Bayern Munich's Schweinsteiger and his teammates celebrate a goal against Borussia Dortmund during the German DFB Cup final soccer match in Berlin

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

LIVE: Man City, Stoke, Everton face second-tier teams in League Cup quarters

Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City FC
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Three of the four Capital One Cup quarterfinals take place on Tuesday with three Premier League teams facing second-tier opposition.

“What’s that, did somebody say banana skin?”

[ MORE: Follow League Cup scores live

Manchester City host Hull City at the Etihad Stadium with Manuel Pellegrini‘s side hoping to have David Silva back in the starting lineup but Joe Hart is still out injured so Willy Caballero will continue in goal. Steve Bruce‘s side drew 1-1 at the Etihad last season when they visited City before being relegated from the Premier League. The Tigers are fighting for instant promotion back to the big-time and knocked out Leicester City on penalty kicks in the last round.

Everton face a tricky trip to the Riverside Stadium as Roberto Martinez and the Toffees play Middlesbrough. Aitor Karanka’s side lost in the play-off final to Norwich last season but are looking good for promotion this term as they sit second in the second-tier and knocked out Manchester United on penalty kicks in the last round. Can Everton sort out their defensive frailties?

A third PL club has a tricky test coming up on Tuesday as Stoke City’s reward for beating Chelsea on PKs in the last round is a home game against Sheffield Wednesday. This will be no stroll in the park for Mark Hughes‘ side as the second-tier Owls comfortably knocked off Arsenal in the last round and this game has “cupset” written all over it.

Below are the fixtures for Tuesday as you can click on the link above to follow all the games live.

League Cup quarterfinals


Manchester City vs. Hull City – 2:45 p.m. ET
Middlesbrough vs. Everton – 2:45 p.m. ET
Stoke City vs. Sheffield Wednesday – 2:45 p.m. ET

FIFA sponsors demand “independent oversight” of reforms
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LONDON (AP) Five of FIFA’s sponsors have written to the executive committee of soccer’s scandal-battered governing body demanding “independent oversight” of the reform process.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

Sponsors were originally promised places on the FIFA reform committee. But instead of being invited into meetings discussing the overhaul of the organization, they have only been offered seats on an advisory board which is yet to be appointed.

The sponsors’ letter was sent from Adidas, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa and Budweiser brewer Anheuser-Busch to FIFA’s ruling body ahead of meetings this week.

[ MORE: Chelsea, United battle for Muller

The letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press, says it is “clear to us that such independent oversight needs to run long-term through the implementation and evolution of the reform process.”

The reform committee was established following the indictment of soccer officials by American authorities.

VIDEO: Gerrard returns to Liverpool for training in MLS offseason

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League
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Steven Gerrard is back at Liverpool.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

The legendary midfielder, 35, has returned to the Reds just six months after leaving his hometown club for a new adventure in Major League Soccer with the LA Galaxy.

Gerrard spent a glittering 17-years at Anfield, guiding Liverpool to the UEFA Champions League title and winning every other major title except for the elusive Premier League crown.

[ MORE: Chelsea, United battle for Muller

After suffering an early exit from the 2015 MLS Cup playoffs with the Galaxy, Gerrard is now back in England and he’s using his time at home to train with Liverpool’s first-team and help out in any way he can as Jurgen Klopp has allowed him to come back into the dressing room he called home for nearly two decades.

“It’s a good situation,” Klopp said. “Everybody had a smile on their face when they saw Stevie. It’s good to have him here and we hope we can help him, and he can help us for sure with being in the dressing room. It’s cool.”

Below are photos and videos from Gerrard’s return as Klopp once again quashed any rumors regarding a loan move for the former Liverpool skipper who will enter his first full MLS season in 2016 with the Galaxy.

French PM says Benzema has no place on national team

Karim Benzema, France
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PARIS (AP) The French prime minister joined in the criticism of Karim Benzema on Tuesday, saying the Real Madrid striker “has no place” on the France team at the European Championship in the wake of a blackmail scandal.

[ MORE: Chelsea’s new stadium plans ]

Benzema is one of France’s key players as it gets ready to host the Euro 2016 tournament, but the forward faces charges of conspiracy to blackmail relating to an extortion scam over a sex tape. He is suspected of having played an active role in pressuring France teammate Mathieu Valbuena, a case that has badly damaged his reputation.

“A great athlete should be exemplary,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French radio Europe 1. “If he is not, he has no place within the France team.”

The investigation, centering on wiretap evidence, started when Valbuena took legal action after being contacted by a man claiming to possess an incriminating sex tape.

In a case that could drag on for months, Benzema’s involvement has not yet been fully determined. But investigators who charged him in October believe he was approached by a childhood friend to act as an intermediary and convince Valbuena to deal directly with the blackmailers.

“If a minister was handed preliminary charges, he would no longer be part of the government,” Valls said.

Benzema denies any wrongdoing but his arguments were undermined last week when Valbuena spoke directly about his attempts to pressure him in an interview with Le Monde newspaper.

[ MORE: City now valued at $3 billion ]

The French football federation has also joined the case as plaintiff.

“There are so many kids, so many youngsters in our suburbs that relate to great athletes,” Valls said. “They wear the blue jersey, the colors of France, which are so important in these moments.”

Preliminary charges under French law mean magistrates have strong reason to believe a crime was committed, and allow time for further investigation. The charges may later be dropped. In 2010, Benzema was handed preliminary charges for soliciting an underage prostitute but was acquitted in a case that lasted more than three years and tarnished his reputation.

Benzema’s image was further dented last month when he spat on the pitch after the national anthem was played at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu stadium in a tribute to the 130 fatalities of the Paris attacks ahead of a match against Barcelona.

Benzema’s action ignited a wave of criticism on social media, prompting his lawyers to issue a statement in which they condemned “the scandalous interpretation” of the incident. Benzema, who has 27 international goals, had posted several messages in support of the victims in the days that followed the attacks.