The European soccer weekend offered plenty to talk about as per usual, with several league races taking decisive turns. In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich lost at Mainz and Borussia Dortmund thumped Eintracht Frankfurt to retake control of top spot with just five matches remaining. Elsewhere, Barcelona edged out Atletico Madrid 1-0 to more or less end any intrigue in LaLiga‘s title talk.
It was FA Cup semifinal weekend in England, as Man United beat Brighton on penalties and Man City thumped Sheffield United to set up a derby at Wembley on June 3. In Italy, Napoli scored a late win over Juventus that was notable for some questionable VAR decisions, while Rafael Leao scored more goals for Milan and added more pressure to talk of his future.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Reacting in the right way becomes key as Bayern stumble against Mainz and lose top spot
Clubs deal with adversity in their own way. At Bayern, perhaps because stumbles are so rare, the modus operandi is to freak out and speak your mind. We saw it when they drew at home to Hoffenheim and Thomas Tuchel was passive-aggressive-funereal; we also saw it when they got knocked out of the German Cup by Freiburg, and we got it again after the 3-1 defeat away to Mainz.
Club president Herbert Hainer said they “completely fell apart” and “became totally insecure.” Chief executive Oliver Kahn said it would be “a disaster” to end the season without a title. Resident icon Thomas Muller said “he was at a loss” and had “no explanation,” while sporting director Hasan “Brazzo” Salihamidzic said the “defeat is difficult to explain.”
I get that it’s part of being a big club and a massive brand, and German media is chock-full of former Bayern guys who love pointing out today’s mistakes, but it seems counterproductive. In times like these, it’s important to speak with one voice and get your messaging right. I don’t need to know get a tactical analysis from Hainer, the guy who — lest we forget — announced on a Monday that Julian Nagelsmann “would be around for a long time” before sacking him a few hours later. Nor does it help when you say not bringing him silverware would be disastrous and you can’t explain what happened.
Because you can explain it. Mainz are unbeaten in 10 games and have a legitimate shot at a Europa League spot. They’re not going to lie down for you, especially not at home. Despite controlling the game, you didn’t take your chances in the first half to put it away.
Also, this was not the game to play the much-maligned back three. And while neither Thomas Muller nor Joshua Kimmich were playing well, taking them off at 2-1 and replacing them with Mathys Tel and Ryan Gravenberch (who have two league starts between them this season) might have been designed to send a message, but it blew up in Tuchel’s face. Yann Sommer made a big blunder on the first goal (and a smaller one on the third), while defending for the second wasn’t great either.
Each of the above, to varying degrees, contributed to the defeat: take it on the chin and move on. Don’t start talking about “disasters” and the “inexplicable,” because you’re not helping the team and you’re certainly not helping Tuchel either. Talk about how you want to win every game the rest of the way and if Borussia Dortmund drop points, you’ll be ready to take advantage. That’s it, but hey, what do I know: Bayern have won 10 straight league titles (and a couple of Champions Leagues) acting like this, so maybe the hissy fits and Chicken Little routines offer the creative tension they need to excel.
I’ve said before that replacing Julian Nagelsmann — especially with the motivations Kahn and Salihamidzic gave — was a mistake and if it didn’t work out, those two would need to own the decision. So yeah, I think I’m entitled to point out that Tuchel has lost three games in a month, which is as many as Nagelsmann lost all season. Or that he’s only won two of seven.
But equally, Tuchel can’t be the scapegoat here. The buck stops with the people who put this team together, the people who turn the screws on him every time they open their mouths, and the people who got rid of Nagelsmann based on what now feels like a hunch and a whim. By the way: they’re all the same people.
Man United show bounce-back-ability (of sorts) to get to another Wembley final
Onuoha: First all-Manchester FA Cup final will be a spectacle
Nedum Onuoha looks ahead to the FA Cup final after Manchester United beat Brighton on penalties in the semifinal.
It came down to penalties between Brighton and Manchester United in a not-sold-out Wembley (kinda disappointing), and Erik ten Hag’s men prevailed after Solly March‘s miss in sudden death. Their prize is a Manchester derby against City on June 3, and that’s a big deal, especially if they get something out of that game.
Sunday’s match, on the other hand, offered little. Brighton were probably the more enterprising team, albeit only in spurts, while United played like underdogs for much of it, though that’s to some degree understandable. Brighton have a clear identity based on taking the game to the opposition and Ten Hag knew that if he could disrupt them (which he did), he’d give his team the best possible chance of advancing.
United weren’t pretty, but they were effective, and while I often go on about performance rather than results, I don’t think you can blame Ten Hag here for his pragmatism.
Without Raphael Varane, Lisandro Martinez, Harry Maguire (yeah, him too) and Scott McTominay, there was always going to be a lot of insecurity. This speaks to broader issues, like how long it’s going to take for United to get back to where they want to be. Consider their four substitutes: Fred (who I have no issue with, though many do), Jadon Sancho (who has had a nightmare over the past 18 months), Tyrell Malacia (hands up: who had ever heard of him before last summer?) and Marcel Sabitzer (who is on loan from Bayern, where he had zero impact). And no, some of the starters weren’t much better.
Having already won the League Cup, Ten Hag will almost certainly take United back into the Champions League, and he has a shot at another domestic cup. (It’s a long shot, but still …) He has stamped his authority on the team and given the club much-needed direction. If he needs to play like this to get past an in-form Brighton, so be it.
As for Brighton themselves, they’ll be left to wonder what might have been if Deniz Undav‘s first touch had been a bit better in extra-time. But they’re under no illusion: they are one of the success stories of the season.
Raspadori’s late heroics sink Juventus in a game that underscores how not to use VAR
After a humdrum first half in which the two sides effectively canceled each other out, this game (which ended 1-0 Napoli) went the way most expected, with Napoli taking the initiative and Juventus hitting on the break.
Juventus will complain about Angel Di Maria’s disallowed goal (we’ll get to that in a moment), but the reality, again, is that they 64 minutes without recording a single shot at home. And unlike Napoli, who were knocked out of the Champions League last week, they should have been the team on the emotional high having advanced to the Europa League semifinal and having had their 15-point penalty restored.
Instead, we got the usual Allegri cocktail of fear, negativity and safety-first football.
So make no mistake about it, in terms of eye test, balance of play and statistics — Napoli had 1.21 xG to Juve’s 0.42, while recording 17 shots to 7 and 6 shots on target to 3 — this game had only one winner: Napoli. (Never mind the fact that their winning goal came in the 93rd minute, when sub Giacomo Raspadori stylishly converted an Eljif Elmas cross.)
Of course, it’s not just about stats: it’s about incidents and refereeing decisions, too. And when VAR called over the referee to disallow Di Maria’s goal for a foul (Arkadiusz Milik on Stanislav Lobotka) in the build-up, many fans were rightly incensed. And they’re right to be.
I’ve watched it over and over again, and it’s not entirely clear to me who fouls who: in fact, I initially thought the referee played advantage to Juventus. VAR, however, saw a “clear and obvious” error from referee Michael Fabbri, who had originally let the game continue.
Given that Fabbri was just a few yards away, with a very clear view of what happened, this is most definitely not a situation where VAR should have intervened. And frankly, it’s disappointing that Fabbri would then overrule himself after watching the screen because there was no mistake, let alone a clear and obvious one.
It was simply a call that could have gone either way; that can’t be the standard for VAR.
And before the conspiracy theorists have a field day, it’s worth mentioning the instance for which VAR did not intervene, when Federico Gatti punched Khvicha Kvaratskhelia in the side of the head during the first half. Referee Fabbri couldn’t have seen it because there were players in the way. If he had, he would have booked Gatti at a minimum, or more likely sent him off. Why VAR did not intervene for an incident he obviously missed is just a big a mystery as to why they jumped in to disallow the Di Maria goal.
Take it as a teachable moment, I guess…
Ferland Mendy has, of course, had major injury problems this year, so things may change when he’s fully fit. (However, that won’t be until the middle of next month.) But Camavinga has an entirely different skill set than Mendy.
In terms of potential Mendy backups, Carlo Ancelotti has plenty of alternatives that are more similar to Mendy: from Nacho to David Alaba to, in a pinch, Eder MIlitao. That he would choose someone like Camavinga suggests maybe he’s looking for something different in that role.
As for the game itself, Ancelotti made plenty of changes and the supporting cast were actually among the better performers, especially Dani Ceballos and Marco Asensio (both of whom, funnily enough, are free agents in June). They’re playing out the string right now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a great opportunity to find alternatives and for individuals to shine.
Mahrez hat trick paves the way to Wembley for Man City, though maybe things aren’t what they seem
Why Arsenal have to be ‘fearful’ of Man City ahead of crunch clash
Kieran Gibbs and Shaka Hislop explain why Arsenal have to be worried ahead of their game against Man City.
Manchester City are probably the best team in the world. They may well have the best manager (Pep Guardiola), the best goal scorer (Erling Haaland) and, maybe, the best defensive midfielder (Rodri) too. And they are stacked with talent in attacking positions, as Riyad Mahrez‘s hat trick against Sheffield United in their 3-0 FA Cup semifinal showed once again.
Yes: between Mahrez, Julian Alvarez, Jack Grealish, Bernardo Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Phil Foden and Ilkay Gundogan, there’s a veritable murderers’ row of attacking talent … and that’s before you get to that Haaland fellow.
What I’m not buying, though, is the oft-cited trope whereby they have this fabulous strength in depth. Sure, relative to Sheffield United, they do. But the fact that Guardiola has reinvented a center-back like John Stones in central midfield more than halfway through the season suggests that maybe he doesn’t have a Rodri clone to chuck in there. Or consider that an under-the-radar signing like Manuel Akanji is now a regular at the back while Aymeric Laporte, a bona fide regular last year, has made just seven starts in all competitions. And is Kyle Walker, at 32 years old, what he was when they signed him?
My colleague Julien Laurens likes to say this is the most complete team Guardiola has ever had. Possibly so, but I’m not sure it’s the most complete “squad” he’s ever had. And the drop-off between regular and backup in certain positions (defensive midfield, central defense spring to mind) is steeper than it has been in the past.
Dortmund’s big-time bounce-back to the top of the Bundesliga
Borussia Dortmund’s 3-3 draw with Stuttgart last week didn’t just hand control of the Bundesliga to Bayern Munich; it was also the kind of defeat that can leave deep psychological scars. That’s what happens when you’re 2-0 up against 10 men with 12 minutes to go (and, later, 3-2 up in injury time) and fail to win. Self-doubt, insecurity, superstition, belief that God is wearing Bayern colors — all of it can magnify your weaknesses and minimise your strengths.
That’s what makes Saturday’s 4-0 hammering of Eintracht Frankfurt so important. Yeah, Bayern’s defeat at Mainz — which meant Dortmund regained top spot — is huge, but the way Edin Terzic’s crew reacted really stood out. They were determined and mature from the outset against an awkward opponent, coasted to a two-nil lead (how sweet was Jude Bellingham‘s turn for the opener?) and punished Eintracht’s errors to add to their lead.
Their history of self-destruction — and the five games remaining — means nobody should crown the champions just yet. But it’s far to say that for much of the game Saturday, they looked like plausible Bundesliga champions.
Barcelona’s 1-0 win over Atletico Madrid is a symbol of their season as title moves closer
Moreno: LaLiga title race 100% over after Barcelona win
Ale Moreno confidently claims the LaLiga title race is over after Barcelona’s 1-0 win vs. Atletico Madrid.
They’ve racked up a record number of 1-0 wins, they have — by far — the stingiest defence in any Big Five league (just nine goals conceded, and just two of those at home) and this was probably the last key obstacle to navigate around before putting the champagne on ice for their first LaLiga title since 2018-19, so it’s not surprising that, once again, Barca got three points with the smallest of margins.
They weren’t as fluid as they’d like to be, they conceded chances to Atletico Madrid (who were in torrid form coming into the game) and Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to don his Superman cape again, but that’s fine: this was about the result, especially after three games without a victory. And to be fair, they should have a second when Robert Lewandowski put his finish wide rather than squaring it to a wide-open Raphinha.
Maybe it was frustration — since Feb. 1, Lewandowski has scored from open play in just two of 15 games — but that comes with the territory of center-forwards. In a different context, you’d criticise him, here you might as well let it go.
Their gap at the top of the table stands at 11 points with eight games to go. They’re not going to screw this up.
Spurs’ implosion against Newcastle was one for the ages
Gab and Juls stunned by Tottenham’s tactics vs. Newcastle
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Tottenham’s disastrous 6-1 loss to Newcastle in the Premier League.
There’s not much you can say when you go 5-0 down in the first 21 minutes, other than “sorry.” Especially since, other than Jacob Murphy‘s world-class strike to make it 3-0, each of the goals was preventable.
Tottenham interim boss Cristian Stellini said: “Maybe my decision to change the system to a back four was not the right decision …” You think? (In case you weren’t sure, the fact that he yanked Pape Sarr after 23 minutes and ditched the back four offers a strong hint.)
The Champions League chase is just about compromised now, so there’s not much to do but find a new manager for next season and show that you deserve to be a part of next year. As for Newcastle, the 6-1 win is huge and only further fuels enthusiasm in the city. Let them enjoy it. They deserve it for what the team is doing on the pitch and for what the fans have been through in recent seasons.
Rafael Leao power Milan past Lecce … now it’s either extend his contract or let him go
Rafael Leao carried his fine Champions League form with him into Serie A, scoring both the goals that beat Lecce on Sunday and keeping Milan in the top four hunt. It wasn’t a stellar performance from the Rossoneri, but that’s understandable following their Champions League exertions. What mattered is that their star player carried them over the line.
Every day that passes adds pressure when it comes to discussions about Leao’s future. The messaging is always that he wants to stay, that Milan want to keep him and that his contract, which expires in June 2024, will soon be extended. We’ve been hearing this for months.
Milan need to give themselves a cutoff, both in terms of how much they’re prepared to pay him and, if he doesn’t sign, at what point they look for suitors during the transfer window. Leao can easily be a €100 million player this summer if they decide they can’t work out a new deal, but if they dither and carry uncertainty into next season, the risk of losing him to free agency will become very real.
Three set-piece goals and three points: work-in-progress Liverpool will take that
Nicol: Liverpool’s defending vs. Nottingham Forest was shambolic
Steve Nicol reacts to Liverpool’s defending in their 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest in the Premier League.
Liverpool’s 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest wasn’t one for the purists. They scored three times, each on the back of a set piece: Jota‘s first featured three attacking headers in the box, which is not something you see often, while his second, nicely taken, came after the defender completely lost him in the penalty area. They also conceded twice, both times with the aid of a deflection that didn’t go their way, both times after a throw-in they did not defend well.
The Reds showed spirit against a not-very-good side, but not the fluidity of yesteryear, which suggests Jurgen Klopp knows he has to continue to tinker. (We’re seeing evidence of that with Trent Alexander-Arnold increasingly popping up in a midfield playmaking role.) A top-four finish may be too big an ask, but fifth place is in their hands given the upcoming head-to-head clashes against Aston Villa and Tottenham. That’s something worth pursuing as they plan for next season.
Inter Milan trounce Empoli as Lukaku regains his scoring touch
Inter’s 3-0 win over Empoli sees them stay alive in the race for a top-four spot. Just as important, if not more so, was the fact that Romelu Lukaku bagged two goals, both from open play. That is a legitimately big deal given he hadn’t actually scored from open play since the very first week of the season.
Lukaku has been hampered by injuries this year and as often happens with central strikers (especially ones with his size), when your finishing is off, you look especially bad (and get a disproportionate amount of stick). Truth be told, in the past month, if you include his games for Belgium (he scored against both Sweden and Germany, hardly cream puffs), he has eight goals in nine appearances, which isn’t too bad. But what set the Empoli performance apart is that we saw an acceleration and an agility (in “big man” terms, of course) that we hadn’t seen in a long time.
A fit, free-scoring Lukaku is exactly what Inter need, both in Europe and domestically.
… Bas Dost came off the bench for Utrecht and scored in their 3-1 away defeat to Feyenoord. He now has nine goals in 21 appearances for Utrecht and is on pace to score 10 goals in the Eredivisie.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.
Bayern Munich must rally in Bundesliga, Man United book FA Cup final