Arsenal’s gritty win, Mbappe’s weird PSG farewell, more

We’re down to the final days and weeks of the 2023-24 European season, and this weekend still brought plenty to discuss. Arsenal wrapped up a somewhat boring 1-0 win at Man United to ensure that the Premier League title race goes down to the last games next week, while Bayer Leverkusen continue to rack up impressive numbers as they extended their unbeaten run to 50 games this season. Whether they finish the year without a defeat, this is a campaign that will be talked about for years.

Elsewhere we got plenty to discuss around Mbappe’s weirdly muted Paris Saint-Germain send-off, Chelsea‘s three-game winning streak, Max Allegri’s future as Juventus manager and Dortmund’s woeful warmup for the Champions League final.

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It’s Monday. Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

‘Grown-up’ Arsenal get big win at Old Trafford

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with becoming risk averse when the situation calls for it, which is what Mikel Arteta and Arsenal did at Old Trafford on Sunday. For all of Manchester United‘s foibles and deficiencies, Arteta knows all too well that this club — even this under-strength, semi-neutered version of United — can turn into a big banana skin. They have a big crowd than can turn raucous, several individuals who can score out of nothing (fewer than usual with Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford out, but Alejandro Garnacho was still there) and plenty of pride bubbling beneath the surface.

So after a combination of Casemiro‘s absent-mindedness and Aaron Wan-Bissaka‘s poor defending gifted Leandro Trossard the opener after 20 minutes, Arteta saw no need to hit the gas and Arsenal simply focused on controlling the game. With Thomas Partey bolstering the midfield and the home team’s creativity limited to whatever Garnacho and Amad Diallo (combined age: 40) could conjure up in wide areas, the 1-0 result was a fairly dull outing. United had the bulk of the possession, but mustered just two shots on target — and just one shot with an xG greater than 0.09 — while Arsenal focused on keeping the lead and, by extension, the pressure on Manchester City, who travel to face Spurs on Tuesday.

Arsenal can and do play pretty football, but they can also manage games with four center-backs plus Partey, Declan Rice and Kai Havertz. (The latter may be the center-forward in this XI, but he’s also a pressing machine with plenty of nasty in him.). As for United, there’s only so much you can do given the injuries. He shouldn’t be keeping or losing his job based on this performance, nor should the club be evaluating whether he should return based on what happens between now and the FA Cup final, but you wonder if the club see it that way.

The fact that United haven’t been seriously linked with a potential replacement means one of three things. It could be that they are so clever and so good at moving incognito when approaching potential replacements that word hasn’t leaked out (though, as Bayern shows, that’s extremely hard to do). Or it could be that they’re keeping Ten Hag and maybe even giving him a new deal. Or, they need the last two league games and the FA Cup final to figure out what they want to do, which would be an extremely foolish move — for better or worse, Ten Hag has shown you more than enough over two full seasons.



Hislop: Casemiro’s falloff epitomises Manchester United’s season

Shaka Hislop reacts to Casemiro’s blunder that helped Arsenal bag the winning goal over Manchester United.

Mbappe says adieu to PSG, the Parc des Princes in the least satisfying way possible

On Friday, Kylian Mbappé told the world what everybody knew: that he was leaving at the end of the 2023-24 season. On Sunday, he played his final game at the Parc des Princes, where he spent seven years and, probably, established himself as Paris Saint-Germain‘s greatest-ever player.

Talk about anti-climactic. Mbappe was booed by a portion of the PSG supporters (for leaving, presumably) and after opening the scoring, he saw his team lose 3-1 to Toulouse. In this, he wasn’t helped by Luis Enrique, whose starting XI included Mbappe plus 10 guys who warmed the bench for much of the season. It’s not unusual to make changes after a midweek game when you have nothing to play for, but this was supposed be Mbappe’s send-off and resting every single starter other than him seemed somewhere between the vindictive and the tone-deaf.

Nor did PSG (as in the club) prepare any kind of special send-off for Mbappe, who leaves with 256 goals in 306 appearances. All we got was the trophy presentation, with the usual light show and fireworks, plus an orchestra wearing PSG shirts offering up classical music. It was nice and very Left Bank, but nothing Mbappe-specific.

Reportedly, the club would have done something, but given his announcement was only made on Friday, they didn’t have enough time to make arrangements. That’s a bit hard to accept since they knew his contract is up on June 30, they were told in February that he wouldn’t be extending it, and they knew this was his final home game. All of this has led some to speculate that it was tit-for-tat stuff from club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi after he was left off the long list of people Mbappe thanked on Friday night.

PSG, of course, will go on without Mbappe (and he without PSG). You’d just think that after seven years together, they could have coordinated a less awkward breakup.



Gab & Juls left confused by PSG’s ‘strange’ farewell for Mbappe

Gab & Juls discuss PSG’s loss to Toulouse in Kylian Mbappe’s final game at the Parc des Princes.

Bayer Leverkusen make it 50 games undefeated, and the treble is still on

On Thursday, Bayer Leverkusen broke Benfica‘s postwar record of consecutive undefeated games by drawing 2-2 at home to Roma in the Europa League semifinal. Why is the postwar record relevant? Because pre-World War II, there were no UEFA tournaments and dominating domestically is more straightforward.

Some might quibble and bring up the specific circumstances of that Roma draw. Going into injury time, Leverkusen were losing 2-1 in the game but were ahead 3-2 on aggregate, given they had won 2-0 at the Stadio Olimpico. That meant Roma were chasing the game and committing men forward, and that’s part of the reason why Josip Stanisic was able to equalize in the seventh minute of injury time. But heck, that’s football. Sometimes you get the breaks.

Having set the record, I figured they might stumble on Sunday against Bochum away. Bochum aren’t particularly good, but they’re battling to avoid relegation and are therefore highly motivated. And — fun fact — they’re the last team to beat Leverkusen, nearly 12 months ago. Plus, you figured at some point Xabi Alonso’s crew were going to take a breather and rest up for the German Cup final and Europa League final, the other two legs of their prospective treble.

Nope. It helped that Felix Passlack got himself sent off after 15 minutes, but Leverkusen still romped to a 5-0 win, making it 50 games in a row without defeat.

You can only conclude Leverkusen are truly insatiable and looking at what’s ahead, the perfect season looks within reach. They face Augsburg (with nothing to play for) at home, Atalanta in the Europa League final (probably the biggest threat) and then second-division Kaiserslautern in the German Cup final.

Whatever happens from here, they’ll be talking about this team and this season (and this manager) for a long, long time to come.

Quick hits



Is Brahim Diaz better than his Real Madrid backup role?

Luis Garcia offers his thoughts on Brahim Diaz’s future, as Real Madrid’s backup star shines in a 4-0 win over Granada.

TEN — Real Madrid‘s B-team roll past Granada as Éder Militão and Thibaut Courtois both start: Granada found out they were relegated just before kickoff, which never helps morale, but still, the 4-0 hammering — with Brahim Díaz showing, again, that he’s a special player — had to hurt, especially given Madrid’s nine changes relative to the side that beat Bayern. Two of them were Eder Militao and Thibaut Courtois. The former was making his eight appearance (and third start) since returning from injury; for the latter, it was his second start. Inevitably, given that both were (and will be, next season) starters before their injuries, it raises the question of whether Carlo Ancelotti will turn to them in place of Nacho and Andriy Lunin for the Champions League Final. Nacho and Lunin got them there, of course, so you want to reward merit, but equally, the other two are objectively superior players, and your job is to win. Ancelotti may look like a big softie, but he knows he’s paid to deliver. My guess is, provided they stay fit and show no signs of rust, both will start at Wembley. They have another three games to show they’re ready, in addition to what we’ve seen thus far.

NINE — Atalanta are on their way to a “treble” of their own as “the Prince” leads the way: Last season, Charles De Ketelaere become something of a punch line after somehow playing 40 games for Milan and failing to score. This year, he has 13 in all competitions and is playing a key part in Atalanta pushing for their own version of a treble: Champions League qualification in Serie A (after beating Roma 2-1 on Sunday, they’re fifth with a three-point cushion and a game in hand), the Coppa Italia (they play Juventus in the final on Wednesday) and the Europa League (they’re in the final against Bayer Leverkusen). I know it’s not the Big Treble that Manchester City won last season: but when you grade it on a curve and you consider resources, in some ways it’s a comparable achievement.



Nicol: Man City have ‘a queue of players’ waiting to hurt teams

Steve Nicol reacts to Manchester City’s comfortable 4-0 win over Fulham, with defender Joško Gvardiol scoring twice.

EIGHT — Guardiola pulls “new-look” Man City out of the hat, and they trounce Fulham to stay on track for another league title: Based on heat maps and average positions, Manchester City unveiled an unusual set-up with three central defenders, three central midfielders, Phil Foden behind two forwards (Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland) and Josko Gvardiol as a left winger. (There was nobody, bar the occasional visit from Bernardo Silva, on the right wing). Obviously it’s a dynamic sport and formations aren’t fixed, but it was neat to see and speaks volumes for Guardiola’s flexibility — or, when it goes wrong, what the critics call “tinkering” and “overthinking.”) For what it’s worth, Gvardiol revelled in his Jack Grealish-esque role, delivering crosses and scoring two goals along the way. That makes five goals in his last seven appearances for the club, after going some 13 months without scoring.

SEVEN — Rafael Leão and Christian Pulisic come alive in second half to shake up San Siro and the striking fans: Just as they did in the last game against Genoa, Milan’s Ultras were “on strike” — no banners (other than one that read “The Sound of Silence”), no flags, no tifo, no singing. (Their beef? Complicated, but stems from dissatisfaction with the ownership style and communication; it’s meant to emphasise the Ultras’ commitment to the club. That was possibly part of the reason the first half against Cagliari was so muted. But after the break, the Rossoneri came alive, romping to a 5-1 win that prompted big chunks of San Siro to cheer again (but not the Ultras). Oh, and it was just another reminder that in Pulisic (who scored twice) and Rafael Leao (who scored the goal of the day), Milan have two of the best wide players in Europe in the prime of their career. It’s not a long way back to the top.

SIX — Tottenham relegate Burnley to stay alive in top-four hunt: Expectations wax and wane over a season. Last summer, fifth place would have felt like an excellent result for Spurs, but that was before we knew Chelsea and Manchester United would be so bad. Instead, after four straight defeats going into Saturday, it feels like a failure. That’s why their 2-1 win over Burnley was so important. The reaction after a poor first half showed there’s fight left in this team, and it keeps the motivation and hope — Aston Villa, four points clear, have a tough home game against Liverpool — alive. At least until Tuesday night, when Manchester City come to visit …



Why Chelsea need to ‘stop the nonsense’ on Pochettino’s future

Ale Moreno insists Chelsea need to make a decision regarding Mauricio Pochettino’s future at the club as soon as poosible.

FIVE — Comeback at Forest makes it three wins in a row for Chelsea, but is the “plan coming together,” as Todd Boehly says? No, because nobody plans on spending most of the season in midtable, nobody plans on having more than a dozen injuries and nobody plans on getting outplayed by Nottingham Forest. And, presumably, Mauricio Pochettino did not plan on Raheem Sterling — whom he had given just one league start since mid-February — conjuring a goal out of nothing. Chelsea are undeniably still way behind whatever development curve the club had planned for them. That said, other than Cole Palmer (who has been great all season), you’re starting to see genuine progress from some of the other youngsters, from Nicolas Jackson to Malo Gusto. And with two games to go, they still have a shout at European football, which represents serious progress from where they were not that long ago.

FOUR — It’s not just about budgets as Bologna clinch Champions League spot with win over Napoli: This sport is so polarized sometimes that you may feel there ought to be a separate trophy — like weight classes in boxing — for those with limited resources who outperform far wealthier sides. Bologna, who have the 15th-highest wage bill in Serie A, are third in Serie A after their 2-0 road win at Napoli and have qualified for next season’s Champions League. They’re Italy‘s version of Girona, except they’re not part owned by the folks who own Manchester City. Nope: credit the club, credit coach Thiago Motta (who has done it playing attacking, entertaining football and is now wanted by half a dozen big clubs), credit an exceptional keeper (Lukasz Skorupski), credit an old-school winger (Riccardo Orsolini), credit a gifted group of up-and-comers (Riccardo Calafiori, Lewis Ferguson, Joshua Zirkzee and others) and the guys who brought them together, above all sporting director Giovanni Sartori. Brains and ingenuity can trump cold, hard cash, at least some of the time.



Marcotti: Bologna’s UCL qualification the story of the Serie A season

Gab Maroctti and Julien Laurens react to Bologna’s top four finish in Serie A.

THREE — With nothing to play for, Bayern turn to the kids and Zaragoza shines: After the Champions League exit against Real Madrid, Bayern opened it up to the youngsters and the second string. Lovro Zvonarek scored on his debut and we saw Matthys Tel get a rare start, but the most impressive performance came from Bryan Zaragoza. The 5-foot-5 winger has received very few minutes since moving from Granada in January, but he showed just why Bayern picked him up. Some coaches simply won’t play players that size (Tuchel may be one of them, at least when there’s something at stake) but while it’s true you can’t teach height, you also can’t teach some of what he does on the ball. It will be interesting to see whether he’s part of Bayern’s future as something more than a gimmick player or off-the-bench change of pace guy.

TWO — Juventus disappoint again, but at least they’ll have Champions League football next season: Truth be told, they weren’t as bad against Salernitana as the score (1-1 thanks to a late Adrien Rabiot goal against the league’s bottom club) suggests. They actually put together a decent second half and showed determination to win (so much so that they almost lost it on the counterattack), but this a club (and a fanbase) who pride themselves and judging everything by results. And those are far from pretty. This was Juve’s sixth straight game without a victory, and while they amassed 46 points by the midway point of the season, they’ve only mustered 21 in 17 games since then: a by-word for mediocrity. This despite the fact that they didn’t play European football and that Dusan Vlahovic started scoring again after a slow tricky first half of the campaign. The only good news is that they mathematically clinched a spot in next year’s Champions League. Whether Max Allegri will be the one leading them out as manager is very much to be determined.

ONE — With nothing to play for, hungover Dortmund spanked: The club had nothing to play for this weekend, but as individuals, the 10 guys who came in from the team that knocked PSG out of the Champions League had plenty to play for against Mainz. Instead, we got very little other than a 3-0 defeat (with all three coming inside half an hour) against a side fighting to avoid relegation. And yet, you would have thought that the likes of Donyell Malen, Salih Ozcan and Felix Nmecha might want to plant a seed of doubt in Edin Terzic’s mind ahead of Wembley. Evidently not enough, or maybe it’s just a reminder of how much motivation matters even at this level, even with pros.