Midfielder ready for Saturday's showdown with defending champions Real Madrid in Kiev
Being around Zinedine Zidane will be bonus for Liverpool's Gini Wijnaldum in Uefa Champions League final
Heroes can be made in the Uefa Champions League final. They can also be met. “Will I tell him? Maybe, we’ll see,” mused Gini Wijnaldum. Like him, his boyhood favourite was a midfielder who wore the No 5 shirt for his club, one who scored a pivotal goal in a European campaign; the Dutchman struck away at Roma in this season’s semi-final while his role model finished in spectacular style in the 2002 final.
There is only one complication. “He’s now manager of Madrid,” said the Liverpool midfielder. Zinedine Zidane’s fan club even extends to opponents. “As a player he was unbelievable,” explained Wijnaldum. “I was always happy to look at him. When I was young, he was one of my idols because of the way he was playing. He was a midfielder who made everything look so easy. He did outstanding things, I liked him a lot.”
On Saturday he will be tasked with thwarting one of his heroes, albeit indirectly. If Zidane was one of the game’s great playmakers, the Real Madrid pair of Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are two of his modern-day counterparts. Liverpool have a different approach towards creativity. “No playmaker in the world can be as good as a good counter-pressing situation,” manager Jurgen Klopp said in 2016.
Pressing is their playmaker. It entails playing at pace and with a remarkable work rate that once led Wijnaldum to declare his body was “broken” by the end of last season. “It was difficult when I came here,” he said. “Everyone has to press at the same time. Sometimes it also goes around. If one or two players don’t do what they have to do it makes it more your weakness than your strength. That’s why we train it a lot, trying to play pressing all the time, to make it better and better and better. But we still practice it.”
It sets up a clash of styles in Kiev. Real will try to out-pass Liverpool. The Premier League team will aim to outrun their Primera Liga rivals. They are uncompromising in their methods. Wijnaldum said Klopp’s message was not to change. “He said we are going to do what we always do,” he explained. Liverpool will press. “We're happy to do that because that helps the forward players.”
One of those attackers is Mohamed Salah. Predictably, this is being billed as a shoot-out between top scorers. “They have [Cristiano] Ronaldo, we have Mo who has a wonderful season,” Wijnaldum said. “But I don’t need to see it like Mo against Ronaldo. More Liverpool against Real Madrid.” While superstar attackers’ seasons have both produced 44 goals, Wijnaldum guarded against comparisons with the duo who have dominated the individual awards for the past decade.
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“This season he competes with him, but we have to see how he is going to do it next season and the season after and the season after to compare them really with each other. [Lionel] Messi and Ronaldo can compete with each other because they have been doing it for years.”
It is a mantra of Wijnaldum’s. Reaching the Champions League final represents the realisation of an ambition. “When I came here I was dreaming of moments like this,” he said. Victory could mean this team are bracketed with the heroes of Istanbul. Yet he is aware there is a higher place in the Anfield pantheon. “You have to win a lot more,” he said. “Some players here won a lot, they are legends, if you take Kenny Dalglish, I don’t think that a Champions League win will bring you up with Kenny Dalglish.”
Or, indeed, up with a Zinedine Zidane.