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Champions League final in Cardiff delivers on every level

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CARDIFF —  Wales’ capital city deserved a great final.

It got one.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

This game is always the most-watched annual TV event around the globe and with two heavyweights colliding under the roof at the Principality Stadium the anticipation for Saturday’s final was intense. It did not disappoint.

Real Madrid beat Juventus 4-1 with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring twice, plus a wonder-goal from Mario Mandzukic pulling Juventus level at half time. Then Real pulled away to seal back-to-back UCL trophies, their third in the last four seasons and Zinedine Zidane’s side became the first team in 27 years to defend the European Cup. There was plenty to celebrate for Real and their fans at the final whistle.

The Champions League final festivities have been going on all week in Cardiff and started early all around the UK on Saturday.

Packed onto trains from London’s Paddington Station early in the morning, fans of Juventus and Real Madrid were filled with nervous excitement as the belted out chants and sipped on beer with flags of their respective nations wrapped around their waists.

Fans flew from Madrid and Turin that morning and got straight to Paddington, still with their Gazzetta dello Sport and Marca newspapers under their aim, and jumped on the train.

Huge crowds were traveling from London to Cardiff, but many more awaited in Wales’ capital city after three days of events in and around the host city.

Before the game Real Madrid’s coach Zinedine Zidane spoke about wanting to see a “great final” between two attacking teams.

The former Juve star spoke for everyone and this game, and the occasion, lived up to the expectations.

“It’s the same for Juventus. We’re going to try to play our game; we know we’re going to play against a great team. What everyone who likes football wants to see is to see a great final,” Zidane explained.

His captain, Sergio Ramos, spoke about an “appointment with history” and Real delivered, extending their own record as 12-time champions of Europe.

Before the game, though, the subplots swirled.

Would Real become the first team in over 26 years to win back-to-back European Cups? Would Gareth Bale, the hometown hero, play for Real after his injury? Could legendary goalkeeper Gianliugi Buffon, 39, win his first-ever Champions League trophy? Would Cristiano Ronaldo equal Lionel Messi’s record of four Champions League titles? Could Juve become just the second Italian team to complete a famous treble?

All of that excitement, plus the fact that both teams were stacked with bonafide studs, meant that expectancy was in the air. Real had scored 32 goals throughout the competition this season, while Juve hadn’t lost any of their 12 games heading into the final.

With the sun beating down on the Welsh capital, the streets in and around the Millennium Stadium were packed hours before kick off.

Cardiff Castle was draped in Champions League banners with a dragon guarding the trophy, and the locals were dancing in the streets with fans of both clubs singing “Wales! Wales! Wales!”

There was a proper party atmosphere and the perfect way to bring down the curtain on the 2017-18 domestic season in Europe.

Locals drank beer and wore purple and white Real Madrid shirts, with Juve fans taking over one end of town and Real’s at the other.

Cardiff is the perfect place for an “away day” final with bars all long the cobbled streets leading down to the stadium as you get off the train. Just like it did during Wembley’s refurbishment as it hosted the FA Cup final, Cardiff did it right. Everyone wanted to be there as hotels were booked months in advanced and fans stayed in Bristol, Swansea and Newport nearby, plus many traveled from London on the day.

On the pitch before the game the Black Eyed Peas performed with Pyrotechnics in the background under the closed roof due to security concerns.

Even if the pregame show was a little too much for some purists, the game itself lived up to the hype.

Ronaldo got the ball rolling and Manduzkic’s fine goal, which made it 1-1, will go down in history.

But just when it ebbed and flowed in the second half, Real put its foot on the accelerator and kicked on.

Casemiro made it 2-1. Ronaldo made it 3-1 and Marco Asensio finished things off late on to make it 4-1. That was it. The game was done and dusted.

Cardiff’s ability to host and stage fine finals will never be over.

It is a city made for occasions like this and both sets of fans, the locals and, most importantly, the players, delivered.

Forget the cagey occasions of the past. This was what a UEFA Champions League final is meant to be like.

As Real’s players hoisted the UCL trophy into the air fireworks again filled the stadium to end what had truly been a memorable day for everyone involved.

Ronaldo explains his new chin hair at World Cup

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Now that Cristiano Ronaldo has taken to sporting a reasonable hairstyle atop his head, people are talking about the foliage on his face.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

Ronaldo, 33, drew speculation when he stroked his chin following a goal in his hat trick performance against Spain in the World Cup opener. Some said he was demonstrating defiance against Lionel Messi posing with a goat (Greatest Of All Time) in a recent photograph.

Ronaldo scored again on Wednesday, and there was seemingly little doubt his goatee was a wink to the speculators. But what did it mean, CR7? From ESPN:

“This goatee? It’s a joke I had with [Ricardo] Quaresma. “We were in the sauna [before Friday’s match against Spain] and I started to shave and I left the goatee. I said if I score tomorrow, I would leave it for the rest of the tournament. And it gave me luck.

“I scored in that game, I scored in this one, so it stays.”

Personally, I like to imagine Ronaldo starting to get as wild with his facial hair as he did his head hair.

Perhaps a beatnik style, or something like Serj Tankian from System of a Down. Get nuts, C-Ron.

Report: Southampton could sell Tadic to Ajax for $20m

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Could Southampton be selling one of its most creative forces?

Dusan Tadic, 29, is in the middle of a World Cup run with dark horse Serbia, but the Saints star is also being talked about as a purchase item for Ajax.

[ MORE: Serbia tops Costa Rica ]

The celebrated Eredivisie has traditionally been a selling club for the Premier League, but could be a $20 million buy for Ajax.

The report says director of players Marc Overmars and financial director Jeroen Slop have flown to Southampton to work out a deal.

Tadic starred for Dutch sides Groningen and Twente between 2010-14 before moving to St. Mary’s for a reported $12 million.

He’s scored 24 goals with 35 assists in 162 appearances for Saints, 21 and 30 of which came in the Premier League.

Toronto locks down USMNT backstop Bono with extension

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Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono is going to stay Toronto FC goalkeeper Alex Bono.

[ RECAP: Morocco 0-1 Portugal ]

The newly-capped USMNT backstop, 24, has been attracting interest from abroad since breaking past Clint Irwin to win the TFC job and guiding the club to multiple MLS Cup Finals.

Now general manager Tim Bezbatchenko has locked down his young goalkeeper to an undisclosed contract extension. From TorontoFC.com:

“Alex was a big part of our success last season. He set club records for wins and clean sheets and was a critical piece of our championship team,” said Toronto FC Sr. Vice-President, Soccer Operations & General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “Since joining the club as a first round pick in 2015, Alex’s ability to make key saves in big moments has been critical to our success.”

The Syracuse-born product of Syracuse University has made 64 appearances for the Reds.

WATCH: World Cup, Day 8 — Argentina on the edge; France aims for berth

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France, Denmark, and Croatia can clinch knockout round berths on Thursday in Russia, the last nation also holding the opportunity to help deprive the World Cup of an extended Lionel Messi run.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Messi’s Argentina drew Iceland in its opener, the megastar infamously missing a penalty, and will look to beat a Croatian side that looked quite good in dispatching Nigeria.

That’s the final match of the day, which begins with Denmark facing Australia and continues with a tasty match-up between France and Peru.

Below is Thursday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Wednesday, June 20

Group C
Denmark vs. Australia: Samara, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
France vs. Peru: Yekaterinburg, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group D
Argentina vs. Croatia: Nizhny Novgorod, 2 p.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE