Higuain sets record; Zlatan exits PSG; Arsenal pips Spurs in finales
An exciting final day of seasons across Europe's major leagues (well, one game remains in England) saw a twist in the race for second place in the Premier League, while Barcelona held on to clinch La Liga's title again. Gonzalo Higuain broke a long-standing goal-scoring record in Italy, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic had a memorable farewell to Paris. In Germany, a former champion that has fallen on hard times left the Bundesliga, while Bayern Munich lifted its championship silverware.
Here are the major talking points from a final weekend of the season Around Europe:
Arsenal left crowing as Spurs slump
When Tottenham drew 2-2 with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge a couple of weeks ago, it was a physical encounter that clinched the title for Leicester City. It seemed to knock the stuffing out of Spurs, who needed one point from its next two games to secure second place, and finish above Arsenal for the first time in Arsene Wenger’s 19 years in charge of the Gunners. Instead it lost to Southampton and Sunday it capitulated 5-1 to already-relegated Newcastle. Arsenal’s win over Aston Villa meant that Arsenal fans were left celebrating St. Totteringham’s Day, the day when Spurs can no longer mathematically catch its rivals, later than usual this season.
Despite the final placing, there is a clear difference in mood at both clubs this summer.
Arsenal’s fan base is still unsure whether Wenger is the long-term answer, while finishing 10 points behind Leicester this season, when it was top in January, has to go down as an opportunity lost.
On the other hand, Spurs slumped in the last four games but before that, with the youngest team in the league, showed a tactical coherence with a young English core that points to an exciting future ahead.
The Times newspaper Saturday reported that Wenger will be offered a chance to extend his contract beyond next season, when it is due to expire. Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino extended his contract until 2021 last week. Its end of the season may have been "Spursy," a byword for failure and frustration in the past, but the future is brighter at the third-placed team than the second.
What next for Barcelona?
After winning the treble in his first season as coach, Luis Enrique might have to make do with just the double in his second–if his team beats Sevilla in the Copa del Rey final next weekend. Just like at Bayern Munich, where failure to reach the Champions League final has tempered the season’s hue, so it is at Barcelona, which really thought it could become the first team to retain its European title in the Champions League era.
For a while, though, it looked like the league might be too much as well, after a wretched run in April resulted in three straight losses, to Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and Valencia. It cut the gap at the top from nine points to all-square with Atletico. In the next five games, though, Barcelona won by a combined 24-0. The last of these, Saturday’s 3-0 win at Granada, sealed the title and was inspired by Luis Suarez’s hat trick.
The Uruguayan made it 40 goals for the season to win the Pichichi award for top scorer, the first player to break the Messi/Ronaldo duopoly at the top of the scoring charts since Suarez’s friend and compatriot Diego Forlan in 2009.
Suarez’s final goal summed up the strike partnership in the second half of the season; Messi was playing as a No. 10, his defense-splitting pass set up Neymar to square it to Suarez. Playmaker-creator-finisher. Each of the three could play each of those roles, although Suarez, who has now scored as many goals in just over one and a half seasons for Barcelona as he did in three-and-a-half years at Liverpool, is best suited to the latter.
What now for Barcelona? After a transfer embargo and two signings–Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal–that were eligible to play in January but did not really come off, the board needs to get the transfers right this summer. Avoiding burnout for the M-S-N line is crucial–especially as the club's slump came just after all three had traveled to South America for an international break. Luis Enrique wanted Nolito in January, and even Fernando Torres would be a perfect veteran on the bench.
With Diego Simeone likely to stay at Atletico this summer, and Zinedine Zidane, after a run of 11 straight league wins, expected to do the same, how each team approaches the summer window will be fascinating. But just because Barcelona has won another title, it doesn't mean there is no need for new faces.
Higuain makes history
"His majesty Higuain" read the front-page headline of Corriere dello Sport, marking an incredible end to the season by Napoli, which beat Frosinone 4-0 to seal second place in Serie A. The subplot was striker Gonzalo Higuain’s quest to overtake Gunnar Nordahl’s 66-year-old record of 35 goals in a single Serie A season, set with Milan in 1949-50. Higuain needed three goals in the final game of the season, and with only minutes left on the clock, he pulled out a bicycle kick from the edge of the area that a Hollywood script-writer–or indeed Napoli’s film director owner Aurelio de Laurentiis–would have rejected for being too fanciful.
It flew into the top of the net and Higuain’s place in history was secure: 35 games, 36 goals; more than each of Palermo, Carpi, Frosinone, Udinese, Bologna and Hellas Verona managed all season.
“It is an immense joy to have been able to surpass that mark," he told Mediaset after the game. "I want to thank my family and everyone at Napoli including the team and the coaching staff. [Coach] Maurizio Sarri has helped me so much. He has explained to me how to improve, I listened and I've achieved it.”
This was Sarri’s first season at Napoli, and finishing it in second is a huge achievement. The coach will meet De Laurentiis Monday when he is expected to renew his contract for another year (it currently is on a yearly deal), and get a pay rise. “He’s stubborn, crazy, decisive, but above all good,” De Laurentiis was reported to have said Saturday. Sarri could say the same about his boss.
If Napoli wants to go one better next season, and end Juventus’s five-year hegemony on Serie A, the pair needs to convince Higuain to stay. That could be tough: the Argentine is 28 and has been linked with a move to the Premier League. He has a buyout clause of €94 million but if he stays one more year it Naples, it could be reduced to €60 million.
Au revoir, Zlatan
Paris gave Zlatan the send-off he wanted, and in a way, that was part of the problem. It was a record-breaking night in the French capital, as Ibrahimovic bade farewell to the city after four successful years. He needed to score two goals against Nantes to overtake Carlos Bianchi’s long-standing record of 37 goals for PSG in one season. For the whole match, PSG tried to set him up–apart from the 10th minute, when the game stopped to give him a standing ovation. Since when did that happen at games for active players? This was bizarre.
Stranger was to come when Ibrahimovic finally got his second goal. When 87 minutes were on the clock, he ushered his kids onto the pitch, who wore PSG shirts with the words "King" and "Legend" on the back. This was in reference to his pre-match quote: “I came like a king and left like a legend.” He gave them a hug and then walked off the pitch with them. There was still three minutes left to play! PSG had used all its subs so ended the match with 10 men.
Was this a perfect send off, or individualism gone mad? I am in the latter camp. And that's before you even start on whether he deserves this self-appointed legend status. PSG’s four straight titles could have been won without him. He may be PSG’s all-time record scorer (154 goals in 179 games) but he never reached the Champions League semifinal in that period, which surely dents that legacy.
PSG has said it wants Ibrahimovic to return to the club as a manager in the future. The two questions before then are: where will Ibrahimovic play next? (French and Italian reports suggest that Manchester United and LA Galaxy were in the running.) And who will replace him? (Cristiano Ronaldo, Eden Hazard and Antoine Griezmann all seem unlikely while L’Equipe Sunday suggested Anthony Martial was under consideration.) That should keep his fans busy after the Euros.
Dark day for relegated Stuttgart
2007 Bundesliga champion Stuttgart did not look in trouble as recently as April, but a dreadful run of one win in its last seven games left it needing to beat Wolfsburg in the season finale to avoid the drop. Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt were also close to danger, but Stuttgart’s downfall was of its own making: it lost 3-1 and was relegated for the first time in 41 years.
Coach Jurgen Krammy, appointed from the youth setup after the November sacking of Alexander Zorniger, was dismissed, with a spokesman claiming his contract was only valid in the top flight. President Bernd Wahler resigned, with his three seasons in charge resulting with finishes of 15th (2014), 14th (2015) and 19th.
Amid all the upheaval, the man at the heart of it, board member Robin Dutt, is also under pressure. Dutt is former coach of Freiburg and Bayer Leverkusen, and also worked as sporting director at the German FA before taking his current post last year. Dutt was not present at a board meeting that took place Sunday and it could be a total overhaul–from coach, president and senior positions on the board–soon at the Swabian club.
Top three goals of the week
Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli): An incredible way to break the Italian scoring record, a bicycle-kick from the edge of the area. Marvellous stuff from the in-form Argentine.
Senad Lulic (Lazio): A smartly struck volley from edge of area gave the Fiorentina goalkeeper no chance.
Danny Drinkwater (Leicester City): Drinkwater embodies much of Leicester's improbable rise, and it's fitting in some ways that he scored the club's final goal of its title season, a blast from some 30 yards that secured a point at Chelsea.
Honorable mention goes to Alex Scott of the Arsenal Ladies, who won the Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley Saturday with a goal that deserved the big stage: England player Scott cut inside her marker and curled a lovely shot for the only goal of the game.
Top three players of the week
Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli): He timed his first hat trick of the campaign to perfection. What a season.
Luis Suarez (Barcelona): Another hat trick for the in-form Uruguayan; whose 14 goals in the last five games have helped Barcelona win the title.
Mario Gomez (Besiktas): The German forward scored 28 goals this season, including the winner at Galatasaray last week and another in the 3-1 win over Osmanlispor to get his team over the line to win the Turkish league.