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A fine weekend of football saw Bayern take control of the German Bundesliga title race with a win over rivals RB Leipzig, while Atletico Madrid’s defeat to Sevilla saw La Liga’s blown wide open. In England, Liverpool destroyed Arsenal as Manchester City continued their march to the title and, in Italy, Inter Milan took advantage of another Juventus slip up.
Sadly, the headlines in Spain were also dominated by an allegation of racism directed at Mouctar Diakhaby as Valencia walked off the pitch in solidarity, only to return shortly after without him
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past weekend of internationals in Europe.
Jump to: La Liga, Spanish FA miss chance | Dortmund UCL hopes hit | TAA at his best | Mbappe, Neymar misfire | Solskjaer hairdryer? | Guardiola’s Plan B | Atletico lose, title race open | Asensio shines | Inter close on title | Juve game in hand vital | Chelsea’s issues | Mourinho mistakes | Milan drop more points | Imanol shows his joy
Bayern show they can gut it out, nine in a row looms
Bayern Munich may well have set up their ninth straight Bundesliga title on Saturday with that 1-0 victory over Leipzig, but it was neither easy, nor pretty. And on a different day — with better finishing from Julian Nagelsmann’s side, especially early in the second half — it could have turned out differently. So while Nagelsmann is correct when he says a draw would probably have been a correct result, there is no argument about who the better side is overall: not his.
What struck me was how well Bayern held up physically and mentally against a hugely motivated opponent that flew out of the gate early. Clashes immediately following an international break are usually marked by physical and mental fatigue — Leipzig’s XI amassed a total of 10 starts on international duty over the previous 10 days; Bayern’s had a whopping 19 — yet while they conceded the bulk of possession, they never felt as if they were being outworked.
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Credit Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka for their leadership in the middle of the park; credit Thomas Muller, who set up the winner (hey, at least he was well rested … Danke, Jogi Low!); credit Hansi Flick for his solution to Robert Lewandowski’s injury-enforced absence. Flick could have shuffled things around, inserting Serge Gnabry or Jamal Musiala into the mix (or moving Muller up front). Instead, he went like-for-like with Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. Not in terms of quality or goal-scoring obviously (fun fact: Lewandowski has scored more league goals in the past 18 months than Choupo-Moting has managed in his 13 year career), but as far as intensity and movement are concerned. This allowed Leroy Sane, Kingsley Coman and Muller to operate as they usually do, which they did to great effect.
As for Leipzig, it will go down as a missed opportunity, but also perhaps a lesson on the value of big-game experience. I’m loath to cite this, because I tend to think — despite what so many football folk who know more than me say — it often gets overrated. However, if there was a game when it felt like Bayern made it count, it was this one. There’s no shame in finishing second to a side like this.
ESPN FC’s Shaka Hislop talks the latest shameful display of racism towards Mouctar Diakhaby in La Liga.
La Liga, Spanish FA miss chance to act over racism
Sometimes, every detail can be correct according to the letter of the law, but the outcome is a hugely flawed big picture. And in a business where optics matter, the major takeaway from Valencia’s game at Cadiz is the image of Mouctar Diakhaby sitting alone in the stands, having been substituted after alleging that he was racially abused by an opponent, Juan Cala.
That image is a stain on the game, and the details of how we got there matter. The referee, David Medie Jimenez, did not have the authority to take action against Cala because, as his report notes, neither he nor his assistants heard the alleged abuse. Diakhaby complained to him, but unless Cala was going to confirm it, the referee — however wrong it feels — could not do anything.
Nor was there any basis to abandon the game, as might have been the case if the abuse had come from the stands and been clearly audible. Nope, this alleged abuse was the most pernicious and cowardly kind, one-on-one, with no immediate third-party witnesses. (Though at least one of Diakhaby’s teammates, Jose Gaya, says he heard it.)
Valencia walked off the pitch in protest and, according to their statement, only returned 20 minutes later because they were told that they risked forfeiting the game if they did not, and because Diakhaby himself urged them to continue.
Again, strictly based on the letter of the law, it’s true that if you walk off the pitch you risk a forfeit, but this feels like a collective failure and a missed opportunity. For example, in those 20 minutes, perhaps Valencia might have come to the conclusion that a stand might be more important than a mid-table game late in the season.
Moreover, perhaps somebody at La Liga and/or the Spanish FA might have picked up the phone and said something to this effect: “These are exceptional circumstances. The world is watching us. We’re going to have a full investigation, of course, but more than that, if you don’t feel comfortable continuing under these circumstances, we will back you 100%.” On Monday, league president Javier Tebas said there will be an investigation.
In comments on Monday, Cala said that “apparently the presumption of innocence doesn’t exist in this country,” adding: “Don’t worry, I’m not going to hide.” Nevertheless, there is a process and it says he is innocent until the facts can be established. He’s entitled to that.
But Diakhaby is also entitled to not endure the humiliation of needing to be substituted, then sitting on his own in silence for reporting that he had been racially abused.
Jurgen Klinsmann joins ESPN FC to have his say as to where Erling Haaland should play next season.
Dortmund’s Champions League hopes hang by a thread
It was just about a playoff for the Champions League. Win and you get within a point, with plenty of momentum behind you. Lose and you’re seven back, with seven to go.
Well Borussia Dortmund contrived to lose 2-1 against an Eintracht Frankfurt side led by a manager, Adi Hutter, who doesn’t get anywhere near as much love as he should and a striker, Andre Silva who — say it softly — has outscored Erling Haaland in the Bundesliga this year.
Let’s leave Haaland to one side, for now. (There will be plenty of time to discuss the road show and speculation over his future elsewhere, but gut instinct still says he’ll be around next season, even if they’re in the Europa League.) Let’s focus instead on how a team with the second-highest wage bill in the Bundesliga can find themselves in this position.
For so long, Dortmund have been praised for their ability to attract and develop young stars that, maybe, you wonder if they’ve come to believe their own hype a little too much. You can’t dump everything on the manager, whether it’s your lame duck veteran (Lucien Favre) or his in-over-his-head (equally lame duck, because you hired Marco Rose to replace him in mid-season) placekeeper, Edin Terzic. Not when you’re assembling a team like a child playing FIFA; not when your senior players go missing; not when you have rotating keepers by necessity; not when you employ Thomas Meunier.
If you think Rose is going to fix everything, think again. This is a collective failure, and even a top-four finish or a Champions League run won’t change that.
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens get heated when discussing Trent Alexander-Arnold’s Euro 2020 hopes.
The real Alexander-Arnold stands up
For much of the season, Trent Alexander-Arnold had well below his best. Blame injuries elsewhere in the back four, blame the month he missed in November, blame the fact that he only turned 22 the month before that and, when you’re that young, even with three campaigns at the highest level under your belt, sometimes you can drop off. But he roared back in a big way on Saturday as Liverpool pummelled Arsenal 3-0.
Jurgen Klopp said Alexander-Arnold had been “devastated” at being excluded from Gareth Southgate’s England team during the international break. It’s unusual for a manager to come out so strongly in favour of his player particularly when — you’d assume — Southgate had reached out to him and told him he was still very much in his plans for Euro 2020. (And if that assumption is wrong, well, that’s on Southgate).
England may have a bunch right-sided defenders — Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, Reece James — but none come close to an Alexander-Arnold at his peak. You would assume this would be obvious and it’s hard to see a guy like Southgate, who is routinely praised for his man-management, somehow being insensitive in breaking the news to Alexander-Arnold. Just as, you’d assume, Klopp would be happy to not see another of his players away on international duty.
Whatever the case, a sterling performance from Diogo Jota against a limp Arsenal sent Liverpool on their way. That second half especially showed how 4-2-4 might be a viable option for Klopp, particularly if Fabinho continues to dominate the midfield. As for the Gunners, manager Mikel Arteta said he was “in shock” and took “responsibility” for the performance, saying it was his “fault” since he set up the team. Yes, Arsenal really were that bad, and the absence of David Luiz, Granit Xhaka, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe weighed heavy.
But think about it for a minute. Luiz turns 34 next month and is out of contract in June; it wasn’t that long ago that Xhaka was seen as the root of all that ails this club; Saka and Smith Rowe are 19 and 20 respectively, and the folks who played in their place are high-priced veterans. Responsibility here goes well beyond Arteta, even if he’s willing to be the fall guy.
Alejandro Moreno says Neymar will never learn to be a leader after his red card for PSG vs. Lille.
Mbappe, Neymar misfire as Lille regain top spot
First off, credit to Lille. The fact that this side are top of Ligue 1 despite racking up enormous debts, changing owners and losing over $300m worth of talent (Nicolas Pepe, Gabriel, Victor Osimhen, Rafael Leao) over the past 18 months is a testament to manager Christophe Galtier’s work.
On Saturday, he outcoached Mauricio Pochettino, thoroughly deserving the 1-0 win, which came courtesy of Jonathan David (who, with all due respect to Alphonso Davies, probably deserves the unofficial title of ‘Canadian Men’s Footballer of the Year’, at least for a season). That said, Pochettino was let down badly by the absence of the injured Marco Verratti, the performance of Kylian Mbappe and the silliness of Neymar, who got himself sent off late on.
Verratti can’t help being hurt, and we can write off Mbappe’s game as a bad day at the office, but Neymar is harder to accept. This was his first start in nearly two months, so some ring rust is understandable. Less understandable is picking up two foolish yellow cards, both for reacting to opposition fouls; first with a hand to the face and then with a shove to the back. I get it. He’s frustrated at being fouled and, maybe, at not being fully match fit.
But it’s been 12 years since his debut and he regularly gets manhandled every time he goes on to the pitch. That’s nothing new … and most of the time, he handles it. That’s why he’s one of the highest-paid players in the world. At 29, he’s there to provide experience and leadership as much as quality. He let himself, and his teammates, down badly. Now, another ban looms as PSG slipped three points back in Ligue 1 and Monaco close in behind them.
Hard to buy Solskjaer’s hairdryer treatment
Did Ole Gunnar Solskjaer channel his inner Sir Alex Ferguson after a first half which saw his Manchester United side a goal down and thoroughly outplayed by Brighton? He hinted as much when he said: “Sometimes after international breaks it takes time [to regain your rhythm] and then maybe the fireworks have to be lit at half-time… Sometimes you’ve got to raise your voice.”
He was grinning when he said this, so take it with a pinch of salt. Some managers shout all the time; some are generally more composed so when they do shout, you tend to pay attention. And some are simply very difficult to picture reading the riot act. Solskjaer is in this latter category.
If he did rant at half-time, it would be dangerous for him to think that made the difference. United were only marginally better in the second half, coming back thanks to Brighton errors and the superior individual quality of their goal scorers (Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood) and goal providers (Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba). And, even then, Brighton should have had a late penalty when Harry Maguire clattered into Danny Welbeck.
Still, on a purely practical level, in a COVID-ravaged season United are second and will likely record their second-highest points total of the post-Sir Alex era. And there’s still a Europa League trophy to play for. At some point it has to all come together…
Janusz Michallik reflects on the performances of Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero against Leicester.
Pragmatic Pep has a Plan B
The two most common knocks on Pep Guardiola were that he was too dogmatic (that old Johan Cruyff quote — “If Plan A isn’t working, Plan B is to stick to Plan A and do it better” — haunts him to this day) and he occasionally overthinks things. They always struck me as a bit contradictory and Manchester City’s win on Saturday offered evidence that while the latter may still be true, the former definitely is not.
Returning from international break against Leicester City was an obvious banana skin. Brendan Rodgers’ side are third for a reason, and while they may be a tad more predictable without the injured Harvey Barnes and James Maddison, they remain a legitimate threat. So Guardiola mixed things up. We saw two holding midfielders — Rodri and Fernandinho — in front of the back four, to mitigate the threat of the counter. And, up front, we saw Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus: while the latter began out wide, it had been ages since the pair started a game together and they helped tie up Rodgers’ back three.
It meant the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo, John Stones, Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling could all be on the bench after their international efforts. And it unleashed guys like Fernandinho and Aguero, both of whom have played little this season and therefore are not short of motivation (and energy). City neutralized Leicester while waiting for their superior quality — check out Kevin De Bruyne’s defence-splitting pass for the second goal — to decide the match.
It’s not necessarily what we’re used to seeing from Pep, but it worked a treat.
Julien Laurens questions Diego Simeone’s tactics after Atletico Madrid’s 1-0 loss to Sevilla in La Liga.
Sevilla blow Liga race open as Simeone faces tough calls
The signs were there before, but Marcos Acuna’s goal (after some great work from the ageless Jesus Navas) to give Sevilla 1-0 win this weekend meant Atletico Madrid have collected 11 points from their last eight games. That’s mid-table form and to make things more frustrating they’ve dropped points against teams like Levante and Getafe during that run, while also being played off the park by Chelsea in the Champions League.
Atletico have been playing badly too — this game was one way traffic and goalkeeper Jan Oblak had to save a penalty as well — and while we’re used to Diego Simeone churning out results with minimum effort, this feels different. They looked confused, shell-shocked and insecure, three traits you don’t usually associated with Simeone sides.
Atletico are very much still in the running and the interesting call to make is whether to stick with the old script of defending and grinding (which yielded results in the past) or continue to pursue playing your way out of it, even though that too hasn’t really worked either.
Asensio shines as Real Madrid win
League games sandwiched between an international break and Champions League knockout round are classic “minimum effort, maximum result” fare, particularly, as was the case for Real Madrid’s game with Eibar, when you’re pitted against supposedly lesser opponents.
This isn’t Zinedine Zidane’s first rodeo and he could only have been delighted by how things went in the 2-0 victory. He deployed his back three without incident (a set-up with the added bonus of giving Marcelo a run-out without putting him in a position where he does damage defensively), rested Raphael Varane and Toni Kroos, and got to enjoy a solid performance from Marco Asensio, his “on-again, off-again” would-be superstar.
Asensio has scored in each of the last three games and while it’s too early to anoint him as an alternative to Karim Benzema, he looked as sharp and effective as he has in a while. He’s as good a candidate as any to take some pressure off Benzema while Zidane waits for Eden Hazard (to get fit), Rodrygo (to mature) and Vinicius Jr. (to learn the art of the end product).
Inter take big step towards title, but Conte right not to be pleased
With Milan dropping points, Inter took a huge step towards their first Serie A tittle in 11 years thanks to their 1-0 win over Bologna — courtesy of Romelu Lukaku’s 20th league goal of the season — and are now eight points clear with a game in hand.
You can make the point that, at this stage, results are all that matter and maybe you’d be right. But this was hardly a sparkling performance and it’s no coincidence that manager Antonio Conte continued to wave his arms and pace up and down like a caged gorilla in the second half.
Simply put, Inter scored first and then went to play on the counter, sitting deep. Bologna had the bulk of possession but lacked the quality to create chances. You can play this way in Serie A against young, mid-table sides like Bologna but not against better sides (and not in Europe). Sometimes, especially post-international break, you just have to take the three points and move on. And that’s what Inter did.
Gab Marcotti looks ahead to Juventus and Napoli’s crunch game in the race for a Champions League spot.
Juventus’ game in hand now a UCL six-pointer
Juventus were held 2-2 by Torino and it could have been worse if their crosstown rivals had been awarded a penalty when Matthijs De Ligt appeared to hack down Andrea Belotti. It’s easy to point to individual errors (Dejan Kulusevski, Wojciech Szczesny) and individual bad decision-making (Weston McKennie, Arthur and Paulo Dybala were all left out after violating COVID restrictions at a party), but when so much of it goes on — and not for the first time this season — there’s a bigger failure.
Andrea Pirlo had called for a reaction after Juve’s shock defeat against Benevento. Fine, the players go away for the international break, they have time to mull it over and this is how they react? By partying as if it was pre-COVID and slipping from one blunder to the next? It’s fair to question Pirlo’s ability to keep his players in line and motivated and that’s not good news for him since the other part of the equation — the new philosophy he was going to install — has been slow in coming as well.
On Wednesday, they have their game in hand against Napoli (Stream LIVE on ESPN+ in U.S.) and the stakes are obvious. Lose and you’re out of the top four, two points back with nine games to go. Pirlo won’t be spared scrutiny either. Juventus are committed to the project and they say they’re committed to him. But a top-four finish is non-negotiable. And the minute they feel that’s in serious jeopardy, you’re no longer safe. Pirlo can ask his old New York City FC teammate Frank Lampard about how Chelsea felt about that…
Chelsea suffer defensively, but issues are further upfield
When you concede five goals — twice as many as you’ve conceded since Thomas Tuchel took over — at home to the second-bottom side in the league, fingers, rightly, get pointed at the defence. Fair enough. Thiago Silva got himself sent off; Kurt Zouma was atrocious; Jorginho and Mateo Kovacic struggled in front of them. But, make no mistake about it, Chelsea’s 5-2 defeat against West Brom wasn’t simply a case of a red card after half an hour and Keystone Kops defending gifting the visitors’ goals.
Chelsea were outplayed by Sam Allardyce’s side and seemed unable to keep the ball at the other end of the pitch. Tuchel’s insistence on a “lightweight” front three led by Timo Werner after his hellish international performances (maybe he thought it would offer a confidence boost?) is also hard to understand against an opponent like this.
The fact that, by the start of the second half, Tuchel had already been forced to burn two substitutions — with Thiago Silva’s red and Christian Pulisic’s weird muscle issue — further limited his options. Is it just a blip? Probably. But given the teams behind them in the table — and, if West Ham win on Monday night, ahead of them — the margin for error is narrowing.
ESPN FC’s Shaka Hislop anticipates the end of the line for Tottenham Hotspur and Harry Kane.
Sometime Mourinho makes mistakes, too
After conceding a late goal against Newcastle United that turned a 2-1 win and fourth place into a 2-2 draw, Tottenham manager Jose Mourinho was asked by BBC Radio why his teams of yesteryear were so good at preserving leads, while this Spurs team has all the solidity of a cardboard battleship. He replied: “Same coach. Different players.”
Undoubtedly true. Joe Rodon and Davinson Sanchez won’t be mistaken for John Terry and Ricardo Carvalho anytime soon. The question is whether it benefits anyone to point out their flaws in public. Maybe Mourinho just made a mistake. Like he appeared to do when he noted that Toby Alderweireld and Serge Aurier were unavailable because, after returning from international duty, they failed to complete their COVID-19 tests in time for training on Friday.
(“I don’t want to say indiscipline … I don’t want to say this …” he said, perhaps oblivious to the fact that he mentioned the “I” word, not the interviewer.)
The curious thing is that, as Belgian journalist Kristof Terreur pointed out, Tottenham’s own social media account featured pictures of Spurs’ training on Friday which showed Alderweireld happily joining in. Evidently it’s not just his defenders who make honest mistakes; it’s also the manager.
Milan drop more points as big hitters struggle
All season we’ve heard how even just getting in the top four would be success for Milan. It is probably true and their early run at the top of Serie A was perhaps destined to come to an end, but the 1-1 draw with Sampdoria should serve as a reminder that, maybe, this squad was deeper than some realize.
On a day when Theo Hernandez gifted the opposition a goal, when Hakan Calhanoglu looked lost, when Ismael Bennacer failed to dictate play and when Zlatan Ibrahimovic looked all of his 39 years, Milan struggled even after the opponents were reduced to 10 men.
Yet when manager Stefano Pioli loosened the shackles and we saw the likes of Jens Petter Hauge, who notched the equalizer, and Pierre Kalulu, Milan looked sharper and even came close to grabbing the winner.
A draw was a fair result, but if there’s one thing you take from it is that, perhaps, they could go even further in trusting some of their kids. And that maybe they shouldn’t be held to ransom over some contract extensions…
Copa winner Imanol shows why it means more for some
Real Sociedad’s Imanol Alguacil chants in his post-match press conference after clinching the Copa del Rey title.
Real Sociedad are the 2019-20 Copa del Rey champions, beating Athletic Bilbao thanks to a Mikel Oyarzabal penalty. They’ll only get to call themselves holders for two weeks because, on April 17, Athletic Bilbao (again) play Barcelona in the 2020-21 final. (Thank COVID for that quirk).
To many neutrals, though, the day will be remembered for what happened after, when La Real coach Imanol Alguacil slipped on a club jersey during the post-game press conference and let out a classic. (It would have worked better in a room full of media rather than over Zoom, but — again — you know what to thank for that.)
Imanol joined the club in 1988, a few months after they won their previous trophy. He played there for 10 years and returned in 2011, working first at youth level and then for the B-team before finally getting his crack at the top job in December 2018, initially on an interim basis and then permanently.
He loves the club. It’s his local club. In an age of itinerant bosses and polarized leagues where money builds success and reputations, you can see why one Copa del Rey at Real Sociedad means as much as 10 trophies elsewhere.