Preview: China vs Thailand

One of the qualifying matches for the 2026 World Cup will be played in Shenyang, where the Chinese national team will take on Thailand at the Shenyang Olympic Sports Centre Stadium.

Photo: thecfa.cn / Author unknown

China

The Chinese national team took part in the 2024 Asian Cup in Qatar. In three matches, the ‘Great Wall’ scored only two points thanks to draws with the national teams of Tajikistan and Lebanon. The Chinese had a chance to clinch a playoff spot, but in a key third-round match, China lost to the hosts and eventual tournament winner Qatar.

In terms of qualification for the 2026 World Cup, China beat Thailand 2-1 away in the first round, but were then slapped in the face by South Korea 0-3 on home soil. In the two meetings in March, the Chinese national team picked up four points against Singapore – 2-2 away and 4-1 at home. At the moment, China is in second place in the standings, behind South Korea three points.

Thailand

The draw sent the ‘war elephants’ to a fairly easy group at the Asian Cup in Qatar, which Thailand couldn’t help but take advantage of. Masatada Ishii’s team made it through to the play-offs after winning only one match in the group against Kyrgyzstan 2-0. In the 1/8 finals, however, they failed to keep their gates shut and Thailand exited the tournament with a 1-2 loss to Uzbekistan.

At the start of qualifying for the Mundial, Thailand picked up 4 points in four matches. In particular, they earned a 3-1 away win over Singapore and a draw against group leaders South Korea. Nevertheless, in the return leg, everything fell into place as South Korea defeated the War Elephants 0-3.

Interesting facts about the match and history of head-to-head encounters

  • In the first qualifying match, China defeated Thailand away with a score of 2:1
  • In the last five encounters between these teams, China has won four times, with the War Elephants winning once.

Preview: Denmark vs. Sweden

In their first of two all-Scandinavian friendlies, Euro 2024-bound Denmark take on Sweden at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen on Wednesday evening.

While Kasper Hjulmand’s side are putting the final touches on their European Championship preparations, their visitors will not be gunning for continental glory this summer.


Match preview

Despite being pushed to the brink by an ever-improving Slovenia side in Euro 2024 qualifying Group H, Denmark pipped their counterparts to the first-placed post by virtue of a superior head-to-head record, having matched the Slovenians’ tally of 22 points from 10 matches.

Hjulmand’s men actually finished with an inferior goal difference to their foes, but the tie-breakers soon paled into insignificance as Denmark and Slovenia were drawn into the same Euros section, being housed in Group C alongside Serbia and 2021 runners-up England.

The Danes have a bone to pick with the latter in particular, having suffered a gut-wrenching extra-time defeat to England in the Euro 2020 semi-finals, but friendly clashes with Nordic colleagues Sweden and Norway (June 8) take precedence before their short trip to Germany.

Qualification had already been assured by the time that the 1992 European champions went down 2-0 to Northern Ireland in their final preliminary encounter, but their defensive record in 2024 so far is unblemished, drawing 0-0 with Switzerland and sinking the Faroe Islands 2-0 in March’s double-header.

Speaking of noteworthy rearguard feats, it has been almost exactly seven years since Denmark last conceded a goal in a home friendly – keeping an astounding 11 clean sheets on the bounce since a 1-1 draw with Germany in June 2017 – while their last exhibition defeat on familiar turf came all the way back in 2015 to France.

Such statistics make for highly unpleasant reading for a Sweden side who flattered to deceive in their Euro 2024 qualifying section, culminating in a tally of just 10 points from 24 on offer as they witnessed Austria and Belgium storm to the automatic qualification places.

The Blue and Yellow did not have a Nations League playoff safety net to fall back on either, meaning that they will not be present at the European Championships for the first time since 1996 this summer, and a new face has been tasked with restoring order.

Sweden’s dismal qualification campaign led to the departure of long-serving boss Janne Andersson and the appointment of former Blackburn Rovers head coach Jon Dahl Tomasson, the first ever non-Swede to take charge of the Blue and Yellow men’s team and one who will seek to earn a surprise scalp over his country of birth this Wednesday.

Tomasson was given a baptism of fire on his first assignment, a 5-2 beating at the hands of Portugal on March 21, but he did not have to wait much longer for his opening triumph, masterminding a 1-0 victory over Albania courtesy of Gustaf Nilsson’s winner.

A 108th meeting with familiar foes Denmark now awaits for the Blue and Yellow, who hold the slight head-to-head edge with 46 successes compared to 41 for the Red and Whites, although their most recent encounter in a November 2020 friendly ended 2-0 to the Euro 2020 semi-finalists.


Team News

After rebuilding his Premier League career following his distressing collapse at Euro 2020, Manchester United’s Christian Eriksen will be part of his country’s troupe at Euro 2024 and is by far and away the most prolific player in the squad, netting 40 goals for his nation.

Red Devils colleague Rasmus Hojlund will certainly be chasing his teammate down in that regard for years to come, and the only uncapped player in Denmark’s final 26-man squad – goalkeeper Mads Hermansen – also plies his trade in England with Leicester City.

However, Celtic midfield maestro Matt O’Riley was controversially omitted from Hjulmand’s selection, as were Philip Billing, Jesper Lindstrom and Martin Braithwaite, the latter of whom started all of the Red and Whites’ games at Euro 2020, scoring once in their last-16 thumping of Wales.

Likewise, Sweden are also without a celebrated centre-forward of their own in Sporting Lisbon hotshot Viktor Gyokeres, who caught the eye of Arsenal and Chelsea with an incredible first season in Portugal but has now been ruled out for several weeks due to a knee operation.

Thankfully for Tomasson, Newcastle United’s Alexander Isak is a highly competent alternative, and the 24-year-old could receive support from two of his Premier League colleagues in Nottingham Forest’s Anthony Elanga and Tottenham Hotspur’s Dejan Kulusevski.

Ex-Arsenal starlet Kristoffer Olsson is of course absent after being hospitalised earlier this year due to blood clots on the brain, while defensive duo Linus Wahlqvist and Eric Smith have withdrawn from the squad too.

Preview: Italy vs. Turkey

Reigning champions Italy step up their preparations for Euro 2024 on Tuesday evening, as they welcome fellow finalists Turkey to Bologna for an international friendly.

The Azzurri have posted three wins from their last four matches – the other being a tense draw with Ukraine that sealed qualification – while their visitors cruised through qualifying but were thumped 6-1 in Austria last time out.


Match preview

Set to defend their continental title in Germany, where they will feature in an eighth consecutive European Championship finals, Italy are ultimately intent on repeating an unexpected 2021 triumph at Wembley.

At the end of last year, the Azzurri overcame a major setback when Euros-winning boss Roberto Mancini suddenly departed for Saudi Arabia, and under new head coach Luciano Spalletti they swerved a dreaded playoff by pipping Ukraine to second spot in Group C.

Two Stateside friendlies were arranged for the spring international period, so that Spalletti could assess several options for this summer – both tactically and in terms of personnel – with his side set to be confronted by Spain, Croatia and Albania in the group stage.

After Mateo Retegui’s brace saw off Venezuela in Miami, Italy then beat Ecuador 2-1 in New Jersey, making it six wins from nine games since losing in the last UEFA Nations League semi-finals.

La Nazionale reconvened at their Coverciano headquarters this week, ahead of tackling Turkey at Stadio Dall’Ara and then Bosnia-Herzegovina in Empoli – six days later, they kick off their Euros campaign against Albania.

Like Tuesday’s hosts, Turkey will make their Euro 2024 bow in Dortmund, where Vincenzo Montella’s men meet debutants Georgia in Group B, which also features Portugal and the Czech Republic.

First, Montella heads for his homeland on the back of two chastening defeats during the March get-together, as his team were edged out by Hungary before suffering a 6-1 hammering by Austria in Vienna.

The Italian coach – capped 20 times during his playing days – had previously been unbeaten since taking over last September, and Turkey were winners of Group D in Euros qualifying.

Picking up 17 points from eight games – with the highlight an historic victory in Croatia – the Crescent-Stars beat their Croatian counterparts to top spot and finished five points clear of third-placed Wales.

However, subsequent results have left Montella in need of a morale-boosting win before the main event gets under way: following Turkey’s trip to Emilia-Romagna, they will head to Warsaw for a final warm-up against Poland.


Team News

Luciano Spalletti’s preliminary squad has already been reduced from 30 players, as Francesco Acerbi recently underwent groin surgery and Giorgio Scalvini has torn his ACL: both centre-backs join Nicolo Zaniolo, Domenico Berardi, Destiny Udogie and suspended midfielder Sandro Tonali on the sidelines.

Despite being recalled, Gianluca Scamacca may not take part against Turkey, as the in-form striker was involved in Atalanta BC’s long-delayed final league fixture of the season against Fiorentina, which took place on Sunday.

While Tonali is still unavailable due to his betting ban, Juventus midfielder Nicolo Fagioli recently returned from a similar suspension and was surprisingly selected by Spalletti, with clubmate Manuel Locatelli missing out.

Once again, goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma will captain Italy, as former skipper Ciro Immobile has been left out after a campaign scarred by injuries and declining form; Mateo Retegui is therefore likely to start up front.

Meanwhile, Turkish defensive duo Caglar Soyuncu and Ridvan Yilmaz have been ruled out by injury, as has ex-Roma forward Cengiz Under.

Italy-based trio Zeki Celik, Kenan Yildiz and captain Hakan Çalhanoglu are all available, though – the latter was recently named Serie A midfielder of the year, following a superb season with champions Inter Milan.

Like Spalletti, Turkey boss Montella has experimented with formations of late, but his first-choice goalkeeper is sure to be Ugurcan Cakir, as Altay Bayindir has been starved of playing time at Manchester United.

Preview: San Lorenzo vs. Sarmiento

San Lorenzo and Sarmiento will be hoping to record their first win of the Argentine Primera Division second phase when they meet at Estadio Pedro Bidegain on Monday night.

Both sides have only managed one point so far in the second round of the league, although the hosts have played only two games while the visitors have played three.


Match preview

It feels like a long time since San Lorenzo earned qualification for the Copa Libertadores last season. They only managed 16 points in 14 games during the first phase and have stumbled out the blocks in the second.

Los Santos kicked off the second phase with a 1-0 defeat away to Deportiva Riestra and followed that up with a 1-1 draw at home against Lanus, with Cristian Ferreira salvaging a point for the side after they went behind early in the first half.

Since arriving at Estadio Pedro Bidegain on April 19, Leandro Romagnoli has posted a record of two wins, two draws and two losses in his first six games in charge, though he is yet to secure his first league victory, while his side are winless in their last five in the Primera Division.

However, despite their domestic league difficulties, San Lorenzo have fared well in the continental cup competition, as they secured qualification to the round of 16 with a crucial 0-0 draw against Palmeiras in midweek, which saw them edge out Independiente del Valle into second place by one point.

The hosts have also maintained an impressive home record this season, currently unbeaten in their last three matches across all competitions, while having only suffered defeat once in their last 11 games on home soil.

Meanwhile, Sarmiento will be hoping to bring a poor run of results against this opponent to an end here. They have failed to beat San Lorenzo in their last four attempts, which included a 1-0 loss when they met back in March in the first phase of the campaign.

However, Sarmiento are not in good form at the moment. In fact, since losing to this opponent in mid-March, Verde Verdolaga have been on a downward spiral, losing six of their last seven league games while picking up just one point in that time, drawing 1-1 against Barracas Central a couple of weeks ago.

Across the entire first phase of the campaign, Israel Damonte’s side earned a mere nine points, including two wins, three draws and nine losses to end second bottom, four points above basement club Tigre.

On the road, Damonte has only tasted victory once since joining the club back in February, although that was the only win his side have managed in 2024, and they enter this match winless in their last three.


Team News

Gaston Gomez suffered a training injury and has been ruled out for this match, although Facundo Altamirano returned at just the right moment from his recovery and should resume duty between the sticks.

Manuel Insaurralde and Gaston Hernandez have been out since March and are expected to remain sidelined for extended periods due to cruciate ligament tears.

Sarmiento will have to make do without the services of defender Nahuel Gallardo, who was shown a straight red in last week’s 1-0 loss to Independiente Rivadavia, and he will begin the first of his three-match suspension in this one.

Lucas Acosta and Lisandro Lopez are out with a sprained ankle and muscle injury respectively, although both players are expected to return to action in the next couple of weeks. Agustin Molina is the only long-term absentee owing to an ACL injury.

Preview: Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid

Continental supremacy is at stake at Wembley Stadium on Saturday evening, when underdogs Borussia Dortmund and seasoned Champions League pros Real Madrid square off in a 2023-24 final of titanic proportions.

For the Bundesliga powerhouses donning black and yellow, victory would end 27 years of hurt and seal Champions League title number two, while Los Blancos endeavour to etch their name onto the European Champion Clubs’ Cup for the 15th time.

Edin Terzic’s men were triumphant against Paris Saint-Germain in the final four to book their tickets to Wembley, while Carlo Ancelotti’s troops denied their upcoming foes an all-German final against Bayern Munich thanks to a gripping second-leg turnaround.


Match preview

Exorcising former Champions League demons under the Wembley arch is the goal for Saturday’s unfancied unit Borussia Dortmund, 11 years on from helplessly witnessing Arjen Robben’s scuffed shot trickle over the line for Bayern Munich in a 2012-13 Der Klassiker final in the English capital.

Departing club icon Marco Reus and rejuvenated centre-back Mats Hummels may be the only surviving members from that silver medal-winning troupe – the latter’s CV also includes an Allianz Arena stint sandwiched in between – but none of Terzic’s first-time finalists will require a sermon on the significance of June 1.

Coming up trumps in the tantalising Group of Death with AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle United was a sign of things to come for Borussia Dortmund, who sent PSV Eindhoven packing without breaking too much of a sweat before a minor blip in the first leg of their quarter-final versus Atletico Madrid.

Suffering their sole defeat of the 2023-24 tournament at the Wanda Metropolitano did not hinder Dortmund’s bid for European glory, though, as a phenomenal second-leg turnaround preceded a pair of exceptional 1-0 successes over perpetual bridesmaids PSG, shut out at both the Signal Iduna Park and Parc des Princes in early May.

Thanks to their own defensive discipline and the never-ending wastefulness of the Ligue 1 champions, BVB condemned PSG to another year of Champions League torture as the old-but-gold Hummels nodded in the solitary second-leg strike, thereby booking Dortmund a date with Champions League destiny for just the third time ever.

One-time European Cup champions back in the 1996-97 term, where Ottmar Hitzfeld masterminded a 3-1 triumph over Juventus in Munich, Dortmund have not been present in the showpiece event since falling to Bayern’s supremacy in London over a decade ago, and Real’s semi-final exploits means that a shot at Bavarian revenge did not materialise.

Even as Bayern lost their iron-clad grip on the Bundesliga title, Terzic’s men and the rest of the division were powerless to quell the Bayer Leverkusen juggernaut, and despite demolishing SV Darmstadt 98 4-0 in their closing contest, Dortmund could only labour to a fifth-placed finish.

However, thanks to Germany’s superior UEFA coefficient over all other nations barring Italy, BVB will dine at Europe’s top table next year regardless of the result of Saturday’s final, which they enter also seeking four straight Champions League victories at any stage for the first time in nearly 10 years.

Dortmund’s overall trophy drought has not been as agonisingly long as their 27-year wait for Champions League title number two – they prevailed in the 2020-21 DFB-Pokal – but a Champions League winners’ medal would shine much brighter around the neck of the Signal Iduna Park’s favourite son Reus before he clears out his Dortmund locker.

As has been customary throughout his record-breaking Champions League career, though, there will be no room for sentiment for Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti, already in a class of his own with four European Cup triumphs as a head coach and now seeking to steer further clear of the chasing pack.

Of course, 14-time winners Real Madrid will be bidding farewell to a revered German servant of their own on Saturday, when midfield maestro Toni Kroos will play his final competitive club match before a Euro 2024 swansong, and the 34-year-old has already experienced one taste of Champions League final stardom over Dortmund from his Bayern heyday.

Kroos and his fellow fundamental Real performers did not drop a single point in the Champions League group stage versus Portuguese outfit Braga, deposed Italian champions Napoli and Bundesliga upstarts Union Berlin, although the manner of their 2-1 aggregate triumph over last-16 foes RB Leipzig left something to be desired.

However, in quintessential Blancos fashion, Ancelotti’s men astonishingly found a way to prevail against defending champions Man City – exacting revenge on their 2022-23 semi-final conquerors from 12 yards – before Newcastle United fans up and down the land rubbed their eyes and pinched themselves in bewilderment.

After shaking hands on a 2-2 first-leg stalemate, a rocket from Alphonso Davies – potentially a future Blancos player – appeared to have extinguished Real’s dreams of crown number 15, only for Espanyol loanee Joselu to write his name into Bernabeu folklore with a dazzling double to punch their ticket to Wembley.

Thanks to the astounding individual efforts of the erstwhile Magpie, Real Madrid’s iconic logo will appear on the front cover of the Champions League final programme for the 18th time on Saturday, and only three of Los Blancos’ previous 17 appearances in the trophy match have ended in heartbreak.

In fact, it has been a staggering 43 years since the Spanish behemoths came out second best in the showpiece, and since that crushing loss versus Liverpool in 1981, Real Madrid have triumphed in each of the last eight Champions League finals in which they have been present.

Extending that phenomenal sequence would seal a terrific treble of trophies for the reigning La Liga and Supercopa de Espana champions, who may have concluded the regular top-flight campaign by dropping four points against Villarreal and Real Betis, but little sleep should be lost over those two stalemates.

Unbeaten in 25 straight matches since January’s Copa del Rey beating at the hands of Atletico, Ancelotti’s men have also found the net in every single one of their fixtures away from their Bernabeu base in the 2023-24 season, another promising omen ahead of Saturday’s European extravaganza.


Team News

A conqueror of Dortmund in the 2012-13 Champions League alongside the departing Kroos, stricken Real Madrid defender David Alaba is still confined to the infirmary owing to his ACL injury, which has also dashed his Euro 2024 dreams.

The Austria international is one of two Blancos players set to watch on helplessly this weekend, as Aurelien Tchouameni has failed to recover from his foot problem in time, meaning that Nacho Fernandez should sport the captain’s armband for one final time before his expected exit too.

The remainder of Ancelotti’s outfield soldiers are in good nick – including former Dortmund starboy Jude Bellingham – but goalkeeper Andriy Lunin has come down with an extremely untimely bout of flu, forcing him to isolate from the remainder of the squad.

Out of fear of the bug being passed on, Lunin is reportedly set to travel to London separately – assuming his affliction clears up in time for the weekend – although his illness does make Ancelotti’s decision to start the fully-fit Thibaut Courtois that little bit easier.

Donning the famous white strip for the final time, Kroos is expected to line up alongside Eduardo Camavinga and Federico Valverde in a Luka Modric-less midfield trident, but Joselu’s semi-final heroics should not be enough to break up the Brazilian partnership of Rodrygo and Vinicius Junior up front.

Likewise, the Dortmund doctors are also nursing a couple of stars back to full health, including Ramy Bensebaini (knee), Julien Duranville (muscle) and Mateu Morey (illness), although the latter was not included in BVB’s Champions League knockout squad anyway.

The only question mark in the Germans’ ranks is striker Sebastien Haller, who has returned to team training following an ankle problem, but the ex-West Ham United man is certain to play second fiddle to Niclas Fullkrug, scorer of Dortmund’s first of two strikes versus PSG across their semi-final showdowns.

Ten of the 11 starters from the second-leg success over Les Parisiens also began the final-day Bundesliga beating of Darmstadt, the one exception being Reus, who unsurprisingly got the nod over Julian Brandt in the latter fixture and – of course – capped off his closing Bundesliga appearance for BVB with a goal.

As tempted as Terzic may be to persist with Reus, certainly the fans’ favourite to finally add a Champions League honour to his resume, the Dortmund boss cannot bow to nostalgia and should re-introduce Brandt into an otherwise settled XI.

Potentially playing his final game for the club as speculation over his long-term future rages, Manchester United loanee Jadon Sancho – who memorably completed a sensational 12 dribbles versus PSG in the semi-final first leg – seeks to haunt Ferland Mendy’s nightmares on the right wing, and in Reus’s likely absence from the first XI, 2012-13 winner Emre Can sports the skipper’s armband.


Head to head

Frequent foes in Champions League campaigns gone by, Dortmund and Real Madrid have already crossed paths on 14 occasions in Europe’s premier competition, and Los Blancos unsurprisingly lead the head-to-head tally with six triumphs compared to BVB’s trio of wins.

The most recent of Real’s successes arrived in a pair of group meetings in the 2017-18 season, while Dortmund have not come up trumps since a 2-0 quarter-final second-leg success in 2013-14, and even that was inconsequential owing to Los Blancos’ 3-0 first-leg beating.

However, the stakes have never been higher between Saturday’s Wembley hopefuls, who have met in two semi-finals in 1997-98 (won by Real) and 2012-13 (won by Dortmund) but have never butted heads with the trophy ready and waiting for the victor.

Preview: Saint-Etienne vs. Metz

With the prize of Ligue 1 status up for grabs, Saint-Etienne and Metz meet in the French promotion/relegation playoff final, and Thursday’s first leg takes place at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard.

Two games over the space of four days will decide both clubs’ fate, as Les Verts seek a return to the elite and Les Grenats try to retain their place in the top flight.


Match preview

After a late stumble saw them miss out to Angers for automatic promotion, Saint-Etienne finished third in the final Ligue 2 table, earning themselves direct entry into the second-tier playoff final.

Hosting Rodez AF last Friday, Les Verts went in front on 64 minutes, via Irvin Cardona’s near-post header; after another tense half-hour, substitute striker Nathanael Mbuku wrapped matters up with a cool finish.

Currently the subject of a takeover bid, Saint-Etienne have already improved on last term’s eighth-placed finish, which saw them fail to earn promotion back to Ligue 1 at the first attempt, and will now try to give their potential new owners a higher platform to build on.

Ahead of Thursday’s first leg, the Loire club have only lost five times and conceded 14 goals in home fixtures this season, so head coach Olivier Dall’Oglio can be confident of earning a lead to take into Sunday’s decider.

Saint-Etienne most recently met Metz in Ligue 2 last season, when Les Grenats won both matches en route to promotion, but their opponents have much more to lose on this occasion.

Metz only survived automatic demotion from Ligue 1 by the narrowest of margins, as Lorient were relegated despite winning 5-0 on the final day and Laszlo Boloni’s side stayed afloat due to a slightly superior head-to-head record.

Having scraped into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth, Les Grenats will now aim to halt a four-game losing streak and make the most of their second chance.

They followed a last-gasp defeat to Strasbourg with a 2-0 loss to champions Paris Saint-Germain on the last day of the 2023-24 campaign, ultimately finishing 16th on their top-flight return.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Les Grenats had only a 24% share of the ball against PSG – their lowest rate all year – but that matched a trend of struggling to impose themselves: ending the season with an average possession of 35%, they posted the worst rate since such statistics were first recorded in Ligue 1, some 18 years ago.

Furthermore, Metz conceded 30 first-half goals in 34 games, including no fewer than 14 during the first 15 minutes, which should bolster Saint-Etienne’s hopes of getting off to a fast start.

Boloni’s boys had, however, scored in 11 successive matches before being shut out by PSG, and with in-form striker Georges Mikautadze on hand, they will expect to put themselves in a position to finish the job back at Stade Saint-Symphorien on Sunday.


Team News

Saint-Etienne should name a very similar XI to that which started their win over Rodez last week, as Olivier Dall’Oglio seeks a vital first-leg lead.

First-choice goalkeeper Gautier Larsonneur recently recovered from injury and is set to start again at Stade Geoffroy-Guichard, while midfielder Thomas Monconduit is also back in action.

Augsburg loanees Nathanael Mbuku and Irvin Cardona both scored on Friday night, but Mali striker Ibrahim Sissoko will lead the line up front, having made a significant impact in his first season at the club, with 13 goals so far.

Meanwhile, Metz can turn to last season’s Ligue 2 Player of the Year for inspiration in the final third: on loan from Ajax, Georgia international Georges Mikautadze had scored in six consecutive Ligue 1 games before missing out against PSG.

Ablie Jallow, Benjamin Tetteh and Joel Asoro are the visitors’ significant injury absentees.

Preview: Olympiacos vs. Fiorentina

Meeting in Athens for the Europa Conference League final, Greek giants Olympiacos and last year’s runners-up Fiorentina will battle it out for glory on Wednesday evening.

Only 10 miles separate the Super League side’s home ground from the AEK Arena, but their Italian counterparts will try to spoil the party by going one better than a painful loss in Prague 12 months ago.


Match preview

By taking apart Premier League high-flyers Aston Villa in the semi-finals, ultimately cruising to 6-2 aggregate win, Olympiacos booked their place in a showpiece with special resonance for the Piraeus club’s fans, who will not travel far to attend their team’s first UEFA final.

The Erythroleykoi had edged past Maccabi Tel Aviv and Fenerbahce in the previous two rounds – spectacularly beating the former after extra time and then the latter on penalties – but a masterclass from Moroccan striker Ayoub El Kaabi sealed his side’s place in this week’s decider.

Having found the net no fewer than five times versus Villa, El Kaabi moved on to 15 goals in continental competition this season – more than any African footballer has ever managed in a single European campaign – and he has come to symbolise the unlikely progress of Olympiacos in 2024.

Experienced coach Jose Luis Mendilibar was appointed in mid-February, following Carlos Carvalhal’s departure, and the Basque boss has taken his new club to within one game of replicating last year’s remarkable feat – leading a struggling Sevilla side to yet another Europa League title.

On this occasion, Mendilibar has already helped Olympiacos become only the second Greek outfit to reach a UEFA final, some 64 years since their debut in European competition.

With Wednesday’s game taking place more or less in their own back yard, a unique kind of pressure will apply to the squad that has just finished third in the Greek Super League, following a 2-2 draw with arch-rivals Panathinaikos in their final domestic fixture.

They are the first club to contest a European final in their home country since Marseille lost the 2018 Europa League decider to Atletico Madrid, and each of the last four teams to do so have all ended as runners-up.

While their rivals for the Conference League trophy dropped into UEFA’s third-tier tournament after exiting the Europa League, Fiorentina came through qualifying for the second straight season to earn their shot at redemption.

Beaten by Jarrod Bowen’s 90th-minute winner for West Ham United this time last year, the Viola are determined to bring silverware back home to Florence, bagging a bonus place in next term’s new-look Europa League in the process.

En route to Athens, the Serie A side are unbeaten in 13 European matches – the longest such run in their long history – having progressed through the playoff round before topping Group F last autumn.

Throughout the knockout phase, Fiorentina have pushed their luck, following a stoppage-time winner against Maccabi Haifa in the last 16 with an extra-time victory over Viktoria Plzen; then, Lucas Beltran’s late penalty sunk Club Brugge in the semi-finals.

Vincenzo Italiano’s penultimate game in charge – his team must still meet Europa League winners Atalanta BC in a potentially celebratory final fixture, delayed until Sunday due to both sides’ busy schedules – offers the chance to shake off claims he cannot cut it on the big stage.

A highly-regarded tactician, Italiano lost last season’s Coppa Italia and Conference League finals, before dramatically exiting to Atalanta in the cup semis this season, so he will have something to prove on Wednesday night – particularly as his team have just finished eighth in the Serie A standings.

Last year’s loss in Prague was Fiorentina’s fourth defeat in five continental deciders to date, leaving the Tuscan club with only the 1961 European Cup Winners’ Cup to show for their efforts; therefore, Olympiacos will not be the only team under pressure to claim victory in the Greek capital.

Team News

Benefiting from over a week of preparation time, Olympiacos coach Jose Luis Mendilibar will have all his main men available for Wednesday’s final, including ex-Fiorentina forward Stevan Jovetic, who was recently sidelined by injury.

Scorer of 40 goals in 135 appearances for the Viola between 2008 and 2013, Jovetic struck late on to secure Europa Conference League qualification in the Super League derby draw with Panathinaikos. However, he is unlikely to start against his former club.

Daniel Podence – who was sent off last time out – and Kostas Fortounis should instead support star striker Ayoub El Kaabi in the final third; the latter is top scorer across all European competitions this season, including 10 goals in the knockout stages thus far.

Goalkeeper Konstantinos Tzolakis recently received his first senior call-up for Greece, and national team defender Panagiotis Retsos is set to partner David Carmo at the back.

Only Nelson Abbey and Gelson Martins will miss out, as neither was included on the Piraeus club’s UEFA squad list; meanwhile, Fiorentina’s sole absentee is winger Riccardo Sottil, who fractured his collarbone earlier this month.

As mercurial as many of his frustrating forward players, Vincenzo Italiano has named the same starting XI in back-to-back games just once during three years at the club, so his selection could contain some surprises.

In the Viola’s latest outing – where they spoiled Claudio Ranieri’s emotional send-off by beating Cagliari 3-2 in Sardinia – regular starters such as Nico Gonzalez, Arthur, Lucas Beltran and Christian Kouame were all rested.

However, Antonin Barak and Jonathan Ikone are expected to drop back down to the bench, making way for more familiar faces.

Beltran is Fiorentina’s leading goalscorer in the Conference League this term, with four goals – including a crucial spot-kick in Bruges to win their semi-final tie – and he will most likely link up with either Andrea Belotti or the rejuvenated M’Bala Nzola in attack.

Preview: Malmo vs. Elfsborg

League leaders Malmo FF are set to host Elfsborg at the Eleda Stadion in Sweden’s Allsvenskan on Tuesday.

The home side have 28 points and are three clear of second-placed Djurgardens, while seventh-placed Elfsborg have 16 points and will hope they can keep pace with third-placed GAIS, who occupy the division’s final Europa Conference League qualification spot.


Match preview

The hosts are aiming to win the league title for the second season running and have made a strong start by winning nine of their 11 Allsvenskan fixtures, losing just once.

Last term Malmo averaged 2.1 points per game but they have improved this record to an impressive 2.5 this season.

The reigning champions began the season with six straight victories before losing in their seventh fixture, but they have since won three times and drawn once including a 5-0 win against Kalmar last Friday.

However, it is worthwhile noting that Malmo’s solitary loss was a 3-1 away defeat to Tuesday’s opponents Elfsborg on May 5.

Manager Henrik Rydstrom took charge of the club in November 2022 and in the 2023 season made headlines for his less-structured style of play that allowed his players greater positional freedom.

This ambitious approach, inspired by Brazilian Fernando Diniz, helped Malmo regain the title after they finished seventh in 2022.

The Blue Ones have scored 30 goals and conceded on just six occasions, making them the division’s best offensive and defensive side.

It is fair to say that Rydstrom’s unusual setup has brought the hosts a great deal of success, and with his side already on track to exceed last season’s points tally he will be confident that Malmo can avoid a second defeat against Elfsborg on Tuesday.

The visitors are five points from the Allsvenskan’s final Europa League qualification spot but with 19 games still to play this gap could feasibly be narrowed.

Having said that, Elfsborg may be disappointed with their season so far considering they are only averaging 1.5 points per game, a significantly lower figure than last term’s record of 2.1.

Manager Jimmy Thelin has been in charge since January 2018 and helped his team achieve two second-placed finishes in their last four campaigns, their highest league placements since The Yellow Ones won the league in 2012.

Last term Elfsborg finished in second place with 64 points, a tally higher than their most recent title-winning campaign.

However, Thelin’s side are on track for their lowest points haul since 2019 when they ended their season in eighth.

It should be noted that while the away team began 2024 poorly, losing three of their opening five games, they have since won four of their previous six including a 2-0 victory against Halmstad last Friday.

Elfsborg have lost their last four matches on the road by an aggregate of 11-3, and since the beginning of the 2022 season they have a mixed record overall with 16 wins, six draws and 13 losses.

Thelin will need his side to overcome their inconsistency away from home if they are to win against Malmo, who have only lost four times in their 35 home Allsvenskan fixtures since the 2022 season.

Team News

The hosts come into the game with defenders Anton Tinnerholm and Niklas Moisander set to miss out as a result of groin and arm injuries respectively.

Forwards Stefano Vecchia and Daniel Gudjohnsen will also be absent for Malmo due to back injuries and are expected to be available in early June.

After suffering a cruciate ligament injury in January Oscar Lewicki continues his absence and is not scheduled to be back until September at the earliest.

Elfsborg meanwhile could have striker Per Frick back in contention for a starting spot after he returned from injury last Friday with a late substitute appearance.

Elsewhere, defender Niklas Hult is set to be unavailable for his team until early June as he recovers from a thigh injury.

Preview: Fortuna Düsseldorf vs. Bochum

On Monday, Bochum will be tasked with overturning a three-goal deficit when they face Fortuna Düsseldorf in the second leg of the Bundesliga relegation/promotion playoff.

Fortuna Düsseldorf

Düsseldorf are on the brink of returning to the Bundesliga for the first since 2019-20. After finishing in third place in the 2.Bundesliga, Düsseldorf travelled to the Vonovia Ruhrstadion for the first leg of their playoff tie with Bochum. It proved to be a successful outing, as the visitors cruised to a 3-0 victory to put them on the brink of promotion. Düsseldorf went into the break of Thursday’s clash with a narrow advantage following a Philipp Hofmann own goal. Felix Klaus then added a second before Yannik Engelhardt found the net to round off a dominant performance.

Having gone eight matches without defeat, Düsseldorf will head into the second leg in a confident mood. They can also take confidence from the fact they have won each of their previous six competitive home matches. That run of wins has helped them put together a seven-game unbeaten home run since losing to St. Pauli in January.

Team News

The hosts remain without the services of defender Jamil Siebert due to a thigh injury.

Bochum

Bochum are only competing in the playoff after dropping into 16th spot on the final day of the Bundesliga season. Heiko Butscher’s side fell to a heavy 4-1 defeat to Werder Bremen, while Mainz 05 and Union Berlin claimed victories to drop Bochum into the playoff. 

Their hopes of maintaining their Bundesliga status were dealt a significant blow in Thursday’s first leg. Die Unabsteigbaren failed to make the most of home advantage as they fell to a heavy defeat which has left them on the verge of relegation.

Bochum now have a mountain to climb if they are to extend there three-year stay in the top flight. Unfortunately for die Unabsteigbaren, their away record offers little source of inspiration ahead of Monday’s trip to the Merkur Spiel-Arena. They finished the regular season with the joint-worst away record after mustering 10 points from 17 matches. They have also lost eight of their previous 10 away games (W1, D1).

Team News

Moritz Kwarteng, Mohammed Tolba and Michael Esser are ruled out with knee injuries. Bochum are also unable to call upon Philipp Forster and Danilo Soares. Meanwhile, Erhan Mašović is a doubt due to illness. Andreas Luthe will continue in goal after the club confirmed Manuel Riemann would not feature in the playoffs due to “irreconcilable differences”.

Preview: Genoa vs. Bologna

Seeking to seal a third-placed Serie A finish, Bologna head to Luigi Ferraris on Friday evening to face mid-table Genoa in their closing fixture of the campaign.

Thiago Motta’s men were pegged back in an enthralling 3-3 stalemate with Juventus last time out, whereas Genoa’s trip to Roma on Sunday ended in a 1-0 defeat.


Match preview

Even with 10 men on the pitch as Leandro Paredes was given his marching orders, Roma still managed to strike first against Genoa in Sunday’s penultimate Serie A action, where Romelu Lukaku’s header proved to be the match-winning contribution for the Giallorossi.

Few of the Genoa persuasion should be losing sleep over that slender loss to the Europa League semi-finalists, though, as Il Grifone are comfortably entrenched in the mid-table placements – unable to rise any higher than 11th – and only have personal honour on the line on Friday evening.

One point clear of Monza – who could therefore demote Genoa to 12th spot in the final round of fixtures – Alberto Gilardino’s side are already making their preparations for a second consecutive campaign in the big time, while also bracing themselves for summer transfer offers.

Danish midfielder Morten Frendrup and Icelandic attacker Albert Gudmundsson should both be the subject of serious interest from top-level European teams after playing key roles in Genoa’s successful first stint back in the big time, in which Gilardino’s men have only been beaten five times on their own turf.

Having sunk Cagliari and Sassuolo in their last two at Luigi Ferraris, Il Grifone can now triumph in three straight Serie A home matches for the first time all season long, but one of five Champions League-bound Calcio clubs stands in their way of such a feat.

Before an expected appointment to the Juventus hotseat as a permanent successor for the hot-headed Massimiliano Allegri – sacked on the back of his Coppa Italia meltdown – the revered Motta was on track to oversee a straightforward beating of the cup winners on Monday evening, only for his side to fall victim to a captivating comeback.

Two goals from highly sought-after defender Riccardo Calafiori either side of a Santiago Castro header put the Rossoblu firmly in the driver’s seat, but in the final 15 minutes of the tie, Federico Chiesa, Arkadiusz Milik and Kenan Yildiz completed an astounding fightback for the men in black and white.

Consequently, Friday’s third-placed visitors are only leading Juventus on goal difference and could therefore be knocked off the final podium place over the next few days, but their ticket to the Champions League is already assured; whether Motta will be overseeing their European journey is another matter entirely, though.

Should Motta indeed by seduced by Juventus’ pull, the former Paris Saint-Germain midfielder can at least endeavour to close out a historic campaign by stretching Bologna’s unbeaten Serie A streak to 10 matches, and only runaway champions Inter Milan (nine) have shipped fewer goals than the Rossoblu’s 18 on the road all season long.

Four of Bologna’s last five on rival turf have seen the third-placed outfit keep clean sheets, but they were held to a 1-1 stalemate by Genoa in January’s showdown and only have one triumph to show from their last nine contests with Il Grifone, although that was in their most recent trip to Luigi Ferraris in May 2022.


Team News

Losing no players to injury or suspension in their loss to Roma, Genoa’s squad is at full health for Friday’s contest, where Junior Messias is expected to at least earn some minutes off the bench after battling back from a muscular concern.

Fourteen-goal striker Gudmundsson was only a second-half substitute in the penultimate game too, but the Juventus and Tottenham Hotspur-linked attacker should come back into the reckoning here, most likely in place of Caleb Ekuban.

Speaking of strikers tipped to make the step-up to a Champions League-competing club this summer, Bologna hotshot Joshua Zirkzee could not contribute to the Juventus stalemate on account of his hamstring injury, which is also expected to deny him an appearance on the final day.

Zirkzee has apparently not given up hope of being present on Friday, but reports have claimed that the Arsenal and Manchester United-linked Dutchman is a long shot, so Castro should act as Motta’s number nine instead.

Scottish midfielder Lewis Ferguson is also absent with the ACL injury that cruelly denied him the chance to play at Euro 2024, so the Rossoblu should be boasting a near-identical squad to the one that blew a three-goal lead versus the Bianconeri.