It was a weekend of yet more drama and excitement across European soccer’s top leagues as Real Madrid moved (dramatically) closer to clinching LaLiga, Paris Saint-Germain closed on yet another Ligue 1 crown, Liverpool bested Manchester City in the FA Cup semifinals and Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick for Manchester United in a game that showed all of their worst qualities (and included a fan protest).
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Real Madrid take giant step toward LaLiga title with comeback win at Sevilla
This is an imperfect Real Madrid. That it’s also a Real Madrid side that’s 180 minutes away from a Champions League final and is on the verge of winning their 35th LaLiga crown is down to a multitude of factors. They have a Ballon d’Or front-runner of a center-forward (Karim Benzema), a timeless creative pixie who pops up often enough to be a difference maker (Luka Modric), one of the most under-appreciated defenders in the game (David Alaba) and a shutdown goalkeeper (Thibaut Courtois).
They have a huge experienced coach close to becoming the first man to win titles in each of Europe’s “Big Five” leagues (Carlo Ancelotti), and an experienced supporting cast. But they also have the ability to metabolise defeats and poor performances like few other sides.
For example, they were played off the park by Paris Saint-Germain in Paris and stormed back to win 3-1 in the return leg. They got walloped at home by Barcelona in the Clasico and reacted with a standout performance at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea. And now, after losing at home against the very same Chelsea (and needing extra time to advance in the Champions League), they turned an 0-2 deficit in a 3-2 victory at Sevilla with a sterling second half.
It’s hard to overstate how poor Madrid were in the first half-hour on Sunday. Julen Lopetegui’s crew took the game to them and raced to a 2-0 lead. Ancelotti’s plan to replace Ferland Mendy with Dani Carvajal at left-back and, especially, stick Toni Kroos in front of the back four with Casemiro suspended was backfiring badly. And because it never hurts to be fortunate, they were lucky Eduardo Camavinga wasn’t sent off for a second bookable offence.
Then came the break and Ancelotti sent on Rodrygo for Camavinga, switching to a 4-3-3. Talk about momentum shift. Rodrigo scored straight away (his first LaLiga goal of the season) on an assist from, of all people, Dani Carvajal with his weaker foot. Then the sense of inevitability set in even after Vinicius’ goal was (bizarrely) disallowed. And while Madrid’s other goals came late — Nacho eight minutes from the end, Benzema in stoppage time — it felt as if it was just a matter of time.
Part of it was Sevilla’s collapse, both physically and mentally, of course. But we’ve seen Real Madrid turn things around enough times to know it’s not an accident. Whether it’s experience, doggedness or unflappability, the sense that they’ll get back into games is real and, most of the time, the opposition feels it, too. And when they can channel that sense, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Squad management matters as Liverpool brush aside Man City in FA Cup semifinal
At this stage of the campaign, the effects of fatigue (mental and physical) are cumulative, so it’s not unusual for one match to be directly influenced by what came before. Liverpool had an extra day’s rest and rested seven players the midweek before their FA Cup semifinal with Manchester City, when they faced Benfica, going into the game with a 3-1 lead. City, on the other hand, were put through the wringer away to Atletico Madrid, advancing on aggregate, but enduring a long psychodrama marked by tension and aggravation.
Pep Guardiola can spin it any way he likes — and he made it known that Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan were unfit and only on the bench to make up the numbers, perhaps to ward off accusations that the FA Cup isn’t quite a priority for him relative to the Premier League and Champions League. But the reality is that there’s nothing wrong with making choices. And if it means Ruben Dias stays on the bench because he’s returning from injury, Zack Steffen gets the nod over Ederson because he plays in Cup games, Riyad Mahrez only comes on seven minutes from the end and Aymeric Laporte and Rodri stay rooted to the bench, so be it. They are calculated risks, so why not own the decision?
A more pertinent question, perhaps, is ask why City have two fewer players now — Benjamin Mendy is suspended and Ferran Torres is at Barcelona — than they did when the season started and yet made no effort to add to the squad. Or why, for somebody who talks regularly about the overexertion of top players and the importance of introducing five substitutes in the Premier League, he rarely uses his full allocation of changes.
What we learned on Saturday boils down to the fact that a fit and rested Liverpool in full force is better than a fatigued, reshuffled City. But then we knew that, and we also know the inverse is probably true too. And if Guardiola delivers on just one of his two remaining targets, few will remember this.
As for Liverpool, the victory came with a small cautionary tale. At 3-0 up, they didn’t kill the game. In fact, City pulled one back early in the second half and Alisson had to make two Alisson-esque saves before Bernardo Silva’s strike in garbage time. Confidence is great, but complacency can be dangerous. We saw a little bit of it against Benfica (from 3-1 to 3-3) on Tuesday too. With margins this thin, best not to take chances.
PSG on brink of title after win over Marseille … and then the work begins
It may not feel like something to overly celebrate given how the campaign panned out, but Paris Saint-Germain’s 2-1 win over Marseille means they’re now on the verge of winning Ligue 1 for the eighth time in 10 years. That’s inevitable given what you expect will be massive changes in the summer: from Kylian Mbappe to Leonardo, from Mauricio Pochettino to Lionel Messi, you’re not sure who’s going to stick around.
The win was a bit of a microcosm of PSG of late. We saw Messi, Mbappe and Neymar line up together and dispense magic (witness Neymar’s delicate touch for the opener or Messi’s disallowed goal), we saw some terrible defending for the equaliser (Gianluigi Donnarumma, but not only him) and we saw VAR controversy resolved by Mbappe’s penalty.
You suspect what this club needs most is stability and clear thinking. Without it, even prodigious talent can only take you so far.
Chelsea leave it late to beat Crystal Palace and advance to Wembley
The FA Cup is all Chelsea have left this season, so it matters that they overcame Crystal Palace 2-0 to set up a rematch of the League Cup final against Liverpool. It matters in terms of how they end the campaign and, possibly, how much clout Thomas Tuchel has vis-a-vis the new ownership (assuming they’re in place by the summer).
There wasn’t much to cheer in terms of performance, particularly in a first half that saw Palace frustrate Chelsea — it made you wonder if the hangover from the Bernabeu might cost them another potential trophy. But to their credit, they kicked up the work rate after the break and it’s no coincidence that both goals came after forcing Palace errors. There should have been a third, of course, but Romelu Lukaku’s finish ended up on the far post, rather than in the goal, which kind of sums up his season.
Juventus serve up another stinker against Bologna
It took a Dusan Vlahovic goal deep in injury time against nine-man Bologna for Juve to avoid defeat at home against an opponent that has won just twice in 2022. And still, Max Allegri talked about a “step forward in the table” that was “important psychologically.”
I think that’s the disconnect right there. Psychological boosts should come from playing well and Juve were poor, by any and every measure. There was a lack of creativity, a lack of chances (despite plenty of shots) as evidenced by an xG which stood at 1.20 to 0.93 in Bologna’s favour at 11 vs. 11 and a general “mail-it-in” vibe, especially in the first half.
Sure, Juventus had one recognised fit midfielder (and it was Adrien Rabiot, to boot) but you can’t explain away performances like this by citing unavailable players. The maddening lack of creativity was down to a lack of patterns of play, and that has to be on Allegri too, not just the players. It sometimes feels as if he’s counting down the days until the end of the season.
On another note, we did see one of the dumbest sendings-off in recorded history: Gary Medel received consecutive yellow cards for dissent for arguing about a penalty the referee was not going to give anyway (and didn’t give). Medel is 34 years old; so much for the notion that age and wisdom always go hand in hand.
Ronaldo hat trick and three points the only things worth celebrating for Man United
It began with a fan protest against the Glazer family, and it ended with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a hat trick against Norwich. In between, the 3-2 win confirmed so many of the things we already know about this club. There were defensive errors, there was at least one David De Gea save that turned one point into three, and there was little cohesion and fewer still patterns of play.
The latter can perhaps be excused, or at least not blamed on the manager. When you’re forced to play a 4-3-3 with Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba and Jesse Lingard in midfield, it’s necessarily going to be disjointed. This looks like an end of season all-star XI, when voters cram in as many attacking players as possible. (Or, rather, it would, if any of those three were having a good season.)
Still, it’s three points and, with Arsenal and Spurs both losing, United’s Champions League hopes are rekindled … at least until you remind yourself that their next game is away to Liverpool at Anfield. At this stage, top four remains an uphill battle (and they have games against Arsenal and Chelsea to come). The best you can do is enjoy Ronaldo while you can and keep counting down the days until Erik ten Hag is announced.
Bayern Munich can win their 10th straight Bundesliga title on Wednesday, but uncertainty remains
The 3-0 win away to Arminia Bielefeld wasn’t what you’d call a professional victory as much as a win prompted by the fact that Bayern are several orders of magnitude more talented. It’s not easy to bounce back when motivation is ebbing and you just suffered a painful elimination from the Champions League, but Bayern cleared the minimum hurdle nonetheless, though there were a few more frights defensively than Julian Nagelsmann would have liked.
Still, it’s time to look forward and while Nagelsmann endured the fans’ fury after the Villarreal game, it’s obvious that the club (rightly) are committed to him for another campaign (if not more). What will be fascinating to see is how they handle the looming contract extensions of Thomas Muller and Robert Lewandowski.
This is a club that minds its pennies, as we know, and when necessary, they can be ruthless (just ask Alaba). It’s a sub-optimal situation for Nagelsmann, not least because while he’ll be consulted, he’ll be leaving the decision to the numbers-crunchers. After 10 straight titles you wonder if, maybe, he wouldn’t be tempted to take a year of rebuilding with a different cast of characters instead of prolonging the drama another 12 months.
Arsenal unlucky at Southampton, but they don’t make their own luck, either …
You can easily conclude that Arsenal were unfortunate to lose 1-0 away to Southampton.
They were without Alexandre Lacazette, struck down by COVID (and no, Eddie Nketiah isn’t quite the same thing), as well as Thomas Partey and Kieran Tierney. They dominated the xG battle (1.78 to 0.73), conceded just two shots in the second half and Southampton only scored thanks to a massive defensive blunder. Throw in Fraser Forster having the game of his life in the Southampton goal and, yeah, that’s how you get beat.
That’s one way to look at it, and it’s not incorrect. But it also fails to note how Southampton, coming off that 6-0 hammering against Chelsea, sat deep with a back five and gave Arsenal the ball, almost daring them to do something with it. And Mikel Arteta’s team didn’t quite do enough, as he himself noted after the game.
Sure, Lacazette (and Partey and Tierney) were missed, but at this stage, folks need to step up. Arteta chalked it up to inexperience, but maybe the issue right now is more one of leadership especially on the back of three straight defeats. Fourth place is still very much in play. Arsenal need to be ready to seize it.
Haaland scores two as Borussia Dortmund run riot and throw in the kids
With Borussia Dortmund’s season over and second place in the Bundesliga all but guaranteed, it makes sense for the club to give space to the next generation. That’s what Marco Rose did in the 6-1 rout of Wolfsburg, starting Tom Rothe (17, who opened the scoring) and bringing on Jamie Bynoe-Gittens (17), Youssoufa Moukoko (17) and Lion Semic (18).
When your business model consists of acquiring gifted young talent and looking to sell them on at a profit, it’s always good to showcase what you have. This is a big summer for Dortmund, and not just because Erling Haaland (who scored twice, taking his season total to 25) is almost certain to leave. Between the players Dortmund may want to shift and the ones bigger clubs covet, it’s easy to see an overhaul coming this summer. Use what’s left of the season to make the best decisions possible … including what you want to do with the manager.
Spurs are poor, but they make life worse for themselves at the end
Having won four league games in a row — and having climbed from seventh to fourth place — things looked set up nicely for Tottenham ahead of their home game with Brighton. Sure, Graham Potter’s crew were coming off a big win away to Arsenal, but equally, they had taken one point from their previous seven outings (and that was a home draw to, ahem, Norwich). They are mid-table, with nothing to play for. Nothing, that is, but pride and wanting to show that they can set up properly and execute properly.
It’s tough to say whether Spurs underestimated them or whether a pressure-free Brighton simply outperformed them. What’s evident is that Antonio Conte had it right post-game when he said: “There are games that if you aren’t going to win, you cannot lose.”
Conceding in injury time, rather than taking the point and living to fight another day, is an obvious no-no. It’s not being conservative; it’s simply being smart in this situation.
Sometimes your eyes deceive you … or how Atletico Madrid got their 98th-minute game-winning penalty
The referee, however, saw something I didn’t and so did the VAR. Up stepped Yannick Carrasco to convert the penalty and give Atletico the three points.
As a result, Atletico stay very much in the race for a top-four spot and showed no ill effects from the Champions League elimination in midweek. (Not a surprise, perhaps, given that in “Chololand,” the City game at the Wanda was treated like a moral victory.) After a sluggish first half, Diego Simeone sent on Carrasco, Matheus Cunha and Antoine Griezmann, and he got the attacking oomph he needed to equalize. The De Tomas Twilight Zone handball did the rest.
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