Max Allegri's Juventus have been here before. In his first season as manager in 2015, he led the club to a surprise trip Champions League final that ended in a 3-1 loss against Barcelona. During the run, Juventus beat Real Madrid 3-2 on aggregate in the semifinals with Alvaro Morata providing the deciding goal in the second leg. Bringing things full circle, Morata now plays (very sparingly) for their Spanish opponents.
Yet that Juventus roster was still considered Antonio Conte's team, working within the previous manager's 3-5-2 formation. Their starting lineup against Barcelona featured six players, mostly in the midfield and attack, who are no longer with the club (only Marchisio remains from the unit). And the welcome surprise from two seasons ago is replaced with expectation of winning this time around. After all, winning the Champions League was planned with big money transfer moves last summer. The theme for Juventus against Real Madrid on Saturday is redemption.
Here are five players who make Allegri's side tick:
Gigi Buffon: Italian soccer was already in a sentimental mood after Francesco Totti played his final match for Roma last weekend. Gigi Buffon has yet to make any similar promises, but he turned 39 years old this season. The keeper has won some 23 trophies in his career, including a World Cup, but a Champions League is the most important title that eludes him. He's been in the finals twice: as described against Barcelona two years ago, and a shootout loss versus Milan in 2003. Not that Buffon needs to win another trophy to stake a claim as one of the greatest ever at his position - but Xavi summed up the match by observing that while it's 50-50 between the clubs, the prospect of seeing Buffon win puts Juventus over the top.
This is no victory lap. Buffon kept the most clean sheets out of any keeper in the Champions League this season. He hadn't let in a goal in the competition for 621 minutes before Kylian Mbappe scored for Monaco in the second leg of the semi finals. Yes, Buffon has had to make small adjustments to his game, like play short passes off goal kicks, but Juventus are as defensively dominant as they've ever been in his over 15 seasons with the club. If sentiment factors in at all, Buffon will be hoisting the trophy on Saturday. And if done with a clean sheet, it will be even more impressive, as Real Madrid have scored in every match this season.
Leonardo Bonucci: It's no stretch to suggest that the 30-year-old Bonucci is tasked with the most important individual responsibility of the match (and maybe his entire career) in keeping Cristiano Ronaldo off the scoring sheet. Tactical nuances aside, the finals could be summed up as whoever wins the battle between Bonucci and Ronaldo. Judging Bonucci's performance will be clear cut from that perspective: if Bonucci and center back partner Giorgio Chiellini track Ronaldo's movements for an entire match, Juventus win. If Ronaldo continues his scoring streak of eight goals in his last four European matches, the advantage goes to the Spanish side.
The importance of Bonucci disrupting Ronaldo lies in how Real Madrid function. Zinedine Zidane's side aren't built on aesthetics as they are on ruthless goals and winning. Bonucci's passing and comfort in possession is vital in breaking down opponents, and the traits that make him a world class defender. But on Saturday, he has one purpose: preventing Ronaldo from scoring.
Paulo Dybala: The youngest player on this list by six years, the 23-year-old Dybala and 39-year-old Buffon are at the opposite ends of their careers. Whereas a Champions League title would be the cap of Buffon's career, it would put Dybala in line as the leading playmaker in the post-Messi, post-Ronaldo era (forthcoming at some unknown point).
One could already make that case, especially if he were in Spain or England's media eye. Tasked with finding space between Real Madrid's lines, his individual battle with Casemiro will determine how effective Juventus are in attack. Any attacking sequence begins with Dybala linking play to either Dani Alves on the right wing or Higuain down the middle. He can finish them too, as we saw with his two goals against Barcelona. Supporters of clubs in Serie A – as well as people willing to wake up at 3:55 am on weekends to watch soccer - know his ability to provide that single moment to win a match. The final gives him the opportunity to show it off to the world.
Mario Mandzukic: With just two goals in nine European matches, Mandzukic appears to be a bit player when looking strictly at the numbers. But if the key philosophy of Allegri's ideal team is balance, Mandzukic embodies the sacrifice and commitment of this Juventus side as much as any player in the starting eleven. He is vital in how Juventus functions.
While one could question his precision in front of goal, no one would question his work rate and team play. It was exactly these characteristics that made the Croatian indispensable to Allegri, even at the unfamiliar left sided attacker position in a 4-2-3-1 formation. His physicality and aerial ability gives Juventus an outlet for possession. The run of six consecutive clean sheets begins with his pressing and tactical commitment without the ball, especially in shutting off opposition service from that side. Judged Mandzukic's impact not on individual goals, but in trophies.
Gonzalo Higuain: This match is the reason Juventus paid $100 million for the 29-year-old striker. Alessio Tacchinardi, among many others, named him to be the deciding factor against Real Madrid. With the responsibility of "Champions League or bust" falling on his transfer fee, Higuain is under a singular pressure all his own.
He responded with five goals in 11 European matches this season. Higuain's success is clear cut: he must score on Saturday. His two goals against Monaco in the second leg ensured Juventus' place in the finals. Perception-wise, the concerns about his lack of big match performances with Argentina were alleviated with those timely goals. His battle with Sergio Ramos, along with Bonucci and Ronaldo, are the two most decisive on Saturday.
Finally, Higuain represents one of the many ways a team tries to reach the final level in Europe. It may be through player development or breaking transfer records, but that last move is difficult to get right. Considering Buffon's age and the disappointment from losing in the finals two seasons ago, his contributions to a Juventus victory will be priceless.
No club in the current era has won the Champions League back-to-back so Zidane has the chance to make history while also picking up a third win in four seasons for Real Madrid. Before the 2014 title, Zidane had won Real Madrid’s most recent Champions League that was supposed to be the beginning of an unprecedented run as they continued their Galacticos era. Those post-2002 sides always disappointed and were never quite constructed correctly. Both Zidane and Florentino Perez have learned from that era by assembling rosters that feature expensive, world class talents while also saving space for the likes of Casemiro, who is the Claude Makelele they previously let get away.
Here are five players who will play an outsized role in the final for Zidane:
Isco: The key decision last season for Zidane was whether to start Casemiro or Isco. This year an even tougher political decision would have had to be made by Zidane between Isco and Gareth Bale, but the fitness issues of the latter makes it an easy call, and also the correct one.
When Real Madrid is at the height of its BBC powers, they bypass the midfield and run down their opponents with an unmatched level of athleticism and skill. That method works against most teams, but supremely organized sides like Juventus aren't vulnerable in the same way. We saw this scenario play out in the semifinals two years ago.
Isco allows Real Madrid to build up play as the closest thing the club has had to a No. 10 in years, linking the midfield with Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Isco’s combination of dribbling and passing unlocks a defense in ways that is unique for a Real Madrid side that too often relies on set pieces or counterattacks despite their collective talent.
Isco nearly left Real Madrid last summer but his versatility makes him so valuable as that XII player who can fill in for virtually any midfielder or forward. Isco has secured his place on the club long-term regardless of what happens in this match and he’s been their most critical player during the final stretch of the season in both La Liga and the Champions League.
Marcelo: If Isco has been Real Madrid’s most critical player during the final push of the season, Marcelo has probably been their best player during the entire season. Like his fellow Brazilian fullback, Dani Alves, Marcelo is counted upon to create scoring opportunities with his dribbling, pace, passing and shots on goal. With Ronaldo playing more of a poaching role over the past few seasons, Marcelo has had more space to operate and Real Madrid has needed him more to create chaos. Without Bale starting and Real Madrid in a 4-4-2, the left wing will be even more open for Marcelo.
Like Isco, Marcelo didn’t start the 2014 Champions League Final but his substitution helped turn the match.
Marcelo and Dani Alves will each see a lot of the ball and a lot of each other. There’s a good chance at least one goal will come from their involvement in one way or another.
Keylor Navas: There is an obvious discomfort for Real Madrid with Navas in goal. Real Madrid wasn’t hurt by the David De Gea non-transfer last season with Navas having an excellent season, but he’s been woeful at times in 16-17 despite their place in this final and winning La Liga. Navas is capable of making extraordinary saves in big moments, but Real Madrid just needs him to make the slightly challenging ones.
Toni Kroos: Kroos plays the role of the invisible hand controlling tempo and the distribution of the ball in possession, but he has played a more ubiquitous role this season with four goals and 12 assists. Real Madrid often lack shape and Kroos allows this to not be an issue with the quality of his passing and versatility. Real Madrid figure to have more possession and Kroos will have a key role switching the ball from side to side.
If Sergio Ramos scores on an inevitable late match header as we’ve come to expect, it will likely be due to the delivery from Kroos.
Cristiano Ronaldo: His inclusion is obvious yet the reasons are different than one might expect. Ronaldo remains so good and so manically committed to proving how good he is, especially in moments like this one, where he sometimes will overextend and insist upon being the reason for winning. Ronaldo could be as useful in this match simply as a force of gravity occupying either Bonucci or Chiellini at key points to create space for others as he will be in attempting those low percentage free kicks. Portugal won the European Championship last summer after he went out due to injury. Real Madrid can similarly win without him but they're at their best when he's just another talented piece of the XI.
Even if this feels like the beginning of a new era of Real Madrid dominance, there’s no guarantee they’ll get back to this level again during Ronaldo’s prime. A third win while with Real Madrid would further cement his legacy as one of the game's all-time best.