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

Watch Live: Canada takes on T&T in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 11:  Deanne Rose #6 of Canada battles for the ball with Kayla De Souza #4 and Mariam El-Masri #15 of Guyana during the 2016 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying at BBVA Compass Stadium on February 11, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Canada and Trinidad & Tobago face off for the top spot in Group B in CONCACAF Women’s Olympic qualifying today in Houston.

[ WATCH LIVE: T&T vs. Canada ]

With wins in their opening matches, both sides are tied on three points and will look to take sole possession of first place on the Road to Rio.

Canada started off qualification with an easy 5-0 win over Guyana, while Trinidad & Tobago needed two late goals to beat Guatemala 2-1.

[ WATCH LIVE: T&T vs. Canada live online via NBC Sports Live Extra ]

After taking home the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, the Canadians will be favorites along with the United States to qualify for the Rio Games from CONCACAF.

Premier League roundup: Top Four tussles and a Liverpool light show

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Francis Coquelin and Aaron Ramsey of Arsenal in action with Shinji Okazaki of Leicester City during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Sunday’s Premier League triple header on NBCSN delivered drama, goals and controversy by the time the dust settled on the day’s action.

[ MORE: Saturday’s action ]

All told, we saw 12 goals, a red card, two penalties and a tightened title race.

Let’s take a spin through those three matches.

Arsenal 2-1 Leicester CityRECAP

The Emirates Stadium crowd saw a little bit of everything. The Gunners went down 1-0 on a controversially drawn and lethally taken penalty from Jamie Vardy, then saw a glimmer of hope when Foxes defender Danny Simpson took two quick and silly yellow cards. Theo Walcott found the leveler and Danny Welbeck, out for 10 months, returned to score the winner in the fourth of four minutes of stoppage time. The Gunners are now two points back of Leicester and nine goals of differential behind No. 2 Tottenham.

Aston Villa 0-6 LiverpoolRECAP

Having two of your brightest attackers in the lineup can do a lot for an offense’s potency, and Philippe Coutinho found Daniel Sturridge to open the scoring very early at Villa Park. A deluge of goals followed, and Villa will be wondering if there’s any way out of the drop zone after James Milner, Divock Origi, Nathaniel Clyne, Emre Can and Kolo Toure also scored for the Reds to bury the home side’s goal differential with its table status.

Manchester City 1-2 Tottenham HotspurRECAP

If Vardy’s penalty was controversial, Mark Clattenberg’s decision to award one to Tottenham was cataclysmic. Raheem Sterling‘s leaping block of a cross was deemed to be a handball, and Harry Kane beat countrymate Joe Hart with a PK. Super sub Kelechi Iheanacho equalized for the Etihad set, but fellow late game entry Erik Lamela sprung Christian Eriksen for a tidy match winner in the 83rd minute.

Standings

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
Leicester City 26 15 8 3 48 29 19 7-4-1 8-4-2 53
Tottenham Hotspur 26 14 9 3 47 20 27 7-4-2 7-5-1 51
Arsenal 26 15 6 5 41 23 18 8-3-2 7-3-3 51
Manchester City 26 14 5 7 48 28 20 9-1-4 5-4-3 47
Manchester United 26 11 8 7 33 24 9 6-4-2 5-4-5 41
Southampton 26 11 7 8 34 24 10 7-2-4 4-5-4 40
West Ham United 26 10 10 6 40 31 9 5-5-2 5-5-4 40
Liverpool 26 10 8 8 38 36 2 4-5-3 6-3-5 38
Watford 26 10 6 10 29 28 1 5-3-5 5-3-5 36
Stoke City 26 10 6 10 27 32 -5 5-2-5 5-4-5 36
Everton 26 8 11 7 46 35 11 4-4-6 4-7-1 35
Chelsea 26 8 9 9 38 36 2 5-5-4 3-4-5 33
Crystal Palace 26 9 5 12 27 32 -5 4-2-8 5-3-4 32
West Bromwich Albion 26 8 8 10 24 32 -8 4-4-5 4-4-5 32
Bournemouth 26 7 7 12 30 44 -14 3-4-6 4-3-6 28
Swansea City 26 6 9 11 24 34 -10 4-5-5 2-4-6 27
Norwich City 26 6 6 14 30 50 -20 4-4-5 2-2-9 24

Newcastle United 26 6 6 14 27 49 -22 4-5-4 2-1-10 24
Sunderland 26 6 5 15 32 50 -18 4-3-6 2-2-9 23
Aston Villa 26 3 7 16 20 46 -26 2-4-7 1-3-9 16

Spurs’ Kane wants to win everything: “We are buzzing”

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 14: Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur celebrates scoring his penalty with Danny Rose during the Barclays Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on February 14, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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FA Cup, Europa League, Premier League? Yes, please. Harry Kane wants them all.

Kane converted a penalty kick as Spurs bested Manchester City 2-1 on Sunday at the Etihad Stadium, moving to within two points of the Premier League’s top spot.

[ MORE: Match recap | Watch Eriksen’s winner ]

The big striker was euphoric after Christian Eriksen also scored to help Spurs pick up the win, and said the media can decide what it wants about their chances; He knows they can do it.

From the BBC:

“That is up to you lot if we are challengers, we know what we are capable of. We are still in three competitions and we are taking them all very seriously. We are confident we can beat anyone in the league, you saw that today and we came away victorious. We are buzzing.”

Spurs have captured 15-straight points in making their run to second. There’s plenty of time before March 5’s big North London Derby with Arsenal, but we’re looking forward to it.

Before then, Spurs have a pair with Fiorentina in the Europa League, an FA Cup date with Crystal Palace, and PL fixtures versus Swansea and West Ham.

Title race on!

Three things we learned from Tottenham’s big win vs. Man City

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Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City 2-1 at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday in a tight encounter.

[ MORE: Arsenal beat Leicester late on ]

A controversial penalty kick got Spurs rolling and despite a Man City fightback, Christian Eriksen pounced late on to grab the winner on his birthday.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights

Here’s what we learned as the title picture becomes even more jumbled after an epic day where the top four all met one another.

AWFUL PK CALL COSTS CITY

There’s a debatable handball decision and then there’s the kind of decision which went against Man City on Sunday. At the start of the second half Danny Rose curled in a pretty innocuous cross from the left flank and Raheem Sterling jumped in the air with his back to the ball and was right on the edge of the penalty area. The ball struck his ribs and may have grazed his elbow but he knew nothing about it. PEEEEEPP! What. No way. He hasn’t. He has.

Referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot and Man City’s players looked on in disbelief as the penalty was awarded. Take a look at the video below. It was incredibly harsh and swung the game in Spurs’ favor and overall the decision created a major talking point about what is and what isn’t a handball anymore.

Referees show a severe lack of consistency when awarding penalties for handball. Is it ball to hand? Does the arm have to be in an unnatural position? On and on the debate goes, and from his angle it looked like Clattenburg guessed that it hit Sterling’s arm rather than seeing it actually strike the arm. It cost Man City dear as Manuel Pellegrini‘s side have lost two on the spin at home against title rivals Leicester City and now Spurs. City are six points off top spot now with 12 games to go and they aren’t out of this. However, when you look back at big decisions at the end of the season this one could be the difference between them winning the title or not. That PK call and a huge late save from Hugo Lloris who took the ball off Nicolas Otamendi’s head could be pivotal. Sure, City look better at the back with Vincent Kompany returning from injury but there’s no doubt they’re the outsiders for the title after a seventh defeat of the season.

SPURS’ INTENSITY INFECTIOUS

They hunt in packs. They hunt together. And on Sunday, Tottenham’s players hunted down loose balls with more ferocity than in any other game this season. Snapping into tackles, in the first half City couldn’t get into any rhythm and despite the poor PK call from Clattenburg they deserved to win.

[ MORE: Arsenal fans go wild in USA after Welbeck’s winner

Over the course of the game Tottenham looked more comfortable on the ball, they believed in each other and Spurs secured a fifth-straight PL win at a venue where they had lost on each of the last five encounters. Mauricio Pochettino‘s team are showing a maturity beyond their years. Harry Kane stepped up and was ice-cold with his penalty kick, Mousa Dembele patrolled the midfield with power and panache and Eriksen’s winner was a prime example of the high-tempo approach Pochettino loves to employ. In the 83rd minute Yaya Toure tried to run forward from midfield and lost the ball with four Spurs players swarming him. Erik Lamela then ran at the hart of City’s defense and slipped through a perfect pass to Eriksen. On his birthday the Dane was coolness personified as he took a sublime first touch and slotted past Joe Hart to send the away fans wild. Spurs have only won the title twice in their history and the last came back in 1961. Now, with an easy looking schedule they could transform from the dark horses to the favorites. Pochettino’s player are hungry, have the best defensive record in the PL and have proven themselves in the big games this season.

NORTH LONDON TITLE TUSSLE

Okay, this is actually happening. With Arsenal beating Leicester earlier on Sunday both north London teams are now just two points behind the Foxes. Spurs sit second and Arsenal third as only goal difference separates the two rivals who have 51 points. When they meet at White Hart Lane on March 5 it will be an incredible atmosphere and it could well be a huge game in deciding which half of north London the title goes to on May 15.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings | Schedule ] 

When you look back at the history of PL title races, there have been only a few instances where direct crosstown or local rivals have gone head-to-head for the title. Man City and Man United have had a few title tussles since 2011 but the fact that two bitter rivals are going at it for the title will only add to the incredible unpredictability. This season it is closer than ever at the top and Spurs and Arsenal now have plenty of momentum as they head into the two week PL break. Get ready for plenty of talk of a “title tussle in North London” over the next 10 days or so.  It’s legit.