As Champions League action heats up, Everton's Lukaku, deservedly, wants in
- Romelu Lukaku wants to be playing on the world's elite stage, while Lionel Messi and Gianluigi Buffon hit more milestones in the weekend around Europe.
After a hectic round of European matches and a mouthwatering Champions League quarterfinal draw and before an international break, there was a dramatic weekend of domestic games across the continent.
In England, Arsenal lost again while Everton forward Romelu Lukaku put his future firmly in the spotlight. Barcelona got back to its winning ways in Spain to keep the pressure on Real Madrid. FC Cologne’s Anthony Modeste has become an unlikely contender for the German Bundesliga's Golden Boot, while Gianluigi Buffon made history, again, for Juventus in Serie A.
PSG won Ligue 1's big game of the weekend, but the form of Javier Pastore has led to more questions than answers.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe:
PREMIER LEAGUE: Lukaku earns right to demand bigger stage
TOP GOALS/PLAYERS: Casemiro, Mbappe shine entering FIFA break
Romelu Lukaku has earned the right to demand a Champions League stage
Romelu Lukaku made history for Everton this weekend, as his two goals in the 4-0 win over Hull made him the club’s first player in 31 years to score 20 league goals in a season. The fact that he had prefaced it with a clear call for ambition at Everton was lost on no one.
In an interview before the match, Lukaku had said he was one of the best strikers in the Premier League, and now wants to be one of the best in the world. “To do that, you need the platform to show yourself. Then you are talking about Champions League and whatever types of games,” he said.
He was frustrated that Everton had not signed players in January when it had an opportunity to do so. But he never said he wanted to leave.
Everton is reportedly still confident that Lukaku will sign a new contract to stay at the club. And while coach Ronald Koeman says that the Belgian should stay loyal to his contract, it appears that the end game is in sight. Koeman left PSV Eindhoven for Valencia because it was a step up; Slaven Bilic, who had his own star-player saga this season with Dimitri Payet, left West Ham for Everton in his playing days for the same reason. Coaches may want to keep their best players, but conveniently forget themselves when they do so. Why shouldn’t Lukaku move to a club that can give him Champions League matches?
Lukaku is still only 23 and has topped 20 goals in all competitions for the last three seasons. He even managed 17 for West Brom as an 18-year-old. He has been at Everton for four years and is now ready for a bigger stage. That shouldn’t be grounds for a new battle. Everton could sell Lukaku and still be ambitious (though perhaps not if it follows through with the desire to sign Wayne Rooney). Youngsters like Tom Davies, Ademola Lookman and Dominic Calvert-Lewin point to an exciting future at Goodison Park. Let’s hope this does not turn into a he-said-but-he-said saga or sour the brilliant player Lukaku has been for Everton.
If he does not accept Everton’s huge contract offer, then there should be no bitterness. Let him leave and wish him success for the future. He deserves it.
Messi hits 40-goal milestone again as Barcelona returns to winning ways
Barcelona got back to its winning ways in La Liga–after its surprise, post-Champions League comeback loss at Deportivo la Coruna–beating 10-man Valencia 4-2 in a thrilling match Sunday. Outgoing coach Luis Enrique stuck with the three-man defense of Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti and Javier Mascherano that worked so well in the 6-1 win over PSG, and although Valencia exploited some gaps in a breathless first half, Barcelona came out on top, and with lots of positives to boot.
For starters, Andres Iniesta completed his first 90 minutes since the start of January, while Andre Gomes, victim of boo-birds and a former Valencia player, scored his first goal for the club right at the death. Then there's Lionel Messi, who made it 40 goals again for his season in all competitions–an astounding eighth year in a row he has done that–while the club closed the gap on leader Real Madrid to just two at the top (though Real does maintain its game in hand).
“La Liga is still alive for us, our obligation is to be prepared if an opportunity arises,” Luis Enrique said. “We have to keep fighting in the event that a chance to take a step further arises.”
Gerard Pique was up to his old tricks again as well, taunting radio station Cadena SER, who suggested he might pick up a booking against Valencia to rule him out of the game against Granada ahead of April’s Sevilla clash. In response, the center back put out a Twitter poll asking if he should do an interview with the station during the international break. He gave four options, and ‘No, never again’ beat out ‘yes’ by 1%.
As for another wrinkle to come out of the match, Munir El-Haddadi, the Barcelona forward on loan at Valencia, scored an excellent goal against his parent club (and of course didn't celebrate). It was his sixth of the season and second against Barcelona (he also scored in the 3-2 loss last October). He is 21, and it is unlikely that he will get another chance at Camp Nou under a new coach next season. The current understudy to the Messi-Luis Suarez-Neymar front trident is Paco Alcacer, whose return since his transfer has been just two goals in 12 appearances, most as a sub. How many opportunities both players get next season–and where they come–will be interesting to see develop.
There's nothing modest about Anthony Modeste's goal-scoring binge for Cologne
What a week for FC Cologne mascot Hennes VIII. The most famous goat in Germany celebrated his 10th birthday last week, but then, according to Welt am Sonntag, his girlfriend Anneliese passed away over the weekend. Nevertheless, he was still on duty Saturday at the RheinEnergieStadion where he watched his team beat Hertha Berlin 4-2, as Anthony Modeste scored his second hat trick of the season. Modeste passed Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski is now just one behind Borussia Dortmund forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in the Bundesliga's Golden Boot race.
How has this 28-year-old Frenchman, who had previously never topped 15 in a season, done it? He showed signs of what he could do at Hoffenheim, contributing 12 goals in a forward line alongside Roberto Firmino and Kevin Volland. But in Cologne, he has become a different beast. He is playing for a side where the collective is everything, and the team is taking advantage of the struggles of bigger teams like Borussia Monchengladbach, Schalke and Bayer Leverkusen to chase for a European place.
Cologne had not won any of the previous five games, so coach Peter Stöger picked five attacking players in what was sometimes a 4-2-4 formation.
“Modeste was too fast for us, we could not cope with his speed,” said Hertha coach Pal Dardai.
Stöger was keen to make the story less about Modeste and more about the team. He said former Austria Vienna striker Philipp Hosiner, whom he coached in 2012, was just as good in front of goal. But the fans, who shout "Football God" after every Modeste goal, might disagree.
Modeste has now scored 22 out of FC Cologne’s 37 goals this season: that’s a 60% share. Cologne reportedly turned down an offer of €50 million from Chinese side Tianjin Quanjian last January. The debate in France is whether Modeste, who is having a breakout season at 28, can "do a Gignac" and force his way into the France squad like Tigres UANL's Andre-Pierre Gignac has later into his career.
With the likes of Alexandre Lacazette, Karim Benzema and Nabil Fekir not getting picked for the latest squad, it would appear to be a long shot, but not because he hasn't had a worthy season.
“He is not sexy enough and nor is his club,” wrote So Foot’s Ali Farhat. “That’s a pity.”
Elusive Champions League trophy is what drives milestone-clearing Buffon
Juventus is closer to a sixth straight Scudetto after beating Sampdoria 1-0 thanks to Juan Cuadrado’s first-half goal. "L’uovo di Colombia," Colombia’s egg, is how he was charmingly described by Tuttosport. It was the third time Cuadrado has scored this season in a 1-0 win for the Bianconeri (the others were against Lyon and Inter Milan). It wasn't all good news for Juventus, as star forward Paulo Dybala limped out of the game, but coach Max Allegri warned against it being considered too serious.
The historic moment of the match, though, came after 65 minutes, which is when 39-year-old goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon became the Juventus player with the most Serie A minutes to his name, surpassing Giampiero Boniperti’s 56-year-old record of 39,680 minutes. Buffon now has 39,706. It seems incredible that the Italian goalkeeper has never won the Champions League, though he reached the final in 2003, losing on penalties to AC Milan, and 2015, when Juve lost to Barcelona.
The Champions League draw has paired Juventus with Barcelona again, and this time there is every chance of revenge. The Italian side has been built to compete in Europe, and with Gonzalo Higuain, Dani Alves and Dybala, it is arguably stronger than it was two years ago. Buffon believes his Champions League record is what has kept him going for so long.
“For years, I have wondered what pushes me to keep playing. This inner battle gives me stronger motivation. If I had won the Champions League I would be empty: the thought spurs me on,” he told Kicker last week. “A goalkeeper must be a masochist. As a role, it’s like the referee. He has the power to command, but can only concede goals, cannot score, and must endure constant insults.”
Javier Pastore's inconsistent form, health the ultimate 'what if' for PSG
The Ligue 1 title race turned into a two-horse race this weekend, as Nice dropped points in a 1-1 draw with Nantes. Monaco carried on where it left off after beating Manchester City, swatting Caen 3-0 with another two goals by the in-form Kylian Mbappe. And so it fell to PSG to keep in touch with Ligue 1 leader Monaco, in Sunday's big game against Europa League quarterfinalist Lyon.
Lyon started on top and took an early lead through the in-form Alexandre Lacazette. But in a six-minute spell, PSG turned it around, with Adrien Rabiot and Julian Draxler scoring for the host. Javier Pastore was the creator for both goals, and it was his performance that really stood out.
One of the key signings from the Leonardo era, the Argentine sometimes flatters to deceive, and his key moments are all too infrequent. When he plays like this, though, the questions about his physique (he’s often injured), and mentality (often questioned) are forgotten. Pastore missed three months of the season and this was his fifth consecutive league start. Unai Emery played him as the No. 10 in a 4-2-3-1 with the freedom to drift and play between the lines. It worked.
“I like playing in this position and I had a good game. I’m glad we won,” he told Canal Plus after the game. “I feel responsible because I have not played many games this year, I want to help the team.”
PSG is still breathing down Monaco’s neck, only three points back and with the leader facing Borussia Dortmund in a tough Champions League quarterfinal series next month. All of that leads to the thinking that PSG can overhaul Monaco if Pastore keeps up this form. Since his return in February, Pastore has played eight games and PSG has won all of them, which all begs the question: if Pastore had been picked against Barcelona, and had played anything like this, then would PSG have avoided the 6-1 defeat and ouster that still haunts the club?
Casemiro, Mbappe, Modeste enter FIFA break on heels of sensational showings
Top three goals of the week
Dries Mertens (Napoli): This fantastic free kick from the Belgian hit man helped Napoli beat Empoli.
Jean Seri (Nice): A lovely back-heel pass from Younes Belhanda set up the Ivory Coast midfielder for a glorious strike for Champions League chaser Nice.
Mahmoud Dahoud (Borussia Monchengladbach): A superb rising shot from distance from the midfielder, who has been linked with a move to Liverpool, wound up being little more than consolation in a Europa League ouster.
Top three players of the week
Anthony Modeste (FC Cologne): The French forward netted a hat trick, topping 20 goals for the first time in his career this season.
Kylian Mbappe (Monaco): Two more goals for the Monaco teenager, who could be the main star of the summer transfer window. Monaco will do well to keep the 18-year-old, who earned his first France call-up of what should be many.
Casemiro (Real Madrid): Nicknamed Casemito, as mito is legend in Spanish, by his teammates, the Brazilian scored the winner in the tough 2-1 triumph at Athletic Bilbao and was outstanding again in midfield for the league-leading side.