- Jose Mourinho threw a wrench into the Premier League race, Borussia Dortmund continues to play with emotions riding high and AC Milan enters a new era with a riveting derby draw.
After a dramatic, and traumatic, week of Champions League action, league games were back on the agenda over the weekend, and there were plenty of talking points to take.
There was a twist in the Premier League title race when Manchester United beat league-leading Chelsea at Old Trafford, opening the door even more for Tottenham to get closer.
In Spain's La Liga, Athletic Bilbao could be after a new coach, while in the German Bundesliga, Borussia Dortmund is still coming to terms with the horror of last week’s terrifying bus attack.
There was a Chinese feel to the Milan derby (which had a dramatic ending), while in France, Lyon encountered even more fan trouble, the latest incident at Bastia, which caused a match to be abandoned.
Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week:
Jose Mourinho was always expected to have a big say in the Premier League title race, but perhaps not like this. Manchester United beat Chelsea 2-0 Sunday thanks to a tactical masterclass from the coach. This was United’s best performance of the season, and you were left wondering why it had taken until game 32 for such a coherent and impressive performance from the host.
Chelsea has not been at its best this month–it lost at home to Crystal Palace a few weeks ago–and its coach Antonio Conte took full responsibility for the defeat, as he has done in the past. He also claimed the title race was now 50-50 between Chelsea, who is four points clear, and Spurs, its opponent in next week’s FA Cup semifinal. Chelsea has an easier run-in, and should still prevail–but this result will give the chasing pack hope.
Mourinho countered his former team in perfect style: he dropped Zlatan Ibrahimovic to the bench and picked the fast teenager Marcus Rashford in attack, to get behind the visitor’s defense. That’s just what happened after seven minutes, as Rashford leapt onto Ander Herrera’s throughball and scored beyond stand-in goalkeeper Asmir Begovic. Would Thibaut Courtois, ruled out late, have done better? It was a decisive moment and left Chelsea on the back foot.
It was a credit to United’s defense that we saw a return to the old-style Diego Costa, pushing players over once the ball had gone out of play, holding his face in the hope of getting another player in trouble and generally causing trouble for the wrong reasons. Costa has not scored for six games, and his loss of form comes at the worst possible time for the Blues. Eden Hazard was quiet too, as Herrera’s man-marking job reduced his influence.
Mourinho found the flaws in Chelsea’s hitherto hard-to-break-down system. It will be interesting to see if other coaches–maybe not so much Mauricio Pochettino, whose Spurs side beat Chelsea 2-0 in January–use a similar tactic in future games.
As for United, it’s now an incredible 22 league games unbeaten and there is a sense that it could yet pip Manchester City or Liverpool to a spot in the top four. It’s still the favorite to win the Europa League and has an away-goal edge over Anderlecht after the first leg of their quarterfinal.
The performance of Rashford has also pointed to an intriguing decision for Mourinho. The balance of the team was so much better amid the absence of Ibrahimovic, who has at times carried the squad this season.
So where does this performance leave the Swede, for the rest of the season and the future? His winning experience can and has helped the squad, but he is not the type who will want to be a bit-part squad player. This is a decision that cannot be made on the back of one performance, but it certainly showed United that there can be life after Zlatan.
There was an additional police presence around Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park Saturday but the match against Eintracht Frankfurt–the second to be played in the stadium in the five days following the bomb attack on the players’ bus last Tuesday–went off with several positives for the host. If the big question was how the team would respond given a few extra days to process the trauma it went through, it did not take long to find the answer.
Dortmund was ahead after three minutes, with Marco Reus, back in the side after six weeks out, scoring from Christian Pulisic’s cross. Reus only played the first half but he is likely to start Wednesday’s return leg against Monaco. A stunning goal from center back Sokratis Papastathopoulos and a late effort from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang secured a 3-1 win.
“Thomas Tuchel’s side were not restrained or exhausted, which would have been completely understandable, but brave and intense,” wrote local paper Ruhr Nachrichten.
After the final whistle, the players held up a Marc Bartra jersey in front of the fans and they all chanted the name of the Spanish defender, who was released from hospital earlier that day after suffering an arm injury from the bus attack.
Bartra summed up his feelings in an emotional Instagram post after the attack.
“I think the shock is decreasing more and more and, at the same time, it adds to the desire to live, to fight, to work, to laugh, to cry, to feel, to love, to believe, to play, to train, to continue to enjoy my people, loved ones, companions, my passion, to defend, to smell the grass as I do before the game starts and motivate me,” he wrote. “The only thing I ask is for everyone to live in peace and to leave behind the wars. These days when I look at my wrist, swollen and badly wounded, you know what I feel? Pride. I look at it proudly, thinking all the damage they wanted to do to us on Tuesday stayed in this.”
As time goes by, the feeling that this incident could have been so much worse is filtering through. That nails were found in some of bus headrests makes it astonishing that the injuries were not worse. Tuchel may not be as outwardly emotional as his predecessor, Jurgen Klopp, but he has proved himself an empathetic leader who has spoken honestly about wanting what’s best for his players–even if his messages have shown a disconnect with the BVB board, who agreed to UEFA’s speedy rescheduling of the game. And if it could be possible, these events have brought the fans and players even closer together.
There was a Chinese feel to this Milan derby, which for once lived up to the hype even if the status of the two clubs has fallen in recent years. AC Milan’s sale to Chinese group Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux was finally confirmed this week and the Derby della Madonnina, as it is known, kicked off lunchtime Saturday to better suit TV audiences in Asia.
If this is the future of Milanese football, maybe the fans will take it: Inter raced out to a two-goal lead through Antonio Candreva and Mauro Icardi, but Milan responded. Alessio Romagnoli pulled one back before Cristian Zapata, with the last kick of the game, bundled the ball past Inter goalkeeper Samir Handanovic. The referee used goal-line technology to rule the ball had indeed crossed the line, thus killing dead weeks of speculation around the goal. This technology works.
Milan’s previous owner, Silvio Berlusconi was in charge for 31 years and won 29 titles in that time, including eight league championships and five European Cups/Champions Leagues. He invested over £700 million in players during his time in charge. In a statement published on the club website, he said: “I leave with pain and emotion, but with the knowledge that the modern game, to compete at the highest European and world levels, needs investment and resources that a single family is no longer able to support.”
Rossoneri Sport paid around £630 million for the club, the biggest Chinese investment in any European side so far, much more than the £220 million that retail company Jiangsu Suning Commerce Group paid for Internazionale last summer.
However, the Inter fans have far fewer questions of their new owners. Suning already owns a team in China, Jiangsu Suning, which finished as runner-up in last season’s Chinese Super League, and the company’s revenues total over £15 billion. Li Yonghong, the frontman of Rossoneri Sport, needed eight months to get his deal over the line and when he did, he took a large loan (with a huge interest fee) from an American hedge fund.
Milan fans can be optimistic about the young talents that have broken through in recent seasons, among them goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma (18), defender Romagnoli (22) and midfielder Manuel Locatelli (19). But Li’s new plan depends on raising revenues by getting back into the Champions League and building a new stadium, something that was even beyond Berlusconi, a former Italian prime minister.
Rossoneri Sport is promising more investment, but Inter looks better set for the long term.
Not every club struggles when there is uncertainty around the coach.
At Athletic Bilbao, coach Ernesto Valverde notched a club-record 300 games in charge this weekend, with his side beating Las Palmas 5-1 Friday. The win moved Athletic into sixth place and on track for a spot in the Europa League, all while Valverde remains one of the prime candidates to replace Luis Enrique at Barcelona.
This was the week when Athletic announced the identity of its third ‘One-Club Man’ award, with Sepp Maier (Bayern Munich 1962-80) following Matt Le Tissier and Paolo Maldini. Athletic is a club that values loyalty and this prize, unique in world football, acts as a smart reminder to its players that remaining at one club can bring its own rewards.
Athletic only recruits Basque players and has a world-class talent development system. Every summer, the club is confronted with the same dilemma: to convince its star players to show the loyalty of Maier and Maldini when the big clubs come knocking, which they usually do. Aymeric Laporte and Inaki Williams could both fetch in the region of €40 million this summer.
When players have left in the past, they have done so with the club’s blessing: but the examples of Fernando Llorente and even Javi Martinez do not prove the grass is always greener. That might also be a consideration for Valverde and his potential move to Barcelona, where he was once a player, and Arsenal, who were linked with the Spaniard as a potential Arsene Wenger replacement last week.
The favorite to replace Valverde is, appropriately enough, another homegrown talent. Former player Jose Ziganda has been in charge of the second team, Bilbao Athletic, since 2011. Over 10 of Valverde’s first-teamers–including Laporte, Lekue, Kepa, Yeray, Williams, Sabin Merino, Eraso, Saborit, Villalibre, Remiro, Vesga and Unai López–have come through Ziganda’s team. He is said to have the support of president Josu Urrutia, but not of sporting director Jose Mari Amorrortu.
Recent names linked with the post include Quique Setien (of Las Palmas, so perhaps not the best time for an interview after last weekend) and Celta Vigo’s Eduardo Berizzo. But in the week when Athletic rewarded Maier for his loyalty, it would be a brave call to overlook Ziganda when decision time comes.
What a week for Lyon, whose Europa League quarterfinal first leg against Besiktas last Thursday was delayed by almost an hour after fan trouble spilled onto the pitch. Then, Sunday, its league match at Bastia was abandoned after astonishing scenes of fans pouring onto the pitch and attacking players.
It started in the pre-match warm-up, as fans attacked the visiting players in scenes that were captured by BeIN Sport’s TV cameras. Three players were struck and Lyon went to its dressing room and refused to play the match. Club president Jean-Michel Aulas convinced his team to go and play, even though, as he said, “They were very reluctant… what had happened upset them.”
Things got worse after a tame first half which ended goalless. As the players were walking off at halftime, another altercation took place. Three Lyon players–Anthony Lopes, Mathieu Gorgelin and Jean-Philippe Mateta–were struck in the fracas. Aulas told L’Equipe that Bastia’s head of security had started the fight.
“We saw stewards hitting our players! It was incredible. We returned to the locker room and there was no question of continuing to play.”
The match was called off and the French league’s disciplinary committee will look at the incidents later this week. Bastia is already at the bottom of the table but only three points off the drop. A points penalty could seal its relegation.
The comments of previous Bastia coach François Ciccolini, in charge for last November’s stormy 2-1 defeat at Lyon, were recycled after the incidents. “When they have to come to Bastia, it won't be like having the flu or a bad tummy. This will be settled like usual, like men, like Corsicans, right here.”
At best this is irresponsible; at worst, incitement. And this is not new: in February, Bastia had to close part of the stadium for three matches after supporters racially abused Mario Balotelli.
“Furiani is the last bastion of a football that no longer exists,” wrote So Foot’s Mathias Edwards, trying to defend the indefensible. “They will be missed if they are not in Ligue 1 next season, because a trip to Bastia incites fear for visiting teams. It’s a touch of exoticism in a league that has little.”
If this is what passes for ‘exotisme’ these days, then I’d be happy to give it a swerve. The likelihood is that Bastia will be handed a 3-0 defeat and have its stadium closed for a few games. These scenes are simply not acceptable in football or society today.
Top three goals of the week
Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke): The Swiss midfielder was brilliant for Stoke, and his late goal, a dipping blast from long range, capped a fine win over Hull City.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Dortmund): The center back looked more like a playmaker as he jinked past his marker and arrowed a shot into the top corner.
Isco (Real Madrid): A smart and slick run and ensuing finish into the top corner helped Real Madrid come from behind to beat Sporting Gijon.
Top three players of the week
Isco (Real Madrid): The reserve player stepped up with two goals in an important win for the Spanish league leader, which was missing its top stars.
Ander Herrera (Manchester United): Herrera kept Eden Hazard quiet in a sublime marking job and even popped up to score United’s second goal.
Florian Thauvin (Marseille): The winger was outstanding as Marseille beat Saint-Etienne 4-0 in Ligue 1’s game of the week.