Real Madrid wrapped up the La Liga title with four games to go and secured a spot in the Champions League final just four days later.
As a result, with the pressure off, Carlo Ancelotti has approached the back end of La Liga as a “mini pre-season” in preparation for the big night at Stade de France in Paris.
The Italian has alternately put out heavily rotated and full-strength line-ups. Only two have started every single game in this phase: Nacho and Rodrygo. Yet, heading into the final, it is Rodrygo’s starting position on the right flank that is most up for debate.
Rodrygo has been in sensational form recently. In La Liga, the winger scored a brace against Espanyol on the day Madrid won the title, scored against Levante two games later and got an assist against Cádiz the following game.
Add to that his knack of scoring hugely important late goals in the Champions League knockout ties, and there is a strong case to be made that he deserves to start the final. However, Fede Valverde’s case is arguably stronger.
Right from the second leg against PSG, Fede Valverde has been Ancelotti’s trump card in big games.
Ancelotti was forced to start the Uruguayan in the midfield three due to Casemiro being suspended, but the midfielder’s work rate and versatility proved key in Madrid pulling off their first comeback.
Madrid failed to impose any semblance of control in the first leg of the tie, with Marco Verratti running the show against their famed but tired midfield trio. In the second leg, Valverde’s tireless efforts went a long way in minimising Verratti’s influence.
Ever since, Valverde has been a fixture in Real Madrid’s starting eleven, starting on the right flank over Marco Asensio and Rodrygo.
Valverde starting lends Madrid a massive tactical advantage. The Uruguayan uses his blistering pace and relentless work rate to do a commendable job, particularly defensively.
Valverde’s presence on the right aids Dani Carvajal enormously in doubling down on the opposition left flank. Whether that be containing Kylian Mbappé and Nuno Mendes against PSG or keeping check on Phil Foden and João Cancelo against Manchester City, Valverde has been vital in defensive actions for Los Blancos.
Liverpool will perhaps be the toughest test of all, with the pace of Luis Díaz and the marauding presence of Andrew Robertson key components of their build-up, making Fede’s defensive tenacity a much more reassuring presence for Ancelotti and Madridistas.
Valverde’s versatility also allows more freedom to Toni Kroos and Luka Modrić, with the latter able to occupy a higher and more central position on occasion. His energy is a huge plus point, making him a dependable option even if the game stretches beyond 90 minutes.
Valverde has played all but four minutes in Madrid’s last five games in the knockout stage, two of which (the second legs vs Chelsea and City) went to extra time.
Four of Rodrygo’s five Champions League goals this season have been off the bench. The 21-year-old has picked up an uncanny habit of coming up clutch in Real Madrid’s magical run to the final.
In the Brazilian, Madrid retain a potent offensive threat capable of exploiting tired defences with his cunning movement and crisp finishing ability.
If Real Madrid find themselves a goal or two down, as they often have this campaign, Rodrygo is the best threat of goals off the bench, given Marco Asensio’s patchy form and Eden Hazard’s questionable sharpness.
A couple of months back, Fede Valverde spoke of how his nickname within the Madrid dressing room had elevated from ‘El Pajarito’ (The little bird) to ‘El Halcon’ (The hawk).
“My mind and body feel good enough to live up to that nickname and show my courage at Real Madrid”, the Uruguayan quipped.
And he has grown in stature too, going from the bench to being ever-present during Los Blancos’ ridiculous journey on midweek nights.
Many expected Ancelotti to name his strongest XI in the final league game against Real Betis, with a hint that that was the team he would rely on from the get-go eight days later.
But despite choosing Rodrygo then, it will be a surprise to no one if Fede Valverde walks out of the tunnel to hear the Champions League anthem come Saturday night.
Tactically and psychologically, the idea of Valverde starting and coping with Liverpool’s left side, before Rodrygo comes on to provide the X-factor in the second half, just seems ideal.