Juventus slip from Champions League spots in Italy, Spain’s title race still wide-open, Chelsea beat Man City
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Another action-packed weekend has come and gone with talking points galore from the Premier League to La Liga. Spain’s top four battled to a pair of draws — Barcelona 0-0 Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid 2-2 Sevilla — that leaves the title race still well and truly open, while Man City’s coronation in England was put on pause by Chelsea’s last-gasp 2-1 win at the Etihad on Saturday. Elsewhere, Bayern confirmed their latest Bundesliga crown, PSG celebrated Neymar’s new deal by maybe letting their Ligue 1 crown slip off, and Inter Milan’s joy at winning Serie A was curtailed by talk of pay cuts, not bonuses.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past weekend in Europe.
Jump to: Real still in title race | Juve out of top four? | Man City’s joy delayed | Atletico, Barca draw | Change coming at Bayern | Moyes right to complain | Dortmund win without Haaland | Where are Liverpool’s goals? | Neymar’s new PSG deal | Inter talk pay cuts, not bonuses | Valencia’s Lim on record | Spurs flopping | What could have been for Napoli | Arsenal’s bench shows their flaws | Lille on cusp of history
Stuff gets real as Juve drop out of Champions League places
Maybe it’s a function of seeing them win nine straight Serie A titles, but even as the table suggested otherwise, the possibility that Juventus might not play in the Champions League next season never seemed fully real to me. This was Juve, the “fino alla fine” (“until the end”) crew, the guys who — one way or another — always seem to pull out a result, at least in Italy.
Gab Marcotti shares his thoughts on Cristiano Ronaldo’s future in Turin if Juventus fail to finish in the top four.
Well, it’s very real now, after Juventus got spanked 3-0 at home by Milan, who hadn’t won away to Juve in nine years. Andrea Pirlo’s team are fifth, one point behind Napoli and three behind Atalanta and Milan, with three games to go. What’s more, based on Serie A’s tiebreakers (head-to-head games, followed by goal difference in head-to-head games, followed by overall goal difference) they’re behind each of the three sides ahead of them.
– Italian FA president: Juve face Serie A expulsion if they don’t withdraw from Super League
More than the numbers, though, you’re concerned by the performance. Most of the first half was a bland, low-energy affair, with both teams looking as if they feared losing more than they wanted to win. Wojciech Szczesny’s wild sortie gifted Brahim Diaz the lead for Milan, and you expected a strong Juve reaction after the break; instead, we got squat. Milan grew in intensity and confidence, scored another two — a worldie from Ante Rebic and a superb Fikayo Tomori header — and even missed a penalty. Four-nil would not have been an excessive scoreline.
Credit Milan for the second-half reaction and execution, in particular the fact that they did it on a night when Zlatan Ibrahimovic contributed little before hobbling off just after the hour mark. (So much for the delusion that this team is in any way dependent on the Big Swede.) A Champions League spot, for what they’ve shown all season, is the least they deserve.
As for Juve, most of us accepted that this was a transition year and a poorly assembled squad, one still conditioned by the expensive transfer mistakes of the recent past. But that doesn’t exonerate them on the night.
Just about everyone was fit. Pirlo didn’t do anything weird or wacky; it was the same 4-4-2/3-5-2 hybrid (depending on where Juan Cuadrado lines up) that achieved whatever good things Juve achieved this year (not many, but some). The midfield trio of Adrien Rabiot, Rodrigo Bentancur and Weston McKennie was poor, but that was never where Juve were going to win the match. Federico Chiesa and Cuadrado were there to provide crosses, Giorgio Chiellini offered experience at the back, Alvaro Morata was there to provide depth, Cristiano Ronaldo was there to finish. Except Juve got nothing from the wide areas, Chiellini’s experienced contribution consists in giving away a penalty and getting posterised by Tomori, Morata waited for service like you might way for Godot, and Ronaldo had one of his worse nights in a Juve jersey.
Pirlo bears responsibility, of course, and he’s not hiding. He likely won’t be back next season, but it’s clearly not entirely on him — not when players take the pitch with this attitude and this ineptitude. Unprepared? Sure. But when you feel your manager hasn’t prepared you for the game, it’s up to you to step up, particularly all those supposed leaders with the fat wages and the overstuffed trophy cabinets.
Injury-time strike keeps Real Madrid in La Liga
Alejandro Moreno reacts to the latest twist in La Liga’s title race: Real Madrid’s dramatic 2-2 draw vs. Sevilla.
Real Madrid went into Sunday night’s clash with Sevilla knowing that a home win would take them back to the top of the table. More than that, it would shift the narrative of the season away from Florentino Perez’s Super League debacle, the club’s mountain of debt and Zinedine Zidane’s elimination at the hands of Chelsea. Instead, but for Toni Kroos’ deflected shot deep into injury time that wrong-footed Yassine Bounou, they might have been three points back.
– ‘Angry’ Zidane howls about VAR drama
It finished 2-2 and it felt, not for the first time this season, that Madrid had found their “Get out of Jail” card. They don’t control their destiny, but they’re still very much in the Liga race despite showing their usual limitations: Vinicius Jr. may be a net positive, but he has the composure of a man doused with gasoline who just fired up his Zippo; the back four — with exactly zero starters — was pulled this way and that by Julen Lopetegui’s striker-less system; in possession, even with Kroos and Luka Modric, it’s more about moments of inspiration than any methodical patterns of play.
No doubt somewhere out there they’ll be complaining about the two decisions that went against them — Alvaro Odriozola’s offside and Eder Militao’s handball (which gave Sevilla a penalty and wiped out the one Karim Benzema won at the other end) — but there’s no disputing the fact that Sevilla outplayed them for long stretches.
This feels like a Madrid team that are ready to turn the page, except they can’t. Despite their best efforts, they’re still in this race and owe it to themselves and their history to give their all. And all while knowing success won’t change the fact that this will go down as a disappointing season.
As for Sevilla, Lopetegui’s revenge on his old team would have been sweet, and at least in the first half, it looked as if he’d rub Madrid’s noses in his team’s superiority in possession. Militao and Nacho had no reference points, Casemiro had no bite and Sevilla manoeuvred the ball nicely. The regret, maybe, is the lack of impact Youssef En-Nesyri had when he came on, particularly in terms of using his speed and directness to exploit the space between full-back and center-back. But that’s not on Lopetegui, who has to be among the manager of the year candidates this season.
Man City’s celebrations postponed by Chelsea
Nedum Onuoha doesn’t think Chelsea’s win over Manchester City in the Premier League will be of consequence for either side in the UCL final.
Pep Guardiola has won the League Cup, has reached the Champions League final and will win the Premier League (especially now that Manchester United have to play a diabolical three games in five days), so he has earned the right to do what he likes. And yes, that includes making nine changes from the side that beat Paris Saint-Germain last week and playing a never-before-seen formation (at least not at City).
– Dawson: Tuchel, Chelsea have Man City’s measure again
That’s a roundabout way of saying there’s only so much you can read into Chelsea’s trip to City, and City’s 2-1 defeat, on Saturday.
Yeah, it’s one of the marquee match-ups in the Premier League, but neither side were going to show their hand, not with a Champions League final coming up in a couple of weeks. (And to be fair, Thomas Tuchel made five changes too, as well as playing two guys in different roles.) Don’t be too upset. You got to see them in the reverse fixture, you got to see them in the FA Cup, you’ll see them again in the Champions League final.
What it means is that there’s not much you learn about the teams, though you do get a sense of their individuals. Raheem Sterling, possibly because he’s no longer an automatic choice, looked sharp, scored a goal and should have won a penalty. In one of his final appearances at the Etihad, Sergio Aguero fluffed a wide-open chance and missed a penalty with one of the worst “panenkas” you’ll ever see. (Credit to him, though: he owned it and apologised on social media.)
Chelsea needed it more, and by winning, they’ve all but locked up a top-four place. Thomas Tuchel talked about the confidence they got from beating City twice thanks to Marcos Alonso’s late winner, but truth be told, they could easily have gone 2-0 down and were outplayed for long stretches in the first half.
Still, if you’re looking at individual performances, Billy Gilmour got 90 minutes’ worth of experience (though he gave away the penalty), Timo Werner still has trouble controlling his afterburners and N’Golo Kante is in the best form he’s been in for several years. Tuchel will take that, knowing the real test will be on May 29.
Draw suits Atletico more than Barca, but both teams have regrets
Sid Lowe details Barcelona’s worrying “recurring theme” in La Liga this season.
Considering Lionel Messi was 18 years old the last time Atletico Madrid won at the Camp Nou, it would have been remarkable if they’d emerged with the three points on Saturday. Still, there had to have been a bit of regret after Diego Simeone went for it with an attacking side — by Atleti’s standards, anyway — and had Barcelona on the ropes for long stretches of the game.
Which is not to say Barca didn’t have their chances. They did, from Messi’s run that was thwarted by Jan Oblak to the close-range header missed by Ousmane Dembele. But it did feel incidental rather than Barca ever forcefully taking control. Maybe it was the absence of Sergio Busquets, who was part of the problem earlier this season and has been part of the solution in the past few months. He came off after half an hour, forcing Frenkie De Jong to sit deeper and robbing Barca of his attacking oomph.
The thing about the result is that Barca are behind in head-to-head results against both Atletico and Real Madrid now, which basically means they had more to lose by not winning than they had to gain from not losing. That’s why you would have expected more urgency and, perhaps, more risk-taking in the second half.
As for Atletico, they may or may not win the title. But regardless, this team, man-for-man, are inferior to their last title-winning side by several orders of magnitude. Barcelona and Real Madrid are too, of course, but if Simeone somehow delivers La Liga, it will rank as perhaps his greatest coaching achievement to date.
Bayern make it nine titles in a row, but change is coming …
One goal shy of equaling the single-season Bundesliga record, Jan Aage Fjortoft says there are bigger records in play for Robert Lewandowski.
Leipzig’s defeat against Borussia Dortmund meant that Bayern Munich clinched their ninth straight Bundesliga title — and their 30th in the 58-year history of the Bundesliga — before they even stepped onto the pitch to face Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday. Of course, that didn’t stop them from pounding the opposition, 6-0, with Robert Lewandowski grabbing a hat-trick to bring his seasonal total to 39. That’s one fewer than the record set by Gerd Muller (another Bayern legend) back in 1972, and, had he not missed five games through injury, it’s a safe bet Lewandowski would already have broken it.
One of the remarkable things about Bayern is that in an era of superstar managers who talk philosophies and big ideas, it’s as much (if not more) about the club and the players. Julian Nagelsmann will become their sixth boss in six years when he takes over next year. Lewandowski, Manuel Neuer, David Alaba, Thomas Muller, Douglas Costa, Kingsley Coman, Joshua Kimmich, Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng were all there six years ago when Pep Guardiola won his third straight crown. So were Uli Hoeness and Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at the executive level.
It will be interesting to see how Nagelsmann, the bright young thing of world coaching who cost them some €15m in compensation from Leipzig, fits in at the Sabenerstrasse. His old club is a different world, but maybe that’s what Bayern need because change is coming.
Of the nine guys mentioned above, three (Alaba, Boateng and Martinez) are leaving this summer, Douglas Costa is on loan and could go too, while Muller, Lewandowski and Neuer are all in their 30s. Rummenigge will make way for Oliver Kahn at the end of the year and Hoeness, well, he’s not going anywhere, but he’s 70 next January and even he will slow down at some point.
If there is to be a meaningful transition then, in Nagelsmann, Bayern have got themselves the most hands-on manager since Guardiola.
Moyes is right: League integrity is threatened by United’s situation, but there’s no alternative
West Ham boss David Moyes pointed out that the “integrity” of the league and, in particular, the race for European places, was under threat by Manchester United having to play Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday, particularly when the latter two games are against top-four contenders (and West Ham rivals in this case) Leicester City and Liverpool. United have nothing left to play for domestically, so the rational thing for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to do is to field weakened squads and make sure they avoid injury and are ready for the Europa League final.
The problem, of course, is that they’re playing on Thursday because the Liverpool game was postponed due to the Old Trafford protests and there’s nowhere else to squeeze it into the schedule. That’s beyond anyone’s control.
Solskjaer did put out what looked like a first-choice XI against Villa and they won 3-1, delaying City’s title celebrations. But don’t expect him to do it in the other two games. He’s second on merit and he has a right to do what’s best for United, which means focusing on the Europa League final right now. As for West Ham, Moyes might have had a stronger case — at least vis-a-vis the top four — if his team hadn’t lost to Everton this weekend.
Even without Haaland, Dortmund finishing season on a high
Jadon Sancho says he is happy at Borussia Dortmund, but is unsure about where his future lies.
If you had told Borussia Dortmund fans back in August that, come May, they’d have a strong chance of finishing fourth and winning the German Cup, they might have been a bit disappointed. If you’d told them in late January, when they were nose-diving to seventh place and trusting their immediate future to an unproven 38-year-old coach in Edin Terzic, they might not have believed you.
But the dramatic 3-2 win over Leipzig not only allowed them to leapfrog Eintracht Frankfurt into fourth place with two games to go, but it showed resilience and belief: after having wasted a two-goal lead, they kept going and scored the winner. Guys who had been misfiring all season came to life, and all this without Erling Haaland and with the cup final coming up Thursday.
Their worst enemy now is complacency. Yes, they beat Leipzig, but they could just easily be on the end of a spanking against them in DFB-Pokal final. And sure, Mainz and Bayer Leverkusen — their opponents in the last two games — have nothing to play for, but that doesn’t mean you take the six points for granted. They can save this campaign. Letting it slip away now would be disastrous.
Liverpool still on track, but where are the goals?
Nedum Onuoha examines whether Liverpool can fight its way into the Premier League’s top four with four matches remaining.
By beating Southampton 2-0, in a game that was nervier than it should have been and was really only settled by Thiago Alcantara’s late strike, Liverpool keep their top-four hopes alive. They don’t quite control their destiny, but given Leicester’s recent results — they’ve won two of their last five games) they can still hope.
So much has been made about their injuries this season, especially at the back, but the drop-off up front has been just as steep. It’s true they’ve conceded 13 more goals than at this stage last season, but they’ve also scored 18 fewer. Obviously, different areas of the pitch are interrelated, but Liverpool’s downturn is likely also related to a downturn in attack (despite the addition of Diogo Jota into the mix) and, especially, in midfield: Last year, Liverpool’s midfielders scored 21 goals. Thus far, they’ve managed just five.
Neymar signs new deal, but have PSG blown the title?
Julien Laurens shares his thoughts on Kylian Mbappe’s future in Paris given Neymar’s contract extension.
The good news is that Neymar is sticking around — or, at least, he has committed through 2025, with an option for another year. I’m skeptical about clubs tying them to players well into their 30s (let alone guys who, like Neymar, turn 30 in February and earn enormous amounts), but in this case I can make an exception. Neymar’s presence should help the club in their quest to retain Kylian Mbappe, at least for a while, and ensures they continue to get the attention that is crucial to their commercial viability.
What should have been a celebratory weekend turned south, however, with the 1-1 draw against Rennes who, after going a goal down, equalised with a towering header from Sehrou Guirassy. The absences of Marco Verratti and, especially, Mbappe weighed heavily against a side that desperately wanted a European place, and Mauricio Pochettino ran out of answers. PSG are three points behind Lille with two games remaining, and the Argentine boss is still looking for his first major trophy.
Inter win the title, but rather than bonuses, pay cuts beckon
ESPN FC’s Gab Marcotti on the framework for Inter Milan defending their Serie A title next year.
Having won their first scudetto since the Treble in 2009-10 (and their first silverware of any kind in nine years), Inter — or, rather, the reserves who got the run out from Antonio Conte — celebrated with a 5-1 trouncing of Sampdoria.
It’s a sign of the times, though, that rather than talking bonuses, the chatter around the club is about an across-the-board pay cut equivalent to two months’ wages. That’s what happens when chickens come home to roost, and in Inter’s case, they’re paying the price not just for the pandemic but also for the overspending in previous years (including, latterly, to accomodate Conte).
It’s a shame if it derails this group of players just as they try to come back into the big time. But equally, it’s a basic rule of business. If you spend big at some point, you’ll have to deal with the consequences — especially if, as Inter often have, you’ve also spent poorly.
Valencia owner Peter Lim — in his own words — on his “trophy asset”
If there’s something the Super League debacle has shown us, it’s that very wealthy and successful people aren’t necessarily any better at getting their point across in a way people are likely to understand or appreciate, no matter how many PR people they employ.
Peter Lim acquired Valencia in 2014 and in that time has been about as popular as ear wax with supporters. Is he treated unfairly? You be the judge. He gave a rare interview to the Financial Times in which he describes the club as a “trophy asset” which is “good for networking” and suggests previous owners had “rocks in their heads” because they “wanted to win at all costs.”
Don’t want to click? (After all, Lim has a history of being super unpopular, and this would be no different in terms of completely crossing the line.) OK, here are some notable quotes.
“Once we were having dinner, all the [club] owners, at one of the Champions League finals. You’ve got sheikhs, kings, mafia, Black, white and yellow… we were like kids…”
“This is something quite nice. I wake up, I own a football club and I see what happens next. It’s nothing more. And I do have some compassion for [fans], but among ourselves, among friends, we say the smallest things give you the biggest headaches.”
If ever there was an argument for transparency, oversight and fan representation, Peter Lim is it.
Spurs can’t allow themselves to flop now
This is “on the beach” season in the Premier League and elsewhere, which is why, on paper, Tottenham’s defeat to Leeds United isn’t a tragedy. They face mid-table opposition at home in their next two outings: win those, and you go into the final clash with Leicester City on a high, which could be the difference between European football next year or free nights in midweek.
That’s what they need to focus on now, not the abject performance against Leeds United in the 3-1 defeat. (Leeds, of course, are theoretically “on the beach” too, but under Marcelo Bielsa they just do their own thing.) With no permanent manager and uncertainty over Harry Kane, there’s a general bad vibe around the club, which only makes it more important that they shake the cobwebs loose.
Osimhen and what might have been for Napoli…
Napoli pummelled Spezia 4-1 as Victor Osimhen bagged two goals, confirming his status as one of the hottest young center-forwards in Europe. The win pushes them above Juventus into fourth place, with a run-in that, on paper, looks manageable. Yet if you’re a Napoli fan, you can’t help but ask yourself: what if Osimhen had been around and fit all season?
Osimhen has averaged a goal every 80 minutes. He has 10 in the league, all of them from open play. Had he played as many minutes as, say, Cristiano Ronaldo, he’d have 20 goals, one fewer from open play than the Portuguese striker, who has 27 including penalties.
Of course, that’s not where the regrets end, and the biggest, perhaps, concerns the relationship between manager Rino Gattuso and president Aurelio de Laurentiis. The pair have been at loggerheads all season, which has destabilized the team (who are in a media blackout right now), and everything points to Gattuso not returning next season.
There’s a parallel universe where Osimhen stays fit and Gattuso gets along with his owner. And in that parallel universe, Napoli challenge Inter for the title.
Arsenal’s bench a reminder of what went wrong
I have no problem with Mikel Arteta’s choices on Sunday against West Brom. He played Gabriel Martinelli up front, played Mohamed Elneny in midfield and left out a clutch of his stars: Kieran Tierney, Hector Bellerin, Martin Odegaard, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Thomas Partey were all on the bench. (So was Alexandre Lacazette, but that’s not news anymore.) I have no issue because there was probably a hangover post-Villarreal and because, at this stage, it’s all about assessing what you have with a view towards next year. Plus, of course, they won.
But that bench ought to serve as a reminder of the choices the club made (and, no, this isn’t solely on Arteta) in the midst of a pandemic.
Giving Aubameyang that monster deal. Paying €50 million for Partey (and giving him a huge deal too). Locking up Cedric Soares through 2024, when he’ll be on the eve of his 33rd birthday (and then giving him all of eight league starts). And then there’s Willian, of course, who was on the pitch (and scored his first goal of the season): he too got a massive deal through 2023 despite the fact that he turns 33 this summer.
Arsenal will finish in mid-table amid regret and recrimination. But the biggest challenge going forward will be getting the balance right between talented youth and high-priced veterans. Right now, it leans too much to the latter, which means Arteta — or whoever replaces him, should he move on — has very little room to maneuver. And no, it’s not just down to the pandemic.
Lille on the verge of making history
I wrote about Burak Yilmaz last week, so I won’t spend too much time on him… just enough to let you know he scored another two goals in Lille’s 3-0 pasting of Lens, which puts them three points clear at the top of Ligue 1 with two games to go.
So let me just reiterate my praise for the job manager Christophe Galtier has done, especially after losing Gabriel (to Arsenal) and Victor Osimhen (to Napoli) last summer and Thiago Mendes (to Lyon), Rafael Leao (to Milan) and Nicolas Pepe (to Arsenal) the year before. All this while undergoing a painful ownership change in mid-season and with a club saddled with debt.
If they pull this off, it will be epic. Hanging on to Galtier may be (almost) as big a feat.