Manchester City, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich may have wrapped up the Premier League, Serie A and Bundesliga titles respectively, but the races in La Liga and Ligue 1 are going down to the final weekend as Luis Suarez starred for Atletico Madrid and PSG closed the gap on Lille. Elsewhere we saw Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi score noteworthy goals, Alisson produce a moment of genuine magic for Liverpool and Chelsea lose the FA Cup as a precursor to a critical week for their top-four hopes.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past weekend in Europe.
Jump to: Suarez saves Atletico | Chelsea at crossroads | Juve benefit from ref drama | Zidane doesn’t owe Real | Lewandowski ties Muller | Alisson’s heroics | Milan stumble | Messi hits 30 | Napoli anxious | Ligue 1 goes to wire | Dortmund’s turnaround | Dele Alli is back
Suarez saves the day as Atletico close on La Liga glory
Eight minutes from time on Saturday, it looked as if the Spanish title was heading to one of its two usual destinations, Real Madrid. Only four times in the past 36 years has it gone anywhere other than the Bernabeu or Barcelona‘s Camp Nou. Atletico Madrid, top of the table for much of the season, had gone a goal down at home to Osasuna. Real Madrid, away to Athletic Bilbao, were winning thanks to a cross that bounced off Nacho and into the back of the net. Zinedine Zidane’s crew had passed Atletico in the table, like one of those marathons where the same runner leads for 26 miles only to be pipped in the final hundred yards.
But then Joao Felix found a streaking Renan Lodi down the left-hand side and the young full-back blasted the ball home for the equaliser. Two minutes from time, Yannick Carrasco wormed his way into the Osasuna defence to set up Luis Suarez, who slotted it home for the win that allowed Atletico to regain control of their destiny.
For much of the game, Atletico had confounded the usual Diego Simeone stereotypes of defend, grit and counter, much as they’ve done in patches this season, only not to this degree. They had 70% possession at half-time. They created at least five clear-cut chances. They deserved to score, but didn’t. When they did, the actors were very much in the “Cholismo” mould.
Consider Felix, the €120 million kid who hadn’t started a game in a month and whose stock had gone from “next Cristiano Ronaldo” to “next overhyped bust” in the eyes of the hot-takers. Or fellow substitute Lodi, who went from bona fide starter last season to playing 90 minutes in La Liga just three times in the past six months: his goal was his first since November 2019 in any competition. Or Carrasco, who returned from China 16 months ago to become arguably one of Atletico’s three most important players. Or, indeed, Suarez himself.
This is the man whom Barcelona effectively paid off to leave in the summer as they attempted to cut their bloated wage bill. The guy who joined Atletico at the last minute partly because he botched his Italian citizenship exam after allegedly being fed questions (the investigation is still ongoing). The guy whose chequered disciplinary career includes biting an opponent on three different occasions. The guy who turned 34 in January, who was deemed past it and whose signing required Simeone to rethink his team’s approach.
“All true, but still… he’s really good,” my colleague Sid Lowe pointed out back in September and yes, he is. Suarez scored 20 goals this season, and while he hasn’t always been a natural fit — he needs players around him to thrive, something Simeone has occasionally provided, preferring at times to go back to the old counterattacking model — he has offered drive, intensity and confidence. Atletico, of course, has had the former two in spades under Simeone. It’s part of what Cholismo is all about. But it was the confidence that made the difference here. We’re often told how important it is for strikers, how — when things don’t work out for them — they start to overthink, to second-guess, to curb their natural instincts.
Not Suarez. He’d already missed at least three gilt-edged chances. The fact that he’d been otherwise playing well, getting in the right positions and interplaying well with teammates should have made matters all the more frustrating. But did that affect him? Did it, hell. He calmly side-footed the winner home, before racing off in celebration, red-and-white shirt held aloft like a flag.
Facing Valladolid away next weekend is no gimme. They’re fighting to avoid relegation and if you believe in karma, there’s a certain Ronaldo, the original Phenom-turned-president, who will be cheering them on. But having come this far, surely Atletico can’t stumble now. Suarez would never allow it.
Chelsea’s season hangs in balance after FA Cup final
The obvious point to make is that if a genie had appeared to Thomas Tuchel and told him he could beat Leicester City only once and had to choose between the FA Cup final and their league clash on Tuesday, there’s no question which one he’d choose: the league. Let the traditionalists bemoan this, but it’s a fact: he was brought in to help Chelsea qualify for the Champions League, and if they beat Leicester on Tuesday night, they’re in. (Lose or draw, however, and it’s out of their hands.)
Yet at the same time, defeat on Saturday means it’s two on the bounce, after their 1-0 setback against Arsenal in midweek. Negativity can build quickly, and although they forced a string of tremendous saves from Kasper Schmeichel on Saturday, they really got going only in the second half.
Craig Burley believes Thomas Tuchel’s tactics played to Leicester City’s strengths in the FA Cup final.
Tuchel now has some big calls to make. Presumably Ben Chilwell and Kai Havertz return to the starting lineup, but do you stick with Reece James in the back three to mitigate Leicester’s counter? And what of Timo Werner, profligate once again? Or Christian Pulisic?
Chelsea have basically had a five month-long audition for the three forward spots and Tuchel’s preferences (other than Mason Mount) aren’t fully clear. The ability to give Leicester and Brendan Rodgers an entirely new look on Tuesday is a luxury, but, potentially, also a source of self-doubt. Failure wouldn’t undo all the good he has achieved this season, but it would be a tremendous setback financially, especially after last summer’s spending spree.
As for Leicester City, this may go down as the second-greatest day in their history. Youri Tielemans was my choice for player of the year in the Premier League, so I’m probably a bit biased, but he brings both quality and quantity like few other midfielders in the game. Schmeichel’s heroics at the end — and that disallowed Chilwell goal — only added to the drama. (By the way, to all the VAR haters who talk about how it robs fans of spontaneous celebration: go tell that to the Leicester supporters once Chilwell was adjudged to have been offside.)
Were it not for the fact that Manchester City are on the verge of a Treble, Leicester would be anybody’s Premier League team of the season. It’s not just the fact that they’re in the top four and FA Cup champions, but the fact that they’ve had to overcome a string of injuries; lest we forget James Justin and Harvey Barnes were unavailable, James Maddison was only fit enough to make the bench and Jonny Evans came off injured.
Sure, they’ve had about just as much cash as anybody outside the top six, but they’ve been smart in how they used them, maximising their resources with clever signings like Wesley Fofana, Justin, Caglar Soyuncu and Tielemans. And in Brendan Rodgers, they have a manager who is just as comfortable playing possession football as he is going direct.
Rodgers is an interesting case of a manager learning from his mistakes. The tactical understanding was always there, but his first (and thus far only) shot at a really big job — at Liverpool — eventually collapsed due to a string of bad decisions and personality conflicts. We’ve seen none of that at Leicester. In fact, he has scarcely put a foot wrong.
He deserves the big-time, but then so do Leicester, which is why you hope he sticks around for a couple more seasons… at least.
Officiating horror show in Turin, but Juventus keep hope alive
Gab Marcotti outlines all the potential scenarios surrounding where Cristiano Ronaldo might play next season.
You’d rather not talk about refereeing, but it’s hard not to after witnessing one of the worst performances we’ve seen in Serie A this year. Gianpaolo Calvarese leaves you no choice. It wasn’t just the extent of the big calls he got wrong, either; it was the sheer number he got wrong. VAR saved him on some occasions, but this was the equivalent of a striker missing three sitters.
(And, by the way, that’s the correct way to think about referees. Yes, it’s a difficult job, but these guys are professionals and among the best around at what they do. If we never call them out and pretend all refereeing performances are equal, we’d be doing a disservice to those who referee well.)
That said, as bad as he was, nobody could accuse him of being biased one way or another. The two most egregious mistakes — Rodrigo Bentancur‘s second yellow card, and the late penalty call when Juan Cuadrado jabs his leg into Ivan Perisic — sort of balance themselves out. They were obviously not the only mistakes: VAR had to intervene to point out Matteo Darmian grabbing Giorgio Chiellini, and Matthijs De Ligt catching Lautaro Martinez‘s heel. (The latter was hard to spot, the former not so much.) I felt the “foul” by Lukaku that led to Martinez’s goal being disallowed wasn’t much of a foul either.
All in all, Juventus showed character and Inter, as you’d expect given that Antonio Conte had played second-stringers in recent outings, a bit of ring rust. Of course, it’s easy to say it’s not much of an achievement: if you’re not going to show character in a do-or-die situation like this one, when are you going to?
But while the collective performance may be lacking, there’s enough individual quality to keep Juve alive in the form of Cuadrado, De Ligt, Adrien Rabiot (who turned in a busy, blue-collar performance, Cristiano Ronaldo (not a peep from him at being substituted) and others. Champions League qualification, of course, is out of their hands and, before that, they have a cup final against Atalanta, which may well determine what happens in the final day, when Gian Piero Gasperini’s crew (who have already qualified) take on Milan while Juve face Bologna.
Whether they succeed or fail, Andrea Pirlo may well not be back as manager next season, and maybe that’s understandable. But, at least in this stretch run — and perhaps now that it’s too late — his players aren’t letting him down.
Zidane doesn’t owe anybody anything
Gab and Juls believe Zinedine Zidane can leave Real Madrid with “his head held high” if he departs in the summer.
After the 1-0 win against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, Real manager Zinedine Zidane strongly denied reports that he’d told his players he was leaving at the end of the season. “Why would I possibly do that now, when it could destabilize the side in such a crucial moment?” Zidane said, and it’s hard to argue.
That said, he didn’t commit long-term either and frankly, you can’t blame him. It feels like the last two seasons have been primarily an act of loyalty towards the club, the players, the fans and, yes, Florentino Perez too.
Zidane has been criticised (unfairly) in some quarters and, clearly, this isn’t the sort of football he wants to play. It’s hard to see things getting better in the short-term either, given the club’s debt and the sort of always-difficult, looming transition away from a group of veterans who have performed so heroically for Real: from Marcelo to Sergio Ramos, from Toni Kroos to Luka Modric to Karim Benzema.
Nobody would blame him for walking away and taking a break. Or even trying something new elsewhere.
Lewandowski matches Muller’s record… and could have broken it
Jurgen Klinsmann lauds Robert Lewandowski for tying Gerd Muller’s Bundesliga goal record.
Bayern Munich’s season is over, so there was little in this weekend’s 2-2 draw with Freiburg for them other than trying to help Robert Lewandowski pass Gerd Muller’s single-season Bundesliga goal record of 40. He equalled the mark inside of 20 minutes, converting a penalty, and then had numerous chances to break it outright, only to run into a tremendous performance from stand-in keeper Mark Flekken.
You imagine the record will come next week when they host Augsburg, who have nothing left to play for. But even if it doesn’t, it’s worth remembering that Lewandowski equalled the record in just 28 games, whereas Muller’s 40 came in 34. Whatever happens, Lewandowski’s season will be remembered forever.
Alisson rescues Liverpool, makes history and warms hearts
It may go down as the most important goal Liverpool score all season, and it came deep in second-half injury time from none other than Alisson.
We’re used to seeing goalkeepers come up for set pieces in the dying moments of games. We’re not used to seeing them score, and even less accustomed to seeing them do so with a perfectly timed headed finish to the far post, like the one the big Brazilian uncorked for the 2-1 winner against West Brom on Sunday.
Football is (partly) about rare and special moments, and this one fits both. But it was also crucial: the goal left Liverpool one point behind Chelsea in fifth place, and while it doesn’t entirely put their Champions League fate back in their own hands — they need to win both their remaining games, but could still fall behind Leicester on goal difference if the Foxes lose to Chelsea and thump Tottenham — it comes pretty darn close.
Steve Nicol shares his thoughts on Alisson’s incredible goal in Liverpool’s 2-1 win over West Brom.
Afterwards Alisson, who endured the loss of his father in a freak accident back in February, thanked God, thanked supporters and told us while he wished his father could be physically present, he knew he was watching.
Chills all around.
Milan throw up a brick, set up a tense final 90 minutes
All Milan had to do on Sunday night to secure their place in the Champions League was win against a Cagliari side with nothing left to play for.
Such games used to be pretty much automatic in late-season Serie A games. “We don’t need the points… go ahead, take them, you can return the favour next time” — nobody actually explicitly said this (you hope), but it seemed to happen time and again (not just in Italy, mind you). Instead a nervous and often imprecise Milan side huffed and puffed against a Cagliari team who, freed from pressure, refused to lie down. It finished 0-0.
The hot take from many in Italy was that had Zlatan Ibrahimovic been fit, none of this would have happened. His charisma, his experience, his intangibles — all of this would have willed this young Milan team to victory. It’s a good tale, but I’m not sure it’s true. The Zlatan we’ve seen over the past few months has little to offer but intangibles. And it’s probably simpler (and more accurate) to say that Milan dropped points because they were too insecure, too patient and also a bit unlucky.
Everything rides on the final 90 minutes next weekend against Atalanta, who have already qualified. Win that, and Milan don’t have to worry about what happens elsewhere. Lose, and the disappointment — especially after leading Serie A for a big chunk of the season — will be crushing.
Messi in the 30-goal club for the ninth time
Barcelona’s domestic campaign ended with a whimper Sunday as they were beaten 2-1 at home by Celta Vigo. Whatever frail hopes they might have held for the Liga title were crushed by results elsewhere in any case, but Lionel Messi reached the 30-goal mark in the league for the ninth time in his career, which is frankly absurd. For context, Robert Lewandowski, perhaps the finest goal-scoring centerforward of this generation, has done it four times and he’s a year younger than Messi. Suarez has done it three times. Harry Kane has done it once, Romelu Lukaku and Karim Benzema have never managed it.
And since you can’t mention one without the other, let the record reflect that if Ronaldo does it against Bologna next weekend, he too will have achieved the feat nine times. But then we all know those two are on another level.
Julien Laurens and Gab Marcotti examine Lionel Messi’s future as Barcelona’s late-season struggles continue.
Napoli sweat, but stay in the hunt for the top four
It was neither easy nor straightforward against a talented, but maddeningly inconsistent, Fiorentina side, but Napoli got the three points they needed to stay ahead of Juventus and, more importantly, stay in control of their Champions League destiny heading into the final weekend of the Serie A season.
Victor Osimhen won the battle with Dusan Vlahovic for the nominal title of best young center-forward in Italy’s top flight and once again, his performance is tinged with melancholy: what might he and this gifted side achieve if Napoli manager Rino Gattuso stuck around next year?
We’ll probably never know as Gattuso appears certain to be let go. (Why? Long story… and part of the fun of watching Napoli from a safe distance.) But it’s critical for this team and this group of players to get back in the Champions League and they made a huge stride in that direction on Sunday.
Ligue 1 goes down to the wire as Lille fluff their lines and PSG stand fast
Lille’s inability to do better than a scoreless draw with Saint-Etienne leaves them a single point clear of Paris Saint-Germain, who trounced Reims 4-0, atop the Ligue 1 table. Given that the first tie-breaker is overall goal difference, it basically means Lille have to match or better PSG’s result in the final game of the season. And let’s be clear: realistically, they need to win their final match against Angers, because it’s hard to imagine PSG slipping up against Brest.
Was it nerves? Maybe. Saint-Etienne had nothing to play for but pride, and they showed plenty, though despite not playing particularly well, Lille arguably had the best chances through Burak Yilmaz and Yusuf Yazici. Having overachieved for so long this season, it would be cruel to see them screw up at this stage. That said, the Ligue 1 campaign is 38 games for a reason.
Hey Dortmund, any second thoughts on Terzic and Rose?
It’s been a pretty good week for Borussia Dortmund. On Thursday they trounced RB Leipzig 4-1 to win the DFB-Pokal and on Sunday, they beat Mainz 3-1 to secure a Champions League place. They finish the season with seven straight wins and, perhaps, a seed of doubt: sure, Edin Terzic was appointed as a placeholder while they waited for Marco Rose, but are they certain a change is wise?
There’s no going back now so, of course, it’s a moot point. But it’s worth noting that after the initial skepticism around his appointment, Terzic made up a seven-point gap on fourth place and, more importantly, got Borussia Dortmund playing with cohesion to a degree even Lucien Favre never could. Meanwhile Rose’s season collapsed after news of his acrimonious split from Borussia Moenchengladbach.
Rose, of course, did a sterling job in 2019-20 and dominated at FC Salzburg before that — then again, who doesn’t? — and maybe it’s not fair to give too much weight to Gladbach’s implosion in judging him. But if Terzic gets away, well… Dortmund may have plenty of regret.
New-look Alli back on song for Spurs
Under Mauricio Pochettino, he was arguably Tottenham’s most important player not named Harry or Heung-Min. Then came Jose Mourinho and the gradual disappearance of Dele Alli both at club level and with England (he has 37 caps, but none in the last 22 months). But he has started the last three games, including Sunday’s victory over Wolves, under Ryan Mason (sporting a new haircut, too), and we’ve seen a revitalised Alli. Maybe not one back at full fitness, but certainly closer to the one who made such a splash (and scored 22 goals as a 20-year-old back in 2016-17).
Now that he’s fit again and off whatever naughty step Mourinho put him on, for whatever reason, Alli is a definite asset for Tottenham and for whoever takes over from Mason this summer. He’s still just 25 and with the right manager, he can drive Tottenham again the way he did under Pochettino.