- Tottenham may have earned a big win at Arsenal, but Chelsea's path is clear to the Premier League title.
- Real Madrid keeps holding off Barcelona–just–with Marcelo accounting for the club's latest heroics.
- Bayern Munich won another Bundesliga title, but why does the season feel like it fell short of the mark?
With the Champions League semifinals set to kick off this week, there were major developments around Europe over the weekend on various title fronts.
Chelsea took a huge step towards clinching the Premier League title in Antonio Conte’s first season as coach after a clinical win at Everton, while in Spain, Real Madrid needed a late winner from Marcelo to keep the title race in its own hands.
Bayern Munich was confirmed as the Bundesliga champion for a record fifth straight season, but it has some significant questions to answer going into the summer transfer market.
In Serie A, Lazio continued its renaissance under Simone Inzaghi and beat Roma in the Derby della Capitale, while Mario Balotelli-led Nice did Monaco a huge favor by beating Paris Saint-Germain 3-1 in a stormy and title-influencing encounter in France.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this weekend:
Chelsea coach Antonio Conte was playing the oldest trick in the book when he said the title race was 50-50 between his side and Spurs a few weeks ago. Chelsea had just lost at Manchester United but still had a four-point lead over its closest challenger. Since then, the Blues have negotiated their two toughest games of the season run-in, beating Southampton 4-2 Wednesday and then, Sunday, winning 3-0 at Everton.
Spurs ensured the gap remained four points with an impressively comfortable 2-0 win over north London rival Arsenal–ensuring a higher finish than the Gunners for the first time in 22 years–but if this was a weekend that would swing the title race, it did so toward the favorite. Chelsea’s four remaining games of the season–against Middlesbrough, West Brom, Watford and Sunderland–all look winnable.
Chelsea had to be patient against an Everton team with a clear tactic. Idrissa Gueye did a man-marking job on his former Lille teammate Eden Hazard and that seemed to be working. But this Chelsea side has deep resilience, the quality all champions need, and had to be patient before taking the lead after an hour through a fantastic shot on the turn from Spanish winger Pedro. Gary Cahill and Willian, late on, added to the goals to secure the win.
“We did a good job until Pedro scored, but Chelsea have the ability to win games even when they are not playing at their highest level,” said Everton coach Ronald Koeman. “They have that quality, and once they are ahead they know how to kill the game.”
Conte has made some big selection decisions in recent weeks and they have all come off. He dropped Hazard and Diego Costa in last week’s FA Cup semifinal win over Spurs, bringing them on after an hour with the score 2-2. Hazard scored one and set up another to make it 4-2. Both started the Southampton game, with Hazard scoring one and Costa two. This time the two were less effective, but Conte has helped Pedro look more like the player he was at Barcelona, and that has taken Chelsea to within a whisker of another Premier League trophy.
For five minutes, the Bernabeu faithful thought that the title race might be lost after all.
Real Madrid had been 1-0 up before Valencia goalkeeper Diego Alves stopped a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty–for the third time in their careers!–one which would have given the host a much-needed cushion. Instead, Dani Parejo equalized with eight minutes to go, and for a while, Real Madrid would have no further margin for error.
Then, up popped Marcelo to score a winner, and the celebrations of the whole team with him on the final whistle showed how important it was. Real Madrid has seven games with goals in the last 10 minutes this season, and with Barcelona beating Espanyol 3-0 in Saturday’s later game, it remains level on points at the top with that game in hand against Celta Vigo to come.
Marcelo has emerged as a key character in the season’s run-in. The Brazilian was named captain for the midweek 6-2 win at Deportivo de La Coruña, and earlier this month played game No. 400 for the team. No foreign player has won more than his 212 games for Real Madrid. Marcelo’s performance in the Champions League quarterfinal second leg win over Bayern Munich was outstanding, and he is one of the few players in Zinedine Zidane’s much-rotated squad that doesn’t have a direct replacement.
Zidane has earned praise for how he has kept the whole squad happy and brought out excellent performances from the likes of Isco, James Rodriguez, Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez as squad players.
“In the end we will have this until the end, suffering until the end. This means we can still improve, nothing more," said Zidane. “But this idea of A (team) or B (team), I do not look at that. I just look at all the players.”
With Gareth Bale injured again and set to miss this week’s Champions League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid, Zidane has enough strength in depth to no longer worry about missing the Welshman.
As Alfredo Relano, writing in AS, put it: “Zidane copes with it all, like a juggler with 25 oranges up in the air, and if one drops, like it did the other day with Bale, well he picks it up, smiling, as if nothing had happened.”
The European derby–for a fourth straight season–is another test for Madrid, this team that has learned the habit of picking up results without always playing well. Zidane would take that again on Tuesday.
Bayern Munich wrapped up the Bundesliga title with three matches to spare after beating Wolfsburg 6-0, leaving little in doubt.
“It was men against boys,” conceded Wolfsburg’s ex-Bayern forward Mario Gomez.
It was Bayern’s fifth title in a row, a domestic record. Its soon-to-retire captain Philipp Lahm led the celebratory songs with the away fans; in his 14-year career, the 33-year-old has won eight league titles, six German Cups and a Champions League final (his eight titles is a joint-record along with Bastian Schweinsteiger, Oliver Kahn and Mehmet Scholl).
And yet for all the celebrations after the final whistle–the red T-shirts with a white hand representing the five titles, and the social media hashtag #Mia5anMia–you could not escape the thought that Carlo Ancelotti’s first season in charge has fallen below expectations. In the last two weeks, Bayern was knocked out of the Champions League by Real Madrid in the quarterfinals and lost the German Cup semifinal to Borussia Dortmund.
There was no great shame to the Madrid loss, although it could have secured a different fate. Bayern missed a penalty when 1-0 up in the first leg, and was later reduced to 10 men in the 2-1 loss; it recovered to take the European champion to extra time in the second leg, again with 10 men, before conceding three quick-fire goals. There were grumbles that two of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals were offside while Arturo Vidal’s red card was harsh.
The Dortmund defeat was another matter: Bayern was 2-1 ahead with 20 minutes left and failed to hold on at home, going down 3-2.
“There are big regrets about the last 15-20 days,” said Ancelotti. “I think we could do better. We could have been luckier. In some situations, it was our fault and we can learn from this to be better next season.”
The Italian, the first coach to win league titles in Germany, Spain, Italy and France, won backing from chief executive Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, but how Bayern approaches the summer transfer market will be interesting.
With Lahm and Xabi Alonso retiring, you would expect Renato Sanches and Joshua Kimmich to have more opportunities in the first team. With Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben in their mid-30s, the same opportunities could arise for Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa. But does Ancelotti trust these younger players to step up, and can they improve with him in charge? Against the likes of Wolfsburg, the answer is yes: Kimmich and Coman played well in the absence of Alonso and Ribery. But against Madrid, even Dortmund, it’s another matter entirely.
It could be a busy summer in Munich.
Paris Saint-Germain has only lost two games in 2017. The first was in the Champions League to Barcelona, when it was dramatically beaten 6-1 last month in a second-leg collapse for the ages. The second came Sunday at third-placed Nice, a 3-1 defeat that as good as hands the French title to Monaco, who is three points clear at the top with a game in hand. It was a perfect boost to the leader in the week of its Champions League semifinal first leg against Juventus.
The pre-match talk was of Edinson Cavani, who signed a new contract last week (through 2020) and is chasing down Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s total of 50 goals in all competitions last season (he has 45 so far). But the Uruguayan did little to impact this game, short of an off-the-ball clash with Nice skipper Paul Baysse. Instead, it was another striker, Mario Balotelli, who lit up Nice's Allianz Riviera with a scorching opening goal.
Ricardo Pereira doubled the lead with a sublime curler and though Marquinhos pulled one back, Anastasios Donis sealed the win on either side of two PSG red cards, as Thiago Motta and Angel di Maria were dismissed. When PSG loses, it loses badly.
After straight title wins for PSG, and a huge transfer outlay on the likes of Jese, Grzegorz Krychowiak, Hatem Ben Arfa and Goncalo Guedes (some of whom may yet come good), this season has been one to forget. It has taken only one point from Monaco and Nice in its four matches, and could yet end up in third place, given Nice’s recent form. It’s hard to see coach Unai Emery surviving the summer, but he will not be the only one to leave. Sporting director Olivier Letang resigned earlier this month, while director of football Patrick Kluivert, who was set to become Ajax Under-19s coach before taking the job in Paris, is reported to be considering his future.
So while Leonardo Jardim is on the verge of leading Monaco to its first league title since 2000, and Lucien Favre, in his first season in charge, gets Nice into the Champions League on a budget less than PSG’s substitutes’ bench, PSG is still looking for that breakthrough on the European stage and appears to still be trying to find the right coach to deliver it.
Lazio won its first Derby della Capitale–the Roman derby–in Serie A in over four years Sunday, deservedly beating Roma 3-1 despite losing 20-goal top scorer Ciro Immobile in the pre-match warmup. Striker Keita Balde Diao followed up his five-minute hat trick last week against Palermo with two more in this game, as Lazio moved up to fourth place in Serie A.
Lazio is seven points behind third-place Napoli, but that it is even in contention for European competition is down to coach Simone Inzaghi, who took over just over a year ago with the team in mid-table and relations between the club and its fans at a low. Inzaghi had served his apprenticeship, with six years as a youth coach in which Lazio won the Youth Cup two years running.
That cup form has continued, with Lazio facing an end-of-season Coppa Italia final date against Juventus, after beating Roma 4-3 on aggregate in the semifinal.
“We had the right spirit and we won very deservedly,” said Inzaghi. “Winning a derby after so many problems gives great belief for the last five matches of the season. If I think about where we started, it has been a real improvement.”
Keita Balde put Lazio ahead but it was pinned back by a Daniele de Rossi penalty–for a non-existent foul–just before the break. Dusan Basta extended Lazio’s lead before its in-form Senegalese forward sealed the victory.
Inzaghi’s progress has been noted elsewhere. Italian press reported that West Ham might offer him the coach’s job there next season–and he would be crazy to take it. Lazio and the progress he has made point to exciting times for the capital side in the future and the likelihood of European matches for years to come.
Top three goals of the week
Pedro (Chelsea): A smart finish on the turn set Chelsea on its way to victory at Everton.
Patrik Schick (Sampdoria): The highly rated Czech forward scored another superb goal, his second in as many weeks, to seal a draw for his side at Torino.
David Alaba (Bayern Munich): A superb left-footed free kick set Bayern on the way to its title-clinching win at Wolfsburg.
Top three players of the week
Ricardo Pereira (Nice): The Nice winger had a goal and an assist for in a crucial victory over PSG.
Marcelo (Real Madrid): The Brazilian left back scored Real Madrid’s late winning goal against Valencia to keep it on course for La Liga's title.
Florian Thauvin (Marseille): Marseille’s in-form winger netted a hat trick as his side crushed Caen 5-1 on the road.