It was another wild and fun weekend across European soccer, with eye-opening results in Spain’s LaLiga, the German Bundesliga and England’s FA Cup among others, so let’s review. Barcelona were left reeling by a 5-3 home defeat to Villarreal and the postmatch confirmation that Xavi will not return as manager. Liverpool responded to Jurgen Klopp’s seismic news with a comfortable home win over Norwich in the FA Cup, and Bayern Munich beat Augsburg in a game that was really too close for comfort.
Elsewhere, there were talking points galore for Man United (and Marcus Rashford), Inter and Juventus in the Serie A title race, Atletico Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Paris Saint-Germain and more.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Barcelona lose, and Xavi says he’s done in June … but is there more to it than that?
It’s tempting to compartmentalize Saturday’s events at Montjuic (a 5-3 defeat to Villarreal) and treat them separately. First, Barcelona lost (again), making it three defeats in their past five games, a run in which they’ve conceded 16 goals. Then, Xavi announced after the match that he had made the “irreversible” decision to leave in June.
He said he was doing it for the good of the club, to lower the tension around the players and that he wanted to be a “solution’ and not “a problem.” Plus, the gig takes its toll. “The feeling of Barca coach can be unpleasant,” he added, taking your mind immediately back to Pep Guardiola’s resignations (followed by changes of heart) while at the helm of the club more than a decade ago. “It’s cruel, there’s a lack of respect towards you, your work is not valued … it’s terrible on your mental health and morale.”
Does it “liberate” the players between now and the end of the season to know there will be a coaching change this summer? Or does it make things worse, with a lame duck manager at the helm? I’d plump for the latter, based on what we saw against Villarreal: Barcelona weren’t terrible, but they made the same kind of repeated individual errors that have dogged them all season.
There was poor defending that put them a goal down, more poor defending on Gerard Moreno’s disallowed goal (which probably should have been given), a horror show from João Cancelo on Villarreal’s second. Then after Barcelona turned it around to go 3-2 up, we got more Keystone Kops fare, with Barca losing Goncalo Guedes in transition for the equaliser and Ronald Araújo somehow passing the ball to an opponent in his own penalty area for the visitors’ winner.
Oh, and while the fifth Villarreal goal came in garbage time and was wholly irrelevant, you’ll note how Iñaki Peña seems to move with all the urgency of oatmeal to save Jose Luis “El Comandante” Morales’ shot.
Watching that rubbish defending, you’d almost think Xavi was disgusted enough to make his decision on the spot. But no, he says he made it before the game and only communicated it to the players at the final whistle. If that’s the case, you imagine his frustration with the club’s poor defending might have had something to do with it, as a comparison with last season — in which, lest we forget, they won LaLiga — is brutal.
Barcelona have given up 29 goals in 22 games, compared to just seven at the same stage last year. That said, a look at xG conceded tells a somewhat more nuanced story. A year ago, it was 17.46, this season it’s 22.34: worse, but not cataclysmically worse.
That decline probably can be largely attributed to the fact that Gavi, a pressing machine — and an emotional leader in midfield, despite his tender age (19) — made just 10 league starts before going down to injury, and that Marc-André ter Stegen, the first-choice keeper who is excellent with his feet and exudes calm, has missed nine of 22 games. The decline in actual goals conceded, on the other hand, likely has more to do with statistical variance: they over-performed last year (and were a bit lucky) and severely underperformed this year (and were a bit unlucky).
It’s not as if they were pulling up trees at the other end of the pitch, either. Robert Lewandowski looks and plays like a man who is a year older, which he is. Ousmane Dembélé, for all his frustrations, is now at Paris Saint-Germain, taking his trickery with him. (João Félix is equally frustrating, only for longer and with longer barren spells in between tricks.)
Xavi’s decision made it two coaches of huge clubs in two days who were giving the early warning that they’d be gone at the end of the season, but the differences with Jurgen Klopp and Liverpool could not be more stark.
Moreno: Barca losing this way ‘has to hurt’
Ale Moreno and Luis Garcia react to Barcelona’s 5-3 defeat to a struggling Villarreal.
For a start, nobody wanted Klopp gone from Anfield, and there is respect for what is ultimately an honest admission of weakness. But Xavi was attacked daily by a portion of fans and the media; you also wonder what machinations were taking place above him. Mateu Alemany and Jordi Cruyff, two of the guys who were there when he joined (taking Barca from ninth in the league to second after taking over midseason in 2021-22) are gone, with the latter replaced by Deco, a former agent. Then there’s team president Joan Laporta, who warned that “unlike the past,” there “would be consequences” if Barcelona don’t win.
Of course there will be consequences, mainly because somebody (read: Laporta) opted to mortgage the future with his “economic levers” and assemble a side filled with pricey veterans (Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan, Iñigo Martínez, etc) while still being under the player trading restriction caused by the massive losses under his predecessor, Jose Maria Bartomeu.
Xavi isn’t the second coming of Guardiola, but he delivered as best he could and held things together in extremely difficult circumstances. He’ll try to do the same as a lame duck between now and June.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. Given the dire financial situation, it feels as if things just got that little bit tougher.
Man United’s win vs. Newport County was nervier than it should have been … and there’s a Rashford issue
When a club like Manchester United travel away to one like Newport County (three divisions below them) in the FA Cup, there’s little to be gained. You’re expected to win comfortably against an opponent that look to play the game of their lives. Meanwhile, every single neutral wants you to lose.
United looked well in control, racing to a 2-0 lead, before a wonder goal and a defensive blunder brought out the old stresses and insecurities and allowed the home side to make it 2-2. Antony’s goal 22 minutes from time put them ahead, but again, we were treated to what Sir Alex might have called a “squeaky bum time” finale before Rasmus Hojlund scored in garbage time.
Burley slams Rashford after being left out of Man United’s squad
Craig Burley believes Marcus Rashford “needs to have a look at himself” after being left out of Man United’s FA Cup squad.
There aren’t many conclusions you can draw from games like these other than noting that, whatever their faults may be, Erik ten Hag and Antony took this all extremely seriously. Ten Hag was spiky after the game, noting that Newport County “created nothing” until their goal which was “out of nothing” (why, you’d almost think they were League Two side). Oh, and Antony celebrated as if he’d scored the winner in a World Cup final.
Yet all this was overshadowed by Marcus Rashford’s absence. On Thursday night, he apparently thought it would be a good idea to fly to Belfast, go out to a nightclub, return in the early hours of Friday and then not report to training because he was “ill.” The flight takes just over an hour and he flew privately — presumably it wasn’t too much of a burden, other than his carbon footprint — but it’s simply a really bad look. Clearly, United aren’t letting him off the hook either, since they didn’t attempt to cover it up.
Maybe Rashford can’t control his performances on the pitch, which have been erratic of late. What he can control is his professionalism and the image he projects at a time when his club — the club he grew up in and of whom he professes to be a fan — are very much struggling. He’s not a kid anymore: he’s 26 years old. He should do better, and you hope he realises this.
Three points for Bayern, but little else to cheer vs. Augsburg
First, the good news. With Bayer Leverkusen held to a draw at Borussia Monchengladbach, Bayern’s 3-2 derby victory against Augsburg means they’re back within two points of the Bundesliga summit.
Aleksandar Pavlovic, 19, looked accomplished in midfield and scored a goal. So too did Alphonso Davies, making for a nice bounce-back after some indifferent performances. Oh, and Sacha Boey is on his way from Galatasaray, which means Thomas Tuchel will finally have that other option at right-back.
Beyond that, there’s little to cheer. This game turned needlessly messy after a first half that saw Bayern — albeit uninspired — cruise to a 2-0 lead. Harry Kane — you know, the club’s record signing of a center-forward? — only recorded his first shot in first-half injury time, not because he was poor, but because he couldn’t get service. Thomas Müller and Manuel Neuer (two guys who should know better) gave away two needless penalties — Neuer punching an opponent in the head looked especially ridiculous — one of which, thankfully, was missed.
Overall, Bayern looked tired, which shouldn’t be the case when you’ve played just four games in the previous five weeks. The high press is a distant memory, and what little creativity emerges usually comes from Leroy Sané or one of the fullbacks running until they lose the ball.
Any mitigating factors? OK, Min-Jae Kim is at the Asian Cup and Dayot Upamecano was injured, which meant Eric Dier was playing in central defence. Joshua Kimmich (the source of all of Bayern’s problems, remember?) was out too, but that can’t really be much of an excuse against a side that has won one home game since October.
You would have thought the winter break would have been an opportunity for Tuchel and Bayern to establish some chemistry and patterns of play. We haven’t seen it yet.
Inter gut out a win vs. Fiorentina with a little bit of luck and the worst penalty you’ll see in a long time
Vincenzo Italiano’s high-octane Fiorentina (and their rabid fans) aren’t the club you want to be facing without two key midfield cogs like Nicolò Barella and Hakan Çalhanoğlu. And still, Lautaro Martínez (who else?) gave Inter a lead they never relinquished with a pinpoint header early on, and Inter were able to never look back.
They were more than a little fortunate in their 1-0 win, too. Alessandro Bastoni rag-dolling Luca Ranieri could have well resulted in a penalty. Of course, it would have made little difference if that penalty had been awarded and then taken as well as the one that was given late on, when Yann Sommer crashed into M’Bala Nzola. Nico Gonzalez’ spot-kick was about as tame as you’re likely to see: it’s great to try to psych out the keeper, but rolling it down the middle when he’s clearly not biting isn’t a great idea.
Another comeback for Real Madrid, this one fully deserved
Why are Real Madrid the LaLiga comeback kings?
Ale Moreno reflects on a 5th come-from-behind win for Real Madrid in LaLiga this season.
Away to Las Palmas, Real Madrid came back to get a result for the tenth time this season in all competitions. It’s the sort of stat that can be read two ways. Is it a sign of a laudable never-say-die attitude? Or do they just start games badly and then have to play catch-up? Or both? The reality is that each game is its own story. And while Madrid have had plenty of games where they won late by the scruff of the neck, this one wasn’t one of them.
With Jude Bellingham out, Carlo Ancelotti put his faith in Brahim Díaz, with Dani Ceballos and Edu Camavinga starting instead of Fede Valverde and Aurélien Tchouaméni. Madrid had the upper hand and should have taken in the lead in the first half, but instead went behind to a counterattack early after the break. From that moment on, it was one way traffic, with Las Palmas failing to register a shot from minute 54 onwards and Madrid scoring through Vinícius (after a delightful assist from Camavinga) and substitute Tchouameni’s header.
Self-belief? Sure, but there’s also depth and talent in midfield, as evidenced by Brahim and Camavinga. And that may matter just as much down the stretch.
Liverpool thrash Norwich as Klopp basks in post-announcement ovation
On Friday, I shared my views about Jurgen Klopp’s announcement that he’d be leaving at the end of the campaign. Then Liverpool’s players and fans made their feelings known during Sunday’s 5-2 FA Cup fourth-round win over Norwich.
It was a comfortable win that left little doubt — judging by the supporters’ reaction — that anybody begrudges him for his decision. On the pitch, he started two youngsters — Conor Bradley at right back, and James McConnell in midfield — that almost seemed to symbolize the thread connecting present and future. They are a pair of kids who will have the chance to help write the post-Klopp history of the club, alongside the many arrivals of the past 18 months (Dominik Szoboszlai, Alexis Mac Allister, Darwin Núñez, Luis Díaz) and the holdovers from the squad he built.
‘I’m not made of wood!’ – Klopp on emotional win vs. Norwich
Jurgen Klopp reveals how he felt returning to Anfield for the first time since he announced he would leave Liverpool.
The future remains uncertain and scary for the club, but he has put in place as much as he possibly can, and it looks like players and fans will be 100% behind him until June.
Milik folly leaves 10-man Juventus to be held at home
There’s no real accounting for this. Arkadiusz Milik made his first league start in a month and got himself sent off after just 16 minutes when Juventus hosted Empoli. He apologised afterward — it was rash, rather than malicious — but the damage was done. Juve aren’t exactly an attacking juggernaut at the best of times and they were always going to struggle down a man for 74 minutes, even against relegation-threatened Empoli.
Dusan Vlahovic (four straight league games with a goal) scrambled the ball in to put them ahead, but Juve were pegged back by Empoli’s wunderkind, Tommaso Baldanzi, in a 1-1 draw. With Inter’s win Sunday, they’re now a point behind the league leaders, but having played an extra game. hat means next Sunday’s huge clash between the two becomes more of a “must-win” rather than a “can’t lose.”
Leverkusen fail to break down Gladbach’s barriers … but they can’t let it get in their heads
Limit it to numbers, and this was about as one-sided as you’re going to get. Bayer Leverkusen won the xG battle (2.49 to 0.21), outshot the opposition 28-4 and hit the target nine times to the oppositions’ three. They also squandered an array of huge chances, with Florian Wirtz, Nathan Tella and Jeremie Frimpong (more than once) the worst culprits. Meanwhile, Gladbach didn’t take a single shot on goal after the 32nd minute … and it ended 0-0.
It’s one of the ironies of the game that Leverkusen did more to win in this match than in others which they did win, albeit late (like against Augsburg or Leipzig). If you’re Xabi Alonso, you’re not worried about the performance, which, given the circumstances (five starters missing) wasn’t bad, but rather about the psychological effect of Bayern closing the gap, especially with the head-to-head clash coming up on Feb. 10.
Milan throw it away vs. Bologna … but some need to brush up on the laws of the game
If you take a penalty, it hits the woodwork and rebounds back towards you, you’re not allowed to touch the ball (not at least it’s played by another player anyway). Most who’ve played at any level know this.
Maybe it wasn’t clear to Theo Hernández, who did just that after sending his late penalty off the post for Milan against Bologna. It was one of two penalty errors from Milan, and it’s a big part of the reason why they dropped points against Bologna — that, and the needless tug from Filippo Terraciano that led to the visitors’ injury time penalty equalizer.
Result aside, it was a good performance from Milan, who had the upper hand against a good opponent and confirmed their recent spike in form. Two guys who will be key down the stretch — Rafael Leão and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who scored both goals in the 2-2 draw — also looked sharp. In any case, with a ten-point cushion, third place seems very much in the bag.
PSG held by Brest as they sleepwalk in Ligue 1 again
Tiny club Brest are one of the feel-good stories of the Ligue 1 season, rising to third in the table on a shoestring budget. You would have assumed that Paris Saint-Germain might have been a little better prepared for their visit to the Parc des Princes, instead, having raced to a 2-0 lead by half-time, they basically didn’t show up after the break. And Brest, entirely unintimidated, attacked them at every opportunity, clawing back two goals to draw 2-2.
Credit to Brest and all that, but the way PSG seemed lethargic and entitled in that second half (with Kylian Mbappé missing in action) has got to be a concern. Yeah, they’ll probably win the league (again), but their fans deserve better than performances like this one.
Girona on autopilot win away to Rafa Benitez’s Celta, too
Celta away was a trap game for Girona. Coming off elimination from the Copa del Rey, without two of their starting center-backs and up against a Rafa Benitez-led Celta Vigo side fighting to avoid the drop — and who had lost just two of their last nine in the league — this looked like a potential ambush, especially since Real Madrid had won the previous day and piled the pressure on Míchel’s crew at the top of LaLiga.
No matter. They controlled possession, had the better of the opportunities, and while they got a bit fortunate with a couple of spurned Celta chances in the first half, they fully deserved their win.
This was a much bigger test than the table would suggest, and they passed with flying colors.
Borussia Dortmund go with two up front and beat Bochum with Fullkrug bagging a hat trick
With Julian Brandt, Marco Reus and Felix Nmecha all unavailable, Edin Terzic switched to a 4-4-2 formation for the clash with Bochum and we got to see Youssoufa Moukoko’s first league start since October.
In the end, Borussia Dortmund won 3-1 to pull three points clear of Leipzig in the race for a top-four finish. It’s their third win on the bounce and they were the better team, with Ian Maatsen again a standout on the flank, but the headlines belong to Nico Fullkrug. who notched a hat trick, albeit with two penalties.
I was a long-term Fullkrug skeptic, but having seen him live several times, I’m starting to revisit that. He’s much more well-rounded than a traditional target man and can work well in a front two as well. I doubt Terzic will commit to the 4-4-2, but if he does, it’s definitely an option, either with Moukoko or, more likely, Donyell Malen next to the big man.
Atletico turn on the style to beat Valencia, make it four wins in a row
You see Atletico Madrid in games like Sunday’s 2-0 win over Valencia (who were resurgent and had won four in a row themselves) and you wonder why they can’t play like this all the time. Koke and Pablo Barrios pulled the strings in midfield, the wingbacks were excellent (especially Samuel Lino against his old club) and Memphis Depay, getting a rare start in place of the rested Álvaro Morata, linked well with Antoine Griezmann in attack.
Atleti dominated start to finish, and Valencia had no answers. Simeone likes to mix and match, sure, but it’s fair to ask whether the inconsistency (and occasional dependency on Griezmann) might have something to do with the frequent changes, especially in midfield. Personally, I’d love to see this lineup again (with Morata in for Depay, obviously), injuries permitting.