Lampard and Drogba speak during the Chelsea news conference, ahead of the Champions League final soccer match between Bayern Munich and Chelsea in Munich

Countdown to Champions League final: German ascension, a classic team’s last hurrah, and the day’s key matchups

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The last time UEFA’s Champions League was claimed by a team outside England, Italy or Spain, José Mourinho was making himself special with Portugal’s FC Porto. Yet on Saturday, Germany’s Bayern Munich will be favored to claim their fifth European title as they face Chelsea at the Allianz Arena, their home ground. It’s a match Bayern’s brass has targeted since being awarded the final on Jan. 2009, and having come close to claiming Champions League two years ago in Madrid, Germany’s biggest club is counting on wearing their first European crown since 2001.

Only two other German clubs have claimed a European Cup, but if Bayern lifts the trophy it will be the most powerful evidence yet of German soccer’s continued ascendancy. For years the Bundesliga has been trumpeted as a coming league, but most of those horns have sounded prematurely, and they’ve been based on fan experience more than actual results. With low ticket prices, great stadiums and an ownership paradigm that compels supporter shareholding, the Bundesliga is often cited as the ideal league.

Of late, that ideal has finally been accompanied by on-field success. This season, Germany passed Italy in UEFA’s ratings, becoming the third-highest-rated league in Europe. Holding the Champions League title, however, would be a completely different kind of affirmation for the circuit. There’s no doubt that the Bundesliga is capable of producing a competitive and (top-to-bottom) deep circuit, but to show the league also can yield an elite team checks off another box on the list of qualities fans look for from the world’s best leagues. To prove that quality against and English side might open the eyes of a lot of people who assume the inherent superiority of the Premier League.

Chelsea, however, is a strange club to cast as a symbol of European excellence. Infamously, the club as never claimed a European Cup, even though owner Roman Abramovich’s expressed goal throughout his near-10 years of ownership has been winning Champions League. In 2008, they came as close as you could winning without actually claiming the title, John Terry’s potentially shootout-winning penalty kick in Moscow going off Edwin van der Sar’s left post. In a match that was supposed to allow Abramovich to see his team’s coronation in his home country, Manchester United ultimately won their third European title. Afterward, Chelsea’s Champions League fortunes waned, with the Blues failing to make the semifinals in each of the last two tournaments.

That wane has not been the result of some post-Moscow hangover; rather, it’s the product of an iconic team having reached it’s last days of dominance. One of the best cores of talent in English soccer history, all of the key components assembled by José Mourinho (the coach whose fingerprints are still all over this Chelsea team) have seen their best days. Players like Michael Ballack and Claude Makelele are already gone. Petr Cech, the youngest of that core (29), is widely seen as having taken a step back from his brightest days. Likewise left back Ashley Cole (31). John Terry (31), Frank Lampard (33) and Didier Drogba (34) have all faced questions about their futures, but (to their credit) have all responded belligerently, affirming their stars intend to shine a bit longer.

But whereas in the years following Moscow Chelsea was still able to mount Premier League title challenges, the years caught up to the Blues in 2011-12. Drogba and Terry battled health concerns, while Cole saw a dip in form. Throw in the setback of a summer managerial appointment never truly working, and Chelsea fell to sixth place, their veteran-laden roster forced to sacrifice Premier League standing while prioritizing Champions League and the FA Cup. It’s the first time a team that’s finished so low in league has made Champions League final.

On Saturday, the miles racked up by Chelsea’s core are unlikely to matter. Fueled by memories of Moscow, the group that’s won three Premier Leagues, four FA Cups, and two League Cups gets its last chance to win the trophy they were built to take. If that weren’t motivation enough, the likes of Lampard and Cole have been spared the need to play out the Premier League string. They’ll be rested and ready for Saturday.

Most crucially, Drogba is rested, too. During a particularly important stretch from Apr. 15 through Apr. 24 (FA Cup and Champions League semifinals), the 34-year-old played 255 minutes. Two weeks later (in the FA Cup final), Drogba went 90. Since, he’s only seen 36 minutes – a cameo last weekend against Blackburn. On Saturday, in a match where Chelsea’s deployment may function as a 4-5-1 (leaving Drogba stranded up top), the Ivorian’s tank will need to be completely full.

During Friday press conferences, reporters in Munich tried to get Drogba, out of contract after the game, to comment on his future. He didn’t bite, leaving us uncertain as to whether this wil l be Drogba’s final match with the Blues. Having moved to Stamford Bridge in the summer of 2004, Drogba has been at the tip of everything good that has happened in the Abramovich era, and while England internationals Terry and Lampard have received a disproportionate amount of the credit, it’s much easier to imagine Chelsea success having had to replace one of them than if the club had to dig up another Didier Drogba.

Should he leave, it would be the end of an era at Chelsea. The core put together by Mourinho will see part of its foundation depart. Whether that group wins on Saturday could determine how they’ll be remembered in European history.

Key Matchups

Didier Drogba (F, Chelsea) versus Bayern’s central defense: Chelsea’s most dangerous player will have his choice of targets. Between Jerome Boateng and Daniel van Buyten, Boateng seems the less reliable, but with van Buyten having been out for three months, Bayern have reason to think both their central defenders vulnerable. If van Buyten can’t play and defensive midfielder Anatoliy Tymoshchuk is forced into the back, cutting off Drogba’s supply line will be imperative.

Ashley Cole (LB, Chelsea) and Ryan Bertrand (LW, Chelsea) versus Arjen Robben (RW, Bayern) and Philipp Lahm (RB, Bayern): Word late Friday had Roberto di Matteo selecting Ryan Bertrand to play left wing, an odd place for a natural left back to get his Champions League debut. The speculation spoke to the fear di Matteo may have of the Robben-Lahm combination. Bayern’s most dangerous player will get support from one of the world’s best right back, providing a constant threat to Chelsea’s left side Ashley Cole showed against Barcelona that’s he’s capable of holding his own, but with two world class talents on Bayern’s right, he’ll need all the help he can get.

Franck Ribery (LW, Bayern) versus José Bosingwa (RB, Bayern): Arjen Robben may be Bayern Munich’s most dangerous player, but Franck Ribery has been their best. He’s going to get to run at Chelsea’s weakest defender, somebody who has had problems (over the last two years) in one-on-one situations. Ribery relishes opportunities to break down his man, making the absence of Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea’s normal right back) even more meaningful.

Toni Kroos (M, Bayern) and Thomas Müller (AM, Bayern) versus Frank Lampard (M, Chelsea) and John Obi Mikel (M, Chelsea): If Chelsea plays their midfield as deep as they did against Real Madrid, Toni Kroos will be given the enough space dictate how this game is played. With four goalscoring targets in front of him, it doesn’t seem like a scenario Chelsea can weather. Lampard needs to be able to pressure Kroos knowing Mikel can help cut off access to Müller.

Mario Gomez (F, Bayern) versus Gary Cahill (D, Chelsea) and David Luiz (D, Chelsea): Gomez has been one of the more prolific scorers in Champions League, but a healthy Cahill and Luiz should contain him. Of course, Cahill and Luiz are not 100 percent healthy. The extent to which they can run with Gomez will determine how heroic Petr Cech will have to be in goal. Also, if José Bosingwa and Ashley Cole can’t manage their assignments and need support from the middle, space opens up for both Gomez and Müller.

Bastian Schweinsteiger (M, Bayern) versus Juan Mata (AM, Chelsea): If Chelsea is going to rely on the counter, Mata will be key in linking the first ball (from the likes of Lampard) to Drogba. Schweinsteiger’s job will be to get to Mata before the ball. He’s more than capable of doing that, but playing a position he’s not accustomed to (and possibly still expected to contribute to Bayern’s attack), Schweinsteiger will be dealing with a new set of responsibilities.

Back to front: Bayern Munich

Back to front: Chelsea

Video: Ranieri gets emotional after seeing Leicester fans tribute

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Claudio Ranieri in on the verge of leading Leicester City to the most improbable feat in Premier League history.

[ MORE: Pochettino verbally agrees to return to Tottenham ]

While the Foxes have given the club’s supporters the greatest ride they’ve ever seen, the fans put together a tribute video describing what the 2015-16 season has meant to them.

[ MORE: Previewing every Premier League match for Week 36 ]

Fans of all ages put in their two cents regarding the team’s quirky manager, and the 64-year old Italian began to shed tears.

We likely won’t ever see a team like Leicester again, not only in the Premier League, but any sports league. The club’s assembly of players and Ranieri have coincided perfectly and the Foxes faithful are clearly grateful for what they’ve witnessed at the King Power Stadium this season.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Premier League Preview: Newcastle vs. Crystal Palace

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Georginio Wijnaldum of Newcastle United and Joel Ward of Crystal Palace compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Crystal Palace and Newcastle United at Selhurst Park on November 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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  • Newcastle has won one of their previous 10 PL matches
  • Palace is unbeaten in five of last six
  • Benitez is 1-3-3 since taking over Magpies

Newcastle host Crystal Palace on Saturday at St. James’ Park (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET on USA and online via Live Extra) with the Magpies among the three sides battling to stay in the Premier League for the 2016-17 season.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE VIA LIVE EXTRA

Crystal Palace isn’t mathematically out of the woods in the relegation battle, but they’re more than likely to remain in the PL next season. Palace has been in decent form of late, securing a win over Watford and draws against Arsenal and Everton. Yohan Cabaye and Connor Wickham are among the dangerous attackers that Newcastle will need to be wary of, each scoring five PL goals on the season.

[ MORE: Arsenal can put a damper on Norwich’s season with a win Saturday ]

A 5-1 drubbing towards the end of November gave Palace bragging rights, but at this stage of the season Newcastle must forget what happened in the past. While draws against Manchester City and Liverpool were certainly encouraging, the Magpies need wins. Anything else simply won’t do, particularly with Sunderland and Norwich each holding a game in hand.

The two-headed monster of Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrovic will be crucial if Newcastle is to pick up a vital three points at home for the sixth time this season.

What they’re saying…

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez: “I don’t bet. Obviously, I agree we have to win. In my experience, it’s the players who make the difference, not the managers. I can prepare for the game, but to talk about mind games, I don’t take too much notice.”

Palace boss Alan Pardew: “I’ve always encouraged other coaches and managers to be involved, with comments from them. I asked a bit of advice at the weekend from a couple of people which was very sound. I expect, as I do on occasion, to get calls from some of the players I’ve coached to ring me. You have to keep your network big.”

Prediction

Newcastle needs this game, or at the very least a point. Given the team’s poor goal differential though, this isn’t something Rafa Benitez and company will want to leave up to fate. Palace has dropped plenty of points this season, leaving Newcastle in an opportune position to gain ground on the coveted 17th place. The Magpies will push hard and I think they’ll be able to pull this one out at home, 2-1.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Sevilla’s Krohn-Dehli out 7 months after knee surgery

BILBAO, SPAIN - APRIL 07:  Michael Krohn-Dehli of Sevilla and Javier Eraso of Athletic Club Bilbao battle for the ball during the UEFA Europa League quarter final first leg match between Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla at San Mames Stadium on April 7, 2016 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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SEVILLE, Spain (AP) Sevilla says midfielder Michael Krohn-Dehli will be sidelined for at least seven months after undergoing surgery on a broken left knee.

The Denmark midfielder suffered the gruesome injury on Thursday during the 2-2 draw at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Europa League semifinals.

He was carried off the pitch in the 73rd minute, less than 15 minutes after going on as a substitute.

The operation took place on Friday once the team had returned to Spain.

Sevilla, the two-time defending Europa League champion, will host the return leg of their semifinal next week.

The 32-year-old Krohn-Dehli joined Sevilla at the start of this season from fellow Spanish club Celta Vigo.

Men In Blazers: Music Pod Special

Men In Blazers
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You are in for a treat as this is a Men in Blazers Pod Special with Aaron Dessner of The National, Chris Baio of Vampire Weekend and Nathaniel Motte of 3OH!3.

The focus, obviously, is music.

All of the MiB content — pods, videos and stories can be seen here, but to really stay in touch, follow, subscribe, click here:

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