AS Monaco clinched the Ligue 2 title on Friday night with a 2-1 home win over struggling former top-flight rivals Le Mans, but the Principality outfit that return to Ligue 1 is massively changed from the side that dramatically exited it two years ago. Since their final day relegation in 2011, the club has revolutionised and only four players that went down with them remain in their current squad. Now under the ownership of Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, Les Monegasques are targeting an immediate return to Champions League football under current coach Claudio Ranieri, in time for the 2014-15 season.
Andre Villas-Boas says he'll know from the noise of the crowd; Arsene Wenger from the reaction of his staff. Both managers, however, claim that they'll be completely concentrating on what their own teams are doing rather than listening for the score at the other end of the country. They at least know what they have to do. Arsenal must win at Newcastle to make sure of a Champions League place while Tottenham Hotspur must beat Sunderland to fully exploit any error, with neither side able to let any external information affect them.
MADRID -- To be an Atletico Madrid fan has to be one of the most difficult tasks for a football supporter. It's a big club with huge support and a proud and famous history to enjoy, but they've suffered mightily in recent years at the hands of their richer and better connected neighbours up the road. It has been 17 years since Atletico last celebrated a Copa del Rey win; though they were the team to support in 1996 as they completed the double, they've since been completely overshadowed by a moneyed Real Madrid.
In the past few weeks, pundits have debated if the three of them can play together and how to combine their qualities for the good of the Selecao. But none of these jigsaw pieces was called Neymar or Lucas Moura. Instead, one of the hot topics involves the best way to deploy star center backs Thiago Silva, David Luiz and Dante in the same team. The dilemma represents a golden moment for Brazilian defenders, unfairly maligned for years as the reason for Brazil's disappointments. The Silva-Luiz-Dante trio is far from an isolated case, either.
It has been about a century, perhaps two, since Atletico beat Real Madrid; the Copa del Rey final is in the Santiago Bernabeu stadium; and the bookmakers don't give a fig for Los Colchoneros' chances of victory Friday evening -- but it was Jose Mourinho, not Diego Simeone, who hid from the media Thursday in the Spanish capital. And if, against the odds, Los Rojiblancos were to win the Cup final on "enemy territory," just as they famously did back in 1992, it would leave Simeone with as many trophies -- three -- in 17 months as the once "Special One" did with three years, and hundreds of millions of extra expenditure, at Madrid.
When I was first afforded the chance to interview a 21-year-old David Beckham back in 1996, the superstar who would later emerge was still lurking inside a boyish figure who was excited at the prospect of playing in his first FA Cup final. My role writing the official programme for Manchester United's Wembley showpiece with Liverpool presented me with a chance to conduct one of the first major interviews Beckham had granted, and his nervousness was evident as he offered me his hand ahead of our chat.
Forget Guttmann's curse. When Benfica fans wipe away their tears they will no doubt reflect on the curse of the 92nd minute. On Saturday the Eagles all but lost the Portuguese championship they had looked set to win for months, when FC Porto's Kelvin scored in the second minute of injury time. On Wednesday night, in the Europa League final against Chelsea, after displaying plenty of typically stylish football and outplaying the pre-match favourites for large sections of the game, Branislav Ivanovic's header dictated another brutally cruel 2-1 defeat.
On one side, deep trauma. On the other, a triumphant sense of vindication. Those emotions will feel even further apart because this Europa League final came so close to going in the opposite direction. But even so, there was a sense of inevitability to Chelsea's 2-1 win over Benfica on Wednesday. The Stamford Bridge side kept up their remarkable record in finals, while interim manager Rafa Benitez underlined his overachievement in European ties. To add an emotional resonance to the result, as well as the sense that it could have been scripted, Branislav Ivanovic went a long way toward making up for missing last year's Champions League final by scoring the luscious last-minute winner.
Host country Brazil has taken a surprisingly youthful approach to its 23-man squad for June's Confederations Cup. For a start, manager Luiz Felipe Scolari didn't call upon Kaka or Ronaldinho, former FIFA Players of the Year, leaving 21-year-old star Neymar without any veteran guidance in attack. In doing so, Scolari amplified the talent gap between Kaka and Neymar's footballing generations. Sought by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, it's clear at Neymar is Brazil's most important player right now.
The bookmakers give it less than a 1 percent chance -- 0.96 percent, to be precise, if my math is correct -- and so it's extremely unlikely that we'll see Chelsea and Everton draw 0-0 and Arsenal win 2-1 at Newcastle. But if it does come to pass, the Premier League has confirmed that third place in the league will be decided by a playoff (most likely one game at a neutral venue) that will somehow be squeezed into the calendar. (And that won't be easy since Chelsea are scheduled to fly to the United States on Sunday night to play two friendlies against Manchester City on May 23 and May 25).
When Rafael Benitez grasped the most poisonous nettle he possibly could, his insistence that he only wanted to coach a club that might win trophies met with bemusement. Why did he feel so entitled? Why this club? Why take a job in which the occupational hazard is abuse in his own workplace? Trophies were the given reason, and he's still sticking to it. Perhaps it is his pronunciation of the word itself: "Trough-ease." He almost spits the world out. "It is always important for me to win trophies and do well," he says on the eve of his fourth European final as a manager.
Moments after FC Porto's last-gasp winner had hit the net on Saturday night to all but snatch the Portuguese championship from Benfica's grasp, TV replays showed Aguias coach Jorge Jesus' reaction: an immediate, spontaneous and dramatic fall to his knees with head bowed. It was an iconic image that could come to symbolise Benfica's season. Or will it? Conventional wisdom suggests Benfica, who were previously unbeaten in the Liga and had led the way for months, would be floored by seeing a season's work unravel in extraordinary fashion in the last instants of a match that constituted their last difficult obstacle to lifting the title.