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

Report: Whitecaps teen sensation Davies could have Man United trial

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The 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup saw a lot of young faces in competition, and one name that really seemed to stick came from Canada’s national team.

[ MORE: Five players LA FC should consider selecting in MLS Expansion Draft ]

Vancouver Whitecaps attacker Alphonso Davies has been doing it for both club and country since making his Major League Soccer debut in 2016, and now the young Canada international could be making a massive leap.

According to CTV Edmonton, the 17-year-old has been contacted by Premier League side Manchester United for a trial in January.

Davies would need clearance from the Whitecaps to join the Red Devils to train, however, with it being MLS’ offseason it’s hard to imagine the Cascadia club not allowing the former Edmonton Strikers player to seize the opportunity.

In 2017, Davies appeared in 26 matches for the Whitecaps and registered one assist for Carl Robinson’s side.

Davies has already become a regular with the Canada national team, after previously receiving call ups from the Under-15, U-18 and U-20 teams.

Five players LA FC should consider selecting in MLS Expansion Draft

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Los Angeles FC will take another big step towards its entry into Major League Soccer next season on Tuesday when the 2017 MLS Expansion Draft commences.

Bob Bradley and his side will have the opportunity to select up to five players during the Expansion Draft, however, the team can only choose one player per club.

[ MORE: Rimando, Pontius among MLS free agents ]

MLS sides had to select their list of 11 protected players by Sunday evening in order to put them off limits from LA FC. Any player not protected by their club is available for selection.

After exploring some of the names of those left unprotected, PST takes a look at five players LA FC should select in Tuesday’s Expansion Draft.

Maxime Chanot — (CB from New York City FC)

He’s 28 years old, and helped build one of the better central defensive partnerships in MLS last season with Alex Callens, prior to his injury. NYCFC could be banking on the fact that his injury will prevent him from getting back to his previous level, but there’s no question Chanot is the sort of player that could anchor the LA FC back line for five-plus seasons.

David Ousted — (GK from Vancouver Whitecaps)

Made 90-plus saves in four of his five seasons with the Whitecaps, and overall one of the top goalkeepers in MLS. The Denmark native has recorded 36 shutouts in his time with the Cascadia side, and helped guide the Whitecaps to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference in 2017. With Real Salt Lake not picking up Nick Rimando’s contract, the veteran USMNT shot-stopper could also be an option for LA FC, however, Ousted is younger and arguably better at this stage of his career.

Marco Urena — (FWD from San Jose Earthquakes)

The 27-year-old may not be on many people’s radars, but the Costa Rican had five goals and three assists last season for the Quakes. Urena was tied for second on the team in goals, and provides a solid veteran player on a new LA FC side. While Carlos Vela will be the focal point up front for the newcomers, Urena is the sort of player that could player a very important supporting role.

Osvaldo Alonso — (MID from Seattle Sounders)

The Designated Player contract could scare LA FC away because Alonso is 32 years old, but this is the type of guy you want in the center of the park. For nine seasons, Alonso has anchored the Sounders midfield, and he does all the dirty work that could very well help the transition of the expansion side’s back line in 2018.

Chris Tierney — (DEF from New England Revolution

Similar to Alonso, Tierney isn’t going to be the sexiest pick, but he’s had the MLS experience, and he’s likely a player that could move on from a team where he’s spent his entire career. His versatility in the midfield and defensively allows Tierney to be a highly-coveted asset, especially as a player that is capable of delivering a quality cross from down the left flank.

Rimando, Pontius among 40 MLS players eligible for free agency

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Ahead of Tuesday’s Free Agency period, Major League Soccer released a list of 40 eligible players on Sunday.

Veterans over the age of 28 and who have played at least eight seasons in MLS qualified for the list, as well as players out-of-contract and those who didn’t have their options picked up.

[ MORE: Stanford knocks off Indiana in extra time to win third straight College Cup ]

MLS was busy earlier in the day on Sunday when several clubs announced blockbuster trades, including Kei Kamara’s move to Vancouver and expansion side Los Angeles FC’s addition of Walker Zimmerman.

A number of notable MLS veterans are included on the following list, such as Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, Chris Pontius of the Philadelphia Union and New York Red Bulls defender Sal Zizzo.

NOTE: The MLS Expansion Draft will also take place on Tuesday at 2 p.m. ET as LA FC has the opportunity to select up to five players ahead of its inaugural MLS season in 2018.

Below is the full list of candidates for this offseason’s free agents.

Player Previous
Club
Status
Alexander, Eric HOU Out of Contract
Alston, Kevin ORL Out of Contract
Barrett, Chad RSL Option Decline
Beasley, DaMarcus HOU Out of Contract
Beitashour, Steven TOR Out of Contract
Boswell, Bobby ATL Out of Contract
Burling, Robert COL Out of Contract
Carroll, Brian PHI Retired
Clark, Ricardo HOU Option Decline
DeLaGarza, AJ HOU Option Decline
Deric, Tyler HOU Option Decline
Duka, Dilly NY Option Decline
Evans, Brad SEA Out of Contract
Francis, Shaun MTL Option Decline
Franklin, Sean DC Option Decline
Gordon, Alan COL Option Decline
Harrington, Michael CHI Option Decline
Harris, Atiba DAL Option Decline
Harvey, Jordan VAN Out of Contract
Hernandez, Jason TOR Out of Contract
Jacobson, Andrew VAN Out of Contract
Knighton, Brad NE Out of Contract
Kronberg, Eric MTL Out of Contract
Larentowicz, Jeffrey ATL Option Decline
Loyd, Zachary ATL Option Decline
Moor, Andrew TOR Out of Contract
Morales, Javier DAL Out of Contract
Neagle, Lamar SEA Out of Contract
Nyarko, Patrick DC Out of Contract
Pontius, Chris PHI Out of Contract
Reynish, Kyle ATL Out of Contract
Rimando, Nick RSL Out of Contract
Rogers, Robbie LA Retired
Rolfe, Chris DC Retired
Saunders, Joshua ORL Option Decline
Schuler, Chris RSL Option Decline
Seitz, Christopher DAL Out of Contract
Wingert, Chris RSL Out of Contract
Zemanski, Ben POR Out of Contract
Zizzo, Sal NY Option Decline

The 2 Robbies podcast: Man City steps towards the title, Merseyside recap

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle dissect Derby Day, where Man City set the Premier League single season all time consecutive winning streak against rivals Man United, Jurgen Klopp had a bad day at the office against the blue half of Merseyside and Arsenal stutter again away from home.

Join Earle & Mustoe on The 2 Robbies Football Show, Saturdays at 5pm ET. Listen on the NBCSports Radio App and call 855-323-4622 in the U.S. for lively passionate debate.

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Listen to the latest pod by clicking play below.

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