• Crystal Palace threw an unexpected wrench into the title and relegation races, while Luis Suarez made up for the absence of Lionel Messi and PSG sent a message over the weekend around Europe.
By Ben Lyttleton
April 03, 2017

It was a dramatic weekend across Europe as the Premier League leader Chelsea was shocked at home by Crystal Palace. In Spain, Luis Suarez starred for Barcelona in the absence of Lionel Messi, while a handball row dominated the Ruhr derby between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund.

Juventus managed to leave Napoli with a draw in a game that was all about Gonzalo Higuain, while Paris Saint-Germain won its first piece of silverware of the season in France and in so doing might have put some doubt in Monaco minds for the Ligue 1 run-in.

Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this week:

PREMIER LEAGUE: Palace continues climb to safety with Chelsea shock

LA LIGA: Suarez steps up in Messi's absence

BUNDESLIGA: Mascot winds up carding ref after Ruhr derby controversy

SERIE A: Higuain silent in long-awaited return to Napoli

​LIGUE 1: PSG makes statement in League Cup trophy triumph

TOP GOALS/PLAYERS: Suarez, Di Maria, Bayern-bound Sule deliver the goods

Crystal Palace is not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot, but the club's 2-1 win over Premier League leader Chelsea–the only team apart from Liverpool to leave Stamford Bridge with a win this season–shows there is some life in the south London club yet. This was Palace’s fourth win in succession and lifts it to 16th place and four points clear of the drop zone. Early goals from Wilfried Zaha and Christian Benteke set Palace on its way to taking a stunning three points.

“That shocked you all, didn’t it?” said Allardyce as he sat down for his post-match press conference.

There had been concerns at Palace that the coach had lacked his usual drive and energy in his latest relegation fight. Some thought that the saga around his brief England reign had affected him more than he was letting on. In the last month, though, glimpses of the old Allardyce have returned; his side has grounded out results, beating Middlesbrough (1-0), West Brom (2-0) and Watford (1-0).

“It’s an absolutely outstanding victory for us, particularly in the position we’re in. Nobody expected it,” he said.

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So how has it happened? The players Allardyce signed in January have made a difference: Mamadou Sakho, a loan singing from Liverpool, has strengthened the defense and added leadership to the back line; Luka Milivojevic has been an upgrade on Mile Jedinak in midfield; and Patrick van Aanholt and Jeffrey Schlupp have added energy in wide positions. Allardyce also said, in what might have been a dig at his predecessor, Alan Pardew, that he has empowered the coaches around him to improve the players. 

Then there is Zaha, who has been outstanding this season. He scored a brilliant solo goal for Ivory Coast last week, which led to claims from former England players that he had lacked ‘the bottle’ to choose to declare for England (he had made two friendly appearances); a wrong and insular accusation considering the added complications that come from representing the 2015 African champion. Palace wants to offer him a new contract this summer, but interest from Chelsea and Spurs might tempt him away.

With another round of league action on Wednesday, it would be typical Palace to lose its midweek match to Southampton; it’s likely to be without Scott Dann (knee injury) and James Tomkins (calf). You’d think four wins in a row would be enough to see Palace to safety, but it has the toughest run-in of all the teams around it.

Of its last eight games, five are against top-six sides, with trips to Liverpool and both Manchester clubs on either side of visits from Arsenal and Tottenham. An away win at Chelsea will give Palace the belief that the great escape is on. Allardyce will need to continue working his magic in the next six weeks to make it a reality. 

It’s as you were at the top of La Liga as both Madrid sides won, as did Barcelona, coping just fine without Lionel Messi in a 4-1 win over Granada. The hero of the game was Luis Suarez, who scored the first and then had a hand in the other three goals. Barcelona coach Luis Enrique was upset to see Rafinha taken off early on with what looked like a knee ligament injury–he was out for six months in 2015 with similar. Paco Alcacer, who replaced Rafinha from the bench, also scored, as did Neymar–his 100th goal since joining the club.

“It's the squad that wins you titles," Luis Enrique said after the game. “It’s up to us to balance the injuries and suspensions against our fringe players.”

One of his substitutes was Andres Iniesta, who came on for the last 25 minutes. Now the club captain, Iniesta caused some consternation last week when he was asked about his contract, which expires in 15 months.

“I’m not saying I am not going to renew my contract,” Iniesta said. “I always said I would be delighted to finish my career at Barça, but I will never be at this club just to be here. Based on today, I believe I can keep performing.”

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Iniesta has only completed two league matches this calendar year–he was subbed off in both of Barcelona’s Champions League games against PSG, too–and how to approach his contract talks could be a thorny issue given that the identity of Barcelona’s coach next season is still an unknown. Not to mention the fact that Messi’s contract expires at the same time, and Barcelona will need funds for that. The club has already recently renewed deals for Suarez and Neymar, but that hasn’t stopped reports that the Brazilian, according to The Sunday Times, is considering offers from Manchester United and Chelsea.

Barcelona is only two points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, but that lead might be extended if it fails to beat Sevilla in Wednesday's big game. It could still win another treble and yet the club seems at a transitional point; on the verge of parting company with a successful, if not entirely loved, coach; with the future of key architects of recent successes still up in the air; and still no clear pick, at least publicly, for the coach next season. It would make trophy success this season all the more impressive. For Luis Enrique and the club, no one can be certain how long the M-S-N trio, ably assisted by Iniesta, will all still be together. 

As a referee, Felix Zwayer prefers games when he is not the main talking point. It worked in his favor last week, when the German official handled the friendly between France and Spain in which VAR–video assistant referees–were used for the first time. Spain won the game 2-0, but it could have been 1-1. VAR ruled out an Antoine Griezmann goal for France for offside and allowed Gerard Deulofeu’s goal, which an assistant referee had initially ruled out.

Sadly, Zwayer did not have the benefit of VAR Saturday when he took charge of the Bundesliga derby game between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund. The score was 1-1 and there was 91 minutes on the clock when Dortmund defender Marc Bartra’s attempted clearance flew up onto his own hand. Zwayer said no penalty, but Schalke’s players were furious. The club mascot, Erwin the lion, even ran onto the pitch at full time and showed Zwayer his own red card in disgust (he is likely to face disciplinary action).

This is not the first time the issue of a controversial handball scenario has come up in the Bundesliga this season. In February, Borussia Monchengladbach’s Lars Stindl scored a goal against Ingolstadt after the ball went from his chest to his hand before he struck it home. Again, no handball was given. “Stindl's goal was probably correct as well as incorrect,” wrote Christof Kneer in Suddeutsche Zeitung. “The referee’s decision to give the goal was just as wrong as it was right.”

The FIFA rules state that handball be awarded for the “deliberate act of making contact with the ball or hand.” The word deliberate can be interpreted many ways, all of which leave the referee needing to calculate intent. Other parameters to be considered include distance between ball and hand, and whether there is an unnatural hand movement toward the ball.

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Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel was honest enough to admit the Bartra decision could have gone against his team.

“We needed a bit of luck at the end, that the referee didn't blow for the handball,” he said.

His team, even without Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle, created more chances and should have had the result in hand before the incident took place.

The fact is, even the emergence of VAR will not be able to detect intent of players. In that respect, handball decisions will surely have to remain the realm of the referee; for the romantics, Rule 12 might be able to escape the onset of modern technology.

Perhaps it was the early goal that set the tone for the game. Sami Khedira opened the scoring for Juventus in its fiercely anticipated encounter at Napoli, but then the Old Lady seemed content to sit back and soak up the pressure as the host dominated possession and looked for a way through. It came, eventually, courtesy of a fantastic move culminating in Marek Hamsik sweeping home the ball after a speedy exchange of passes through the middle.

The main event, though, was the return of Gonzalo Higuain, the former Napoli hero who broke hearts by leaving for Juventus last summer. Fans, not to mention owner Aurelio de Laurentiis, were furious at what they saw as his betrayal; some burned Higuain shirts in disgust, while this season you can buy toilet paper with Higuain’s face on it. His name was jeered when the teams were announcedm but there was very little opportunity for the Argentine to have much say in the game. He did not touch the ball in the opposition's box all match. This came partly down to Juventus being happy to sit deep once Khedira had broken the deadlock.

“Higuain had a good performance, especially in the first half, I’m happy with what he did,” Juventus coach Max Allegri said after the game. “At the start we had played well, moving it from side to side, but once we took the lead, we allowed Napoli to take control and in my view we weren’t sharp enough in possession. I had expected it to be difficult. You win titles with games like these, by picking up difficult points on your travels.”

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The score line was probably about right and maybe one you’d expect for the highest scorers in the league against the best defense. But it means that Juventus’s title hopes stay on ice a little longer, given that second-placed Roma, a 3-1 winner over Sassuolo and six points back, hosts the leader on Matchday 36. Before then it’s the small matter of Barcelona in the Champions League; and in midweek, another game at Napoli, in the Coppa Italia semifinal. This time, you can expect that Higuain will be hoping to be more involved. 

PSG won its first trophy of the season, but the 4-1 French League Cup final win over Monaco meant much more than that. The nature of the triumph, the score, the quality of the goals and the general performance all pointed to a positive future for this team–and gave further evidence that the Champions League collapse to Barcelona to last month might have been a blip rather than a sign of permanent decline.

This was a more important League Cup final than the last three, which PSG had also won. For starters, it was against Monaco, the Ligue 1 leader and, for much of the season, the best team in France. A Monaco victory would have confirmed its status and sent PSG back into crisis mode. The team was “on the edge of the abyss,” according to So Foot’s Nicolas Jucha. Instead, PSG can look forward to the future with some hope for renewal. It’s not too late to overtake Monaco at the top of the table.

Angel di Maria was outstanding in the No. 10 role–just weeks after Javier Pastore had laid claim to it himself–and the Argentine scored one goal and played a key part in two more in his man-of-the-match performance. Edinson Cavani scored two superb goals, one of them an exquisite volley from Marco Verratti’s outside-of-the-boot pass to take his total to 40 goals in as many games this season.

The question to come out of the game is what effect this will have on a young Monaco side still looking for its first trophy since 2003. Will it have a psychological impact on the title race, turning the momentum the way of the more experienced winners of PSG? Monaco is still three points clear but its biggest test remains in the next few months.

That first trophy in 14 years is not yet in its grasp. 

Top three goals of the week

Lasse Schone (Ajax): The free kick specialist scored from another stunning dead-ball effort with less than one minute on the clock in the win over Feyenoord.

Niklas Sule (Hoffenheim): The highly rated center back, off to Bayern Munich in the summer, fired in from long range in his side’s win at Hertha Berlin.

Marek Hamsik (Napoli): A sweeping finish to a glorious one-touch move clinched the equalizer for Napoli against Juventus.

Top three players of the week

Angel di Maria (PSG): An outstanding performance from the Argentine who inspired PSG to its first trophy of the season in the 4-1 League Cup final win over Monaco.

Mario Gomez (Wolfsburg): The forward continue his purple patch of form with a seven-minute hat trick. It was not enough to win a crazy game at Bayer Leverkusen–which finished 3-3–but Andries Jonker’s men have moved away from the drop zone.

Luis Suarez (Barcelona): The Uruguayan star turned in outstanding forward play, as he scored twice and was involved in the other three goals in the 4-1 win at Granada. 

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