Around Europe: Clasico fallout; remembering Cesare Maldini
There was drama at both ends of the Premier League this weekend as Leicester extended its improbable lead at the top, while Newcastle took a step in the wrong direction at the bottom. Real Madrid ended Barcelona's 39-match winning streak and claimed El Clásico with a late Cristiano Ronaldo strike, while, on the heels of Johan Cruyff's passing, there was tragedy in Italy following the death of AC Milan legend Cesare Maldini. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund fans expressed their opinions about a potential return signing, and in France, coach Didier Deschamps was boosted by the injury return of a potential difference-maker at Euro 2016.
Here are the latest news-makers Around Europe:
Real Madrid claims El Clásico
In the wider scope of the season, the surprise result in El Clásico, in which 10-man Real Madrid came from behind to beat Barcelona 2-1 and dampen the mood in the first Camp Nou match since Cruyff died, will probably not affect the destination of the Spanish title race. Barcelona is still clear at the top, six ahead of Atletico Madrid and seven of Real Madrid. How it will affect the other parts of the season is the more intriguing question.
Barcelona plays Atletico, who thrashed Real Betis 5-1, in the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal Tuesday, and while El Clásico is traditionally Barcelona’s biggest game of the season, the European tie is more important for the season target of achieving the historic consecutive trebles that Luis Enrique is after.
Barcelona was dominant in the early stages Saturday, as Madrid boss Zinedine Zidane looked like following the last five Bernabeu coaches to have lost their first Clásico in charge. When Gerard Pique headed home a corner early in the second half, the host seemed certain to extend its unbeaten run to 40 matches.
But the B-B-C line of Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Ronaldo had other ideas: Benzema equalized with a smart scissor-kick and then Bale headed home what looked like a winner, only to see it disallowed.
Shortly after, once Sergio Ramos had been dismissed (again: his 21st red card and fourth in this fixture), Bale crossed for Ronaldo to score a late winner.
And while a seven-point gap may be too much to make up, at least Madrid has momentum going into its tie against Wolfsburg this week.
“Tonight really does put us mentally in a strong position,” Bale told reporters after the game. “We can beat anyone on our day: we showed that. People have been saying Barcelona are the best team and we beat them in their own backyard.”
Barcelona’s biggest game of the week comes Tuesday against Atletico, whom it has already beaten 2-1, home and away, this season. With Lionel Messi quiet in El Clásico (he was robbed by Keylor Navas of a spectacular goal, to be fair) and on 499 career goals, the current Spanish and European champion will hope this is a blip rather than a trend as the season enters crunch time.
How do you really feel, Dortmund fans?
When Shinji Kagawa scored for Borussia Dortmund in a wild 3-2 win over Werder Bremen, the fans chanted his name with such fervor, you wondered if his return after a fateful spell with Manchester United strengthened his bond with them. Nuri Sahin is another who left for pastures new–to Dortmund’s Europa League opponent this week, Liverpool–but returned to open arms. That might not be the case for another former old boy from Jurgen Klopp’s title-winning days: Mario Gotze is likely to leave Bayern Munich this summer, and Liverpool and Dortmund both apparently want him.
The Dortmund fans, though, are not so keen. A huge banner unfurled behind the goal read: "Milan or Madrid. Anywhere but Dortmund. Piss off, Gotze." Club chairman Hans-Joachim Watzke responded by insisting that “the door is open” to any player who has played for the club before. It would appear that the fans don't share the same view. Not many clubs have such a close bond with its fans, so don't expect Gotze to be back in yellow-and-black next season.
Dortmund came from 2-1 down with 13 minutes left to win this game and coach Thomas Tuchel warned his predecessor Klopp that BVB are mentally tough. “I never had the feeling that we are losing. All our victories give us confidence,” said Julian Weigl after the game. Liverpool has been warned: Dortmund is one of Europe’s form teams.
No Benitez bounce at Newcastle
If Rafa Benitez scanned the fixture list at the start of the season, he would have alighted on this weekend as a potentially crucial one for the campaign. That was when he was at Real Madrid, and not because his current team, Newcastle, is mired in a relegation fight and faced Norwich City.
When Benitez was secured as the Red Adair to steer the well-supported northeast side to safety, there was an assumption that he would turn things around: a big-name coach, he would gain the respect of the players (even at Chelsea, where he was unpopular among fans because of his Liverpool connection, the players loved working with him) and make them more organized and harder to beat. There was no shame in a debut loss at Leicester, while the 1-1 draw against relegation and local rival Sunderland was a face-saver.
So it all boiled down to Norwich away, the team closest to Newcastle in the relegation fight, one place and three points ahead of the bottom three (though it has played one game more). Win, and Norwich would be favorites to go down.
It did not work out like that: Norwich scored in the last minute of the first half (to open the scoring) and the second half, a strike that capped a dramatic 3-2 win.
It left Newcastle six points from safety, and Benitez warning his players that relegation to the Championship will not allow them to leave in the summer.
Newcastle’s malaise stems from its owner Mike Ashley, who admitted last week that his nine years in charge have not gone as planned: “Do I regret getting into football? The answer is yes,” he told Sky. “I wanted to help Newcastle, I wanted to make it better. I do not seem to have had that effect…. I am wedded to Newcastle like Sports Direct. They’ve got me and I’ve got them. That’s just the way it is.”
Benitez is not in the same position. He stays if it beats the drop, and goes if it falls down a division. At the moment, the latter looks the more likely option.
Maldini death overshadows Serie A title twist
Italy was united in mourning Sunday after Cesare Maldini died aged 84. Maldini was the first Italian to lift the European Cup as captain of AC Milan following a 2-1 final win over Benfica at Wembley in 1963. Exactly 40 years later, his son, Paolo, captained AC Milan to Champions League victory over Juventus at Old Trafford. Cesare Maldini also won the Under-21 European Championship as coach and was assistant to Enzo Bearzot when Italy won the 1982 World Cup.
“He was a legendary figure, from a legendary family,” said Milan CEO Adriano Galliani in a statement. “Cesare is the history of Milan. He will always live long in our hearts.”
On the pitch, Milan lost 2-1 at Atalanta but the more significant defeat came at Udine, where Udinese beat Napoli 3-1. That loss leaves Napoli six points behind leader Juventus with only seven matches to play.
A late red card shown to Gonzalo Higuain will not help Napoli's chances; the Argentine pushed the referee after he was shown the red card and left the field with tears in his eyes.
He can expect a lengthy ban, and given that his 30 league goals this season is almost half Napoli’s total–and more than Udinese has managed all campaign–it does not look good for the season-long contender.
It might have to look over its shoulder even further after Roma dominated the Derby della Capitale and beat Lazio 4-1. Once again, Stephan El Shaarawy scored for Roma, as did Edin Dzeko, Alessandro Florenzi and Diego Perotti. This was probably captain Francesco Totti’s last derby match, yet Luciano Spalletti kept him on the bench.
“I am the first to be disappointed that I wasn’t able to introduce him,” Spalletti said. “He was meant to play a part in this game, but as a coach I have to take other things into consideration. There are other players right now who are almost as strong as Francesco and they deserve consideration too.”
There may also be a change on the Lazio bench, with Stefano Pioli standing down at the end of the season. Reports Sunday suggested Simone Inzaghi, currently youth team coach, may replace him before the end of the season. Inzaghi might do well to ask brother Pippo how a similar situation worked out for him at Milan in 2014. The answer might make him think twice.
Fekir return gives Deschamps hope
This was a huge weekend for French playmakers: Dmitri Payet scored another free kick for West Ham Ousmane Dembele scored two more for Rennes as it moved into the Champions League positions; and even Hatem Ben Arfa, despite his Nice side being on the end of another Zlatan Ibrahimovic hat trick, scored. But for France coach Deschamps, the biggest performance of the weekend came in a Lyon reserve match against Chasselay.
That was where Nabil Fekir made his return after a knee injury had ruled him out for the last nine months. The playmaker, who was named Ligue 1 Young Player of the Year last season, came through 45 minutes unscathed.
"I know it's going to be difficult, but I'm going to do everything I can. The Euros are in the back of my mind,” he told RMC Radio before the game. “I know it will be hard. There are a lot of people in front of me.”
Fekir did give the ball away just before halftime, which set up a Chasselay goal, but he admitted he is still at 80% fitness and working towards finding his rhythm. If that comes over the next month or so, then Deschamps, who is definitely a big fan, will have a decision to make.
Top three goals of the week
Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City vs. Bournemouth)
Sergio Aguero chipped the ball up to David Silva, whose first-time pass was volleyed in by Kevin De Bruyne. It was like a kids’ game of headers and volleys where the ball is not allowed to touch the ground. City coasted past Bournemouth and made you wonder where it would be in the table if De Bruyne had stayed fit.
Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich vs. Eintracht Frankfurt)
The talk of the wide players at Bayern this season has been all about Co-Co as Douglas Costa and Kingsley Coman have shown the future is bright given the injuries of Arjen Robben and Ribery; but the Frenchman lit up this game with a scintillating scissor-kick right out of the school of Jean-Pierre Papin.
Mauricio Pinilla (Atalanta vs. AC Milan)
The Chilean executed a perfect overhead kick as Atalanta picked up an important home win against Milan.
Top three players of the week
Rachid Ghezzal (Lyon)
Ibrahimovic may have scored another hat trick as a warm up before facing Manchester City, but France’s star this weekend was Ghezzal, who scored one and set up another as Lyon beat Lorient 3-1 to jump into third. The Algerian has been compared to Riyad Mahrez. Need we say more?
Wes Morgan (Leicester)
As unsung heroes go, there can be few more deserving of praise than Morgan, who joined Leicester when it was in the Championship and scored his first Premier League goal to hand the leader a fourth straight 1-0 win.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Dortmund)
Another goal for the Gabonese in the thrilling win over Werder Bremen takes his tally to 23 for the season, breaking the record for Africans in the Bundesliga (previously held by Papiss Cisse, 22, with Freiburg. “It’s a great honor for me,” said Aubameyang. It would be even better for Dortmund if it can keep him this summer.