UEFA Champions League Final - Chelsea Training

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

UCL roundup: Real Madrid nearly blow 4-0 lead; PSG roll in Sweden

Luka Modric, Real Madrid CF
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A roundup of all of Wednesday’s action in the UEFA Champions League…

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Juventus 1-0 Manchester CityFULL RECAP

Mario Mandzukic scored the game’s only goal (WATCH HERE), putting Juventus back atop Group D as Man City tumble into second place. With just one game left to play, City sit two points behind last year’s CL runners-up and risk going into the runners-up side of the draw for the knockout stage, which could mean a date with Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the round of 16.

Manchester United 0-0 PSV EindhovenFULL RECAP

The red half of Manchester has even more to worry about, however, as Man United failed to qualify for the knockout stage on Wednesday by drawing 0-0 with PSV Eindhoven. With one game left to play, United sit second, just a point ahead of the Dutch side, with a difficult away trip to face Wolfsburg looming in two weeks’ time. PSV, meanwhile, will host CSKA Moscow on Dec. 8.

Shakhtar Donetsk 3-4 Real Madrid

Rafa Bentiez is truly special, isn’t he? From 4-0 up, to holding on for dear life and a 4-3 victory over Ukrainian side Shakhtar Donetsk, Benitez’s position may, somehow, be even more untenable today than it was following Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Barcelona. Cristiano Ronaldo scored twice (WATCH HERE), and Luka Modric and Dani Carvajal provided the other two goal before three goals from minutes 77 to 88 put the final result in serious doubt.

Malmo 0-5 Paris Saint-Germain

Zlatan Ibrahimovic made his triumphant return to his boyhood club and marked the special occasion with — what else? — a goal (WATCH HERE). PSG were up 2-0 after 14 minutes thanks to goals scored by Adrien Rabiot and Angel di Maria, so the result was never really in doubt. Ibrahimovic added the third before Di Maria and Lucas Moura ballooned the lead in the game’s final 25 minutes.

Elsewhere in Champions League action

Group B

CSKA Moscow 0-2 Wolfsburg

Group C

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Galatasaray
FC Astana 2-2 Benfica

Group D

Borussia Monchengladbach 4-2 Sevilla — WATCH FABIAN JOHNSON’S GOAL HERE

Man United 0-0 PSV Eindhoven: UCL hopes hang in the balance

Wayne Rooney, Jorrit Hendrix
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Manchester United drew 0-0 with PSV Eindhoven at Old Trafford on Wednesday as Louis Van Gaal‘s side were frustrated as they missed the chance to qualify for the knockout round and now face a pivotal final Group B game away at Wolfsburg.

[ MORE: Champions League standings

Jesse Lingard, Morgan Schneiderlin and Anthony Martial had the best of the chances for United but PSV threatened in the second half as Phillip Cocu’s side can still qualify for the last 16 heading into their finale against already eliminated CSKA Moscow.

As for United, they know a win in Germany in two weeks time against group leaders Wolfsburg will seal their spot in the last 16 and top spot but anything less and a PSV win would mean an early UCL exit.

United started brightly with Anthony Martial trying to play in Wayne Rooney and then Bastian Schweinsteiger smashed a shot in on goal which was easily saved. As the first half wore on it was one-way traffic with the Red Devils pushing hard. Rooney almost got in at the back post but the ball flashed by, then he set up Jesse Lingard but a poor first touch saw the chance go to waste.  Morgan Schneiderlin came close to scoring as he tried to bundle the ball home at the back post after Daley Blind‘s corner caused havoc but Jeroen Zoet saved bravely.

[ MORE: Champions League schedule

Finally, PSV began to wake up with Luuk De Jong setting up Jorrit Hendrix but David De Gea was equal to his curling effort as the Dutch side flexed their offensive muscles. With half time approaching United pressed hard as Anthony Martial got free on the left side of the box but his shot was saved when he really should’ve scored. The Frenchman went close again before half time but Zoet saved his shot at the near post as United were frustrated by the reigning Dutch champions.

At the start of the second half United began brightly with Lingard flicking a header past the far post and then Memphis wriggled free of his marker but sent a shot straight at Zoet.

With 30 minutes to go United made two changes with Memphis and Schweinsteiger replaced by Ashley Young and Marouane Fellaini, however Davy Propper had a decent strike on goal but De Gea saved well after the Dutch midfield juggled his way into a good spot. Young whipped in some delicious crosses after coming on but PSV pressed hard and United looked to have run out of steam.

Propper forced De Gea into a stop after his rasping shot from 35-yards out, and PSV were giving it a right go late on at Old Trafford. That said,  Lingard squandered a gilt-edge chance as Young’s cross deflected right into his path but the local lad couldn’t keep his half volley down and sent the ball over with the goal gaping. Fellaini just failed to get on the end of a cross to the back post with the Red Devils huffing and puffing in the final moments but they couldn’t find a way through as they fired a blank to set up a nervy finale in Germany on Dec. 8.

Juventus 1-0 Man City: Mandzukic puts Juve past City, top of Group D

Mario Mandzukic, Juventus FC
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A first-half goal from Mario Mandzukic resigned Manchester City to UEFA Champions League defeat on Wednesday, taking control of Group D out of their own hands and putting it into those of Juventus, 1-0 winners on the night.

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Juve took the lead through a simple tap-in off the boot of Mario Mandzukic in the 18th minute. Alex Sandro sent a high, looping ball toward the back post where Mandzukic lost his marker, Nicolas Otamendi, when the Argentine tumbled over backwards after a slight touch on the shoulder from Mandzukic.

The Croatian striker nearly doubled Juve’s lead 10 minutes later, but his right-footed side-volley was very well saved by Joe Hart at his left-hand post. Claudio Marchisio sent a long ball to the corner of the six-yard box, where Paulo Dybala laid back a soft, cushioned header to Mandzukic for his low, powerful strike to the near post.

[ MORE: Tuesday’s UCL roundup — Barca, Bayern clinch spots in KO round ]

Sergio Aguero had Man City’s best chance of the first half, just before halftime, when Marchisio played an unthinkable back pass toward Gianluigi Buffon. Aguero was quick to react and suddenly found himself one on one with the legendary Juve and Italy goalkeeper, but his first two touches took him away from goal and Buffon did very well to rush out and close down the angles quickly.

It was Otamendi who went inches from equalizing for City shortly after halftime. Kevin De Bruyne‘s free kick found the Argentine center back at the top of the six-yard box, where he headed the ball for the far post, but the outstretched hand of Buffon tipped the ball onto the inside of the post and back into his hands.

[ MORE: UCL standings | Schedule ]

Juve went straight down to the other end of the field and would have doubled their lead, if not for a pesky post. Alvaro Morata, introduced into the game seconds earlier, got behind the City defense and lifted the ball over Hart toward the far post for Dybala, but the Argentine striker’s deft touch found only the outside of the post, denying the bianconeri a classy goal.

Juve’s victory means the four-time reigning Serie A champions have leapfrogged City for top spot in Group D, two points ahead with one game left to play. City will be home to Borussia Monchengladbach, while Juve will play away to Sevilla on the group stage’s final matchday.

VIDEO: USMNT’s Johnson scores stunning goal in UCL

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U.S. men’s national team star Fabian Johnson put the icing on the cake for Borussia Monchendgladbach against Sevilla on Wednesday.

Johnson, 27, cut inside and hit a dipping, curling shot into the far corner to give Monchengladbach a 2-0 lead late on and give themselves a great chance of finishing third in Group D and qualifying for the Europa League.

[ MORE: Champions League standings ]  

The German-American cleared up his differences with USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after being sent home following the CONCACAF Cup loss to Mexico in October, and in this type of form he has proven why Klinsmann has recently played him in a left-wing role for the U.S. instead of at full back.

Watch the video below to see Johnson’s superb strike, his second UCL goal in as many games and the second of his career.