Man United dumped from FA Cup, Juve’s Serie A run in bother

Where to begin after a whirlwind weekend in soccer? Barcelona put six past Real Sociedad in La Liga (and created a lot of good vibes among Lionel Messi & Co.), Man United were dumped out of the FA Cup and Juventus may have gone from trying to cling to their Serie A title streak to simply hoping to finish in the top four.

Elsewhere, Karim Benzema dazzled again for Real Madrid (but remains exiled by France), PSG got back to the Ligue 1 summit (but aren’t safe there), Atletico Madrid are creaking atop La Liga and Bayern Munich did the unthinkable vs. Stuttgart. (Well done again, Robert Lewandowski.)

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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.

Jump to: Will Messi stay at Barca? | Man United’s cup exit | Juve, Pirlo in trouble | Benzema merits France call | Man City win again | PSG back on top | Milan’s turnaround | Bayern amaze again | Familiar failure for Arsenal | Can Atletico hold on? | Mourinho’s weird words | Haaland fury at Dortmund | Pulisic impresses in FA Cup

Barca shine while routing Real Sociedad… is it enough to make Messi stay?

Barca manager Ronald Koeman and his players Antoine Griezmann and Jordi Alba all celebrated their birthdays on Sunday, but beyond the gifts they enjoyed on the pitch — assists for Jordi Alba, a goal for Griezmann and 12 wins out of the last 12 games for Koeman — perhaps the biggest present is down the road if Lionel Messi pledges his future to the club (and at a price that works for Barca).

I recently wrote about reasons for Barcelona to be cheerful and admittedly, that was through azulgrana-tinted glasses. Messi is still a free agent at the end of the season, his future is still up in the air and, if he does stay, it’s critical that he remains at a price that doesn’t pull the club further into financial oblivion. That said, you imagine that at some point, Messi will weigh up all the pros and cons, and nights like this 6-1 beatdown of Real Sociedad away will undoubtedly be logged on the “plus” side.

Messi enjoyed Barcelona’s big win over Real Sociedad this weekend, not least because he didn’t have to create all the goals and opportunities himself. Barca really looked like a cohesive team. ANDER GILLENEA/AFP via Getty Images

Messi scored twice, taking his seasonal total to 29 (just two less than last season), but more importantly, there were few signs of Messi-dependency on this team. Alba and Sergino Dest (who also scored twice) were offering width and assists from the full-back positions. Deployed in the middle of the back three, Frenkie De Jong was covering ground, building up play and offering runs from deep, while Ousmane Dembele provided the vertical threat at the attacking end.

In other words, things were working as they should be and Messi was the value-added component, not the whole freaking show. That has to have enormous appeal. Players like Messi can — and have — carried teams on their back in the past, but it’s exhausting to feel like you need to do it all the time. And if, after so much (warranted) negativity, Barcelona can channel this positive vibe, it might well tip the balance.

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Beyond that, credit to Coach Koeman for navigating a hugely difficult situation and, crucially, keeping the players onside. He may not necessarily be a tactical genius, but the man-management he has done this year has been exemplary. He’s been unafraid to try new solutions — some of which work, some of which don’t — and he’s been steady throughout even as the Camp Nou seemed to collapse around him. That matters.

And a final point on De Jong. The Dutch midfielder has done well when called on to play in defense and while your first instinct might be that, at 5-foot-11, he doesn’t have the height to do it, you then remember Javier Mascherano (5-foot-9) excelling in that role for years. It’s an extra option and there’s still plenty of uncertainty — it’s not clear how well De Jong would do playing consistently in a back four, for example — but it does give Barcelona flexibility, especially vis-a-vis the transfer market. This summer, they don’t need to be fixated on bringing in a top-notch central defender; if they can get a top-drawer central midfielder instead, they may find the top-notch center back is already there.

As for Real Sociedad, this defeat probably spells the end to their run at a Champions League spot: they’re 10 points behind fourth-place Sevilla with 10 games to play. They were first as recently as early December, but when you win just four league games in four months, you’re never going to keep up.

Man United knocked out of FA Cup, but kudos to Leicester and Rodgers

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Nedum Onuoha and Frank Leboeuf explain why Man United looked so poor in their FA Cup defeat vs. Leicester.

It’s not often you see a quadruple substitution, but that’s what Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had to do with nearly 20 minutes gone in the second half, his Manchester United 2-1 down to Leicester and with the threat of more damage incoming.

It’s easy to conclude that Solskjaer got his starting XI wrong, particularly in leaving out Bruno Fernandes for Donny van de Beek. The Portuguese playmaker has played a ton of football this year, sure, but an FA Cup quarterfinal on the eve of an international break isn’t really the time to rest somebody. That said, I have less of a problem with it. Partly because he has looked exhausted for some time (something his flashes of brilliance only occasionally paper over) and partly because you can’t send a message to your team that you’re wholly dependent on him.

Truth be told, save for the occasional high — like his performance in the Manchester derby — United haven’t played particularly well for the past month (they’ve won three of their past eight games in all competitions) and it goes beyond Bruno and Marcus Rashford (who was unavailable).

Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Gabriele Marcotti.

Equally, let’s not overlook Leicester. They’re just one point behind second-place United in the Premier League table for a reason: they’re a very talented side and have an exceptional manager in Brendan Rodgers. That he’s taken them where he has despite a rash of injuries — this weekend, they were without Harvey Barnes, James Maddison and James Justin, three bona fide starters — is a credit to his work.

Speaking of Rodgers, he will inevitably be linked to the next big job opening in the Premier League. The good news for Leicester City, though, is that there’s unlikely to be one for some time. Out of the traditional “Big Six” teams, you imagine Tottenham to be the likeliest to change managers next, but even then, Jose Mourinho has two years left, an enormous contract and, despite some disappointing results of late, they’re sixth in the table.

Throw in the effects of the pandemic making clubs more conservative in the summer, and my guess is that Rodgers sticks around for another year or two at a minimum. Maybe more.

More woe for Pirlo and Juventus — and now top-four finish is in peril…

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After Juve’s defeat vs. Benevento, Alessandro Del Piero examines how close Andrea Pirlo is to getting sacked.

The headline in Serie A this weekend is that Juventus lost to Benevento, a side who hadn’t won since Jan. 6. As often happens, you can extrapolate a parallel narrative where Arthur doesn’t make a boneheaded gift of a blind pass for the opposition goal, where Federico Chiesa wins a penalty (that Cristiano Ronaldo converts), where Danilo buries his late chance and where Juve win the game.

And if all of that had happened, guess what? If that had happened, plenty in the commentariat would have marveled at Juve’s never-say-die attitude, at their “winning mentality” and at the fact that they’d won five games on the spin and may yet reopen the title race. (As if…)

Italy’s top division is on ESPN+. Can Juventus make it 10 straight league titles? If not, will the Milan clubs, Napoli or Atalanta take over?
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The above scenario is extremely plausible because we’ve heard it all before last season and, at times, under Max Allegri. It fits with a certain “winning is all that matters” ethos, and it’s poisonous and counterproductive. Yes, Juventus could have won this game, but it wouldn’t have changed an abject performance and it wouldn’t have changed the fact that, right now, this team can’t do what Pirlo wants them to do. (Or maybe he’s not the guy to get them to do it… who knows?)

Juventus reiterated that Pirlo’s job is safe and that he (and Ronaldo) will be back next season. Good. In Pirlo’s case, it means they believe in what he’s doing. As I’ve written before, there’s a long journey ahead and Pirlo may not get to the end of it, but he’s going in the right direction. All that said, the thought that must keep Juve president Andrea Agnelli awake at night is that if they lose their game in hand against Napoli on April 7, they slip to fifth place. And if they’re still there at the end of the season, there’s no Champions League next year and there is a massive revenue loss.

If that happens, all bets are off.

Benzema does it again, and even Zidane wonders why France isn’t calling him in

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Janusz Michallik says Karim Benzema is just as important for Real Madrid as Robert Lewandowski is for Bayern Munich.

Real Madrid downed Celta Vigo 3-1 this weekend to stay third in La Liga. It wasn’t a vintage performance, but Karim Benzema’s two goals in the opening half-hour sent them on their way and they did what they’ve been setting out to do for the past 18 months: control games and concede little when they have a lead, ride the French center-forward’s scoring knack when they’re chasing.

After the match, Real boss Zinedine Zidane weighed in on Benzema’s continued absence from the French national team, for whom he last played in 2015. “How can we understand why Karim doesn’t go with the national team? There are many who don’t understand it …”

It’s no secret that Benzema and France boss Didier Deschamps fell out badly and that the situation hasn’t been repaired over the years. Zidane knows this, and he knows what’s at the heart of the matter, given that he’s close to Benzema and won plenty of silverware alongside Deschamps at both club and country level.

If neither is prepared to move on, it’s best to leave it. After all, France are stacked with talent as it is.

Another week of ‘ordinary brilliance’ for Man City

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Craig Burley says we can’t expect Manchester City to play exciting football every week.

Never mind the fact that Man City’s two goals in Saturday’s FA Cup quarterfinal win came in the game’s final six minutes. Focus instead on Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti, who — knowing a thing or two about outstanding teams, as a player, opponent and manager — had no hesitation in crowning them. “At this moment, there is no team who can play at this level in the world.”

Manchester City have won every game they’ve played, bar one, in the past three months. They’ve beaten teams who’ve pressed them high, and they’ve beaten teams who defended deep (like Everton did on Saturday). They’ve beaten ugly teams and pretty teams, long-ball teams and build-from-back teams, fast teams and ponderous teams. And they’ve done it in so many different ways, with different personnel and formations.

Statistically, this will probably rank in the bottom half of Pep Guardiola-coached teams. Maybe a couple of his Barcelona sides (it helps when you have Lionel Messi), one of his Bayern teams or his City centurions might have been better. But in terms of being an actual team — and not just 1 to 11, but 1 to 24 — this group might be his finest achievement.

PSG storm back to the top of Ligue 1 … but they’re not out of the woods yet

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Julien Laurens praises Mauricio Pochettino and PSG for getting everything right in their 4-2 win vs. Lyon.

PSG’s Ligue 1 fate was likely to be decided either side of the international break given their games against the other two contenders: Olympique Lyonnais away and Lille at home. And they got off to a good start, with a convincing and comprehensive 4-2 win over Lyon that saw Kylian Mbappe record the 100th goal of his Ligue 1 career (and in just 142 games).

With Neymar (and Mauro Icardi) out injured, Mbappe is taking full responsibility for the attacking output, while, defensively PSG looked sharp and only conceded once the game was virtually won. But the outcome of the campaign — and, more broadly, whether swapping Thomas Tuchel for Mauricio Pochettino in December as manager was the right thing to do — will be determined after the break, both domestically against Lille and in the Champions League, where they face Bayern.

Lille’s defeat means PSG could draw level, but Lyon is just three points back and even Monaco, four behind, aren’t out of it.

Milan bounce back, and it’s as much about Bennacer as it is about Zlatan

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Jurgen Klinsmann says Italian clubs need to adjust to a new style of football to compete beyond Serie A.

There’s no surprise as to who took the headlines following Milan’s 3-2 comeback win against Fiorentina, a result that — given the postponement of Inter’s game — against Sassuolo, leaves them six points back of the league leaders. And after the disappointment of getting knocked out of the Europa League by Manchester United, it was very important psychologically.

Making his first start in two weeks, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored a goal and hit the woodwork twice, but just as important was the return of Ismael Bennacer after five weeks. The Algerian playmaker is critical to setting the tempo, both in possession and out of it. And thanks to him, Milan outplayed Fiorentina by a bigger margin than the score suggests.

The scudetto, obviously, is out of their hands, but Inter have won six in a row and they still have to play Juventus, Roma and Napoli. All Milan can do is try to keep the pressure on, and now that they’re out of Europe, they should have the legs to do it. Whatever happens though, this campaign is already a resounding success.

Bayern Munich confound reason, scoring four goals while a man down

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Janusz Michallik examines Robert Lewandowski’s form after a hat trick in Bayern Munich’s win vs. Stuttgart.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. When Alphonso Davies got himself sent off 12 minutes into Bayern’s game against Pellegrino Matarazzo’s Stuttgart, you felt like you should be smelling an upset. After all, Stuttgart are the newly promoted upstarts challenging for a place in Europe, undefeated in five games, fearless and free, while Bayern were missing their midfield leader, Joshua Kimmich.

But no. No such fragrance was in the air. Within 11 minutes of Davies’ dismissal, Bayern were 3-0 up. By half-time, it was 4-0 and — who else? — Robert Lewandowski had scored a hat-trick, taking his Bundesliga total to 35 and his seasonal tally (all competitions) to 42. For those tracking his pursuit of Gerd Muller’s single-season Bundesliga record, he needs five from Bayern’s final eight games.

Germany’s top division is on ESPN+. Can Bayern Munich stay on top, or will the likes of Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig take over?
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This is the sort of thing that prompts folks to bring up Bayern’s mentality and talk mystical voodoo like club DNA, “Mia San Mia” (the club’s motto) and whatever else. It could be that. It could also be that Stuttgart simply froze at the opportunity before them and Bayern simply have far better players. Including, of course, Lewandowski, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry, all of whom were magnificent.

They’re by no means out of the woods when it comes to clinching a ninth straight league title. RB Leipzig’s laboured 1-0 win over Arminia Bielefeld on Friday night means the gap between them and Bayern is still four points and, when we get back from the international break, the pair will meet for all the Bundesliga marbles. But when you can do what they did on Saturday, well…

Arsenal show progress and drop points … all too familiar

Mikel Arteta was beaming after Arsenal’s 3-3 draw with West Ham on Sunday, saying they had played some of their best football of the season. That’s true, and it’s equally true that to come from three goals down and get a result in a derby speaks volumes about your team’s character.

On the flip side, for all of their endeavour, they still went three goals down. And West Ham still hit the woodwork and missed a sitter that would have seen Arsenal leave empty-handed. Performances are more important than results for someone in Arteta’s position, but equally, at some point you need to develop some consistency, and the way they gifted West Ham two goals is far from encouraging.

What was encouraging was Martin Odegaard’s performance. He was back to his early Real Sociedad levels, which means he’s arguably the best player on the team or thereabouts. The problem is he’s on loan from Real Madrid with no buy-back option. Arsenal are already reportedly trying to figure out a permanent transfer, but Madrid hold all the cards here.

On the one hand, Real Madrid will need cash this summer and Odegaard may want to do everything he can to stay. On the other, Odegaard knows full well that his competition at the Bernabeu may not be around much longer: Luka Modric is 35 (and out of contract), Toni Kroos is 31.

It would be a gut-punch if this stint in North London turns out to be just a six-month-long rehab session for Odegaard.

Atletico squeeze out a tough win, but will they heed Simeone’s warning?

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Julien Laurens believes Atleti are looking more and more vulnerable as Barcelona and Real Madrid close in.

The good news is that Atletico got three points against Alaves this weekend, which means their lead at the top of La Liga remains four points (over Barcelona) with 10 games to go. The bad news is that, other than a spell in the second half, they looked like the Alteti side that was overwhelmed by Chelsea in the Champions League: a poor, insecure unit incapable of playing in the opposition half.

Luis Suarez got his 19th goal of the campaign after the break, but even with the lead, Atleti grew fearful. They retreated further and further back, conceded chances and needed a Jan Oblak penalty save to secure the three points.

Diego Simeone said afterwards that he didn’t like their performance and that you can’t sit deep when you’re a goal up because “bad things can happen.” Fair point, but he’s the manager. And, surely “Cholismo” hasn’t become more powerful than “El Cholo” himself?

Tottenham bounce back, but Mourinho’s message is far from clear

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Frank Leboeuf lauds Tottenham’s response vs. Aston Villa after crashing out of the Europa League on Thursday.

The good news is that, following the nightmare 3-0 turnaround and Europa League elimination against Dinamo Zagreb, Tottenham Hotspur bounced back in the Premier League with a 2-0 win over Aston Villa. (A Villa side without Jack Grealish, which is a little bit like the E Street Band without Bruce Springsteen, but a win nonetheless). They’re sixth, a top-four finish is three points away with nine games remaining and, for all the negativity, they’ll likely finish with more points than last season.

Less clear is what Jose Mourinho meant after his game when he vented his relief, talking about the “shame” of squandering that 2-0 lead in the Europa League, as well as the performance against Arsenal in the North London derby.

“Football now is not easy … individual interests are around, agents are around,” he said. “You need time to develop a feeling of team empathy in a group, because the psychological profile of younger people is no an easy one.”

Was it just a generic call for unity (or, rather, empathy, the same term he used at Manchester United)? Or was he talking about specific players and situations, particularly with that “individual interests/agents” line? You hope he was clearer behind closed doors, because the last thing he needs now is whispering and paranoia within his squad. When you speak like he did above, it’s very easy for your audience to misconstrue the message, and for folks to feel targeted who may not even have crossed Mourinho’s mind.

Haaland saves a point for Dortmund … and vents his frustration

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Gab Marcotti offers a rather interesting theory about what Erling Haaland’s future might entail.

We hadn’t really seen Angry Erling Haaland before Saturday. Now we know what that looks like, and he had every right to be furious.

On a day in which Haaland opened the scoring after three minutes, it appeared as if everything would be downhill for Borussia Dortmund against a Cologne team that had taken one point from their previous five games. Instead, a marginal penalty and the usual Keystone Kops defending turned the game on its head. What’s more, there was little or no reaction from Dortmund, who paid a double toll for a lack of chemistry and a lack of organisation at the back. (This despite two veteran central defenders like Mats Hummels and Emre Can.)

Haaland saved a point — he’s also up to 21 league goals on the season — but the top four is now four points away. I’ve long argued it makes more sense for him (and for his agent) to stay another season at Dortmund and wait for his release clause to kick in. But that only applies if they’re back in the Champions League next season and, right now, that’s very much in doubt.

Pulisic shines as Tuchel’s auditions continue (and nearly cost Chelsea dearly)

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Janusz Michallik admits Christian Pulisic played well vs. Sheffield United but says he should remain concerned.

Thomas Tuchel used the weekend’s FA Cup clash with bottom-of-the-table Sheffield United as an opportunity to continue his auditions as he determines who will be a part of Chelsea’s squad next season. Meanwhile, United, hampered by injuries and with a new boss in charge following the departure of Chris Wilder, set up to sit deep and deny the opposition, so in some ways there was little to learn.

Still, we saw that when deployed behind a striker rather than at wing-back, Christian Pulisic can open up defences, even packed ones like United’s. That’s important, because right now you want to give Tuchel as much to think about as possible. And right now, it feels like there’s not a single Chelsea player — with the possible exception of Mason Mount — who can tell himself “yeah, I’m a 100 percent nailed-on starter next season.”

The one concern is that when the Blades did start to play midway through the second half, they created far more chances than they should have and could well have sent the game into extra time. Still, at that stage, Chelsea’s back three comprised Emerson (who is an attacking fullback, not a centre-half and probably won’t be here next season regardless), Kurt Zouma and Cesar Azpilicueta (a converted fullback himself and probably not part of the long-term plan).

Tuchel can live with that. In the end, their 2-0 win means a date with Manchester City in an FA Cup semifinal.

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