The Champions League final of 2017 is a massively exciting prospect, as Real Madrid look to retain their crown in the face of a fierce challenge from Juventus, who are hoping to rule Europe for the first time since 1996.
Since it was renamed and restructured in 1992, no team has managed to retain the trophy, so a considerable achievement awaits for Real Madrid, who with victory here will also stretch their already sizeable advantage as the most successful team in the history of this competition. It would be their 12th victory, and third in four years.
Despite their long-term status as one of Europe’s leading clubs, Juventus have only triumphed on two occasions, losing on each of the last four occasions in which they have reached the final, most recently in 2015 when they ran into Barcelona’s unstoppable front three.
Legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon has spent the vast majority of his career in Turin and is among the most highly decorated players in the recent history of Italian football, yet at the age of 39, this could quite possibly be his final opportunity to get his hands on European football’s biggest prize. The Juve skipper has been the beating heart of this season’s campaign, and they have just one more hurdle left to clear.
In plotting their route to this showdown at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Juventus have hardly put a foot wrong, breezing through their group and then seeing off FC Porto to set up a meeting with Barcelona. They put the Catalans to the sword, winning 3-0 on aggregate before making impressively short work of free-flowing Monaco in the semi-finals.
As for domestic football, this season has been another procession to the Serie A title, although they did face strong competition from Roma and Napoli. Manager Massimiliano Allegri’s stock continues to rise along with that of star striker Paulo Dybala, while the seemingly impenetrable back three of Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini is as strong as ever.
And that is what makes this such a fascinating contest. Can the Champions League’s record goalscorer, Cristiano Ronaldo, plot a route through the Juventus rearguard? The 32-year-old has enjoyed yet another goal-filled season, so will be confident, but he needs top drawer performances from those alongside him to be successful here, with midfielders Toni Kroos and Luka Modric set to play key roles.
Zinedine Zidane could hardly have asked for a better first full season in charge, as aside from their run in this competition his team have also recaptured the La Liga title, overcoming Barcelona in a ferocious battle for top spot where they always held the edge, by getting the result they needed on the final day.
Their passage to the final has been slightly less serene than that of their opponents, but Real have needed to get past a couple of the strongest sides in Europe to get here. A convincing win over Napoli in the second round was followed by a meeting with Bayern Munich, where they controversially came through against the 10-man German champions after extra time.
In the semi-finals, their firepower proved too much for city rivals Atletico, who they managed to beat in the Champions League for the fourth consecutive season. A 3-0 success in the first leg meant that defeat in the return fixture was academic.
It is extremely difficult to pick a winner here. Juventus are a superbly coordinated team unit with the best defence on the continent, while Real are full of star individuals, and carry the prestige of having been kings of Europe on so many occasions.
It is likely to be a close one, and extra time would not come as a surprise. But whatever happens, it will make for truly captivating viewing.