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

USMNT snub: No US players in CONCACAF Best XI of 2016

HARRISON, NJ - JUNE 01:  John Brooks #6 of United States and teammates Clint Dempsey #8,Michael Bradley #4,Geoff Cameron #20 and Julian Green #16 wait for the corner kick in the second half against Turkey during an international friendly match at Red Bull Arena on June 1, 2014 in Harrison, New Jersey.The United States defeated Turkey 2-1.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Well, this is a little surprising.

[ MORE: Griezmann needed at United ]

CONCACAF released its Best XI from 2016 on Wednesday and there were zero U.S. national team players in the list of 11.

Zero.

Players from Mexico and Costa Rica dominate, while Canadian midfielder Atiba Hutchinson, Jamaican defender Wes Morgan and French forward Andre-Pierre Gignac were also included. The top 11 players were selected after either playing for a national team or club team in the CONCACAF region.

Only one player from Major League Soccer made the list, Ronald Mataritta of New York City FC.

Still, the fact that USMNT defenders Geoff Cameron and John Brooks didn’t get in the Best XI of 2016 after their heroics at the Copa America Centenario is quite mind-boggling. No offense against Morgan or Mexico’s Rafael Marquez, but come on. Also, surely Christian Pulisic or Jozy Altidore would have been worthy additions to this team?

Then again, when you see the highlight video below, most of the winners are shown scoring or playing well against the USMNT. That could go a little way to explain why there are no U.S. players on this list…

Below is the team in full. Intrigued to hear your comments in the section below.


Who can catch Chelsea in the Premier League title race?

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Seven points clear at the top with 17 games to go, Chelsea must be feeling pretty good about their chances of winning the Premier League title.

That said, there’s a group of five other teams battling to stay in touch.

[ MORE: Full PST Extra archive

The PL big boys are back where they belong and it seems as though that is the way it will remain for the foreseeable future.

Click play on the video above to hear Jenna Corrado and I discuss the top six and who are the biggest threat to leaders Chelsea.

Why Antoine Griezmann is exactly what Man United need

MARSEILLE, FRANCE - JULY 07:  Antoine Griezmann of France celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA EURO semi final match between Germany and France at Stade Velodrome on July 7, 2016 in Marseille, France.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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Multiple reports are linking Manchester United with a summer move for Antoine Griezmann.

Do they need him? Yes. Yes they do.

[ MORE: Costa back for Chelsea ]

An incredible stat emerged at the weekend which stated that United has the worst “big chance” conversion rate in the whole of the Premier League. Stats company Opta state that United have had 37 big chances (this stat is described as “a situation where a player should be reasonably expected to score”) this season, converting just 12 of them at a ratio of 32.43 percent.

The Independent claims that United are willing to pay Griezmann’s release clause of $106 million to sign him from Atletico Madrid and the French international said back in November that he would like to link up with his international teammate Paul Pogba.

Seems straightforward enough…

There is, however, a complication surrounding any deal as Atletico currently have a transfer ban and if their appeal falls through then the Spanish club won’t be able to buy or sell any players in the summer.

For United, 25-year-old Griezmann would be the major arrival at Old Trafford this summer and the report also suggests that Mourinho is eager to offload Luke Shaw this offseason, plus Memphis Depay will leave in January as Lyon’s pursuit continues.

Back to Griezmann though, and it is reported that United have been pursuing the diminutive striker since the summer when he stole the show at EURO 2016 as the top goalscorer in the tournament which saw the host nation France lose in the final to Portugal.

On paper, Griezmann would be a phenomenal buy for United. He is exactly what they’ve been missing this season.

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10: Antoine Griezmann (L) and Paul Pogba (R) of France shows their dejection after their team's 0-1 defeat in the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
(Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Yes, Zlatan has been ruthless in recent weeks — 11 goals in his last 11 games in all competitions says as much — but he is 35 years old and can’t be expected to go on forever. He has also had bad moments in front of goal this season and when you look around United’s squad they have raw young talents in Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford but not much else, and certainly no clinical strikers like Griezmann.

When I think of United, I think of a team creating copious amounts of chances and with their direct play under Mourinho they have certainly missed plenty of “big chances” this season, dropping points after failing to finish teams off and drawing many games they should have won.

If Griezmann was at United this season he’d probably be leading the PL in goals scored. I’m sure of it. He is of the same ilk as a Javier Hernandez or Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, a lightning quick poacher who is cool in the box. Yet, Griezmann also offers more with his pace and creativity and that’s why United should break the bank to sign him this summer.

This season Griezmann has scored 12 goals in 25 appearance for an Atletico side battling back from adversity to position themselves in the La Liga title race once again. Over the course of his two-and-a-half seasons at the Vicente Calderon he has now scored 69 goals in 132 games in all competitions. Every step up he has made the striker has done it with ease.

For United to become title contenders and get back to the upper echeleons of Europe, Mourinho needs a predator in the box. Zlatan and Wayne Rooney are getting on and youngsters Martial and Rashford will take time to develop. With the likes of Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitaryan putting chances on a plate for those in front of them, United’s fans must be salivating at the thought of seeing Griezmann in a red shirt.

If United go out and buy Griezmann this summer it will be yet another huge statement in their intent to be back among the elite.

USWNT star O’Reilly signs for Arsenal

BIRMINGHAM, AL - SEPTEMBER 20:  Heather O'Reilly #9 of the United States of America reacts after scoring a goal against Haiti during the US Women's 2015 World Cup victory tour match at Legion Field on September 20, 2015 in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Former U.S. women’s national team star Heather O’Reilly has completed her move to Arsenal Ladies.

[ MORE: Messi talks about future ]

O’Reilly, 32, is the eighth-highest capped player in USWNT history and retired from the national team in September 2016. She was an integral part of the team which won the 2015 World Cup in Canada, plus she has three Olympic gold medals from the 2004 games in Athens, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.

The midfielder scored 47 goals in 231 appearances for the USWNT, while she has also played for the Boston Breakers and most recently the Kansas City Stars in the NWSL.

Speaking about signing for the FA Women’s Super League powerhouse, O’Reilly was delighted to be moving to London.

“Having come over to Arsenal last year to train, I was very impressed with the club,” O’Reilly said. “The facilities are world class and they have a tradition of excellence at the club that I wanted to be a part of, I’m very happy to be here.”

The schedules for the 2017-18 season in both the WSL 1 and 2 were released last week and the opening weekend of the season is on Apr. 22 when O’Reilly’s Arsenal play Notts County.

O’Reilly joins USWNT winger Crystal Dunn in the WSL 1, as she plays for Arsenal’s London rivals Chelsea.