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Would Real three-peat be most impressive feat in UCL history?

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When Franz Roth’s 57th minute goal gave Bayern Munich a 1-0 win over Saint-Etienne in Glasgow on May 12, 1976, it marked the last time a club won three-consecutive European Cups.

Oddly enough, Ajax turned the trick in the previous three seasons to Bayern’s run, and Real Madrid won the first five from 1955-60 when the tournament required a side of its ilk win only four ties. By 1976, the tournament began with the Round of 32.

[ MORE: 3 Key Battles for UCL Final ]

While there were certainly reasons the tournament was more difficult, consider that travel was far more taxing on the body and officiating far less advanced if even impartial, what Real Madrid would do this weekend would be an incredible achievement.

Winning three-straight competitions in any of the elite league is insane, and the UEFA Champions Leagues is especially bonkers.

Yes, an injury to Neymar made the PSG defeat a little less impressive, but consider that Real has advanced to the final while playing a murderer’s row (especially in relation to their opponents). Juventus was next, and then Bayern Munich. Now, Liverpool.

While no one, maybe ever, should cry for Real Madrid, this third run is more impressive than the first two in that the club simply isn’t as strong as previous iterations. That’s evidenced by their relatively poor performance in La Liga play, finishing almost 20 points back of rivals Barcelona and three behind Atleti.

Real sold nearly $100 million worth of players this offseason than it bought, with Theo Hernandez and Dani Ceballos the biggest names through the door while Alvaro Morata, Danilo, and James Rodriguez skipped town.

Who knows what’s in the water in Real, but its veteran squad continues to produce big results. Cristiano Ronaldo is 33. Sergio Ramos and Luka Modric 32. Marcelo and Benzema 30.

If Real holds off Liverpool, there will be some myopic notes about how it should’ve been expected to win the match, but that ignores that in a competition as deep as ever, Real took on all comers and triumphed for the third-straight year.

In doing so, they are likely achieving the most impressive feat in modern UCL history, certainly at least since Porto won the 2003-04 tournament under Jose Mourinho… and that was a one-off.

Three key battles for Champions League Final

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Saturday brings Real Madrid’s journey toward a third-straight UEFA Champions League title to a close, with just Liverpool standing in the way.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The Reds attack promises danger and entertainment, while Zinedine Zidane’s personnel choice may be just as important as his tactical decisions in Kiev.

Van Dijk, Lovren against… Ronaldo and whoever Zidane decides

It’s difficult to highlight the match-up problems for Liverpool’s center backs because Zinedine Zidane has used three different set-ups atop his line-up.

At times, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sometimes, Gareth Bale takes Benzema’s spot, and occasionally Ronaldo has been played up top as a center forward.

Believe it or not, that may be the best case scenario for Liverpool, though Ronaldo will undoubtedly roam across the top of the formation. While many think of Ronaldo and visualize his laser shots from distance, he’s quite dangerous in 1v1 aerial battles as well as tight spaces inside the box.

Quite frankly, matches like this highlight why the Reds signed Virgil Van Dijk. And, opinion alert, human bowling ball Benzema and his Juggernaut-esque approach to attacking may be a unique challenge Liverpool has not seen outside of Romelu Lukaku.

Marcelo vs. Mohamed Salah

Marcelo is an unbelievably silky, savvy left back who uses an elite attacking skill set to keep the opposition’s entire right side off kilter.

In some ways he can be partially neutralized by the danger presented by Reds right wing Mo Salah, but Zidane isn’t going to tell Marcelo to camp out in his own end when left center back Sergio Ramos is the next man up to defend, one of the finest players of his generation.

So it’s on Salah to assert himself on the game, something that shouldn’t be a problem after a couple weeks away from match action.

Can Real defend Liverpool on the counter?

We’ve seen Liverpool expose a number of teams on the counter attack, and Real certainly has a handle on how to do the same.

But building on our second key, there’s danger for both sides when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal get up the pitch. When Liverpool regains the ball and attacks at pace, there are big choices to be made.

Say Marcelo is up the pitch. Now Ramos may have to take Salah and leave Roberto Firmino to Raphael Varane. Now Carvajal may be alone with Sadio Mane. It’s not that Carvajal or Marcelo cannot defend, but these are not situations anyone wants in a one-off.

And that’s the key for Liverpool, really. This is a one-off. Over two legs, it’s hard to imagine the Reds as constructed pulling off another heavily-outchanced two-leg win like it did against Manchester City. The answer to this counter question may be what tells the story in Kiev.

Zidane praises Ronaldo, says Real, Liverpool UCL experience “irrelevant”

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As Real Madrid prepares its bid to become the first three-peat winner of the European Cup since the mid-1970s, the Spanish giants still carrying the spirit of an outside, almost like an underdog.

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You can hear it in Zinedine Zidane’s comments on himself, as he casually mentions that he’s not a great tactician.

There’s almost a feeling like he’s building up all of Madrid, including his players, to think of beating Liverpool in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League Final in Kiev like an upset.

And it comes off especially true when he discusses any criticism of his serial Ballon d’Or chaser, Cristiano Ronaldo:

“A player can go through some hard times, but when he does not score he does not get wound up. He knows that the next game he could maybe score two or three goals. That is what happened this year. That’s what makes him the best. There are players that do not thrive under pressure but some do thrive. He is one of those that does. The more you criticize him, the more you should beware. I am a quiet person and in the end, it is better to have Cristiano Ronaldo by your side because he shows year in year out that he is top dog. He will be vital, because he is the best there is.”

Zidane also said Real’s status as a two-time reigning champion, and Liverpool’s 11-year break between UCL finals, are “irrelevant.”

“We must prepare for the game, look at our opponent’s flaws and try to hurt them. It is one match and we are both playing away from home. We are ready and experience will not give us any edge at all. It’s a football match and we have to show that we want to win it.”

WORLD CUP: France wins, but what happened to Ronaldo?

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Despite playing a central role in the establishment of the World Cup, France had always fallen short at the tournament. That changed on one glorious night in Paris in 1998.

[ MORE: PST chats with Vincent Kompany after Man City’s title ]

After a strong start to the tournament it was hosting for the second time, France struggled in the knockout stages. It only managed to make the final after defender Lilian Thuram scored the only two goals of his 142-match international career to give France a 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Croatia.

The prevailing view was that beating defending champion Brazil would prove to be beyond Les Bleus. After all, Brazil had Ronaldo, the undoubted player of the tournament.

But France strolled to its maiden title , two first-half headers from the great Zinedine Zidane easing the nerves in the Stade de France. A third goal from Emmanuel Petit in injury time was the cue for wild celebrations across the country, with the team hailed for its multi-ethnic heritage.

In scenes reminiscent of Paris’ liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944, more than 1 million people stormed the Champs-Elysees to celebrate.

For Brazil, the final remains a mystery.

The team just never got going, its underperformance blamed on the health of Ronaldo. To the shock of just about everyone, coach Mario Zagallo left his main striker out of his starting line-up, apparently for health reasons. Years later, Ronaldo said he had a seizure earlier in the day.

However, just before the match, another team sheet was submitted, this time with Ronaldo’s name on it. Whatever happened, Ronaldo was a very different player that night and Brazil was a very different team.

Ronaldo would get another chance four years later to put the ghosts of Paris behind him.

He did just that.

For more, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tmjFa9LB7Pg

AP World Cup coverage: http://www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup

Zidane plays down Ronaldo injury in El Clascio

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Cristiano Ronaldo was substituted because of a leg injury at halftime in Real Madrid’s 2-2 draw at Barcelona on Sunday.

But Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane is confident that Ronaldo will play against Liverpool in the Champions League final on May 26.

“He doesn’t feel good now, but I don’t think it is anything serious,” Zidane said. “We will have him ready (to play).”

Ronaldo’s right ankle was hurt when Gerard Pique stepped on it while unsuccessfully trying to stop him from scoring an equalizer in the 15th minute.

Ronaldo was briefly attended by team doctors on the pitch and then continued to play for the rest of the first half.

The Portugal forward, however, was replaced by Marco Asensio at halftime.

Ronaldo will then join Portugal at the World Cup next month.