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The Final Stretch – European season reaches its climax

With most of the major European leagues now wrapped up, attention in most countries is turning towards the upcoming spate of cup finals across the continent. In England the FA Cup final is, of course, already done and dusted with Wigan Athletic having sensationally beaten Manchester City 1-0 at Wembley to win that venerable trophy for the first time in their history, and on Friday night in Madrid, Spain, Atletico stunned their neighbours Real Madrid in their own backyard at the Bernabeu to win the Copa del Rey. Atletico’s 2-1 extra time win was their first victory over Real in any competition for fourteen years.

The next ten days will see the cup winners decided in Scotland, Italy, Portugal, France and Germany, as well as the Champions League final and the English Championship Play-off final for a place in next season’s Premier League. This coming weekend is the big one, with five major finals over the extended Bank Holiday break (in the UK) for fans to enjoy and European club football’s showpiece event, the Champions League Final kicks it all off on Saturday night.

The Champions League Final – Saturday 25th May 2013, 19:45, Wembley Stadium, London

This year’s final is an all-German clash between Borussia Dortmund and strongly fancied Bayern Munich. Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern are the newly crowned Bundesliga champions, having dislodged Borussia from their perch, and have enjoyed perhaps the most spectacularly successful league season in their history. They won the Bundesliga at a canter by a massive twenty five points, scoring ninety eight goals in the process to end up with a staggering goal difference of plus eighty. They imperiously swept aside Barcelona in the semi finals 7-0 on aggregate to record the biggest semi final victory margin since 1960 and quite frankly they look unstoppable.

Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund have had an average season by their recent high standards and had to be content with a distant second spot having been champions two years running prior to this season. Their European form has been much better and they annihilated Real Madrid in the first leg of their semi final before holding on resolutely in the face at a late Real Madrid rally at the Bernabeu to book their spot at Wembley. Their success was dampened somewhat by the news that star man Mario Gotze will be jumping ship to Bayern this summer, putting a dent in their hopes of narrowing the gap next season, but they will be hopeful of a big performance on the night to create a small upset.

The two clubs have been regular opponents over the past twelve months with supremacy in head to head matches slowly shifting from Dortmund to the Bavarians. Dortmund had a crushing 5-2 win in the German Cup final last May but Bayern took their first chance for revenge in the Super Cup final in August, winning 2-1. The first league clash finished in a 1-1 stalemate in Munich in December but Bayern triumphed again, 1-0, in a cup quarter final in Munich in February and the return league fixture in Dortmund ended 1-1 earlier this month when the title was already sown up.

Scottish FA Cup Final – Sunday 26th May 2013, 15:00, Hampden Park, Glasgow

Hibernian take on Celtic in this year’s Scottish Cup final with Hibernian already guaranteed a place in Europe next season as Celtic have retained their league title. It wasn’t a vintage season for Hibs as they failed to make the cut into the top half and eventually finished seventh, but they have shown that on their day they can pull off a decent result or two. They won their semi final 4-3 after extra time against Falkirk and Celtic matched them a day later beating Dundee United by the same score after extra time. Results between the two teams were fairly even this season with the first game ending in a 2-2 draw at Celtic Park before Hibs won 1-0 at home and then lost 0-3 away in the following fixtures.

Coppa Italia Final – Sunday 26th May 2013, 17:00, Stadio Olimpico, Rome

It’s a Rome derby in Rome for this year’s Coppa Italia final as the two giants from the Italian capital compete for the cup. They were very evenly matched over the course of the season, with Roma finishing just one place and one point above their neighbours (6th versus 7th) but Lazio shaded the head to head encounters in Serie A this season, winning 3-2 in the first tie and drawing 1-1 last month. Lazio overcame Juventus in their two legged semi final and Roma saw off the challenge of Internazionale to set up the fixture known as the ‘eternal derby’. European qualification is also at stake as neither team qualified for continental competition via the league.

Taça de Portugal Final – Sunday 26th May 2013, 17:15, Estádio Nacional, Oeiras

This year’s Portuguese cup final pits Benfica against Vitoria Guimaraes and Benfica will be desperate to salvage some pride after the disastrous end to their season so far. They suffered major heartbreak twice in a week as they first lost 2-1 in injury time away at FC Porto in their penultimate Primeira Liga game of the season to record their first defeat of the campaign and effectively hand the title to their northern rivals before repeating the trick in the Europa League final against Chelsea a few days later conceding another injury time winner to go down 2-1. The Taça de Portugal would be scant reward for their efforts and attractive football this season and the deflated squad may find it hard to raise themselves again for the occasion but they owe it to their fans and above all to themselves to see off Vitoria Guimaraes, who lost their last two league games to finish down in ninth spot.

Championship Play-off Final – Monday 27th May 2013, 15:00, Wembley Stadium, London

Is it the most valuable prize in football? It’s certainly often billed that way as at stake is a place in the Premier League which will guarantee the winners a multi-million pound pay day, this year more than ever with a new television rights deal coming into force. Therefore Gianfranco Zola’s Watford, who finished third, and Ian Holloway’s Crystal Palace, who finished fifth, are facing one of the biggest and most life-changing matches in their history. Watford got the better of their encounters in the Championship regular season as they won 3-2 away at Selhurst Park and held the Eagles to a 2-2 draw back at Vicarage Road. Hopefully there will also be plenty of goals when they meet at Wembley and one man in particular will be keen more keen than most to get on the scoresheet – forward Wilfred Zaha, who plays his last game for Palace before his bug money summer move to Manchester United. He’ll be playing Premier League football next season whatever the outcome.

Coupe de France Final – Friday 31st May 2013, 20:00, Stade de France, Paris

Evian TG, in their first ever French Cup final and in quest of their first ever major honours, face Bordeaux, who are old hands at this sort of thing, having won the trophy three times and been in the final on six other occasions. However, they haven’t won it since 1987, so they will be determined to end the sixteen year wait. It was an average season for Bordeaux in Ligue 1, looking likely to finish just inside the top half with one game remaining, well below the European spots, so they need to win this final to qualify for the Europa League. Evian are fifteenth, three points above the relegation zone with one game left, so they could mathematically be relegated if results go against them on the final day of their second season in the top flight. Bordeaux won 3-2 away at Evian when the teams met back in August but the return league fixture has yet to be played – it is scheduled for the final round of matches this Sunday in Bordeaux as a dress rehearsal only five days before they meet in the final.

DFB Pokal Final – Saturday 1st June 2013, 19:00, Olympiastadion, Berlin

VFB Stuttgart face all-conquering Bayern Munich in the final final of our preview, but will they still be ‘all-conquering’ by then or will they have been defeated in the Champions League final? The result of that match could go a long way to determining the outcome of this fixture, although you will find few people willing to put much money on Stuttgart getting a result at the moment. If Bayern win the Champions League then the momentum will surely carry them through to a straightforward domestic cup win but should they lose at Wembley the depression of losing three Champions League finals in four years could leave them ripe for an upset. Stuttgart finished in the bottom half of the Bundesliga and had trouble finding the net regularly throughout the season including during their 0-2 home defeat to Bayern. At least they scored once on their visit to the Allianz-Arena but that wasn’t much consolation for the 6-1 defeat they suffered. This will be Bayern Munich manager Jupp Heynckes’ last game in charge before Pep Guardiola takes over for next season.

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