A long Champions League journey comes down to this, the final between Real Madrid and Juventus (live, 2 p.m. ET on FOX). The Champions League lives up to its moniker this time around, as the champions of Serie A and La Liga will square off for the right to hoist the big-eared trophy. It's a battle neither team will take lightly, but what can Real Madrid do to try and best help their chances?
Here are 5 keys to success for the defending European champions.
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Balance Gareth Bale and Isco
Zinedine Zidane's biggest lineup question heading into the final involves the club's priciest purchase ever. Gareth Bale's fitness has been a lingering issue for the club, but all signs point to him being able to contribute in the final. At what level will Bale be, though? With Isco performing admirably in Bale's absence, there's a chance the Spaniard could just remain in the starting XI. If that's the case, Bale should still feature in some capacity in a match of this magnitude -- assuming he's as healthy as he says he is.
If Bale starts, the same goes for Isco. Would Bale be able to play a full 90 (or even 120) minutes after such a lengthy spell away? That's tough to envision, especially with a more-than-adequate replacement in the wings. Zidane has a problem on his hands, but at least it's a good problem to have. Most managers would relish the prospect of having two quality players battling for one starting spot.
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Don't sleep on Dani Alves
Alves has been a transfer-window coup for Juventus, arriving on a free from Barcelona. He's been feeling his oats in his new digs, too, bombing up and down the right with the ever-present Paulo Dybala and/or the speedy Juan Cuadrado ahead of him. Depending on the formation Max Allegri deploys, whether it's with three at the back or four, Alves will be involved. The Brazilian's versatility allows him to play pretty much anywhere on the right and he's showed a flair for the dramatic in the Champions League lately.
Oh, and getting another one over on Real Madrid probably wouldn't be a blow for the former longtime Barca man.
Win the aerial battle
If it's possible for a club of the status and stature of Real Madrid to have a "secret" weapon, then perhaps it's Sergio Ramos. The Spaniard loves nodding in late goals, and what could be more Ramos-esque than heading in a match-winner in the Champions League final? Even if Ramos isn't able to pen that fairytale, Real Madrid should look to exploit their slight edge aerially between the likes of Ramos and Ronaldo. On the defensive side, Ramos & Co. will have to be on the lookout for Giorgio Chiellini, Mario Mandzukic and Juventus' own high-flyers.
Avoid the big error on defense
Where Juventus have a lock-tight defense, Real Madrid are bit shakier. Odds are Raphael Varane will partner Ramos in the middle of the defense, which isn't a bad thing, but sometimes the Merengues can appear so interested in attacking that they doze off on defense. A guy like Paulo Dybala will be licking his chops if there's even the slightest lapse, as the mercurial young playmaker will take a mile if offered an inch. Tracking his runs in between the midfield and the central defenders will require constant communication and diligent awareness. On occasion, those traits happen to elude Real Madrid's defensive contingent.
Allow Ronaldo to be Ronaldo
It almost goes without saying, but Real Madrid will need a strong performance from their ace, Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7 has had an interesting tournament, sometimes appearing to defer to his teammates in order for the team to succeed. Other times, he's taken over the match and dominated as we all know he can. Which player will he need to be against Juventus in the final? Odds are he'll be looked at to do more of the latter, especially against Juve's stingy defense. If the game is deadlocked and Real Madrid need a late goal, they can do a lot worse than the man that's the only player in history to knock in more than 100 Champions League goals.
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