Around Europe: Bale, Buffon, Suarez step up; Bayern's decisive week
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Another dramatic weekend saw pressure increase on three of the four managers in England’s FA Cup semifinals, while in Spain it’s as-you-were at the top of the table, as Gareth Bale stepped up to the mark for Real Madrid. All eyes will be on Bayern Munich’s defense in this Champions League semifinal week, while Juventus finished off another Serie A title charge, helped by yet another masterclass showing from timeless goalkeeping wonder Gianluigi Buffon. Elsewhere, one of France’s most historic clubs faces an uncertain future after another coaching change.
This is what caught our eye Around Europe this week:
Bale steps up in Ronaldo's absence
There were moments in Gareth Bale’s first season at Real Madrid when the thought of him stepping into Cristiano Ronaldo’s shoes seemed eminently possible, and soon. There was the run from inside his own half to score in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona and the match-turning header in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid, that seemingly put Bale on his way to stardom at the Bernabeu.
He admitted that last season was difficult for him–despite that he still scored 17 goals (he has 22 this season)–and his agent caused a storm when he claimed teammates did not pass to him enough. Bale seemed more settled under Rafa Benitez, the coach who started this season on the Madrid bench but was said to have put Ronaldo’s nose out of joint.
Ronaldo has looked happier as the main man under Zinedine Zidane, but his future is up in the air. Reports in France suggest he is closer than ever to moving to Paris Saint-Germain this summer, while The Times pointed out the dilemma over his future at the club: “A player at the same time adored and unloved by his club, one that any team in the world would love to have but nobody is quite prepared to buy.”
Against this backdrop, and days before a Champions League semifinal first leg at Manchester City, the slightly hobbled Ronaldo was among Madrid five players rested (along with Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Luka Modric and Casemiro) as Bale inspired a comeback from 2-0 down against Rayo Vallecano.
“He made the difference,” said Zidane. “We needed Bale today and he was phenomenal. People will look at the two goals, but he played really well beyond the goals. His defensive work, his attacking work was good. Physically he is in good shape, he played 90 minutes. Gareth did fantastic work. Physically he grew stronger as the game went on.”
Bale scored a hat trick in Zidane’s first match in charge and has become more important to the team as the season has gone on. The only sticking points are the niggling injuries that have reduced his league starts to 19 out of 33. With Karim Benzema a doubt for Tuesday after limping off–we could see Isco playing as a false nine, which is how he ended the match against Rayo–Bale is timing his run back to form and fitness to perfection, and should Ronaldo not be at full strength, it could be Bale's time to rise again.
His goals helped Real Madrid keep pace near the top of La Liga's table, where there were wins for Barcelona (6-0) and Atletico Madrid (1-0). Barcelona remains level with Atletico (with the tiebreaker) and one point clear of Real with three games left. Another four goals for Luis Suarez meant he has now scored eight in four days and is now leading scorer in La Liga with 34 goals, three more than Ronaldo. The M-S-N trident has now equaled last season’s total of 122 combined goals in all competitions (Suarez 53, Messi 40, Neymar 29).
Make-or-break week for Bayern Munich
And so it comes to this: the seventh Champions League semifinal of Pep Guardiola’s seven-year coaching career, and his first chance of reaching the final as Bayern boss as his three-year stint in Munich comes to an end. Bayern’s 2-0 win at Champions League-chasing Hertha Berlin kept the champion seven points ahead of Borussia Dortmund (for whom American Christian Pulisic scored again, his second straight game with a goal) and one more win away from confirming another title success.
On Wednesday, Bayern faces Barcelona conqueror Atletico Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semifinal. It’s noticeable that Guardiola has taken a leaf from Diego Simeone’s book this season. Bayern has been outscored by Dortmund this season but has conceded only 14 goals. This season the success has been built on the defense. Bayern has let in one only one goal in its last seven league games, despite regularly rotating the defense.
Saturday, it fielded Joshua Kimmich-Serdar Tasci-Mehdi Benatia-Rafinha along the back line, resting Javi Martinez and David Alaba.
Arturo Vidal opened the scoring, something he has made a habit of lately, and Douglas Costa added a superb second, something he hasn’t done lately. Both will need to be at their best against Atletico this week, as will the Bayern defense, as this is a series that’s too close to call.
Buffon saves Juventus again
Remember when Fiorentina was briefly atop Serie A in October and November? That was when coach Paulo Sousa, who had won titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) and FC Basel (Switzerland) in the last two seasons, said the club could and should aim for top spot. Then it lost 3-1 to Juventus (who has since made up 31 points on La Viola) and dropped into the race for Europa League places.
Sunday night, Juventus beat Fiorentina again, this time 2-1, which left it on the cusp of the Serie A title, only for Roma to deliver the final piece of that puzzle with a win over Napoli on Monday. The game was dramatic: Mario Mandzukic opened the scoring before Nikola Kalinic equalized late on. Alvaro Morata scored what turned out to be the winner soon after, but there was drama to come as Kalinic saw his penalty saved by Buffon to maintain Juve’s remarkable streak of 24 wins in its last 25 matches.
It leaves Sousa fighting for his future. Fiorentina is in fifth and has five points to make up on Inter to chase down a spot in the Europa League. The coach did himself no favors by complaining about the owners’ lack of action in the January transfer window, and he has since been linked to the vacant job at Zenit St Petersburg. It seems more change is in the air in Florence.
Pressure mounts on FA Cup semifinal coaches
Has there ever been an FA Cup semifinal lineup where every coach is under such pressure? Saturday's Manchester United-Everton semifinal seemed like a managerial survival playoff, and the possibility remains high that, despite United’s 2-1 win, both Louis van Gaal (United) and Roberto Martinez (Everton) will be dismissed this summer.
Coming off the back of a 4-0 defeat to local rival Liverpool, Martinez has lost the support of the fans, and, according to some reports, his players too. His squad is one of the most talented in the league–the spine of John Stones, Ross Barkley and Romelu Lukaku is the envy of the top clubs–but it's currently placed 11th in the league.
It had chances to get past United. Despite being totally outplayed in the first half, it equalized in the second, and Lukaku saw a shot cleared off the line and had a penalty saved by David de Gea, but Anthony Martial’s late winner ensured United is back in the final next month.
Martinez insisted that he is the right man to lead Everton forward, but his words have a hollow ring to them. The big question for the board, and new majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, is not only appointing the right replacement, but also deciding whether to cash in on Stones, Barkley and Lukaku. Despite the victory, Van Gaal also has the air of a man who knows his time is coming to an end; normally he is ebullient after a victory, but he was strangely subdued at Wembley.
In the other semifinal, Crystal Palace beat Watford 2-1 to set up a repeat of the 1990 FA Cup final. And if the doubt surrounding Martinez and Van Gaal can be explained, the fact that Watford boss Quique Sanchez Flores appears to on his way out, too, is a harder one to fathom. He has achieved Premier League survival with comfort and been a charming front-man for an upwardly mobile club; but the drop in performance since Christmas has alarmed the club's demanding owners, and reports Monday say his time might be up.
Why? It’s true that Watford has only earned two points from losing positions this season–compare this to Spurs, who have won 18. Fans have grumbled that he seems unwilling to change tactics or personnel when chasing a game and that the team’s record against the top six–a draw against West Ham and the Cup win over Arsenal–could be better. But these seem like minor complaints in a debut top-flight season. If the popular manager is shown the door, expect some strong reaction from the English media; then again, they weren’t thrilled when Southampton replaced Nigel Adkins with some guy called Mauricio Pochettino, or when Claudio Ranieri rolled into Leicester last summer.
Reims pushes the panic button
Once a famous name in European football, even contesting the first European Cup final against Real Madrid in 1956, Reims is finding things tougher going in Ligue 1 this season. Last month it sacked Jean-Luc Vasseur as coach after three straight defeats left it three points off the drop zone and reliant on Gazelec Ajaccio dropping points to stay safe. Club president Jean-Pierre Caillot appointed Vasseur’s assistant, Olivier Guegan, for the last seven games of the season, but that experiment lasted only four of them; it won one and lost three. Gazelec Ajaccio’s weekend win over Bastia has pushed Reims closer to trouble; still three points behind Toulouse but now in 18th.
"After a series of poor performances since the start of March and considering the uncertainty surrounding the club's position in Ligue 1 with three games to go, Stade de Reims have relieved coach Olivier Guegan of his duties,” said a club statement after the 2-0 loss at Nice. It feels a little late now. New coach David Guion, promoted from head of the academy, has three games to save Reims’s skin–its opponents are Montpellier, Marseille and Lyon–and it won't be easy.
Top three goals of the week
Douglas Costa (Bayern Munich): After a patchy run of form, Costa fired in a wonderful goal at Hertha Berlin.
Cyril Thereau (Udinese): This first-time volley from the French striker opened the scoring in a 3-1 defeat to Inter.
Adam Lallana (Liverpool): The Liverpool midfielder curled a delightful shot from the edge of the area in the draw over Newcastle.
Top three players of the week
Luis Suarez (Barcelona): Eight goals in a week is not bad at all, and as the title race reaches the wire, it looks like Suarez’s goals will get Barcelona over the finish line.
Anthony Martial (Manchester United): One of the few bright spots of United’s season, Martial gave makeshift right back Mo Besic a torrid first half at Wembley Stadium, before scoring a late winner to make the FA Cup final.
Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus): A late penalty save from Nikola Kalinic continued Juventus' fantastic run of results, and you have to wonder if there has been a more decisive player than Buffon in Serie A this season. Perhaps Napoli’s Gonzalo Higuain, but there are not too many others more influential than the goalkeeping icon.