The European soccer weekend saw two title races take a potentially decisive turn as Manchester City pulled clear of Liverpool at the Premier League summit, while AC Milan rallied to win and stay ahead of Inter Milan in Serie A. Jurgen Klopp wasn’t too happy about how Tottenham played, either. Elsewhere, there were talking points galore for Manchester United (Erik ten Hag can’t take over soon enough), Atletico Madrid (whose win over Real Madrid keeps them on course for next season’s Champions League) and Barcelona (who got a glorious goal from Jordi Alba to beat Real Betis).
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Liverpool drop points | Milan stay top | Man City rebound | Atletico win Madrid derby | Awful Man United | Haaland leaving Dortmund? | Arsenal stay on course | Barcelona beat Betis | Chelsea’s perplexing draw | Bayern celebrate | PSG’s stars suit up
Liverpool held at Anfield by Spurs and a game plan Klopp doesn’t like
Tottenham grabbed a 1-1 draw at Anfield on Saturday that swings the pendulum away from Jurgen Klopp’s crew in the title race. The gap is now three points and, in that context, you can see why Klopp was so frustrated at the final whistle. His team had gone a goal down, grabbed an equaliser with Luis Diaz and then failed to break through despite a late siege as Spurs defended deep.
I like to think it was the tension of the quadruple chase that contributed to what he said after the game, but whatever the case, Klopp did himself no favours when he took a dig at their approach. He pointed out that “for all the praise Tottenham receive,” they are still fifth in the league and that they were “time-wasting.” He then added: “I am sorry, I am the wrong person to ask about [this] because I don’t like this kind of football. But that is my personal problem. I think they are world-class, and I think they should do more for the game.”
He then compared them to Atletico Madrid (presumably in their first leg against Manchester City) and pointed out Spurs had 36% possession.
– Klopp: Liverpool can still win Premier League
– Ogden: Liverpool’s quadruple fading after Spurs draw
– Klopp hits out at Conte, Tottenham tactics
At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s more than one way to play the game. For this game, Spurs boss Antonio Conte chose the plan he thought was right for him. He was vindicated. Other than the deflected goal and a couple of headers, Spurs gave up little. The xG were even (1.41-1.29).
Liverpool stumbled against Spurs and were largely unable to crack their well-organized defense, something Klopp sounded off about after the game. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
It may not be fun to play against this type of football — and by the way, it was nowhere near as extreme as Atletico’s approach against City — but it’s not as if Spurs do this every time they step on the pitch. Conte also has a job to do: He needs points to try to finish in the top four and get in the Champions League so that Spurs can also grow and strengthen in the summer. He too gets judged by how he performs.
I share Klopp’s view that it’s not the best way to play over the long term, and I’m pretty sure Conte does, too. But when you take over in midseason, there’s only so much you can do. Talking the way Klopp did simply doesn’t reflect well on him and for a guy whose public image has been largely unblemished and who is hugely likeable (at least to me) was jarring, and did little other than prompt questions about whether the pressure is getting to him a bit.
Spurs were well-organised defensively and were effective in a 5-4-1 formation out of possession. They did have, as Klopp pointed out, all week to prepare. It’s very tough to beat a side who defend like that through patterns of play or counter-pressing: you need either a defensive error, a set piece, a moment of genius/inspiration or a bit of luck. Spurs didn’t make mistakes and were up to the task on set-pieces, while Liverpool’s “added value” players — Mohamed Salah, Thiago Alcantara, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Sadio Mane — weren’t particularly inspired. So it was left to luck and deflections. Liverpool tried to create their own (and lest we forget, Diaz’s goal was deflected too), but it wasn’t enough. That’s football.
Klopp can focus on that, or he can focus equally on the defending for Son Heung-Min’s goal. As usual, Alexander-Arnold will get all the blame for not shutting down Harry Kane, but he wasn’t the only one to make a bad decision leading up to Son’s goal.
There’s no time to dwell on things as the quadruple remains in play. You get wear and tear at this stage of the season; it’s par for the course. The difference, often, is how you react to setbacks as much as the setbacks that you suffer.
As for Spurs, this was the sort of performance that will help Conte get further buy-in from his crew. Obviously they won’t be able to play like this (nor will they want to) in the North London derby, but the point keeps things tight as they chase Arsenal. A win on Thursday night can shift the momentum their way.
Milan take giant step towards Serie A title, exorcising Verona demons
Gab Marcotti explains why AC Milan may find it difficult to take home the Serie A trophy this season.
There was a point, when they went a goal down to Davide Faraoni’s first-half goal, that it looked as if history might repeat itself. Twice before Milan had thrown away Serie A titles at the end of the season in this very stadium, against Verona, and the superstitious among fans (which, let’s face it, is virtually everyone) might have thought the curse was back. With Inter coming back to beat Empoli on Friday, they were now second in the table.
Dan Thomas is joined by Craig Burley, Shaka Hislop and others to bring you the latest highlights and debate the biggest storylines. Stream on ESPN+ (U.S. only).
But mental strength matters and superstition is just bunk, right? Powered by a prodigious Rafael Leao down the flank, driven by Sandro Tonali’s two goals and held together by a defensive masterclass from Fikayo Tomori and Pierre Kalulu at the back, Stefano Pioli’s crew stormed back to win 3-1 and restore their two-point lead at the top with two games remaining.
Apart from some brilliant youngsters, what strikes you most about Milan this season is the mental toughness they’ve shown and the myths they’ve exploded — particularly the ones that say you don’t win by playing attacking football and, especially, that you need experience and “proven winners” (whatever that means) to attain success. Mental toughness isn’t always dependent on age and these days, being brave gets rewarded far more than playing conservative. Even if they don’t win the scudetto at this stage, they’ve already proved their point.
Man City bounce back from Champions League defeat to pull clear as Guardiola plays ‘siege card’
Shaka Hislop believes that Man City’s 5-0 victory over Newcastle shows that Pep Guardiola’s side have forgotten about their Champions League heartbreak against Real Madrid.
Manchester City freshened up their team and reacted to the Champions League elimination in Madrid with a comprehensive 5-0 win over Newcastle on Sunday. Forget the score: they dominated despite reshuffling the pack a little (Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Riyad Mahrez started on the bench) and it was the sort of performance that showed singular focus, and that Madrid was just a bump in the road. The one downside was the injury to Ruben Dias, who won’t be back until next season. With Kyle Walker and John Stones already out, Guardiola has four fit senior defenders, plus CJ Egan-Riley and Fernandinho in a pinch.
– Fernandinho: Premier League is ‘in our hands’
– Sources: Pogba would prefer move abroad over Man City
– Dawson: Man City are more than just Liverpool spoilers
Guardiola would probably tell you he won’t get much sympathy, since his messaging has been all about playing the “us vs. the world” card in the past few days. It began pregame, with him saying that even if they won the Champions League, they should be judged on their work, not the trophy (which is true) and that folks wouldn’t give them credit because of the money they spent. That last point may be true to a point, but it’s no different from most teams who win the Champions League. It’s not as if this season’s finalists, Liverpool and Real Madrid, are paupers. There’s a significant polarisation in the game with seven or eight teams who are far better resourced than everyone else. City are one of them, yes, but it’s the same for each of the clubs.
He then went on to complain about how “everyone in the country is supporting Liverpool,” including the media, before taking a jab at the fact that his rivals have only won one Premier League title in the past three decades. Leaving aside the obvious — plenty of fans do not like Liverpool and their fans because they support clubs who are long-item historical rivals — It’s not as if it necessarily affects matters on the pitch, so why bring it up? Does he need more accolades?
Sure, even if it were true, there might be folks who don’t like City. Maybe it’s jealousy for the three Premier League titles in four years. Maybe it’s the rejection of sides who are seen as nouveau riche (Chelsea got it too, as did Blackburn Rovers before them). Maybe it’s the club’s ownership and folks who have a problem with that. Maybe it’s the breaches of Financial Fair Play, as well as the fact they were found guilty of obstructing investigations.
But so what? Plenty don’t care about that stuff and focus only on the aesthetics and the performances. And by that metric, City are out of this world. In any case, like we said, it doesn’t affect matters on the pitch — unless, of course, you let it. Klopp evidently isn’t the only one who is psychologically exhausted at this stage of the campaign.
Atletico Madrid win the derby and, most likely, a spot in the top four
Craig Burley explains why this was the perfect time for Atletico Madrid to play Real Madrid in the derby.
OK, it’s the derby and they’re rivals, but Real Madrid also live in the real world, hence why Atletico vs. Real was one of those late-season games that felt a bit ho-hum. Real have a Champions League final against Liverpool for which to prepare and if David Alaba recovers, you’ll only see three of the guys who started against Atletico make Carlo Ancelotti’s XI to face Liverpool in Paris. Meanwhile Atleti had everything to play for, buoyed by news of defeats for Real Betis and Real Sociedad, who are chasing them for fourth place.
– All aboard! Atletico, Real stars travel on public buses to derby
– Lowe: Camavinga’s just getting started for Real Madrid
Yannick Carrasco, so often underappreciated, scored the game’s only goal from the penalty spot. Real Madrid slumbered in the first half and got better after the break, but they probably still deserved to lose against an opponent who did something they rarely do: press opponents effectively from the start. It will probably be enough to secure Champions League football for Atletico next season, which is critically important.
Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti said he’d treat the next games as a way of assessing the guys who haven’t played very much, but might come in handy in Paris (Jesus Vallejo for sure, and possibly Luka Jovic too, though he didn’t help his case on Sunday night, filling in for Karim Benzema). Beyond that, there’s really one spot in Ancelotti’s XI that’s going to be contested and the candidates are Fede Valverde, Rodrygo and, possibly, Marco Asensio.
Man United lose again at critics search for adjectives to describe horror show… Ten Hag can’t get here soon enough
Janusz Michallik speaks about Man United’s 4-0 loss to Brighton in the Premier League.
With one win in their last five, no away points in two months, their guaranteed worst league finish in the Premier League era (which of course began three decades ago), there are plenty of reasons to pull hair and gnash teeth after Manchester United’s 4-0 humiliation away to Brighton. In times like these, you just sort of weather it and wait for next season. Erik ten Hag is on his way from Ajax and, with him, a whole lot of hope for a credible rebuild.
Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Gabriele Marcotti.
Most of the bile was reserved for the players (David De Gea and Cristiano Ronaldo get a pass, few others do) rather than Ralf Rangnick. In some ways, that’s fair enough. As this column (and plenty others) have pointed out, his appointment was a huge leap of faith not because he’s a poor coach, but because his brand of football requires all sorts of things United did not have: tactical diktats, high-octane, credible forwards and depth in midfield.
– Weekend Review: Humiliation for Man United
– Rangnick apologizes for heavy defeat at Brighton
Not that it matters, but was it really necessary to make zero changes from Monday’s win over Brentford? What was the thinking in playing poor Juan Mata — who is 34 and had not started consecutive games in a week since before the pandemic — for example? It feels as if once the slide began and he realized there was little he could do, Rangnick’s main preoccupation was playing out the streak. Fair enough, you don’t blame him. But it does mean Ten Hag could be looking at Europa Conference League football next season.
Dortmund limp to another win as Kehl says Haaland’s future will be decided this week
Gab & Juls discuss Sebastian Kehl’s comments about Erling Haaland’s future at Borussia Dortmund.
Second-to-last game of the season, nothing to play for but pride, already relegated opponent … there was little to expect from Borussia Dortmund’s trip to face Greuther Furth, and we got little other than a 3-1 win including two goals from Julian Brandt, bringing his Bundesliga total to nine, possibly enough for someone to take him off the club’s hands this summer.
– Xavi: Barcelona ruled out of Haaland chase due to financial issues
– 39 Best Under 21: Haaland, Pedri, Foden lead the way
More relevant, perhaps, are the words of club official Sebastian Kehl, who said he expects Erling Haaland’s position to “become clearer” this coming week. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end if Haaland stayed with us, but, equally, if he activated his clause and moved on.”
If those reports of him having agreed personal terms in principle with Manchester City are accurate, Kehl’s words will go down as an omen. If not, I doubt things will be any clearer next week.
Door is never (OK, rarely) shut for Arteta as Arsenal stay on course for fourth place
Shaka Hislop explains why Arsenal should expect Champions League football next season.
Arsenal benefitted from some early goals (one of them a gift from Illan Meslier) to see out a 2-1 win over Leeds, who went down to 10 men in the opening half-hour after a heavy foul by Luke Ayling. It was the Gunners’ fourth win on the bounce and like the previous ones, it wasn’t a high-quality, 90-minute performance, but rather a case of seizing the chances and being bright when it mattered.
– Olley: Arsenal’s youth movement nearly costly vs. Leeds
– Who will finish in the top four?
Like in the previous wins, key roles were played by Mohamed Elneny and Eddie Nketiah (the latter notched both goals against Leeds). Both are free agents this summer, and both previously seemed surplus to requirements under Mikel Arteta. Until a month ago, Nketiah had started just four league games since the start of the 2020-21 season, while Elneny had made just one start, yet both are proving critical down the stretch.
Blame Arteta for not realising until now what they can contribute? Or praise Arteta for keeping them motivated and letting them back in when the time was right? Those are two sides of the same coin. Meanwhile, both players have big decisions to make this summer.
Old guard and new guard deliver Champions League football for Barcelona
Alejandro Moreno ponders if Barcelona will be able to keep up their quality of play into next season.
You could lose yourself in the symbolism. Barcelona’s goals in the 2-1 win against Betis on the road came courtesy of the new guard (19-year-old Ansu Fati, who scored his first goal since the Spanish Supercup a week after coming back from a four-month layoff) and the old guard (33-year-old Jordi Alba conjuring up a gorgeous volley, exquisitely set up by Dani Alves’ chipped cross). It kind of sums up where they are: glorious past, promising future and an uncertain present, though qualifying for the Champions League will help tremendously.
– Barca secure Champions League place by beating Betis
– Highlights: Alba’s fizzing volley seals win for Barcelona
– REPLAY: Real Betis 1-2 Barcelona, E+ (U.S. only)
As for the game itself, Betis had the upper hand for long stretches, hit the woodwork and were thwarted by a couple of big Neto saves. But they lacked what they too often lack: a cutting edge when it matters. Xavi — who showed humility as he ended up substituting his starting front three and was vindicated with two goals late in the game — said this was the sort of match that, in November, they would probably have drawn, but today they win. It’s another way of saying that they’ve grown together in the past six months, though there’s a lot further to go.
Chelsea’s prospective new owner, Todd Boehly, witnesses perplexing draw
Steve Nicol reacts to Chelsea’s 2-2 draw against Wolves in the Premier League.
Todd Boehly is not Chelsea’s new owner, not until the deal he agreed to buy the club — £2.5 billion ($3.1bn), plus a promise of future investment — is approved by the Premier League and, crucially, by the British government. But he took a giant step last week, and on Saturday, he was present for the 2-2 draw with Wolves.
I have no clue how much he knows about the sport, but whether he’s a novice or Sir Alex Ferguson, Arrigo Sacchi and Johan Cruyff rolled into one, he was bound to leave perplexed. The reasons for his confusion? There are plenty. Like why you’d rest Mason Mount and Kai Havertz in this game, but not for the midweek trip to Leeds. Or why you keep playing guys you know are leaving the club (Antonio Rudiger, though, at least, Andreas Christensen stayed on the bench). Or, most of all, how you managed to let a 2-0 lead at home slip away with 11 minutes to go.
– Lukaku let down by defense as Chelsea draw vs. Wolves
– Olley: How sanctions, confusion are impacting Chelsea’s squad planning
– Tuchel denies Pulisic rift after father’s tweet
There’s plenty of work for Boehly, if his group is confirmed, Thomas Tuchel and the rest of the club to get stuck into. In fact, don’t be surprised if next season, 15 months after becoming European champions, this team looks very little like the one that triumphed in Lisbon.
Bayern celebrate at home (after celebrating in Ibiza)
Having clinched the title two weeks ago, Bayern’s 2-2 home draw with Stuttgart (who, on the other hand, are battling to avoid relegation) was anti-climactic on the pitch. Off it, they got to celebrate in front of their own fans and Julian Nagelsmann, again, got to answer questions about whether it was disrespectful of them to enjoy a mini-break in Ibiza after securing the Meisterschale.
Nagelsmann pointed out that the Ibiza trip was the players’ choice and he had merely given them time off. It may be the truth, but you wonder if, already being under pressure for his age (and getting knocked out of the Champions League by Villarreal), he might not have been a bit more savvy, either by forcing the players to stick around or defending their decision to go to Ibiza before the end of the season. It would have given a sense that, ultimately, he’s in control; instead, he chose to be honest.
Contrary to what you may have been taught, sometimes it’s not always the best policy.
Nothing to play for, but PSG still play the stars (and let a two-goal lead slip)
Paris Saint-Germain were 2-0 up and cruising against Troyes, before letting the opposition back in and drawing 2-2 at the Parc des Princes. It’s not a big deal, really — they’ve already been crowned champions and are just counting down the hours to the summer holiday — but it was nonetheless interesting to see Mauricio Pochettino line up with his strongest possible team.
Kylian Mbappe was joined by Angel Di Maria, Neymar and Lionel Messi up front, Marco Verratti was in midfield, and Achraf Hakimi at right-back. If it’s to affect some semblance of seriousness or professionalism (or to please the crowd), well … it didn’t work. At this phase of the campaign, with nothing at stake, surely it makes more sense to play youngsters wherever possible so that you can assess what you have and, maybe, even generate some enthusiasm. But no: Other than 18-year-old midfielder Ismail Gharbi, the kids were nowhere to be seen.
These are the actions of a coach (and possibly a sporting director) who seem fairly certain they won’t be back next season.