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Carlo Ancelotti smokes a Cuban cigar

The UEFA Club Competition Finals - A Look Ahead

by Nick Hendry

The 90 minute duration of a football match is an excellent opportunity to enjoy a large Cuban cigar.  As we approach summer, most  European leagues reach their climactic points, with honours and bragging rights distributed for another year.  In May football fans from across the world will once again turn their eyes to Europe for the finals of the major UEFA club tournaments.  2021/22 is the debut season of the Europa Conference League, meaning that there will be 3 showpiece finals for the first time since the Cup Winner’s Cup was absorbed into the UEFA cup in 1999.

All three finals this year promise to be absorbing contests.  The standard of football in the Champions League is famously high, and the competition in the “Big 5” European leagues means that the teams who drop down into the second-tier Europa League are of an impressive quality as well.  Perhaps a surprise to many observers, though, has been the quality of the football in the Europa Conference League – initially derided by casual fans due to the unknown nature of many of the early entrants, the later rounds produced some big-name contests and the final features 2 traditionally powerful continental players.

With a little longer to wait until this year’s FIFA World Cup in December, these 3 games will be a vital fix for fans across the world before the summer off-season.  There is opportunity for drama at every turn, a chance at redemption for a recently-disgraced giant, and the potential for an historic achievement which has only happened once before, and would likely never happen again.  Add these to the substantial financial rewards on offer to the winners – not just in prize money, but through automatic qualification for the 2022/23 tournaments – and we can be certain of excitement.

Andy Robertson and Mo Salah

Liverpool are still in with a shout of an astonishing 4 trophies

UEFA Champions League Final: Liverpool v Real Madrid

By the time this final rolls around Liverpool could well have added the English Premier League and FA Cup (they play the final of that on 14th May) to the Carabao Cup they have already won this year.  Doing so would make them the first team since Celtic in 1967 to win every tournament they entered.  Such a feat would be nothing short of astonishing, but standing in their way will be the most successful club in the history of the competition.  The Stade de France in Paris will be the venue for one of the biggest European showdowns in recent years.

Real Madrid’s form in this year’s tournament has been formidable.  Their route to the final has arguably been considerably more challenging than Liverpool’s, having overcome the star-studded PSG side, reigning champions Chelsea and Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City juggernaut to get here.  Karim Benzema has stepped up to become the talisman the team needs, and the youth of Camavinga and Vinicius Junior have combined wonderfully with the experience of Kroos and Modric to support him.  Liverpool have a formidable attack of their own, with incredible depth: the current first-choice of Salah, Mané and Luis Diaz could be replaced by Jota, Origi and Firmino and the team still considered world-class.  Club captain Jordan Henderson and the evergreen James Milner provide the experience in the squad, and it’s hard to see them lose to anyone on their day.  They may not have been fully tested in their run to the final, but you can only beat those who are put in front of you, and they have done that handsomely each time.  The winner of this one is anyone’s guess.

Prediction: Liverpool 4-3 Real Madrid, after extra time.  Saturday 28th May, 21:00 CEST

Rangers Captain James Tavernier

Rangers captain James Tavernier has an extraordinary attacking output from right-back.

UEFA Europa League Final: Eintracht Frankfurt v Rangers

Ten years ago Rangers began the 2012/13 season by scraping a 2-2 draw away to Peterhead in the fourth tier of Scottish football.  They will finish this campaign second in the Scottish Premiership and in the final of Europe’s second tournament.  Their rise from those days of financial ruin, boardroom turmoil and abject results against the part-timers of Scotland’s lower leagues is remarkable.  At every stage of this year’s competition they have been underdogs, and at every stage they have triumphed.  As a lifelong Celtic fan from a long Celtic dynasty, it is impossible to underestimate how much I hate them, which should only go to show just how impressive this run has been for me to give it such credit.

Their opponents, Eintracht Frankfurt, are installed as the bookie’s favourites, most likely as a result of their earlier win against Xavi’s resurgent Barcelona side and the superior overall standard of the German Bundesliga.  Frankfurt currently sit 13th in that league, however, and Rangers put 6 through 2nd-placed (and much-fancied) Borussia Dortmund and 3 past RB Leipzig, the team with the stingiest defence in the German top flight, on their way to the final.  Injuries to Alfredo Morelos and Kemar Roofe could leave Rangers without a regular striker for the biggest match in their history, but captain James Tavernier has 28 goal contributions from fullback – he’s the top scorer in the tournament, with 7 goals – and the pace and trickery of Ryan Kent can give anyone problems on the counter attack.

Prediction: Eintracht Frankfurt 1-3 Rangers. Wednesday 18th May, 21:00 CEST

Tammy Abraham playing for AS Roma

Tammy Abraham's Champions League experience could prove vital in this final

UEFA Europa Conference League Final: Roma v Feyenoord

When this tournament started with matches including Kairat v Omonoia and Lincoln Red Imps v PAOK it did not seem likely that 2 famous names like these would fight for the chance to be the first ever winner.  Both teams are set for another year in the Europa Conference based on their current domestic standings, so winning this final is not only either side’s only chance at a trophy this year but also their only chance at entering the more prestigious Europa League for 2022/23.

Feyenoord may have the greater European pedigree – they won the European Cup in 1970, and the Europa League in 1974 and 2002 – but on paper these days the Roma squad is probably more impressive.  Among the medals on the training pitch are Euro 2020, Champions League and English Premiership, but no CV in the squad compares to their manager, the “Special One” himself.  José Mourinho may not carry the aura of invincibility he once did, but he is a serial winner and his experience and influence should be the difference between the sides here.

Prediction: Roma 2-0 Feyenoord.  Wednesday 25th May, 21:00 CEST

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