Countdown to Champions League final: Looking at Chelsea, back to front

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So much is stacked against Chelsea on Saturday, but given the season they’ve had, the Blues should be thrilled to have another shot at their first European Cup. They’ve survived a poor run under a new coach and some additional miles on some already old bodies to make their second final, with only Bayern Munich standing between owner Roman Abramovich and the title that’s motivated his soccer investment.

Unfortunately, Bayern will be playing at home. And, while Bayern’s dealing with suspensions, Chelsea’s seem potentially more devastating. Their best midfielder is out, and the team has little reasonable recourse should one of their central defenders (returning from injury) fail to make it to the final whistle.

Looking at … defense: Like Bayern, Chelsea’s dealing with key, shakeup-forcing absences. John Terry was caught kneeing Alexis Sanchez in the lower back during the semifinal leg in Barcelona. He’s banned, as is Branislav Ivanovic, who accumulated too many yellows (Ramires and Raul Meireles are also suspended).

That forces David Luiz and Gary Cahill into the lineup even through hamstring injuries have kept both central defenders sidelined for weeks. Given the alternative, Chelsea will take what they can get. A central defense of Michael Essien and Sam Hutchinson was a possibility before Luiz and Cahill returned to training earlier this week.

Wide, Chelsea will have Ashley Cole (left) and José Bosingwa. Cole’s performances against Barcelona showed he’s still capable of being the game’s best left back. Bosingwa, on the other hand, is somebody who wouldn’t be playing where it not for the suspensions. At one time Chelsea’s first choice on the right, Bosingwa’s defending has seen him relegated to the bench behind center half-turned-fullback Ivanovic. It’s not exactly the profile of somebody you’d want matched up with Franck Ribery.

Thankfully, Chelsea have Petr Cech as their last line of defense. Against Barcelona, Cech was his former self – a self that was often considered one of the world’s best goalkeepers. In the FA Cup final against Liverpool, he came up with a huge save on Andy Carroll to preserve the Blues’ trophy. He has the ability to keep Chelsea in this one should their defense break down, though he’ll have to be aggressive off his line to keep Bayern from making Mario Gomez into a difference-maker.

Looking at … midfield: John Obi Mikel has experienced a revival under Roberto di Matteo. After seeing his time disappear under Andre Villas-Boas, Mikel has been re-instilled as Chelsea’s first choice defensive midfielder. He’ll line up along with Frank Lampard in the 4-2-3-1’s deeper positions, with Lampard playing the shuttling role.

Lampard will also be the first cog in Chelsea’s counter attacks, with attacking midfielder Juan Mata the next level’s link. More known for his wide play than as a through-the-middle option, Mata has been drawn in by di Matteo’s shift to 4-2-3-1. Like Thomas Müller, however, his tendencies lead him to play higher up the pitch than a natural midfielder would do in the same role. A conservative Chelsea will give him a deeper base position; however, if the game opens up, he will act more in support of Didier Drogba.

Out wide, Chelsea’s ready to make a surprise choice. Ryan Bertrand, the left back-in-waiting, will be handed a start at left midfield, with Florent Malouda unable to go through injury. As others have opined, this seems a response to Bayern’s right flank, which features Arjen Robben and Philipp Lahm. Regardless, Bertrand’s European debut will be on the biggest stage of them all.

On the other side, Salomon Kalou will assume the spot normally occupied by Ramires. If Bayern starts Lahm at left back (with Rafinha on the right), Kalou and Bosingwa could be in trouble.

Looking at … attack: Didier Drogba’s going to have to do a lot of the work by himself, but if there’s one player who you’d want to take up that challenge, Drogba is it. Inspired spring performances against Barcelona, Liverpool and Tottenham have silenced speculation the 34-year-old Ivorian has lost a step. I mean, he definitely has, but it’s a bit foolish to talk about such things when Drogba’s scoring key goals in big games.

Even with Mata acting as a facilitator, Chelsea’s play to Drogba tends to be very direct and (often) very long. Part of the reason the Blues can sit so deep in defense is the faith they have in Drogba’s ability to win long balls and hold up play, letting their midfield get into attack. Without Ramires to serve as the second man in transition, Drogba might have to hold the ball a little more (and for a little longer), but with significant advantages against Jerome Boateng and (possibly) Anatoliy Tymoshchuk, Drogba can still have his way.

Likely Starting Lineup

G: Petr Cech
LB: Ashley Cole
CB: David Luiz
CB: Gary Cahill
RB: José Bosingwa
DM: John Obi Mikel
M: Frank Lampard
LM: Ryan Bertrand
AM: Juan Mata
RM: Salomon Kalou
F: Didier Drogba

Most dangerous player: Didier Drogba

Most likely to score: Drogba

Best creator: Frank Lampard

Key defender: David Luiz

Most important: Petr Cech

Back to front: Bayern Munich

WATCH: USMNT’s Pulisic cues up ex-Man City teen for 1st goal

AP Photo/Martin Meissner
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Jadon Sancho made history for English players in Germany thanks to a little help from an American teenager.

Christian Pulisic dribbled free from a pack of would-be tacklers to cue up the ex-Manchester City player for a finish against Bayer Leverkusen in the 13th minute of a match at the Westfalenstadion on Saturday.

[ MORE: Klopp rips West Brom ]

Sancho just turned 18 on March 25, and becomes the youngest English goal scorer in Bundesliga history having entered the match with one assist in 415 Bundesliga minutes.

As for 19-year-old Pulisic, the USMNT prodigy has five goals and seven assists in 39 matches across all competitions this season.

Dele, Alexis trade 1st half goals in FA Cup semi (video)

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Paul Pogba made amends for an early marking error that led to a Spurs opener by setting up Alexis Sanchez’s equalizer as Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are tied at 1 after 45 minutes of their FA Cup semifinal at Wembley Stadium.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

Spurs went ahead through Dele, as Pogba lost Christian Eriksen as the Dane raced onto a long ball. Eriksen crossed to the back post for Dele’s sliding finish.

Pogba made amends in his preferred third of the pitch, stealing the ball from a Mousa Dembele and lofting an inch-perfect cross for Alexis to nod home. The headed finish was anything but easy, hit across the goal while falling to the pitch.

Sunderland relegated for second-straight season

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It’s one-and-done for Sunderland in the Championship, though not in the way expected by most  supporters of the Black Cats.

[ RECAP: WBA 2-2 Liverpool ]

Relegated from the Premier League under David Moyes‘ guidance last season, Sunderland lost Saturday to leave them six points back of safety with two to play.

But either Burton Albion or Bolton will get at least a point from a match against each other, meaning Sunderland would need at least seven when all is said and done.

  • Twenty-one clubs have been relegated since the start of the 2010-11 season.
  • Six have sunk as low as League One (including Sunderland)
  • Seven returned to the Premier League (including Wolves for 18-19)
  • Ten are currently in the Championship

It’s a message to all Premier League sides expecting favorite status in the Championship, including likely relegation side West Bromwich Albion.

Here’s how the most recent sides have fared since dropping out of the top flight.

Relegated sides this decade, and current status
*club still alive for 2018-19 promotion to Premier League
#club could be relegated from current league

Hull City (2016-17) — Championship
Middlesbrough (2016-17) — Championship*
Sunderland (2016-17) — Relegated to League One
Newcastle United (2015-16) — Returned to PL in one season
Norwich City (2015-16) — Championship
Aston Villa (2015-16) — Championship*
Hull City (2014-15) — Promoted at first chance, then relegated last season
Burnley (2014-15) — Promoted at first chance
Queens Park Rangers (2014-15) — Championship
Norwich City (2013-14) — Has since been promoted, relegated back to Championship
Fulham (2013-14) — Championship*
Cardiff City (2013-14) — Championship*
Wigan Athletic (2012-13) — promoted to Championship for 2018-19
Reading (2012-13) — Championship#
Queens Park Rangers (2012-13) — Since promoted, relegated back to Championship
Bolton (2011-12) — Championship#
Blackburn (2011-12) — League One*
Wolves (2011-12) — Promoted to Premier League this season
Birmingham City (2010-11) — Championship#
Blackpool (2010-11) — League One
West Ham United (2010-11) — Promoted at first chance, still PL

LIVE, FA Cup semifinal: Man United v Tottenham

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Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur clash in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley on Saturday (12:15 p.m. ET kick off) with both Mauricio Pochettino and Jose Mourinho aiming to keep alive their only remaining hope of winning a trophy this season.

[ LIVE: Updates from Wembley ]

For Spurs, they are certainly used to playing at Wembley after calling it home all season long while their new stadium is completed. Yet Harry Kane and Co. know they will keep hearing about how they need to win a trophy to prove themselves as Spurs have gone 10 years without a piece of silverware.

Mourinho is the master of grinding out wins in these kind of situations but United were dominated by Spurs at Wembley back in January in the PL and were lucky to escape with just a 2-0 defeat.

[ MORE: Minute-by-minute on United v Spurs ]

Click on the links above to follow the action live, while we will have reaction and analysis live from Wembley right here on Pro Soccer Talk.