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Really the favorite

Madrid club hits Paris looking for 8th European crown

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Posted: Monday May 22, 2000 12:20 PM

  Lorenzo Sanz Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz would love to get acquainted again with the European Cup like he did in 1998. Shaun Botterill/Allsport

By Pedro Pinto,

PARIS -- Wednesday's Champions League final at the Stade de France is a battle between the haves and the have-nots.

Real Madrid have been this far before and walked away with the trophy; Valencia have not. The team is taking its first steps in the final of a major European competition.

Real Madrid's trophy cabinet includes a record 7 European Cups, the last of which was won just 2 years ago when the "meringues" beat Juventus 1-nil in Amsterdam. To add to their European glory, which also includes a couple of UEFA Cup titles, real have also won the intercontinental cup twice, the Spanish league 27 times and the domestic cup on 17 occasions.

With this kind of experience, they may be seen as favorites, but Real Madrid knows what its up against.

"Valencia are in excellent form right now," says Madrid coach Vicente del Bosque. "They have peaked at the end of the season. They have a lot of quality players and have shown a lot of work and improvement this year."

Real Madrid's form has also improved in the millenium... And that was clearly seen in a memorable 3-2 win at defending champions Manchester United and a solid 2-nil home victory against Bayern Munich.

Real President Lorenzo Sanz said believes that if his club plays with that kind of intensity, there is no reason why they shouldn't win.

"If we play like we did at Old Trafford or against Bayern," he said, "We can win and are favorites to win."

Real has come a long way from the many moments of turbulence that it lived through this year. Who can forget about Real's horrible start to the season under John Toshack, which saw the team win just four out of its first 15 league matches?

And then there was the Nicolas Anelka crisis. Real's most expensive player of all time refused to turn up for training for 3 days as he complained about del Bosque's tactics. The volatile Frenchman was suspended without pay by the club, a move that might have changed his attitude on and off the field. Anelka apologized publicly and was forgiven by real directors. He then came on to score 2 crucial goals in the semifinal tie against bayern.

Anelka could definitely have a part to play in the final, but there is no doubt that the side's attacking play will be centered around another man -- Raul. He leads Real with nine Champions League goals and is a threat when he plays up front or just behind the two strikers.

"Raul is a high class player," argues Real legend Alfredo di Stefano, who scored over 200 goals for the club. "He normally responds well in big occasions. But he'll need support from midfield and Fernando Redondo."

Well it seems Real has no problems in attack, as it averaged two goals per game in the Champions League this season. But it was at the back where they were shaky, and the record shows it: 23 goals conceded in 16 matches. Therefore, a lot of pressure will be on young keeper Iker Casillas who at 18 years of age has the responsibility of keeping men like Claudio Lopez, who has five Champions League goals, at bay.

So the writing is on the wall for Real ahead of the title match as it tries to make it eight European championship trophies out of 11 final appearances. Its fans won't expect anything less, especially after Real finished a disappointing 5th place in the Spanish first division, meaning that it must win the Champions League final just to make it into next year's edition.

Related information
Champions League Final Experts' Picks
Champions League Head-to-Head's Jones: No true champion for Europe's Marcotti: Ace up the sleeve
Real Madrid suffers four crucial injuries
Valencia's Lopez set for Lazio move
Real, Valencia ready for historic all-Spanish final
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