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: De Rossi, Roma make classy visit to Hillsborough memorial

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On many occasions there are instances where teams and individuals exemplify the fact that real-life occurrences are more meaningful than sports.

Ahead of Tuesday’s UEFA Champions League meeting, Italian giants AS Roma visited Anfield –where they will face Liverpool in the competition’s semifinals.

After walking around the venue where the two sides will compete in less than 24 hours, Roma captain Daniele de Rossi and the rest of the Roma squad visited the Hillsborough memorial at Anfield to pay tribute to the 96 victims lost in the 1989 event that rocked the entire country.

De Rossi was seen laying a floral arrangement on the site, along with a note from the club that read, “In memoria delle vittime di Hillsborough AS Rome.”

Liverpool, Roma ride major emotions into the UCL semifinals

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Four clubs remain in this season’s UEFA Champions League competition, and while two of the teams have been considered heavy dogs in the fight all year long the other two sides look to continue on their storybook run.

Liverpool, Roma, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid have found themselves in the semifinals of this season’s UCL, creating a strong mix of storylines as the tournament heads towards its most critical point.

[ MORE: Everton gets past Newcastle behind Theo Walcott’s strike ]

Anfield will be the site for Tuesday’s first leg between Liverpool and Roma, with both sides still riding major highs from their victories in the last round.

The Reds enter the final four after having disposed of fellow Premier League side Manchester City in relatively dominating fashion. Meanwhile, Roma completed a seemingly impossible comeback against Barcelona to progress in the competition.

Liverpool is led by three of the year’s top goalscorers, including Mohamed Salah — who has scored eight goals in the UCL and 41 across all competitions.

For Roma, much of the side’s success has been predicated on finding defensive strength at the right moments throughout the tournament.

Despite falling behind 4-1 in their first leg defeat to Barca in the previous round, Edin Dzeko and Co. rallied for a 3-0 win at the Stade Olimpico to stun the Catalan club by holding Lionel Messi and his side in check.

Manager Eusebio Di Francesco will have to find creative ways to halt the Liverpool attack though over the course of two legs, with the Reds boasting the top attack in this year’s UCL.

Liverpool has scored 33 goals in 10 UCL matches, while only conceding seven in the process.

Keeper Ederson hopeful he can score this season for Man City

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The prospects for a goalkeeper scoring during a match are usually uncommon, but that hasn’t halted Manchester City’s number one choice from aiming to break the trend this season.

Ederson — who has moved into the starting role at the Etihad Stadium with relative ease in 2017/18 — has dreamt of scoring a goal of his own for the Premier League champions in waiting.

“I heard the fans chanting my name, asking me to take the penalty but Gabriel went there,” Ederson said. “Unfortunately he missed it and Bernardo happily scored. But if the manager have asked me to go there, definitely I’d score.

“I’m not sure if I would be able to do set-pieces, but I’m good at penalties, either using power or technique on shooting it. But City have [their] regular penalty-takers and we are well-served.

Citizen supporters chanted for the goalkeeper to take a penalty kick over the weekend in the team’s 5-0 win over Swansea City.

However, Gabriel Jesus was the man selected for the opportunity, but had his attempt saved by Lukasz Fabianski before Bernardo Silva was in the right spot to score the game’s fifth goal.

“If Pep asks me to take it, I’m there,” Ederson said of the penalty kick. “Hopefully it will happen [before the end of the season], I’d like to score.”

This isn’t the first time Ederson has discussed exploring opportunities outside of the net, though.

The Brazilian shot-stopper has long been a fan of former Brazil international goalkeeper Rogero Ceni — who scored 65 goals for club side Sao Paolo.

Earlier this season, the 24-year-old joked around with the media, saying that he’d be more than happy to fill a role in the midfield when City was experiencing some injury issues within the squad.

Everton 1-0 Newcastle: Walcott blast has Toffees up to eighth

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Everton earned a 1-0 win against Newcastle on Monday behind Theo Walcott‘s second-half strike at Goodison Park.

The victory puts the Toffees into eighth place, leaping over Leicester City for the time being — as the Foxes have an extra game in hand.

[ MORE: Sweden coach says Ibra must reach out to have shot at World Cup ]

The former Arsenal man broke the deadlock six minutes into the second half when Walcott blasted the ball into the roof of the net following a lofted cross from Yannick Bolasie.

For Walcott, it’s his third goal since joining Everton in 2017/18 from the Gunners.

The visitors had their fair share of opportunities on the day, particularly through Ayoze Pérez, who was active all throughout the match.

Perez nearly broke the deadlock after the half hour mark when he tested goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in the 31st minute with a diving save in the bottom left corner.

Phil Jagielka came close four minutes later when his close-range attempt narrowly missed the top left corner after Michael Keane‘s flicked header off a corner kick.

The Spanish forward was at it again in the second stanza, and nearly found the back of the net when his header was saved in the center of the goal off of a cross from Kenedy.

Newcastle pushed hard for an equalizer in the dying moments, and even played up a man for a few minutes when Leighton Baines was tended to for a head injury, but the Magpies couldn’t even the score.