Another weekend in European soccer yielded another flurry of talking points! In England, Manchester City clawed back at West Ham to remain in charge of the Premier League title race with one weekend remaining, while Liverpool looked tired in the FA Cup final but still had enough juice to defeat Chelsea on penalties. The German Bundesliga season ended with Erling Haaland's farewell to Borussia Dortmund and Robert Lewandowski saying he wants out of Bayern Munich. In Italy, AC Milan and Inter Milan both won to keep the Serie A title battle alive heading into the final round of games, while Spain's LaLiga (and PSG in France) enjoyed a fairly relaxed weekend.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Man City stumble | Liverpool win another cup final | Milan stay on top | Lewandowski's future | Inter still chasing Serie A | Real take it easy | Haaland's Dortmund goodbye | Messi's PSG reminder | Barca clinch second | Tottenham's penalty win | Suarez's last Atletico game
Man City stumble, Mahrez misses penalty as draw at West Ham means title will be decided on final weekend
At half-time in East London, Manchester City were 2-0 down against West Ham and staring down the barrel of a 93:20 situation. If they didn't turn it around and if Liverpool got a big win away to Southampton on Tuesday, then it could (hell, likely would) come down to a Premier League title assigned on goal difference. And at that moment, City were at +5 over Liverpool. But factor in the hypothetical big win at Southampton and, yeah, it could be really darn close on Matchday 38, when Liverpool and City would welcome Wolves and Aston Villa respectively.
It didn't work out that way, of course. City battled back to a 2-2 draw and would have taken all three points if not for Riyad Mahrez's penalty being saved by Lukasz Fabianski with four minutes remaining. But you imagine the above thoughts (or some variation thereof) flashed through every City supporter's mind, starting with Pep Guardiola's.
Above all, it ought to be a reminder that, even when things appear straightforward, pitfalls await around every corner. Like the defensive errors that led to West Ham's two goals, or the non-call when Kurt Zouma booted Gabriel Jesus and neither the referee nor the VAR seemed to notice. And if you do stumble, you need to pick yourself back up to be champions.
West Ham, riding the emotion of the home crowd and Mark Noble's last home appearance, defended well, countered well and fully deserved their two-goal lead thanks to the exceptional Jarrod Bowen (in fact, he might have had a hat trick). But City turned it around after the break, as evidenced by the second-half xG of 1.75 to 0.38. It wasn't about performance, which was good, as much as it was about persistence and belief in what Guardiola was asking on them.
That said, the defensive errors were avoidable. And here I go back to what I've been banging on about for much of the season: the fact that Manchester City went into the campaign with 19 senior outfield players, presumably by choice, since resources aren't wanting at the Etihad. And, presumably also by choice, when they lost Benjamin Mendy and Ferran Torres, they were not replaced. And now, with an injury crisis -- Ruben Dias, John Stones and Kyle Walker are all done for the season while Nathan Ake was on the bench, but is clearly not fit -- they have to play key games with a 37-year-old defensive midfielder, Fernandinho, at center-back (and, yes, it was his mistake that led directly to one of the goals).
We hear about meticulous planning and attention to detail, which is what makes some of Guardiola's choices all the more baffling. (Another might be how, needing to win the game, Phil Foden remained on the bench.) His record is exceptional -- we know that -- and he's obviously entitled to do what he thinks is best. But it's mystifying how you would allow yourself such a tiny margin for error.
Liverpool outlast Chelsea from the penalty spot ... yes, the quadruple is on
Two down, two to go. Having added the FA Cup Saturday to the League Cup they won earlier this season, Liverpool's hopes of winning the Champions League and Premier League are alive. No, they're not favourites in the league and yes, injuries to Mohamed Salah, Fabinho and Virgil Van Dijk weigh heavily, but Jurgen Klopp will be demanding that they still believe. And why not? It's football. Stranger things have happened.
The FA Cup final (a bit like the League Cup final) was a thrilling end-to-end match with frankly nothing to separate the two sides. Nothing, that is, but penalties, and for the second time this season, Liverpool bested Chelsea from the spot.
Both teams created chances and played well, honouring the occasion with intensity and quality. Luis Diaz was at times unplayable, but Christian Pulisic also had his moments (everything bar the finishing) as did Romelu Lukaku who, for all the criticism, put in a shift at center-forward.
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(A word on Andreas Christensen, who was due to start, but deserted the game for unknown reasons: Tuchel simply confirmed he wasn't injured. With Christensen leaving the club next month to join Barcelona as a free agent, it's inevitable folks will link the two things. I don't know Christensen personally, but I know plenty who do, and I feel like I want to hear his side of the story before passing judgement. After all, this is a guy who has been at Chelsea for a decade and who got regular playing time at the back. I can't imagine why you would pull out of an FA Cup final. It had better be a pretty good reason, though, because on the surface, it smacks of a craven lack of professionalism and loyalty.)
One final thought on the penalty shootout. Jurgen Klopp dedicated the win to a neuroscience company which, he says, Liverpool employed to help them with penalties. Geir Jordet, a Norwegian football psychology researcher, noted on Twitter how different Klopp's and Tuchel's approaches were before the shootout. He noted how Klopp was concise and prepared, whereas it looked as if Tuchel was still scribbling notes when he got in the huddle. He pointed out that Klopp spoke to each penalty taker individually and diffused the tension by having a laugh with Van Dijk and concludes that "monsters of mentality" are "born, not made."
I'm all for innovation in football and, yes, psychology plays a part. But if you watch the penalty shootout again, you'll note that the worst penalty was taken by Sadio Mane. And, in fact, other than Mason Mount's, I thought all the other penalties were well-taken (including Cesar Azpilicueta's, which hit the post.
I'm not suggesting that Klopp's preparation and Neuro11 are irrelevant, just that whatever Tuchel did differently probably didn't impact Chelsea negatively. After the fact, it's always easy to point to factors that support your thesis.
Milan one step closer to Serie A title with win over Atalanta
Rafael Leao and Theo Hernandez (thanks to his gem of a coast-to-coast run) powered Milan's 2-0 win over Atalanta this weekend, a victory that leaves them two points clear of Inter heading into the final game of the season. Given that they have an edge in the head-to-head tiebreaker, they look firmly in the driver's seat for the trip to face Sassuolo, where even a draw will suffice.
Atalanta aren't what they were earlier in the season, but they still made life tough on the day in the first half. Milan used the tools they've relied on so many times this season -- patience, work rate and sudden, blistering pace -- to overcome them. And, in many ways, that seems fitting.
Bayern's final game overshadowed by Lewandowski's future
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Bayern's 2-2 final day away draw with Wolfsburg was classic end-of-campaign irrelevance. Bayern had already clinched the title and Wolfsburg mid-table respectability; there was nothing at stake. Julian Nagelsmann's crew went 2-0 up, the opposition came back, and few batted an eyelid. What is capturing people's attention, however, is the growing battle of wills between Robert Lewandowski and the club.
The Polish striker has a year left on his contract. Bayern sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic says he turned down a new deal. Lewandowski's camp reportedly say there was no offer of an extension, and he's being strongly linked with a move to Barcelona, who supposedly are ready to give him a three-year deal. It's a sour coda to the season, and you don't want to overshadow the fact that even though he turns 34 in August, Lewandowski notched 35 league goals and 50 overall (both the second-highest tallies of his prolific career).
Bayern are disciplined when it comes to contracts -- just ask David Alaba, who was allowed to walk on a free transfer ... and yes, he was advised by Pini Zahavi, the same guy who is advising Lewandowski. So it's not surprising they're cautious about being on the hook for Lewandowski beyond his 35th birthday, which is what would happen if he gets another year or two. (They may have offered him an extension, but it may also have been the sort of extension that ushers you towards the exit.)
As I see it, Bayern hold most of the cards here. Right now, Barcelona are already way over LaLiga's spending cap for next season, which means they have to offload players or cut wages before they can buy. Even if they somehow clear space, it's not obvious how Lewandowski -- who is more of a "last piece of the puzzle" -- would suit a club facing such a massive rebuild. Could someone else emerge? In terms of salary, possibly. In terms of prestige and winning another Champions League, I'm not so sure.
Right now, the worst-case scenario for Bayern is that they hold him to his contract, he sulks a bit over the summer, shows up grumpy in preseason and then turns into the Lewandowski we all know. Which isn't a bad outcome, frankly.
Lautaro powers Inter, who win at Cagliari to keep title race alive
Inter's 3-1 victory away to relegation-threatened Cagliari means they're still in with a shot at the title on the final day of the season. As we've said many times, given where they were after last summer with the departures of Achraf Hakimi, Romelu Lukaku and Antonio Conte, that's quite the achievement. Throw in the Super Cup, and it's quite the achievement from Simone Inzaghi. Indeed, Inzaghi himself was bullish in pounding the drums and rallying the troops, reminding everyone that he won a title as a player with a comeback on the last day of the season (at Lazio, when they pipped Juventus at the finish line).
They looked to have the right spirit at Cagliari, thanks in part to the usual suspects, but also to Lautaro Martinez. The Argentine international, who scored two goals on Sunday, has blown hot and cold during his time at the club, but his seasonal tally is now 25 goals in all competitions.
Assuming Inter hang on to him -- with Edin Dzeko showing his age and Alexis Sanchez on his way out -- he's going to define their attack next season. Getting him the right strike partner must be a priority.
Real Madrid have a preseason vibe in draw at Cadiz
With the league title already in the bag and all eyes on the Champions League final, Carlo Ancelotti put together the sort of side you seen in a preseason friendly. There were a smattering of starters (Toni Kroos, Casemiro, Eder Militao), a sprinkle of outsiders looking to impress (Fede Valverde, Rodrygo, Marco Asensio) and some guys along for the ride.
It finished 1-1 and there's not too much to read into it, other than everyone got through the game without injury. Some players need games to remain fit -- you presume this is why Casemiro and Kroos started -- while others can take a couple of weeks off without missing a beat. With the countdown on to May 28 in Paris, Madrid fans will be hoping the sports science people are getting it right.
Dortmund say goodbye to Haaland and Zorc ... and send Hertha to a relegation playoff
After 44 (count 'em!) years as a youth team player, senior pro and club executive, Michael Zorc said his farewell to Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. So too did Erling Haaland, who scored in the 2-1 win over Hertha Berlin to take his seasonal total to 29. In some ways it was fitting, because while Zorc's post-playing career saw him endure the lows of near insolvency and midtable, he also became a symbol of what Dortmund have become in recent years: a side looking to vacuum up young talent, develop it and sell it one. Rinse and repeat. And, of course, Haaland, signed from Leipzig for €20m, sold on for three times that two and a half years later, is the epitome of this.
It's a bit unfair and a bit reductionist -- in addition to his achievements as a player, Zorc also deserves credit for luring a certain Jurgen Klopp to the club and helping him build a side that would win two Bundesliga crowns while reaching the Champions League final -- but to most outside Germany, Dortmund are seen as a finishing school.
As for the game itself, Dortmund came from behind and won when Hertha merely needed a point to be safe. Encouragingly, the comeback was cued by the youngsters -- Jamie Bynoe-Gittens, Youssoufa Moukoko and Jude Bellingham -- and they'll write the next chapters for this club. Here's hoping they stick around long enough to get some silverware.
PSG win 4-0 and Messi scores twice ... a reminder of what he produced last season
Lionel Messi scored twice -- the first easy (for him), the second he made to look easy (because he's Messi) after an exquisite Kylian Mbappe assist -- in Paris Saint-Germain's 4-0 win away to Montpellier. With the Ligue 1 title wrapped up, there's not much to say about the game, so focus on Messi. The two goals brought his seasonal league total to six. (No, that's not a misprint).
This is the reigning Ballon d'Or we're talking about. A guy who scored 30 league goals last season in LaLiga, a tougher competition than Ligue 1. How, then, to explain such a decline?
For a start, goals alone only tell part of the story. A closer look at his "per90" numbers offer a mixed picture. The decline in non-penalty goals is stark (0.79 to 0.25); his xG is down substantially, too, though not by as much (to 0.40 from 0.58). Consider some other categories -- shots are down (5.32 to 3.51), successful dribbles are down (4.17 to 2.82), touches in the box are down (8.04 to 5.84), fouls won are down (3.22 to 1.55) -- and what emerges is a player who simply was less central to PSG than he was to Barcelona. (Indeed, his turnovers are also down -- 3.36 to 2.82 -- and that's a good thing.)
In other words, it's obviously not been a Messi-esque season or even a good season, but what also emerges is that he was simply less involved in PSG's play. Some of it, no doubt, is having to share the front line with two other megastars like Mbappe and Neymar, but some of it has to be down to Mauricio Pochettino, too. He didn't get the best Messi, but nor did he get the best out of the Messi he had.
It was a scoreless draw, but Barcelona clinch second in LaLiga, and it matters
Barcelona, another side with nothing to play for, didn't get more than a 0-0 draw against Getafe this weekend, and Xavi admitted it wasn't the best performance. That's what can happen when neither side has anything at stake.
But Xavi noted that finishing second means qualifying for the Spanish Super Cup in Saudi Arabia, which may be no great shakes to some, but is still very lucrative (and yeah, that matters to Barca right now). Beyond that, though, it's worth noting just what this team has achieved under his tutelage since taking over from Ronald Koeman.
Barcelona have moved from midtable to second place, they've showcased their young talent all season, and most of all, there's a totally different vibe around the club. Xavi may or may not be the man to ultimately restore Barca to where they want to be, but he has already achieved something important in staving off what could have been a cataclysmic collapse.
Little sympathy for complaints over Tottenham's penalty in big win vs. Burnley
A Harry Kane penalty gave Tottenham a 1-0 win over Burnley on Sunday, which keeps their Champions League hopes alive. The fact that it was awarded for a handball on Ashley Barnes that wasn't spotted by the referee in real time incensed Burnley. "Ashley is trying to keep his balance, how can get out of the way?" Burley boss Mike Jackson said. "You can't stand in an 18-yard box with your arms by your side. I don't know if the referee has played football. Nobody has even appealed for a penalty."
Leaving aside the cheap "never played the game" jibe, or the fact that there was no appeal (players are playing the game, not refereeing it), what he's saying is nonsense.
Watch it again (I'm sure you can find it on YouTube). How often do you see a professional footballer throw his arms out that far away from their body? Especially when they're not jumping for a header? The current interpretation of the law has been in place for nearly two years now. This isn't new. You're not walking a tightrope. You're expected to keep your balance without throwing your arm at a right angle. Otherwise, you risk a handball. Thousands of players manage to do it, dozens of times each and in every game.
As for the match itself, Tottenham weren't stellar, but they deserved the three points. All they can do is keep the pressure on Arsenal, who play Newcastle on Monday night.
Draw suits both Atletico Madrid and Sevilla as Luis Suarez says goodbye to the Wanda
If you were of a cynical bent, you might have thought Sunday's 1-1 draw between Atletico and Sevilla was somewhat predictable: it meant both will play Champions League football next season and it ensures a quiet final match day in LaLiga next weekend. Thus, the highlight of the day was Luis Suarez's farewell to the Wanda Metropolitano.
It was this time last season that his goals were driving Atletico to the Liga title -- an improbable title at that, given that the previous summer, he'd been shown the door by Barcelona as part of their desperate cost-cutting measures (the same ones that led to Messi packing his bags).
Suarez's intensity and character suited Atletico perfectly, his style of play somewhat less so, and yet his first season yielded 21 goals and the sort of leadership that takes you over the top. This season was a bit different. Diego Simeone struggled to put together a settled side, Suarez's legs began to show their age (35) and the goals dried up (he ended with 11, albeit in reduced minutes).
He's fit and says he wants to stay in Europe and play in a top league, with an eye towards the 2022 World Cup. Wherever he ends up -- he's already been linked to all the Liverpool alums at Aston Villa -- he's sure to entertain and offer plenty of drive.