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.

Argentina shocked by abuse of minors at top clubs

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) The young victims are still here: they’re among the kids who like to share stories while they sip on traditional Argentine tea, who check their phones outside changing rooms, and kick a ball around during a break from practice.

The teens live in the boarding house for Independiente’s youth section, where they should have been safe, dreaming of becoming Argentina’s next soccer great.

Instead, investigators say pedophiles turned their lives into a nightmare when they paid many of these children, who come from poor families in remote corners of the country, as little as a bus ride back home or a pair of football boots in exchange for sex.

The prosecutor investigating the case says that at least 10 minors were prostituted and several other more minors are believed to have been potential victims. So far, seven men, including a referee, have been arrested.

The child prostitution ring at Independiente was followed by reports that minors had also been allegedly abused at River Plate’s youth divisions. The growing scandal at two of Argentina’s most popular and successful clubs has shocked many in this soccer-mad nation.

The Argentine Football Federation has ordered monitoring of club boarding houses nationwide. But former players, sports psychologists and parents say that much more needs to be done to protect the children who train in talent factories where Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi and other stars polished their skills growing up.

Independiente filed a complaint with prosecutors earlier this year when the allegations first surfaced after one of the players broke down during a session with a club psychologist.

“We had two paths: reporting this or covering it up, and we decided to look the children and the parents in the eyes and file a complaint,” a club official told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the case is still being investigated.

“Thanks to this complaint, all the people involved are behind bars,” the source said. “There’s a huge social phenomenon here: There have been other reports since we filed the complaint, and I hope others have the courage to come out as well, because this goes far beyond Independiente.”

Just days after the Independiente case broke out, River Plate said that it would cooperate with authorities after a local group reported minors were allegedly abused in the club’s youth divisions from 2004-11.

“The state should be much more involved so that a child doesn’t have to sleep with a man for some football boots or money to send back to his family,” said Maria Elena Leuzzi, a founder of the AVIVI Association for Victims of Rape that filed the complaint about River Plate.

“A child should always be cared for. We don’t know if we’ll have a future dad, a president, or a soccer player.”

Argentina is home to some of the world’s greatest players, but also fan violence by hooligans and endemic corruption by generations of soccer bosses and scouts who run the lucrative and often unregulated business of finding future stars.

“At the clubs, the bosses need to understand that kids are not numbers,” said Leonel Gancedo, a former player for River Plate and several other clubs who now runs the “Angeles Unidos” club.

“What has happened is shameful,” he said. “It’s a consequence of poor decisions.”

Many children in club boarding houses come from impoverished faraway communities, living far from their parents under the care of clubs, dreaming of a chance to make it big in the ultra-competitive world of professional football.

But for the thousands of talented youngsters who try out in the lower divisions, only a small percentage will become elite players. Some will struggle to overcome injuries. Others will fall to the psychological pressure at home or on the field.

“A kid can’t be pressured to save his family economically. It’s too much,” said Oscar Mangione, a sport psychologist and a former therapist for the Boca Juniors club.

Like elsewhere in the world, Argentina has experienced a string of sex abuse disclosures in the Catholic Church, and more recently, among celebrities and athletes. But the magnitude of the latest abuse scandal in sports is unprecedented in a country that prides itself on its World Cup victories and its Olympic medals in everything from sailing to field hockey.

Argentina’s Olympic Committee recently filed a legal complaint against a gymnastics coach who is accused of abusing a still undetermined number of athletes in the 1990s. As part of the investigation by a local prosecutor, authorities raided the headquarters of the Argentine gymnastics confederation.

“This is being spoken about much more: Newspapers, the radio, they all help to spread the word. We’re helping the victim lose its shame,” Leuzzi said. “The one who has to feel shame is the one who carries out the abuse.”

The kickoff for change should come from a serious effort by the Argentine Football Association to set safety rules among clubs nationwide, said Cesar La Paglia, a former player for Boca Juniors and the manager of Club Social Parque, a youth club.

“There are kids aged 8 or 9 living in these club boarding houses – it’s insane,” he said. “Those kids should be with their parents.”

In all, there are 50 teenagers from across Argentina living at the brick residences painted in the red and white club colors of Independiente. On a recent day, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The sound of a ball being kicked in a field surrounded by tall eucalyptus trees could be heard inside the main hall; Football boots were neatly lined up below the club’s red emblem; and a poster of the stadium with a cheering crowd on a wall, read: “The temple of your dreams.”

The club says that the victims have been reunited with their families in Buenos Aires and continue to receive psychological support while it continues to cooperate with authorities.

Meanwhile, a judge is expected to issue charges this week against the seven people who are being held in the alleged prostitution ring, and the prosecutor investigating the case has requested that they remain in prison.

Luis Andres Henao on Twitter: https://twitter.com/LuisAndresHenao

Christian Pulisic to make USMNT return

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It was announced on Wednesday that Christian Pulisic will return to the U.S. national team and he is heading home.

The Hershey, Pennsylvania native will play for the USMNT on May 28 against Bolivia as the friendly takes place at the Philadelphia Union’s Talen Energy Stadium.

Interim USMNT head coach Dave Sarachan revealed in a press conference that Pulisic will be involved against Bolivia after the youngster was left out of the past few U.S. squads to let him rest up after a busy season in the Bundesliga and Europe with Dortmund.

Pulisic, 19, hasn’t played for the USMNT since their 2-1 loss at Trinidad & Tobago in October 2017 which sealed their failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup this summer.

The teenage sensation (who has nine goals in 20 games for the USMNT) has played 39 times in all competitions for German giants Borussia Dortmund this season, scoring five goals. The game against Bolivia will mark two years to the day that he scored his first USMNT goal, also in a friendly against Bolivia.

Pulisic said the following about heading home.

“I’m really excited to play in Philadelphia,” Pulisic said. “Obviously it’s close to my home and a lot of my family will be there and I’m super excited to put on the U.S. jersey again.”

Speaking about Pulisic’s return, Sarachan was delighted to have him back on board and revealed he hasn’t quite made his mind up about the make-up of his squad for the upcoming friendlies.

“We are excited to have him back with us,” Sarachan said. “We are still forming what make sense in terms of balance between Major League Soccer players and players from elsewhere.”

The USMNT will arrive in Philly on May 20 for a training camp at the University of Pennsylvania before the friendly against Bolivia, while Pulisic is also expected to travel with the team to play in their friendlies at the Republic of Ireland and France in early June.

The kid is back.

Oxlade-Chamberlain injury update

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Jurgen Klopp does not seem confident that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will play again this season.

The Liverpool and England midfielder suffered an injury to his right knee early on in Liverpool’s 5-2 win over Roma in their UEFA Champions League semifinal first leg, as he appeared to extend his right knee under his body when making a challenge on Aleksandar Kolarov.

Speaking to the media following Liverpool’s dramatic win, Klopp was downbeat about Oxlade-Chamberlain’s chances of playing again this season.

“We don’t know exactly but if the medical department are quite concerned without a scan, you can imagine it’s difficult. The season is not that long anymore. It doesn’t look good,” Klopp said. “I’m a very positive person and still hope it only feels bad, but is not that bad. We’ll see. We lost a fantastic player tonight. It’s not good news.”

This injury has come at such a bad time for The Ox.

He has been flourishing with Liverpool in a central midfield role and has delivered key goals and assists in big wins since arriving from Arsenal last summer. Most notably the Ox’s driving midfield runs have caused Manchester City all kinds of problems and he scored two screamers against them in wins at Anfield in the Premier League and UCL.

Georginio Wijnaldum stepped in admirably for Oxlade-Chamberlain against Roma and the Dutch midfielder will be used alongside James Milner and Jordan Henderson from here on out by Klopp, especially with Emre Can battling a back injury.

As for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he will now be focused on trying to be fit for the UCL final on May 26 (if Liverpool get there) and on making England’s 2018 World Cup squad. That seems like a big ask given Klopp’s gloomy assessment.

Wenger: Timing of departure “not really my decision”

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Arsene Wenger has been speaking about his Arsenal departure and there are some intriguing details emerging.

Wenger, 68, announced last Friday that he would be leaving Arsenal at the end of the current 2017-18 campaign after almost 22 years in charge.

But when asked about the timing of his decision during his press conference ahead of the Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid on Thursday and whether or not that was helpful, Wenger said it was taken out of his hands.

“The timing was not really my decision, the rest I have spoken about already,” Wenger said. “I focus on what I have to do every day. At the moment, I work like ever.”

Wenger added that he will “for sure” continue to work beyond this season but wasn’t giving anything away on where he would go. The Arsenal boss also said he had a “high opinion of Luis Enrique” but that he didn’t “want to influence the next manager” of Arsenal with so many contenders mentioned as he also confirmed he will have no say on his successor.

What do we make of all this?

Wenger still has one more year left on his current deal at Arsenal and it appears he was keen to be in charge next season, but he could have simply been saying that he would have preferred an announcement at the end of the season rather than before a big European semifinal. His comments can be interpreted either way but many journalists in the room are all suggesting Wenger was talking about the overall decision to step down now.

The growing, and widely reported, notion that Wenger stepped down before he was sacked seems to be on point. After three Premier League titles and 10 major trophies in total in over two decades in charge, it appears Wenger didn’t get to decide when he called time on his Arsenal career.

The perfect end for Wenger at Arsenal would be to win the Europa League and then leave on a high, but these comments suggest the Frenchman may not be happy with some of the hierarchy at Arsenal.

These comments amid links to PSG and the French national team also suggest to rule out a role upstairs at Arsenal, at least for the foreseeable future, for Wenger. Intriguing times ahead.