Europa League Final: Chelsea vs. Benfica

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This afternoon in Amsterdam, Chelsea and Benfica go head-to-head in the UEFA Europa League final.

Both sides failed to make it past the Champions League group stages and now find themselves vying to lift Europe’s ‘other’ trophy.

At times the Europa League isn’t given the credit it deserves. With the new format allowing teams that finished third in their Champions League groups to enter at the knockout round, the competition has certainly lost some of its allure in recent years.

But these two sides and others have produced some superb displays to reach the final, with goals, drama and controversy lining the route to Amsterdam.

Just twelve months ago Chelsea were preparing for the Champions League Final in Munich, against Bayern, as they aimed to lift the famous trophy for the first-time in history. They did that. But the defense of their European crown they so gloriously won, didn’t go according to plan.

Some solace would come from being the only team to ever technically hold both the Champions League and Europa League titles at the same time. Frank Lampard, John Terry and co. would certainly love to lift yet another cup when the full-time whistle sounds at the Amsterdam Arena this afternoon.

But hold your horses. This won’t be a walkover. Benfica are not in the final through luck. The Lisbon based club have stormed through to the finale, brushing off Fenerbache, Newcastle, Bordeaux and Bayer Leverkusen. They’ve had a much tougher route to the final and despite a damaging injury-time defeat to Porto in the league last weekend, Benfica will be determined to win their first-ever Europa League trophy.

Also adding a little-bit of of spice to the mix, is the fact that two Benfica old boys — David Luiz and Ramires — will be lining up against them this afternoon.

This is an amazing stat. Benfica have played in eight European Cup finals in their history. They’ve taken Europe’s highest honor home twice, way back in 1961 and 1962 when the great Eusebio led the way. However, in the six European finals they’ve reached since, Benfica have failed to win another trophy. Could it be lucky number seven?

Chelsea hope it isn’t. Their big concern is an injury to captain John Terry, with the veteran defender likely to miss out after damaging his ankle in Saturday’s win against Aston Villa.

The Blues will have David Luiz, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic to choose from at center back. So they should be fine. But the London will be missing influential attacker Eden Hazard through injury. (Live on Fox Soccer Channel, 2:30pm ET)

What they’re saying…

Chelsea

Rafael Benitez: “I want to win and if I can I will be really proud as we are working hard in very difficult circumstances. For me, it is always important to win trophies, to do well and to make sure we have done a good job. When I go home. I think we are doing a good job. People realise to be here at this stage of the competition means we have done a lot of things really well.”

Frank Lampard: “I have been lucky enough to play a few finals and they are very particular games. Small things that happen, focus and concentration, dictate the game.”

Petr Cech: “Any season when you reach a European final and you win it, the season must be considered a success. We would like to make history by winning the game.”

Benfica

Jorge Jesus: “Winning the Europa League would be a very important moment in the club’s history, and for the players and staff. Getting to the final is a great achievement in itself but coming away victorious would be even greater. Benfica are always under pressure when they play and we know that in every competition we take part in, the aim is to get to the final and win.”

Luisão: “There’s been a real atmosphere in the squad all season and I’m proud to be part of it. We’ve grown and whenever anyone arrives at the club they soon realise what it means to wear the Benfica shirt. What I want is the best for Benfica. We deserve this, we’ve grown in recent years. As captain, [I say] we’re representing not just the players and their families but everyone who works at this club. We can make history for an important club like Benfica.”

Prediction: Chelsea just seemed destined to win this trophy. From late heroics against Sparta Prague and FC Basel, Benitez has utilized his squad masterfully and they seemed fired up to win the trophy. But Benfica won’t be a walk over. They want to bring home a European trophy for the first-time since 1962 and after domestic heartache at the weekend, Jorge Jesus’ side will be focused on the prize. I can see Chelsea’s experience shining through and a solid 2-1 win for the boys in blue. But it could go to extra-time and the dreaded penalty shootout in Amsterdam.

Lukaku coy on Everton future, says “decision has already been made”

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Romelu Lukaku has made it no secret that he hopes to play Champions League football, and reality may be setting in that the opportunity to do so won’t come at Everton.

[ MORE: Everton loses Coleman to leg break during Ireland match ]

While the Belgium international hasn’t dealt his hand in regards to his future at Goodison Park, it seems as though the Toffees could be losing out on keeping their star striker.

[ MORE: UEFA qualifying roundup — Wales in trouble, Buffon hits 1000 ]

Last month, agent Mino Raiola claimed that Lukaku’s deal with the English side was 99.9 percent complete, however, the 23-year-old has still yet to ink a new contract.

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s UEFA World Cup qualifier against Greece, Lukaku says that his future plans are already made up.

“The decision has already been made so I can’t talk about that,” Lukaku said of his future at Everton.

The former Anderlecht standout has had nothing but success since joining Everton, first on loan and then making a permanent transfer from Chelsea in 2014. Over the combined stints, Lukaku has bagged 83 goals in all competitions for the Toffees, but the young attacker says there’s nothing wrong with having “ambition.”

“There is nothing wrong with ambition. You have to embrace it and where you are as a footballer,” Lukaku said. “I’ve made a long way until now but the road is still long and I know I have to improve and get better. I want to help Everton as much as I can, as well as the national team. I think a lot of stuff can be achieved.

“Sometimes people will mistake things that I say but it’s just ambition that I have; I want to win titles and trophies and I don’t think people should take that as arrogance — people should embrace it.

“This is what footballers need to achieve if they want to become the best, and I think young kids need to learn that too.”

Making sense out of USMNT’s emphatic win over Honduras

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In the lead up to Friday night’s clash at Avaya Stadium, the U.S. Men’s National Team was faced with a must-win scenario. What came next though was a bit more shocking than most U.S. Soccer supporters could have possibly imagined.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s win over Honduras ]

An emphatic 6-0 scoreline was how it finished in San Jose, California as the USMNT took down Honduras to lift itself out of the cellar of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but it’s how Bruce Arena’s side picked up the result that was so impressive.

After an extended layoff that began in the final months of the 2016 Major League Soccer season, Clint Dempsey has returned to both club and country with a vengeance following Friday’s performance. The artist formerly known as “Deuce” recorded a hat-trick in a span of 22 minutes to solidify an already convincing American lead, leaving Dempsey just two goals shy of Landon Donovan’s all-time USMNT scoring record (57).

Dempsey wasn’t the only bright spot though, as Sebastian Lletget, Darlington Nagbe, Jozy Altidore and most notably, Christian Pulisic, turned in stellar performances that really left Honduras with no chance to find its rhythm in the match.

The 18-year-old Pulisic continues to be the talk of the town when it comes to the USMNT, and rightfully so given his club situation. There’s never been a U.S. talent succeeding at a club as big as Borussia Dortmund at such a young age, and Pulisic’s effort against Los Catrachos proved further that the young attacker could be the playmaker the Yanks have been looking for since Donovan’s retirement.

Meanwhile, another player that turned in a great performance was Jozy Altidore, and probably not for the reasons you’d normally think. The Toronto FC striker didn’t get on the scoresheet, however, it was Altidore’s hold-up play and vision that helped the U.S. dominate Honduras.

Altidore has long been a staple of the American attack, and an important one at that with his 37 international goals, which ranks third all-time for the U.S.. If the 27-year-old is able to replicate more performances like Friday night though, that makes the Stars and Stripes significantly more dangerous because of Altidore’s duel-threat ability.

The lone area the U.S. will look to clean up heading into Tuesday’s important qualifying match against Panama will be some of the team’s defensive letdowns. Jorge Villafana turned in a strong performance in his WCQ debut at left back, while veteran Omar Gonzalez had several moments of weakness in the heart of the American backline.

The Pachuca defender was caught out of position on several occasions and gave the ball away at times as well, but fortunately for the U.S., Honduras was unable to capitalize on those errors.

Overall though, the U.S. did exactly what it needed… and then some. The three points was all Arena’s group could have hoped for from the start after lackluster performances against Mexico and Costa Rica back in November, but adding six goals could certainly help down the road as well if goal differential becomes a key factor in the Hexagonal.

It’s difficult to say the U.S. is back because that’s a relative phrase that can be interpreted in numerous ways. The USMNT put in a stellar performance, albeit without key players like Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin defensively, while Bobby Wood and Jermaine Jones are two others that didn’t feature.

[ MORE: Three takeaways from USMNT’s emphatic win on Friday night ]

Only time will tell when it comes to how this team gels over an extended period of time, but it was certainly a dream start for the Americans as Arena Part Deux continues.

Up next, Panama.

Chastain, MacMillan inducted into US Soccer Hall of Fame

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) Brandi Chastain looked at the assembled crowd in a tent under the rain and addressed former coach Tony DiCicco, who had just introduced her at the induction ceremony for the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame.

[ MORE: USMNT smashes six past Honduras in CONCACAF WCQ ]

“Thank you, not just for today but for every day that you gave me the chance to play for the women’s national team, and for having the confidence in me and the guts to tell me I wasn’t going to be a forward,” she said.

Chastain, a forward on the 1991 World Cup champions and a left back whose penalty kick won a shootout for the 1999 title, was inducted Friday night along with midfielder Shannon MacMillan, a 1996 Olympic gold medalist and World Cup champion three years later.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT’s win over Honduras ]

The ceremony was held before the U.S. men played Honduras in a World Cup qualifier.

Remembered most for pulling off her shirt after her World Cup-winning goal and celebrating in a sports bra, Chastain grew up in San Jose and talked about her early days playing youth soccer in the area, starting with the Quakettes. After winning her first World Cup title, she was left off the 1995 roster. She revived her career as a defender.

“Change is good. Though, scary, it’s good. And I think we would all benefit from seeing change as an opportunity for growth and development, and for a new adventure,” she said.

Now 38, Chastain scored 30 goals in 192 international appearances and also won a pair of Olympic gold medals. MacMillan, 42, had 60 in 176 international games.

“It was always such a massive honor that gave me chills every time I walked in that locker room, whether it was my first cap, my 100th cap or my last cap,” MacMillan said. “It was something that I never took for granted.”

Soccer America’s Paul Kennedy was given the Colin Jose Media Award.

The Hall’s building in Oneonta, New York, closed in 2010 and a new Hall is being built in Frisco, Texas.

Hernandez, Araujo score in 1st half, Mexico beats Costa Rica

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MEXICO CITY (AP) Javier Hernandez and Nestor Araujo scored in the first half, and Mexico overcame the absence of half a dozen players to beat Costa Rica 2-0 on Friday night in a World Cup qualifying match.

Hernandez scored on a cross from Carlos Vela to open the score in the seventh and Araujo added a goal on a header in the 45th.

[ USMNT: Recap & videoPlayer ratings ]

Hernandez scored his 46th goal with the Mexican team and tied Jared Borgetti as the all-time leading scorer.

With the win, Mexico remains undefeated and has seven points after three rounds to take sole command in the six-nation tournament. Costa Rica stays on six points and is second and Panama is third with four.

The top three teams qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Mexico beat Costa Rica for the first time since September 11, 2012, when they prevailed 1-0.