Salah should be concerned about facing ‘Mr Champions League’ Marcelo

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The Brazilian left-back rarely receives the plaudits some of his team-mates do but he has been key to Real Madrid’s European dominance

On Marcelo’s left thigh is etched a tattoo of the Champions League trophy and underneath the design are written three dates – 2014, 2016, 2017. Real Madrid have won 12 European Cups in total and a quarter of those have come in the last four years.

The attainment of La Decima – against Atletico Madrid in Lisbon – launched a new dynasty at Santiago Bernabeu. Madrid’s status as a continental superpower may have been secured in the late 1950s and early 1960s thanks to players like Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento and their achievements. But modern Real Madrid team are writing their own history.

Marcelo admitted earlier this season in an article for The Players’ Tribune that he had never heard of the Champions League until he caught the 2004 final between Porto and Monaco at the Fluminense youth training camp when he was 16.

The Champions League was on pay TV in Brazil and his family couldn’t afford it. But there is no doubt that he understands how much it signifies now. The 30-year-old is an indelible part of Madrid’s history in the competition.

And, above his knee, there is plenty of space for more dates to be written in.

“He arrived with his grandpa and he was such a nice kid,” Francisco Pavon, Marcelo’s ex-Madrid team-mate, told Goal. “I spent a year-and-a-half with him. His family gave him a great education from when he was very young and he was so shy at the beginning.

“It wasn’t easy for him because he arrived at Real Madrid in order to become the heir to Roberto Carlos and he wanted to play all games. Marcelo didn’t get a lot of playing time but look what he has become. I am so happy for him because he deserves it.”

The comparisons with his predecessor will endure. Roberto Carlos may have the World Cup medal but he cannot match Marcelo’s riches in the Champions League.

“I played with both,” says Pavon. “Both are very different even if both are offensive left-backs, but each has his own skills. In their own way, I think they have been the best left-backs ever to play for Real Madrid.”

While Madrid possess Cristiano Ronaldo and one of the game’s finest midfield quartets in Casemiro, Toni Kroos, Luka Modric and Isco, it is the work of Marcelo and his cohort Dani Carvajal at right-back that have often given the team the impetus they need to overwhelm the opposition.

“Both [Marcelo and Carvajal] are fundamental, especially in attack,” says Pavon. “Both bring superiority when attacking because they go forward often and create two-versus-one situations.

“A lot of goals this season have come after long runs from one of them ended with a Cristiano or a [Karim] Benzema shot.”

The evidence has been borne out time and again in the knockout rounds, where Madrid have recovered from an ordinary group-stage showing to take their place as favourites ahead of Saturday’s final against Liverpool in Kiev.

Carvajal, of course, provided Ronaldo his assist for one of the best overhead kicks the world has ever seen. That came against Juventus in the quarter-final first leg when the Italians were destroyed in Turin.

And it was Marcelo’s clever ball to Isco, who crossed for Ronaldo to score early on, which got Madrid going on the night. He added a late third himself. His one-touch control and cross for Benzema’s header in the semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich should also be considered a standout moment of his Champions League season.

These are not the type of actions you would normally expect from a left-back. But Marcelo has made the role something new and utterly unique.

As well as that goal he notched against Juve, he scored the third goal to break Paris St-Germain’s spirit in the first leg of the last 16. He also earned Madrid a crucial equaliser in the first leg of the semi-final against Bayern.

“The good thing is that we have him and not the other teams,” coach Zinedine Zidane said after the Bayern game. “He is an important player for what we want to do, especially offensively. At any moment, he can make a difference.”

Marcelo celebrated his strike against PSG by sprinting to the technical area and embracing his manager emphasising the unity within the Madrid ranks. Zidane was under serious pressure for his side’s shortcomings in the group phase and in La Liga, where they had slipped fatally behind Barcelona. But Madrid stuck together.

And when you look at Madrid’s line-ups from the 2014, 2016 and 2017 finals, you’ll find continuity. You’ll see a crop of players who have learned to suffer together and who have garnered the experience of what it takes to boss this competition. That continuity has helped Madrid at key times this campaign.

While they haven’t always been at their best collectively, there is still an outstanding togetherness and clarity of purpose among Madrid’s elders. Real Madrid exists to win the Champions League and their players understand that.

As has been demonstrated time and again this season, opposition teams live in fear of Madrid. Real block, they resist and when the moment comes, they strike.

Marcelo may well be named in direct opposition to Mohamed Salah on Saturday in Kiev, one of the world’s most in-form players. While the Egyptian carries a potent goal threat and is lightening quick, he will have to be just as concerned about Marcelo as the Brazilian is about him.

Because if Marcelo gets the other side of him and helps to set up an ambush with Isco or Ronaldo on Liverpool’s right-back, then a familiar feeling will take hold. Madrid will be again hunting goals through their most productive channel.


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