Zlatan's importance, Zidane's risk, Muller's form headline weekend around Europe

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Monday February 27th, 2017

Another exciting weekend across Europe saw Manchester United win the first trophy available in England thanks to two goals from the talismanic Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

There was controversy in Spain after a referee’s decision went Real Madrid’s way, but a decision from Zinedine Zidane also served as the catalyst for a comeback victory. In Germany, Thomas Muller was back to his best form in a historic match for Bayern Munich boss Carlos Ancelotti, while in Italy, Roma kept up the pressure on Juventus in Serie A with an impressive win at Inter. Finally, in France, PSG smashed Marseille in the Classique derby, displaying again how far the club has come after a rough start to Unai Emery's first season.

Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this week:

PREMIER LEAGUE: There's no overstating Zlatan's importance to Manchester United

LA LIGA: Zidane's risk pays off in Real Madrid's important comeback

BUNDESLIGA: Muller finally rounds into form for surging Bayern Munich

SERIE A: Nainggolan boosts his value with latest scoring binge

LIGUE 1: PSG destroys Marseille, continues to look the part under Emery

TOP GOALS/PLAYERS: Two of weekend's best goals come from Ligue 1

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's importance to Manchester United can't be overstated

Monday February 27th, 2017

The English press has finally fallen in love with Zlatan Ibrahimovic. After the Swedish striker scored two goals to help Manchester United beat an unlucky Southampton 3-2 in the EFL Cup final, many reporters ran features on who was the greatest free transfer signing in England. Ibrahimovic got a few mentions (not as many as Sol Campbell, though). Still, to even be in the conversation after so long being labeled a "flat-track bully" or someone who apparently (and wrongly) couldn’t cut it against Premier League opposition must have brought some satisfaction.

Ibrahimovic is like United coach Jose Mourinho in his desperate need for trophies. He could barely believe it when asked if the result would be a good springboard for the rest of the season. For Ibra, the result, and the trophy that followed, was everything. But he is nothing if not a showman and some of his comments after the game only added to his sense of theater. When Paul Pogba, interviewed next to him on the Wembley pitch, said, “That’s why United bought him,” Ibrahimovic, quick as a flash, responded: “They didn’t buy me, I was a free transfer. They bought you!”

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To the press after the game, he said: “I look good. I know I look good. I feel fresh. I feel good. I feel like an animal. I feel like a lion. I feel in good shape. I train hard. People who know me from the locker room know that I train very hard. I'm from the old school where they work hard and get what they get from doing the hard work, not like the new school where it is easy to get what you want."

That’s why United will be hoping that Ibrahimovic activates the extra year on his contract. He has already scored 26 goals in all competitions this season, and it’s scary to think of where United might be without him. Wayne Rooney has scored twice in eight league starts all season, while Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have scored just three times each. United has lost only one game in its last 26 but remains stuck in sixth in the Premier League (though only two points off fourth).

United doesn’t play like a typical United side; nor does it play (especially in defense) like a typical Mourinho side. At the moment, Ibrahimovic is helping cover up those deficiencies. Mourinho and everyone connected to the club will be praying he stays fit and stays, period, for another year. 

Zinedine Zidane's risky switch helps Real Madrid stay atop La Liga

Monday February 27th, 2017

It was almost a perfect weekend for Barcelona, who once again did not play at its best but did enough to win 2-1 away at Atletico Madrid thanks to a late Lionel Messi winner. That put Luis Enrique’s side atop La Liga, albeit briefly, before Real Madrid’s tricky match at Villarreal. And so it proved: the Yellow Submarine roared into a deserved 2-0 lead and looked on course to do the Catalans a huge favor. That is, until Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane made a tactical switch that left some scratching their heads; in a midfield areas already bossed by Villarreal, Zidane removed holding player Casemiro and brought on Isco, who played as No. 10.

The change made an enormous difference and Madrid equalized through Gareth Bale. The turning point came when referee Gil Manzano awarded Madrid a controversial penalty when the ball appeared to bounce off the arm of Villarreal skipper Bruno. Cristiano Ronaldo converted the penalty and it was another substitute, Alvaro Morata, who scored a late winner to cap an incredible, and important, comeback. It puts Madrid back to one point clear of Barcelona with a game in hand. 

“At 2-0 down you have to change something,” Zidane said after the game. “We changed it and it went well for us, the players who came on changed the game.”

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The penalty decision caused anger across town where Sport newspaper called the result a “dubious comeback” while El Mundo Deportivo claimed “the referee assists to help Madrid into top spot”. Gerard Pique tweeted about referees favoring Madrid, to which Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos responded: “We already know about Pique's world, where everything's a plot against him. The referees have a difficult job, we have to try and make them more comfortable. Referees sometimes give you and others take away, but you have to be prepared for everything.”

The story took on another aspect when Villarreal president Fernando Roig claimed that he had seen Manzano and his assistants leave the stadium holding Real Madrid bags after the game. “That's not right, it seems to me,” Roig said. “I have not said anything to Gil Manzano. I don’t know if he sees yellow better than white.”

The row will rumble on for a few days. The real takeaway is that the power on Madrid’s bench can turn a game its way. At the moment, that’s not the same case for Barcelona.

Thomas Muller comes alive at last for surging Bayern Munich

Monday February 27th, 2017

There was nothing spectacular about the Italian league match between Reggiana and Palermo back on August 27, 1995, certainly nothing to suggest that the former Italy international coaching the home side would go on to win three Champions League trophies and the same number of league titles as coach in three different countries.

This was Carlo Ancelotti, for whom Saturday marked game No. 1,000 as a manager, with his Bayern Munich side destroying Hamburg 8-0 at the Allianz Arena.

“How many happy moments and how many disappointments; how many worries and how many emotions in all these years,” Ancelotti said before the game. “Reaching one’s aim is the end of an adventure. Be calm, it’s not my case, I love what I do and I’m eager to live another thousand emotions.”

Few will have been as easy as this, against an opponent so accommodating it has conceded 44 in its last seven games in Munich. Bayern is cracking into gear now spring is in sight; it has showed it has a temperament for the big games, beating RB Leipzig 3-0 in December and Arsenal 5-1 earlier this month.

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While Robert Lewandowski scored his third hat trick of the season, the star of the show was Thomas Muller, even though he didn't score and was booked for diving. It has been a tough season for Muller, whose tally of one Bundesliga goal this season is the same as Mats Hummels, Rafinha and Philipp Lahm. He had a chance to score but decided to lay it off for David Alaba to make it 5-0.

“A goal is not everything for me now, and that’s an example that I really do mean it when I say it,” he told the press after the game.

Bayern chief Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said it was Muller’s best performance of the season. Ancelotti’s predecessor, Pep Guardiola, won over fans with dominant performances all season, but ultimately fell short in Europe in the spring. The hope in Munich is that Ancelotti brings about the opposite. Now spring is close, the team is clicking into action nicely and Muller rounding into form can only help the club's momentum.

As Rummenigge added: “If you win 8-0, that's a sign.” 

Nainggolan continues to boost his value in latest starring role for Roma

Monday February 27th, 2017

"Radja for the Oscar!" declared the front page of Corriere dello Sport after Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan’s two goals against Inter Milan kept some pressure on Serie A leader Juventus at the top of the table. Roma won 3-1, with Nainggolan scoring in his fourth straight league game. The Belgian has benefited from a tactical switch which has seen him pushed up to play alongside Mohamed Salah just behind Edin Dzeko in a 3-4-2-1. Another paper, Corriere della Sera, said Nainggolan is playing like a cross between Francesco Totti and Gennaro Gattuso. Linked to Chelsea last summer, his price tag has certainly gone up considerably this season.

A word of praise is also due to Federico Fazio, whose Roma form has been outstanding since he joined the club last summer. Part of a back three with Antonio Rudiger and Kostas Manolas, the unit has only conceded three goals in its last seven games.

The other big game in Italy went Roma’s way, too, as Atalanta beat third-placed Napoli 2-0 to close to within three points of its rival in a key bout for Champions League positioning. Napoli’s season is threatening to unravel after president Aurelio de Laurentiis slammed the players after the 3-1 Champions League loss at Real Madrid.

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“The players lacked the right attitude, we scored a very good goal but then they seemed to be blocked. There was a lack of aggression. The team lacked personality,” said de Laurentiis.

Coach Maurizio Sarri responded in kind: “I’m at training every day and I am the one who chooses," he said. "The president can express his ideas. I'd rather he expressed them directly to me, but in the end I decide. If we make that many mistakes, it's difficult to be brave. If you misplace the second pass, you won't build any pressure.”

There is now a danger that Atalanta could overtake Napoli in the race for Champions League qualification, and it doesn't get much easier for Napoli: Next up is a trip to face Roma.

PSG's effective, collective approach pays off at last under Emery

Monday February 27th, 2017

Six months is a long time in football. Just ask Unai Emery, who back in August was criticized by ex-PSG midfielder Paul le Guen for being harsh toward Hatem Ben Arfa and apparently working the players too hard in training. As March approaches, PSG is in its best form of the season, having beaten Barcelona 4-0 in the Champions League and Sunday night winning 5-1 at fierce rival Marseille.

PSG clinched last season’s title with a 9-0 win in mid-March. Everything was too easy. This season, it is being pushed by Monaco and Nice, which has forced PSG to raise its level.

“We are still second,” Emery remarked in a rather straightforward manner after the win on the south coast.

No longer reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, it has taken some time, but PSG is now an effective collective that harries the opposition and is fast in transition.

“This PSG is bigger and stronger,” said RMC pundit Daniel Riolo.

If Marseille is to challenge for a place on the podium next season, as owner Frank McCourt has stated, then it will need to spend wisely in the summer. A new spine is required: goalkeeper, center back, holding midfielder and center forward. Patrice Evra only lasted the first half for the host, as the defensive solidity that coach Rudi Garcia built on when he first took over–the team drew 0-0 at Parc des Princes on his debut–has deserted his side.

Marseille president Jacques-Henri Eyraud promised that his team would go for the win, but maybe he should have been more realistic (or better still, quieter) about his ambition. The best Marseille can hope for this season is to make the Europa League, as it is currently three points behind fifth-placed Bordeaux. Next up is a trip to bottom side Lorient. After this crushing defeat, Garcia will need to get back to his winning ways, and fast.  

Pardo, Lacazette, Tielemans strike weekend's best goals

Monday February 27th, 2017

Top three goals of the week

Felipe Pardo (Nantes): The Colombian takes out his Dijon marker and curls the ball over the goalkeeper from a tight angle. Superb technique.

Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon): This was a fantastic move from Lyon through the Metz defence but the best was saved till last as the forward jinked, cut back and finally curled his shot into the top corner.

Youri Tielemans (Anderlecht): The Belgian teenager scored two goals from outside the area last week, but this week’s cracker against Genk was even better. No wonder Tielemans will be on the big clubs’ summer shopping list. 

Top three players of the week

Harry Kane (Tottenham): Is there a more in-form striker than Kane? This was his second hat trick in as many weeks and third in nine games. Despite missing seven weeks of the season, he is tied for most goals in the Premier League. Oh, and he set up Dele Alli for a fourth goal in Spurs’s 4-0 win.

Thomas Muller (Bayern Munich): No goals but two assists and a hand in three other goals for the Bayern forward who admits his game is about more than scoring.

Mattia Caldara (Atalanta): The center back scored two goals in Atalanta’s win over Napoli. He has already been signed by Juventus and will join in summer 2018 after an extended loan spell at Atalanta.

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