CARDIFF, Wales – When Cristiano Ronaldo runs onto the field at the Millennium Stadium, he’ll being trying to break new ground on some familiar territory.
In the Champions League era, which started in 1992-93, no team has ever managed to defend its title. Madrid will get that chance on Saturday against Juventus, and Ronaldo will be leading the way.
The 32-year-old Portugal winger will be playing in the Champions League final for the fifth time in nine years. He has won twice already with Madrid, and once with Manchester United.
The conditions this time will be a little different. The match will be played under a roof for the first time because of fears of a drone attack. But Ronaldo even has experience with that.
The world player of the year was a regular visitor to the stadium in Cardiff during his Manchester United career. At that time, with Wembley Stadium under construction, English soccer played its big matches in Wales. One of those matches, however, won’t be a pleasant memory.
The 2005 FA Cup final, which was played under cover, is the only one of Ronaldo’s four visits with United that he didn’t score and the team didn’t win.
It was a rare setback in a career that continues to deliver, even as he 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 major prize to elude the Italian in an illustrious career that has seen him lose two Champions League finals.
The club is also craving another European title. Juventus won the last of its two titles in 1996, while Madrid has won five since then to increase its record to 11 in the competition.
Juventus is known for its sturdy defense, but it will be 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 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.”
Juventus has already collected a fifth consecutive Serie A title. Now it’s about preventing a repeat of the 2015 final loss to Barcelona.
“Our squad has changed in almost every position,” Allegri said. “Our confidence has increased. Our awareness of our own ability has gone up. The atmosphere has improved.”
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 established 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.”