Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Juventus, Real Madrid hunt history in UCL final

Published:Saturday | June 3, 2017 | 6:00 AM
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo (left) is watched by head coach Zinedine Zidane, during a training session at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales yesterday.
Buffon
Juventus' Gonzalo Higuain (left) controls a ball during a training session at the Millennium stadium in Cardiff, Wales yesterday. Real Madrid will play Juventus in the final of the Champions League today.
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CARDIFF, Wales (AP):

Completing a season when age has slowly caught up with him, Cristiano Ronaldo will be trying to break new ground on familiar territory.

When the Real Madrid forward takes to the Millennium Stadium pitch to face Juventus today, it will be the fifth Champions League final in nine years for the three-time winner.

This time, there's a chance to achieve something yet to be achieved in 25 seasons of the competition. If Madrid lifts the trophy for the record-extending 12th time, a team will finally have defended a Champions League title.

"Obviously what I want the most is to play more freely up front," Ronaldo said, "and that is the opportunity Zinedine Zidane has been giving me as a No. 9. I play freely. I play on the wing, down the middle. I play whenever I think I should."

Ronaldo, however, is unlikely to find much freedom against Juventus, a team with one of the best defences in football. In 12 European games this season, Juventus have only conceded three goals and is looking to become the first undefeated champion since Manchester United in 2008.

At the heart of that Juventus defence is a guy looking to become the oldest Champions League winner: 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. A European title is one of the few major prizes to elude the Italian in an illustrious career that has seen him lose two Champions League finals.

 

Young at heart

 

"I'm a young boy even though I'm 39 years old," Buffon said through a translator in Cardiff. "Many people think about my very long career ... I got more than I gave, but that would be the perfect finale and people like fairy tales."

There haven't been many in Europe for some time at Juventus. The last of their two titles was won in 1996, while Madrid have won five since then.

Madrid will be facing a sturdy defence supported by a formidable attacking unit led by Paulo Dybala. The Argentine, who has drawn inevitable comparisons with Lionel Messi, has scored four goals in 10 European appearances this season.

"In training one day, I saw something in Dybala that I had seen before in Messi," Juventus right back Dani Alves, a former Barcelona player, wrote in a column yesterday on The Players' Tribune website . "It was not just the gift of pure talent. I have seen that many times in my life. It was the gift of pure talent combined with the will to conquer the world."

Dybala has thrived since Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri changed the team's formation to accommodate their attacking talents. Dybala joined Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic in a trio sitting just behind Gonzalo Higuain, while Miralem Pjanic has been behind them alongside Sami Khedira.

A sixth consecutive Serie A title has already been won. Now it's about preventing a repeat of the 2015 final loss to Barcelona with a much-changed squad.

"Perhaps we were not strongly motivated," Allegri said. "We didn't feel confident enough because we had a number of years when we struggled in the Champions League and we didn't expect to win ... but now it's completely different. Juventus have improved a lot."

On the other sideline will be a man who has achieved more in 18 months than some coaches do in an entire career.

Zidane has quickly establish himself as a diligent and intelligent coach. The France great inherited a disgruntled team from Rafa Benitez, but he united the dressing room and led the team to last year's Champions League title.