La Liga down to two; Premier League stakes left; Red Bull Leipzig for real?
Leicester celebrated its title success with Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli serenading coach Claudio Ranieri before a 3-1 win over Everton, but it is what is going on behind the most improbable champion that will seize everyone's focus in this final week of the season.
Manchester City's slip-ups could make for an awkward welcome for Pep Guardiola next season, as the race for fourth place goes down to the very end. Elsewhere, Barcelona is now one win away from clinching La Liga, with Atletico Madrid improbably dropping out of the race.
Bayern Munich did finish off its title charge, but a new team in Germany is promising to shake up the Bundesliga, while Lyon thumped Monaco to clinch second place in France's top flight. In Italy, there was a perfect farewell to a World Cup winner who went out on a high.
Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week:
England's remaining races
It says something for how Manchester City’s form has fallen off a cliff that when Guardiola was confirmed as coach for next season, back in February, a title challenge was still on the cards. Then came Kevin de Bruyne’s injury, a chastening home defeat to champion Leicester, and, after Sunday’s 2-2 draw at home to Arsenal, City’s top-four fate is no longer in its own hands. If Manchester United beats West Ham away on Tuesday and Bournemouth at home next weekend, then it will leap-frog the Champions League semifinalist and set back the Pep project by 12 months.
It could also secure Louis van Gaal’s future at the club.
Another fourth-place finish, and a potential FA Cup win, could be enough to keep the Dutchman at Old Trafford and delay the expected Jose Mourinho coronation by 12 months. So much for Manchester being the center of English football next season; at one stage it looked like it would host a Pep vs. Jose grudge match reunion, with the Catalan, who has never not reached a Champions League semifinal in seven years, targeting European success from the start.
That is no longer the case, although West Ham will make it hard for United; Wednesday is its final game at Upton Park before it moves to the Olympic stadium.
Final-day intrigue extends to the race for second place, where Spurs need one point to stay ahead of Arsenal; and at the bottom of the table, where Sunderland was the big weekend winner with a come-from-behind success over Chelsea that moved it out of the drop zone. It could be safe if it wins its midweek game against out-of-form Everton–which spells bad news for Norwich, who looks doomed, and Newcastle.
Atletico drops out of title race
Is there such thing as scoring too early? That may have been the problem for Champions League finalist Atletico Madrid, who went ahead against already-relegated Levante after 82 seconds. It then sat back and didn't push for a second goal, allowing the host to equalize, the first time Jan Oblak’s goal had been breached in five league games. The rested Antoine Griezmann came on for the second half, but the Frenchman could not break through. Instead, Giuseppe Rossi scored a last-minute winner to end Atletico’s title hopes once and for all.
Atletico has now not won at Levante since 2007. Simeone had no complaints after the game, and claimed that challenging the big two for so long in La Liga deserves credit.
“We are finishing a fantastic, enormous, season, and we have been just one game away from challenging Barcelona and Real Madrid,” he said. “That is what makes me happy, as other times we have been out of the race with 10 weeks still left.”
He is quite right, of course, and a season that will end with a third-place finish and a place in the Champions League final (and potentially, winning it) has to go down as a success.
Barcelona is one more win from clinching the title; it beat Espanyol 5-0 to remain one point clear of Real Madrid. Since dropping points last month, Barcelona has won four games in a row, scoring 21 goals and conceding none. It does not bode well for Granada, who clinched La Liga safety this weekend and hosts Barcelona next weekend. Real Madrid won its 11th game straight in the league and is still in contention should Barca slip up, but it looks highly unlikely.
Will Red Bull Leipzig be an immediate Bundesliga threat?
The Bundesliga will have a new public enemy No. 1 team to follow next season after Red Bull Leipzig was promoted to the top flight following a 2-0 win over Karlsruhe. It is its fourth promotion in seven years; it used to be a fifth-division team called SSV Markranstadt, until 2009, when Red Bull bought the club's license and changed the team's name, crest and kit. In 2010, Red Bull Leipzig moved to the 44,300-seat stadium in Leipzig, and, despite some wobbles on the way, finally made it to the top flight, where it plans to make a splash.
It has already changed its coach, with this season’s boss Ralf Rangnick stepping back to his director of football duties after appointing Ralf Hasenhuttl, who kept up newly promoted Ingolstadt in the Bundesliga this season. Bild newspaper reported that it plans to spend heavily in the summer, with targets including Kevin Volland and FC Basel’s Breel Embolo. One player not coming will be Jamie Vardy, who was offered to Rangnick two years ago.
“We desperately wanted to sign Joe Gomez, who later chose Liverpool, and we were flying back from London to Leipzig with his agent," Rangnick told Sport Bild magazine. "In the plane, the agent said to me 'Mr. Rangnick, it's a crying shame that you are so radical about who you sign and only go for players who are under 24 because I've got somebody who would be just perfect for you. I can guarantee he would become a national team player under you, but he's already 27.' It was Jamie Vardy.” Rangnick replied: "No, he's 27-we're not doing it.”
Rangnick missed the press conference after the game as he pulled a muscle running from a beer shower during the postmatch celebrations. And though most fans are disappointed that a nouveau club is in the top-flight, not everyone sees it that way. German TV commentator Marcel Reif thinks RB could be a title rival for Bayern Munich. Martin Machowecz wrote in Die Welt that the Bundesliga needs more clubs based in the east (the German FA was founded in Leipzig) and he backed Rangnick’s claim that RB “will be a great asset” for the top flight.
Its approach this summer will be fascinating.
Lyon cruises into Champions League
With Paris Saint-Germain 27 points clear of second-placed Lyon (and with a game in hand), the only drama left at the top of the table was the race for the second and automatic qualification for the Champions League group stages. Just a few months ago, Monaco was 10 points ahead of Lyon, but momentum coming into Saturday’s game could not have been more different: Lyon was unbeaten in nine, while Monaco had dropped points in six of its last nine.
In front a packed Parc OL, the new stadium, Lyon went for the kill and was 2-0 up inside eight minutes, with Rachid Ghezzal (who destroyed his marker Andrea Raggi) and Alexandre Lacazette scoring. The visitor’s task became even tougher when striker Lacina Traore was dismissed for a second yellow card on 23 minutes. It was 4-1 at halftime and Lacazette completed his hat trick late on. The France striker looks a player reborn under new coach Bruno Genesio.
He has six goals before the winter break and 15 since puts some pressure on France coach Didier Deschamps to take note. Lacazette is the first French striker to score 20 or more goals in consecutive seasons since Stephane Guivarc’h in 1997 and 1998.
Monaco now has to beat Montpellier to be sure of third spot, where it finished last season, but could yet be overhauled by Nice, who is two points back.
Sunday night was awards night in France, and PSG’s dominance shone through. Zlatan Ibrahimovic won best player, Laurent Blanc best coach, and there were eight PSG players in the team of the year. The only non-PSG players were Marseille goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, midfielder Lassana Diarra, (also Marseille but heading for PSG this summer) and Nice’s winger Hatem ben Arfa, linked this week with a move to Barcelona.
Farewell to Luca Toni
This has not been a season to remember for Luca Toni. Now at Hellas Verona, the 38-year-old–he turns 39 in a few weeks–was Serie A's top scorer last season but has scored only six goals this campaign and his team has been relegated.
Ten years after his greatest season in 2005-06–when he was at Fiorentina and became the first player to score more than 30 league goals since Antonio Angelillo in 1959, the first Italian ever to win the European Golden Boot, and ended the summer as a World Cup winner with Italy–Toni has decided to call it a day and retire.
This, despite the fact he once said that he was so slow he could play on forever.
Toni made the announcement at a press conference this week. Verona played Juventus at home Sunday night, and Toni declared it would be the last game of his career. He didn't want to bow out in next week’s away fixture at Palermo, another of his former clubs. And so, despite being bottom of the table, despite having only won four games in its first 36, Verona beat Juventus 2-1.
Toni scored, a coolly-taken penalty which he chipped down the middle of Neto’s goal. The only thing that would have made it more poignant was if his World Cup winning teammate Gigi Buffon had been in goal (the 23 on Italy’sWorld Cup squad of 2006 still regularly talk together as they have their own WhatsApp group). Still, it was an appropriate way for one of Italy’s great center forwards to bow out.
Top three goals of the week
Wahbi Khazri (Sunderland vs. Chelsea): A stunning volley from outside the box helped Sunderland beat Chelsea and gave it hope of Premier League survival.
Bryan Ruiz (Sporting Lisbon vs. Vitoria Setubal): A smart free-kick routine from the left allowed Ruiz to volley into the top corner from the penalty spot to keep Sporting’s title chances alive. With one game left it remains two behind Benfica.
Diego Gonzalez (Sevilla vs. Granada): The 21-year-old made his first La Liga appearance for Sevilla against Granada and made an impact: with his first touch, he scored with a back heel and although Granada went on to win 4-1, could be another star of the future unearthed at the Sanchez Pizjuan.
Top three players of the week
Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon): A hat trick for the Lyon striker cemented his team’s spot in next season’s Champions League.
Juan Valeron (Las Palmas): The 40-year-old was the bedrock of Deportivo de La Coruna’s success in the 2000s. After 415 games in the top flight, the stylish midfielder bowed out at Las Palmas, the club where he started his career.
Bryan Smeets (De Graafschap): The title went to the final day in the Netherlands, with PSV and Ajax level on points but Ajax with a superior goal difference. PSV beat Zwolle 3-1 but Ajax stumbled at second-from-bottom De Graafschap. A surprise equalizer from Smeets, his first goal of the season, pegged it back to 1-1 and allowed PSV to clinch a second straight title.