Barcelona's slump reaches unimaginable depths, while Leicester must overcome time without its leading striker. Ben Lyttleton goes Around Europe.
A thrilling round of action saw momentum shifts in England, where leader Leicester will be without its suspended top scorer next week, and Barcelona, enduring its worst slump for over 10 years following a surprise loss at hone to Valencia. One of France’s biggest clubs is up for sale despite being embroiled in a relegation fight, while Francesco Totti had another row with his coach at Roma. Meanwhile, in Germany, an injured player has returned for Bayer Leverkusen at just the right moment, coinciding with Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez going down with an injury of his own.
This is what caught our eye around Europe this week:
Lack of rotation costing Barcelona
If Leicester’s rise in the Premier League is unlikely and unexpected, so too has been Barcelona’s total collapse at the top of La Liga. Fifteen days ago the reigning European champion was still on course for a second straight treble and had a nine-point lead on Atletico Madrid and 10 on Real Madrid. Then it lost El Clasico to Real Madrid; last week it lost 1-0 at Real Sociedad; it was eliminated from the Champions League by Atletico; and Sunday it lost 2-1 at home to Valencia. That’s a Valencia side that, in January, Barcelona beat 7-0 as part of its 39-game unbeaten run.
Barcelona had not lost three in a row since February 2003, and now the gap is only on a head-to-head tiebreaker with Atletico (it also has the head-to-head advantage with Real Madrid courtesy of the 4-0 away win back in November).
So what has gone wrong at Barcelona? The inquest is underway, although coach Luis Enrique insisted he was happy with the performance. The team did play quite well and created lots of chances in the first half vs. Valencia, but Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar have all slumped at the same time for the first time this season. This has been connected to March’s international matches, when they all traveled to South America for games.
They have come back tired–unsurprising given that no other forwards have played more game time in world football than Messi and Suarez in the last year, and only Cristiano Ronaldo has played more than Neymar. All three had chances saved by in-form goalkeeper Diego Alves at Camp Nou, though the goalkeeper had little to do with Gerard Pique slicing a late shot wide while clean through.
And this is one of the strange things about Barcelona; a team on the verge of creating history still plays a midfielder, Javier Mascherano, at center back, and when it’s chasing a game, puts another center back, Pique, in attack.
Luis Enrique said he made no substitutions because his team was playing well, but Dani Alves–on the bench for a social media gaffe in midweek–could have added an attacking threat.
The club's decision not to sign Celta Vigo’s Nolito in January to boost the attacking options certainly looks poor now. Luis Enrique has not rotated his front line at all, and while he claims the numbers suggest the three stars are fitter than they were last season, the recent performances–and the results–suggest otherwise.
Leicester bracing time without Vardy
Before Leicester’s pulsating 2-2 draw with West Ham Sunday, the team had won nine penalties and conceded two all season; a huge upswing considering this is a team that plays on the counter and regularly has less possession than its opponents.
Penalty decisions were the talking point of a controversial match that ended with both sets of fans booing referee Jon Moss. The first decision was one he didn't give: when Jamie Vardy went down in the box, he booked the striker–so earning him a second yellow card and a one-match ban for next week’s game against Swansea–instead of awarding a penalty. Vardy angrily shouted at Moss as he walked off, and if the official includes that in his post-match report, the ban could be even longer.
That was not the end of Moss’s impact. With six minutes left, Wes Morgan was penalized for grappling with Winston Reid at a corner: penalty to West Ham, scored by Andy Carroll. It was the kind of decision we see at the start of the season, when referees try and clamp down on certain infringements. To punish that at this point of the season, and at that moment of the game, seemed inconsistent; even more so when Angelo Ogbonna seemed to do exactly the same to Robert Huth shortly after.
West Ham then took the lead and then came Moss’s most peculiar call: as Jeffrey Schlupp ran out of the area, he blew for a challenge by Carroll that was more of a bump than anything else. A penalty for Leicester was converted by Leonardo Ulloa. The Argentine has been a sub for most of the campaign, but he could be an important figure in the coming weeks, especially if Vardy’s absence is longer than one week.
Leicester has had luck this season with (lack of) injuries and can be relieved that Moss’s inconsistency allowed it to gain one point. How Claudio Ranieri will manage without Vardy could be decisive: His options are to stick with Ulloa, who is more of a target-man striker than one suited to the counterattack; push Shinji Okazaki forward; or recall Croatian flop Andrei Kramaric, who only scored twice after his £9 million move 15 months ago and is now on loan at Hoffenheim, where he has scored four in his last seven ganes. Leicester’s lead on Tottenham entering Monday was eight points. There is still time, yet, for a few more twists in the title race.
Does anyone want to buy Marseille?
The headline in southern France newspaper La Provence said it all: "A Vendre." In English: "For Sale." Seven years after inheriting one of France's best-supported clubs, Marseille, from her husband Robert, owner Margarita Louis-Dreyfus last week went public with her desire to sell the club. Any new investor would be taking over a team at a low ebb: still not out of the relegation fight, after Sunday’s 2-1 at Monaco, Marseille has not won in 10 games, is in 15th and six points off the drop zone.
Coach Michel is leaving at the end of the season and, according to reports on RMC Radio this week, so is president Vincent Labrune, after five years in charge. Labrune has been a lightning rod for the fans’ unrest, culminating last week in a row when he was ordered to remain at the Velodrome, for his own safety, until 2 a.m. as fans clashed outside the stadium. Labrune played pool while he waited for security clearance to go home, which in itself offended the fans.
"My only message is that I'm not afraid," he told RMC last week. "Nobody is in my place and nobody can realize what I go through at Marseille. The guy whose house has graffiti on it, who is threatened with death and insulted, it's me and no one else.”
A family member told the same station that five years in Marseille are like 15 years anywhere else, and that Labrune is keen to leave the club in good hands and with a new buyer. He is said to be looking in China and the Middle East. But Labrune’s experience is also one of the reasons why it will be hard to find a buyer: the emotions are intense in Marseille, the pressure is constant from the media and the fans are passionate and sometimes difficult to handle. What makes Marseille a brilliant investment also make it a high-risk one.
Totti impact causes Spalletti headache
Roma is looking over its shoulder as the race for third place in Serie A heats up. Inter beat Napoli 2-0 Saturday night to move four points back as Roma dropped points again, going from 2-0 up to 3-2 down before substitute Francesco Totti earned a point with a late equalizer. This was another important contribution from Totti, who last week set up Mohamed Salah for an equalizer against Bologna. It could have been even better, as Totti set up Edin Dzeko for a glorious chance with three minutes left, though he sliced wide (It was not the Bosnian’s best day: he also managed to round the goalkeeper and hit a left-footed shot over the bar from seven yards out).
Italian news agency ANSA reported that Totti had a furious row with coach Luciano Spalletti after the game. Spalletti was hardly supportive of Totti in his post-match interview with Mediaset, when he said: “Totti’s goal doesn’t change anything for me. If he wants to be a player, he’ll be a player. If he shoots it’s a goal, but that’s not all that counts in modern football, there is also pace, stamina and effort. The team won nine games without Totti, which means Dzeko is valid too.”
Totti reportedly confronted the coach about his comments before the players had even reached the dressing room. Another Roma-based website claimed that Spalletti shouted at his players: “You’ve been looking like fools for 10 years now!” Whatever the truth of it is, the relationship between the two men is clearly strained and the club will have to manage the transition post-Totti with care.
Aranguiz times Leverkusen return well
Where would Bayer Leverkusen be if Charles Aranguiz had not torn his Achilles back in August? After eight months out, the Chile international made his first start Bundesliga start of the season Saturday, and he was outstanding player in a 3-0 win over Eintracht Frankfurt. According to figures on bundesliga.com, Aranguiz made more passes, more tackles and covered more ground than any other player in the win that moved his side up to third for the first time this season. Aranguiz is a high-tempo player made for coach Roger Schmidt.
Leverkusen has now won five in a row and faces games against top-four rivals Schalke, Hertha Berlin and Borussia Moenchengladbach just at the right time.
Top three goals of the week
Aaron Cresswell (West Ham vs. Leicester): A shot from distance that sailed into the top corner briefly threatened Leicester’s title hopes–until the league leader equalized late on.
Sofiane Boufal (Lille vs. Gazelec Ajaccio): This was a fantastic volley from the talented Moroccan who is proving the inspiration for Lille’s unlikely push for Champions League qualification.
Santi Mina (Valencia vs. Barcelona): Mina became only the second player to score home and away against Barcelona this season with a smartly taken finish from Dani Parejo’s throughball after a wonderful team passing move.
Top three players of the week
Sofiane Boufal (Lille vs. Gazelec Ajaccio): The winger has stepped up a level since Frederic Antonetti has come in as coach and had a hat trick at Gazelec Ajaccio.
Diego Alves (Valencia vs. Barcelona): The goalkeeper was in outstanding form to keep out M-S-N in the first half of Valencia’s win at Barcelona, and though the Catalan side was wasteful, Alves’s save to keep out Ivan Rakitic in the second half was stunning and preserved the shock result.
Mauro Icardi (Inter vs. Napoli): The striker scored one and set up another as Inter beat Napoli 2-0 in a key Serie A battle.