Another landmark weekend across Europe saw the Manchester clubs celebrate important victories and toast unlikely heroes. In Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo was in hot water again after a post-game tirade, while Paris Saint-Germain is going through a bit of a wobbly patch in France, seeing its record unbeaten streak get snapped.
Barcelona's unbeaten run, however, continued, while Juventus continues to steamroll the opposition in Italy. In the Bundesliga, there is a new team in the race for Champions League qualification.
Here is what caught our eye this week Around Europe:
Ronaldo outburst adds to Madrid tension
Atletico Madrid beat Real Madrid for the third time running at the Bernabeu–for the first time in history–and decisively knocked its rival out of La Liga's title running. Real Madrid is now 12 points behind Barcelona at the top, while Atletico is once again over-performing under Diego Simeone.
The problems for Real Madrid begin with the president Florentino Perez, whose flawed transfer policy and micro-management with the coach goes some way to explaining the club’s return of one league title in the last seven years. Now it’s in a battle for third spot with Villarreal, only two points back. Finish fourth and Madrid will have to play in Champions League qualifying, and miss a lucrative preseason tour, something that really will get Perez in a flap.
Fans and now local media are turning against Perez. “Florentino resign,” was the chant from the home fans again.
“It seems to make no difference whether [Rafa] Benitez or [Zinedine] Zidane sits on the bench,” wrote Marca. “The excuses are wearing thin for the players. And for Florentino Perez.”
The only chance to salvage something out of the season will be in the Champions League. But the mood will not have brightened after Cristiano Ronaldo’s post-match interview, in which he seemingly complained that his teammates were not good enough.
“We’re missing Karim [Benzema], Pepe, Marcelo, [Gareth] Bale, and it’s difficult,” Ronaldo said. “The others who played are not as good. Any team needs its best players. I’m not saying Danilo, Jese, Lucas [Vazquez] and [Mateo] Kovacic are not good, but those who are missing are very good. You say I’m playing badly, but I’m scoring goals, in the Champions League nobody is close to me. You say Cristiano has dropped, so Madrid has dropped. No. If all the players had my level, we’d be top of the table, maybe. My numbers don’t lie.”
Oh dear. Cue captain Sergio Ramos coming out to say he expressed himself badly, and Ronaldo’s entourage rushing out a statement saying he was misunderstood ("I don’t believe myself is better than anyone… I was referring to injuries to players like Pepe, Bale, Benzema, Marcelo…”)
Add to that some heavy criticism from Zidane, who said the problem was not physical but mental, and warned that some players–as well as himself–have their futures on the line. Perez is going to have to be smart in the summer, especially as a transfer embargo is expected to fall on Madrid for the 12 months after it. Isco and James Rodriguez will be available for transfer; they are just the type of players that would be brilliant in a team that was built around them. Unfortunately, the way things are at Real Madrid means that will never be the case.
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Good times again in Manchester
The Premier League title race took another twist this weekend with Leicester City scoring in the last minute against Norwich to maintain its challenge while Arsenal slumped to a 3-2 loss at Manchester United.
It has been a heady time at Old Trafford with the emergence of an 18-year-old center forward, Marcus Rashford, who has scored four goals in his two first-team appearances.
After emerging as a Europa League hero, he scored two against Arsenal on his Premier League debut and also set up the winner for Ander Herrera, while showed the pace and finishing skill that United hoped to see from Memphis Depay this season.
Rashford is academy graduate No. 14 to make his first-team debut under Louis van Gaal, whose precarious position seems a little (just a little) safer this week. Injuries have forced Van Gaal to throw in the kids this year, with six youngsters getting debuts in the last month. “Age is not important,” is one of Van Gaal’s common refrains, but in the short-term world of football, it makes things a little trickier.
The raft of youngsters emerging comes at a time when Van Gaal has been most under pressure, with speculation mounting that Jose Mourinho will replace him in the summer. Perhaps Van Gaal has thrown caution to the wind and decided to highlight his chief difference to Mourinho for the rest of the season. The best way for fans to connect with the team is to see a local lad who supports the club playing well for it, which is exactly what Rashford is. He started this season in United’s Under-18s, has also scored for the Under-19s, Under-21s and now the first team.
Would that have happened under Mourinho? Almost certainly not. (And it almost didn't under Van Gaal; as Rashford only got his chance after Anthony Martial was injured in the warm-up before Thursday’s game.)
Manchester City also won this weekend, lifting the first trophy of the season after beating Liverpool in the League Cup final on penalties. The hero was City goalkeeper Willy Caballero, derided for his performance last week in a 5-1 Cup loss at Chelsea, who saved three penalties and vindicated Pellegrini’s trust in him. The storyline showed just the type of man Pellegrini is; he gave Caballero his word that he would start in the Cup games, and so he did.
City may be getting an upgrade when it comes to coaching with the arrival of Pep Guardiola next season, but it’s hard to think of a manager with a more human side to him than the Chilean.
PSG loses unbeaten run
When you are as dominant as PSG has been in France over the last few years, you need to regularly change your ambitions. Last season, it won the domestic treble, so this season it wanted to do something it has never done before. Going unbeaten was the plan, but those hopes ended 10 matches left in the season after a 2-1 loss at Lyon Sunday.
Lyon was missing some key players–including Samuel Umtiti, Mathieu Valbuena, Chistophe Jallet and Corentin Tolisso–but took the game to the visitor and deserved its 2-0 lead at the break.
With Serge Aurier suspended, Gregory van der Wiel was not convincing at right back and at the worst possible time, the positive spirit at PSG has taken a knock.
Thiago Motta looked his age when Marco Verratti was not there, and PSG’s French Cup tie at Saint-Etienne in midweek suddenly has a banana-skin feel to it. French football needs PSG to get past Chelsea in the Champions League next week. There are no French teams in the Europa League last 16, and the country’s coefficient rating might be on the line against Chelsea.
Bonucci remains Juventus's rock
And so the Juventus juggernaut continues, this time winning 2-0 over early-season pace-setter Inter Milan. From challenging for the title, Inter manager Roberto Mancini is now fighting for Champions League qualification–and his job. Juventus coach Max Allegri has made a habit of getting his subs right of late: Simone Zaza scored against Napoli while Stefano Sturaro came off the bench to equalize against Bayern Munich. In the Derby d’Italia, sub Alvaro Morata scored the late penalty to seal the points.
Before then, it was a former Inter academy graduate, Leonardo Bonucci, who volleyed his team in front. Juventus has achieved a 21-point swing over Inter since they met 19 games ago. Part of the reason for that is its defense, which has now gone eight league games with conceding–one more shut-out against Atalanta next week will equal a club record set in 1972. With Giorgio Chiellini injured for some of that time, Bonucci has been the rock at the back. Pep Guardiola, after last week’s European game at Juventus, said that Bonucci was “one of my all-time favorite players,” leading most media to expect a bid from Manchester City to arrive in the summer.
Juventus would be highly resistant to selling. "BeckenBonucci," as La Reppublica called him, is at the heart of this team’s success.
Hertha Berlin charges toward Champions League
It will never last, they said. It has to stop soon, they said. No one expects Hertha Berlin to stay in the top three of the Bundesliga this season, so when it went four games without a win this last month, the doom mongers were out in force–except they might be wrong.
Hertha has a three-point lead over Borussia Monchengladbach after winning 1-0 at Cologne. Salomon Kalou set up the goal for his strike partner Vedad Ibisevic–between them they have 18 out of the club's 31 goals. No team in the top eight has fewer, but the success of Pal Dardai’s team is at the back; only Bayern Munich has conceded fewer than its 24 goals (even Dortmund has let in 25).
Top three players of the week
Willy Caballero (Manchester City)
Three penalty saves in a cup final is a great way to repay your coach, and that’s what Caballero did Sunday, stopping Lucas Leiva, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana to give City its first trophy of the season. Caballero is clearly a popular player in the squad–his teammates launched him in the air after the game was won–and now City fans will hold in the same esteem.
Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
Four goals in the first two games for an 18-year-old at the club he supports? In a Premier League season of unlikely twists and turns, this was the storyline that seemed too good to be true–but Rashford is making it happen.
Ousmane Dembélé (Rennes)
Rennes has jumped into sixth place in Ligue 1 and is one point off third after an astonishing come from behind win inspired by Dembélé, the exciting young winger who set up the first for Kamil Grosicki on 91 minutes, and one minute later scored a dramatic winner. Remember the name.
Top three goals of the week
Pierrick Capelle (Angers vs. Guingamp)
The French midfielder’s chest and volley was his last action of the game. The defender marking him scraped his studs on his leg just after he made contact with the ball. Capelle had to go off with leg wounds that required seven stitches. Great last touch before he left, though.
Sergi Darder (Lyon vs. PSG)
What a way to score your first league goal, with this elegant chip and finish against the champion-elect.
Stephan El-Shaarawy (Roma vs. Empoli)
Another super goal from El-Shaarawy whose goals have coincided with Roma winning six in a row in Serie A.