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Three key battles in the Champions League Final

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There are only two differences in the Liverpool lineups that beat Spurs 2-1 home and away this season.

Naby Keita and Joe Gomez started the September tilt at Wembley Stadium, while Jordan Henderson and Joel Matip started at Anfield.

[ MORE: Champions League story lines ]

Spurs on the other hand played a back four at Wembley with three center backs in the reverse fixture, wing backs Danny Rose and Kieran Trippier pushed up high and wide.

Might we see the latter again in Madrid? One of those pieces begins this examination of the three (plus one) factors in Saturday’s Champions League Final.

Kieran Trippier versus Sadio Mane

Mane scored 22 goals this season, but failed to manage one against Spurs whether Trippier was lined up at right back or as more of a right wing back.

All-in-all, the dangerous-crossing Trippier is a better defender than his reputation suggests, but Mane is about as explosive an attacking talent as there is in England.

This battle may be the one that settles the tie.

Roberto Firmino versus Toby Alderweireld

Sure, this also could read Firmino v. Spurs’ defense, but “Bobby’s” two goals against Spurs this season were his first in six matches against the Reds.

Like Harry Kane for Spurs, Firmino is coming off an injury. While still quite good, the Brazilian center forward’s production and effectiveness have both dipped this season.

Perhaps it’s absurd to expect him to be a wrecking ball in consecutive Champions League seasons, but his dip in that competition was especially significant. Firmino arguably was the number one reason Liverpool ran through its forgiving slate last season, scoring 10 goals with 7 assists and drawing a penalty. This year, it’s just four goals with a helper.

Alderweireld, meanwhile, has been fine but not spectacular for Spurs. The big Belgian will hope Firmino is less than 100 percent.

Jurgen Klopp versus himself

There are few men in the world with the self-confidence of Jurgen Klopp, but the Reds’ boss enters his latest final holding the proverbial clipboard for the unabashed favorites.

When a man has lost his last three European finals, there’s reason to question how he may try to out-fox himself in the role of favorite. It’s also worth noting that the virtue of getting to a fourth European final says a lot about a managerial skill set.

Where Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino is very much playing with house money, Klopp has yet to lift a piece of silverware as Liverpool boss. Perception of him is unlikely to change too much with a loss, but a win would have him an Anfield all-timer.

The stage can do wild things to a man, even when that man has spent plenty of time on that stage.

BONUS: Harry Kane versus his ankle

Yeah, this is cheating, but the Englishman’s fitness is the X-factor of the UCL Final. Virgil Van Dijk has the goods to deal with a fully fit Kane, but if he’s simply tasked with managing a half-ready decoy? Well, that’s big stuff.

Still, Kane’s 1-4-4 record against Spurs doesn’t have a ton to do with his scoring record, as he’s managed five goals and two assists in those matches. If he’s ready to go, Spurs obviously have a much better chance at glory.

Jota takes super sub to new level in Wolves win

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Sometimes the phrase “game changer” is used a bit too loosely, but there’s no debating Diogo Jota fit the bill to a ‘t’ on Thursday.

Wolves scored four times in 11 minutes, three coming courtesy Jota, as the Premier League side buried Besiktas 4-0 in Europa League play on Thursday.

Jota entered in the 56th minute, scored in the 57th, and completed his hat trick in the 68th.

[ MORE: Who can Wolves draw in UEL? ]

Nuno Espirito Santo‘s men had already clinched a place in the knockout rounds before the match day, and finish one point below Braga in Group K.

Jota has five goals in five days after scoring twice against Brighton on Sunday. The 23-year-old had an up-and-down season to start but has been mostly good over the past half-dozen games.

He has 37 goals in 107 matches with Wolves, including nine in all competitions this season. He scored nine times last season after a 17-goal campaign in the Championship.

Leander Dendoncker had Wolves’ other goal, with the day’s assists going to Oskar Buur, Joao Moutinho, and Pedro Neto.

 

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.