Madrid’s depth (again) too much for Barca, Man United’s nervy win, more: Marcotti recaps the weekend
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The weekend may be over, but European soccer left us with plenty to talk about. In LaLiga, Real Madrid shrugged off 1-0 and 2-1 deficits to beat Clasico rivals Barcelona 3-2 and more or less put the title race to bed, while Manchester City (over Chelsea) and Manchester United (over Coventry City) booked their places in this season’s FA Cup final … though they took very different roads to get there. (And they’ll have learned very different lessons, too.)

Elsewhere, there were talking points galore for Bayer Leverkusen (who preserved their unbeaten season), Liverpool (whose reserves rallied for a big win), Paris Saint-Germain, Atletico Madrid, Arsenal and more.

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It’s Monday. Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Athleticism and quality help Real Madrid win Clasico (and likely clinch a LaLiga title)

They haven’t mathematically secured LaLiga yet, but an 11-point lead with six games to go isn’t a mountain to climb; it’s a whole mountain range. And that’s the gap between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the top of LaLiga following Los Blancos’ 3-2 Clasico win Sunday night.

In some ways, it reflected their 2023-24 season. Madrid had to twice come from behind and, indeed, have come from behind seven times to win games this season. That speaks to their resilience, but also to their athleticism and stamina to keep going. Fede Valverde, with his relentless running, and Jude Bellingham, with runs like the one that enabled him to score the winner, epitomise this.

It’s also how Madrid manage to keep doing things that, supposedly, are tactically taboo — like playing Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, who have a combined age of 72, from the first minute. That such a physical performance came just a few days after 120 minutes of being run this way and that by Manchester City in the Champions League is all the more impressive.

Kirkland, Marsden: Breaking down the Clasico

The other obvious point is how, at different times, Madrid finds foot soldiers and “ordinary” stars to step up and complement the superstars. We’ve seen Rodrygo do it, we’ve seen Joselu do it, we’ve seen Valverde do it, we’ve seen Nacho and Antonio Rüdiger do it, we’ve seen Andriy Lunin do it.

Sunday night was the turn of Brahim Díaz and, even more so, Lucas Vázquez. He won the penalty for the first equalizer — yeah, he looked for it, but if you stick your leg out the way Pau Cubarsí did, you risk getting punished — then scored the second equaliser and spent much of the game as the furthest forward Madrid player, strikers excepted. This is his ninth consecutive season at the club, following his loan spell at Espanyol, and he’s out of contract in the summer. Since he clearly accepts his role as a squad player, you rather feel Madrid would be mad not to keep him around.

As for Barcelona, when it rains, it pours. Already hit hard by injuries, losing Frenkie de Jong before half-time — it’s since been confirmed that he will miss the rest of the season, though should be fit for this summer’s Euros — was something Xavi needed like he needed a hole in the head. Between that substitution and the Fermín López-for-Andreas Christensen change at half-time, Barca ended up redesigning their midfield and they eventually paid the price for it.

From here, the screws are turning further on Xavi in his final days as Barca boss, which feels unfair to some degree because he’s also being let down by individuals. He didn’t deserve the hissy fit Robert Lewandowski threw when he came off just after the hour mark with the score still 1-1. Nor was he helped by guys such as João Félix and João Cancelo, who are supposedly playing for their futures at the club only to be sliding backward, badly.

Joao Felix was largely impalpable, both on the ball and off it while Cancelo, just as he did against PSG, had a horrendous game defensively. He was a revolving door for the Lucas Vazquez run that resulted in the penalty incident and then he entirely switched off on Vazquez’s goal.

Coming just a few days after Cancelo’s horror show against Barcelona, two things appear evident. One is that the injury to Alejandro Balde had a massive impact on Barca’s campaign — possibly even more than the Gavi one, since the drop-off with Gavi’s replacements is nowhere near as steep. The second is that if you want Cancelo in the team for his attacking prowess, you need to construct a system that masks his defensive shortcomings, just as you might do with a talented No. 10 who doesn’t run or do much off the ball.



Laurens blasts ‘absolutely bonkers’ LaLiga for no goal-line technology

Gab & Juls discuss the goal-line controversy in El Clásico.

A final word on the Lamine Yamal “ghost goal.” For all the videos and images online, there is no conclusive footage that shows the ball crossing the line, not unless you include the one at an angle which clearly distorts the perspective. This means the goal can’t be given, plain and simple. Now, I don’t think goal-line technology is perfect — it too has a margin of error — but for whatever reason, folks accept it far more than they do VAR footage. It’s time for LaLiga to introduce it and, hopefully, will next season.

A win that feels like a defeat for Manchester United, who squeak past Coventry City on penalties

Coventry City manager Mark Robins said that it came down to Haji Wright not cutting his toenails. That was roughly the margin of the offside call that denied Coventry perhaps the most epic comeback in the history of the oldest club competition in the world, the FA Cup. It struck off what would have been the most dramatic of winners by Victor Torp and sent the game to penalties, a game that had seen United 3-0 up with 20 minutes to go.

It wasn’t just the fact that United were leading by three goals with more than three quarters of the game gone. It was that they were controlling everything about the match — at that stage, the Expected goals were 1.95 to 0.23 for Erik ten Hag’s crew, who had also outshot the opposition 16 to 5. And then it all fell apart. Ellis Sims was entirely unmarked when he made it 3-1, the goal that made it 3-2 featured a big deflection and Aaron Wan-Bissaka‘s gift of a handball led to the penalty that Wright converted to make it 3-3.



Laurens: Man United managed Coventry game ‘like an under-15 team’

Julien Laurens slams Manchester United for edging past Championship Coventry City on penalties, having led their FA Cup semifinal 3-0.

United’s unraveling continued throughout extra time while Ten Hag watched on, powerless. Bruno Fernandes, United’s usual one-man show, hit the woodwork, but other than that, Coventry had the better chances in extra time. When Casemiro missed his penalty, it looked as if the fairy tale would come to fruition — until, that is, United’s penalty takers kept their nerves and outlasted Coventry’s from the spot.

I know I’m probably in a minority of one, but I actually felt a little sorry for Ten Hag as he watched his team go down the sinkhole. He made substitutions to affect the game — the cool head of Christian Eriksen for the teenage Kobbie Mainoo, the cup hero Amad Diallo for the (again) ineffective Marcus Rashford, Omari Forson for the out-of-gas Scott McTominay — and nothing worked. Other than a lot of arm-waving from Bruno and Harry Maguire, there was not a semblance of leadership from his players — just more panic, at least until the penalties.

Say this for Ten Hag’s crew, though. Most of the players know how to read the room, which is why no one celebrated at the final whistle other than Rasmus Hojlund, who scored the decisive penalty (fair enough), and Antony (who seems to have the empathy of a dust mite).



Why is Erik ten Hag still in charge of Manchester United?

Gab & Juls wonder what Sir Jim Ratcliffe will have made of Manchester United’s FA Cup collapse to almost crash out vs. Coventry.

In some ways, this was a worse experience than, say, a 2-0 upset at the hands of Coventry because it exposed much more of the bad of this United side and ensures the good (the first 70 minutes) are entirely forgotten. Rumors are that the club won’t remove Ten Hag until they are mathematically eliminated from the Champions League, supposedly because it’s cheaper to do so. What appears certain is that he won’t be back next season.

Not stereotypical Man City as they gut it out against profligate Chelsea…

It would not have been a surprise if Manchester City had stumbled in their FA Cup semifinal against Chelsea on Saturday. They were fatigued and coming off a nerve-wracking 120 minutes, plus penalties, in the Champions League against Real Madrid in midweek, as Pep Guardiola reminded us post-match. (Frankly, if he used all five of his substitutes more often, like so many of his colleagues do, maybe his guys wouldn’t be as tired.) They had suffered the psychological blow of getting knocked out of Europe and seeing that back-to-back Treble dream crumble, and while they bested Chelsea by the numbers — edging the xG (0.98 to 0.82), total shots (14 to 10) and possession (62% to 38%) — they gave up gilt-edged chances that Nico Jackson really should have finished. (Plus, they were fortunate that Jack Grealish‘s handball off Cole Palmer‘s free kick went unpunished.)

And yet, here they are: Another FA Cup final, another derby against Man United, and it’s largely thanks to the different iteration of City that we saw on Saturday.

This was a functional, pragmatic City team, one capable of winning via experience, mental toughness and, yes, a bit of luck too. We’re used to them playing with five defensive players, if you stretch the definition to include Rodri and Kyle Walker — the difference is that on Saturday, they played that way and waited for the front men to conjure something up, rather than being an integral part of Pep’s plans in possession. It’s not a knock — and it doesn’t mean they suddenly turned into a major bus-parking operation — but it does show how there are multiple dimensions to this team. Think of this set up as Pep’s work clothes, the ones he wears when he’s doing some gardening or painting the garage.

As for Chelsea, this was one of their better performances. You could see what Mauricio Pochettino was attempting to do, and the use of Conor Gallagher as a spoiler on Walker’s side of the pitch was both innovative and effective. It’s easy to just point to inexperience — I think there’s a quality issue too with guys like Jackson and Noni Madueke — and lest we forget, injuries meant that one of their central defenders was fifth-choice (Trevoh Chalobah) and the other is 38 (Thiago Silva).



Onuoha: Chelsea missed a huge opportunity to beat Man City

Nedum Onuoha reacts to Chelsea’s 1-0 loss to Man City in the FA Cup semifinal.

Speaking of that 38-year-old, Thiago Silva cried at the final whistle following what may have been his last chance to win silverware in a storied career. The contrast with Madueke — who yukked it up with City’s players — was stunning. Pochettino might want to work on that too.

Quick hits

TEN — Klopp makes the right call in turning to his bench for the win at Fulham: Some may have been surprised when Jurgen Klopp left out five starters (Dominik Szoboszlai, Ibrahima Konate, Alexis Mac Allister and Darwin Núñez) for Sunday’s trip to Fulham, but it made total sense. They were coming off a win at Atalanta (which still saw them knocked out on aggregate) and before that, two home defeats and a draw. In those circumstances, better to shuffle things around — especially with three straight away games, including the Merseyside derby in midweek, coming up. The second-stringers were enough to power them to a 3-1 win at Craven Cottage that sees them alongside Arsenal at the top of the table, while they wait for Manchester City’s game in hand. Over to you, Pep!



Ogden: Liverpool are still very much in this title race

Mark Ogden says that people should not count Liverpool out of the title race after a 3-1 win away at Fulham.

NINE — Bayer Never-losin’ as late, late Stanisic goal extends unbeaten run to 45 games, three shy of the record: The defender’s near post flick enabled Bayer Leverkusen to snatch a 1-1 draw in the eighth minute of injury time away to Borussia Dortmund. Lucky? Sure. Deserved? Absolutely, following a game where Bayer Leverkusen — despite having clinched a spot in the Europa League semifinals and the Bundesliga title in the past week — showed no signs of slowing down. Four more games unbeaten, and they will have beaten the record. It won’t be easy — Stuttgart at home, Roma away, Eintracht Frankfurt at home and Roma at home — but the way they’re playing, this team seems to know no limits.



How Leverkusen extended their unbeaten streak to 45 games

Alejandro Moreno reacts to Bayer Leverkusen’s late 1-1 draw vs. Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga.

EIGHT — If Arsenal win the league — a big if — this 2-0 win vs. Wolves may be the turning point: I’m not saying this because Arsenal played well (they did not), but because they showed the sort of character and resilience young sides aren’t supposed to have, not after getting beaten at home by Aston Villa and then being knocked out of the Champions League in consecutive games. Oh, and luck too, because Leandro Trossard‘s screwy finish was sliced to high heaven and somehow found its way into the net. (Martin Odegaard added a second, but that was in garbage time). Unless you’re the most talented side in the league (and they’re not), you need resilience and luck. Arsenal found both away to Wolves.



Why Arsenal’s win vs. Wolves is a ‘great response’

Craig Burley recaps Arsenal’s 2-0 win at Wolves that sends them back to the top of the Premier League table.

SEVEN — A reminder that PSG isn’t just Mbappe and Dembele … and that’s a good thing: Paris Saint-Germain’s season has been stop-and-go, especially since Christmas. But the 4-1 drubbing of Lyon (who had lost just once since the end of January) reminds us what they can do when they’re motivated, even without Ousmane Dembélé and Kylian Mbappé (who were on the bench). The talent gap with the rest of the league remains massive and becomes even more obvious when Lyon get everything wrong in the first half, as happened Sunday night.

SIX — Girona won’t go quietly … and neither will Dovbyk: This weekend’s 4-1 over Cadiz mathematically sealed their place in Europe next season — they even made T-shirts to celebrate this, though you wonder if they’ll make new ones when they clinch a spot in the Champions League, something they’ll do barring divine intervention. But more than that, it showcased just how pretty and carefree their football can be. Miguel Gutiérrez‘s assist for Iván Martín‘s goal is the stuff of highlight reels and Sávio is a gem, but how about that Artem Dovbyk? He scored again, moving two clear at the top of LaLiga’s scorers table. He’s 26 and, in terms of old-school, “big man” center-forwards, he’s arguably top-five in the world. He’s the prototype of the late developing central striker.

FIVE — Ollie Watkins powers Aston Villa’s comeback against Bournemouth to go six points clear in fourth place: Yes, Tottenham have two games in hand and if they win them, Champions’ League football next season could come down to goal difference, but whatever happens, Unai Emery has delivered an unbelievable season. And while there are numerous heroes, it’s worth singling out Watkins. He didn’t score this weekend, but he did deliver two assists, taking his season total to 12, more than anyone else. Couple that with his 19 goals (one behind league leaders Erling Haaland and Cole Palmer, except all of Watkins’ are from open play) and that gives him a combined 31 goal involvements. If the season ended today, he’d be my Player of the Year.

FOUR — Leipzig stronger than stinky smell as they finish on a hot streak: Leipzig’s 2-1 win at Heidenheim on Saturday was marked by someone (home supporters?) spraying a colourless (but definitely not odorless) substance called butyric acid over the seats in the away fans’ section. It’s generally harmless to the touch, but it stinks to high heaven. Whatever the case, it did not affect Leipzig’s players, who pretty much sealed a place in next season’s Champions League thanks to goals from Benjamin Sesko and Loïs Openda, who is up to 27 goals for the 2023-24 season. The future, again, looks bright for their young stars.

THREE — Bayern Munich‘s second-string XI run rampant: By the final whistle after Bayern’s 5-1 away victory at Union Berlin, just four of the men left on the pitch could be called “starters.” There’s Alphonso Davies (who was suspended in midweek and therefore didn’t need a rest), Manuel Neuer (goalkeeper), Harry Kane (chasing records) and Eric Dier (I know, it feels strange to call him a starter for Bayern, but them’s the facts). You wonder if the win would have been so comprehensive — or if the reserves would have been so effective — if Bayern hadn’t advanced past Arsenal into the Champions League semifinal last week. But having something to play for offers massive motivation and given Bayern’s injuries at some positions and underproduction at others, I’m not sure anyone other than Kane, Neuer, Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich (but in which position?) is guaranteed a start in the semifinal. These auditions can bring out the best in players.

TWO — Atletico Madrid stumble at Alaves and Simeone Jr.: Maybe it was the Champions League elimination hangover, or maybe it was the karma of facing Giuliano Simeone, one of you-know-who’s sons, who was exceptional on the day. Whatever the case, Atleti’s 2-0 defeat ratchets up the pressure ahead of next Saturday’s home clash with Athletic Bilbao, who are just three points back. (It was also the 12th game in a row in which they failed to keep a clean sheet, something that hadn’t happened since the last millennium). Between this and the Dortmund capitulation in midweek, Diego Simeone has to be second-guessing himself.

ONE — Napoli‘s defeat at Empoli isn’t just the de facto end of their Champions League hopes, but of an era, too: They could still make it — they’re six points behind fifth-placed Roma, who have two games in hand and there are six games to go — but they don’t just need to catch them. They would also need to pass Atalanta (who have a game in hand) and Lazio too, and that’s just not going to realistically happen. Napoli’s defeat at Empoli (who need the points to stay up) was also a lesson in motivation and confidence: Their opponents had it, Napoli did not. And so, it’s time to rebuild, most likely without Victor Osimhen and certainly without Piotr Zielinski and coach Francesco Calzona.

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