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

Wild day in American soccer: Crew relocation, NASL LOIs, USL reserves

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The top three soccer leagues in the United States of America are dealing with varying bits of turmoil this Tuesday in October.

It began late Monday with reports that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt aims to take the MLS founding member to Texas, seemingly only paying lip service to the idea of investment keeping the team in Ohio.

[ MORE: Leicester sacks Shakespeare ]

Some have said Precourt’s goals have always been to find a way out of Ohio, and the Crew owner was asked what has changed in the four years he’s owned the club (From ColumbusCrewSC.com):

Q:When we read your story about your purchase of the team, this was back in 2013, part of that was that it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus and you said at the time that you were committed to that. So what’s changed?

AP: I was committed to that and I believe that I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure, in personnel, in the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our League has grown leaps and bounds, it’s been unprecedented the improvement we’ve seen year over year and new markets that have come in the League have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games, with Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game, with New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger, year in and year out and I have to get back to our ambition as a club. This is key: our ambition as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer, to be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and our business operations and to operate world-class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to explore building a world-class, soccer-specific stadium so that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.

So, yes, barring a king’s ransom — word use intended — from the Ohio business community, it’s not being cynical to read Precourt’s intention to leave Ohio as very strong. The idea is very sad for the league, and makes every pro/rel honk’s argument against the closed model.

Then there’s the NASL, where it’s almost head-spinning to keep abreast of the future of the league. New York Cosmos owner Rocco Commisso has taken the wheel in an attempt to not only see the NASL rise, but remove Sunil Gulati from power at the United States Soccer Federation in the hopes of a complete overhaul. In what should not be read as a footnote, the NASL is currently suing the USSF.

There are reports that the league could have as many as 17 teams next season in a bid to regain sanctioning from the Unites States Soccer Federation, including a series of teams from the fourth-tier National Premier Soccer League.

According to SocTakes.com, the NASL has letters of intent from NPSL clubs in Boca Raton, Boston, Detroit, Arizona, New Orleans, and Virginia Beach. Additionally, there’s interest in Hartford and it may not be the NPSL club.

Then came this Tweet:

Now here’s a league, the USL, whose only issues have been perception-related. Growing well and instituting a D-3 companion, the biggest concern has been the mentioned MLS Reserve sides creating a minor league feel for the league.

All of this is manageable, and you could argue that the disappearance or at least rebranding of most of these reserve sides would be a boon for the league.

Taken in a vacuum, any of these stories has the potential to carry a day’s news. Together, and in the wake of the United States men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, they give Tuesday one of those Soccer-USApocalyptic feelings.

UEFA Champions League Weds. preview: Chelsea, Man Utd look to break out

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Only one of 16 teams was held off the score sheet on Tuesday. Could the same level of entertainment reach the UEFA Champions League a day later?

Two more Premier League teams take the pitch on Wednesday, with Manchester United facing its stiffest test of the group stage and Chelsea with a tricky visit from AS Roma.

[ MORE: Champions League Tues. wrap ]

Manchester United has a significant challenge in Benfica, and may need a man familiar with the Estadio da Luz to help them out. Center back Eric Bailly remains out for United, which could bring Victor Lindelof into the fold to help stop Haris Seferovic, Gabriel Barbosa, Raul Jimenez, and especially Jonas.

Coming off a sleepy weekend draw versus Liverpool in an underwhelming derby, United will take on a desperate Benfica team which is traditionally strong but lost at home to CSKA Moscow and was crushed in Switzerland by Basel.

(AP Photo/Armando Franca)

Speaking of the need to rebound, Chelsea’s loss to Crystal Palace still has many scratching their heads. Fortunately, Roma is also in a mini-funk after a weekend loss to Napoli that ended a five-match winning streak.

There’s a reunion for Antonio Rudiger inside Stamford Bridge with Roma in town. I Lupi has been pretty one-dimensional in terms of offense, with ex-Man City man and reigning Serie A capocannoniere winner Edin Dzeko. He’s scored eight times in nine matches for Roma this season.

Full Wednesday UCL schedule
All kickoffs at 2:45 p.m. ET except where indicated

Qarabag vs. Atletico Madrid — Noon ET
Anderlecht vs. Paris Saint-Germain
Benfica vs. Manchester United
Juventus vs. Sporting Lisbon
Barcelona vs. Olympiacos
Chelsea vs. Roma
Bayern Munich vs. Celtic
CSKA Moscow vs. Basel

U-17 World Cup wrap: England advances to meet USA

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The United States now knows it’ll have to take down England’s best to get to the semifinals of the U-17 World Cup in India.

[ MORE: Champions League wrap ]

England, don’t laugh, won in penalty kicks after a scoreless match with Japan, advancing to meet the Baby Yanks.


England 0-0 (5-3, PKs) Japan

There wasn’t a single miss amongst the England shooters, as Rhian Brewster (Liverpool), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Phil Foden (Man City), Nya Kirby (Crystal Palace), and Curtis Anderson (Man City) converted from the spot to set up a date against the U.S.

Mali 5-1 Iraq

Lassana Ndiaye scored twice to join France’s Amine Gouiri atop the goal scoring list for the tournament as Mali advances to face the winner of Ghana vs. Niger.

France 1-2 Spain

Barcelona prospects Juan Miranda and Abel Ruiz get the better of France to set up a date with high-flying Iran.

 

Iran 2-1 Mexico

Iran conceded for just the second time in the tournament, but not before Mohammad Sharifi and Allahyar Sayyad (both of Iranian club Saifa) made it 2-0 by the 11th minute.

UEFA Champions League wrap: Tables turned on wild day

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One clean sheet in eight Tuesday matches certainly helped the entertainment value of the UEFA Champions League, and the group ramifications follow suit.

Borussia Dortmund whiffed on a chance to take advantage of Real Madrid’s home draw versus Spurs, while Sevilla was waxed in Russia, and Besiktas continues to strut in UCL play.

Real Madrid 1-1 Tottenham HotspurRECAP, VIDEO

Raphael Varane’s plans to mark Harry Kane were subverted by the French defender’s unwitting legs, but Serge Aurier chopped down Toni Kroos in the 42nd minute for a yellow card and penalty that Cristiano Ronaldo sent beyond the reach of Spurs backstop Hugo Lloris.

It was Lloris’ outstanding day, along with a couple timely Keylor Navas saves, that kept the score line 1-1 after 90 minutes. The backstops will likely match wits again come Nov. 1 at Wembley Stadium.

Manchester City 2-1 NapoliRECAP

Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus scored in the ninth and 13th minutes as City has been an unwelcoming host for the Neapolitan side. Ederson stopped a Dries Mertens penalty, adding insult to Napoli’s twin concessions, but Napoli would get a second penalty kick and pulled back a goal courtesy of Amadou Diawara.

Monaco 1-2 Besiktas

Reported Newcastle United and Crystal Palace target Cenk Tosun scored a pair of goals as group-leading Besiktas came back to beat Monaco after Radamel Falcao made it 1-0 to the hosts.

Feyenoord 1-2 Shakhtar Donetsk

Similar story in the Netherlands, where Ex-Watford man Steven Berghuis gave the Eredivisie hosts a lead only to see a Bernard brace lead Shakhtar at De Kuip.

Spartak Moscow 5-1 Sevilla

Liverpool’s score line was a bit surprising, but this one raised eyebrows even given Sevilla’s long road (or flight path) to Russia. Quincy Promes scored twice to make Sevilla consider its Europa roots (though plenty of time remains in the group stage).

Spartak’s Luiz Adriano scores past Sevilla’s Sergio Rico (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

Maribor 0-7 LiverpoolRECAP

Jurgen Klopp‘s Reds are sent their finishing demons off a cliff. It was 3-0 after 20 minutes, 4-0 at half, and when all was said and done there were braces for Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah to go with single markers from Philippe Coutinho, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Trent Alexander-Arnold.

APOEL Nicosia 1-1 Borussia Dortmund

A significant step backward for BVB, who would’ve done well to take advantage of Real and Spurs drawing at the Bernabeu. The Germans even trailed for five second-half minutes before Sokratis Papastathopoulos provided the equalizing goal.

RB Leipzig 3-2 Porto

Five first half goals felt like the start of something special, but the upstart Germans held on through a scoreless second half to claim their first UCL win.