Football: The harsh reality of the Real dream

Norman Fox studies the political moves ahead of the European Cup final
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The Independent Online
WITH due respect to Manchester United, this season's European Cup final in Amsterdam on Wednesday is a perfect match. Real Madrid, the first champions, against Juventus: a meeting of clubs so illustrious that you understand why the competition was born yet still wonder at the Football League's insularity in stopping an English team from attending its baptism 42 years ago. But perfect matches have a nasty habit of becoming imperfect games.

Real Madrid will be playing in their 10th final, though the last was far back in 1981 against Liverpool, while Juventus have appeared in five, the most recent, of course, last year when, as defending champions, they lost 3-1 to Borussia Dortmund. In theory this should be a final to be set against the best. Equally, the danger is that the finalists could balance each other out and the game become negative.

The evidence of current form points directly in favour of Juve. If Real rise above that, such is the depth of skill on both sides that there is every chance of a vital, expressive clash and special goals, presumably from Alessandro Del Piero, the most prolific goalscorer since the European Cup became the Champions' League, and Real's Raul, the youthful, emerging talent of Spanish football, and Fernando Morientes. That is the hopeful theory. Reality is more to do with what is now happening at Real.

The club, such a founding inspiration of the European Cup, are not quite in crisis or oblivious to the prestige that would come from winning again, but more concerned about saving face at home. Reviving memories of Di Stefano days is all very well, but qualifying for next season and relieving financial difficulties are paramount.

On the eve of the final all is not well. While Juventus have stormed away from Internazionale to win their 25th league title and third in four years, Real have stumbled so much that Mallorca have been able to shadow them in the distant pursuit of Barcelona. There is even talk that their German manager, Jupp Heynckes, who has already said he will go at the end of the season, could be sacked before then - shades of 1960 when Real dismissed Fleitas Solich just before the club's memorable 7-3 defeat of Eintracht in Glasgow. It was having Barcelona take the Spanish championship that cost him his job.

Real need to beat Juventus to guarantee qualification for next season's Champions' League. They are by no means certain to qualify by finishing runners-up in their own league. In losing to Espanol last weekend they recorded their 13th successive away game without a win. When asked about the future of Heynckes, Real's president, Lorenzo Sanz, said: "Ten days before a European Cup final is not the time to sack the coach... but we are thinking about it."

Dark will be the shadow over Heynckes on Wednesday. Whether he can turn the threat to his own advantage by telling his team they are playing not only for the reputation of the club but his as well, we shall see. But a final that not long ago looked to be such a close encounter it was impossible to make either side favourites, has now swung in the direction of Juve who have overcome their uncertain form of the early season. Not that they are without weaknesses.

Real will be hoping Juve will have one of their generous days when the defence looks vulnerable, even to modest attacks. It was that vulnerability which cost them the final last year. Real's defence depends greatly on the German goalkeeper Bodo Illgner whose performances against the reigning champions, Borussia Dortmund, in the semi-finals were inspirational.

The defences appear roughly equal, with Juve's slightly more abrasive. Where there is likely to be an imbalance is in midfield. Juve are clearly stronger and more creative, with the two French players, Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps, outstanding this season. Real will have to rely a lot on their own French import, Christian Karembeu, who, as a former Sampdoria player, knows a good deal about Juve.

In attack, Raul needs to be at his exciting best to avoid being upstaged by Del Piero. His scoring touch deserted him early in the new year but in recent matches it seems to have returned. Only 20, he plays alongside the man who could be Real's saviour on the night, Morientes, who has been making up for Raul's lack of goals.

Morientes came from Zaragoza last year and by becoming something of a "super sub" immediately made life difficult for the existing strikers. He then established his international credentials by scoring with his first shot in his debut against Sweden in March. With the World Cup close, he believes this could be his dream season. So does Del Piero.