Karim Benzema stunned Real Madrid again (but remains banned from France), PSG are back on top of Ligue 1 (but not safe there), Atletico Madrid are creeping towards the top of La Liga and Bayern Munich did the unthinkable against Stuttgart. (Well done again, Robert Lewandowski).
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti looks back at the football highlights of the past week.
Jump to: Will Messi stay at Barca? Man United’s World Cup exit Juve and Pirlo in trouble Benzema earns his reputation in France Man City wins again PSG get back on track Milan make the turnaround Bayern strike again Arsenal suffer a familiar setback Can Atletico hold on? | Mourinho’s strange words | Haaland’s anger at Dortmund | Pulisic’s FA Cup impressions
Barca shines during Real Sociedad’s return to… Is it enough for Messi to stay?
Barca coach Ronald Koeman and his players, Antoine Griezmann and Jordi Alba, celebrated their birthdays on Sunday. Apart from the gifts they received on the pitch – assists for Jordi Alba, a goal for Griezmann and 12 wins in the last 12 games for Koeman – perhaps the biggest gift was Lionel Messi promising his future to the club (and at a price that suits Barca).
Recently I wrote about why Barcelona should be optimistic, and admittedly that was through an Azulgraan lens. Messi is still a free agent at the end of the season, his future is still up in the air, and if he stays, it’s important that he stays for a price that doesn’t drag the club further into financial irrelevance. Still, you can imagine Messi weighing up the pros and cons at some point, and nights like that 6-1 win over Real Sociedad on the road will certainly be seen as a plus.
Messi enjoyed Barcelona’s big win over Real Sociedad last weekend, not least because he didn’t have to create all the goals and chances himself. Barca really looked like a cohesive team. ANDER GILLENEA/AFP via Getty Images
Messi scored two goals to bring his season total to 29 (just two less than last season), but more importantly: There are few signs that Messi is dependent on this team. Alba and Sergino Dest (who also scored twice) provided width and assists from the outside back positions. Frankie De Jong, lined up in the middle of the backline, covers ground, sets up play and runs deep, while Ousmane Dembele is a vertical threat on the attacking side.
In other words: Everything worked as planned, and Messi was a value-added element, not the whole show. It must be very attractive. Players like Messi can make a difference. And have carried teams on their backs in the past, but it’s tiring when you feel like you have to do it all the time. And if Barcelona can channel that positivity after so much (justified) negativity, they might just tip the scales.
It is also a credit to coach Koeman, who has managed to deal with an extremely difficult situation and, more importantly, keep players in his ranks. He may not be a tactical genius, but his management of the team this year has been exemplary. He wasn’t afraid to try new solutions – some worked, some didn’t – and he was consistently steadfast, even when Camp Nou seemed to be collapsing around him. This is important.
And one last point about De Jong. The Dutch midfielder has done well defensively and although at first glance you might think he’s short with his 6-foot-2 height, just think of Javier Mascherano (6-foot-2) who has performed that role superbly for years. It is an additional option and there is still a lot of uncertainty – it is unclear, for example, whether De Jong will play regularly in the back four – but it gives Barcelona flexibility, especially in the transfer market. They don’t need to fixate on acquiring a top-level central defender this summer; if they can get a top-level central midfielder instead, they may discover that a top-level central defender is already available.
For Real Sociedad, this defeat probably means the end of the battle for a place in the Champions League: The gap to fourth-placed Sevilla is 10 points with 10 games to go. In the beginning of December they were still in first place, but if you only win four league games in four months, you can never keep up with them.
Man United eliminated in FA Cup, but hats off to Leicester and Rodgers
Nedum Onuoha and Frank Leboeuf explain why Man United were so bad in their FA Cup defeat to Leicester.
It’s not often you see a quadruple change, but that’s exactly what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to do when nearly 20 minutes had passed in the second half and his Manchester United, who were 2-1 down against Leicester, needed to do more damage.
It is easy to conclude that Solskjaer made a mistake in the starting line-up, especially with Bruno Fernanda missing for Donny van de Beek. The Portuguese playmaker has already played a lot this year, but an FA Cup quarter-final on the eve of the international break is not the best time to rest. I have less of a problem with it, though. Partly because he’s looked tired for a while now (which his flashes of brilliance only occasionally show on paper), and partly because you can’t let your team know you’re completely dependent on them.
To be fair, apart from a few highlights – such as his performance in the Manchester derby – United haven’t played particularly well in the last month (they’ve won three of their last eight games in all competitions), and that’s apart from Bruno and Marcus Rashford (who was unavailable).
Read all the latest news and reactions from ESPN FC editor Gabriele Marcotti.
Similarly, we must not lose sight of Leicester. They are one point behind United in second place in the Premier League for a reason: They have a very talented team and an excellent manager in Brendan Rodgers. The fact that he has been able to get them where they are today despite a string of injuries – they were missing three real starters this weekend with Harvey Barnes, James Maddison and James Justin – is a credit to his work.
Speaking of Rodgers: He will inevitably be linked with the next big Premier League vacancy. However, the good news for Leicester City is that he is likely to be out of it for the foreseeable future. Of the traditional big six teams, you’d think Tottenham would be the most eager to change managers, but even there, Jose Mourinho has two years left on his contract, a huge contract, and despite some disappointing results of late, they are sixth in the league table.
Leaving aside the effects of the pandemic, which makes clubs more conservative in the summer, I think Rodgers will last at least another year or two. Maybe more.
Another blow for Pirlo and Juventus – and the chance to finish in the top four…
Following Juve’s defeat to Benevento, Alessandro Del Piero questioned the proximity of Andrea Pirlo’s dismissal.
Serie A frontrunner this weekend: Juventus lost to a Benevento team that has been in the league since the 6th round. Janvier didn’t win again. As is so often the case, you can extrapolate a parallel story in which Arthur doesn’t give the foolish blind pass behind the opposing goal, Federico Chiesa gets a penalty (which Cristiano Ronaldo flips over), Danilo squanders his last chance and Juve wins the match.
And when all this happens, you know what? If that had happened, many commentators would have marveled at Juve, their winner’s mentality and the fact that they have won five games in a row and can resume the title race. (As if.)
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The above scenario is extremely plausible, as we all heard before last season, and sometimes under Max Allegri. It’s in the line of a certain victory – that’s all that matters, and it’s toxic and counterproductive. Yes, Juventus could have won that match, but that wouldn’t have changed the pathetic performance or the fact that this team can’t do what Pirlo wants at the moment. (Or maybe he’s just not the right guy to force it on her…. who knows?)
Juventus have confirmed that Pirlo is back and that he (and Ronaldo) will return next season. That’s it. In Pirlo’s case, it means they believe in what he’s doing. As I have written before, there is still a long way to go and Pirlo may not go all the way, but he is on the right track. The thought that should keep Juve president Andrea Agnelli awake at night is that if they lose to Napoli at 7. Avril drops to fifth place. And if they are still in the running at the end of the season, there will be no Champions League next year and a huge loss of revenue.
If that happens, all chances are lost.
Benzema starts again and even Zidane wonders why France don’t call him up in.
Janusz Michalik says Karim Benzema is as important to Real Madrid as Robert Lewandowski is to Bayern Munich.
Real Madrid beat Celta Vigo 3-1 at the weekend to remain third in La Liga. It wasn’t an outstanding performance, but Karim Benzema’s two goals in the first half hour set the team on their way and they did what they have wanted to do for the past 18 months: control the game and concede little when they have the advantage, rewarding the French striker with a goal in the build-up.
After the match, Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane commented on Benzema’s continued absence from the French team, for whom he last played in 2015. How can you understand that Karim is not riding with the national team? What a lot of people don’t realize is that…
It is no secret that Benzema and France coach Didier Deschamps have had a serious falling out and the situation has not been rectified for years. Zidane knows this, and he knows what it’s all about, as he is close to Benzema and has won many trophies with Deschamps, both for club and country.
If neither wants to continue, it’s best to let it go. After all, France already has enough talent.
Another week of ordinary brilliance for Maine City
Craig Burley says you shouldn’t expect Manchester City to play exciting football every week.
Not to mention that both of Man City’s goals in Saturday’s FA Cup quarter-final were scored as early as the sixth minute. Focus instead on Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti, who as a player, competitor and manager had a knack for putting together exceptional teams and didn’t hesitate to take them to the crown. Right now, no team in the world can play at this level.
Manchester City have won all but one of their games in the last three months. They’ve beaten teams that have pressured high, and they’ve beaten teams that have defended deep (like Everton Saturday). They beat ugly teams and pretty teams, long ball teams and college teams, fast teams and tough teams. And they did it in different ways, with different personnel and training.
Statistically, this team will likely be in the bottom half of Pep Guardiola’s coaching staff. Maybe two of his Barcelona teams (it helps when you have Lionel Messi), one of his Bayern teams or his City Centurions could have been better. But in terms of a true team – and not just 1 v 11, but 1 v 24 – this group may be his best performance.
PSG is back at the top of the Ligue 1 …. but they’re not out of it yet.
Julien Laurens praises Mauricio Pochettino and PSG for their 4-2 win over Lyon.
PSG’s fate in Ligue 1 will likely be decided after the international break, judging by the games against the other two opponents: Olympique Lyonnais and Lille at home. A convincing and emphatic victory against Lyon (4-2), in which Kylian Mbappé scored the 100th goal of his career. The first goal of his Ligue 1 career (and in 142 games in total) started well.
With Neymar (and Mauro Icardi) injured, Mbappe takes full responsibility for the offensive performance, while PSG looked solid defensively, scoring just one goal when the game was close to being won. But the outcome of the season – and whether they did the right thing in replacing Thomas Tuchel with Mauricio Pochettino as coach in December – will be decided after the break, both at home against Lille and in the Champions League, where they take on Bayern Munich.
Lille’s defeat allows PSG to catch up, but Lyon are only three points behind and Monaco, four points behind, are not out of the woods yet either.
Milan go on the counter attack and it’s as much about Bennacer as it is about Zlatan.
Jurgen Klinsmann believes Italian clubs need to adapt to a new style of football in order to be competitive outside of Serie A.
It was no surprise that the headlines were made after Milan’s 3-2 victory over Fiorentina, which, given the postponement of Inter’s game against Sassuolo, brings them within six points of the league leaders. And after the disappointment of Manchester United’s elimination from the Europa League, it was psychologically very important.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic returned to the starting line-up for the first time in two weeks, scoring a goal and hitting the woodwork twice, but the return of Ismael Bennacer five weeks later was just as important. The Algerian playmaker plays a crucial role in setting the tempo, both in and out of possession. And thanks to him, Milan played much better against Fiorentina than the result would suggest.
They certainly don’t own the Scudetto, but Inter have won six in a row and have yet to play Juventus, Roma and Napoli. All Milan can do is try to keep the pressure on, and now that they’re out of Europe, they should have the legs to do so. In any case, this campaign is already a resounding success.
Bayern Munich were defeated by four goals to.
Janusz Michalik looks at Robert Lewandowski’s form after his hat-trick in Bayern Munich’s match against Stuttgart.
It doesn’t have to be this way. When Alfonso Davies was sent off the pitch for 12 minutes by Pellegrino Matarazzo in Bayern’s match against Stuttgart, you could feel an upset. After all, Stuttgart are a promoted team fighting for a place in Europe, unbeaten in five games, fearless and free, while Bayern had to do without midfielder Joshua Kimmich.
But no. There was no such smell in the air. Within eleven minutes of Davis’ dismissal, Bayern were leading 3-0. At halftime it was 4-0 and… Who else? — Robert Lewandowski scored a hat trick, bringing his Bundesliga goal total to 35 and his season total (all competitions) to 42. He needs five of Bayern’s last eight games to chase Gerd Muller’s season record in the Bundesliga.
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That’s why people talk about the Bavarian mentality and talk about mystical voodoo, like the DNA of the club, Mia San Mia (club motto) and everything else. This could be it. It could also be that Stuttgart just froze for them and Bayern have much better players. Among them, of course, were Lewandowski, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry, all of whom were great.
They are far from out of the woods when it comes to winning their ninth consecutive championship. RB Leipzig beat Arminia Bielefeld 1-0 on Friday evening. The gap to Bayern remains four points, and after the international break the two teams will meet again in the battle for the championship. But if you can do what they did Saturday, well …..
Arsenal make progress and lose points …. all too familiar
Mikel Arteta played one of his best games of the season in Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with West Ham on Sunday. That’s true, and it’s equally true that three goals and a score in a derby says a lot about the character of a team.
But despite their best efforts, they lost by three goals. And West Ham hit the woodwork again, missing a shot that would have left Arsenal empty-handed. For someone in Arteta’s position, performances are more important than results, but again, you have to develop consistency at some point and the way they gave away two goals to West Ham was far from encouraging.
Martin Odegard’s performance was encouraging. He’s back to the level of his early days at Real Sociedad, which means he’s arguably the best player on the team, whether he’s on the squad or not. The problem is that he is on loan from Real Madrid and has no transfer option. Arsenal are reportedly already trying to work out a deal for a permanent transfer, but Madrid hold all the cards.
On the one hand, Real Madrid will need money this summer and Odegaard would want to do everything in his power to stay. Odegaard, meanwhile, knows full well that his league at the Bernabeu won’t last long: Luka Modric is 35 (and at the end of his contract), Toni Kroos is 31.
It would be nice if this stay in North London was just a six-month detox for Odegard.
Atletico book important win, but do they heed Simeone’s warning?
Julien Laurens believes that Atleti are increasingly vulnerable due to their proximity to Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The good news is that Atletico picked up three points against Alaves at the weekend, keeping their lead at the top of the league table four points (ahead of Barcelona) with ten games to go. The bad news was that, with the exception of a phase in the second half, they resembled an Alteti team that had been crushed by Chelsea in the Champions League: a weak, insecure unit, unable to play against an opponent from the semi-finals.
Luis Suarez scored his 19th goal of the season after the break. The goal of the season, but even after Atleti took the lead, it was feared. They fell further and further behind, missed chances and needed a Jan Oblak penalty kick to take the three points.
Diego Simeone said afterwards that he had not enjoyed the performance and that you should not sit back when you score a goal because bad things can happen. Good point, but it’s the manager. And Cholismo hasn’t become more powerful than El Cholo himself, has it?
Tottenham defend but Mourinho’s message is far from clear.
Frank Leboeuf is pleased with Tottenham’s reaction to Aston Villa’s Europa League elimination on Thursday.
The good news is that Tottenham Hotspur bounced back from their nightmarish 3-0 loss and Europa League elimination against Dinamo Zagreb with a 2-0 win over Aston Villa in the Premier League. (Team Villa without Jack Grealish, that’s a bit like the E Street Band without Bruce Springsteen, but a win nonetheless). With nine games to go, they are six, four places within three points of each other, and despite all the negativity, they will likely finish with more points than last season.
What is less clear is what Jose Mourinho meant after the game when he spoke with relief about the ignominy of losing a 2-0 lead in the Europa League and the performance in the north London derby against Arsenal.
Football’s not easy at the moment…. personal interests around, agents around, he said. It takes time to develop a sense of empathy within the group, as the psychological profile of young people is not easy.
Was it just a general call for unity (or rather empathy, the same term he used at Manchester United)? Or was he talking about specific players and situations, especially with that individual interest/agent rule? You hope he was cleaner behind closed doors, because the last thing he needs right now is whispers and paranoia on his team. If you speak as he did above, your audience can very easily misinterpret the message, and people get a feeling that may not have occurred to Mourinho.
Haland saves a point for Dortmund…. and drops his disappointment.
Gab Marcotti has an interesting theory about what Erling Haaland’s future might look like.
We didn’t see poor Erling Haaland until Saturday. Now we know what it looks like, and he had every reason to be angry.
On the day Haaland scored the opening goal after only three minutes, things did not look good for Borussia Dortmund against a team from Cologne who had taken just one point from their previous five games. Instead, an extreme penalty and the usual Keystone Kops defense turned the game on its head. There was also no answer from Dortmund, who paid double for their lack of chemistry and organisation at the back. (And that despite two experienced midfielders like Mats Hummels and Emre Can).
Haaland have lost a point – they have also scored 21 league goals this season – but the top four are now four points behind. I’ve long argued that it would make more sense for him (and his agent) to stay with Dortmund for another season and wait for his release clause to kick in. But that’s only if they return to the Champions League next season, and that’s highly doubtful at the moment.
Pulisic shines in Tuchel’s auditions (and it almost cost Chelsea dearly)
Janusz Michalik admits Cristian Pulisic played well against Sheffield United, but says he remains concerned.
Thomas Tuchel used the FA Cup weekend against Sheffield United to continue his trial games to determine who will be in the Chelsea squad next season. United, hampered by injuries and a new coach after the departure of Chris Wilder, went deep and didn’t allow their opponents to flourish, so in a sense there wasn’t much to learn.
However, we have seen that when Christian Pulisic is used as a striker rather than a fullback, he can break open defences even when they are crowded like United’s. It’s important because you want to give Tuchel as much attention as possible now. And at the moment there doesn’t seem to be a single Chelsea player, with the exception of Mason Mount, who could say to himself: Yes, I am 100% sure I will be a starter next season.
The problem was that when the Blades started playing midway through the second half, they created far more chances than they should have and could have sent the game to overtime. However, Chelsea’s three best players at the time were Emerson (an attacking defender, not a central defender, and probably out next season), Kurt Zouma and Cesar Azpilicueta (himself a defender and probably not in the long-term plan).
Tuchel can live with that. After all, the 2-0 victory means a date with Manchester City in the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
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