Souvenir Champions League final scarves are seen on sale at a stall near Trafalgar Square in central London

Champions League final preview: A bitter rivalry with much higher stakes

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When Bayern Munich face Borussia Dortmund tomorrow at 2:45 ET at Wembley, they won’t be playing for a ticket into the elite. They won’t be playing for the right to be recognized as permanent contenders. They’ve already done both of those.

The path each of these bitter German rivals took to get to the final already showed the world they can play with the big boys, and probably will for a while. What they will be playing for is the ability to validate each of their enormous semifinal victories.

Oh yea, and a whole lot of pride. And a big shiny trophy. And a moment their players and fans will never forget.

But that’s much more to it than that.

When Bayern Munich shocked the world by torching tiki-taka and sending Barcelona (and quite frankly, the rest of the soccer community) home shaking their heads, they made fans question, “have we just witnessed a changing of the guard?” It’s obvious Bayern is going to be around for a while – you don’t just beat the best 7-0 and evaporate the next season. But they need this win, they need it to validate (there’s that word) their victory against Barcelona. Heck, Bayern’s been to the Champions League final two of the last three years, but haven’t hoisted the trophy since 2001 when they beat Valencia. How can they claim to be top of the mountain if they can’t finish the deal?

They can’t. And they know it. Thomas Mueller knows they can win all the Bundesliga titles in the world by 100 points, and it won’t matter if they can’t finish on the world’s biggest stage. “We have to win,” he told The Independent. “If you lose three finals in four seasons you are going to be labelled chokers. We could win a lot in London but we could lose a lot, too.”

Then there’s last year’s final they need to erase. The gut-wrenching, heart-deflating loss to Chelsea when it should have been theirs. We shouldn’t even be having this conversation, about how Bayern can’t seem to close the deal anymore. We should be talking about how they are trying to win back-to-back Champions League titles; we should be talking about how the 7-0 crushing of Barcelona was the nail in the coffin, not the firing of the first shots.

Mueller said after last year’s final, he was so crushed, so dejected, if “a ball had fallen at my feet, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it.” Think he wants to feel that again? When asked to pick one word to describe the feeling after the defeat, he selected “pleite.” German for “bankrupt.” If Bayern do end up with yet another loss, they would have the most Champions League finals losses of any club – 6.

Then there’s Dortmund. They beat Real Madrid in the semis in a completely different fashion, but it had the same impact. After losing the first leg to Dortmund 4-1, Los Blancos didn’t wither like a dandelion hit with Round Up, much like their Catalan counterparts did. Madrid fought, clawed, and battled in the second leg, but Dortmund gained world respect by holding it off. Madrid won the second leg 2-0, but it was too little too late, and Borussia Dortmund claimed the trip to the final.

Dortmund’s been here before. They lifted the Champions League trophy after beating Juventus in 1997. But since, they’ve always been second-tier to Bayern. Never mind they won the Bundesliga the previous two seasons, a fantastic accomplishment considering their banishment to midtable finished before Jurgen Klopp took charge five years ago. In the international eye, Bayern Munich has been number one. This season has especially been tough. If seeing their rivals win the league by 25 points wasn’t enough, the Bavarians defeated Dortmund in both their meetings this season with a trophy on the line – the Supercup and the DFB-Pokal.

If that’s not enough, their young star Mario Gotze has made a switch – no, a defection – to Bayern Munich. FC Hollywood activated the 20-year-old sensation’s release clause in his contract, meaning there’s literally nothing Dortmund can do to stop him from leaving. Oh yeah, and he’s hurt and can’t play in the finals. Think fans would like nothing more than to send him off with a doubt in his mind about whether he’s made the right decision?

It’s a heck of a mountain for Dortmund to climb, as they come into Wembley pretty banged up. Along with Gotze’s injury, Lukasz Piszczek will play but needs hip surgery at the end of the season, and Mats Hummels will also walk wounded as he looks to shake off a recent ankle tweak.

Ultimately for Borussia Dortmund though, this match is also about that word – validation. Sure, they fought a great semifinal fight and probably cemented Jose Mourinho’s departure from Real Madrid. But if they again find themselves second-fiddle to their most hated foe, will the world remember the heights they’ve climbed the past few seasons?

On the line is a chance to climb out of German greatness, which both these clubs have achieved over the last decade, and into the group of international stars. Whether it’s Bayern Munich looking to become the new “best” in many people’s eyes, or Borussia Dortmund trying to remove the shackles of the Bundesliga and enter themselves into the conversation of Europe’s best clubs, this is a lot more than just the 96th meeting between the two German giants. It’s the first with so much on the line.

Serie A: Napoli go top for first time in 25 years; Inter a close 2nd

Gonzalo Higuain, SSC Napoli
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A quick roundup of Monday’s action in Italy’s top flight…

Napoli 2-1 Inter Milan

For the first time since the final day of the 1989-90 season, Napoli are top of Serie A all by themselves after a top-of-the-table clash with previous leaders Inter Milan.

Gonzalo Higuain bagged both goals for the Azzurri, the first of which came after just 65 seconds. His tally on 62 minutes held up as the game-winner after Adem Ljajic pulled one back for Roberto Mancini’s side in the 67 minute. The opener (below video) was a powerful finish from inside the penalty area which served as a strong reminder as to why a club like Arsenal is consistently linked to the Argentine striker.

Sassuolo 1-1 Fiorentina

Fiorentina, who had a chance to stake their own claim to the top spot, dropped two points away to seventh-place Sassuolo earlier in the day, opening the door for Napoli to go top with their victory. After shooting out of the gates red hot (6 wins in their first 7 games), the Viola have now drawn back to back games — to Empoli and Sassuolo — and find themselves third, two points behind Napoli.

Borja Valero put Fiorentina ahead after five minutes on Monday, but Sassuolo equalized through Sergio Floccari just before halftime to keep their own dreams of European qualification alive.

Serie A table

Matchup by matchup: Picking a favorite for MLS Cup 2015

Portland Timbers FC
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We’re T-minus 137 hours to the kickoff of MLS Cup 2015, between Columbus Crew SC and the Portland Timbers.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

When the two sides meet at MAPFRE Stadium on Sunday (4 p.m. ET), the general public will have picked a slight favorite to hoist MLS Cup, just like any other game. Only, this one’s a bit tougher to call — there’s no clear-cut favorite as is usually the case in MLS Cup, so we’ll do our best to explore a few key matchups that might slant Sunday’s title tilt in one direction or the other…

Crew SC width (Waylon Francis, Harrison Afful, Justin Meram, Ethan Finlay) vs. Timbers width (Jorge Villafana, Alvas Powell, Rodney Wallace, Dairon Asprilla)

  • Pinning the wingers back — There’s two ways to beat Crew SC: 1) sit with eight or nine men behind the ball and frustrate them through a lack of space to attack; or, 2) pin Finlay and Meram deep inside their own half, defensively, by getting your full backs forward and forcing them to defend. It’s doable, but it’s not easy. On the other side, best of luck to Wallace and Asprilla with the tracking back they’ll be forced into with perhaps the best attacking right back in MLS, Afful, and Francis overlapping on either side. Fanendo Adi could find himself on an island very quickly if the Crew SC full backs get forward as often as they’d like.
  • Where the help comes from — That’s the biggest issue for Portland, who ever since dropping Darlington Nagbe into midfield, play with a lone defensive midfielder, Diego Chara. He’s great at covering the entire field and providing help to blow up an opposing attack, but he can only be on one side of the field at a time. This means Borchers and Ridgewell will be stretched wider and forced to defend Finlay and Meram in space, where they’re oh so deadly.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Crew SC announce MLS Cup sold out 15 hours after qualifying ]

Kei Kamara vs. Nat Borchers and Liam Ridgewell

  • All it takes is one chance — Neither one of Borchers or Ridgewell can physically compete with Kamara’s rare combination of speed and athleticism — to be fair, few center backs this side of the world can. Therefore, 90 percent of “defending” Kamara will be staying tight to the 22-goalscorer during the regular season and, with any luck, not losing track of him once the ball gets out to the wings. Once Kamara gets that yard of space in any direction and the ball goes up on the cross, the center backs’ chances of winning the next ball are much, much lower. That said, Kamara will find far less space against Borchers and Ridgewell (and Diego Chara) than he enjoyed against Montreal and New York thus far in the playoffs. There’s very few center back duos with the experience and nous of the Timbers’ backbone.
  • Advantage: Timbers

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Timbers midfield three (Diego Chara, Darlington Nagbe, Diego Valeri) vs. Crew SC midfield three (Tony Tchani, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain)

  • Nagbe the key to balance — Darlington Nagbe will, one day, be an MLS Best XI central midfielder. Today is not that day, though. He’s still a work in progress, and probably the most exploitable individual on the field in Crew SC’s eyes. Tchani and Trapp are, in my opinion, the best deep-sitting midfield duo in the league, and they’ll press, harry and harass Nagbe for 90 (0r 120) minutes, probably starting a fair few of those deadly counter-attacks in the middle third of the field.
  • Advantage: Crew SC

[ MORE: Timbers reach first MLS Cup | Crew SC to host MLS Cup 2015 ]

Gregg Berhalter vs. Caleb Porter

  • Lineups set themselves — Neither coach is likely to throw out a huge surprise before kickoff — dance with one that brought you, or something like that. Up until recently, I was completely convinced that Porter was vastly overrated and didn’t understand the constant adoration that surrounded the man his first two or three years in charge. Everything was a bit stale and rigid, organized, but lacking flair. Then he moved Nagbe into midfield to allow his biggest game-changer more opportunities on the ball to affect the game much more. This leads me to believe Porter is a bit more flexible in seeing his team and system operate in slightly different ways, but only barely.
  • Advantage: Timbers

Crew SC announce MLS Cup 2015 sold out 15 hours after qualifying

Wil Trapp, Columbus Crew SC
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The building formerly known as Crew Stadium has hosted its fair share of famous soccer games since it opened in 1999 — dos a cero, anyone? — and Sunday’s MLS Cup 2015 looks set to rank right up there among them.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Roughly 15 hours after advancing to this year’s MLS Cup, which they will host this Sunday (4 p.m. ET), Columbus Crew SC announced on Monday that MAPFRE Stadium is officially sold out.

Crew SC president of business operations Andy Loughnane addressed the fanbase in a blog post on the club’s official site Monday afternoon and said, “As of late this morning we are sold out of the extra capacity seating that was created for MLS Cup at MAPFRE Stadium. While there is a small chance that additional seats could be released for purchase as a result of MLS holds being returned, we are sold out of all known available seats.”

[ MORE: Beckham group abandons yet another stadium plan, site in Miami ]

Crew SC, making their second MLS Cup appearance in club history (2008 champions), will host first-time MLS Cup contestants, the Portland Timbers, on Sunday.

PL clubs combined to pay out $200 million in agent fees in 2015

Liverpool Unveil New Signing Christian Benteke
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What a time to be an agent in the footballing world, eh? The rich just keep getting richer and richer and richer.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

The steady increase in transfer fees being paid for players — bad, good, great and amazing alike — has made quite a few “selling” clubs rich reach over the last decade or two, to be sure, but it’s also made another group of people obscenely rich: player agents.

As the soccer world has gone crazy with its “now, now, now” approach — managers must win now, or they’re fired; new signings must become stars now, or they’ll be sold; etc. — agents are the ones making out like bandits — no losses to be sustained on players who turn out to be flops; no future loss of wages due to taking “too long” to settle in and being labeled a flop — at the expense of clubs and, most cruelly, the players.

More than $195 million was paid out agents by Premier League clubs across the January and summer transfer windows, with Liverpool — ever the club in constant change — paying out $21.5 million in agents fees to remain top of the table for a second straight year. Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were the four other clubs to top $15 million.

[ MORE: Premier League Payback — The Diego Costa era over at Chelsea? ]

Agents not only receive a fee when players change clubs through transfers, but can only be compensated again and again when one of their clients signs a new contract with their current club.

For instance, Wayne Rooney has signed at least four new contracts since joining Manchester United in 2004, the latest of which came barely three years after he was given a new five-year deal in Oct. 2010 upon handing in a transfer request in an attempt to force a move to Manchester City. Rooney’s current weekly wage is reported to be in the neighborhood of $450,000. His agent, Paul Stretford, will have received a sizable payday upon negotiating the deal in Feb. 2014.

At the end of the day, sports are little more than a business, and it’s the ones who play the game — the political game, that is — the best, and most ruthlessly, who are making out like bandits.