This weekend in European soccer had it all: title-clinching joy for Real Madrid, title-chasing tension in the Premier League (Liverpool and Man City both won) and in Serie A (Milan and Inter both won as well) and plenty of entertainment in the Bundesliga as Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund both stumbled to humiliating losses for different reasons.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Real’s title win | Foden’s star is rising | Milan still lead Serie A | Liverpool bravery pays off | Barca’s giant step | Bayern phone one in | Chelsea uncertainty | Atletico imploding? | Arsenal win ugly | Inter still in title race | Dortmund humbled | Juve clinch top-four | Son is superb | Napoli fans unhappy
Real Madrid make it 35 league titles, and Ancelotti shows nice guys don’t need to always finish last…
Real Madrid rolled to a 4-0 win over Espanyol to clinch their 35th Liga title, with four games to spare. By that stage, it was a foregone conclusion — all they had to do was avoid defeat — but it wasn’t that way at the start of the campaign. Sure, Barcelona were facing financial implosion (and the trauma of the end of the Lionel Messi era), but defending champion Atletico Madrid had reloaded, adding Rodrigo De Paul, Antoine Griezmann and Matheus Cunha. Sevilla looked sharp early on and, before them, Real Sociedad. You still need to bring it home.
In some ways, that’s been the story of Carlo Ancelotti since leaving Milan. He won league titles at Chelsea, Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain and now Real Madrid (to go with the one he won in Milan), becoming the first manager in history to win each of Europe’s Big Five Leagues at least once. Previously considered by some a “cup specialist” — until six years ago, he had won more Champions League crowns than domestic titles — his Grand Slam of European leagues ought to have put that to rest. Sure, he won with big clubs, but there’s a reason each of them called on him and not someone else.
In an age when the best managers are lauded for their “philosophy” — as if they were to football what Aristotle, Baruch Spinoza and Immanuel Kant are to, you know, reality — he’s seen as a pragmatist and a man-manager, a guy who puts his players first. Which is kinda funny since for the first 10 years of his coaching career, Ancelotti (who had been a disciple of Arrigo Sacchi) was a self-confessed dogmatist who ran Gianfranco Zola out of town because he wouldn’t play as a wing in a 4-4-2, and who turned down a chance to sign a guy named Roberto Baggio because his pressing off the ball wasn’t up to scratch.
In fact, he’s been on a journey and learned that, at this level, it’s sometimes best to listen to your players. He wanted to press high at the start of the season, but then did so only intermittently when he realized the strain it put on his midfielders. He wanted to rotate frequently to keep his veteran stars (Casemiro, Toni Kroos) fresh, but then realized his more important players wanted to play regularly and sitting out affected them… and he listened.
You never quite know how much credit ought to go to a manager — Ancelotti would be the first to tell you it’s not him, it’s the players, at most he can only screw things up — and how much should go to players and circumstances (like Barcelona’s woes or Atleti’s implosion). Sure, Karim Benzema and Vinicius Jr. had the best seasons of their respective (long and short) careers, carrying Madrid offensively. Is it purely them, or does some credit go to the coach? The way his players celebrated with him might suggest they want him to share in the spoils.
Ale Moreno and Luis Garcia hail Real Madrid’s consistency as they secured their 35th LaLiga title with a 4-0 win vs. Espanyol.
It’s also worth remembering that this was supposed to be a transition year for Madrid and that Ancelotti was, after Zinedine Zidane’s departure, the fourth-choice replacement on Florentino Perez’s list. Raphael Varane (Manchester United) and Sergio Ramos (PSG) left the club, Gareth Bale was counting down the days on his contract, Eden Hazard was injured (he still is) and other than Ferland Mendy and David Alaba, the side had not added a legitimate starter since Thibaut Courtois in 2018. The club’s big rebuild was meant to be this coming summer, with many prize free agents coming on the market and the wage bill freed up by the departures of Bale, Isco and Marcelo.
Instead, they won the title and are in a Champions League semifinal. And they squeezed as much as they could out of their veteran core, while riding the verve of Vinicius out wide.
Sure, maybe another guy might have achieved the same at the helm of the club, maybe another dozen or two dozen guys, but it was Ancelotti who was called to do it. And there’s a reason for that.
Phil Foden shines as Man City stay top … what’s his ceiling?
Steve Nicol feels Gabriel Jesus’ sky-high confidence is seeing him hit his best form ever for the club.
Leeds boss Jesse Marsch called it “almost a write-off game” since Manchester City are “the best in the world.” This was after the game, and you imagine it’s not the sort of message he would have sent before kickoff. In fact, with City facing that huge semifinal return leg against Real Madrid on Wednesday in the Champions League and leaving the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Bernardo Silva and Kevin De Bruyne out of the starting lineup and Leeds enjoying raucous support at Elland Road, it was the sort of game where you could (and should) be ambitious.
As it happened, City scored early and turned on the afterburners in the second half, powered by Phil Foden. ESPN’s Tor-Kristian Karlsen recently put him third (behind Erling Haaland and Pedri) in his list of European talents aged 21 or younger, and it’s hard to disagree. It’s not just his technical ability, either; his decision-making and confidence also set him apart.
The fact he doesn’t get more attention is probably down to being at City, where the collective comes first (and where there are plenty of stars), but give it time: at the rate he’s progressing, he’ll get his recognition.
Rafael Leao keeps Milan top of Serie A … but beware Verona…
Milan played an open game against Fiorentina on Sunday, and there were chances on both sides before Rafael Leao notched a late winner. It was his 13th goal of the season in all competitions: not a bad return for a winger, let alone one who is 22, doesn’t take penalties and is still seen as raw and maturing. He’s one of the club’s prized players, and you can expect his importance to grow in the coming years.
As for the title race, Milan are two points clear of Inter and have the edge in the head-to-head tiebreaker with three games to go. But if you’re of a superstitious bent (and let’s face it, this is football we’re talking about), their next match, away to Verona, is the sort that fills you with dread.
In 1973, Milan, top of the table at the time, lost there on the final day of the season, gifting the title to Juventus. In 1990, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan were on their way to winning their second straight European Cup but stumbled in Verona on the penultimate week of the season, while in first place, leaving the title for Diego Maradona’s Napoli.
Just a little history to keep Milan fans jittery …
Klopp is a brave man, and that pays off against Newcastle
Steve Nicol reflects on Liverpool’s current status as they continued their excellent form with a 1-0 win vs. Newcastle.
Maybe it was the confidence from his freshly signed contract extension. Maybe it was the conviction that if things went awry, he could still bring the Liverpool cavalry off the bench. Maybe he knows something we don’t. Either way, I thought it was a bold choice to leave Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara, Mohamed Salah and Trent Alexander-Arnold on the bench away to a Newcastle side that had won four games on the bounce.
Sure, there’s a massive Champions League semifinal second leg against Villarreal coming up, but they’re 2-0 up from the Anfield leg and, of course, are one point behind in the Premier League title race.
As it happened, Klopp’s faith in his side was vindicated, at least in terms of the final result. Liverpool didn’t have the customary energy (that will happen when James Milner starts in midfield), but they were squarely on top, in part because Newcastle dropped off badly relative to recent results. The gamble paid off: Naby Keita scored, three points in the bag and some much-needed rest for some of his overworked stars.
Ansu returns, Memphis shines as Barcelona take giant step towards clinching a top-four finish
Barcelona’s 2-1 win over Mallorca means that it would take the most dramatic of collapses for them to miss out on the Champions League next season. The importance of that to the club’s bank accounts can’t be overstated. The win also snapped a streak of three straight home defeats and yes: that matters too. Meanwhile, their performance reminded us how far this team still has to go.
Barca were neither smooth nor dominant against an opponent still battling to avoid the drop. Xavi, perhaps sensing the mood, started Memphis Depay for only the second time in a league match since December. He scored a great goal and was the standout performer.
Depay might not be a natural fit for whatever Xavi’s vision of football is, but he’s probably the club’s most gifted player not named Pedri, Ansu Fati or Ousmane Dembele, and none of those guys were available to start. Sometimes it’s just a question of getting your best ballers out there.
Bayern’s summer holiday starts early with defeat at Mainz … and Lewandowski the victim
Gab & Juls slam the Bayern Munich players who travelled to Ibiza after losing 3-1 to Mainz.
Talk about mailing it in.
A week after winning the Bundesliga title, Bayern would be excused a bit of a lapse; what you wouldn’t have expected is the sort of timid, disinterested performance we witnessed against Mainz, resulting in a 3-1 defeat. And no, Julian Nagelsmann’s starting lineup wasn’t one of those late season XIs where we see all the kids with the weird, high shirt numbers. Eric Maxim Choupo-Mouting and Marcel Sabitzer got a run out (and Sven Ullreich replaced Manuel Neuer in goal), but otherwise it was pretty much Nagelsmann’s best available XI.
In the grand scheme of things (other than personal pride and traveling fans) it doesn’t matter, except for one thing: Robert Lewandowski‘s hunt for the goal record. He did score one, taking him to 34 (his second-highest total ever), but with just two games to go, he’s not going to equal the mark he set last year (41). It also means that, with his future at the club in doubt beyond next season, Gerd Muller’s career mark (365) is that little bit more securely separated from Lewandowski’s (311). It’s a team game and all that, but you would have thought, given what Lewandowski has offered the club over the years, the players might rally around him a little bit more.
Chelsea’s stumble at Everton leaves a mess of questions and uncertainty
This is not how Chelsea wanted to end their league campaign (and yes, they still have an FA Cup final to look forward to). Sunday’s 1-0 loss at relegation-threatened Everton was their third in their past six league outings. They’re still third, with a five-point margin over fifth-place Spurs, a favourable fixture list on paper and a far better goal difference, so it’s not really about the top-four finish (unless they drop points foolishly again).
It’s about the sense of drift, and it can’t all be explained away by uncertainty over the sale of the club (a process few seem to understand, and that leaves more questions than answers). Thomas Tuchel complained about the club leaking goals, defenders making individual errors and looking like a bundle of nerves (none more so than Cesar Azpilicueta). But you’re tempted to ask: “What do you expect when two of the back three will be free agents at the end of June?”
Further up the pitch, the insistence on the Kai Havertz/Timo Werner combo is also a bit befuddling. Havertz is an unquestioned talent, but does he need to start three games in the space of a week, especially in the cauldron at Goodison Park, with opponents whacking him and winding him up? And if so, does he need to stay out there for 90 minutes at the expense of record signing Romelu Lukaku, who looked good when he came on against West Ham? (As for Werner, the less said, the better).
This club is not in a good place right now, and neither is Tuchel. Some resolution over who owns the club will be a major step in restoring some semblance of normality; until then, it’s going to stay dicey and jittery.
Atletico Madrid’s implosion continues, putting top-four hopes at risk (and that has consequences)
Atletico Madrid turned in another turgid performance in the 2-0 defeat away to Athletic Bilbao this weekend. They’re still fourth in LaLiga, with a four-point lead over fifth placed Betis, but that gap could shrink to just a single point on Monday night. What’s more, the run-in looks brutal: Real Madrid in the derby are next, followed by a trip to Elche, Sevilla at home and Real Sociedad away on the last day of the campaign. That’s the newly crowned champions in a derby, Elche with nothing to play for and two hugely motivated sides in the hunt for top four.
According to reports, a number of players have already been told that if Atletico fail to reach the Champions League, they won’t be back next year. That’s easier said than done: the club have a big squad and look financially stretched already. You wonder whether Diego Simeone will have the confidence and patience for another rebuild.
Arsenal‘s ‘ugly win’ keeps them in top-four hunt …
Shaka Hislop admits he misjudged the spirit of Mikel Arteta’s men as they continue to lead the race for fourth.
Mikel Arteta called Arsenal’s 2-1 win away to West Ham “ugly” but praised his young team’s character. It’s what managers do, and it makes sense. In situations like these, it would be silly, after a win, to note how they looked underwhelming against an opponent who rested a number of regulars with an eye towards the Europa League semifinal return leg.
The fact is that this was a “gut it out” situation and Arsenal did just that, in an away derby. This isn’t the time for pretty, it’s the time for results. And without a center-forward — or, more aptly, a center-forward who fits the scheme and who will be here next season — this is the best they can do right now.
Inter Milan are still lurking … it’s all they can do while waiting for the slip
Given the fragility Inter have shown in recent years (heck, in recent decades), it was by no means to be taken for granted that they’d bounce back from the shock defeat at Bologna that cost them first place. But they did, dispatching Udinese 2-1 in a game that was more one-sided than the scoreline suggests.
There’s a certain freedom when you no longer control your own destiny, and Inter looked confident and carefree against Udinese. That’s what Simone Inzaghi needs to channel between now and the end of the season, rather than thoughts of how they might (or might not) have thrown away the title. And whatever happens, let’s remember that this team lost their manager and two best players less than a year ago. Even without the title, the campaign is a success.
Haaland gets his hat trick, Dortmund humiliated at home: it’s the story of their season
Saturday saw another one of those games where Marco Rose’s Borussia Dortmund seemed determined to sum up their entire season in 90 minutes: Haaland scoring goals (two of them penalties) at one end, atrocious defending at the other. This was even more apparent by the sequence of events. Bad defending saw them go two goals down, Haaland puts them 3-2 up (against the run of play) and then battling Bochum score twice in the last nine minutes to win 4-3.
The Westfalen crowd deserve better, needless to say. Dortmund are second in the Bundesliga, but largely by inertia. The only bright spot? A 17-year-old English kid (and alumnus of Chelsea, Reading and Manchester City) named Jamie Bynoe-Gittens made his first league start and looked sharp. Other than that, their season can’t end soon enough.
Juventus qualify for the Champions League: here’s the worst thing they could do next
I get that part of the narrative around Juventus for most of recent history has been about results and titles and how this, supposedly trumps everything. And there will be some in the Juve-sphere who will point to this season — especially if they beat Inter in the Coppa Italia final — as a success: top four, transition, Cristiano Ronaldo leaving at the end of the window, etc.
Except you hope Juve’s leadership don’t fall into that trap.
Give Max Allegri time, by all means, but don’t kid yourself: this was not a good year, mainly because there was little or no improvement and some of the old, outdated thinking is still there. Sunday was a great example. Two-one up at home with 11 minutes to go against a Venezia team that have just changed managers after losing eight in a row, and what does Allegri do? He takes off his center-forward, Dusan Vlahovic, and sends on his 37-year-old central defender, Giorgio Chiellini, to protect the lead.
This safety-first mentality is not only a gut punch to a guy like Vlahovic (who, lest we forget, is the club’s future), but it also sends a message of fear and insecurity. Not to mention that, statistically, it’s the wrong move. We know that the best way to win a game when you have a one-goal lead is to try to add to your lead, not try to stop the other team from scoring.
Needs must, you say? Fine. Let this be the low point. And rise higher next season.
A word from the Son Heung-Min appreciation society
Shaka Hislop faces a tough question after Son Heung-Min powers Tottenham past Leicester.
Son Heung-Min scored twice and provided the assist for Harry Kane‘s opener in Tottenham’s 3-1 win over an under-strength Leicester, a victory that keeps them two points behind Arsenal in the chase for a Champions League spot.
Son often gets overshadowed because he plays with Harry Kane and because his manager, Antonio Conte, can be outspoken and entertaining. So let’s remind ourselves that this season, Son has more goals from open play than anybody else in the Premier League (19). He’s second in scoring contributions per 90 minutes (0.88), sandwiched between Mohamed Salah (0.96) and Kevin De Bruyne (0.83). That’s good company to keep.
Spurs fans will be left to wonder: “With Son in this kind of form, where might this club be if we hadn’t wasted the start of the campaign with Nuno Espirito Santo and if Kane had not spent the first half of the season in a funk after the failed move to Manchester City?”
Napoli at a crossroads as they secure Champions League spot and fans boo the club president
Napoli’s 6-1 trouncing of Sassuolo ought to have been cause for celebration as it meant they’d be returning to the Champions League after a two-year absence. Yet when you consider the club were firmly in the title race for much of the season, there’s understandably a sense of real regret among the fans. But their annoyance isn’t with the players or even with manager Luciano Spalletti: it’s with club president Aurelio De Laurentiis.
He was booed before, during and after the game. Fans see him as needlessly meddling with the running of the team, stretching out contract renewal talks forever (just ask Dries Mertens) and coming up with outdated solutions nobody wants. (Consider after the Empoli loss, when he said the players would be locked in a training camp “indefinitely” before climbing down and agreeing instead to “team bonding dinners.”)
De Laurentiis has done a lot for this club — let’s remind ourselves where they were before he arrived — but equally, his style of leadership has been tone-deaf in recent seasons. Sometimes, powerful, confident men surround themselves with yes men, become overly sure of themselves and end up making bad decisions.