Around Europe: Barcelona burnout; Ben Arfa makes his Euro case
There were decisive moments in the title race in England and Germany, as respective leaders Leicester City and Bayern Munich came closer to the finishing line, though a shock result in Spain has opened the door to the pack chasing defending champion Barcelona. A new coach with a familiar name enjoyed a successful start at Lazio, while in France, a new hat trick hero has given national team boss Didier Deschamps a selection dilemma leading into Euro 2016.
Here is what caught our eye this week from Around Europe:
No signs of Leicester slipping up
It seems to be no longer a matter of if Leicester will become the first newly crowned league champion in England since Nottingham Forest in 1978, but when. Its 2-0 away win over Sunderland had the hallmark of a championship side: patience, decisiveness, and a little luck. Even coach Claudio Ranieri cannot understate its chances now. He shed a tear on the pitch at the final whistle as if the enormity of the achievement is beginning to sink in.
How to explain the steely eyed manner of Leicester’s last five games?
It had won four straight 1-0 games prior to topping the Black Cats. It has coped with defenses sitting deeper and combated a lean spell from Jamie Vardy, who ended a run of eight games without a goal from open play by scoring with his first real opportunity, outpacing Younes Kaboul and beating Vito Mannone.
Leicester has been forced to find new ways of winning, and it has responded every time. In recent weeks, it has scored more goals from set pieces rather than on the counter, as teams wise up to its threat. Yet it still plays like a team under no pressure at all. All it needs is three wins from its last five games and the trophy will make its way to King Power Stadium. Ranieri may have had a dream scenario of clinching the title at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the season. At this rate, it will be over by then.
One caveat: no one expected Liverpool to collapse at this stage in 2013, yet it did. Leicester’s task for the next few weeks is to eke out a few more results, and there are no signs suggesting that anything else is in the offing.
Is Barcelona burnt out?
Barcelona now has just one win in three league games, and Lionel Messi is on a run of four consecutive league games without a goal or assist–his worst "drought" since 2009–as the Blaugrana lost 1-0 at its bogey ground, the Anoeta, in a shock result vs. Real Sociedad. This comes after last week’s Clásico loss and in the middle of a tense Champions League quarterfinal against Atletico Madrid.
Luis Suarez was out suspended, and given his recent run, it is the Uruguayan’s turn to be the most indispensable out of the MSN front-line. As he showed in the semifinal against Atletico, when he could have been sent off twice before scoring Barcelona’s two goals, he always plays on the edge.
The gap at the top is now just three from Atletico, and the title race is now firmly back on.
“We had this cushion to allow ourselves some mistakes, and now we have almost committed all [the mistakes] we can,” Andres Iniesta said after the most recent setback. “We have a lot of experience in this. We know what is on the line. We should not dramatize the situation and keep going.”
Is Barcelona under threat now? Will it pull a Jordan Spieth and throw it all away?
It has an easier title run than its rivals, playing Deportivo de La Coruña, Sporting Gijon, Real Betis, Espanyol, and Granada while Atletico still has to face Athletic Bilbao away, home ties against Malaga and Celta Vigo, and then a trip to its bogey team, Levante. Real Madrid also has to play Villarreal and travel to the Anoeta as well.
The slump in form has come at a worrying period, though. If it continues into this week’s European campaign, it will be a problem. Barcelona is looking tired and Champions League elimination at the hands of Atletico will cause questions to be asked. Has Luis Enrique rotated the team enough this year? Could Arda Turan and Sergi Roberto have played more since January? Has Barcelona peaked too soon? We will know more in the next few days.
Dortmund's focus shifts back to Europe
This could be a bad week for Dortmund. It was lucky to escape its Europa League first leg quarterfinal against Liverpool with a draw, then rested half the team for Sunday’s 2-2 derby draw against Schalke.
“We were a million miles away from our usual game,” said Mats Hummels of the Liverpool match, but credit for that goes to Jurgen Klopp, whose gameplan disrupted his former club.
Thomas Tuchel, his successor at Dortmund, made it clear where his priorities lay with his team selection against Schalke.
With Bayern beating Stuttgart 3-1 on Saturday and eight points ahead, this was as close as you’ll get to a white flag being raised. All the eggs in Tuchel’s basket are going toward the return match at Anfield this Thursday. Klopp was disappointed after the draw because he felt his team had missed a chance to kill off the tie–the host’s goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller was Dortmund’s best, and busiest, player. Surely Dortmund won’t play as badly again?
With second place in the Bundesliga as good as guaranteed now and a Champions League place already secure, the success of its season comes down to the Liverpool game.
Ben Arfa bidding could get interesting
It’s fair to say that when Nice decided to sign Hatem Ben Arfa a year ago despite not being able to play him for the first six months of his contract due to his ineligibility, it did not expect things to turn out like this. Ben Arfa scored a hat trick Sunday as Champions League-chasing Nice beat fellow European contenders Rennes 3-0 to end the weekend in fourth in Ligue 1.
Ben Arfa’s contract is up this summer and reports in France suggest that AC Milan and Atletico Madrid are interested in the 29-year-old. Ben Arfa has insisted that he wants to play in the Champions League next season. “He feels great in Nice and if they qualify for Europe, they can be part of the discussion,” said his adviser Michel Ouazine.
Nice president Jean-Pierre Rivere is hoping to keep the left-footed winger.
“It is not impossible to keep Hatem at Nice, but if we do not play in Europe, it will be complicated. We know we face huge competition for Hatem,” he told L’Equipe. “We also know that, financially, he will not stay for another year on the same terms. He is loved here and he loves it too. We mustn’t rule anything out.”
The talk in France was all about how France coach Didier Deschamps must select Ben Arfa for the Euros this summer–maybe at the expense of an eighth defender–but the bigger question is whether he can sustain this form at a big club: is he only performing so well because he was at rock bottom? Or he would he revert to his bad old ways? Ben Arfa was offered to a few American clubs before he joined Nice, but his stock was low and they all said no. Despite this season’s form, whoever signs him will still be taking a risk.
Simone Inzaghi makes his name at Lazio
Simone Inzaghi may have won the title and a Coppa Italia as a player with Lazio, but he was always in the shadow of his elder brother, Pippo, who won three Serie A titles and two Champions Leagues at Juventus and AC Milan. Pippo was sacked as Milan coach at the end of last season and last week Simone, after six years as academy coach at Lazio, was given the senior job after Stefano Pioli’s sacking in the aftermath of a 4-1 Roman derby defeat.
Lazio beat Palermo 3-0, with two goals from Miroslav Klose (who, at 38, is only two years younger than the coach) and another from Felipe Anderson. The game was stopped in each half after Palermo ultras threw firecrackers onto the pitch, but nothing was going to ruin Inzaghi’s debut on the bench. Lazio could still technically qualify for a place in the Europa League, but more importantly, it has a renewed vigor for the season run-in.
For Inzaghi, that does not mean the comparisons with his brother will stop. One journalist asked if he was a better coach than Pippo. Simone gave a typically diplomatic response–but given that his apprenticeship was so much longer, the answer is probably yes.
Top three goals of the week
Inaki Williams (Athletic Bilbao vs. Rayo Vallecano)
One touch on the edge of the area and then a cannonball into the top corner; that's why the top clubs are interested in the young Spaniard.
Shinji Kagawa (Dortmund vs. Schalke)
A one-two with Henrikh Mkhtarayn and then a delightful lob from the edge of the area put Dortmund ahead in the Ruhr derby.
Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice vs. Rennes)
Goal No. 3 three completed the hat trick for Ben Arfa, who is in irrepressible form at the moment.
Top three players of the week
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus)
An outstanding performance against AC Milan, which included a stunning save from Mario Balotelli’s free-kick and a pass out that led to Juventus’s equalizer, the 38-year-old Italy captain is arguably in the form of his career at the moment.
Fernando Torres (Atletico Madrid)
The hero and villain for Atletico Madrid against Barcelona in Europe last week–he scored and was then sent off–the out-of-contract striker scored one and set up another for Koke as Atletico closed the gap on Barcelona. As Patricia Cazon, writing in AS, put it: “Even the freckles on his face seem younger.” He has now scored six goals in as many weeks. Here’s a cheeky thought: if Atletico doesn't want him, could he do a job as an impact sub at Barcelona?
Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice)
The first hat trick of his career has given France boss Didier Deschamps a selection headache at the Euros this summer–and Nice still has a chance of making the top three and Champions League qualification.