MADRID – A look at the top 11 players who led Real Madrid to Saturday’s Champions League final against Juventus:
KEYLOR NAVAS: The Costa Rican keeper is considered the weak link in Madrid’s squad by many fans and local media. He made mistakes during the season that gave critics reason to question him, but proved his worth in the decisive stages of both the Spanish league and the Champions League, making difficult saves at key moments to keep Madrid in contention for both titles.
DANI CARVAJAL: The right back quickly became an undisputed starter after coach Zinedine Zidane took over as coach last year. He had been a reserve to Danilo but won the crowd and the coach’s confidence with solid performances. A muscle injury kept him from playing in the final stages of the Spanish league, and in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal. But he is expected to be fully fit for the final in Cardiff.
SERGIO RAMOS: The team’s outspoken captain, Ramos was one of the heroes for Madrid when it won the Champions League title in 2014 and 2016. He scored in both finals, including an injury-time equalizer that led to an extra-time victory against city rival Atletico Madrid in 2014. He has scored 10 goals in all competitions this season, his best career performance.
RAPHAEL VARANE: The French defender earned a regular starting spot alongside Ramos after Pepe endured a series of injuries in the second half of the season. Varane was a starter in the 2014 Champions League final, at age 21. He also suffered injuries recently but has been fit in the final stages of the season.
MARCELO: The veteran left back had another remarkable season with Madrid, consistent in defense and decisive in attack with his skillful footwork and precise crosses. He was one of the team’s leaders in assists, and his performances were good enough to earn him a place back in Brazil’s national team under coach Tite, giving him an extra boost of confidence. The 29-year-old Marcelo scored a goal in extra time in the 2014 final against Atletico.
CASEMIRO: With his usual high intensity and perfect timing on challenges, the Brazilian carried the load for Madrid in midfield, allowing the playmakers to focus on attacking and adding an extra layer of protection to the defense. The team struggled whenever Casemiro could not play and he became a crucial piece in Zidane’s squad. Casemiro is another player who gained a regular starting spot after the coach took over, leaving Mateo Kovacic on the bench.
TONI KROOS: Another important link between defense and attack, Kroos maintained his excellent form for yet another season. He was solid with his marking and precise as ever with his passes, constantly setting up his teammates. He also scored some important goals in the final stretch of the season, including two in the final three games of the Spanish league.
LUKA MODRIC: The hard-working midfielder endured a series of injuries that kept him from playing as much as in previous seasons, including a left-knee ailment that required arthroscopic surgery in December. Zidane frequently rested Modric in the latter stages of the season and he is expected to arrive for the final fully fit.
FRANCISCO “ISCO” ALARCON: Isco was one of Madrid’s most important players despite not being one of the regular starters at the beginning of the season. He was the first player to get a call whenever someone got injured and always took advantage of his chances. He thrived while replacing Gareth Bale when the Wales forward got injured late in the season, and is expected to remain in the starting lineup even though Bale will be fit for the final.
KARIM BENZEMA: The French striker has had a lackluster season, scoring few goals and staying on the bench more often than in the past. But he was decisive when Madrid needed him the most, setting up Isco’s important away goal in the second leg of the Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid. He showed great skill to clear three defenders in a small space to help send Madrid to the final for the third time in four seasons.
CRISTIANO RONALDO: Ronaldo has arrived at the final stretch of the season at his best, after pacing himself and skipping several games to get some rest. He made a slow start in the Champions League, with only two goals in his first eight games. But he finished with eight goals in the last four, including consecutive hat tricks in the quarterfinals against Bayern Munich and in the semifinals against Atletico. The goals saw him become the first player to reach 100 Champions League goals.
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