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Has Didier Drogba played his final game as a professional?

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LOUISVILLE, KY — Didier Drogba‘s dazzling, star-studded career may have come to an end Thursday night under the bright lights of Lynn Stadium, in front of a packed house of 7,025 fans for the USL Cup final.

With eight league or cup titles and dozens of individual awards, the Chelsea legend was unable to add one final trophy to his mantlepiece, as Louisville City scored on a goal-mouth scramble off a corner kick and held on to win its second-straight USL Cup title. Drogba finished the game with six shots, but just one on target, a 40-yard free kick from the center of the field that Louisville City goalkeeper Greg Ranjitsingh parried away.

[READ: How will the teams line up for the Manchester derby?]

It’s a setting he likely never expected he’d finish his career in, even when he signed with Phoenix Rising in 2017 and became part of the team’s ownership group. Phoenix looked mired for a poor finish before Rick Schantz took over as coach in June, leading the team into the playoffs and on a magic run to the final, which included three goals from Drogba in the playoffs.

It looked as though the USL script writers were bringing the drama to a crescendo, with Drogba adding a USL Cup to go with his four Premier League titles, four FA Cups and UEFA Champions League trophy, among others.

Unfortunately for Phoenix Rising, and perhaps more fortunately for Louisville City, Drogba’s touch was off on Thursday evening. Four of his free kicks went flying over the crossbar and he failed to fully connect on a late-game, audacious bicycle kick attempt. Drogba also earned a frustration yellow card for a tackle from behind.

“Look, you can see as the game goes on, we were down 1-0, his desire to get the ball, his desire to be involved (is there),” Schantz said. “He’s 40-years old playing against 20-somethings in a league that’s up and coming. It’s not easy. The opportunity I got to coach him this year blows me away that I was able to share the field with one of the best players in the sport.”

Even in defeat, Drogba remained humble and gracious, staying on the field to watch the trophy ceremony with his team, congratulating the squad and coach for making it to the final and telling them to keep their heads up.

“It’s been incredible,” Phoenix Rising goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski said following the match. “His talent on the field speaks for itself but the biggest thing I take, the level he’s been at and everything he’s won, he’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet. He’s invited us to his house for team barbecues, opened his doors, cooked for us for hours, treated everyone as an equal, with respect.

“That says a lot considering the guys he’s played with. Coming to USL and treating us like that, teaching us everything he’s learned, that’s one of the most valuable things I’ll take, No matter what level you get to, you can still be humble and treat everyone with respect.”

While Drogba took much of the spotlight ahead of the game, it was a trio of unsung players who shut him down all evening; Midfielder and Louisville City captain Paolo DelPiccolo and centerbacks Paco Craig and Alexis Souahy. For all the experience LouCity returned with DelPiccolo, Craig and others, Souahy is just a 23-year-old rookie playing in his first cup final. And yet, the young defender from France who was released from Le Havre’s youth academy four years ago played as well and resolutely as he had all season. Craig, a West Ham academy alum and USL First-Team XI honoree, was strong as always against the Ivorian, and DelPiccolo and Drogba each had their share of battles in midfield.

“(They were) so good, so good,” Hackworth said about his defenders performance on Drogba. “Especially, Paco, he’s first team and everyone knows how good he is, but Alexis is a star on the rise and we might be hearing his name for a long time to come at a high level.”

Not to be lost in the talk about Drogba is the incredible achievement for Louisville City to win a second consecutive title. Louisville City lost its coach, James O’Connor, to Orlando City at the end of June, and the team ended up going with a triumvirate of player coaches for the next 6 weeks of action: DelPiccolo, George Davis and the USL Cup MVP Luke Spencer.

John Hackworth took over in mid-August and after making some little adjustments – tightening the defensive line and introducing more high pressing to force turnovers – LouCity found its rhythm. Even with five coaches this season, the team was steady all year long until down the stretch, when LouCity put on the after burners. The club finished the year winning its last ten games, including the final four in the playoffs to take the USL crown.

“The way they competed in training, and then went back in the locker room, I thought I was going to have to settle some fights,” said Hackworth, noting he knew this team could make a run for the title within the first couple days of practice. “But they’re a brotherhood. They have this high standard, they want to be pushed, they want to be coached. I thought, ‘if we can get this right…if we can clean up some things, it’s going to happen.'”

Drogba didn’t speak to the media following the match, but at the pre-match press conference, he revealed that after Phoenix Rising’s 2-1 win over Orange County for the Western Conference title, he received a few phone calls about continuing playing. He then hinted that perhaps the USL Cup final wouldn’t be the finale to his career.

When asked if Drogba revealed anything to him following the match, Schantz deadpanned and said, “That will be a separate press conference.”

Who can Premier League clubs draw in Europa League?

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Group winners Arsenal and Manchester United will avoid a loaded batch of seeded teams, while runners-up Wolves can draw a bevy of powerful teams in the Europa League Round of 32.

Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo can find himself drawn against former club Porto, but also could have to match wits with Ajax’s Erik ten Hag, Inter Milan’s Antonio Conte, or Red Bull Salzburg’s Jesse Marsch.

[ MORE: Man Utd pounds AZ ]

Speaking of Marsch, the Salzburg boss could go from meeting Liverpool to squaring off with Steven Gerrard and Rangers.

Gerrard could also, of course, go up against hated playing days’ rival Manchester United.

Seeded teams
Ajax
Arsenal
Basel
Benfica
Braga
Celtic
Espanyol
Gent
Inter Milan
Istanbul Basaksehir
LASK
Malmo
Manchester United
Porto
Red Bull Salzburg
Sevilla

Unseeded teams
APOEL Nicosia
AZ Alkmaar
Bayer Leverkusen
Club Brugge
Copenhagen
CFR Cluj
Eintracht Frankfurt
Ludogorets Razgrad
Olympiacos
Rangers
Roma
Wolfsburg
Wolves
Shakhtar Donetsk
Sporting Lisbon

Who can Premier League teams draw in the Round of 32?

Arsenal: APOEL Nicosia, AZ Alkmaar, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Manchester United: APOEL Nicosia, Bayer Leverkusen, Club Brugge, Copenhagen, CFR Cluj, Eintracht Frankfurt, Ludogorets Razgrad, Olympiacos, Rangers, Roma, Wolfsburg, Shakhtar Donetsk, Sporting Lisbon

Wolves: Ajax, Basel, Benfica, Celtic, Espanyol, Gent, Inter Milan, Istanbul Basaksehir, LASK, Malmo, Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Sevilla

Four-star Manchester United wins Europa League group

Manchester United Mata Greenwood
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Manchester United is in fine feather and showing it, smashing AZ Alkmaar in a stylish 4-0 win at Old Trafford in Europa League play on Thursday.

Juan Mata had a goal and set up two others, while Mason Greenwood scored twice after Ashley Young opened the scoring in a group-claiming victory.

[ MORE: Saka leads Arsenal comeback ]

United wins the group with 13 points, conceding just twice in six matches.

The Red Devils have won three-straight matches, as AZ joins Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur in the loss column. Up next is a Sunday visit from Everton in the Premier League before Wednesday’s League Cup quarterfinal visit from Colchester United.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer handed starts to James Garner, Brandon Williams, and Axel Tuanzebe, bringing youngsters Ethan Laird and Tahith Chong off the bench.

Greenwood, 18, now has six goals in 22 senior appearances, while Mata, 31, gets on the score sheet for the first time this season.

For his career, the award-winning Spaniard is doing okay, though: 125 goals and 149 assists in 542 senior appearances.

Ljungberg hails ‘amazing’ teen Saka after game-changing performance

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Arsenal phenom Bukayo Saka‘s big day spurred the Gunners to a top seed in the Europa League knockout rounds.

Arsenal went behind on two deflected goals in the second half’s first 25 minutes, but Saka answered with a goal and an assist in three minutes to take a point from Belgium in a 2-2 draw at Standard Liege.

[ RECAP, VIDEO: Standard Liege 2-2 Arsenal ]

Saka was at the heart of it of all good things Arsenal, the 18-year-old handed plenty of responsibility. despite his tender age.

“He was amazing,” said interim manager Freddie Ljungberg. “He was a bit upset with me before the game that he had to play wing-back and full-back. He’s a tremendous talent.”

Saka had four key passes to go with his goal and assist, winning six of eight duels while producing two tackles and an interception.

Ljungberg said Arsenal hasn’t sent its young players on loan enough, though that hardly applies to Saka given he was 17 until September.

The injured Gunners used Konstantinos Mavropanos, Emile Smith-Rowe, Joe Willock, and Reiss Nelson in the Starting XI, and brought Gabriel Martinelli off the bench.

“I feel sorry for our young players,” he said. “A lot of them haven’t been on loan, they’ve not had that exposure to men’s football. Some of them made mistakes but they’ll learn from those mistakes and won’t do them again.”

Smith-Rowe was loaned to RB Leipzig last season and Nelson starred on loan at Hoffenheim. Mavropanos played first team football for Greek Super League side PAS Giannina in his late teens.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

Arsenal uses thrilling comeback to win Europa League group

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Nothing Arsenal-related is allowed to be easy, it seems.

The Gunners used a goal and an assist from Bukayo Saka to come back from a two-goal deficit and draw Standard Liege 2-2 in Belgium on Thursday, winning its Europa League group when Vitoria came back to beat Eintracht Frankfurt on a wild afternoon of soccer.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Arsenal trailed on second half goals from Samuel Bastien and Selim Amallah, but rallied behind Bukayo Saka and Alexandre Lacazette to score a second-straight win for interim boss Freddie Ljungberg.

Saka sent in a laser cross in the 78th minute and Lacazette did quite well to power it under the bar.

He’s loving this competition, having made a serious entrance earlier in the tournament versus Eintracht Frankfurt. The 18-year-old now has two goals and five assists across all competitions this season.

The Gunners needed just three more minutes to tie the score on a day they outshot the hosts 15-11.

Saka showed his nose for goal to tie the score five minutes later with a dribble to the top of the 18 and a sly finish to the keeper’s left.

This was all happening around the same time Vitoria scored twice in three minutes to take a 3-2 lead on Eintracht Frankfurt.

Standard Liege goes from the knockout rounds to nothing in a blink, while Eintracht goes from winning the group to second.

The field for the Europa League is looking fierce, with Inter Milan, Benfica, Ajax, Club Brugge, Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk, Bayer Leverkusen, and Red Bull Salzburg joining the competition via transfer from the UEFA Champions League.

Arsenal joins Premier League sides Wolves and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, having lost the Europa League final to rivals Chelsea at the end of last season.

The Gunners beat West Ham on Monday and host Manchester City at 11:30 a.m. ET Sunday.