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Three key battles in the UEFA Champions League Final

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Real Madrid aims for its third UEFA Champions League crown in four seasons on Saturday when it takes the pitch at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for a showdown with Juventus.

Real is the winningest team in UCL Final history, going 11-3 in the marquee match of the club football season.

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2015 is the only final Real hasn’t qualified for, and that’s when Juventus fell to Barcelona. In fact, Juve has lost more UCL finals than any club (2-6). Juve is also one of only eight teams to contest six or more UCL finals.

So what will tip the scales between the two titans which have split 18 matches to the tune of 8-2-8? In our opinion, these three battles:

1) Juve: Simply stop Ronaldo and win?

Follow me here, because this isn’t simply us regurgitating the easiest answer on Earth.

Real and Juve have matched up four times since the start of the the 2013-14 UEFA Champions League, and Real has only won one of those matches. That affair saw Juve sink to 10 men in a group stage loss.

Juve has not kept a clean sheet in any of those matches, allowing six goals. One came from Gareth Bale and the other five came from Cristiano Ronaldo. Two were penalty kicks, but there’s little denying that Juve’s stingy defense has been able to deal with much of what Real has to offer.

CR7 is a different animal altogether.

2) Dani Alves’ crosses versus Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane.

Alves plays further up the flank than you remember from his time at Barcelona, and Juve has used Mario Mandzukic on the left wing to give a pair of big targets.

Ramos will likely see himself drawn into several tricky situations when Alves either works past left back Marcelo or takes advantage of the marauder. Varane won’t often match up directly with Alves, but both he and Ramos will likely have to deal with the Brazilian’s pinpoint crosses and creative passes.

3) Will Real’s overlooked weapon dominate Dybala?

Casemiro is about as important a piece to Real’s mix as anyone not named Ronaldo, though he rarely gets deserved credit for his work in the center of the park.

He’s the reason Ramos and Varane don’t have to deal with as much as most center backs, and has the potential to neutralize any attacker.

Dybala, the slippery 23-year-old Argentine, has 19 goals and nine assists in all competitions this season and a solid connection with center forward Gonzalo Higuain (not to mention Alves).

VIDEO: Thirsty goalkeeper concedes bizarre goal

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Rule number one for a goalkeeper: always pay attention to the action if you’re going to take a swig from your water bottle in the net.

Duisburg goalkeeper Mark Flekken didn’t pay attention and he will see this clip played over and over again as he conceded a bizarre goal in the German second tier against Ingolstadt.

Take a look at the video below to see the unbelievable scenes as the commentary team sum it up best with  their stunned reaction.


Mourinho on Conte feud, facing Chelsea again

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Jose Mourinho will meet Chelsea once again on Sunday as the Manchester United manager welcomes his former club to Old Trafford (Watch live, 9:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Mourinho, 55, has been involved in a public spat with Antonio Conte in recent months but the Portuguese refused to dredge up any more abuse for the current Chelsea manager ahead of this crucial top four clash.

The duo traded insults earlier this year as Mourinho suggested Conte and other managerial rivals “acted like clowns” on the sidelines, while Conte said Mourinho perhaps had “demenza senile” and Mourinho hit back with a quip about Conte’s four-month ban for not reporting alleged match-fixing in Italy. The spat ended when Conte said Mourinho was a “little man” and “fake” and said he would not forget the comments.

“The real meaning [of this game] is two of the best teams in England, two of the biggest clubs, are playing a match,” Mourinho said when asked about Conte.

Mourinho has lost three of the four games he’s played against Chelsea since he became United’s manager and in the first defeat, a 4-0 hammering in the league in October 2016, he reacted angrily to overzealous celebrations from Conte on the sidelines.

Speaking to the media about Chelsea, Mourinho played down any sentimental feelings he has for the club he led to three Premier League titles over two spells in charge.

“To play against Chelsea will mean less and less and less with the years,” Mourinho said. “So of course I left already a couple of years ago, and next season [it will be] three years ago, so step by step that feeling of: ‘I was the Chelsea manager’ or ‘I was their manager’ for them I think disappears. I have a good relation with the [Chelsea] board.

“I don’t forget how nice they were to me in a difficult period with the departure of my father. They show me in that moment they feel me as a friend that did his best for the club and always respects the club. So the board know the relation with me is always good. With the players, I don’t have any problem, any regret, any stone on my shoes, no problem at all. And the fans are fans. With many of them in the street I feel that empathy and that relation that normally should be a connection and feeling forever. When I play at Stamford Bridge some reactions from the fans are just reactions.”

Mourinho is still admired and thanked by the vast majority of Chelsea’s fanbase but there is always going to be a small contingent who hurl abuse at Mourinho simply because he isn’t their manager anymore.

Since he was fired as their boss in December 2015, the “Special One” has been complimentary of his time at Chelsea but when he managed United in 2016 at Stamford Bridge, he wasn’t subjected to chants of “you’re not special anymore!” from the home fans, to which he held up three fingers to signify how many league titles he delivered.

Mourinho isn’t talking about his spat with Conte ahead of this game, but let’s see how things play out on Sunday. If Chelsea stroll into Old Trafford and win to throw United’s top four hopes into doubt, Mourinho will likely come out swinging.

Watch Live: Leicester City v. Stoke City

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Leicester City host Stoke City on Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on CNBC and online via NBCSports.com) at the King Power Stadium.

WATCH LIVE ONLINE, HERE

Leicester currently sit in eighth place in the Premier League table and have one eye on finishing in the top six, while Stoke are second from bottom in the table but are just six points from the top 10.

In team news Leicester start Riyad Mahrez with Demarai Gray and Marc Albrighton in an attacking lineup, while Stoke bring in USMNT man Geoff Cameron in midfield with Stafyldis and Martins Indi coming into defense.

LINEUPS

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Maguire, Morgan, Chilwell, Ndidi, James, Mahrez, Albrighton, Gray, Vardy. Subs: Jakupovic, Dragovic, Fuchs, Iborra, Silva, Diabate, Iheanacho.

Stoke City: Butland; Bauer, Martins Indi, Zouma, Stafyldis; Cameron, Badou, Allen; Shaqiri, Choupo-Moting; Diouf. Subs: Grant, Pieters, Jese, Johnson, Adam, Ramadan, Campbell

“This game belongs to the players” Wenger downplays Guardiola success

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Arsene Wenger has stressed that Pep Guardiola has not changed the game of soccer over the last decade or so, maintaining that the players are the ones who make a team truly great.

Asked if Guardiola has “raised the bar” of managing in his time at the top, Wenger said, “No, because you look at Barcelona and they are still the best team in Europe. You have to accept that the modern game has changed with the recruitment of the best players in a short number of clubs.”

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“We, as managers, can maybe impart our philosophy but this game belongs to the players because the importance of the players has become bigger than ever before.”

In fact, Wenger showed a twinge of jealousy at all the attention Guardiola is getting with the team blowing out the rest of the Premier League this season, referencing trophies in the recent past Arsenal has hoisted. “We are maybe underdogs but we have to believe in our quality. The history, the fact we have done it before, shows why not do it again?”

“At the end of the day, you have to be cool,” Wenger said, “because Manchester City is dominating the league in the head of everybody and so maybe we are more underdogs than in the FA Cup semi-final [last season when Arsenal beat Man City].”