CARDIFF, Wales – 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 on Saturday, 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.
One thing is already certain to change on Saturday: The continent’s showpiece will be contested under a closed roof, with Cardiff authorities guarding against the possibility of a drone attack.
It won’t be a new experience for Ronaldo, though. He was a regular visitor to the Welsh national stadium during his Manchester United career while it staged English soccer’s finals, although the only time he played under cover he lost. The 2005 FA Cup final was also the only one of Ronaldo’s four visits with United that he didn’t score and emerge victorious.
It was a rare setback in a career that continues to deliver, even as the 32-year-old forward has had to increasingly accept being on the sidelines to stay fresh for the big occasions. It’s hard to argue because Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane’s squad rotation system has netted Madrid the Spanish league title and yet another Champions League final.
“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 defenses in soccer. In 12 European games this season, Juventus has only conceded three goals and is looking to become the first undefeated champion since Manchester United in 2008.
At the heart of that Juventus defense is a guy looking to become the oldest Champions League winner: 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. A European title is the one of the few major prizes to elude the Italian in an illustrious career that has seen him lose two Champions League finals.
“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 fairytales.”
There haven’t been many in Europe for some time at Juventus. The last of its two titles was won in 1996, while Madrid has won five since then.
Madrid will be facing a sturdy defense 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 Friday 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 its 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.
“The 4-2-3-1 formation came to me the moment I realized our team wouldn’t progress any further if we kept the old tactics and formation,” Allegri said. “I assessed our players’ strengths and I tried to put them on the pitch in their favorite positions and I also tried to encourage our attacking skills.”
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 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 has 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, the once hot-headed playmaker whose last act of an illustrious on-field career was slamming his head into the chest of Italy defender Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final, 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.
“I already admired him as a player,” Ronaldo said, “and now I admire him even more as a coach because he’s a very positive person – a hard worker and very respectful towards the players.”
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