What a weekend! Liverpool kept the pressure on Manchester City atop the Premier League, Barcelona lost another shocker in LaLiga to put their top-four hopes in a little jeopardy, and Bayern Munich clinched their 10th straight Bundesliga title. Also, Paris Saint-Germain won Ligue 1 (but nobody seemed too happy about it), Inter Milan and AC Milan continued their Serie A title chase and Arsenal added to Manchester United‘s woes with a comprehensive win.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Liverpool’s derby joy | | PSG’s muted title | Issues for Xavi, Barcelona? | Will Gabriel Jesus leave City? | Milan stay in Serie A title race | Arsenal hurt Man United | Spurs running out of steam | Pulisic rescues Chelsea | Inter’s dramatic win | Joaquin’s Copa delight | Napoli crumble
Liverpool’s grinding win over Everton may be most significant if they go all the way
The joke doing the rounds was that Everton turned to the Atletico Madrid playbook for their trip to Anfield on Sunday. And as often happens, there was more than a bit of truth to it. Set up tight defensively, get physical, try to get any edge you can, psychological or otherwise (witness Jordan Pickford‘s first-half time-wasting, later brilliantly mocked by Alisson), push the envelope with the referee (Exhibit A: Anthony Gordon‘s dive which was punished with a caution; Exhibit B: Richarlison’s dive, which should also have been punished with a caution) and try to outlast the opposition.
When you play like this, the goal is to stay in the game as late as possible and hope that something breaks your way. It can be a refereeing mistake, it can be an opposition mistake, it can be a lucky (or brilliant) strike from one of your guys.
It’s not meant to be pretty, and as a long-term strategy, it’s decidedly sub-optimal. But in a one-off game, especially a derby, it can work and in many ways, it did work for a long time. Liverpool’s high-octane attack did not even muster a single shot on goal (let alone on target) in the first 20 minutes. Until Andy Robertson‘s goal after the hour mark, Liverpool’s xG was 0.24. Sure, Everton created little apart from the Abdoulaye Doucoure breakaway and a couple of fizzing Demarai Gray strikes, but it didn’t matter: they were in the game. And in Frank Lampard’s plans, this was supposed to give them confidence.
The problem is that Jurgen Klopp has plenty of weapons to call upon (not just his substitutes, who came on just before the opener, though both Divock Origi and Luis Diaz played a big part) and an experienced, battle-hardened crew. Everton turned it into a battle of nerves and Liverpool were more than up to it. Maybe their 81% possession only yielded two goals: well, they didn’t need any more than that. And while Joel Matip was, in my view, fortunate not to concede a penalty on Gordon — the sort of incident that, in the Simeone/Lampard approach, might have swung the game — it was just a single moment. Football games are full of them and many more broke Liverpool’s way.
With Manchester City thumping Watford 24 hours earlier, this was not a win to take for granted. The way Everton played, it became even tougher. But Liverpool were up to the task. And it’s the sort of day that can give you more confidence than a resounding victory.
Ten titles in a row for Bayern Munich, but the bar’s only getting higher for Nagelsmann
Managing Bayern Munich means having to deal with — and be continually second-guessed by — the Statlers and Waldorfs in the upper echelons of the Sabener Strasse, the club’s headquarters. Taking over Bayern when Julian Nagelsmann did, after the sudden departure of Hansi Flick, with the club turning the financial screws and losing David Alaba to Real Madrid, makes it that much more of a challenge. Throw in the fact that the guy is 34, has never managed under significant scrutiny (let’s face it, Hoffenheim and Leipzig are what they are) and it’s never easy to take over a team filled with “been there, done that” veterans and, well… I think it’s fair to grade Nagelsmann on a curve.
While the critics will bemoan their early DFB-Pokal exit and, especially, the humiliation against Villarreal, Bayern are on pace to finish with their highest points total since 2018 and their second-highest goal total ever. His back three may not convince (not yet, anyway), but the tactical side will come; in the meantime, he showed the personality and grip to maintain a hold on the dressing room and avoid controversy even when the going got tough.
Nagelsmann is the way forward and Bayern, for better or worse, believe it too: hence the massive fee to get him out of his Leipzig contract as well as that five-year deal. (Even Pep Guardiola only got three years.) Critics may minimize his achievement by citing the massive talent (and budget) gap between Bayern and the rest of the league. Fine, but he didn’t ask for the Bundesliga to be this way, and others in his role have looked less convincing than he has.
The test now, obviously, is next season’s Champions League. You assume he knows that.
Saturday’s 3-1 win over Borussia Dortmund emphasised what we already know about both teams. Dortmund were motivated by the big stage and started brightly, but it took a Serge Gnabry strike and a monumental Dan-Axel Zagadou blunder to send them back into their hole. They re-emerged for the second half, cut the lead to 2-1, probably should have had a penalty (for Benjamin Pavard‘s foul on Jude Bellingham) and then conceded again, with more poor defending. I’ve said it before: Borussia Dortmund are a basket case and the summer can’t come soon enough.
As for Bayern, it’s not all plain sailing ahead. Robert Lewandowski‘s future is up in the air: His contract expires in June 2023. Some positions (right-back) haven’t been properly filled for years, and there’s still a lack of depth in key roles. But Nagelsmann can now take them forward with confidence. He’s shown he belongs here.
PSG’s surreal title celebrations after a surreal season (for Messi, too)
The 1-1 draw with Lens mathematically confirmed what we already knew was going to happen: Paris Saint-Germain are French champions for the tenth time. But, man, did it feel weird. Many PSG fans left the Parc des Princes before the final whistle. They’re still angry at the players and the club and preferred to celebrate on their own, away from the stadium. As a result, there was no lap of honour; it would have made no sense in a half-empty ground. Within hours there were reports that Mauricio Pochettino’s sacking was “imminent” (and that he will be happy to go).
Just as weird was the fact that Lionel Messi’s gem of a goal was only his fourth in Ligue 1 this year. The last time he scored fewer league goals in a campaign was 2004-05, back when he was 17 and featured in just seven games, for a total of 82 minutes. He’s 34 now and sure, time passes for everyone. But he won the Ballon d”Or just a few months ago, which makes this level of production (or lack thereof) all the more inexplicable.
In other words, it was a twilight zone season for PSG. Plenty will change (or should change) at the club in the very near future, and the muted celebrations only reflected this.
Third straight stumbles at home for Barcelona as certainties begin to waver
Barcelona boss Xavi is right to note that there’s no common thread to his team’s three consecutive home defeats (Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League, Cadiz and now Rayo in LaLiga). On Sunday, Barcelona conceded early and didn’t play particularly well, but still carved out enough chances that, on another day, would have meant they won. Fine, but that argument works in reverse too. They beat Real Sociedad away in their previous outing in a game they could well have lost. That’s football, that’s the way it works.
They’re still six points clear of fifth place, though the trip to face Real Betis in Seville on May 1 is a classic “can’t-lose” game if you want to avoid a bumpy end to the season. Plus, in football, results can become self-fulfilling prophecies, further stoking stoke fears and uncertainties.
Julien Laurens feels Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang struggled to have an impact in Barcelona’s loss to Rayo Vallecano.
How much worse is this team without Pedri‘s creativity and Gerard Pique‘s leadership? Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s goal return speaks for itself, but is he the type of center-forward Xavi needs, especially in situations where you need creativity and link-up play? Are they running Gavi into the ground?
These are all valid questions, but Xavi has to ensure the negativity doesn’t spiral out of control. At the same time, this is what you call a “teachable moment” for him. I don’t have an issue with managers making unorthodox decisions — like replacing Frenkie De Jong with Nico or waiting to send on Memphis Depay — but when they don’t work out, there has to be a learning curve that goes with it.
My guess is there will be. Xavi is a bright guy who knows this club inside and out, and he also knows where he needs to grow. He’s had highs and lows at Barca, but never as the man in charge. Decisions at his previous club were witnessed by a few thousand people; decisions here are dissected by hundreds of millions.
He’s had barely six months in the big time; he’ll grow into the role. That said, a top-four finish is, for myriad reasons, non-negotiable.
Gabriel Jesus bags four goals as Man City stay top, but what does his future hold?
With an eye on the Champions League and the visit of Real Madrid this Tuesday, Pep Guardiola mixed things up a bit in Manchester City’s 5-1 win over Watford, which keeps them a point ahead of Liverpool at the top of the Premier League. We got to see a Rodri–Fernandinho partnership in midfield, and we witnessed Gabriel Jesus get only his second league start since New Year’s Day. He made the most of it, too, scoring four goals to bring his seasonal total to 11.
He’s an interesting case — one of those footballers who was thought of one way when he arrived and is now seen very differently. He was still just 19 when he arrived from Palmeiras for around $37 million (plus bonuses), and some saw him as the heir apparent to Sergio Aguero: a tricky, dead-eye finisher of a center-forward.
It didn’t work out that way. Not only did he fail to unseat Aguero even when injuries began to limit the Argentine, but Guardiola often opted for an attacking midfielder at center-forward, relegating Jesus to playing out wide. His minutes began to decline, as did his goals, which is inevitable when you’re further away from the penalty area. (According to StatsBomb, his non-penalty goals per 90 went from 0.77 when he first arrived to 0.37 last year and 0.33 this season.)
Shaka Hislop says Gabriel Jesus should swap Manchester City for Arsenal if Mikel Arteta’s rumoured interest is true.
You wonder what comes next. His contract expires in June 2023, and while Guardiola lavishes him with praise for his humility and his work rate, clubs tend to lock up guys they want to keep around. At 25, should City want to shift him, he’d no doubt have a market … but as what? Would he be a center-forward with a more traditional manager? Or is his future now, firmly, as a wide forward?
Regardless of what it means, Saturday reminded suitors that he can still stick it in the net when given the opportunity.
Last-minute heroics keep Milan’s title hopes alive as Pioli waxes zoological
Sometimes, an injury-time winner is a freak of happenstance, a casual accident. And sometimes, it’s fully deserved and a just reward. Sandro Tonali‘s dramatic winner (set up by substitute Zlatan Ibrahimovic) is in the latter category. After a sluggish first half, Milan dominated after the break and grabbed the three points over Lazio that saw them go back to the top of the Serie A table.
Manager Stefano Pioli couldn’t resist a zoological analogy after the final whistle when he compared his team to a pride of lions. “The lion isn’t the smartest animal in the savannah; that would be the chimpanzee, he’s more intelligent. Nor is the lion the biggest animal in the savannah; that would be the elephant. Nor is the lion the fastest animal in the savannah; that would be the cheetah. But guess what? A lion gets hungry; he needs to eat every day.”
I’m not sure the analogy works, Stefano, but who cares? You earned the right to say whatever you like with that second-half performance.
Arsenal burst into top four with more woe on the way for Man United
Shaka Hislop declares Man United out of the top 4 race, with the only surprise being how long they lasted in it.
After winning away at Stamford Bridge, Arsenal got another big three points at home to Manchester United, allowing them to move two points clear of Tottenham in the race for that fourth spot. What you saw in the first half was a team being ambitious and hungry to achieve something, and another that felt like they were counting down the days to the end of the season. But before we get carried away, matches last 90 minutes and the second half, frankly, told a different story: United looked sharper and had Bruno Fernandes converted his penalty (instead of rivalling Jorginho for the worse-taken spot kick of the weekend), we may be telling a different story now.
But the breaks fell to Arsenal (not just the Fernandes penalty, but also the Granit Xhaka long-range screamer) and just as they did at Stamford Bridge, they were clever at exploiting them. And, lest we forget, they’re doing it without Alexandre Lacazette and Thomas Partey (maybe we overrate the value of veteran leadership).
As for United, other than Cristiano Ronaldo‘s 100th Premier League goal and some moments in the second half, there wasn’t much to celebrate. There was a reaction in the second half, but it soon turned sloppy and how Fernandes did not get sent off (for the second game running) remains a mystery.
Tottenham are running out of steam at the wrong time
One shot on target, 1.22 xG and one point tell their own story when it comes to Tottenham’s last 180 minutes of Premier League football against Brighton and Brentford. (If you really want to scrutinize them, their 4-0 win against Aston Villa, the game before these two, was one in which the scoreline didn’t reflect the result.) In fact, the 0-0 draw against Brentford might have turned into defeat like the one at Brighton did if Ivan Toney‘s aim had been marginally better.
Spurs are now fifth, two points behind Arsenal with five games to play. And while they have a better goal difference, there’s no question who has the momentum (and it’s not Spurs).
There was a certain irony in the fact that Brentford’s biggest threats originated with Christian Eriksen — the very same Eriksen who joined Conte at Inter Milan just over two years ago as a “final piece of the puzzle” and ended up being used sparingly by the Italian manager. Now, some are linking Eriksen with a return to Spurs … football is a small world after all.
Shaka Hislop is still taking Spurs over Arsenal for 4th spot, despite their disappointing draw with Brentford.
Pulisic saves the day for Chelsea
Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over West Ham virtually guarantees them Champions League football next season and that’s crucial (also with an eye toward the sale of the club). Break the game down to its component parts — Chelsea’s xG was close to 3 — and this might have felt like a run-of-the-mill win against an opponent who had an eye on their upcoming Europa League semifinal.
It was anything but that. Chelsea produced virtually nothing for the first hour or so, forcing Thomas Tuchel to make a triple substitution with 15 minutes to go, replacing Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Timo Werner and Kai Havertz with Christian Pulisic, Romelu Lukaku and Hakim Ziyech. It felt like a line change in hockey, but it at least shook Chelsea from their slumber.
Lukaku, who looked good in the little time he was given, won a penalty which Jorginho (another evidently still in slumberland) tamely rolled at the keeper. But it was left to Pulisic, well set-up by Marcos Alonso and Mason Mount, to score the winner in injury time.
Mission accomplished and confirmation for Thomas Tuchel that his work for next season begins right now (if it hasn’t already).
Julien Laurens doesn’t believe Thomas Tuchel’s comments that financial sanctions placed on Chelsea prevented them from keeping Antonio Rudiger.
Inter Milan turn it on to beat Roma and stay in pole position for Serie A title
Inter put on the sort of performance against Roma that makes you think momentum really is a thing. It’s not so much the 3-1 victory — which, after Milan’s win on Sunday night, leaves them two points back, but with a game in hand — it’s the way it came about. The first goal came from keeper Samir Handanovic: six passes and seven touches later, Denzel Dumfries was through on goal. The second involved a clinic in players interchanging positions before Marcelo Brozovic smacked it into the top corner.
Roma played their part as well — they were passive and the three-man defence doesn’t seem right for a side that too often gets outnumbered in midfield — but there is no question that Inter, coming off five straight wins, are flying right now. They may or may not win it all, but Simone Inzaghi has done a simply phenomenal job. When they click, they click like few other teams in Europe.
Joaquin legend ends with his Real Betis side lifting Copa del Rey (or does it?)
It took penalties for Manuel Pellegrini’s Real Betis to get the best of a feisty Valencia (is there any other kind under Javier Bordalas?), but it was a deserved win, when you factor in the fact they hit the woodwork twice along the way. The man of the hour, inevitably, was Betis winger Joaquin, who won the Copa del Rey 17 years ago and got to lift it again on Saturday after converting his penalty in the shootout.
Joaquin is a throwback in every sense: an oversized old-school winger who beats you with skill rather than athleticism. It may be why, at 40, he’s still going in his 23rd season of top-flight football. These days, his minutes have fallen and for the first time in his career, he has yet to score a league goal this season. His contract expires in the summer, and while he has hinted at retirement, nothing is quite certain.
After 880 club games (and 51 for Spain), if Joaquin wants to call it a day, he has more than earned his rest. But there’s a part of you that hopes he comes back next season …
Three goals in seven minutes and just like that, Serie A is a two-horse race
With 10 minutes to go, Napoli were 2-0 up at Empoli and cruising. They were third in the Serie A title race, but ready to take advantage if either Milan or Inter stumbled. Yes, they had blown a number of games at home — teams who lose five times at home tend not to win titles — but this was on the road. Surely they weren’t going to collapse again?
Except they did. Liam Henderson pulled one back and almost immediately after that, Alex Meret had his own “Zack Steffen moment” and gifted Andrea Pinamonti the equalizer. Napoli were still reeling when Pinamonti (who happens to be an Inter player on loan) made it 3-2, all of it inside the space of seven terrible minutes.
Only arithmetic is keeping Napoli in the title race, but it’s quite obviously over. What’s not over — and won’t be for a while — is the psychological trauma of a season during which the Serie A title was theirs for the taking. They’re not going to live that down for a while.