As Messi, Barcelona claim El Clasico, Pep left with trophy-less Manchester City season

2:34 | Planet Futbol
El Clasico: Did Messi's heroics prove he's better than Ronaldo?
Monday April 24th, 2017

On the heels of a dramatic conclusion to the Champions League quarterfinals, there were sensational matches across Europe this weekend, with the greatest of them all decided by one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Barcelona talisman Lionel Messi was the hero of an incredible Clasico against Real Madrid, while in England, Manchester City’s FA Cup semifinal defeat left former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola trophy-less for the first time in his eight years as a coach.

In Germany, Max Kruse is making another bid for the national team with his stellar play at Werder Bremen, while there was more drama at Inter Milan, whose coach Stefano Pioli tried to resign. Meanwhile Monaco continues to hold off opponent PSG in Ligue 1’s title race, with 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe remaining in scorching form.

Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week

LA LIGA: Messi settles a Clasico for the ages

PREMIER LEAGUE: No trophies for Pep in Year 1–and it could get worse

BUNDESLIGA: Staying the course pays off for Werder Bremen

SERIE A: Turmoil again for 'psychologically fragile' Inter Milan, Pioli

LIGUE 1: Mbappe scores again as Monaco fends off PSG

TOP PLAYERS/GOALS OF THE WEEK: It's all about Messi

Lionel Messi makes the impossible possible with Clasico heroics for Barcelona

Monday April 24th, 2017

They said Luis Enrique had lost the dressing room. They wondered if Lionel Messi, goalless in two games against Juventus and his previous six Clasico matches, had lost his magic. They worried that the squad was not strong enough; and they feared ending the season with only the Copa del Rey to show for it, having won five trophies in the previous two campaigns. With one astonishing performance, Barcelona–and in particular Messi–responded. Don't write them off just yet.

Only a win would do for Barcelona, and it looked like Real Madrid, down to 10 men after the 22nd red card of Sergio Ramos’s career, had all but settled La Liga's title discussion when James Rodriguez came off the bench to make it 2-2 with five minutes to go. It was typical Madrid this season; substitutes have scored big goals in important matches, and this seemed to be another one.

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Messi heroic, as Barcelona opens up La Liga race with thrilling win in El Clasico

But Barcelona was not finished. Sergi Roberto, maligned for much of the season for not being Dani Alves, set off on an injury-time counterattack and was supported by Andre Gomes and Jordi Alba, two others who have not enjoyed the seasons they wanted. Alba cut the ball back and there, on the edge of the area, was Messi: he had scored earlier in the night and he had been kicked, many times, and elbowed (by Marcelo) in a clash that left him bleeding from his nose and mouth. With a first-time blast, Messi powered the ball inside Keylor Navas’s near post to seal the most dramatic of victories. It was the final kick of the game.

The outpouring of emotion from Barcelona was understandable: the players swamped on top of each other in a huge pile-up. Coming from behind to beat Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League was one thing; but this, against Real Madrid, in its rival's stadium–this seemed bigger.

There have been other great goals that Messi has scored, of course. Think of the solo dribble from his own half against Getafe (2007), and a similar one against Real Zaragoza (2010); he’s also scored great goals in big games too, in the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid (2011), or the dribble in the Copa Del Rey final against Athletic Bilbao (2015). This belongs up there too, because of the context: the pressure around Luis Enrique, the battering that Messi took–as always without complaint–in the previous 94 minutes; the fact that Madrid has won more points from losing positions than any other team. Messi makes the impossible possible.

His goal may not change the destination of the title, which is still in Madrid’s hands given its game in hand, but it keeps the race alive. At one stage Madrid was five points ahead with a game in hand; with five games left, now it’s all-square and Barcelona has the better head-to-head record, which is La Liga's tiebreaker. Madrid’s game in hand is against Celta Vigo, and it also has the not-so-insignificant distraction of a two-legged Champions League semifinal against Atletico Madrid on the mind.

For now, the Bernabeu belongs to Messi. If that’s not going to expedite an agreement on his new contract, which expires in 15 months, nothing will. 

Trophy-less season is on the verge of a disaster for Pep Guardiola, Manchester City

Monday April 24th, 2017

Remember when Manchester City won its first 10 games of the season, Pep Guardiola was hailed a genius and pundits declared the title race over before it had begun? Seems like a long time ago now, right?

After Arsenal beat Manchester City in the second FA Cup semifinal of the weekend (Chelsea beat Spurs 4-2 in the thrilling first one), Guardiola will end the season without a trophy, the first time in his career as coach. It could get even worse for him; Thursday, City plays a buoyant Manchester United in the Premier League and defeat in that game will push the club out of the top four and the Champions League places.

This is not what the club had in mind when it waited two years to bring Guardiola as coach.

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Last season, Man City won the League Cup and reached the Champions League semifinal. It was seen as a disappointment. The concern for Guardiola this season is that, short of an exhilarating Champions League group stage win over Barcelona back in November, the team has failed every test against a big side since then. It has lost away at Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and Chelsea. When Manuel Pellegrini was in charge, the team was accused of complacency, as if it was a reflection of its coach. Guardiola is a whole lot more intense than his predecessor, but the same accusation stands.

It's a strange record for a team with, arguably, the most talented group of attacking players in the league. City’s defensive woes have been well-documented, from the struggles of Claudio Bravo and the center backs, to the form of the aging fullbacks and captain Vincent Kompany’s injury record. Guardiola wanted more defensive reinforcements last summer and will certainly get his wish this time around, with Aymeric Laporte (Athletic Bilbao) and Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus) on the wish list. Injuries have not helped: Ilkay Gundogan was ruled out just as he was finding his form, while Gabriel Jesus has missed the last eight games after an electric introduction to the league–not that Sergio Aguero is a bad back-up.

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None of this makes City unique, and Guardiola has often spoken about learning the most about yourself when you lose. He has vowed to be better next season–“This season was a lesson for me. It's normal when you have seven, eight or nine years as a manager to have a season where you don't have as much success as before. It can happen,” he said–but first he needs to make sure the team can stay in the top four.

Otherwise a disappointing season will turn into an outright disaster. 

Staying the course with Alex Nouri pays off for Werder Bremen

Monday April 24th, 2017

Sometimes doing nothing is an active choice, too.

In the case of sporting directors often under pressure to fire or change a coach, the decision to sit on hands is not always a passive one. In the case of Frank Baumann at Werder Bremen, he backed Alex Nouri, even when his team was in the bottom three with 16 points after 20 games. Nouri had been appointed, promoted from the Under-23s, when Baumann sacked Vitor Skripnik after Bremen lost its first four games of the season. Even though the team was still in trouble as recently as February, Baumann could sense an improvement. And so it has proved: Bremen has won eight and drawn two of its last 10 games. The weekend’s 4-2 win over Ingolstadt pushed it up to seventh place and into Europa League contention.

Nouri, who at 37 is the second-youngest coach in the league after Hoffenheim's Julian Nagelsmann, gave his first big TV interview to ZDF Sunday night and said it would always take some time to turn things around.

“We found a team where there was a very large squad, so that there was a great deal of dissatisfaction," he said in a dig at Skripnik (and Baumann).

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Nouri has changed the system to a 3-5-2 and been helped by inspiring performances at both ends of the pitch: In goal, Felix Wiedwald is starting to attract attention from big clubs across Europe, while Max Kruse, whose career looked to be on the decline after a series of off-pitch scandals (including leaving 75,000 euros in the back of a taxi), is on a hot streak after scoring four against Ingolstadt. Kruse, back where he began his career, has scored seven in his last five games.

“I need to be in an environment where I feel comfortable and I am working hard in training,” he said after the game.

Germany coach Joachim Low said Kruse is a candidate for his Confederations Cup squad this summer. A recall would be a reward for what is turning out to be an excellent campaign for the left-footed 29-year-old, despite missing three months in the fall with a knee injury. As for Nouri, Baumann expects to confirm his contract extension, for two or three years, in the next few days.

“We want to continue with him and he wants to stay,” Baumann said.

'Psychologically fragile' Inter Milan faces decision with Stefano Pioli

Monday April 24th, 2017

It was only last month when Inter Milan beat Atalanta 7-1 and a place in Europe–even a challenge for the top three and a spot in the Champions League–looked possible. Since then, the team has drawn two and lost three, but none in such circumstances as Sunday’s 5-4 loss at Fiorentina. Inter was 2-1 up after an hour but somehow slipped to 5-2 down before pulling back two late goals.

“Unfortunately what we saw in the second half cannot be my team,” Pioli told Mediaset after the game. “We had the right mentality and approach for 45 minutes and then had an inexplicable blackout. It was too bad to be true. I am responsible for this performance, as are my players. We seem psychologically fragile and struggle to react when we run into problems, and that’s a huge issue, because there are always going to be problems that we have to overcome. When we have a problem, we become a small team.”

According to reports in Italy Monday, Pioli offered his resignation after the game, but was rejected, though Inter released a statement disputing the notion, lambasting the performance vs. Fiorentina and backing Pioli. 

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Next week Inter faces Napoli, and a similar result might lead to the same fallout: youth team coach Stefano Vecchi is on standby to take over. But what would this solve? Pioli inherited a squad that was not even put together by his predecessor, Frank de Boer, whose early-season treatment by the club looks increasingly tough by the day. And if Vecchi takes over, as he did briefly when De Boer was fired, for whom is he saving the seat? Inter has been linked with offering the coach’s job, and a huge salary, to Diego Simeone and Antonio Conte, but why on earth would they come to a club with no European football and proven capricious owners who give coaches little time?

What would make sense would be to allow Pioli a summer to bring in his own players and improve a squad that is imbalanced in certain positions. Instead, you can probably expect a new man in the dugout and some big-name vanity signings that do little to solve the bigger problems at the club. One other name linked to the post was Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim, although once again, with the talent he currently has in his squad, you’d have to question why he would see that move as a step up.

Tireless Monaco keeps Ligue 1 pace while fending off PSG's challenge

Monday April 24th, 2017

It was a fantastic week for French football, as Sunday opponents Monaco and Lyon both made it to the semifinal of their respective European competitions. Ligue 1 has still only ever had one winner of the Champions League–Marseille in 1993–and there is a groundswell of support for this young and exciting Monaco side to go all the way. Not that the players are getting carried away.

Bernardo Silva and Benjamin Mendy both offered that their priority is still to win Ligue 1, saying as much after getting past Borussia Dortmund in the quarterfinal.

Added manager Leonardo Jardim: “It’s never easy to play at this level in Europe and then play the championship. To choose? It’s normal to prefer to win the Champions League, but it's more difficult than winning the league.”

Jardim is concerned that his players will be tired, as no team in Europe has played more than Monaco this season. Its 2-1 win over Lyon Sunday was game No. 55 for this side. Jardim has been rotating his squad but also been running lighter training sessions, and shortening his team talks. It has been working.

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Monaco–perhaps save for the wondrous 18-year-old Kylian Mbappe–is not necessarily the prolific goal machine it was back in December, when it won games 5-0 (Bastia), 4-0 (Bordeaux) and 7-0 (Rennes). Its last three league games have been won 1-0 (Angers), 2-1 (Dijon) and 2-1 (Lyon). But that doesn't matter: it is still winning, and that is all it needs to do to see off the challenge of PSG, whose 2-0 win over Montpellier left it level on points but with Monaco having a game in hand.

The one concern is that Monaco has tended to concede goals in recent games at the same time: in the first 15 minutes after halftime. It did so against Manchester City and Borussia Dortmund in Europe, PSG in the League Cup final, and again Sunday at Lyon. But it saw off the challenge from its host, perhaps tired from a penalty shootout win in Turkey in the Europa League quarterfinals on Thursday.

It’s another big week for the club, as it goes to the Parc des Princes in the French Cup semifinal against PSG. But if one competition has to give away, it may be this one, but after falling in the French League Cup final to PSG, it will surely want to make a statement of intent for the rest of the season.

Messi, Kruse, Bonucci headline weekend's best performances

Monday April 24th, 2017

Top three goals of the week

Lionel Messi (Barcelona): The Argentine struck a last-minute winner at Real Madrid to put the title race firmly back in the balance and cap an amazing edition of El Clasico.

Leonardo Bonucci (Juventus): The Juventus center back delivered an impressive run and dribble in a 4-0 romp over Genoa.

Dele Alli (Tottenham): This involved incredible vision from Christian Eriksen to set up two-time PFA Young Player of the Year Alli for Spurs in its FA Cup semifinal loss to Chelsea.

Top three players of the week

Lionel Messi (Barcelona): Battered and bruised, he recovered to have the last laugh in a dramatic Clasico triumph.

Max Kruse (Werder Bremen): Four goals for the German striker has him dreaming of a return to the national team.

Eden Hazard (Chelsea): The Belgian only played for half an hour but was an effective impact sub in scoring one and setting up another to help Chelsea beat Spurs at Wembley and advance to the FA Cup final. 

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