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

West Ham 0-3 Southampton: Austin, Tadic pile on West Ham woes

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Charlie Austin remained hot, scoring his fifth goal in his last four matches to open the scoring, and it only got worse for the home fans at the Olympic Stadium as West Ham slumped to yet another defeat, this time to surging Southampton 3-0 behind goals from Austin, Dusan Tadic, and James Ward-Prowse.

West Ham pressed forward in the early going, seeing a number of touches inside the Southampton box, but the Saints held strong. As the first half progressed, the teams dribbled back and forth through the midfield, with the occasional moment of excessive physicality, keeping referee Jon Moss busy.

Oriol Romeu was cautioned in the ninth minute for a very heavy challenge on Manuel Lanzini near the mid-line.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Southampton began to build themselves into possession past the half-hour mark, and with five minutes to go until the break, West Ham’s leaky defense opened the door again. Ryan Bertrand overlapping on the left cut back to Charlie Austin at the penalty spot and he scuffed a shot past Adrian to put Southampton in front.

Following halftime, the visitors pushed for a second, nearly grabbing it in the 52nd minute when Dusan Tadic’s effort from close range was stopped expertly by a wonderful Adrian save down to his left. That sprung West Ham to life, and the Olympic Stadium responded with a ringing endorsement from the home fans.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

Simone Zaza was booked for diving on the hour mark after flopping over a nothing challenge in the box from Romeu. Down the other end, Southampton struck again. With the Hammers dispossessed in their own half, a brilliant flick from Austin sprung Tadic free on goal, and he rounded Adrian and tapped home Southampton’s second.

Down 2-0, Slaven Bilic threw on young Ashley Fletcher and Sofiane Feghouli, both of whom had an impact. The Hammers screamed for a penalty in the 70th minute as Feghouli looked to clean up bright play from Payet, but his shot hit the arm of Bertrand, although from close range it would have been hard for Bertrand to react properly to avoid the contact, and Jon Moss did not award a spot kick.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

The home side continued to flood forward past the 75th minute, with Southampton content to sit deep and look to counter. Adrian was needed to keep things from getting worse, as he produced quality saves to keep out both James Ward-Prowse and Pierre-Emile Hojberg in the 86th minute. Ward-Prowse would tack on a third in added time, as a deflection off Angelo Ogbonna opened up the young Englishman to poke home easily.

The three points sent Southampton shooting up the Premier League table, into the top half with nine points after their second straight win. Meanwhile, West Ham remains winless, shut out for the first time this season and owners of the leakiest defense in the league with 16 goals conceded.

Report: Kevin de Bruyne sidelined a month with hamstring injury

SWANSEA, WALES - SEPTEMBER 24: The Manchester City team check that Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City is okay after being fouled during the Premier League match between Swansea City and Manchester City at the Liberty Stadium on September 24, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Kevin De Bruyne had been in the form of his life under new manager Pep Guardiola, but that will temporarily come to a screeching halt.

The 25-year-old has suffered a hamstring injury that will keep him out around four weeks, according to a report by City Watch, meaning he will miss significant time. He was brought off in the 81st minute of the 3-1 win over Swansea City on Saturday.

That one month span includes an international break, leaving new Belgium manager Roberto Martinez without one of his most in-form attackers. Through six Premier League matches, De Bruyne has two goals and five assists, leading Manchester City to a perfect start to the year as they sit atop the table.

[MORE: Antonio Conte furious with Chelsea’s defensive woes ]

Should four weeks be his time off the pitch, he would miss not only Belgium’s upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Gibraltar, but he would also miss Premier League matchups against Tottenham and Southampton, plus vital Champions League trips to Celtic and Barcelona.

De Bruyne’s absence will be a huge loss to Pep Guardiola and Manchester City. According to Squawka Statistics, the Belgian playmaker has created 20 chances through six Premier League matches and has completed eight of 10 attempted take-ons. Guardiola said a week ago that De Bruyne was in the class of player just below Lionel Messi. “Messi is on a table on his own. No-one else is allowed. But the table beside, Kevin can sit there.”

One man central to City’s ability to keep pace without De Bruyne will be new purchase Ilkay Gundoguan. The former Borussia Dortmund attacking midfielder has started the last two matches after returning from an injury of his own, but has yet to play a full 90 minutes.

UPDATE: Belgian reporter Kristof Terreur of HLN has confirmed the report.

Watch Live: West Ham vs. Southampton (Lineups & Live Stream)

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 21:  Manager of West Ham United, Slaven Bilic look on during the  EFL Cup Third Round match between West Ham United and Accrington Stanley at the London Stadium on September 21, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
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The Hammers are in a bad spot. Five matches into the season, they have just three points – one third their haul at this point last season. They host Southampton at the Olympic Stadium at 11am E.T. live on NBCSN or live online at NBCSports.com.

Southampton isn’t in much better shape. They own just five points thus far and sit in 14th, and manager Claude Puel has slotted  in-form striker Charlie Austin into the starting lineup looking to build on a pair of wins over the last week.

WATCH LIVE: West Ham vs. Southampton live online at NBCSports.com

Austin scored the only goal in Saints’ 1-0 win over Swansea last weekend, their first of the league season, and then scored again in the 2-0 win over Swansea in the EFL Cup midweek. That gives Austin four goals in his last three games following a Europa League brace two weeks ago.

For West Ham, Slaven Bilic has a problem at left-back yet again after Arthur Makuasu, Aaron Cresswell‘s replacement, went down with a knee injury. Newly-arrived Alvaro Arbeloa will move from his usual right side to deputize. Defensive issues have plagued the Hammers thus far, having conceded 11 goals in their last three league games.

LINEUPS

West Ham: Adrian; Nordtveit, Reid, Ogbonna, Arbeloa; Noble; Antonio, Kouyate, Lanzini, Payet; Zaza.
Subs: Randolph, Byram, Oxford, Obiang, Fernandes, Feghouli, Fletcher.

Southampton: Forster; Cedric, Fonte, Van Dijk, Bertrand; Romeu, Højbjerg; Davis, Tadić, Redmond; Austin.
Subs: McCarthy, Yoshida, Clasie, Long, Martina, Ward-Prowse, Hesketh.

Joe Hart, Torino down Roma 3-1 in early Serie A game

BERGAMO, ITALY - SEPTEMBER 11:  Goalkeeper of FC Torino Joe Hart gestures during the Serie a match between Atalanta BC and FC Torino at Stadio Atleti Azzurri d'Italia on September 11, 2016 in Bergamo, Italy.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
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In today’s early Serie A game, Joe Hart and Torino held down Roma to win 3-1 at Stadio Olimpico to move into the top half of the table.

Roma dominated the stat sheets, holding 69% possession and out-passing Torino 466-174, but were wasteful in front of net, only able to put just five of their 21 their shots on target.

Andrea Belotti scored just eight minutes in to put Torino ahead, and Iago Falque bagged a brace with goals 13 minutes apart in the second half to seal it. For all its possession and movement in the attacking half, Roma could only manage a goal on a penalty, scored by Francesco Totti, his 250th career goal, all coming for one club.

Manchester City loanee Joe Hart commanded a solid performance by Torino’s back line, with the home side managing a whopping 22 tackles and 33 clearances. Roma actually out-performed Torino on the expected goals front, proving Hart’s influence.

The win, the club’s first since late August, pushes Torino up to eight in the Serie A table on eight points. They have conceded just a single goal – the Totti penalty – in their last three matches. It’s a far cry from the 2-1 loss to Atalanta in Hart’s debut, in which a mistake by the England international allowed Atalanta to score the winning goal.

On the other side, Arsenal loanee Wojciech Szczesny made a mistake to gift Torino their early goal. The result for Roma is a big blow to their hopes at challenging for the title, dropping them five points back of leaders Juventus and four behind Napoli.