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Three key battles for Champions League Final

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Saturday brings Real Madrid’s journey toward a third-straight UEFA Champions League title to a close, with just Liverpool standing in the way.

[ MORE: Napoli hires Ancelotti ]

The Reds attack promises danger and entertainment, while Zinedine Zidane’s personnel choice may be just as important as his tactical decisions in Kiev.

Van Dijk, Lovren against… Ronaldo and whoever Zidane decides

It’s difficult to highlight the match-up problems for Liverpool’s center backs because Zinedine Zidane has used three different set-ups atop his line-up.

At times, it’s been Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. Sometimes, Gareth Bale takes Benzema’s spot, and occasionally Ronaldo has been played up top as a center forward.

Believe it or not, that may be the best case scenario for Liverpool, though Ronaldo will undoubtedly roam across the top of the formation. While many think of Ronaldo and visualize his laser shots from distance, he’s quite dangerous in 1v1 aerial battles as well as tight spaces inside the box.

Quite frankly, matches like this highlight why the Reds signed Virgil Van Dijk. And, opinion alert, human bowling ball Benzema and his Juggernaut-esque approach to attacking may be a unique challenge Liverpool has not seen outside of Romelu Lukaku.

Marcelo vs. Mohamed Salah

Marcelo is an unbelievably silky, savvy left back who uses an elite attacking skill set to keep the opposition’s entire right side off kilter.

In some ways he can be partially neutralized by the danger presented by Reds right wing Mo Salah, but Zidane isn’t going to tell Marcelo to camp out in his own end when left center back Sergio Ramos is the next man up to defend, one of the finest players of his generation.

So it’s on Salah to assert himself on the game, something that shouldn’t be a problem after a couple weeks away from match action.

Can Real defend Liverpool on the counter?

We’ve seen Liverpool expose a number of teams on the counter attack, and Real certainly has a handle on how to do the same.

But building on our second key, there’s danger for both sides when Marcelo or Dani Carvajal get up the pitch. When Liverpool regains the ball and attacks at pace, there are big choices to be made.

Say Marcelo is up the pitch. Now Ramos may have to take Salah and leave Roberto Firmino to Raphael Varane. Now Carvajal may be alone with Sadio Mane. It’s not that Carvajal or Marcelo cannot defend, but these are not situations anyone wants in a one-off.

And that’s the key for Liverpool, really. This is a one-off. Over two legs, it’s hard to imagine the Reds as constructed pulling off another heavily-outchanced two-leg win like it did against Manchester City. The answer to this counter question may be what tells the story in Kiev.

PST’s Top Ten Premier League midfielders and forwards

Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
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ProSoccerTalk quizzed its staff on the best players of the 2017-18 Premier League season, broken up into eight categories.

Goalkeepers, left backs, center backs, right backs, center mids, attacking mids, wingers, and center forwards/strikers were slotted 1-10 (with wing backs lumped in with the fullbacks).

[ MORE: The Premier League season in statistics ]

In this first of two posts, we handled the goalkeepers and backs. Now, we moved further up the pitch. First-place votes are in parenthesis.

Center midfielders

10. Jonjo Shelvey, Newcastle United

9. Emre Can, Liverpool

8. Luka Milivojevic, Crystal Palace

7. Wilfred Ndidi, Leicester City

6. Idrissa Gana Gueye, Everton

4. (tie) Mousa Dembele, Tottenham Hotspur and Eric Dier, Tottenham Hotspir

3. Nemanja Matic, Manchester United

  1. (tie) Fernandinho, Manchester City (2) and N'Golo Kante, Chelsea (2)
(AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)

Attacking midfielders

10. Abdoulaye Doucoure, Watford

9. Dele Alli, Tottenham Hotspur

8. Pascal Gross, Brighton and Hove Albion

7. Mesut Ozil, Arsenal

6. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Liverpool

5. Paul Pogba, Manchester United

4. Christian Eriksen, Tottenham Hotspur

3. Eden Hazard, Chelsea

2. David Silva, Manchester City (1)

  1. Kevin De Bruyne, Manchester City (3)
(Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Wingers

10. Marcus Rashford, Manchester United

9. Alexis Sanchez, Manchester United

8. Heung-Min Son, Tottenham Hotspur

7. Willian, Chelsea

6. Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City

5. Sadio Mane, Liverpool

4. Wilfried Zaha, Crystal Palace

3. Raheem Sterling, Manchester City

2. Leroy Sane, Manchester City

  1. Mohamed Salah, Liverpool (4)

Center forwards/strikers

10. (tie) Alvaro Morata, Chelsea and Olivier Giroud, Chelsea

9. Gabriel Jesus, Manchester City

8. Marko Arnautovic, West Ham United

7. Alexandre Lacazette, Arsenal

6. Jamie Vardy, Leicester City

5. Romelu Lukaku, Manchester United

4. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Arsenal

3. Roberto Firmino, Liverpool

2. Sergio Aguero, Manchester City

  1. Harry Kane, Tottenham Hotspur
(Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

The season of Salah: Liverpool’s Egyptian King

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I’ll admit it. I didn’t see this coming. At all. And even when it kept happening, game after game, it still seemed too good to be true.

I was adamant I would use my vote for the Footballer Writers’ Association Player of the Year on Kevin De Bruyne. I mean, it was all about KDB as he conducted the Manchester City juggernaut throughout their record-breaking season but as the months wore on in the Premier League season, Mohamed Salah kept scoring, and scoring, and scoring.

I had to vote for Salah, and I did, with the new chant (based on the hit “Sit Down” by James) reverberating in my head. He is truly adored by Liverpool’s fans.

“Mo Salah, Mo Salah, running down the wing… Salah, lah, lah, lah, lah, the Egyptian King!”

In a Facebook Live chat from Wembley around the turn of the year, I even took on a friendly wager with Bruce Vail (I owe you that beer, Bruce) that Harry Kane would end the season with more goals than Salah. Kane had a career best 30 in the PL despite a few weeks out with injury, might I add… but Salah finished top with 32. Of course he did.

This has been the year of Salah for club and country and the funny thing is, nobody saw it coming. At all. Let’s not forget, Salah had one very good season at AS Roma in 2016/17 after first being loaned out by Chelsea to Fiorentina and Roma from 2015 as he was deemed surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge.

I wasn’t the only one who was blindsided and couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing week in, week out in the Premier League.

I vividly remember sitting in the freezing cold of the outdoor press box at Anfield in January as Salah lobbed Ederson from 40 yards out to put Liverpool 4-1 up against Man City, who had yet to be beaten in the PL that season. I smiled, everyone smiled, but then I looked around to my left and sat behind me was “King” Kenny Dalglish with the biggest smile of all as he punched the air with delight and celebrated alongside several Liverpool greats.

The Liverpool great has seen the likes of Robbie Fowler, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez rival his legendary status with the Kop and this man Salah has the potential to be a true God among Liverpool fans, if he isn’t already.

Salah’s sensational season took everyone by surprise as the Egyptian winger transformed his game under Jurgen Klopp and has become a global superstar over the last nine months at Liverpool. His clinical finishing, rapid counter attacks and incredible dribbling ability combining perfectly with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino up top.

In his debut season at Anfield he has scored 44 goals in all competitions with one game to go (a bit of a humdinger, the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid on May 26) and set a new Premier League record for the most goals (32) scored in a 38-game season. I also remember being sat at Man City’s Etihad Stadium early in the season and watching Salah squander several chances as he started the season in slightly wasteful fashion. About that…

The joint-record for the most goals in a PL season held by Alan Shearer, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo (31) tumbled under Salah’s brilliance and Shearer told PremierLeague.com that this wil be known as Salah’s season.

“When you’re looking to one of your players to do something different, do something special, more often than not it’s been Mo Salah,” Shearer said. “This season people will remember Salah and the impact that he had in his first season at Liverpool. No one has been able to stop him.”

Salah, still just 25 years old, has the perfect conditions around him to replicate this season too. Seriously.

Even though the hardest few months are probably coming up for him as he tries to reinvent his game slightly (after a World Cup with Egypt no less) and get used to two or three defenders marking him every time he has the ball next season, he’s playing for the perfect manager, with the perfect blend of players at the perfect club for how he wants to play.

Plus, aside from his playing ability, it’s the human factor of Salah which stands out and makes his story so lovable.

He’s the humble lad from the town of Nagrig in rural Egypt who plays with a smile on his face and a spring in his delicately permed hair.

Speaking about Salah in a speech written for the FWA awards evening last week, Klopp lauded his top goalscorer.

“The fact you have voted for him as your player of the season reflects that you have witnessed his incredible quality as a footballer. But it’s his qualities as a person that should not be overlooked,” Klopp said. “I read and hear about him being a wonderful role model for Egypt, North Africa, for the wider Arabic world and for Muslims. This, of course, is true, but he is a role model full stop.”

It’s not just on the club stage that Salah has burst onto the scene. It has been almost a perfect storm as the season of Salah reaches its climax.

With one more game of the season for Liverpool the biggest of them all, the UCL final against Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid, Salah not only has the chance to etch his name into Liverpool folklore but hammer home his bid to win the Ballon d’Or in 2018 and wrestle it away from Lionel Messi and Ronaldo.

At the same time as Salah’s fame with Liverpool is skyrocketing, he’s also become a hero in his homeland of Egypt, scoring the goal which took the Pharaohs to their first World Cup finals since 1990.

Like Messi and Ronaldo, Salah has the hopes of a soccer-mad nation resting on his shoulders this summer in Russia. If Salah leads Egypt to the latter stages of the World Cup, he is ready to take over from Ronaldo and Messi. That’s how good he’s been this season.

The man who saw him first emerge as a teenage talent in Egypt was former USMNT head coach Bob Bradley, who coached the Egyptian national team from 2011-13 as they just missed out on making the 2014 World Cup amid huge unrest in the North African nation. The Port Said massacre saw the domestic league suspended in 2012 and Salah, along with plenty of his Egyptian teammates, ended up heading overseas as a pathway to FC Basel in Switzerland was created.

Bradley knew back then that Salah had it in him and said as much in a recent interview with Yahoo Sports.

“When the league stopped, we had to start to put together camps and friendly matches because Olympic qualifying was that June,” Bradley said.“Immediately when we brought him in, you could see how special he was: Incredible quickness, speed, power, explosiveness. He improved at every camp. He took ideas really well. You could tell he was determined to get better.”

And that’s now what Salah must do. Get better. If he can.

The Egyptian King may never replicate this historic season and if he doesn’t, that’s fine. Liverpool’s fans and neutrals across the globe will never forget the season of Salah. Only the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez and Neymar have been able to replicate other-worldly form on a yearly basis over the last decade.

But if Salah does manage to replicate this, then he will truly enter the highest soccer pantheon.

Whatever happens, Egypt and Liverpool has a new King.

Kane issues challenge to Salah

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Harry Kane has issued a challenge to Mohamed Salah for next season.

Goalkeepers everywhere, beware…

Salah not only won  the Golden Boot as the top goalscorer in the Premier League for the 2017/18 season with 32 goals but he also set a record for the most goals scored in a 38-game PL season. That’s right, the 31-goal record from Alan Shearer, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez

Kane finished the season on 30 goals (his best-ever return in the PL) but he failed to win the Golden Boot for a third-straight campaign.

Speaking after Tottenham’s 5-4 win against Leicester on the final (Kane scored twice, by the way), the England international has challenged Salah to repeat his incredible season from his debut campaign at Liverpool.

“It’s good to have competition, it’s great for the Premier League to have two players at the 30-goal mark,” Kane said. “Personally for me, it was a target to improve on last year, obviously 29, and it was nice to get to that 30-goal mark. “Mo has done great this year, he deserves it, he deserves the Golden Boot, I am looking forward to the competition again next year.

“For me, it is about doing it year after year. This is my fourth year now and the first time I have got to 30 goals in the Prem, now it’s about getting to 30 goals for the next two or three years, that’s the aim. Any player wants to do it on a consistent basis and that’s what defines a good player from a great player. He has done amazing this year and he looks like a great player and we’ll see if we can both continue it next season.”

Kane saying Salah “looks like a great player” will no doubt annoy Liverpool fans across the globe but does he have a point?

The Egyptian King has been in sublime form this season with 32 goals in the PL and 44 in all competitions for Liverpool as they’re in the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid.

But can Salah really replicate this incredible goalscoring form? Remember: he was an out-and-out winger ahead of his move to Liverpool last summer but Jurgen Klopp has transformed him into a player who drifts centrally. Is this a one-off?

Salah being in a team alongside Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane and one which puts such an emphasis on all-out attack suggests he can replicate this season. Easily. The same can be said for Kane at Tottenham as he’s now scored 108 goals in 150 Premier League games.

PL teams will no doubt put extra defenders on Salah next season but they’ve been doing that for much of this campaign and haven’t had much luck.

Let the shootout between Kane and Salah continue.

Championship Sunday, rounded up

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The Premier League put a bow on its remarkable season with a 100-point flourish from Man City, and a new single-season scoring mark.

[ MORE: Full match replays | Final table | Final grades ]

It also waved goodbye to Arsene Wenger, at least at Arsenal. All that and more in the PL roundup.

Southampton 0-1 Manchester CityRECAP

Gabriel Jesus‘ stoppage time winner — man, does this club play to the final season’s whistle — made sure Man City added “first 100-point club” to its list of amazing accomplishments.

Liverpool 4-0 Brighton and Hove Albion — RECAP

Mohamed Salah set the new Premier League scoring record, while Dejan Lovren, Andy Robertson, and Dominic Solanke also scored to lead Liverpool back into the UEFA Champions League regardless of the final against Real Madrid.

Huddersfield Town 0-1 Arsenal — RECAP

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang became the fastest Gunner to 10 Premier League goals and notably has status as the last player to score in Arsene Wenger’s time at Arsenal.

Newcastle United 3-0 Chelsea — RECAP

Newcastle fans are dreaming of the transfer market after Rafa Benitez put another fine line on his resume with a demolition of the Blues. Ayoze Perez scored twice and Jonjo Shelvey also scored to clinch a Top Ten finish for the Magpies, who were in a relegation battle deep into the season. Chelsea is off to the Europa League, and in poor form ahead of next week’s FA Cup Final against Manchester United.

Swansea City 1-2 Stoke City — RECAP

Spirit remains at Stoke despite its relegation, as it dragged Swansea down with it. An early goal for Andy King was long forgotten after Badou Ndiaye and Peter Crouch gave the traveling Potters support a win in their final Premier League match for at least 15 months.

Tottenham Hotspur 5-4 Leicester City — RECAP

Don’t tell these clubs they had nothing to play for…

Harry Kane became the second Premier League player to score 30 goals this season, as Spurs trailed 1-0 and 3-1. They also were level at 4 following Jamie Vardy‘s second of the night when Kane completed his brace.

What a way to end a season.

West Ham United 3-1 Everton — RECAP

David Moyes‘ Irons hammered his former club, in doing so embarrassing former West Ham boss Sam Allardyce. The Toffees spent big this season and hired Big Sam to fix their season and lead them back into European contention. He largely failed. As for Moyes, has he reclaimed his Premier League mojo?

Burnley 1-2 Bournemouth — RECAP

Chris Wood‘s early goal was canceled out by Joshua King, then substitute Callum Wilson claimed all three points for the Cherries in this match-up of two of the finest British managers in the game.

Crystal Palace 2-0 West Bromwich Albion  — RECAP

Wilfried Zaha and Patrick Van Aanholt ended Roy Hodgson‘s Manager of the Year campaign with another win, as left-for-dead Palace finishes 11th despite an 0-7 goalless start!

Manchester United 1-0 Watford  — RECAP

Marcus Rashford scores the lone goal on a play began by Michael Carrick and helped along by Juan Mata. That’s why Mourinho plays Lukaku so much (#jab).