Barcelona, Arsenal, PSG, Wolfsburg capture European domestic cup titles
Four of the top European nations decided their domestic cup winners on the same day, as the German, Spanish, English and French finals took place Saturday. American viewers had the chance to see all four, with multiple broadcasters continuing their commitment to showing the best football in the world stateside.
The Coppa Italia final already happened on May 20, with Juventus defeating Lazio 2–1 in extra time. The subsequent packed day of finals leaves just one big game to be played in the European season before the summer break: the Champions League final next week in Berlin.
La Vecchia Signora’s victory in Italy and Barcelona’s in Spain ensure that whichever team wins it will complete the league, cup and European cup treble. The ultimate game remains to be played, but Saturday was a great appetizer to what should be another explosive final.
Here are a few takeaways from Saturday’s smorgasbord of cup finals:
Giant-killers fall short in all efforts
The romantic notion of cup competitions proffers a world in which all teams begin on equal footing, regardless of whether they’re owned by oil consortiums or more modest local businessmen. Lower-tier teams slay first-division monsters on a yearly basis in a single 90-minute effort, and some even reach the final.
In 2011, the 2. Bundesliga’s MSV Duisburg lost the DFB-Pokal final 1–0 to Schalke. Roberto Martínez’s Wigan beat Manchester City 1–0 in the 2013 FA Cup final in the same year it suffered relegation.
However, Saturday’s games held no surprises in the results.
The only team from outside the top divisions, Auxerre, came up against Qatar-backed French juggernaut Paris Saint-Germain in the Coupe de France final. The other three finals on Saturday exclusively featured teams from the top leagues.
Although the Ligue 2 side attacked opportunistically and defended bravely, the predictable result still prevailed. Of course, Auxerre didn’t leave Ligue 1 sides strewn along the wayside on its path to the final; the only top-tier team it beat was mid-table Guingamp, winning 1–0 in the semifinals.
The German Cup final in Berlin featured probably the most evenly matched teams, as second-place Wolfsburg faced seventh-place Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund isn’t used to being the underdog recently, but that label fit this year, as it seriously underachieved all season.
The FA Cup competition belongs to Arsenal
From the first whistle to the final whistle, Arsenal dominated the decisive match of the FA Cup. Alexis Sánchez starred for the Gunners, assisting Theo Walcott on the first goal before adding a firecracker of his own from outside the penalty area in the second half.
Arsenal’s 4–0 win over Aston Villa gives it a record 12th FA Cup in its 19th final appearance, pulling ahead of Manchester United, which has one fewer in both categories. Fans have become more vocal recently about their frustrations with manager Arsène Wenger and his team’s league performances, but the Gunners have owned the cup in recent years.
Since winning the league without losing a game in 2003-04, Arsenal has only won the FA Cup—but it has won it three times. (That’s not counting Community Shields, but those one-off games hardly seem to enter the greater consciousness.)
It might not be a Premier League trophy, but it’s still a major victory. Wenger’s sixth FA Cup triumph puts him atop the list for most as a manager alongside former Villa boss George Ramsay.
Speaking of Aston Villa, its superb cup run this season ended with a whimper. American goalkeeper Brad Guzan watched from the bench, but neither he nor Shay Given could have done much about the poor performances from the other 10 positions on the field. Arsenal thoroughly deserved to lift the trophy.
Exciting German final sends Klopp out with a loss
It started brightly for Borussia Dortmund in Jurgen Klopp's last match in charge, as BVB took the lead over Wolfsburg in the first five minutes through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. However, Wolfsburg only needed 17 minutes to equalize, then scored twice more before halftime to give the DFB-Pokal final its 3–1 full-time score.
Multiple elements looked similar to successful teams of Dortmund’s past. An active Klopp stood on the touchline in his classic tracksuit, wearing a baseball cap. Thick yellow smoke hung over the field as the match started, followed by flares and flags flying in the stands at the restart.
But despite its strong start, Dortmund collapsed, as it did on multiple occasions in league play. Momentum reversed course very quickly, with Kevin De Bruyne and Bas Dost scoring within five minutes of each other, and BVB couldn't match the energy from its fans.
Dortmund wanted a positive ending for Klopp, the manager that has brought the team so much success and a revamped style of play, but instead the final turned into a microcosm of why this is the right time for him to leave. As rival Pep Guardiola said when he left Barcelona, there comes a time when managers struggle to inspire their players and hold their attention.
It’s hard to call this result an upset, though, considering how good Dieter Hecking’s Wolfsburg has been this season. It’s the only trophy he has won as a manager since taking the Regionalliga Nord (German fourth tier) in 2002 with VfB Lübeck, it's Wolfsburg's first DFB-Pokal triumph and it's the first time since 2011 a team other than Dortmund and Bayern Munich has won a domestic trophy.
PSG seals domestic dominance; when will European follow?
It’s not news that Paris Saint-Germain dominates French football, particularly since Qatar Sports Investments bought the club in 2011. A series of big-name signings and massive investments followed, and the team has lifted the Ligue 1 trophy three years in a row.
Steady improvement brought PSG a domestic treble last year, with Ligue 1, Coupe de la Ligue (League Cup) and Trophée des Champions (Supercup) victories. The club added a fourth trophy alongside the same list this season, winning the Coupe de France final over Auxerre 1–0 on Saturday.
However, such one-sided results as a 4–0 win in the League Cup final over Bastia and an eight-point gap ahead of second-place Lyon in the league don’t do PSG any favors in continental competitions. Bayern has also been burned in Champions League play by the natural relaxation that comes with locking up domestic trophies early, and the Bundesliga provides far more weekly competition than Ligue 1.
It wasn’t exactly a dominant win on Saturday for PSG, either. Auxerre couldn’t punish its opponent for a lazy start, but Barcelona certainly did in the Champions League quarterfinal—and Chelsea caused some problems in the round of 16 as well.
It would be tough to expect manager Laurent Blanc to do much more than he has despite the steady cash flow from the Middle East. Replacing him wouldn’t change the fact that PSG has little competition at home, which hampers its efforts to win Europe’s biggest title.
Treble still on in Luis Enrique’s first season
Barcelona took down Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey final 3–1 in a battle of the Catalans against the Basques. More individual brilliance from Lionel Messi and a superb team goal capped by a Neymar tap-in put Barça just 90 minutes away from the treble in Luis Enrique's debut season.
A full-strength Barça lineup needed a little time to settle, but by the end of the first half, the players barely seemed to be sweating despite a two-goal lead. It's hard to see Juventus having much of a chance next week if Barça can muster one more match in its intricate passing and possession-based style.
Of course, if team play fails, Messi can just conjure brilliance from innocuous situations. The English dictionary falls short on adequate adjectives to describe his otherworldliness, and he added another astounding goal to his highlight reel by dribbling through four Bilbao defenders before smacking a shot inside the near post.
The comparisons between Enrique and Guardiola's teams won’t quiet, as Guardiola also won the treble in his first year. Enrique's team is composed a bit differently, but it has proven to be just as talented.
The attacking triumvirate of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suárez necessitated a bit more of a direct style than Guardiola’s midfield of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in their prime. The latter three remain at the club, one step away from finally returning to the summit of European football after a couple slower seasons and a tactical evolution.