Around Europe: Newcastle fights the drop; Muller Time for Bayern
Leicester City’s coronation as Premier League champion was put on ice–temporarily, anyway–after a goalless draw at the weekend, though there was drama at the bottom of the table, as Newcastle fights on to avoid relegation. Champions League semifinal week means huge games–and selection decisions–for Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid, who kept up the pressure in Spain's three-horse raise.
Elsewhere, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas hit out at PSG, while the crisis brewing at AC Milan shows no sign of abating.
Here is our round-up from the latest and biggest stories Around Europe:
The Benitez miracle may yet happen
Premier League survival is still out of Newcastle’s hands but thanks to Rafa Benitez, the team and the city is beginning to believe that it’s possible. Newcastle beat Crystal Palace 1-0 Saturday, moving out of the bottom three for the first time since the start of February.
It is now unbeaten in four matches (the first time since November 2014)–which includes draws against Liverpool and Manchester City–and has momentum going into its next game against an Aston Villa side that has lost 11 on the bounce. Relegation rivals Norwich and Sunderland have a game in hand on Newcastle, but neither is in as good form, nor does either have the Spanish coach, who has slowly turned things around.
“It’s not 100% in our hands,” said Benitez after the game. “But we’re going in the right direction, we’re doing the right things, we’re enjoying this challenge and we’ll try and enjoy it until the end.”
The club already wants Benitez to stay on next season regardless of where it ends up, and reports have claimed that he would be offered a place on the club’s board and have free rein over recruitment if he agrees to see out his three-year deal.
His predecessor, Steve McClaren, had the same guarantees, and look where that got the club; Benitez is a different level of coach, of course, but Newcastle still needs to maintain that distance at executive level. Even if it has the right coach at the helm, you can’t help thinking that it might just find a way for things to go awry.
Muller Time for Bayern
In his seven seasons as a coach, Pep Guardiola has coached his team to seven straight Champions League semifinals, so he knows what happens when the result goes against him. After last week’s first leg 1-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid, he was criticized for leaving out Thomas Muller, and, to a lesser extent, Franck Ribery. Guardiola had said it was because he wanted an extra midfielder for more control, but he was confronted with a typical Atletico defending masterclass. The fact that the season’s early stars Robert Lewandowski and Douglas Costa–and Muller, too–have lost their form has come at the worst possible time for the Spanish boss.
Muller was back in a much-changed starting XI for the draw against Borussia Monchengladbach, the highlight of which was the return to fitness of Jerome Boateng. That will improve Bayern’s distribution from the back in the return game, when we can surely expect Muller to return, too. “It’s important to realize what's important for the team. If everybody who's not playing goes crazy, we can forget about the whole season,” he said after admitting he was unhappy at his omission.
Bayern has dominated news off the pitch as well this week, with reports that Borussia Dortmund captain Mats Hummels has told his club that he wants to join the champion-elect this summer. He has one year left to run on his deal and Dortmund won’t let him go cheaply; the fans are in uproar at the player they thought summed up the BVB spirit (despite starting his career at Bayern, whom he left in 2009) and who was outspoken in his criticism of players who made the move between the sides, especially Mario Gotze. Bayern usually gets its man and fans could be more incensed if it re-signs Gotze as part of the deal. He played at the weekend but did not do enough to earn a place against Atletico.
Meanwhile, Bayer Levekusen won its seventh game in a row to complete an eight-to-third place jump and seal its spot in next season’s Champions League. Coach Roger Schmidt may get less publicity than Guardiola and Tuchel, but he is up there with the best coaches in the league.
Atletico Madrid gets center backs right
The Hummels race might have raised some eyebrows at Bayern’s European opponent this week, Atletico. Coach Diego Simeone is known for putting the collective before the individual but even he must have feared the worst when Diego Godin missed the first leg with a hamstring injury.
The center back has been among the best in the world for the last three years, but gets far fewer air-time than the likes of Thiago Silva, Vincent Kompany and Gerard Pique, all at clubs that generate more publicity. Against Bayern, Stefan Savic stepped in to partner the impressive Jose Gimenez at the back, leaving breakout star Lucas Hernandez, 20, on the bench. Against Rayo Vallecano, it was Jesus Gamez with Hernandez.
Hernandez was outstanding in the previous round against Barcelona and after hardly featuring in the first half of the season, has played in Atletico’s last four games and has not conceded a goal.
“He has had the good fortune and also difficulty of having good center halves around him," Simeone said last week. "That has limited his opportunities but he always worked hard and wanted to improve. The most important thing is that he has no fear. He is young and will make mistakes, but he has no fear and that is really important in our team.”
It was typical Simeone to play down the form of the France Under-21 international. You only have to look at Manchester City’s defensive issues to see that center backs are not easy to find in the transfer market; City spent over €70 million on Eliaquim Mangala and Nicolas Otamendi, who could do nothing as Southampton scored four past them Sunday. Hummels is valued at around €40 million, and John Stones not much less. But the best talent in the position is at the Calderon. After Godin, Jose Gimenez and Lucas Hernandez could be the two best center backs for the next decade.
Lyon president rails against PSG
Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas is never short of a provocative word, even if in recent years he has tried to tone down his outbursts. A former handball player who took over the club in 1987 when Lyon was in the second division, he oversaw a run of seven straight successes, from 2001 to 2008, and a place in the 2010 Champions League semifinal. Since then, Aulas has poured his funds into the new Lyon stadium and relied on the youth academy to develop the next generation of players.
“I have never been afraid to open my mouth and say things that upset people,” Aulas told L’Equipe. “But I was coming up with ideas that no one else had before and sometimes you have to shock people to get your message across.”
Lyon beat Gazelec Ajaccio 2-1 and Monaco beat Guingamp 3-2 this weekend, and the two winning sides play each other next week in what is essentially a playoff for second place in Ligue 1.
The reward is a place in the Champions League group stage, but Aulas caused trouble by claiming that the match is also “a league decider” because “Qatar is not part of France.”
Aulas has often claimed the league is imbalanced because of PSG’s owners, and it’s no secret that other clubs in France are up for sale. Until one gets taken over and receives investment, though, PSG can expect to waltz through Ligue 1 again and Aulas can pretend that second place is actually a victory.
Big week for Berlusconi
Milan fans made it clear they blamed president Silvio Berlusconi for another season of mediocrity at San Siro, which culminated last month with another former player, Cristian Brocchi, replacing Sinisa Mihajlovic as coach. Similar experiments with Pippo Inzaghi and Clarence Seedorf have not worked, and a 3-3 draw with relegation-threatened Frosinone suggested this might not either. Milan now has four points from as many games against teams in the bottom six.
“This is not the Milan of 10 years ago,” moaned former player Zvonimir Boban, who has tipped Paolo Maldini, inexplicably not employed by his former club, as a future coach. “Berlusconi needed to protect the club’s history and heritage but he has not done that. Now there is confusion and total disorder,” he told Radio Anch’io Sport.
This is all set against the backdrop of Berlusconi selling a majority share of the club to an anonymous Chinese investment group, which La Stampa newspaper reports could become closer to fruition this week. The group has reportedly given Berlusconi until Wednesday to sign an exclusive negotiation agreement with it. These are changing times at Milan, and an uncertain future beckons.
Top three goals of the week
Andros Townsend (Newcastle): A fantastic left-footed free kick into the top corner has given Newcastle renewed hope of survival.
Gregory Pujol (Gazalec Ajaccio): A lovely chip after a breakaway move from the veteran striker.
Oliver Kragl (Frosinone): His free kick from 40 yards out caught the Milan defense napping.
Top three players of the week
Julian Brandt (Bayer Leverkusen) The 20-year-old striker has now scored in six straight games after netting the opener in the win against Hertha Berlin. He is prolific at the Under-21 level, and a senior call-up must be on the horizon.
Sadio Mane (Southampton): Cynics might say Mane has timed his run of form to suit his own needs, as he is expected to leave the club this summer, but on his day he is unplayable, as Manchester City’s dizzied defense found out in the Saints’ 4-2 win.
Antoine Griezmann (Atletico): The Frenchman started as sub in a heavily rotated lineup but scored with his first touch in a 1-0 win. That kept Atletico nose-to-nose with Barcelona in La Liga's title race.