Top 5: Early storylines ahead of Barcelona vs. Juventus Champions League final

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23 days — the countdown is on. Barcelona and Juventus will square off in the UEFA Champions League final at the Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany in 23 days, June 6.

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While we’re all still experiencing varying levels of disappointment that the El Clasico Champions League final we so badly wanted isn’t going to happen this year, the matchup that came to fruition offers up more than a few of intriguing storylines.

Unstoppable force (Barca’s attack) vs. Immovable object (Juve’s defense)

Chew on these numbers for a bit: 55, 41 and 25 — those are the respective goal-scoring tallies (all competitions) of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez this season. Keep in mind, Barca still have four games left in their season, so they could easily read 60, 45 and 30 by the time June 6 rolls around.

On the other side, you’ve got the nearly impenetrable defense of Juve, led by Giorgio Chiellini, Leonardo Bonucci, Patrice Evra and Stephan Lichtsteiner, which is shielded by the midfield terrors otherwise known as Paul Pogba and Arturo Vidal. That unit has allowed all of 20 goals — yes, 20 — through 35 league games this season.

The styles of Barca and Juve couldn’t possibly be anymore different than they are, and that makes for a fascinating tactical battle between Luis Enrique and Massimiliano Allegri.

source: Getty ImagesSuarez vs. Evra

Once upon a time, in a past life (for Liverpool and Manchester United, respectively), these two pleasant fellows got into a war of words during a heated derby clash. Suarez hurled comments racist comments at Evra, and was subsequently suspended eight games for the incident.

The two sides met again months later. Prior to the game, Suarez refused to shake Evra’s hand or even acknowledging the Frenchman, which nearly caused a fracas part deux. Given the fluidity with which Barca attack, these two will cross paths and lock horns on multiple occasions on June 6. Advantage: Suarez, as Evra, 33, has lost a step or two.

Suarez vs. Chiellini

Same antagonist, different protagonist, but more of the same for Suarez. It wasn’t the first time he bit an opponent during a game, but he still manages to one-up himself by doing it at last summer’s World Cup.

Suarez was suspended four months, which included the first two and a half months of this season and his time at Barca. Keep in mind, if not for this suspension, his goals tally would be north of 40 as well. Suarez eventually apologized to Chiellini, but the fact remains that he sunk his teeth into another human being. June 6 will be their first on-field meeting since the incident.

source: Getty Images

Xavi vs. Pirlo

Two of the very best of their generation to do what they do: dictate the tempo of a game in whatever manner they see fit. Two or three years ago, this would have been a matchup worthy of 60 newspaper inches, but in 2015, it’s merely an afterthought as one star fades and the other holds on week by week for dear life.

While Xavi has fallen by Barca’s wayside as a 35-year-old, Pirlo, his 35-year-old counterpart, continues to hold down a regular starting spot for the four-time defending Serie A champs. Soccer is a funny game that its way of aligning the stars just right. It’s hard to imagine one of these two — if not both — not having a significant impact on a European cup final at some stage.

Italy vs. Spain dynamic

No less than a dozen regulars for the Spanish and Italian national teams litter the rosters and teamsheets of Barca and Juve. Two of the top footballing nations in the world the last 20 years (though, at different times), there’s plenty of national pride on the line as well.

Eight of the last 26 European cups have been won by Spanish clubs, while seven have gone home to Italy. Either Spain extends its tally to a two-cup lead, or the Italians pull level since the end of the 1980s.

Barkley sails late penalty as Chelsea falls at home

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Ross Barkley missed a late penalty as Chelsea lost its UEFA Champions League opener 1-0 to Valencia on Tuesday at Stamford Bridge.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Rodrigo scored the lone goal, and Valencia will be thrilled to collect all three points in London.

Christian Pulisic was an unused sub for Chelsea, who out-attempted Valencia 22-8 on the day.


Three things we learned

1. Pulisic down the pecking order: The American star didn’t start, and wasn’t the first name called when Mason Mount was injured. Granted Pedro played a little deeper, but not a good week for the Hershey-born Pulisic

2. Wide men the danger men: Willian was the likely Man of the Match for Chelsea despite the lack of goals, and full backs Marcos Alonso and Cesar Azpilicueta were also key to the resutl.

3. Penalty drama: VAR gave Chelsea a chance to level from the spot, but Ross Barkley stepped ahead of Willian and missed the chance. The Brazilian looked aggrieved before and after the miss, and Barkley looked mighty confident right until the moment he missed his shot. Sort yourself out!

Man of the Match: Willian — No wonder he was angry to see Barkley demand the penalty, as a Willian goal would’ve been a fitting result for his clever and industrious day at the office.


Valencia keeper Jasper Cillesen made two stops early, denying Tammy Abraham to concede a corner before collecting a Marcos Alonso header on the ensuing set piece.

Would it be Christian Pulisic time when Mason Mount left the match with injury following a challenge from former Arsenal man Francis Coquelin? Nope. Pedro was called upon to fill the void.

It was a sleepy second half, with Pedro conceding a free kick to Valencia that didn’t amount to anything exciting.

Those who stuck around were rewarded with late drama, as Valencia took the lead through a Rodrigo flick off a free kick.

However, Valencia then had to watch through its fingers as Chelsea was gifted a chance at the spot through VAR when Fikayo Tomori headed a ball off the arm of Daniel Wass.

Willian was upset to see Ross Barkley take the penalty, and the English midfielder probably wishes he let someone else take it after missing over the bar.

Napoli scores on late penalty, rare Van Dijk error in 2-0 win

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The good news is that Liverpool lost to Napoli last season in the UEFA Champions League, then went on to win the whole darn thing.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Jose Callejon won a late penalty that Dries Mertens converted, and Fernando Llorente took advantage of a Virgil Van Dijk error to pad the lead as Napoli held serve at home with a 2-0 win over Liverpool on Tuesday.


Three things we learned

1. Goalkeepers immense: No, he’s not Alisson Becker, but Adrian is probably the biggest reason Liverpool didn’t open its UCL defense with a loss. He made a pair of early stops on Dries Mertens before a show-stopping effort in the second half. Napoli got two fine saves from Alex Meret, including a terrific denial of Mohamed Salah in the 65th.

2. Salah, Mane can’t deliver in key moments: Take away Salah’s penalty in the UCL Final, and Liverpool’s two top threats have not accounted for a goal in four matches inside the competition. Mane was mostly good on the day, but misled Salah on an early second half pass which would have almost certainly been a goal. Salah simply had an off day

3. Callejon sells the drama: Liverpool’s Andy Robertson lost a 50/50 with Jose Callejon, who ran into the fulback and hit the deck to win a penalty. That was the difference here, as Mertens beat Adrian.

Man of the Match: Meret was especially good, the 22-year-old Italian goalkeeper big in several key moments to edge Mertens for the honor.


Napoli thought it had gone ahead through El Tri star Hirving Lozano, who nodded over the line following two Alisson Becker saves on Dries Mertens, but the Mexican was offside.

Sadio Mane had a 20th minute chance at the other end, but pumped a point blank low shot to Napoli keeper Alex Meret which led to a corner kick.

Fabinho intervened in the 53rd minute as Napoli emerged from the locker room with energy, but the best chance of the early second half was flubbed in uncharacteristic fashion: Sadio Mane was through 2v1 with Mohamed Salah but made a miserable pass to his teammate.

The first goal arrived when Callejon tapped the ball past Robertson and leapt into the defender to earn a penalty from referee Felix Brych.

It was 2-0 in stoppage time when Fernando Llorente ran onto a Virgil van Dijk error and passed beyond Adrian.

UCL AT HALF: Marsch’s Salzburg rolling; Champions holding firm; Chelsea’s Mount hurt

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We’ve got news after 45 minutes of six more UCL matches, including a big injury at Stamford Bridge and a monumental start for an American in Austria.

[ UCL: Scores, lineups, stats, box scores ]

Chelsea 0-0 Valencia

No goals to report here, but early season hero Mason Mount has left the match with an injury for the Blues. He was not replaced by Christian Pulisic, rather Pedro.

Liverpool 0-0 Napoli

It’s been a pretty even affair, though Liverpool can thank Adrian for a pair of great saves on Dries Mertens before Hirving “Chucky” Lozano’s goal was ruled offside.

Red Bull Salzburg 5-1 Genk

Jesse Marsch is now officially the first American man to manage a team in a UEFA Champions League game.

The Red Bull Salzburg boss is also the first to hold a second minute lead, as red hot striker Erling Braut Haland scored his 15th, 16th, and 17th goals in nine matches under Marsch.

Haland also five assists on the season, having entered Tuesday’s match with 658 minutes across all competitions.

Haland is the son of former Leeds, Man City, and Nottingham Forest manager Alf-Inge Haland.

Hwang-Hee Chan has Salzburg’s other goal, and two assists.

Elsewhere

Inter Milan 1-1 Slavia Prague — RECAP
Lyon 1-1 Zenit Saint-Petersburg
Borussia Dortmund 0-0 Barcelona
Ajax 1-0 Lille
Benfica 0-0 RB Leipzig

Yedlin nears return, hoping for October USMNT call-up

Photo by Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images
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Hindsight being 20/20, it’s easy to see that DeAndre Yedlin didn’t look right last season.

The Newcastle United and USMNT right back was not up to his standards during the 2018-19 season, and Yedlin says the injury that’s cost him the start of this season has been the culprit for a long time.

[ MORE: Neymar ban reduced ]

Yedlin, 26, went through surgery this May for a sports hernia which he says bothered him on game days for almost a year and a half.

From NUFC.co.uk:

 “It was tough, and it was a bit confusing because it would come and go. There would be months that I’d be playing with it and I’d take pain killers before the game and try to get through it, then there’d be times when it didn’t bother me at all,” he said.

“Even in warm ups, I’d be thinking ‘it’s going to be tough to make it through this game.’ Once the pain killers hit in, you can’t really feel anything anymore and then adrenalin hits in but, yeah, it’s tough. As a player you don’t want to stop and then lose your place, but you’ve also got to do what’s best for you and for the longevity of your career.

That’s not good, and both USMNT and Newcastle supporters will hope the injury was the reason behind his decline in form.

Yedlin’s stats dropped in each of his last two PL seasons. For a player whose blessed with blazing speed, a sports hernia is only going to dramatically affect performance.

He says he has been in touch with USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter.

“That’s been tough. I’ve had contact with the manager and they’re keeping updated on how I’m doing. This last international break was just a bit too soon but hopefully the next one, I’ll be ready for and hopefully I’ll have some minutes under my belt by that time, then really crack on from there.”