It has been another brilliant weekend on the business end of European soccer season, so let’s look at the biggest talking points and what you might have missed. Arsenal were stunned at home by Brighton, all but ending the Gunners’ hopes to clinch the Premier League title over the weekend, while Barcelona won their first LaLiga title since 2019 after beating Espanyol. The Bundesliga title race goes on as both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund won their matches in emphatic fashion.
Meanwhile, while domestically they appear to be on different paths, Manchester City on course to win the Premier League and Real Madrid losing the title to Barca, they both have an eye on their Champions League semifinal second leg this Wednesday after a 1-1 draw last week.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Barcelona clinch first LaLiga title since 2019 as future is uncertain but achievement remains
Robert Lewandowski scored twice en route to a 4-2 Barcelona derby win over Espanyol that mathematically confirmed the inevitable: the club’s 27th LaLiga title. There are plenty storm clouds on the horizon given the club’s financial situation as well as the Enriquez Negreira case, which alleges Barca paid off the referee, but that should not take away from their achievement this season and the job manager Xavi has done at the helm.
It’s easy to forget that when Xavi returned to the club as coach in November 2021, he took over a club on financial life support. He may have been a club legend, but he had no experience coaching outside of Qatar and there were legitimate questions about his relationship with president Joan Laporta, whom he did not endorse in the previous election.
Xavi took Barcelona from ninth to second last season and followed up with this year’s title, comfortably eclipsing Real Madrid (who can’t be too shabby, given that they won the Copa del Rey and reached the Champions League semifinal). True, he benefitted from a massive summer transfer campaign that took Lewandowski, Jules Kounde, Raphinha, Andreas Christensen, Marcos Alonso and Franck Kessie to the club, but it’s the way he did things that stands out. Xavi was able to evolve Barcelona’s style of play over the season, adjusting to injuries and loss of form, he gave them a toughness they hadn’t displayed in many years, and he oversaw the continued development of homegrown stars such as Gavi and Pedri while helping turn another youngster, Alejandro Balde, into a Spanish international.
And he did all this while navigating the trauma of early Champions League and Europa League exits, a lifetime’s worth of off-the-pitch controversy and tricky moments such as the exits of longtime stalwarts such as Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets (the former in midseason, the latter at the end).
Talk about growing up quickly and shooting up the steepest of learning curves. When legendary ex-footballers — especially ones inexperienced in management — return home to manage a club there is always a temptation to try to replicate the style and environment of when they were players. Xavi was his own man and struck his own path.
Obviously, titles are about players and here you may have your own standouts. Mine are Marc-Andre ter Stegen in goal, Ronald Araujo and Balde at the back, Gavi and Frenkie de Jong in midfield (the latter, lest we forget, fought to stay at the club when many wanted to cash in on him) and, at different times, Lewandowski and Ousmane Dembele up front. That said, there’s no sticking your head in the sand. The immediate future looks rocky. Barcelona need to generate close to €200m ($217 million) in wage cuts and player sales to meet LaLiga’s cost controls.
And, after Laporta’s “economic levers” last summer, they’ll need to do it while paying 25% of their domestic TV revenue to the investment funds that paid them cash up front in exchange for a chunk of future revenue. If it feels like mortgaging the future, well, that’s what happened. And the fact that some key men such as football director Mateu Alemany are jumping ship despite having another year left on their contract, does not inspire you with confidence. Neither does Laporta himself, every time he talks about bringing Lionel Messi back to the club: a solution that might be romantic but that makes little football sense and, unless he takes some sort of massive pay cut, even less economic sense.
What does inspire confidence is Xavi as well as the club’s legacy of homegrown talent taking the baton from the previous generation via the likes of Pedri, Gavi and Balde. Their youth academy, La Masia, gets a lot of hype so it’s easy to forget that, since Busquets, it didn’t really produce bona fide starters (other than, arguably, Sergi Roberto) for a decade until Pedri came along. Now, it’s churning again and it may offer the club the best hedge against an uncertain future.
City on verge of title after navigating “trap game” that was anything but
Ogden: Hard to see Man City not winning the treble
Mark Ogden says it is hard to see Manchester City not winning the treble after a formidable 3-0 win away vs. Everton.
If there was a game in the run-in where you felt Manchester City might lose points it was away to Everton. It was sandwiched between the two Real Madrid Champions League ties. It came after 10 straight league wins against an opponent who themselves were coming off a 6-1 away win. Everton’s physicality and work ethic made them the sort of side that could trouble City, at least on paper. Everton had taken a point from them at the Etihad no less earlier in the season. Plus, of course, Sean Dyche’s men were fighting to avoid relegation.
Nope. It took City awhile to get going, but they eventually romped to a 3-0 win, with a bit of help from Mason Holgate and a peach of improvisation from Ilkay Gundogan (who also set up Erling Haaland to make it 2-nil and scored a free kick to make it 3-0). It’s a cliche to say they looked like champions and made their pedigree and know-how (not to mention their talent) count, but heck, it’s true. And now they’re on the verge of their fifth Premier League crown in six years. It could come as early as Saturday if Arsenal lose to Nottingham Forest.
Brighton bust Emirates as Arsenal fall out of title race but “proof of concept” remains
Arsenal put in one of their worst performances in recent weeks in the 3-0 loss to Brighton. That, more than the title heading north once again, likely explains why manager Mikel Arteta was so dejected after the game, talking about how he hates “letting people down.”
There’s no debate that they looked poor and we may all have our own views on whether it was down to Brighton coming out with a point to prove (credit to manager Roberto De Zerbi and the players following the 5-1 humiliation at home to Everton in the previous match), whether it was the absence of Oleksandr Zinchenko (Kieran Tierney is a totally different player) or whether it was simply case of a lack of squad depth catching up with them.
But it’s worth remembering two things. Despite everything, Arsenal were still a goal down and in the game until four minutes from time. That speaks to their resilience, even when things aren’t going right. The other is remembering where they came from and the strides they made this year. Think of it as “proof of concept.” They showed they can play to a high level with this system and Arteta’s brand of football. They’ll need tweaks and more players (both starters and reserves) but there’s a framework on which to build and we know it works.
Scant consolation on Sunday perhaps. But something worth remembering too.
AC Milan stumble at Spezia, top four spot now four points away as squad comes face-to-face with ultras
Milan didn’t quite go with the wholesale pre-Champions League rotation away to Spezia, but the outcome was no different from when they dropped points in similar circumstances in recent weeks. They looked listless — especially several of the regulars who started — and were outplayed even before Spezia’s two late goals. Bouncing back in the remaining three games looks a tall order, though maybe not as tall as the other way to get back into the Champions League, which is overcoming the two-goal deficit against Inter Milan and then beating either Real Madrid or Manchester City in the final.
AC Milan talking with their ultras after their 0-2 loss to 18th-place Spezia 👀 pic.twitter.com/ELlMH2K9pw
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 13, 2023
Yet the result was overshadowed by what happened at the final whistle and the next day at the club’s Milanello training ground. When the players went to thank the traveling fans, as they always do, they were called over by the ultras, the club’s hardcore supporters. Coach Stefano Pioli joined them as they listened intently to an ultras leader give them a pep talk. On Sunday, they showed up again, together with other fans, lighting flares and singing songs.
This sort of familiarity between club and ultras makes folks uncomfortable, and with good reason. There’s a history of some ultras groups intimidating players, manipulating clubs (and themselves being manipulated by clubs) as well as violence and hooliganism. Equally, every indication is that there was no criticism from the ultras, just the promise that despite the club’s poor performances they were going to continue to back them. Sort of like a pep rally.
It’s easy to be cynical here, but that’s what Milan are saying. And what we can be sure of is that if it weren’t the case, if they were in fact somehow being intimidated or scared, it would get out. It doesn’t feel like something that should be commonplace, but then these are unusual times.
Roll on Pochettino (if he actually signs) as Chelsea play out the string with 2-2 Forest draw
Can Pochettino help Chelsea bridge the gap in the Premier League?
Craig Burley reacts to the news Mauricio Pochettino is set to become the new manager of Chelsea.
Chelsea’s season, of course, ended some time ago. Mauricio Pochettino has reportedly agreed terms (but not signed yet), Frank Lampard is still in charge as interim manager and, evidently, there’s no real impetus from above in terms of the starting XI. So, against relegation-threatened Nottingham Forest, we saw another reshuffled lineup that rather left you scratching your head as to whether you’re going to learn anything after the 2-2 draw.
Do we need to see Joao Felix (who may or may not be back, try to play centre-forward?) Do we need to see Thiago Silva (who will be back, since he re-upped) run around at 38 years of age? Does it make sense to play Enzo Fernandez in a midfield role that — you hope — he won’t be playing next season?
To me the answer to all these questions is “nope.” But, hey, maybe things will change once Pochettino puts pen to paper and has some input into what goes on at the club. That said, you would have assumed there’s a plan and that Pochettino is part of that plan, rather than a guy who’ll be asked to put a plan together once he signs.
Real Madrid reshuffle pack and win ahead of City second leg
With Wednesday’s Champions League semifinal second leg coming up against Manchester City, it’s not surprising that Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti started just two outfield players who were in his first XI the previous Tuesday: Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga. It’s textbook stuff and it made sense, especially against a physical opponent fighting to avoid relegation.
“This was the type of game we had to play,” Ancelotti said after the game. And he’s right.
A deflected Marco Asensio shot gave them the three points and despite a scare when Camavinga asked to be substituted late on (just a knock, apparently, he’s fine for Wednesday), they came through unscathed. Now, on to bigger things.
Dawson: Mood at Man United could disintegrate if they miss top 4
Rob Dawson feels the mood at Manchester United is on a knife edge as the race for the top 4 heats up.
This wasn’t a game worth writing home about. Wolverhampton Wanderers had avoided relegation for the sixth straight season and there was definitely a “school’s out” vibe in their ranks. (By the way, big shoutout to Wolves head coach Julen Lopetegui: when he took over, they were dead last, four points from safety, now they’re 13th, nine above the drop zone).
Manchester United were without Marcus Rashford, who has as many goals as the next three club top scorers combined, while the likes of Jadon Sancho, Antony and Anthony Martial confirmed why so many are calling out for a serious centre-forward in the summer.
Garnacho isn’t a central striker, but he certainly has plenty of cutting edge. And with United leading 1-0 he came on after missing two months to injury, got himself booked, provided electricity and scored the goal that made it 2-nil, sealing the result. Maybe the lift he offered didn’t matter to the outcome (or maybe it did: we’ve seen defensive errors, refereeing errors and moments of magic from players who sleepwalk through matches change games) but it’s good to know the 18-year-old is around (and locked into a long-term contract).
Bayern roll over Schalke to stay top with possible solution to Muller-Musiala issue
The fact that Bayern rag-dolled Schalke 6-0 isn’t something to be taken for granted. The opponents are fighting to avoid relegation, sure, but they had also won three of their past four games and Bayern’s recent performances in wins against Hertha and Werder Bremen were hardly encouraging. The difference this time? Bayern scored early, which opened up the game, and found a setup that accommodates both Thomas Muller and Jamal Musiala.
Thomas Tuchel’s 4-1-4-1 system was reminiscent of Manchester City pre-Erling Haaland. Joshua Kimmich sits deeper (in the Rodri role, if you will), the full-backs (Joao Cancelo and Noussair Mazraoui) step into midfield, the wingers (Leroy Sane and Kingsley Coman) are often the farthest up the pitch and the nominal centre-forward (Serge Gnabry) drops off, forming a pressing-recovery-passing line with Mueller and Musiala.
Bayern put together an xG of 5.03 and, sure, it may have had a lot to do with the opponents. But, on the day, it worked and it may end up as the best way to shoe-horn the Mueller-Musiala duo into the lineup. Bayern host Leipzig next in a match that may well determine the Bundesliga title, and it will be interesting to see if Tuchel wheels out this scheme against tougher opposition as well.
We know head coach Unai Emery has had a massive impact on Aston Villa since taking over in November, with the side going from 17th place to joint sixth. But Saturday’s game with Spurs looked more like a highlight reel of all of Tottenham’s current deficiencies. Ryan Mason’s crew did not manage to take a single shot in the first 52 minutes of the 2-1 defeat. That’s objectively difficult to do.
Emery: Aston Villa fans are the true owners of the club
Unai Emery talks to Luis Miguel Echegaray about his relationship with the Aston Villa fans.
Much has been made of Villa’s high line (since Emery’s arrival, they’ve caught opponents offside 92 times, which is nearly 50% more than the next-best team, Liverpool with 65) and, sure, Spurs were unable to bust the trap (they strayed offside nine times). But there has to be some solution other than Harry Kane dropping and trying to release Son Heung-min or Richarlison in space.
Defeat means Spurs are mathematically out of the Champions League next season (no big surprise there). So now they know where they stand. Time to start planning, beginning with the appointment of the new boss. Whoever it is, they can’t be as one-dimensional as they looked Saturday.
Dortmund romp past Gladbach and stay second, but regret for trio
All Dortmund can do is win and hope Bayern slip up. At home at least (where they’ve scored 15 goals in their last three), it’s pretty straightforward. Against Borussia Monchengladbach, they were 4-0 up at half-time before conceding in the last 20 minutes and settling for a 5-2 win.
The title may be out of their hands, but surely there has to be some regret for a trio of players who, for different reasons, have had a significant impact only in the second half of the campaign: Sebastian Haller was battling cancer and made his first start in January, while Karim Adeyemi and Donyell Malen have grown in performance and playing time as the season wore on. The numbers bear this out: Malen had 10 league starts, no goals pre-World Cup and 11 starts, nine goals post-World Cup; Adeyemi had eight starts and no goals before Qatar 2022 and 11 starts, six goals post-Qatar.
It leaves you wondering what might have been, but also gets you excited for what might be next year.
Inter get job done and stay on track for top four against Sassuolo, but closer than scoreline suggests
Inter were in full-on derby mode at home to Sassuolo and it showed. Don’t let the scoreline fool you, though. Romelu Lukaku scored with a bullet from outside the area (he’d add a second later, taking his seasonal total to 12), but Inter’s next two goals were deflected efforts. After Inter went 3-1 up, Sassuolo pulled it back to 3-2 late on, before Lukaku’s second.
You can’t get too wound up about the fact the performance wasn’t great (half a dozen changes will do that). Better for head coach Simone Inzaghi to focus on the fact that Lukaku looks fit and motivated. Given how much Inzaghi loves his substitutions, expect Lukaku to get a big chunk of playing time on Tuesday. Maybe even from the start.
Why Lionel Messi might not fit Barcelona right now
Gab & Juls debate what would happen to Barcelona if they can make a Lionel Messi move work financially.
PSG thrash Ajaccio, ready to clinch title next weekend
Lens‘ win on Friday meant Paris St Germain could not mathematically win Ligue 1 on Saturday, but they still unloaded on Ajaccio, winning 5-0. They’ll likely win it on the road as their next two games are away against Auxerre and Strasbourg and they need only a point. That may not be a bad thing, by the way.
The mood at PSG isn’t exactly festive right now, given all that has happened. Lionel Messi, returning from suspension, was greeted by a mixture of boos and cheers and it likely would have been worse if the ultras weren’t boycotting the side until the end of the season. Neymar, Face-Timing with Luis Suarez up in his luxury box, is being pushed out of the club. Manager Christophe Galtier has his bags packed. It’s far from clear how much longer Kylian Mbappe (who scored two goals) will stick around beyond the summer. And the same can be said for the Qatari ownership. Maybe best not to win it at home.
Juventus look convincing, but more heartbreak for Paul Pogba
It feels weird to talk about how Juventus looked convincing because it has happened so rarely under Max Allegri’s tenure. But the 2-nil win over Cremonese was exactly that: they were solid, they were direct, they made their talent count. Sure, it was at home against the second-bottom team in the league, but it was one of those days when Allegri’s game plan came together, something to which we’ve been unaccustomed.
The flip side is that Paul Pogba, making his first start in more than a year, went down injured after 21 minutes. First and foremost, you have to feel for the guy. Few footballers have been as unlucky with injuries as he has. He may have left Manchester United under a cloud, but if you know football, you know that Pogba at his best is a sight to behold for the neutral. And this latest setback means we won’t see him at his best for a long while.
So much for the idea that second place means something as Atletico Madrid fall to last place Elche
We had this debate on “The Gab & Juls Show”: how motivated are Atletico Madrid to finish second? I think we got the answer on Sunday when they lost 1-0 away to already-relegated Elche. And guess what? That’s totally fine.
It makes no real difference to anyone whether Atleti finish second or third, especially with Barcelona so far ahead and Real Madrid fully focused on the Champions League. What does matter is the football Atletico played in the second half of the season, which represented a complete turnaround both in terms of results and performance from the start of the campaign. They showed they can play attacking football and get results. That’s what matters going into next season. They’re allowed to take their vacation a little early.
That’s the thing about league football. Once you’ve achieved your goal, especially after a long and exhausting season, it’s hard, especially on the road, to muster much effort. And when you play against a newly promoted side who are having a stellar season and are looking for statement wins, it can get really tough.
Napoli were messy defensively against Monza and toothless at the attacking end. But, as with Atletico, how much does it matter? Zero. They’re going to be champions for the next 12 months and nothing can take that away.