Barcelona LaLiga progress shaded by legal issues, more
It was another big weekend of drama, talking points and action across Europe’s top five leagues. Barcelona remained on course in LaLiga‘s title race with another big win, though off-field issues loom large and could distract the on-field stars from taking care of business. Man United had to settle for a draw after Casemiro‘s second red card in six weeks, Bayern Munich took a slight edge in the Bundesliga title race, and Napoli stayed way out in front of the pack in Serie A.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)
Elsewhere: Arsenal picked up a big win, Liverpool slumped to another shocking defeat, PSG resumed as usual in Ligue 11 after their latest Champions League exit, and Chelsea got a third straight victory for embattled manager Graham Potter.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Barcelona grind out another win: The title’s close, but court dates loom
All you can control as a player is what you do on the pitch. You imagine Xavi repeated the mantra over and over again to his Barca players before they took on Athletic Bilbao. Real Madrid had defeated Espanyol 3-1 the day before, which meant they were six points behind them ahead of the upcoming Clasico: If they lost this weekend’s game, by the start of April their lead at the top could be whittled down to just three points.
A few days earlier, prosecutors formally accused Barcelona of corruption, fraudulent management and falsification of documentation in the Enriquez Negreira case, with an investigating judge due to decide in the next few days whether they should be charged. And just a few hours before kickoff, Real Madrid announced they too — like LaLiga, like the Spanish government, like the Spanish FA — would be joining any lawsuit as “damaged parties.”
(Until that point, Real Madrid had stayed silent, with cynics suggesting that club president Florentino Perez wanted to stay neutral in a case involving his “Super League ally,” Barca president Joan Laporta. But under pressure from Madrid’s own fans, he likely felt he had no choice.)
Bilbao fans understandably made the most of it during the game. But the Barca players on the pitch heeded Xavi’s words and were unfazed. They can’t affect what might or might not have happened between 2001 and 2018 or what might happen in a hypothetical trial, which could see Barca hit with massive fines or worse. So they zeroed in on the three points and a Raphinha goal delivered them, though not without trepidation.
Athletic hit the woodwork twice, there were a couple of goal-line clearances and Marc-Andre ter Stegen had to don his Superman cape once again. Five minutes from time, Nico Williams‘ equalising goal was struck off by VAR after replays showed the ball striking Iker Muniain‘s arm earlier in the buildup. It might have been the right call — it was certainly close — but it doesn’t account for the ease with which Williams sliced through the Barca lines to beat ter Stegen.
There’s no doubt Xavi realizes this, just as he realizes that a Barca side without Pedri and Ousmane Dembele, and with an “ordinary” Robert Lewandowski (one goal in seven from open play), won’t be able to dominate the way he’d like. But this is where the other great quality of this Barca team comes to the fore: They’re tough, they’re gritty, and they’re not afraid to win ugly.
This approach will likely be enough to deliver them the title. What happens in the court case is anyone’s call. What seems obvious, though, is that it’s in Barcelona’s interests — and therefore Laporta’s, at least insofar as he represents the club’s interests — to clarify this situation as quickly and thoroughly as possible. The relationship with Enriquez Negreira dates to 2001, though it’s the payments between 2016 and 2018 that drew the most attention: nearly 2 million dollars for ostensibly (according to the club’s accounting at the time) providing 33 instances of “preparation of technical videos” and “consulting on technical videos.”
Maybe there’s a good reason for it, but right now it’s not passing anyone’s “smell test.” And it raises questions about Laporta, too, not just because he was Barcelona president between 2003 and 2008 when Negreira was on the payroll, but because when he took over in March 2021 and started “pulling levers” and making cuts, he talked at length about his team of forensic accountants running through the club’s books to highlight every folly of the Josep Maria Bartomeu era.
You can’t help but wonder, though: Did it seem normal to them that they paid the vice president of the referees’ committee more than half a million euros per year?
Casemiro‘s red card incenses Ten Hag as Man United held at home
Did Casemiro deserve to be sent off vs. Southampton?
Shaka Hislop gives his thoughts on Casemiro’s red card in Man United’s 0-0 draw vs. Southampton.
Erik Ten Hag was angry at the final whistle, noting that Casemiro is not a dirty player. Maybe so, but I don’t think you can argue with the red card he received. He went in over the top on Southampton midfielder Carlos Alcaraz and caught his standing leg. Yes, he also caught some of the ball, but when your foot is that high off the ground, it’s going to be a sending off, and rightly so.
Ten Hag blamed the Premier League for wanting intense games but then sending off players for strong tackles. Yeah, but this tackle wasn’t just “strong” — it was “dangerous,” and it’s a safe bet he wouldn’t want opponents tackling Bruno Fernandes or Marcus Rashford that way. Away from the post-match glare of the cameras, I’d expect the Man United manager to reconsider his words.
There was likely an element of frustration, too, because Casemiro now faces a four-match ban and he’s arguably the most difficult United player to replace right now (along with David De Gea and Rashford). With United still gunning for the FA Cup and Europa League, it would have been nice to be in a position to wrap up their top-four spot early. Instead, the risk is getting sucked back into it.
As for the game itself, it was wide open even at 11 vs. 11, and more so after the red card. Southampton hit the woodwork twice, Theo Walcott missed a sitter and De Gea had to make some great saves. At the same time, United also had their chances, and this game could easily have finished 2-2 or 3-2 either way.
In short, it was not a game United controlled, by any stretch. And given how good their recent run has been, it will only irk him further.
Bayern sloppy, but too good for Augsburg … and what about Joao Cancelo?
Bayern were probably still hung over (in a sporting sense) when they took the pitch against Augsburg on Saturday. Mergim Berisha‘s early goal — and maybe the memory of having lost to them in September — shook them awake, and they swiftly sailed to a 4-1 lead before settling for a 5-3 victory.
Critics will point to some of their defensive errors — and there are a lot of those — but you also don’t want to go over the top. After all, an XI with only Joshua Kimmich as a natural central midfielder and attacking wingbacks will always concede a little, especially since it’s not as if they sit back and shut up shop once they take the lead. A more interesting theme as I see it is Joao Cancelo.
– Bayern, LAFC announce player development partnership
Dropped in his past few outings — manager Julian Nagelsmann even said he’s “not a back-three” player — many are predicting Cancelo gets being shipped back to Manchester City when his loan expires this summer. I’m a big fan of what he does on the ball (and even more so after his performance against Augsburg) and, yes, I can recognize his defensive limitations. But when it comes to technical ability — you know, actual skill — I think you struggle to name more than three or four Bayern players who are ahead of him. And with a progressive manager such as Naglesmann at the helm, I’d like to think they can find room for him, even if it means tweaking the setup to mask his deficiencies.
After all, it’s football and we’re talking about footballing ability, right?
Three points, 100 wins for Ancelotti, a nice goal from Vinicius and little else for Madrid
Real Madrid got the job done against Espanyol but again underscored their limits (and their strengths). They started slowly, going a goal down, struggled at the back — especially Eder Militao (goal aside) and Eduardo Camavinga (deployed at left back) — had plenty of fruitless possession and ultimately got the job done thanks to a neat goal from Vinicius, a header and a goal in garbage time.
Along the way, we confirmed what we already know. Without Karim Benzema (and often with him these days), they’re not great at turning oodles of possession (70% this weekend) into clear-cut chances. Fede Valverde’s future probably isn’t wide right up front. This midfield, for all its quality, can tire quickly, and on the flip side, few clubs in the world have an ability to come back and win games like Madrid can.
Ancelotti got to celebrate his 100th Liga win — and in just 137 games (only Pep Guardiola got there faster) — but it felt as if the focus was elsewhere. For a start, Wednesday’s visit of Liverpool — yes, Ancelotti’s side has a three-goal lead, but he’ll never forget how he lost a three-goal lead against Liverpool in the Champions League against Liverpool before — and then on next weekend’s Clasico, which, you imagine, is where LaLiga’s title could be decided once and for all if Madrid slip up.
Trossard’s hat trick of assists powers Arsenal past Fulham
Why Arsenal’s win vs. Fulham was a huge statement in the title race
Luis Miguel Echegaray reacts to Arsenal’s 3-0 win over Fulham in the Premier League.
A last-gasp winner against Bournemouth, a tough 2-2 draw in the Europa League on Thursday night … Arsenal’s road to Saturday’s Fulham game was far from straight forward. And yet they had everything wrapped up by half-time against an opponent who, while missing Joao Palhinha, was nevertheless seventh in the table and had lost just one of their previous eight games.
Leandro Trossard‘s movement and intelligence was instrumental on the day and, in fact, you wonder if Mikel Arteta was only half-joking when he said that Gabriel Jesus (who returned to action after being out since November) had to “earn his way back into the lineup.” Trossard’s skill set is different from the Brazilian player’s, and if anything, it might be a case of having options and being able to attack in different ways with both players in contention for a place.
‘Kvara’ on fire as Napoli win again
Napoli bounced back from last weekend’s defeat to Lazio with a convincing 2-0 victory over Atalanta, which appeared to confirm that, yes, the recent loss was just a blip. Their lead at the top of Serie A is now 18 points — it would dip to 15 if Juve get their points penalty overturned — and there are 12 games to go. Yeah, anything can happen, but, nah, this won’t.
The headlines, meanwhile, belong to one man: Khvicha Kvaratskhelia. He scored the sort of goal that folks will be talking about for a long time — think Dennis Bergkamp against Juventus, that sort of goal.
There are few players who, every time they get the ball, carry with them a sense of anticipation, threat, and the idea that something special could be right around the corner. He’s one of them, and he turned only 22 last month.
Ninety-minute truce makes all the difference for Spurs in top-four race
Why the time is right for Kane to leave Spurs
Janusz Michallik feels Harry Kane needs to leave Tottenham this summer regardless of who is managing the club next season.
There were so many reasons for Spurs to implode. Antonio Conte and the club refusing to commit to each other beyond June. Richarlison complaining about a lack of playing time and calling the season “s—” and Conte not backing down, saying that, yes, he’s had a “s—” season (and maybe that’s why he hasn’t been playing that much). A turgid display over two legs against a Milan side that might not make the top four in Serie A, and their subsequent elimination from the Champions League. The list goes on and on.
And yet, maybe these were also reasons for them to pull together. At least for 90 minutes against Nottingham Forest, which is what they did. Richarlison started and got a hug from Conte. Harry Kane bagged two goals to put the game to bed by half-time. And just like that, Liverpool are six points back and Newcastle four points back (never mind the fact that they have games in hand).
It’s a reminder that in sports, whatever tension might exist within a club and among the fan base, there’s a common goal. And it’s in everybody’s interest to pull together, at least from kickoff to the final whistle.
PSG return to reality with late Mbappe winner as broader uncertainty reigns
A year ago, Paris Saint-Germain played their first game after being knocked out of the Champions League (by Real Madrid) at home, and despite the win, there was anger and booing directed at almost everyone: from Lionel Messi to Neymar, from Mauricio Pochettino to Nasser Al Khelaifi. This year, they were away at Brest, which probably saved them from most of the bile. It certainly wasn’t the performance on the pitch: They took the lead through Carlos Soler, played reasonably well and then conceded an equaliser on a simple counter-attack that showcased all their current defensive struggles. They did get the winner — with Messi setting up Kylian Mbappe — but the fact it came on the counter itself, with Brest pushing for three points, is significant.
– Vickery: Neymar’s future at Brazil, PSG cloudier than ever
There are so many more questions than answers right now. From the future of Messi (whose contract is up) to that of Mbappe (who seems to do as he pleases, including possibly walking out). There’s Christophe Galtier, who may or may not be scapegoated, and the “Football Advisor,” Luis Campos. And there’s defender Achraf Hakimi (accused of sexual assault) and president Nasser Al-Khelaifi (implicated in a “kidnapping and torture” investigation). And finally, there’s the faint prospect of Qatar pulling the plug now that the World Cup is in the rearview mirror and now that a shinier club in a shinier league (Manchester United) is up for sale.
Hard as it may be, the task for PSG is simple. Press on in the league, your only remaining chance of silverware, make your current 10-point lead count and give the supporters something to be proud of. You owe them that, at the very least.
Liverpool’s Jekyll and Hyde act continues at Bournemouth
Did we see the real Liverpool vs. Man Utd or Bournemouth?
Steve Nicol assesses where Liverpool are at after they followed a huge win over Manchester United with defeat to Bournemouth.
In the past month, Liverpool have conceded five at home to Real Madrid and scored seven against Manchester United. In August, they beat Bournemouth 9-0. On Saturday, they lost to that very same Bournemouth team — who were bottom of the table — 1-0, missing a penalty along the way. Inconsistency has been a hallmark of this Liverpool side this season, and Jurgen Klopp appears unclear where to turn to fix things on the fly: It might be better to wait for the summer.
Mohamed Salah did miss a penalty and they did have other chances, but the same mistakes that have been dogging them all year reared their heads again. There is little bite in midfield, where Fabinho continues to struggle. The back four is wobbly (and was at fault for the goal), while up front, there was little intensity other than that displayed by substitute Diogo Jota. It likely wasn’t by design, but rather down to the fact that they were unable to impose their own rhythm on the game and, in fact, it was Bournemouth that slowed it to a pace that suited them.
Barring an Istanbul-style miracle, Liverpool’s season could be over by Wednesday night — except for the race for a top-four finish. You’d think that would be motivation enough in games like these.
Doubts over Rabiot goal aside, Juve ride their young stars to victory vs. Sampdoria
If you’d told me at the start of the season that Juventus manager Max Allegri would play three midfielders — Fabio Miretti, Nicolo’ Fagioli and Enzo Barrenechea — with an average age of 20, I wouldn’t have believed you. Nor would I have believed you if you’d told me in October, when they were eighth in the table with two league wins in eight games, that they’d be back into second place by March. (At least that’s where they would be, if not for the points penalty.)
It’s been that kind of season for Juve. There have been mistakes from Allegri and misfiring stars (Paul Pogba, Dusan Vlahovic, Leo Bonucci), but there has also been the customary resilience. And while this 4-2 victory was far from flawless — Juve went 2-0 up and conceded twice in the space of a minute to reopen the game — and while Adrien Rabiot‘s goal to make it 3-2 should probably have been disallowed (it looked as if he controlled the ball with his arm and his reaction rather suggest he felt the same), it doesn’t change the fact that Juve dominated.
Sure, Sampdoria aren’t a good side and will likely get relegated, but when is the last time Juve put together an xG of nearly 3.0 while taking 24 shots on goal?
Haaland’s finishing takes the day off, but penalty delivers big win for Man City
Michallik questions Haaland despite him scoring again for Man City
Janusz Michallik wonders if Erling Haaland is producing enough in the games Manchester City need him most despite the win vs. Crystal Palace.
Manchester City looked all business and dominated against Crystal Palace, creating tons of chances. The only thing missing? The finishing, which is kind of ironic given whom they signed at great expense (wages + fee + commission) in the summer. But hey, everybody has bad days and Erling Haaland is entitled to a less-than-stellar display time and again. (Call it one of the fringe benefits when you’ve already scored 28 league goals in 26 league appearances this season.)
What mattered is that Haaland had the instincts to step up to the spot and convert the penalty awarded for Michael Olise‘s ill-timed challenge on Ilkay Gundogan late in the game. That’s what winners do: big moments for big players. And he’s very big.
So too was the win. A draw would have left them seven points back with 11 games to go. A mountain to climb, even with a head-to-head coming up. Now, it’s five. Not quite a mountain. More like a steep hill.
Dortmund held in derby as Terzic switches it up with Guerreiro
A derby away to Schalke — who may be second bottom but were undefeated in six games — just a few days after a horrific Champions League exit is a classic “trap” game. Especially when you have to play without your three best wingers (Marco Reus, Karim Adeyemi, Julian Brandt, in whatever order you like to put them).
But Edin Terzic found his solution. He moved Raphael Guerreiro into midfield, not even as a wide midfielder, but as a marauder in a 4-3-3, and the Portuguese international enjoyed his newfound freedom: Heat maps had him in line with center-forward Sebastian Haller for most of the match. That part is probably a one-off; what hasn’t been a one-off of late is Dortmund’s newfound resilience under Terzic. They cut out major defensive errors — other than a massively costly one from Mats Hummels, but he’s fading out of the picture any way — they did not let their heads drop and they showed the ability to bounce back.
Bayern are a better side and might yet win the title, but this Dortmund team look like they can push them all the way.
Chelsea make it three wins on the bounce, this time with a more open performance
Are Chelsea finally taking shape under Potter?
Mark Ogden feels Chelsea are showing signs of significant improvement after an impressive 3-1 win away vs. Leicester.
Maybe it’s the confidence of consecutive victories. More likely, it was the insecurity and weakness of the opponent, especially in goal. Either way, Chelsea’s 3-1 victory over Leicester marked the first time they won three games in a row since the early Graham Potter days of October.
There are still injuries and there are still flaws. They gave up an xG of 2.22, which is not good, but Chelsea showed they could also play more open, possession-oriented football and win. And they scored two great goals from two guys who too often fly under the radar given their ability: Mateo Kovacic and Kai Havertz.
Havertz — the default center-forward at this stage — needed a lift in particular, and a strong finish to the season can make all the difference for him.
And finally … #BasDostWatch
Bas Dost came off the bench for Utrecht and scored in their 2-2 away draw against NEC. He now has seven goals in 14 appearances for Utrecht and is on pace to score 11 goals in the Eredivisie.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.