18 season was memorable for the Reds acquiring one Mohamed Salah, who went on to score 44 goals in all competitions.

They lost Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in the January transfer window, but signed Virgil van Dijk from Southampton to help out a troubled defence.

The team that started against Madrid included at least six players you would think will start in Paris in Trent Alexander-Arnold, Van Dijk, Andrew Robertson, Jordan Henderson, Salah and Sadio Mane, while James Milner and Roberto Firmino will at least be on the bench.

It is perhaps the additions made that will make the difference this time, most notably in goal.

Loris Karius suffered a concussion after an elbow to the head from Sergio Ramos that night, which could explain his bizarre performance after that where he threw the ball straight onto Karim Benzema's foot for Madrid's opener, before dropping the ball into the goal from a Bale shot for their third.

Brazil international Alisson is a significant upgrade on Karius.

Instead of the... shall we say... enigmatic Dejan Lovren, Van Dijk will be partnered by either Joel Matip or Ibrahima Konate, both of whom have performed well with the big Dutchman this season.

Should they be fit, Thiago Alcantara and Fabinho will play with Henderson in midfield instead of Milner and Georginio Wijnaldum, while Luis Diaz will almost certainly play alongside Mane and Salah in place of Firmino.

Klopp only made two changes off the bench that night, with Adam Lallana replacing the injured Salah in the first half, while Emre Can also arrived in the second half with little impact.

He will likely have players such as Firmino, Milner, Diogo Jota, Naby Keita and, for one last time, Divock Origi to make the difference if needed in the French capital.

But overall, how much have they changed as a team since that season?

In all competitions in 2017-18, Liverpool averaged 2.39 goals for and 1.11 goals against per game, while making 584.18 passes per game.

They created 2.26 big chances per game, attempted 62.19 long passes per game and won possession in the final third on average 4.94 times per game.

Compare that to this season, they have averaged slightly fewer goals for with 2.37 per game, though have conceded just 0.76 per game, and made 624.55 passes per game, suggesting they control matches more than they used to.

They have created 2.43 big chances per game, and make fewer long passes with 57.13 per game, so are also maybe not quite as direct.

One of the more interesting stats is that they have been winning possession in the final third on average 7.32 times per game this season, significantly more than they did four years ago, so Madrid will be wary of that.

Speaking to Stats Perform, former Liverpool player and assistant manager Phil Thompson - who was captain of the Reds when they beat Madrid in Paris to lift the European Cup in 1981 - said he feels their added experience will help them this time.

"They're better equipped all round," he said. "We're better defensively. The back four, the goalkeeper, I do think all round we're more experienced now in the way we play with Sadio, Mo Salah, and Luis Diaz has brought a different element to our game."

Madrid back as Champions League experts

Back in 2018, Zinedine Zidane guided Los Blancos to their 13th European Cup/Champions League, but otherwise it was a pretty ordinary campaign.

They finished third in LaLiga, 17 points behind the champions Barcelona. They were also knocked out of the Copa del Rey at the quarter-final stage by lowly Leganes.

They just had a knack in the Champions League, though, and remarkably won their fourth in five years.

Similarly to Liverpool, you would imagine at least five of their starting XI in Kyiv will also start in Paris, with Dani Carvajal, Casemiro, Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Benzema key men in Carlo Ancelotti's side.

Thibaut Courtois has replaced Keylor Navas in goal, while Eder Militao, David Alaba and Ferland Mendy will probably be the ones to take the places of Raphael Varane, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo.

It is up top where things have mainly changed though, and not just in personnel.

Isco has become a squad player, who will leave at the end of the season, while Cristiano Ronaldo has long since departed, paving the way for Vinicius Jr and Rodrygo to come in, while Benzema has drastically increased his output.

The France striker scored 12 goals in all competitions in 47 games in the 2017-18 season, but has bagged 44 in 45 this campaign.

As for the team overall, in 2017-18 they averaged just 2.14 goals for per game, and 0.91 against, creating 2.11 big chances per game.

Somewhat bizarrely, their goal averages both for and against are the same as Liverpool's were four years ago (2.39 goals for, 1.11 against per game), though they have increased their average of big chances created to 2.71 per game.

However, they have won LaLiga this season, in addition to the Supercopa de Espana, and somehow found their way past Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City to reach the final.

Looking at those numbers and what has been achieved since, it is fair to say that both teams have improved since their Kyiv meeting.

Klopp's men have gone from a relative also-ran in English football to one of the strongest teams in the world, and had it not been for City's incredible comeback against Aston Villa on Sunday, would be playing to complete a phenomenal and unprecedented quadruple on Saturday.

Madrid have taken back their place as the best in Spain, and whether it was through luck or determination, have toppled three of the best teams in the competition to make it here.

You would assume the match in Paris will be a closer affair than 2018, and as finals so often are, is likely to be decided by the fine margins.

With the strength of both teams, though, do not be surprised if this isn't the last time we are sat here preparing to do battle in Europe's showpiece club game in May.

Real Madrid legend Iker Casillas believes the club's run to Saturday's Champions League final will mean nothing if they eventually lose to Liverpool.

With 725 matches played, Casillas trails only Raul Gonzalez for appearances made for Los Blancos, winning the Champions League three times with the club, including the famous La Decima in 2014.

Madrid have made a dramatic run to Saturday's fun, coming from behind on aggregate in all three knockout ties to eliminate Paris Saint-German, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Writing for the Player's Tribune, Casillas insisted it will matter little if Liverpool lift the trophy on Saturday instead.

"The comebacks are very good but now we have to get it. We need the icing on the cake," Casillas wrote for the Players Tribune. "If you don't get that icing, the cake won't be complete, right?

"If the cup does not reach the showcases, nobody is going to remember what happened with PSG, with Chelsea and with Manchester City. To be exciting, it has to be until the end, with the prize.

"One step away from glory for the 14th time, people think that winning the Champions League is easy and it is not. If just reaching a Champions League semi-final is something incredible, when you get one, two or three cups you have to be proud."

The 41-year-old singled out Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who has been a pivotal figure in both their LaLiga title and run to Saturday's final, with 21 clean sheets in 50 games across all competitions.

While insisting Courtois is the best goalkeeper in the world, that Casillas' athletic and versatile style in goal was long regarded as an inspiration is something he also takes pride in.

"A separate paragraph is for Courtois, and I think no one can argue that today he is the best goalkeeper in the world," he said. "It's the same thing I think of Karim [Benzema]. To rise even higher, you have to get that award. And he deserves it like nobody else, since he has been essential for Madrid to reach the final in Paris.

"I am proud that, as I did with [Luis] Arconada, he has grown up inspired by my stops, by my videos. There will be another kid out there who will want to be like Courtois tomorrow. But, in short, I am flattered to have been a part of his life."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.