Look, we get it. There is a ton of soccer on TV. And unless you are plugged into the sport, it’s hard to tell what is worth watching and what isn’t. As it happens, we here at FC Yahoo spend entirely too much time watching and thinking about soccer. So we can tell you that Saturday afternoon’s UEFA Champions League final is a “Big Soccer Game” and worth arranging your day around.
So here’s what you need to know.
Who, what, where and when?
The Champions League final, between Juventus and Real Madrid, crowns the club champion of Europe. While the World Cup only comes around every four years, the Champions League is arguably harder to win because it’s a nearly nine-month marathon that requires a dozen games just to reach the final. The level of play in club soccer is also higher than in the international game, with teams playing together a lot more.
The finalists of this year’s competition play a winner-take-all game in Cardiff, Wales, on Saturday (2:45 p.m. ET kickoff on FOX).
So who is David and who is Goliath?
Real is obviously Goliath, with a record 11 European titles – four more than any other club. If Zinedine Zidane’s team wins, it will become the first club in the Champions League era, which began in 1992, to win it back-to-back. It would also make it three titles in four years for the Spanish powerhouse.
To call Juve a David, however, is probably unfair. Juventus has won this thing twice and reached the final eight times in all, including three times consecutively from 1996 through 1998. The legendary Italian club was also in the title game in 2015, when it lost to Barcelona. That said, this second final in three years does herald Juve’s return to the summit after a refereeing scandal knocked it from its perch a decade ago. As such, it’s the underdog.
What else should I know about Real?
Real Madrid’s undisputed star is four-time World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. At 32, he is probably the second-best player to ever play the game, behind Barca’s Lionel Messi, but still doesn’t get his due. (At this point, the argument that Pele, Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stefano or Johan Cruyff were better is pretty hard to defend, unless you consider the World Cup the final arbiter, which you shouldn’t.)
But it’s in the midfield behind Real’s star-studded front line of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Cristiano (also known as the “BBC) where the magic is made. Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are understated but indispensable playmakers, while Casemiro holds it all together and shields the defense.
And about Juve?
This is a team with an uncanny ability to replace and improve in spite of the departure of superstars. A year after Paul Pogba returned to Manchester United in the most expensive transfer ever and Alvaro Morata bailed for Real (where he hasn’t played a ton), Juventus is arguably better than ever. Gonzalo Higuain is a ruthlessly efficient striker, albeit not always in major finals. Fellow Argentine Paulo Dybala, at 23, is probably the brightest young star of his age in the game.
However, what sets apart The Old Lady, as Juventus is nicknamed, is its ironclad defense backed by 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. In six group stage games in this tournament, Juve gave up just two goals. In a half-dozen knockout stage matches, it surrendered only one. While winning its sixth straight Italian league title, Max Allegri’s dynastic side coughed up a mere 27 goals in 38 games.
How do I sound like an expert?
• Point out that Dani Alves, who just turned 34, has perhaps had his best season ever for Juve – or at least one of his best. And that Barcelona was crazy to give up on him and let him walk out for free last summer. The right back, like in his very best days, is such a threat pushing up from right back that the defender almost adds a man to Juve’s lineup.
• Speaking of backs, both teams rely on the pressure their wide defenders put on opposing flanks. A key to the game will be whether Juventus’ Alves and Alex Sandro or Real’s Marcelo and Dani Carvajal do the best job of pinning the other team back.
• One of the most reliable ways of troubling Real is overloading on Casemiro, since he doesn’t tend to get a lot of help in front of the defense. Juve’s central defenders, Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli, meanwhile, are fabulous man-markers and readers of the game. But they aren’t the fleetest of foot. If the Italians can be drawn out, they can be beaten on speed.
What’s the safe prediction?
Pick Real Madrid for a narrow win in a low-scoring game. It isn’t just the more experienced and talented team, but it also has an uncanny knack for winning tight contests when it really matters.
And how do I convince myself about rooting for the underdog?
Juventus is generally under-appreciated. It’s strong in every line and seemingly built to match up with Real’s physicality and technical skill. It has cruised to the final is probably fresher than Real, since, unlike the Spaniards, it had a fairly easy time of winning its domestic championship.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.