Sports

Real Madrid keep La Liga race wide open, lessons from Man United vs. Man City, how Bayern beat Dortmund


Another wild weekend in soccer passed with drama across Europe’s top leagues. In La Liga, Real Madrid‘s derby draw with Atletico helped keep La Liga’s title race open, though it benefits rivals Barcelona (who won again this weekend), who are just three points off the summit. The Premier League had a remarkable sixth straight defeat for Liverpool, a stunning derby win for Man United over Man City (though don’t read too much into it), and the renaissance of Gareth Bale, who marked a third straight league start for Spurs with two goals in a big win over Crystal Palace.

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In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich and Robert Lewandowski swatted past Borussia Dortmund and Erling Haaland in “Der Klassiker,” plus Juventus and Milan muscled to victories in Serie A and Kylian Mbappe‘s latest winning turn for PSG only prompted more questions over the French star’s future.

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.

Jump to: Real leep La Liga race open | Lessons from United’s derby win | How Bayern beat Dortmund | Klopp’s gamble backfires | Barca keep winning | Juve’s confidence boost | Arsenal going in right direction | Milan’s impressive depth | Leipzig keep pressure on | Is Bale “back?” | Gladbach woes continue | Mbappe’s future


Benzema keeps La Liga title race wide open

If Atletico Madrid somehow do not win La Liga this season, it might be down to this game and that moment, when Karim Benzema and Casemiro reminded the world that Real Madrid — even the limp, emasculated version we’ve seen too many times this season — is going to fight and claw with their fingernails to not relinquish the title. Even if Sunday’s 1-1 draw means — and it might do — sending it over to Catalunya, where Barcelona keep winning, at least in La Liga.

Diego Simeone had set things up according to the tenets of “Cholismo 2.0.” With Kieran Trippier (back after his betting ban) and Yannick Carrasco powering the flanks, Real Madrid were successfully kept on the back foot and Atleti were doing what they’d promised to do: keep players around Luis Suarez and not leave him isolated. And, indeed, it was the Uruguayan who opened the scoring, with the sort of improbable outside of the boot diagonal finish that befuddled the outstanding Thibaut Courtois after a lung-bursting run from Marcos Llorente.

Everything about that Suarez goal summed up what a veteran striker can bring: from the movement between the defenders, to the way he checked his run not to end up offside, to the confidently executed finish that few would have chosen from that position.

The momentum was squarely in Atleti’s favour during the first half. Zidane’s “winger bingo” had turned up Marco Asensio and Rodrygo, but neither was effective as they had to spend so much time tracking back. The veteran midfield of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro was being stretched by Thomas Lemar and Koke. Just after the break, Atleti could have added to their total, but Courtois came up big at least twice. (Thought: if Real’s recent glory years were about the “BBC” of Gareth Bale, Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, this season it’s about the “BCC” of Benzema, Casemiro and Courtois.)

And then, around the hour mark, Simeone made the changes that have likely been haunting him for the past 24 hours. On came Saul for Lemar and Joao Felix for Carrasco. You got the logic behind the moves: fresh legs in the middle of the park, wide spaces for the Portuguese forward to run into. Except it weakened the midfield — Lemar had been outstanding — and harmed the thrust of the left flank. Meanwhile, Zidane had sent on another midfielder (Fede Valverde for Asensio), allowing Real Madrid to establish a permanent supremacy at the heart of the game.

– Report: Benzema goal earns 1-1 draw
– Real Madrid ratings: Casemiro, Benzema stand tall in derby

As a result, Atletico were pushed back, certainly more than Simeone would have wanted and Real grew into the game. And the Bezema-Casemiro partnership — after forcing another great save from Jan Oblak — snatched the late draw.

It was a classic game of two halves, but also one that showed the depth of Real Madrid’s mental and technical resources, as well as the fact that, yes, Zidane can read a game tactically, much better than some of his detractors might suggest.

The draw also means that the big talking point — Felipe‘s handball that was flagged by VAR, but overruled by the referee — somehow becomes less important. I think that’s a good thing. Contrary to what we hear, directives on handball are just that: directives on how you should interpret handling in the box. The key word here is “interpret.” Yes, his arm was away from his body and yes, it struck him below the shoulder. But there remains room for discretion, and most reasonable people would interpret that handball as not sanctionable, particularly given the fact that he was on his way down from jumping and it was very much part of a natural motion.

The fact that it would have fallen to a Real Madrid player had it not struck his arm — as some have argued — is irrelevant. So too is the fact that other officials have given penalties similar to it in the past (including at least one high-profile one against Real Madrid when they played Valencia). That doesn’t make it correct. A maniacal, literal interpretation where directives become laws is not in the spirit of the game and not what IFAB intended.

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Janusz Michallik praises Karim Benzema after his late equaliser against Atletico Madrid kept Real’s title hopes alive.

And so La Liga’s title race remains open not just for Barcelona, who are three points back, but also to Real Madrid, five points behind. And given the amount of head-to-head clashes left — including El Clasico round 2 in early April — it will stay open even if Atletico win their game in hand against Athletic Bilbao in midweek. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

What Man United’s win vs. Man City means, and what it doesn’t mean

Manchester United fully deserved Sunday’s 2-0 win in the Manchester derby, which halted City’s streak at 21 consecutive victories in all competitions. United took an early lead, defended very well throughout, were excellent in transition and if Anthony Martial‘s aim had been any better, they might even have scored more.

The fact that they did it without their three highest-paid players — goalkeeper David De Gea, midfielder Paul Pogba and forward Edinson Cavani — doesn’t mean they can comfortably do without them, or without strengthening the side in the summer. (Just in case you were getting any ideas, Joel and Avram Glazer…) Rather, it simply underscores how when United can play to their strengths and do the things they do well, they can beat arguably the best team in Europe (and relatively comfortably, too).

What was so striking about the win was how different they looked relative to Wednesday night against Crystal Palace when, after a decent opening half hour, they fell away physically and competitively and were held to a 0-0 draw. That version of United looked spent and fatigued; the United we saw Sunday looked as if they were wiling to run through a brick wall.

Man United’s win shows how far they’ve come, have to go
– Man United ratings: Shaw, Martial superb
– Man City ratings: Jesus 5/10 as winning streak ends

I have no idea if Ole Gunnar Solskjaer used Wednesday night as some sort of motivational tool, and I wouldn’t expect United to maintain this work-rate every game. But knowing you can play like this — physically and athletically — is a tremendous confidence boost. Because being able to run and work is one-third of the formula. The other two elements are technical ability — here, especially in some areas, there’s plenty of room for improvement — and tactical nous (which is Solskjaer’s department). You’re not going to improve the former until the summer at the earliest and the latter has been steady, rather than spectacular.

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Julien Laurens reveals what Manchester United’s tactics were against City following a post-match interview with Harry Maguire.

You assume Solskjaer won’t get carried away, nor should he. Seven of the XI he started with are the same guys who floundered at Selhurst Park. Scoring after two minutes (like they did Sunday) is a manna from heaven for a club like this one: it remains to be seen how they do when it doesn’t happen, or when the opposition sits deep. But it doesn’t change the fact that, barring some improbable late collapse, they’ll finish in the top three for two straight seasons under Solskjaer, which is better than any of his predecessors since Sir Alex Ferguson managed.

As for City, you imagine Pep Guardiola will treat it like a blip and he’ll be right. Too many of his key men had poor games — namely Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne and Joao Cancelo — and they paid a dear price for individual errors. They’re still the best team around, alongside Bayern Munich, and still have a very legitimate shot at a Quadruple.

But as I pointed out last week, Man City will likely finish the domestic season as one of the lowest-scoring sides Guardiola has ever managed. They’re recording the lowest Expected Goals (xG), the lowest total shots and the lowest xG/shot since he’s been at the Eithad. And it’s not just due to the lack of a productive center-forward, either. The derby may have been an extreme example, but of the 23 shots on goal they had, only two (Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling) looked like legitimate chances. Most of the rest were shots from distance, with little credible build-up.

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Frank Leboeuf says Bayern Munich are UCL favourites over Man City because of how both teams responded to being 2-0 down.

Guardiola himself pointed out that they played far better against United than they did against West Ham (when they won 2-1), so you know he wasn’t getting lulled into a sense of security by the win streak. The question will be whether it’s something that can be fixed between now and the end of the season. And, if it is sorted, how much better City will be.

Bayern vs. Dortmund reflected their respective seasons (and Bayern won)

Talk about cramming six-plus months into 90 minutes. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund showed all the darkness and light of their 2020-21 campaigns into Saturday’s Der Klassiker showdown. Erling Haaland bagged two goals in the first 10 minutes, monstering Jerome Boateng in the process and reminding you just what all the hype is about (and how justified it is). Bayern’s back four took early knocks (and not just them, because they defend from the front, so Boateng & Co. can share responsibility with the likes of Leroy Sane).

– Report: Lewandowski leads Bayern to big win vs. Dortmund
– Rae: Lewandowski reminds Haaland of Bundesliga’s pecking order

But as so often happens, Bayern worked their way back and it was 2-2 at half-time. First, it was down to individual quality — Sane leaving Nico Schulz on the spot to set up Robert Lewandowski — and then, it was a penalty that annoyed Dortmund, but that probably was legit (and that — who else? — Lewandowski converted).

When the second half began, we told ourselves that somehow, Edin Terzic would find the words and savvy to push his young guns to reverse the momentum. For a while, they did, and it looked as if we’d be heading to a 2-2 draw. But then, Bayern took over and it felt like a matter of time until the natural order of the Bundesliga was restored. Sure enough, when Leon Goretzka — who, in a non-Lewandowski universe, would have been Bayern’s Man of the Match — rifled home from the edge of the box. That left just enough time for Lewandowski to add a fourth in garbage time, taking his seasonal total to 37 and his Bundesliga total to 31. He’s nine behind the league record set by Gerd Muller, with 10 games to go, and he’s on pace to break it.

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Jurgen Klinsmann praises the mentality of Bayern Munich after they stormed back from two goals down to beat Dortmund.

In many ways, then, this game reflected what we already knew. Bayern are vulnerable defensively, especially early in games, and that includes Manuel Neuer. But they have a scarily good midfield that, when the front four are clicking, can become almost unplayable. And they have individuals who can routinely win one-on-one battles at any time, from Sane to Alphonso Davies to Kingsley Coman.

Oh, and then there’s Lewandowski…

As for Dortmund, the absences of Raphael Guerreiro and Jadon Sancho weighed heavy (as did those of Manuel Akanji and Axel Witsel), and they have serious defensive issues of their own. The way they dropped deeper and deeper in the second half only invited more pressure, and whether you choose to blame interim boss Terzic or the lack of veteran leadership in the middle of the park — even after Emre Can moved into midfield — the outcome is the same: this team feels flimsy.

The top four is four points away, and they simply need to get into the Champions League next season if they want to avoid a fire sale of young talent before it fully blooms (and before they can get full whack for it). It would be pretty ironic if Marco Rose leaves a Champions League side for one that will be playing on Thursday nights.

Klopp’s approach vs. Fulham could have backfired spectacularly as Liverpool woes continue

Having already set a new, unwanted record of five consecutive home defeats this season, Liverpool bettered it (or, more aptly, “worsened” it) on Sunday, falling 1-0 at Anfield to Fulham to make it six in a row. Make no mistake about it, though: this one was different.

Jurgen Klopp opted to “freshen up” the side (his words) by making seven changes. Officially, two (center-forward Roberto Firmino and defender Ozan Kabak) were enforced (though they seemed more like precautions) but the likes of defender Trent Alexander-Arnold, midfielders Fabinho, Thiago Alcantara and Curtis Jones, and forward Sadio Mane were all left out by choice.

– Liverpool ratings: Salah 5/10 as Reds slump continues
Six points of note about Liverpool’s six-game losing streak

You assume Klopp’s thinking was two-fold. On the one hand, give the reserves a chance to show you what they can do and exploit the fact that they’re better rested. On the other hand, offer a much-needed day off to a number of your key players, perhaps with a view to the Champions League last-16 second-leg with RB Leipzig (Liverpool lead 2-0 on aggregate) this week.

The problem with this approach is that if you get it right, you reap the benefits. People like Nat Phillips, Xherdan Shaqiri and Neco Williams emerge feeling more confident and self-assured. Diogo Jota confirms he’s fully recovered after his long injury. The rested players have more juice not just against Leipzig, but down the stretch, too.

But if you lose, as happened Sunday, you get the opposite effect. You’re reminded — the players are, too — again, of the gap in quality between your first- and second-string (or third-string, in some cases). And you, willingly or not, send two negative messages. One, to Fulham, that you reckon your B-team is good enough to stuff them (and look silly when that doesn’t happen) and another to your players: that you have so little confidence in your team’s ability to defend a 2-0 lead at home against Leipzig that you feel the need to make sure they get a full week’s rest.

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Frank Leboeuf lays into Liverpool’s performance vs. Fulham after they lost yet again at home.

It was a gamble and it blew up in his face, possibly because he’s in uncharted territory here. He’s never been in a situation this “extreme” (his words) and there’s no playbook to get out of it. The reality now, though, is that they’re down to eighth in the Premier League table — ninth if Aston Villa win their games in hand. The top four is just four points away as of Monday morning, but the problem is the four teams ahead of them all have games in hand too. The margin of error is getting increasingly slimmer here.

It would be extraordinary if Liverpool’s best chance of being in the Champions League next season — a year after winning the league so emphatically — were to go out and win it this year… but we’re not that far off from this scenario.

Messi to Alba gets it done and suddenly, Barca are in La Liga’s title race

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Alejandro Moreno credits Barcelona for securing three important points despite a lacklustre performance.

For years, the Jordi Alba to Lionel Messi assist was football’s answer to the John Stockton-to-Karl Malone connection (yeah, I’m showing my age). Messi reversed that against Osasuna Saturday, conjuring up the kind of highlight-reel pass in traffic that you’ll likely see on YouTube for years to come. Alba buried it to give them the lead, before 18-year-old midfielder, Ilaix Moriba, made it 2-0 in the second half with a stunning strike.

– Barca ratings: Moriba’s first goal, Alba and Messi 8/10
– New Barca president Laporta: Messi congratulated me

It wasn’t entirely comfortable for Barcelona. Marc-Andre ter Stegen needed his Superman cape on a couple of occasions, Antoine Griezmann still looks “perdu” and Ronald Koeman had to switch to a back four to protect to help protect the heart of a defence that still looks vulnerable.

But it’s forward progress, building upon the win over Sevilla in the Copa del Rey and, after Sunday, leaving them three points behind Atletico Madrid. Given where Barca were not that long ago, you won’t just take it — you’ll say “moltes gracies” and actually mean it.

Pirlo and Juve get a big confidence boost, making changes and winning without Ronaldo

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Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens preview Juventus’ huge game vs. Porto in the Champions League.

Other than the three points — that obviously are not unimportant — Juventus’ 3-1 win against Lazio gave us two big takeaways. The first is that Andrea Pirlo — regardless of what’s happening around him — is unperturbed and unafraid to make changes. Like putting Danilo in midfield, or Federico Bernardeschi at left-back or Alex Sandro in central defence. It’s the sort of fluidity that Pep Guardiola cherishes, and that makes you look like a genius when it works (it usually does for Pep).

Did it work for Pirlo? Yes and no. For the first 20 minutes or so, Juve were really poor and their comeback had more to do with individuals than whatever scheme he cooked up. But it does matter that he feels free to make these changes. It shows he feels the backing of the club, and it proves he has the guts to continue his experiments.

The other big call was resting Cristiano Ronaldo with the do-or-die Champions League last-16, second-leg clash with Porto — Juventus are 2-1 down from the first leg — in midweek and, effectively, winning the game without him. (They were 3-1 up when he came on with 20 minutes to go.)

Ronaldo had made 12 consecutive starts, playing weekends and midweeks, over the previous six weeks. And he’d been substituted only once: with 15 minutes to go in the Coppa Italia semifinal against Inter. Giving him a breather before Juve’s biggest game of the season to date should not have be cause for controversy. And the fact that, without him, they were able to come from behind to beat a side that was a legitimate top four contender before kickoff, helps snuff out that “Cristiano-dependency” narrative that Juve need like a hole in the head right now.

Confidence matters when you’re rebuilding, and Juve got a big boost in both departments.

Arsenal still taking baby steps, but at least they’re going in right direction

This weekend marked two points dropped for Arsenal against Burnley. It only finished 1-1 thanks to a colossally bone-headed play from Granit Xhaka — who passed it blindly in his own box, his pass deflecting into the net off Chris Wood — and an evident penalty that VAR somehow contrived to miss (the first one on Erick Pieters, I mean — they correctly overturned the second) and yeah, it’s about performance, not just results. And Saturday’s was, on the main, positive.

This is a good thing, because results say Arsenal are 10th and if that doesn’t change between now and the end of the season, you’d have to go back 26 years. That’s why, incidentally, Arteta continues to give the impression of a guy who has put all his eggs in the Europa League basket (hence why we saw Callum Chambers at right-back). After all, winning it is his best chance to get into the Champions League.

Milan show they’ve got more depth than people thought

Milan’s trip to Verona — coming as it did after a laboured draw against Udinese that left them six points behind Inter — was fraught with peril even before you considered the injury list. They were missing Simon Kjaer and Theo Hernandez at the back, Hakan Calhanoglou and Ismael Bennacer in midfield (and Sandro Tonali was banged up on the bench) and Ante Rebic out wide… plus, of course, Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front.

The doom and gloom merchants were out in force; instead, Milan played fast and they played free, and they overwhelmed Verona on their way to a 2-0 win. They played the way they played earlier this season, without Ibrahimovic, when they were churning out results. Credit to Stefano Pioli and credit the players: evidently this team is deeper than some thought it was.

And, evidently, maybe some veterans on expiring contracts — Ibrahimovic, of course, but also Calhanoglou — aren’t quite as indispensable to this club’s future as the media often make them out to be.

Nagelsmann the alchemist keeps RB Leipzig ticking over

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Jan Aage Fjortoft questions if Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller are enough to stop RB Leipzig pushing ahead of Bayern Munich.

Leipzig have eight wins in their last night games — the only time they didn’t was against Liverpool in the Champions League, when they paid a hefty price for individual errors — which means they remain two points back from Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga.

It took them a while to break down Freiburg, who gifted them the opener, but once they got on the front foot, they didn’t look back. We know about Julian Nagelsmann and his big squad and penchant for rotation — goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, Angelino and Dayton Upamecano are the only players who haven’t been on the bench at least once this season in the league — and on this occasion, it was Kevin Kampl, who hadn’t featured in the Bundesliga in nearly a month, who stole the show.

Having so many weapons and being able to deploy them at any time is a huge bonus in a season like this one.

Is Gareth Bale really back?

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Frank Leboeuf believes Jose Mourinho should get the credit for getting Gareth Bale back in form for Tottenham.

Tottenham loanee Gareth Bale has now made three consecutive league starts for his team, something that had not happened since 2019. What’s more, after spending most of the season either on the bench or playing on Thursday nights in the Europa League, he’s been a significant contributor in each of the last three games, capping it off with two goals in the 4-1 win over Crystal Palace on Sunday night.

Mourinho, Spurs reap benefits of being bolder in attack

Cue supporters (including myself) fantasising about what a front three of Bale, Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son and what they might achieve. (We’ll even call them “BKS” in honour of everyone’s favorite K-Pop boy band… think it will catch on?)

I have no idea if this is sustainable. You get the sense that Bale’s body (and maybe his mind) needs to be carefully, patiently and finely tuned, like some expensive medieval violin, if is to produce performances like the stellar ones we’ve seen recently. But I do know it’s a whole heck of a lot of fun while it lasts…

Karma is harsh for Marco Rose, Borussia Monchengladbach

A sterling performance from Mousa Diaby and a goal from Patrik Schick gave Bayer Leverkusen a 1-0 win over Borussia Monchengladbach in a battle of Champions League pretenders. It’s a result that pretty much knocks Gladbach out of the race, and it marks their fifth straight defeat since the club announced that Marco Rose had “opted” to leave them in the summer, despite having a year left on his contract.

There’s no good way to navigate these situations. Managers will move on to what they think are bigger jobs and more attractive employment and, unlike a player, it would be suicidal for a club to try and keep a manager to his contract. But there’s a good way to leave and there’s a bad way, and quite clearly, we saw the latter in this case.

Whether it’s Rose’s fault or the club’s or both is hard to tell, but this is a whole load of bad karma and it will stick around until he leaves town.

Mbappe the star again for PSG as we wait for news on his future

Kylian Mbappe scored twice and Pablo Sarabia added a third as Paris Saint-Germain rolled to a 3-0 win over Brest in the French Cup. There’s not much you’re going to learn in these circumstances, but it confirms the fact that Mbappe is in sparkling form, with seven goals in his last five outings.

He’s going to enter the final year of his contract in June, and while there has been plenty of talk regarding an extension, it’s still up in the air. The difficult part is that committing serious funds while dealing with the fallout from the pandemic (and uncertainty over Neymar‘s future) is a huge ask, but that applies to potential suitors as well.

Pre-pandemic, a 22-year-old Mbappe locked into a long-term contract (he would have had it by now) would have fetched at least $150m, maybe a lot more, on the open market. Today? Nobody knows…



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