Countdown to Champions League final: Looking at Bayern Munich, back to front

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They may be at home on Saturday, but when Bayern Munich kicks off their UEFA Champions League final with Chelsea, there’ll be a slightly unfamiliar feel about them. Three prominent suspensions will force a shake up in defense, with the implications of Jupp Heynckes’ reshuffle being felt all the way into attack.

They’ll still be favorites when the whistle blows, but facing the prospects of Didier Drogba matched up against a makeshift defense could cost a few Bayern coaches their Friday night’s sleep.

Looking at … defense: Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalkeepers in the world. A handful of people who take him over generally-recognized world best Iker Casillas (Real Madrid). I count myself among them. He’s the complete package: 6’4″, only 26 years old, commanding, confident, and quick. His penalty shootout performance in the semifinals at the Santiago Bernabeu (letting only one goal past him in the tiebreaker) pushed FCB into the final.

The rest of Saturday’s defense is a huge question mark. Superstar fullback Philipp Lahm is a constant, but Holger Badstuder and David Alaba – the normal left side of Bayern’s back four – are suspended, as is midfield destroyer Luiz Gustavo. Daniel van Buyten, out since January with a foot injury, is expected to start along side Jerome Boateng in the middle. Rafinha, who started 20 Bundesliga matches this season, could come in for Alaba (shifting Lahm to the left), while Bastian Schweinsteiger, normally the shuttler, could be asked to blow things up.

Anatoliy Tymoshchuk (for van Buyten) and Diego Contento (for Rafinha) are also options. Given van Buyten’s tenuous health and Contento’s ability to play left back, don’t be surprised to see any of the four selected.

If the players perform to their potentials, Bayern’s defense will be fine. Their biggest problem beyond cohesion will be van Buyten. A physical match for Didier Drogba, van Buyten lacks the quickness to contend with Chelsea’s counter-attacking tendencies, though the suspension of Ramires will likely take much of the push out of Chelsea’s counter.

Looking at … midfield: Toni Kroos will drop back and play closer to Schweinsteiger in Bayern’s 4-2-3-1. In the previous round, the 22-year-old had been deployed higher, giving Bayern a 4-3-3 look. After Bayern accounts for their suspensions, Thomas Müller will assume that role.

Müller’s natural tendencies have him play higher up the pitch. Even if Jupp Heynckes’ tactics call for him to come deeper, Schweinsteiger and Kroos are often going to have to handle the job by themselves, potentially outnumbered at times by a Chelsea midfield expected to feature Juan Mata, Frank Lampard and (sitting) John Obi-Mikel.

If Mata’s pushed wide again (as he was against Barcelona), that means Michael Essien’s gotten a shock start. That won’t change the numbers game for Bayern.

Look at … attack: Right wing Arjen Robben is Bayern’s most dangerous player, but left wing Franck Ribery is not far off. Often the two will be seen on the same side of the pitch, with Ribery coming in to play off Robben while the duo is supported wide by Lahm. Ribery coming in could work well on Saturday, with Müller potentially providing a second penalty area threat along with Mario Gomez. Or, Bayern could flip flanks and (if Rafinha starts) have Ribery and Lahm working down the left against José Bosingwa and Salomon Kalou.

If Chelsea plays as deep as they’ve become accustomed to doing under Roberto di Matteo, Bayern could be served by having to sacrifice Gustavo for Müller. While the Brazilian would have been Bayern’s ideal answer to Chelsea’s counter attack, if München dominates possession, they’ll have both Kroos and Schweinsteiger positioned to pick apart the Blues defense, with Müller serving as an additional advanced option.

Likely Starting Lineup (alternate option)

G: Manuel Neuer
LB: Philipp Lahm (Diego Contento)
CB: Daniel van Buyten (Anatoliy Tymoshchuk)
CB: Jerome Boateng
RB: Rafinha (Philipp Lahm)
M: Bastian Schweinsteiger
M: Toni Kross
LW: Frank Ribery
AM: Thomas Müller
RW: Arjen Robben
F: Mario Gomez

Most dangerous player: Arjen Robben

Most likely to score: Mario Gomez

Best creator: Toni Kroos

Key defender: Daniel van Buyten

Most important: Bastian Schweinsteiger

Back to front: Chelsea

French league terminates goal-line technology contract

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PARIS (AP) The French football league has terminated the contract with its goal-line technology provider after a series of glitches.

The LFP had already suspended the use of GoalControl, the German system that was deployed at the 2014 World Cup.

According to L’Equipe newspaper, the league will launch a tender in February to find a new provider of the technology that determines whether the ball crossed the line.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

In recent months, the French league had repeatedly expressed its discontent with GoalControl.

Goal-line technology entered soccer after a goal was wrongly disallowed at the 2010 World Cup.

FIFA is already focused on fast-tracking the next phase of technology – video assistant referees – for the World Cup in June.

Goal-line technology and VAR were provided by Hawk-Eye at the Confederations Cup last year.

Bristol City’s Johnson: “They certainly have heard of us now”

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The Premier League world may see Bristol City next season, but it seems its manager has the personality to arrive on the top flight whether or not his Robins earn promotion this season.

Johnson, 36, earned plenty of plaudits after leading his Championship club to the League Cup semifinals, famously defeated Manchester United in the quarters.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Before that, Bristol beat Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Stoke City, and Watford. The Robins beat third tier Plymouth Argyle 5-0 in the first round.

Johnson was beaming after the Robins took Man City to the edge, closing to within a goal of extra time before Kevin De Bruyne‘s stoppage time number ended the tie 5-3 on aggregate.

“Absolutely I’m proud. It’s not just tonight but over the course of the season, particularly the cup run. It was a fantastic occasion, I’m sorry we couldn’t get the win but we played against the best side that I have ever seen live. They have so many good individuals.

“We kept going and it’s taken two injury-time goals to beat us. They certainly have [heard of us] now…everybody knows what we’re about. It’s been great.”

Bristol City is in the Championship’s fifth place, bidding for its first top flight campaign since 1980. Johnson should be a hot prospect to earn a shot in the Premier League should the Robins not make the jump.

League Cup semifinal preview: Arsenal vs. Chelsea

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  • Chelsea has won 4-of-7 League Cup matches vs. Arsenal
  • Arsenal leads all-time series 74W-58D-62L
  • Clubs have drawn four times this season

Hardware hopes are on the line when Chelsea hits the Emirates Stadium for a League Cup semifinal second leg with Arsenal on Wednesday.

The sides drew 0-0 at Stamford Bridge, giving Chelsea the advantage of knowing a scoring draw would do the trick and set up a date with Manchester City at Wembley on Feb. 25, though Arsenal has home field advantage in pursuit of a win.

[ MORE: Bristol City 2-3 (3-5 agg.) Man City ]

Henrikh Mkhitaryan may debut for Arsenal, though the club released an interesting note on Tuesday: He’ll wear No. 7 in most competitions, but will have to use a different number in the Europa League because Alexis Sanchez wore it to start the tournament.

Chelsea’s Antonio Conte won’t have Alvaro Morata (back) and Cesc Fabregas for the match, though Andreas Christensen will be available for selection.

The clubs are no strangers to each other in big non-PL spots, squaring off in this season’s Community Shield (Arsenal won in penalty kicks) and last season’s FA Cup Final (Arsenal won).

Nothing has separated the sides on the field aside from those penalty kicks at Wembley Stadium, as Arsenal and Chelsea have drawn 1-1, 0-0, 2-2, and 0-0 since August.

What they’re saying

Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger on Henrikh Mkhitaryan“He can play in different positions, but personally I see him first in a wide position, but I’m thinking about him a possibility to play through the middle. You are certain in our job of nothing, that’s absolutely sure. But you believe and I believe he has the qualities to do well, is a team player and our game is based on team attitude and movement and I think he can absorb the quantity of movement in our team.”

Chelsea’s Conte on the lineup: “Every game is different, you change the quality of your opponent and you must be intelligent enough to understand if you should continue with the same players or make some changes.”

Javier Mascherano leaving Barcelona after 8 seasons

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BARCELONA, Spain (AP) Barcelona says defender Javier Mascherano is leaving the club after eight seasons.

Barcelona says there will be a farewell ceremony on Wednesday with Mascherano, club president Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the squad.

[ MORE: Man City to buy $86m CB ]

The 33-year-old Argentina international will say goodbye to the fans before Thursday’s game against Espanyol at Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. He is reportedly going to play in China.

Mascherano, who also played as a defensive midfielder, arrived in Barcelona in 2010 from Liverpool and helped the Catalan club win 18 titles. He has made 334 appearances with Barcelona, but recently hadn’t been playing much.

The club earlier this month signed Colombia international Yerry Mina to boost its defense.

More AP Spanish soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/LaLiga