Despite the Premier League taking a break, the European soccer weekend was far from boring, with talking points galore from the FA Cup third round, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A and Spanish LaLiga. There was good for Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund, bad for Newcastle and plain ugly for AS Roma.
Here are Mark Ogden, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler with what you need to know from around Europe.
Four talking points
Alves shows he’s still got it
When Barcelona re-signed Dani Alves, everyone knew he had dual roles to fill: a cheerleading, mood-lifting training ground role model on the one hand, and a short-term, cost-effective full-back solution on the other. What wasn’t clear was the ratio between the two. Would Alves mostly bring good vibes and a wise old head to a squad that desperately needed both? Or could he actually still make a tangible, significant on-field contribution?
Saturday’s 1-1 draw at Granada, Alves’ first LaLiga game since 2016, provided a resounding answer.
The 38-year-old, now Barca’s oldest-ever player, emphatically still has what it takes to compete at this level and to make them a better team. Right-back has been a long-term problem for the club — Oscar Mingueza, Ronald Araujo, Sergino Dest and Eric Garcia had all played there under Xavi, with mixed results — and while Alves won’t be restricted to the position, he made a strong case here for being first-choice there for the rest of the season. A sublime delivery for Luuk de Jong‘s goal was the highlight, but his was a convincing performance throughout, even if Barca were denied the three points by Antonio Puertas‘ 89th minute equaliser.
Watch out for Alves in next week’s Supercopa Clasico against old foes Real Madrid. — Kirkland
Borussia Dortmund begin 2022 with same chaos they ended 2021
Dortmund are the ultimate “mullet team” this season: all business up front, absolute party at the back. The trend was evident before the Bundesliga’s winter break — take a 1-0 lead at struggling Hertha Berlin, concede three times in 18 minutes, end up losing 3-2 — and it continued on Saturday at Eintracht Frankfurt, though this time they came out on the winning end of a five-goal game, scoring three goals of their own in 18 minutes towards the end of the second half to keep within six points of league leaders Bayern Munich.
Putting all title talk aside, because that seems like folly given Bayern’s form, Dortmund were lucky. Two quick goals by Rafael Santos Borre put Marco Rose’s side in a pit of despair, all of it largely their own fault, too. Slack defending from a teasing free-kick allowed Borre to squeeze a shot under Gregor Kobel, while failure to clear a cross (and a hilarious deflection) allowed the Colombia international to calmly sweep in his second of the game. (He almost had a third not long after, when Mahmoud Dahoud‘s pass for Rafael Guerreiro ended up putting Borre through on goal, only he couldn’t get his shot on frame.)
With 20 minutes to go, Dortmund’s attacking verve finally clicked. Thorgan Hazard stroked home from close range, Jude Bellingham then headed home Thomas Meunier‘s inch-perfect cross and, with barely a minute of time left, Dahoud atoned from his earlier gaffe with a thumping finish from the edge of the box. The result, and the entertainment, keeps Dortmund where they want to be, but this is their ceiling until players get healthy and that defense gets a January reboot. — Tyler
Why some goalkeepers should just get rid!
The best teams have goalkeepers who are crucial in starting attacking moves by playing the ball out from the back, but the FA Cup showed that such a tactic can lead to embarrassment if the player involved is not as talented as the likes of Ederson, Marc-Andre ter Stegen or Manuel Neuer.
Exhibit A came when Swindon Town keeper Lewis Ward gifted a goal to Manchester City‘s Gabriel Jesus during the League Two side’s 4-1 defeat against the Premier League champions, while former England keeper Jack Butland — making a rare appearance for Crystal Palace — was also caught out when he was dispossessed by Benik Afobe, who opened the scoring for Millwall.
Starting moves close to your own goal is a high-risk strategy, but it can deliver big rewards. However, you have to be a top-level keeper to pull it off consistently; the less talented, meanwhile, should just play safe instead of trying to emulate the best in the business. — Ogden
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) January 7, 2022
From Boreham Wood to Cambridge, it’s been a fabulous cup weekend
The endless Tetris feeling of the European club calendar has been amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, with whole tournaments reshuffled and postponements forcing a seemingly infinite loop of games and forced squad rotation over the past 18 months. It’s been hard to keep up with who’s playing whom, and where, and in which tournament! Yet the English FA Cup third round has cut through all of that with a brilliant weekend of upsets, close-run games between Premier League sides and lower-division foes, and talking points galore. Exactly what you’d want to take your mind off the grim weather outside, really.
The fun began early on Saturday as Boreham Wood, a non-league team outside the English professional pyramid, toppled a team two leagues above them, AFC Wimbledon, by two goals. (In attendance: none other than Ted Lasso himself, aka Jason Sudeikis.) From there it got wilder as Cambridge United (16th in English League One) went to newly rich, super-club-TBD Newcastle United and won 1-0, with a scrappy goal from Joe Ironside and a string of remarkable saves by Dimitar Mitov proving enough to wreck the Magpies’ aspirations of rapid glory. (At least now England’s richest club — on paper, at least — can focus on the task of avoiding relegation?)
There were also fleeting moments of hope — League One teams Shrewsbury Town and Morecambe United briefly held 1-0 leads at Liverpool and Tottenham before losing 4-1 and 3-1, respectively — and high drama up and down the fixture list. Everton needed extra time to beat second-tier Hull, while Championship side Barnsley hung on to win 5-4 over Barrow, the fifth-worst team in English pro soccer. (Oh, and Queens Park Rangers finally shrugged off their lower-tier visitors, Rotherham United, 8-7 on penalties.)
Finally, for those of a nostalgic disposition, Stoke’s 2-0 win over Leyton Orient was notable for Ian Wright’s grandson making his debut (Wright was a legendary striker for Crystal Palace and Arsenal in the 1990s), but also the goals coming from Tom Ince (his father, Paul, was an icon at Manchester United) and Tyrese Campbell (son of Kevin, former Arsenal and Everton forward).
For all the griping about fixture congestion or elite clubs not taking it seriously, the FA Cup is as alive and well as ever. Long live the FA Cup. — Tyler
Bonus talking point: AS Roma give up a 3-1 lead, lose to Juventus
Jose Mourinho’s return to Serie A with Roma is going from bad to worse, with Juventus sealing a remarkable 4-3 win at Stadio Olimpico despite trailing 3-1 with 21 minutes to play.
Juve, who moved to within three points of the top four with their victory, overcame the first-half loss to injury of Federico Chiesa and an 81st minute red card for defender Matthijs de Ligt. But while the Juventus comeback was incredible, Roma’s collapse is the latest setback suffered by Mourinho, who was hired by the Giallorossi last summer to get the club back in the Champions League and challenge for the Serie A title.
Roma are now languishing in eighth after three goals in seven minutes by Juventus. Lorenzo Pellegrini had the chance to snatch a point for Roma with an 83rd minute penalty, only to see it saved by Juve keeper Wojciech Szczesny. Mourinho’s team, who were beaten 6-1 by Norwegian club Bodo Glimt in the Europa Conference League in October, have now taken just one point from their last three league games and sit nine points adrift of the top four. — Ogden
Three must-see goals
Olise’s superb strike sets up Palace comeback
With Crystal Palace trailing 1-0 at London rivals Millwall in the FA Cup third round, 20-year-old Michael Olise played the role of game-changer in a devastating 12-minute spell at The Den, first scoring the equaliser and then setting up the winner for Patrick Vieira’s side.
Olise, who joined Palace in an £8.3 million move from Reading last summer, levelled the score on 46 minutes when, having received the ball on the edge of the penalty area, he beat his marker with a step over before curling a left-foot shot in off the far post. The France youth international winger hit the post with an identical effort moments later, then delivered a pinpoint cross for Jean-Philippe Mateta to head Palace’s winner.
But Olise’s goal was the stand-out moment in a match-winning performance, with his left foot displaying the kind of technique and accuracy that you usually associate with the likes of Mohamed Salah, Gareth Bale or Bernardo Silva. — Ogden
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) January 8, 2022
Another beauty from Benzema
Karim Benzema‘s 301st goal for Real Madrid — an 88th minute strike to round off a comfortable 4-1 win over Valencia on Saturday — wasn’t the most spectacular or significant goal he’ll ever score. But there was something about the economy of movement, the ease and elegance with which he spun away from marker Jose Gaya to create time and space before firing past goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen, that made it thrilling to watch the first time, and even more enjoyable on each subsequent viewing.
Benzema is on course for his best ever goal-scoring season — he already has 17 in 20 league games, and he’s never scored more than 24 in an entire campaign — and this might not even make the top five. But that doesn’t make it any less special. What a privilege to watch him every week. — Kirkland
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) January 8, 2022
Take a bow, Kaide Gordon
The Reds have wobbled a bit over the festive period, the squad hit with positive COVID-19 tests and superstars heading off to the Africa Cup of Nations, but Sunday’s 4-1 win over Shrewsbury in the FA Cup third round felt like a return to normal. Yet there was nothing boring about Gordon’s first goal for the Reds, which made him the club’s second-youngest scorer of all-time for good measure. At just 17 years, 96 days young, Gordon showed remarkable maturity and poise to control a sharp low cross from Conor Bradley, elude a couple of defenders, shift the ball onto his left foot and stroke the ball beyond Marko Morosi.
Astute Liverpool fans will be hoping it’s the first of many, many more for the club, such has been the excitement around his progress since arriving from Derby County a year ago. — Tyler
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) January 9, 2022
Two teams that should be worried
Poor, poor Levante
Spare a thought for Levante fans. Before Saturday’s 2-0 win over Real Mallorca, they hadn’t seen their team take three points in LaLiga for nine long, painful months. Since April they’d watched 16 losses and 11 draws under three different managers. So understandably, the cathartic relief when Jose Morales‘ 97th minute goal secured the long-awaited victory was palpable. TV cameras showed jubilant staff and substitutes celebrating on the bench as if they’d just won a cup final or escaped relegation, and who could blame them?
But they haven’t, of course. Levante are still in deep, deep trouble, still rock bottom of LaLiga with just 11 points from 20 games. Their latest coach, the youthful, charismatic Alessio Lisci, knows the club inside out — and rescued their reserve team from relegation in even more dire circumstances last season — but saving them feels like a task for a grizzled veteran, rather than a 36-year-old in his first senior job. What a story it would be if he proves the doubters wrong, though. –– Kirkland
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) January 8, 2022
Newcastle United still have far to go
A pragmatic view of Newcastle United’s FA Cup third round defeat against League One side Cambridge would be to suggest that Eddie Howe can now focus solely on the only thing that matters this season: avoiding relegation from the Premier League.
Two postponements in recent weeks because of COVID-19 have left Newcastle with crucial league games to rearrange, so being out of the FA Cup ensures that they will avoid the threat of a fixture pile-up adding to their difficulty of their relegation battle. But the flip side is that Newcastle have now lost an opportunity to build confidence and momentum by embarking on a cup run.
St James’ Park was full on Saturday for the visit of a team from two divisions further down the football pyramid and the incredible turn-out of fans highlights the desperation for a winning team. Had they been able to harness the feel-good factor of a cup run, Newcastle could have given themselves a platform to build upon, but after the humiliation of being on the end of a shock 1-0 defeat, every game between now and the end of the season will be about the draining pressure of fighting for survival.
Newcastle are two points adrift of fourth-bottom Watford, who have played a game fewer, and then there is a worrying eight-point gap between themselves and Leeds. Avoiding relegation was already going to be tough, but the FA Cup exit does not make it any easier. — Ogden
Hernandez puts on a show for Milan
AC Milan face a battle to retain left-back Theo Hernandez this month, with Chelsea one of the clubs considering a move for the France international, and he showed just why he’s in such demand with a match-winning display in Sunday’s 3-0 Serie A win at Venezia.
The 24-year-old scored twice in the victory at Stadio Pier Luigi Penzo, which took the Rossoneri to the top of the table ahead of Inter Milan’s clash with Lazio at San Siro.
Hernandez is a powerful presence down the left and he was dominant against Venezia, shrugging off the attentions of defender Pasquale Mazzocchi with ease as he burst into the penalty area to score his first, and Milan’s second goal, two minutes into the second-half. The France international then scored his second from the penalty spot on 59 minutes after seeing Venezia’s Michael Svoboda sent off for handling his close-range shot, which led to the spot-kick being awarded.
Despite facing penalty expert Sergio Romero in the Venezia goal, Hernandez beat the former Manchester United keeper with a pinpoint shot that nestled in the top corner.
Milan are chasing a first Serie A title since 2011 this season and Hernandez will be a crucial element of Stefano Pioli’s team in the second half of the campaign. They just need to make sure they can resist all attempts to take him away during the transfer window. — Ogden