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.

Pique: For first time in career, Barca star feels “inferior to Madrid”

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Gerard Pique does not have the sort of personality that makes admitting defeat an easy proposition.

The longtime Barcelona center back is raging after his side was beaten 5-1 over two legs by rivals Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup.

[ MORE: Barca releases statement on terror attacks ]

And for the first time in his life, he thinks Barca is a step behind its El Clasico enemies. From The Telegraph:

“This is a long process and there is room for improvement but in the nine years that I have been here, it is the first time that I feel inferior to Madrid,” Piqué said. “We are not in the best moment, either as a team or as a club. We must stay as close as possible and keep moving forwards.”

Barcelona looked very poor in the second leg of the Super Cup, though the club did hammer the woodwork on multiple occasions. Real is the best team in the world, which makes being its rival a real hassle.

In fact, both clubs have been 1-2 in the world for some time, which has to make it extra perplexing when you’re No. 2 to only the club you despise more than any other.

Bundesliga preview: Schalke, BVB chase Bayern Munich

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The last time Schalke spent a season outside of European football, the celebrated German club finished second in the league en route to a Champions League semifinal the following campaign.

That’s one of the only silver linings from last season’s disappointing 10th place finish, 19 points behind fourth place Hoffenheim.

[ MORE: Schalke’s teen American impact ]

“Naturally, nobody is happy about not playing international this year,” center back Benedikt Howedes told ProSoccerTalk. “During the week we currently have more time to focus on the next opponent. We will battle the European positions with many teams this season. I think, the race is up in the air. The Bundesliga is very balanced.”

World Cup winner Howedes has 334 appearances for Schalke (Getty Images).

Schalke’s tumulutous 2016-17 season started poorly and never really found its footing. The club lost its first five league matches under Markus Weinzierl, who was fired in June, and saw marquee transfers Naldo, Breel Embolo, and Coke miss a lot of time through injuries.

Enter 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco. Don’t let the age fool you, he’s the boss not a player, and youth will be part of the team as well. Schalke still has Embolo, Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, American teen Weston McKennie has been promoted to the first team, and Amine Harit has arrived from Nantes.

From the outside, that puts an emphasis on veteran leadership. Fortunately for Schalke, it has living club legend Howedes and ex-Man City defender Matija Nastasic amongst others in the fold.

“The spirit, if you could be in the locker room, it’s amazing,” McKennie told PST. “It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

[ MORE: Guide to two promoted Bundesliga teams ]

In the case of Nastasic, who won the Premier League with Manchester City in 2013-14, his 24 years carry a lot of experience. He’s thrived at Fiorentina, become a staple of the Serbian national team, and rebounding from his injury-hit time at City and is a leader at Schalke.

And those young guys can learn from Nastasic, who’s seen it all at 24.

“When I just arrived in Italy I was only 18 and it was the first year out of my country,” Nastasic told PST. “I didn’t expect at the beginning that I would play that much. Then I changed to England, and it was totally different. Italy is more tactical. Football in England is physical with a lot of tempo and running. I was young also without so much experience but when I was fit I think I played good.”

Schalke will need its young attack to find more goals. Its defense was Top Five in goals conceded last season, but its 45 goals was mid-table.

“Everyone knows that last season was not as good as we had expected,” Howedes said. “With our new coach, we want to improve our game and make our fans happy again. We are training hard and I am sure, that we will be more constant and improve our performances this season.”

[ MORE: First female ref to make Bundesliga debut ]

“From the team I expect a much better season than last year,” Nastasic adds. “We are not playing international games so maybe that’s an advantage for us. We can concentrate on the Bundesliga.”

Both Nastasic and Howedes heaped praise on McKennie, as well as American teammate Haji Wright, who will spend the season on loan to Sandhausen, and the game overseas in general.

“Haji Wright started spectacular,” Howedes said. “For young players the most important thing is to play. On loan in Sandhausen the chance is greater than here. I rejoice for him he get this opportunity. The step in the 2.Bundesliga can be a good beginning of his career.

“The American soccer is really developing the last years. It is no coincidence that a lot of great players like Kaka and Gerrard joined Major League Soccer. And who knows, I also can imagine to play there some day in the future.”

Different champs (but probably not different champs): Bayern Munich will neither have Xabi Alonso nor Philipp Lahm this season, but that doesn’t mean they are runaway favorites to claim its 27th title and sixth-straight since Borussia Dortmund’s two-year reign ended with the 2011-12 crown. Carlo Ancelotti has reloaded with James Rodriguez and Corentin Tolisso, and will be favored to hold off BVB for the crown.

Here’s to the new Bosz: USMNT phenom Christian Pulisic is already making an impact in the mind of his new coach, Peter Bosz, and the manager will be pleased to note that reports say Pulisic has no interest in looking into his future until after the 2018 World Cup.

Sleepers? Eintracht Frankfurt dropped into 11th last season, and may benefit from not finishing in a European place. The club has added Mexican national teamer Carlos Saucedo, Dutch star Jetro Willems, and well-traveled Jonathan De Guzman for its new season.

Americans Abroad:
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
Julian Green (Stuttgart)
Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach)
McKennie (Schalke)
Timothy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
Aron Johannsson (Werder Bremen *expected to be sold)
Caleb Stanko (Freiburg)

Old faces, new places:
Serge Gnabry (Hoffenheim, on loan from Bayern Munich)
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Dortmund, from ‘Gladbach)
Mathew Leckie (Hertha BSC, from Ingolstadt)
Sven Bender (Bayer Leverkusen, from BVB)
Marcel Heller (Augsburg, from Darmstadt)
Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Hamburg, from Bayer)
John Brooks (Wolfsburg, from Hertha)
Paul Verhaegh (Wolfsburg, from Augsburg)
Holger Badstuber (Stuttgart, from Bayern)

New faces, new places:
James Rodriguez (Bayern Munich)
Jonathan Klinsmann (Hertha BSC)
Reece Oxford (Gladbach, on loan from West Ham)
Harit (Schalke)
Jonathan de Guzman (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Jetro Willems (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Carlos Salcedo (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Viktor Fischer (Mainz)

Opening weekend
Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen — Friday
Hamburg vs. Augsburg — Saturday
Hertha Berlin vs. Stuttgart — Saturday
Hoffenheim vs. Werder Bremen — Saturday
Wolfsburg vs. Borussia Dortmund — Saturday
Mainz vs. Hannover 96 — Saturday
Schalke vs. RB Leipzig — Saturday
Freiburg vs. Eintracht Frankfurt — Sunday
Borussia Monchengladbach vs. Koln — Sunday

FC Barcelona releases statement after terror attack

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FC Barcelona found tragedy at home on Thursday when a terrorist plot unfolded in Las Ramblas, killing 13 and injuring more than 100.

Las Ramblas is just a 20-minute ride from the Camp Nou, and the Catalan club hosts Real Betis on Sunday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

A terrorist-driven rental van was driven at 50 mph through a crowded plaza. As of post time, two men had been arrested but the driver remained on the loose.

Saying it was sickened by the attack, FCB announced it will fly flags at half-mast, wear black arm bands during the match and hold a minute’s silence.

Here’s the full statement:

FC Barcelona wants to express its profound sorrow and utter disgust at the terrorist attack that has hit the heart of our city, la Rambla de Barcelona. The Club wishes to send our support and thoughts to the victims, their families and friends as well as the people of Barcelona and its visitors.

As a mark of respect, the flags will fly at half-mast at the Club’s facilities and the players from both teams will wear black armbands in all the Club’s matches this weekend.

On Sunday, before the 2017/18 La Liga opener against Betis, the Camp Nou will hold a minutes silence in recognition and memory of the victims.

AC Milan and Napoli likeliest challengers to Juve’s crown

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MILAN (AP) Juventus’ six-year Serie A domination could end this year.

AC Milan has reinforced its squad, Inter Milan has had some much-needed stability after four managerial changes last season, while Napoli looks set to mount an even stronger challenge this time around.

Lazio could also be surprise contenders after Simone Inzaghi’s side withstood a late comeback to beat Juventus 3-2 and win the Italian Super Cup on Wednesday.

[ MORE: Another American teen making Bundesliga name ]

However, Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri has warned the rest of Serie A that it will be a very different performance from his team in Saturday’s season opener at home to Cagliari.

“We cannot and must not play like that in the league,” he said. “This defeat brings us back to earth. Some of the players aren’t fully fit yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy … but starting on Saturday you’ll see a different Juve.”

Allegri also took encouragement from the last time Juventus played Lazio in the Super Cup, in 2015.

“We beat Lazio in Beijing for the Super Cup two years ago and then had a bad start to the Serie A season, so hopefully we’ll do it the other way round this time,” he said.

Juventus has dominated Italian soccer for nearly a decade, winning three successive league and cup doubles and it will be tricky for anyone to prevent the Bianconeri from extending their league record to seven straight Serie A titles.

Milan was the last team other than Juventus to win the title and, despite having last finished in the top three in 2013, it looks the likeliest to depose the Turin-based club.

The Chinese-led consortium that purchased Milan from Silvio Berlusconi for $800 million in April has infused the club with cash and splashed out more than 200 million euros ($234 million) in the offseason.

[ VIDEO: Giovanni Reyna’s MOTM job for USYNT ]

As well as signing Italy’s top defender Leonardo Bonucci from Juventus, Milan also brought in forward Andre Silva from FC Porto; midfielders Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), Franck Kessie and Andrea Conti (Atalanta), Hakan Calhanoglu (Bayer Leverkusen) and Lucas Biglia (Lazio); and defender Mateo Musacchio (Villarreal).

Fourth place in Serie A now guarantees qualification to the Champions League and that will be the minimum requirement for Vincenzo Montella’s team. But, if the new team gels quickly, there is the feeling that Milan could make a strong challenge for the title.

Bonucci was playing down his new side’s chances.

“Juve remains favorite and Napoli has a great chance of fighting for the title,” Bonucci said in interview with Gazzetta dello Sport. “As we are now we’re still a step below both, but we shouldn’t put limits on ourselves. After those two, I see Milan, Inter and Roma as equal.”

Napoli has finished in the top three in four of the past five seasons but even a record number of points last campaign still left it third, five points behind Juventus.

However, talk of the `scudetto’ is no longer a taboo for Napoli, which hasn’t won the title since 1990.

But, while it didn’t make any big signings in the transfer window, its biggest success of the offseason has been in keeping its band of talented players together.

It sold Ezequiel Lavezzi in 2012 and Edinson Cavani the following year – both to Paris Saint-Germain – while Gonzalo Higuain moved to Juventus in 2016.

This year Dries Mertens and Lorenzo Insigne have signed new contracts, while Marek Hamsik is just three goals away from breaking Diego Maradona’s scoring record for the club.

Mertens was reportedly pursued by a number of clubs – both in Italy and abroad – but the Belgium international, who scored more than 30 goals for Napoli last campaign, opted to extend his stay with the southern side.

“I stayed here because the team plays very beautiful football and doing that we can get a lot of joy,” said Mertens, who scored again as Napoli beat Nice 2-0 in the first leg of its Champions League playoff on Wednesday.

Napoli played arguably the best soccer in Italy last season and its attacking flair saw it score 94 goals, but it faltered against teams in the lower half of the table and coach Maurizio Sarri is hoping to have corrected that by the time it kicks of its Serie campaign at Hellas Verona on Saturday.

More AP Italian soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/SerieA