Getty Images

Top five storylines for Champions League final

Leave a comment

One all-Premier League European final down, one to go. The Champions League final pits Liverpool against Tottenham on Saturday, and there is plenty to lap up across the 90 minutes or more.

1. Liverpool looks for redemption

Liverpool has fallen just short of reaching a few monstrous pinnacles, and supporters have had to endure brutal second-place finishes over the past 12 months.

First, they lost last year’s Champions League final to Real Madrid 3-1 on a Gareth Bale brace to break the deadlock. Many Reds fans feel they were slighted after Sergio Ramos tackled Mohamed Salah and forced him off injured just 31 minutes in with the game still scoreless.

Second, the Reds put up a vicious fight in this year’s Premier League, giving defending champions Manchester City a battle to the wire, but came up just short despite a record points haul for a Premier League second-place finisher. It was a season that would have won the title in almost every other English top-flight season, but with Manchester City up to the task, Liverpool has been forced to accept the consolation prize.

“I took a lot of experience from it; hopefully I can use that,” Virgil van Dijk said to BBC Sport in reference to last year’s loss to Madrid. “Losing a final is painful.”

Which brings us to our next storyline…

1a. Jurgen Klopp hoping to break his finals streak

Dating back to his days with Borussia Dortmund, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has lost six straight Cup finals. The Reds are hoping that Klopp’s brutal record in silverware games does not become intertwined into a larger club narrative of second-place finishes.

Finishing as runners-up can be sustainable for only so long, and the Reds will not want to waste this window of opportunity completely. Despite the fabulous season bringing Man City to the final week and reaching the Champions League final, finishing the year with nothing to show for the fight would be painful for players and supporters alike. It has undoubtedly been a fabulous campaign, but no trophy haul would severely dampen the luster on the season and bring Jurgen Klopp’s ability to lead Liverpool to the pinnacle of their ascent into question.

2. Mauricio Pochettino searches for accelerant to his Spurs project

The Argentine took over Spurs in 2014 hoping to mold the London club into a perennial Premier League challenger. While they have yet to become a consistent title contender in the Premier League, a Champions League crown would no doubt boost those plans and give Pochettino a tangible sign that his project is speeding along.

It’s clear that turning even a consistent European participant into a Premier League giant takes years of planning and sustainable squad growth, but success in a top-level tournament setting would boost the club’s pedigree significantly and turn it into an even more attractive destination for incoming players who wish to prevail in Europe’s top competition.

Amid reports that Pochettino could leave to take a bigger-name job like Manchester United and Juventus, Pochettino could cement his status as the usher of the club’s next chapter with Champions League glory, and in doing so, giving him the unique opportunity to stay in North London long-term as a Wenger-esque club legend in a league familiar with managerial turnover.

3. Club talismans Eriksen, Salah battle for tangible justification

Christian Eriksen and Mohamed Salah share a lot in common. They both serve as the face of the club’s attacking threat, and they both have nothing to show for their time at the club aside from fan admiration. That will change as one of them will win a Champions League winners medal, solidifying themselves as more than just a bunch of goals and fan favorite status.

For Eriksen, it could mean even more as the Dane is rumored to be leaving the club this summer. With Tottenham reportedly chasing Giovani Lo Celso, it could signal that Eriksen is off to the greener pastures (literally $$$) of Real Madrid, ending a sparkling six-year run in West London. What a way to go out on top and leave your legacy at a club.

4. Harry Kane‘s return

Imagine suffering an injury and thinking your season was over, only to come back for the biggest game in club history.

It has been seven weeks since Harry Kane hobbled down the tunnel in London, out with ligament damage to his troublesome ankle. His ability to impact the game is a complete unknown, and it’s not even a guarantee he will make the starting lineup. Still, should Spurs need a goal either early or late, what a story it would be for Kane to come back and provide a landmark goal in the club’s history.

Kane defiantly declared himself fit, having returned to training and saying, “at the moment I feel good, I feel strong.” A rest may have done Kane well, as he struggled early this past campaign after a long previous season and busy World Cup summer, but has been successful in the past after coming back from injury layoffs. This season, Kane scored in three of his first four games back from his January ankle problems, and two seasons ago the story was the same. In November 2016 he scored five goals in four Premier League games back after missing a month, and later that year he missed three matches in early April before coming back to finish the season with 10 goals in the final eight matches. With just 90 minutes to make his mark, can Kane provide the same goalscoring threat he has so many times before for Tottenham?

5. First time finalists

Tottenham has reached the finals of the Champions League for the first time in club history, and that doesn’t bode well for Spurs. Each of the previous five first-time finalists have tasted defeat, with Borussia Dortmund the last club to reach the pinnacle on its first try back in 1997. Will Liverpool’s experience from last season be the key to victory for the Reds, or can Spurs develop a game plan to take down Klopp’s juggernaut and prevail in the club’s first go?

Europa League: Rangers, Aberdeen, FCSB advance in first qualifying round

Getty Images
Leave a comment

The first qualifying round of the 2019/20 Europa League wrapped up Thursday as the competition pairs down teams en route to the group stage.

A couple of notable teams lived to see another day, including Steven Gerrard and Scottish side Rangers who passed its test with flying colors, hammering Gibraltar side St. Joseph’s 6-0 for a resounding 10-0 aggregate win. Jermaine Defoe scored a late brace but Colombian international Alfredo Morelos was the man of the hour, bagging a hat-trick including a stunning rabona at the doorstep that probably wasn’t necessary but still found the back of the net.

Fellow Scottish side Aberdeen who topped Finnish club Rovaniemen Palloseura – or RoPS – 2-1 for a 4-2 aggregate victory. English striker Sam Cosgrove put Aberdeen in front from the penalty spot in the 26th minute, and 19-year-old Scottish youth international Lewis Ferguson picked up the late game winner in the 94th minute with essentially the last kick of the game.

FCSB, previously known as Steaua Bucuresti, knocked off Moldovan club FC Milsami Orhei 2-1 for a 4-1 aggregate victory. FCSB, who finished second in the Romanian top flight last season, got the winning strike from 21-year-old Romanian youth international Razvan Oaida in the 42nd minute to give FCSB the victory.

Danish club Brondby advanced despite a 2-0 road loss, topping Finnish side FC Inter Turku 4-3 on aggregate thanks to their 4-1 victory in the first leg. Turku struck twice in quick succession after the break, scoring in the 52nd and 56th minutes, but it was too little too late.

Legia Warsaw shook off a 0-0 first leg draw and secured a 3-0 win over aptly-named Gibraltar side FC Europa. A brace from Spanish striker Carlitos led the way, with goals in the 7th minute and 60th minute to set the pace for the Polish side.

Irish club Shamrock Rovers advanced over Norwegian side SK Brann on a late winner by new signing Gary O'Neil who bagged an 87th minute strike to secure the 2-0 win and lead the Irish side through 4-3 on aggregate. O’Neil only just joined Shamrock Rovers from UCD this summer, and he came off the bench for the final 10 minutes and found the winner.

Swedish club Malmo, famous as Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s boyhood club, finished off Ballymena out of Northern Ireland 4-0 for a 11-0 aggregate bashing. Malmo featured four different goalscorers, including American international Romain Gall, who picked up his only international cap with a late bench appearances against Italy back in late 2018.

Croatian side Hajduk Split was upset by Maltese club Gzira United 3-1 at home, which gave the visitors the win on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate tie. Gzira striker Ben Hamed Kone struck for a pair, including the game – and matchup – winner in the 97th minute that sent the Maltese side through. The two goals were utterly spectacular, with the first coming in the 69th minute on a bicycle kick from all the way at the top of the box, while his second was a flick from nearly the same position that sent them through.

All Europa League scores (bold team advances)

Rangers 6-0 St. Joseph’s
Ballymena 0-4 Malmo FF
Legia Warsaw 
3-0 FC Europa
FC Milsami 1-2 FCSB
RoPS 1-2 Aberdeen
FC Inter Turku 2-0 Bronby
Apollon Limassol 
4-0 Kauno Zalgiris
Hapoel Be’er 1-0 KF Laci
Hajduk Split 1-3 Gzira United
Kilmarnock 0-2 Connah’s Quay
KR Reykjavik 0-0 Molde
Shamrock Rovers 
2-0 SK Brann
Hapoel Be’er 1-0 KF Laci
Tobol Kostanay 1-1 Jeunesse Eche 
FK Makedonija 0-3 Alashkert FC
Kairat Almaty
2-1 Siroki Brijeg
KS Teuta 1-0 FK Ventspils
FC Levadia Tallinn 3-2 Stjarnan
Rigas Futbola Skola 0-2 Olimpija Ljubljana
Universitatea Craiova 
3-2 Sabail
Dinamo Minsk 1-2 FK Liepaja
Levski Sofia 2-0 MFK Ruzomberok
Cracovia 2-2 Dunajska Streda
FC Vaduz 
2-1 Breidablik
Haugesund 5-1 Cliftonville
Neftchi 6-0 Speranta Nisporeni
Petrocub-Hincesti 0-1 AEK Larnaca
Torpedo Kutaisi 0-2 Ordabasy Shymkent
Zalgiris Vilnius 1-1 Honved
Zrinjski Mostar 
3-0 Akademija Pandev
Progres Niederkorn 1-2 Cork
UE Engordany 0-1 Dinamo Tbilisi
B36 Torshavn 2-3 Crusaders
FK Kukesi 1-1 Debrecen
Hibernians 0-1 Shakhter Soligorsk
IFK Norrkoping 
2-1 St. Patrick’s
NS Mura 2-3 Maccabi Haifa
Vidi 0-0 FK Zeta
FC Vitebsk 1-1 KuPS Kuopio
Shkupi 1-2 Pyunik
Buducnost Podgorica 4-0 JK Narva Trans
FC Spartak Trnava 2-0 Radnik Bijeljina
NK Domzale 1-0 Balzan FC
Radnicki Nis 2-2 Flora

Report: Barcelona logs bid for Neymar

Getty Images
Leave a comment

According to a report by Sky Sports, Barcelona has officially submitted an offer to Paris Saint-Germain for Brazilian superstar Neymar that includes a $113 million cash component as well as a two-player offer that PSG can choose from.

The report states that Barcelona submitted a six-player list to PSG which includes Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Ivan Rakitic, Nelson Semedo, and Malcom. PSG can reportedly pick two from those six players, and the deal would be complete. Sky Sports did not know the identity of the sixth player at the time of the initial report.

Neymar has become unsettled at PSG after his time in France has been marred by suspensions and disappointing results in European play. He was involved in an altercation with a fan after PSG fell to Stade Rennais in the Coupe de France final in May, and has been accused of rape this summer by a Brazilian girl he flew to Paris late last season. Neymar was also suspended for three upcoming Champions League matches for critical comments made on his Instagram page after PSG was beaten by Manchester United this past spring.

Neymar has reportedly told PSG sporting director Leonardo that he wishes to leave the club in a recent meeting following the Brazilian’s late arrival to PSG preseason training. He missed the Copa America this summer thanks to an ankle injury suffered in a pre-tournament friendly against Qatar.

Over the last two years at PSG after joining from Barcelona via a world-record $250 million transfer fee, Neymar has made 58 appearances, scoring 51 goals and assisting 29 more. However, he’s been eliminated from the Champions League Round of 16 both years, finding himself injured for at least the return leg of the knockout matchup in both years.

Watford downed late by Ajax in preseason friendly

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Watford went toe-to-toe with Champions League semifinalists Ajax for most of the match, but capitulated late as Dutch youth international Jurrien Timber scored an 89th minute winner in a 2-1 win for the Eredivisie side in Austria.

Andre Gray put the Hornets up from the penalty spot six minutes before the break as American youth international Sergino Dest was called for an unlucky handball in the box. Abdoulaye Doucoure danced through the box and as he looked to skip the ball past Dest, it popped up and caught the American’s arm. Gray delivered and put Watford 1-0 up at the break.

The lead would only last until the 51st minute when Dusan Tadic found himself on the ball at the end line on the right, and he cut back to Donny van de Beek through the dummy of Kasper Dolberg on the penalty spot for an easy low finish and a 1-1 scoreline. It would stay that way until one minute to go in regulation as Carel Eiting sent a ball into the box where the 18-year-old Timber lept with his back to goal and clipped the ball off the top of his head for the winner, burying the chance inside the far post.

Both teams featured strong lineups, as Watford ran out stars like Gray, Tom Cleverley, Adrian Mariappa, and former Eredivisie veteran Daryl Janmaat while Nathan Chalobah, Gerard Deulofeu, and Jose Holebas came off the bench. Ajax saw van de Beek, Tadic, Dolberg, and Daley Blind all make the starting lineup.

Next for Watford is a match against Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday, also taking place in Austria.

Juventus goalkeeper Perin fails medical in Benfica move

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Juventus goalkeeper Mattia Perin, who has struggled with injuries in the past, has failed a medical ahead of a proposed $17 million move to Benfica.

The 26-year-old Italian international, who only joined Juventus last summer from Genoa, landed in Portugal last night ready to complete the singing of a five-year contract, but the shoulder injury he suffered back in April proved worrying to Benfica who said he would need up to four months of recovery in a club statement announcing the failed medical.

The statement said the Portuguese club was still interested in completing the transfer once the player has healed, and reports state he will return to Turin to continue treatment and rehab before making the move in the winter.

Perin spent most of last season backing up Wojciech Szczesny, and with the return of Gianluigi Buffon as backup, Perin found himself in the middle of even more competition. At 26 years old and with two international caps to his name, Perin is wise to seek more playing time to further his career.

Perin has struggled at times in his career with injuries, including tears of his ACL in both knees at separate times less than a year apart.

Benfica has three goalkeepers currently on its roster, with last year’s starter Odysseas Vlachodimos backed up by 22-year-old Ivan Zlobin and 19-year-old Mile Svilar. 24-year-old Bruno Varela was loaned out to Ajax this summer.