Arsenal's star crisis, Barcelona's future in focus after weekend around Europe
- Arsenal is mired in a crisis featuring its top star, while Barcelona, Leverkusen and Monaco are looking to the future in different ways after another weekend of action around Europe.
The pressure is mounting on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger as his decision to bench star player Alexis Sanchez backfired, headlining another weekend featuring plenty of talking points around Europe.
Barcelona responded to the news of coach Luis Enrique’s resignation with its best performance of the season, while there was a coaching change in Germany after Borussia Dortmund ran riot over Bayer Leverkusen. Napoli goalkeeper Pepe Reina rolled back the years in Serie A, while French leader Monaco continued its goal-scoring frenzy in another comfortable win spearheaded by its latest star on the rise.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this week:
PREMIER LEAGUE: Wenger, Alexis at odds as Arsenal exits top four
TOP PLAYERS/GOALS OF THE WEEKEND: A trio of left-footed beauties worth your time
Arsene Wenger, Alexis Sanchez at odds as Arsenal's season flounders
Arsene Wenger gave an impassioned defense of his job in an interview that aired before Arsenal’s 3-1 loss at Liverpool. The result pushed the Gunners out of the top four for the first time since September, and there is a real threat the team may finish outside of the Champions League places. Wenger, who has never failed to finish in the top four, reacted strongly to the criticism he has faced this season.
“I worked in this job [as a coach] since I was 33 with no authority problem, and I sit here at 67 and have to convince people I am capable to manage a football team,” he told BT Sport. “We live in a society that always wants new… who doesn’t accept anymore any disappointment. You have to change the manager every week. We’ll see where the clubs go. Any organization without any long-term plan, without any deeper values or without built of strength inside the club, goes nowhere.”
Wenger faced more questions after dropping Alexis Sanchez to the bench for the Liverpool game. He claimed he was looking to play more direct, but it was later reported (though denied by Wenger) that Alexis was being punished for an altercation with a teammate during training in the week. The Chilean is in a contract standoff with the club at the moment, and he cuts an increasingly unhappy figure with every loss that Arsenal suffers.
In recent defeats against Chelsea and Bayern Munich, Alexis has looked frustrated with his teammates, struggling to get a reaction out of them. The story behind his omission fits with this picture; but the fact that he was penalized for it also tells its own story.
Critics of Wenger say there is not enough fight in the team, not enough resilience and not enough leadership. So it’s ironic, if true, that Alexis was dropped for showing these qualities. He came on in the second half and set up a goal for Danny Welbeck, but by then Liverpool was already 2-0 up. The future of Alexis dominates the Arsenal narrative ahead of Tuesday’s return against Bayern Munich.
Perhaps the spotlight should be on the future of Arsenal without Alexis; if he leaves this summer, as looks likely, with Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain interested, how will Arsenal cope? Will it be able to attract a player of similar caliber if it only has Europa League to offer? Would the departure of Alexis means that Wenger stays? Does Arsenal need Wenger and Alexis to both leave? Alexis versus Wenger is about more than a contract standoff; it’s about how ambition, progress and what winning means to different people.
It reflects the current dilemma that comes with supporting Arsenal right now.
Barcelona responds to Luis Enrique's departure with season-best showing
If there was any concern over how Barcelona might respond to last week’s announcement that Luis Enrique was standing down as coach at the end of the season, it did not last long. Barcelona hit the post twice before taking an early lead against Celta Vigo and ended up winning against a tricky opponent 5-0. It was the team’s best performance of the season.
Even a repeat of that will probably not be enough to pull off a comeback, in the Champions League this week after the 4-0 away loss at Paris Saint-Germain. But the performance does give hope to Barcelona’s chances of pipping Real Madrid to La Liga's title. It would be an impressive way for Luis Enrique to bow out: the team is currently one point ahead, but Madrid has a game in hand, though a trickier run-in, with matches against Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and, on April 23, a potential decider against Barcelona.
Luis Enrique should be more beloved than he is. The club has won back-to-back league titles, and a Champions League–eight trophies from a possible 10, a treble followed by a double–but the coach has been worn down by accusations that his style is not the Barcelona way. Such is life as coach at Camp Nou, where the failures are yours, but the successes belong to others.
“The Barça job is so hard, you have to take decisions all the time and I find it hard to disconnect, to switch off,” he said before the Celta Vigo game. “I need to disconnect now. There are some coaches that spend a lot of time in their jobs and enjoy it but that's not my case.”
The likelihood is that he will take a sabbatical just as Pep Guardiola did when he left Barcelona.
And so talk turns to replacements: Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli is said to be the man wanted by Neymar and Lionel Messi. His style of play would restore some of the "Barcelona way," but it’s not always that simple. The club likes to appoint coaches with some Barcelona history behind them; that gives Ernesto Valverde, Athletic Bilbao's coach who played in Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team, an edge. He is also out of contract in the summer.
An outside candidate is Juan Carlos Unzue, former goalkeeper and current assistant to Luis Enrique. He is the coach’s pick and would be a continuity candidate.
The problem is that Barcelona wants a change. There is still plenty of work to do if Barcelona will end this season with a big trophy, starting against Paris on Wednesday.
Bayer Leverkusen fires Roger Schmidt amid underachieving season
It had been coming for a while, but when it finally happened it was in some style; Bayer Leverkusen sacked coach Roger Schmidt Sunday morning, after the team lost 6-2 at Borussia Dortmund the previous day.
Dortmund is in excellent form at the moment, and it may only have been the last 13 minutes that did for Schmidt; at that point the score was 3-2 but late strikes from USA rising star Christian Pulisic, Andre Schurrle and Raphael Guerreiro left Leverkusen sporting director Rudi Voller acting now, as he put it, so “we did not want to lose sight of our goals. ... The first thing we have to do is to get the momentum back under this new direction and finally bring consistency into our performances.”
Leverkusen had lost five of its last seven games and is languishing in 10th in the Bundesliga. Considering Schmidt has reached the Champions League group stage for the last three seasons–and the team is 4-2 down after a first-leg loss to Atletico Madrid in the round of 16–this season has been one of underachievement.
His replacement will inherit a talented squad, even if it’s one likely to lose Javier Hernandez, Hakan Calhanoglu and Julian Brandt in the summer. The decision for Voller is whether he goes for an up-and-coming, young German boss–of which there are many–or an established bigger name in Europe. Leverkusen has seven points to make up on Hertha Berlin for fifth place, so it could yet make it into Europa League places for next season.
The ambition is far loftier at Dortmund, where the mood is confident despite two major injuries this week. First, one of the summer marquee signings, Mario Gotze, was diagnosed with metabolic disorder myopathy, which has resulted in an indefinite break from all football. It certainly explains his form (or lack of it) since returning to Dortmund last summer. Bild newspaper reported that Gotze had trained hard, hired his own physio and kept a food diary but his weight kept fluctuating. His father and advisor told the same paper that his son was awaiting further medical advice, but we can assume his season is over.
Marco Reus, who suffered a hamstring injury, is also ruled out of Dortmund’s Champions League second leg tie against Benfica, against whom it looks to overturn a 1-0 deficit. In Portugal, the visitor created enough chances to win the game, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed a penalty. A repeat of the Leverkusen display, though, in which Ousmane Dembele was once again outstanding, should be enough to reach the last eight.
Mbappe shines brightest with pressure on Monaco to win in Ligue 1
The pressure was on Monaco Sunday. Nice and Paris Saint-Germain both won 1-0, so going into the game there were three teams atop Ligue 1. How would this young Monagesque side respond against Nantes? In the only way it knows how to this season; playing with flair and scoring goals for fun.
Final score: Monaco 4, Nantes 0.
Maybe Kylian Mbappe, scorer of two goals in the first half, was right when he said the score flattered the host; two goals right at the end of the first half did not reflect the balance of play. But what Monaco has right now in the likes of Bernardo Silva and Mbappe are players who can make the difference with a piece of individual brilliance.
It was interesting that the 18-year-old Mbappe, one of the breakout stars of this season, spoke to the TV cameras in the flash interview directly after the final whistle–or rather that his club trusted him to do so. He was likeable and charming on air, insisting that ever since he was a kid he always looked out for the names every time the France squad was announced, and he will do exactly the same next week. Even though he was never played for the Under-21s, he may find his name on Didier Deschamps’s list; his form has been that irrepressible this season.
It will be fascinating to see how Monaco approaches the summer market. Every star in the squad will be a target for bigger teams, and the club has a policy of selling if the price is right (as it did with Anthony Martial to Manchester United in 2015). Silva looks set to leave, but how the club deals with approaches for the likes of Mbappe, Tomas Lemar, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Benjamin Mendy remains to be seen. Most important could be keeping coach Leonardo Jardim at the helm.
Pepe Reina preserves Napoli's win, tabs club for UCL comeback vs. Real Madrid
Polish FA president Zbigniew Boniek turned up in the dressing room after Napoli beat Roma 2-1 to cement its third position after a recent wobble. Even he might not have minded that coach Maurizio Sarri continues to pick Dries Mertens ahead of fit-again Polish striker Arkadiusz Milik. Mertens scored twice in a crucial 2-1 win at second-placed Roma to make it 18 goals in as many Serie A starts this season.
The key moment in this one was late on: Napoli had been coasting until Kevin Strootman pulled a goal back for the host in the 89th minute. Suddenly, Roma was pushing for an unlikely point and it almost came when Diego Perotti fired in a low shot that cannoned of Kalidou Koulibaly and up toward the top corner. Reina shifted his body mid-dive and somehow deflected the ball onto the post. He was sharp enough to clear away the rebound before Antonio Rudiger could connect to it.
The result has put on hold the strained relationship between coach Sarri and owner Aurelio de Laurentiis, but that could come up again if this week’s Champions League match against Real Madrid goes against the Italian side. With Mertens, who celebrated with a dog-inspired four-legged ‘gift’ on the corner flag, in honor of his dog Juliette, on current form, scoring goals should not be a problem; but keeping them out against the Champions League holder might be.
Standing in the way is Reina, the 34-year-old Spaniard who declared after the first leg that Napoli could win.
“We can beat Madrid 2-0 at home, and that is the challenge we face now. The away goal is important, we are going to pressure them from the start.”
Reina was at fault for a midweek goal conceded in the Coppa Italia against Juventus but more than made up for it against Roma. He will have to be at his best against the might of Madrid Tuesday night.
Watch: Messi, Stafylidis score best goals of the weekend in Europe
Top three goals of the week
Lionel Messi (Barcelona): The cut-inside-onto-the-left is usually an Arjen Robben move, but Messi is just as effective with that, as evidenced by his second strike in the 5-0 win over Celta Vigo.
Kostas Stafylidis (Augsburg): The Greek left back tried his luck from range and found the top corner in the 2-2 draw with RB Leipzig.
Wendell (Bayer Leverkusen): A superb free kick from the Brazilian was not enough to prevent a heavy loss at Borussia Dortmund.
Top three players of the week
Andrea Bellotti: A hat trick for the Torino forward takes him to 22 goals for the season and renewed speculation that an elite club will sign him in the summer.
Harry Kane (Tottenham): Two more goals for the Spurs striker helped his team beat Everton 3-2. The English forward is at the peak of his powers and, as one paper put it, now a ‘Three-Season Wonder’ after consistently proving himself.
Pepe Reina (Napoli): A fantastic last-minute save against Roma helped Napoli beat its Italian rival and set it up for this week’s European tie against Real Madrid.