Weekend Review: Man United keep drifting, Jota Liverpool’s MVP, Pedri comes up big for Barcelona
What a weekend! With Premier League title chasers Liverpool and Man City winning, Man United were again left frustrated in their chase for fourth place. Elsewhere, Real Madrid rebounded from their Clasico defeat to stay in charge of LaLiga’s title race, though Pedri‘s brilliant goal pushed Barcelona into second.
There was also plenty of drama in the Bundesliga and Serie A, so here are Mark Ogden, Sam Marsden, Bill Connelly and James Tyler with what you need to know from around Europe.
Go to: Talking points | Top goals | Troubled teams | Weekend MVP
Four talking points
What has Rangnick actually achieved at Man United?
Manchester United were three points adrift of fourth place in the Premier League when Ralf Rangnick took charge as interim manager in December, and four months on, they remain three points behind fourth, albeit having played two more games than Arsenal, who now occupy the final Champions League berth.
After being held to a 1-1 draw against Leicester at Old Trafford on Saturday, United are facing the reality of missing out on Champions League qualification. There will also be no silverware to look forward to either, after home defeats in the FA Cup (Middlesbrough) and Champions League (Atletico Madrid) ended their involvement in those competitions since Rangnick took over from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
Underperforming players including Paul Pogba, Marcus Rashford, Harry Maguire and yes, Cristiano Ronaldo, have all borne the brunt of criticism and blame for United’s dismal season, but Rangnick now deserves greater scrutiny because, to be blunt, he has done nothing more than bring more inconsistency and confusion to the club following the sacking of Solskjaer in November. He has made United better, and while Jadon Sancho has shown glimpses of his true self in recent weeks, and Anthony Elanga justified the manager’s faith, the former RP Leipzig coach has seen the likes of Maguire, Rashford and Ronaldo go backward.
Results have also been poor. United have won just four of their past 11 games in all competitions and, since Jan 1, have failed to win six of their 10 games at Old Trafford.
Despite the statistics, Rangnick has escaped much of the negativity surrounding the club, but a man with a reputation as one of the game’s great tactical thinkers has shown himself to be out of his depth at United. — Ogden
Luis Garcia questions the decision to award Real Madrid three penalties in their 2-1 win against Celta Vigo.
Real Madrid aren’t letting LaLiga slip at this point
Real Madrid scored two penalties and missed another one as they beat Celta Vigo 2-1 to disappoint any neutrals hoping for some late title drama in Spain. Defeat to Barcelona in the Clasico before the international break had slightly increased the pressure on the runaway leaders, but they returned to winning ways at Balaidos to maintain their 12-point lead at the top of LaLiga with eight games remaining.
There might not be any drama at the summit, then, but there was plenty in Vigo on Saturday.
Nolito had cancelled out Karim Benzema‘s early penalty to leave the match delicately poised heading into the final 30 minutes. Benzema saw a second penalty saved by Matias Dituro, but he got another chance to earn the three points for Madrid just minutes later when the referee pointed to the spot for a third time, leaving Celta irate. Celta captain Aspas said the first two were “soft” and that the third one, for a foul by Kevin Vazquez on Ferland Mendy, was “never a penalty.”
“If anything the foul was by Mendy,” Celta coach Eduardo Coudet added. “I’m sure Sevilla, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona [the teams chasing Madrid] will be very happy with what they saw in the game.”
For many reasons, Saturday’s win was important for Madrid, who were without coach Carlo Ancelotti after he tested positive for COVID-19. They didn’t just need to bounce back from the Barca loss to quell talks of a title race, but they did need a win after the international break to set them up for this week’s Champions League tie in London against Chelsea.— Marsden
Clinical RB Leipzig crumbles Dortmund’s yellow wall
For the first time in more than two years, the Yellow Wall at Borussia Dortmund‘s Signal Iduna Park was full of people, and in a huge match — both for BVB’s flagging Bundesliga title chances and for RB Leipzig’s chances of a top-four finish — the home team came out on fire. Borussia Dortmund nearly went ahead in the seventh minute when Marco Reus misplayed a prime transition opportunity, but they overwhelmed RBL in the first 20 minutes, attempting five shots to the visitors’ zero and tilting the field to the tune of 48 touches in the attacking third to RBL’s eight.
Having weathered an early storm, however, RBL completely flipped the match around. Konrad Laimer dinked in a transition goal in the 21st minute, then scored off a deflection in the 30th. Christopher Nkunku put the match out of reach in the 58th minute, popping up to assist a late Dani Olmo goal. (For anyone keeping track, Nkunku’s got an incredible 27 goals and 14 assists in all competitions this season.)
It was a brilliantly clinical, counterpunching effort from the visitors. RBL had fallen to 11th in the Bundesliga when they hired Domenico Tedesco to replace Jesse Marsch in early December, but they’ve taken 30 points from 14 league matches since and have charged into fourth place, three points up on Freiburg and four ahead of Hoffenheim.
Both upstarts lost on Saturday — Freiburg to Bayern Munich, Hoffenheim less excusably to Bochum — and combined with Bayer Leverkusen‘s 2-1 win over Hertha Berlin, it might have all but ended what had recently shaped up to be a wild race for third and fourth place.
FiveThirtyEight’s SPI now gives Leverkusen a 91% chance of snaring a Champions League bid, while RBL is now up to 88%. Meanwhile, any pretensions Dortmund had of keeping a title race going until they visited Bayern on April 23 have well and truly vanished. Will Erling Haaland vanish too this summer? — Connelly
Three teams keep scrapping for Serie A title
Of all the title races in Europe’s top leagues, Italy‘s three-team scrap is the only one to rival the Premier League for high tension. It continued this weekend, too, as Napoli‘s 3-1 win over Atalanta to draw level with Milan (who play Monday) was the prelude to a fiery, contentious Derby d’Italia in which Inter Milan won at red-hot Juventus to stay within reach of their rivals.
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Inter’s win was the classic smash and grab — they had one shot on target all game compared to Juve’s five. As if that wasn’t enough, even their game-winning penalty came with added chaos: after VAR determined Inter deserved a spot kick, Wojciech Szczesny saved Hakan Calhanoglou’s first attempt, only for VAR to award a retake deep in first-half injury time. Not all 1-0 games are created equal!
Juve conspired to waste the lion’s share of scoring chances (22 shots and five on target to Inter’s one on target from just five total), with Giorgio Chiellini, Paulo Dybala and Dusan Vlahovic all squandering chances you’d expect them to convert 99 times out of 100. More remarkably, Inter snapped Juve’s brilliant run of form in Serie A, which had seen them not lose since Nov. 27 to slowly creep back up the table from seventh to being within a whisper of joining the title race.
With Milan set to play mid-table Bologna on Monday, the table has the Rossoneri, Napoli and Inter separated by three points with eight rounds of games remaining. Game on, then. — Tyler
Three must-see goals
Eriksen continues his dream comeback
Christian Eriksen continues to make a fairy-tale return to football with Brentford. Having played his first game in February since suffering a cardiac arrest while playing for Denmark at Euro 2020 last June, the midfielder scored his first Premier League goal in the remarkable 4-1 win at Chelsea.
The 30-year-old has done so well for Thomas Frank’s team since his emotional comeback against Newcastle six weeks ago that his four appearances for the Bees have almost seemed routine. Yet his goal at Stamford Bridge was a reminder that every game he plays, and every goal he scores, is a testament not only to the skill of the medical team that saved his life and enabled him to even contemplate a return, but also to Eriksen’s incredible determination to not allow that dreadful incident in Copenhagen to be the moment that defines him.
Inevitably, the latter is always likely to be the case, but Eriksen has somehow been able to ensure that he can still write new chapters on the football field, and his goal against Chelsea is another memorable one. — Ogden
Christian Eriksen scores his first club goal since returning to soccer!
Brentford lead 2-1. There have been THREE Goals in the past 8 minutes!
????: @USA_Network #MyPLMorning | #CHEBRE pic.twitter.com/yzvrBYHquj
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) April 2, 2022
Pedri pulls out another bit of magic for Barcelona
Pedri scored the goal of the weekend in Spain to take Barcelona above Sevilla into second place in LaLiga. The Barca midfielder received the ball just outside the box late in the second half and feigned to shoot on his left foot, sending Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic flying in the other direction. Then he lined up on his right, only for another feint to take defender Diego Carlos out of the picture as well. When he finally did shoot, not even overworked goalkeeper Yassine Bounou could keep his shot out, which arrowed into the corner from 20 yards.
With the 1-0 victory, Barca have now won six league games in a row and are unbeaten in 13 matches in all competitions. It can be no coincidence that Xavi Hernandez’s side have improved so dramatically since January, which is when Pedri, still just 19, returned from injury. — Marsden
XAVINETA IN FULL FORCE!
WHAT A GOAL PEDRI! pic.twitter.com/c1EfKJL7nb
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 3, 2022
Bayern take a direct route to goal
The tweet says it all: look at the ease with which Bayern Munich carved another path through Freiburg to score what would be the decisive third Bayern goal with barely 10 minutes remaining. From Dayot Upamecano‘s boot to the back of the net in the blink of an eye, it was the most aesthetically pleasing “route one” goal as the long ball found Kingsley Coman in a sliver of space, with which he spun back onto his right foot and uncorked an unstoppable low shot beyond a flailing Mark Flekken at his near post.
Such is life when you face Bayern: they can beat you with overwhelming numbers up front, a moment of brilliance from Robert Lewandowski or an artful long ball that leaves you gasping for air. All of which explains why they’re not only nine points clear with six games left this season, but have won the past nine league titles as well. — Tyler
This ball from Dayot Upamecano to Kingley Coman for the finish ???????? pic.twitter.com/OcITCGd6ML
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 2, 2022
Two teams that should be worried
Gerrard bounce has stopped for Aston Villa
Steven Gerrard made an instant impact when he left Scottish champions Rangers to take the manager’s job at Aston Villa last November by guiding his new team to three wins in his first four games. But the honeymoon period is over at Villa Park for the former Liverpool captain, with Saturday’s 2-1 derby defeat against Midlands rivals Wolves marking Villa’s fifth defeat in their past eight Premier League games.
After the defeat at Molineux, Gerrard criticised the performance of his players, saying “you can’t turn up for derbies at half-time.” He also suggested that he’ll make changes to his squad in the summer if the current group are unable to “help me fix it.”
Villa are comfortably mid-table and in no danger of relegation, but a bad end to a season can impact the next campaign and Gerrard needs to find a way to arrest the slump and reignite his team’s fortunes. Gerrard knows how to turn things around — he overcame some tough times at Rangers to eventually win the title at Ibrox — but Villa can’t afford to wait until next season to start winning again. — Ogden
Shaka Hislop worries for Everton’s survival chances after their latest Premier League defeat to West Ham.
Mallorca‘s plummet continues
There was no new manager bounce for Mallorca as Mexican coach Javier Aguirre’s first game in charge ended with defeat against Getafe at the weekend to leave the American-owned club deep in relegation trouble.
Mallorca had a six-point cushion over the bottom three when they beat Athletic Bilbao on Valentine’s Day, but seven straight losses have seen them slip into real trouble. They are now two points from safety with just eight LaLiga games to play. Luis Garcia was sacked as coach before the international break in the hope that a new manager could stop the rot. But not even Aguirre, with all his experience of the Spanish league, could prevent them going down to a Borja Mayoral goal at Getafe on Saturday.
Things don’t get much easier for Mallorca — owned by Robert Sarver, who also owns the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury — in the coming weeks. Next up is Atletico Madrid, while they also face Barcelona and Sevilla in their next six games. — Marsden
Diogo Jota carries Liverpool
As was the case in the famed 2018-19 Premier League title race, it’s pretty clear that any points dropped by either Manchester City or Liverpool will have massive repercussions. It means winning even when you aren’t in your sharpest form. The teams remain separated by just one point after matching 2-0 wins on Saturday — City over Burnley, Liverpool over Watford — but while City were dominant from the start, Liverpool had a sloppy go of it for large portions of their win. They put only three of 20 shots on target and gave Watford a couple of high-quality looks in the middle of the match.
Luckily, Liverpool had Diogo Jota.
That cross by Gomez & header by Jota is pure class. ????
????: @USA_Network, & @NBCUniverso #MyPLMorning | #LIVWAT pic.twitter.com/LI6iHqlNBK
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) April 2, 2022
Jota was at least indirectly responsible for all three of those shots on target. He scored off a gorgeous cross from Joe Gomez in the 22nd minute, and forced a short-range save by Ben Foster late in the first half. With the match still in the balance late, he drew a penalty (via what amounted to an American football tackle by Juraj Kucka) that Fabinho converted in the 89th minute to wrap up the 2-0 victory.
As incredible as Mo Salah has been for Liverpool (28 goals and 10 assists across all competitions) this year, Jota’s contributions have become increasingly important. Only Jordan Henderson has played in more matches than Jota’s 40 (all competitions), and only Salah can top Jota’s 20 goals.
With both Salah and Sadio Mane off the mark on Saturday — they combined for four shots (none on target) and one chance created in 90 minutes following their return from a vital international break in Africa — Jota was Liverpool’s engine on Saturday. It worked out pretty well, too. — Connelly