Champions League Final Cheat Sheet: 17 Things to Know About Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund (2024)

No club in UEFA Champions League/European Cup history has won Europe’s top soccer prize more than Real Madrid, who will attempt to add one more to their tally on Saturday in London against Borussia Dortmund. A trophy on Saturday would mark a sixth Champions League title in an 11-year stretch for Real Madrid, and the 15th overall for the club.

Given that Los Blancos have added a wealth of young talent to the club and are set to sign arguably the best player in the world, Kylian Mbappé, in the summer, Real Madrid are well positioned to remain at the top of European football for years to come. While this was supposed to be a transition year for Borussia Dortmund after selling top stars Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham in consecutive summers, Dortmund made a remarkable run in the competition to reach the final despite finishing only fifth in the domestic German league.

To preview the Champions League final, I compiled 17 things you need to know before the match kicks off at Wembley Stadium.

1. There are 23 clubs that have won the UEFA Champions League/European Cup, and only 13 have won the competition multiple times. Borussia Dortmund could become the 14th to hoist the trophy for at least a second time.

Dortmund last won the Champions League in 1996-97, beating Italian giants Juventus 3-1 in the final. Dortmund’s only other appearance in the title match was in 2013, when fellow German side Bayern Munich beat them 2-1. Bayern (six) is the only German team to win the competition multiple times.

2. Borussia Dortmund entered the group stage with the lowest odds of advancing to the knockout stage in their group after being placed in the “Group of Death” with Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, and Newcastle United. Dortmund went on to win the group (14.5 percent implied probability at the start of the tournament) while conceding only four goals (more on that later), beating Newcastle twice in consecutive matches and taking four out of six possible points against Milan. Dortmund was also a solid underdog in its Champions League quarterfinal against Atlético Madrid (40 percent market implied) and in its semifinal against PSG (32 percent).

3. There are only two players from that 2013 Dortmund Champions League final team still with the club today, and only one player who has stayed with Dortmund entirely through the past 11 years. That player is Marco Reus, and Saturday will be his final match before he leaves the club in the summer. Reus scored an incredible free kick goal in his final home match two weeks ago.

Marco Reus scores a free kick goal in his last Bundesliga game for Borussia Dortmund

— Arpit (@ag_arpit1) May 18, 2024

The 35-year-old midfielder may or may not start in Saturday’s final, but he’ll be one of the first names manager Edin Terzic turns to off the bench if Dortmund needs a second-half difference maker. Reus has played in 428 matches for the club and tallied 170 goals and 131 assists. While Reus never managed to get Dortmund over the top for a Bundesliga title in his time there, Dortmund won the DFB-Pokal—Germany’s domestic knockout tournament—in 2017 and 2021.

The other player that was part of that 2013 Dortmund team is center back Mats Hummels, who spent nine seasons at Dortmund (2008-2016) before transferring to Bayern Munich, then switching back to Dortmund in 2019. Hummels has been a key player throughout this Champions League run, scoring in the semifinal against PSG, and will likely start in the final on Saturday.

4. Reus isn’t the only club legend playing his final match for his team on Saturday. Real Madrid midfielder Toni Kroos received his send-off at the Santiago Bernabéu last week and now will play his final match for Los Blancos in the Champions League final. Kroos is set to retire from the sport following this summer’s Euro 2024, where his home country of Germany will host the tournament. But first, in London, Kroos is likely to start at the base of midfield for Real Madrid before being replaced in the second half by fellow aging star Luka Modric.

Kroos has played 10 full seasons at Real Madrid, and his partnership with Casemiro and Modric formed what many consider to be one of the best midfield groups of all time. During their spell together, Real Madrid won the Champions League three consecutive times from 2016 to 2018.

5. If Dortmund is going to win this match, it’ll need to rely on red-hot goalkeeper Gregor Kobel. The Swiss international ranked second out of 33 goalkeepers in the Bundesliga in goals saved over expected this season. He helped cover for a Dortmund defense that has been average by underlying metrics for most of the year. (More on this in a bit.)

Kobel is estimated to have prevented about 3.8 goals over the course of the season in domestic play. His Champions League performances have been even better. Kobel has a plus-6 post-shot expected goal (xG) difference in 12 CL matches, which means he’s saving around a half goal per match on average with his pure shot-stopping ability.

6. Dortmund has needed Kobel because the team’s defensive metrics have been mediocre all season. The German side conceded 52 expected goals in 34 league matches, which ranked ninth in the 18-team Bundesliga. Dortmund was eighth in shots allowed, 12th in average shot distance conceded, and ninth in touches allowed in their own penalty area. BVB did allow the fourth-lowest pass completion rate in Germany because of their pressing intensity, but their inability to stop the ball in transition led to consistent defensive breakdowns. Their defensive issues were further exposed in the Champions League, too, which makes this run to the final all the more improbable.

Dortmund allowed only nine goals in 12 CL matches, but that came from 22.2 expected goals. They lost or tied the xG battle in 10 of their 12 matches, with the lone xG victories coming in the group stage against Newcastle. It’s the beauty of the knockout format that has allowed Dortmund to make it this far, but there’s a reason betting markets have Real Madrid around a 76 percent probability of lifting the trophy on Saturday.

7. While Kobel is the unquestioned no. 1 goalkeeper for Borussia Dortmund, there is a very difficult decision for manager Carlo Ancelotti to make for Real Madrid. Ancelotti has claimed in the past that starting goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is the best in the world, and he’s back to near full fitness after major knee injuries cost him most of his season. In a vacuum, a fit and healthy Courtois would be the clear selection in goal for Los Blancos. Courtois’s incredible shot-stopping performance in the 2022 Champions League final against Liverpool is pretty much the only reason they beat a superior side that day in Paris.

Nevertheless, Courtois is coming off a serious injury, and backup Andriy Lunin has been excellent in his place. Lunin made numerous saves against both RB Leipzig and Manchester City to help propel Madrid through the knockout stage, including a penalty shootout victory against City, the defending champions.

Because Courtois did at least start four of the final five matches of the La Liga season, I fully expect him to be in goal when the lineup is released on Saturday. In four matches, he made 15 saves, conceded zero goals, and saved about 3.1 goals over expected.

8. Set pieces were another major issue for Terzic’s defense this season. Dortmund allowed the fifth-most expected goals off set pieces in the Bundesliga and finished fifth in the league table. The only four teams that conceded more chances from set plays finished 14th, 16th, 17th, and 18th. The last two were relegated to the second division. As much as Kobel was an elite shot stopper this season, one of his primary weaknesses was defending crosses. He ranks in just the fifth percentile in crosses claimed in the last calendar year. Real Madrid finished the La Liga season 11th in xG created from set plays and just eighth in goals scored, so it’s not a primary method of attack for the Spanish side. Still, Dortmund’s vulnerability there is the kind of weakness that often decides finals and high-profile matches.

9. As much as defensive set pieces were a liability for Dortmund, attacking ones were a major advantage given Dortmund’s size in the air. First-choice striker Niclas Fullkrug, center backs Mats Hummels and Nico Schlotterbeck, and defensive midfielder Emre Can all contributed to BVB’s creation of the most set piece expected goals in the entire Bundesliga. As much as Dortmund is likely to concede from a dead-ball situation, the attack produced 0.49 expected goals per match from set plays alone. The problem for Dortmund is Real Madrid’s set piece defense. Madrid allowed just two league goals all season from set plays, the fewest in Europe’s top five leagues.

10. There were a couple of notable exceptions—like Real Madrid’s recent 4-4 draw against Villarreal in a dead rubber—but Madrid really improved defensively in the second half of the season. Madrid conceded 1.07 xG per 90 minutes between the start of the league year in August and January 1. From January 1 to May 1, which doesn’t include end-of-season matches after which the league was already clinched, Madrid’s defense conceded just 0.77 xG per 90 minutes. That’s not quite Arsenal or Inter Milan level, but Real Madrid had one of the best defenses in Europe.

When Real Madrid made its miraculous run through the Champions League in 2022 with dramatic upsets and comebacks, it was the product of the team overcoming a relatively mediocre defense. While it hasn’t always been elite this year, the second-half improvements and management of a midseason center back injury crisis gave Madrid a more solid defensive foundation. Even though the club did need two late goals to come back and beat Bayern in the semifinal, it’s also true that Bayern produced just 1.25 non-penalty expected goals across two legs.

11. Real Madrid’s out-of-possession tactics are different from those of most of the top superteams in Europe in that they don’t constrict passing and possession of their opponents nearly as much as the elites. While Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, Barcelona, and Bayern all try to press high up the pitch and force mistakes, Ancelotti’s side has the joint highest pass completion rate (82.2 percent) allowed in La Liga this year.

Only Atlético Madrid, a team that famously sits deep in its defensive third of the pitch, allowed an equal percentage of passes completed. Real Madrid is elite in transition when it wants to be, but it’s not because Los Blancos force a ton of high turnovers. Madrid is eighth in passes per defensive action in La Liga, a measure of pressing intensity. They are considerably lower than Barcelona and Real Sociedad, who press the ball at almost every opportunity. As a result, Real Madrid is fourth in high turnovers forced and significantly behind fellow top-five teams Athletic Club and Barcelona. I wouldn’t expect Real Madrid to dominate possession in this match, especially with them being so comfortable defending without the ball. Even despite the lack of pressing, Real Madrid allowed the second-fewest touches in its own penalty area in La Liga this year.

12. Real Madrid bought Jude Bellingham from Dortmund for 103 million euros last summer, and even the most optimistic Bellingham and Madrid fans couldn’t have predicted this level of goal output from the young English superstar. Bellingham is just 20 years old, and many players usually see their goal production and creative output decline when leaving the Bundesliga due to the league’s unique high-scoring nature and traditionally open play. Bellingham’s first season in Madrid was the opposite. Only two players in Spain—Girona’s Artem Dovbyk and Villarreal’s Alexander Sorloth, both strikers—scored more goals than the midfielder in league play.

Madrid was left without a true reliable striker after the sale of Karim Benzema to Saudi Arabia last summer, but the front three of Bellingham, Rodrygo, and Vinicius Junior proved to be more than enough offense. (Joselu and Brahim Diaz also combined for 18 league goals).

Bellingham went from an excellent all-around midfielder at 19 to potential Ballon d’Or winner at 20. He’ll be 21 during the Euros this summer. The Euros and Saturday’s final will matter for his Ballon d’Or case, but Bellingham already has four goals and four assists in 10 CL matches to add onto 19 league goals as a midfielder who took only one penalty for the club this year. He was Dortmund’s best player last year, and now he’s the best player in this Champions League final.

13. The loss of Benzema also meant that Real Madrid would be dangerously low on shot volume unless Vinicius Junior took another leap forward in his production. The 2021-22 season had been a breakout campaign for Vinicius, who scored the game-winning goal in Real Madrid’s 1-0 upset of Liverpool in Paris. But he took a bit of a step back last year in overall production—as did Real Madrid as a whole—only for him to reach new heights this year in his age-23 season.

(All stats per 90 minutes.)

2022-23: 2.45
2023-24: 3.72

2022-23: 0.34
2023-24: 0.63

Successful take-ons:
2022-23: 3.57
2023-24: 3.14

Vinicius Junior had marginally fewer winger responsibilities and focused more of his production toward being a goal scorer. His expected assists per 90, dribbles, and carries into the penalty area remained at his previously elite levels, while his shots and goals took a leap.

Dortmund has some recent experience in dealing with explosive wide forwards who can wreck games with their pace and dribbling ability. Dortmund did a solid job of containing Mbappé in the semifinals, and Vinicius Junior is the closest player in the sport to Mbappé’s skill set right now.

14. Borussia Dortmund made two key loan additions in the January transfer window, and both have walked right into the first team. Ian Maatsen and Jadon Sancho weren’t getting any playing time at Chelsea and Manchester United, respectively, and Dortmund pounced like the well-run club they are to get these talented players for basically nothing. Sancho had already made his name at Dortmund—he and Haaland used to wreck Bundesliga defenses for fun—and Maatsen found himself as an odd man out after a Chelsea transfer splurge last summer. Maatsen’s defensive and pressing energy has helped Dortmund more frequently win the ball in midfield and has contributed to a marginally better defense, albeit still one with flaws, as previously noted.

Sancho has not found the consistent shot and goal output since returning to Dortmund, but he’s been immensely valuable as a ball carrier and wide ball progression engine. Sancho scored a key goal at home against PSV in the second leg of the Round of 16, and he was Dortmund’s clear best player in the first leg at home in the semifinal win against PSG. Sancho is passing the ball into the penalty area more than twice per match in all competitions since rejoining the club in January. Maatsen is combining for more than three tackles and interceptions per match, and his ability to defend is a considerable improvement over the previous left back situation.

15. While Dortmund was comfortably the fifth-best team in Germany this season, the trend line was clearly going up as the season progressed. Dortmund finished the first 17 matches of the Bundesliga season with a minus-0.02 xG difference per match. Opponents were creating more quality chances per match than Dortmund did, which is alarming for the usually elite German team. That would be their worst mark since at least 2017—the furthest back I could find Bundesliga xG data. The defense was allowing 1.81 xGA per match, and that matches up with their Champions League defensive performances. Dortmund regularly conceded at least two xG to every quality team they played.

Sancho and Maatsen have played some role in the improvements, as Dortmund’s second half has been plus-0.66 xG per 90. The defense went from legitimately a below-average team to a barely above-average one. You can’t just ignore half of a season’s worth of data, but it’s worth noting that even a plus-0.66 xG difference is below the standard set by previous good Dortmund teams that challenged for league titles.

16. Real Madrid’s ability to play without the ball and successfully exploit teams in transition has made them a monster with a lead in recent history. I don’t have Champions League data for specific game states, but the La Liga data from 2023-24 paints a clear picture.

Real Madrid in various game states (all stats per 90)

When leading

Goals scored: 2.22
xG for: 2.28
xG difference: plus-1.5

When tied

Goals: 1.49
xGF: 1.34
xGD: plus-0.44

When losing

Goals: 2.72
xGF: 2.18
xGD: plus-1.34

What does this data tell us? The score of the match is hugely important in soccer. Real Madrid produces a ton of chances when trailing, and they have to take huge risks to come back into games. Most teams park the bus and defend for their lives when leading against a team of Real Madrid’s caliber, and most elite teams produce huge xG totals when trailing.

The amazing piece in the data is that Real Madrid produces more chances per minute when leading then when trailing, and way more than when tied. Madrid is most average in neutral game states and most dominant when already playing with the lead. If Real Madrid goes up early and Dortmund has to take more risks, that will play right into the strengths of Ancelotti’s side.

17. We’ve seen this kind of David vs. Goliath matchup in the Champions League final before. Inter Milan was an even bigger underdog in the betting markets last year and still outplayed Manchester City for a lot of that match. Spurs rode a similarly incredible wave to the 2019 Champions League final before an early penalty doomed them against Liverpool. Chelsea famously won this title in 2012 despite not finishing in the top four in England. Atlético Madrid came within minutes and a penalty shoot-out of beating city rivals Real Madrid twice in three years in the mid-2010s.

The Analyst’s power rankings, powered by Opta, have Real Madrid as the second-best club team in the world. They have Dortmund ranked 11th—betting markets would have them even lower.

Borussia Dortmund would be the unlikeliest champion since that Chelsea team, and maybe even longer. If not for the Champions League expansion next year, this match would be Dortmund’s only way of qualifying for next year’s competition, further adding onto the Chelsea comparisons. If Kobel has one more master-class performance left in him, then Terzic and Dortmund could well lift the trophy in London to avenge the 2013 loss to Bayern in the same stadium. More likely than not, though, the most successful club in European history will further add to its trophy case and prepare to add the world’s best player right afterward.

Champions League Final Cheat Sheet: 17 Things to Know About Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund (2024)
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