European soccer this weekend: Havertz keeps Arsenal title push on course

On a Saturday in which Arsenal looked like they might lose pace with the Premier League’s title protagonists, they dug deep to steal a vital result. Barcelona, too, kept their title hopes alive — if only just. Inter Milan already have one hand and four fingers on the Serie A crown, and they showed why.

Bayern Munich may be off the Bundesliga’s championship pace, but that didn’t stop them from putting on a show against Mainz. And the Women’s FA Cup saw any hope Liverpool had of a cup semifinal extinguished by Leicester City.

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Let’s get into the action.

Kai Havertz has spent much of this season looking like the expensive Arsenal signing who didn’t quite fit, but on Saturday, he continued what is rapidly becoming a priceless contribution to keep the Gunners on track in the Premier League title race.

There is a debate to be had about whether the £67.5 million summer signing should have been on the pitch to head in an 86th-minute winner to secure a 2-1 win over Brentford — more on that later — but it continued a timely run of form that kept the pressure firmly on Liverpool and Manchester City. Havertz now has four goals and two assists from his past four games operating primarily as a central striker, the position that many questioned whether he could fully make his own both at Arsenal and previous club Chelsea.

“If somebody told me after the first two or three months that the whole stadium would be singing his song with that passion, with that feeling, with that chemistry, I would have found it hard to believe,” manager Mikel Arteta said after the match. “That’s what happens to good people. He’s an exceptional player.”

Time will tell whether he ultimately wins that battle, but Arsenal are doing everything they can to show the resilience and quality required to take the title race down to the wire.

They are only the fourth side to win each of their first eight league games of a calendar year, and the previous three all went on to win the title that season: Manchester United in 2009, Liverpool in 2020 and Man City in 2021. Brentford made them work for it, however.

For a long period here, it seemed as though Aaron Ramsdale would have an impact on the title race for all the wrong reasons after he gifted Thomas Frank’s side an equaliser in first-half stoppage time. After Declan Rice’s excellent 16th-minute header put the home side in front, Ramsdale took too long to clear his lines and allowed Yoane Wissa time to charge down his clearance, diverting the ball into the net.

It was a bad individual error for which Ramsdale must take the blame. Perhaps he was too eager to please; perhaps it was a lapse in concentration.

Yet Arteta might feel a little responsible, too. He has openly talked about the unusual tactic of substituting goalkeepers previously, yet he had chosen not to give Ramsdale any game time since Jan. 7 despite two things: (A) his team winning by fives and sixes of late, and (B) knowing he would be required to play here given David Raya was ineligible against his parent club.

“Errors are part of football,” Arteta said. “It’s how you react to it, especially for the keepers, which is probably the most difficult position. He did so in an amazing way. I’m not surprised because the whole team and the whole stadium was behind him. He has earned that respect and admiration. We really wanted to win for him.”

Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing and in any case, Havertz ensured Ramsdale’s difficult night — which improved with two important saves after his error — was merely a footnote to a game in which Brentford seemed to follow FC Porto’s playbook in breaking up play with some gamesmanship, time wasting and cynical fouls.

Porto are the next visitors to north London on Tuesday aiming to hold on to a 1-0 lead in their Champions League last-16 tie. Frank was aggrieved about the officiating, though, specifically Havertz avoiding a 66th-minute dismissal for going down softly under a challenge from Nathan Collins.

“Havertz is a clear, clear dive,” Frank said after the match. “That should of course have been a second yellow and a red card and then he wouldn’t have been able to score the winner.”

But he did, and Arsenal stay on course to push the top two all the way. — James Olley

Barcelona’s youngsters kept their slim title hopes alive on Friday as Lamine Yamal’s brilliant goal helped them beat Mallorca 1-0 at the Olympic Stadium. The win moved them within five points of LaLiga leaders Real Madrid, who host Celta Vigo on Sunday.

Yamal, 16, was one of three teenagers named in the Barça side, with 17-year-old centre-back Pau Cubarsí and 18-year-old striker Marc Guiu also starting. He scored the only goal of the game in the 73rd minute — after Ilkay Gündogan had missed a first-half penalty — when he cut in from the left and found the top corner having hit the bar with a near-identical effort minutes earlier.

Mallorca coach Javier Aguirre said all he could do was “stand and applaud” the artistry, comparing watching Yamal to the first time he saw Lionel Messi play 21 years ago. Barça boss Xavi Hernández has always been reluctant to indulge that comparison, but even he admitted the Spain winger shows “flashes” of the Argentine great.

Yamal now has 13 goal contributions in his debut campaign with Barça. This was his sixth goal of the season and it drew two reactions from the crowd in Montjuic: the initial roar when the ball hit the back of the net and then a gasp of amazement when the slow-motion replay was shown on the big screen.

However, it was Cubarsí who Xavi reserved most praise for. He lauded a “captain’s performance” from the teenager, highlighting his ability to both deal with the physical threat of Mallorca’s powerful front two and his talent on the ball playing out from the back. Barça, so erratic in defence at times this season, have now kept three clean sheets in a row with Cubarsí in the team.

With so many players currently injured, including Frenkie de Jong, Gavi and Pedri, the dependence on players as young as 16 and 17 at both ends of the pitch is remarkable. Things don’t get any easier, either. On Tuesday, they will be tasked with helping Barça reach a Champions League quarterfinal for the first time since 2020 when they welcome Napoli to the Olympic Stadium. — Sam Marsden

The question is no longer who can stop Inter Milan — with an 18-point lead atop the Serie A table and just 10 games remaining, they likely can’t be stopped — but who in Italy can actually beat them?

It stood to reason that Bologna, the revelation of the season sitting fourth in the table, had a chance having beaten the Nerazzurri in the Coppa Italia. In the end, though, Inter were just too strong and earned their 13th straight win across all competitions. They have only lost once in 27 league games, a defeat to Sassuolo taking place way back in September. They are cruising toward their second title in four years, having been crowned Serie A champions in 2020-21.

Saturday’s contest also pitted Simone Inzaghi against Thiago Motta, the two best managers in Italy this season, very much master vs. apprentice. Tactically, it was fascinating. The home side put a lot of pressure on the leaders with 60% possession and 19 shots, but despite Inzaghi’s squad rotation (Lautaro Martínez, Benjamin Pavard and Federico Dimarco all watched from the bench), they controlled the key moments in the game.

Their hero is an unlikely one, though, as 23-year-old Germany youth international centre-back Yann Aurel Bisseck scored the only goal of the game. In only his sixth domestic start of the season, he proved his worth as an important squad member.

Now Inter can focus on their Champions League last-16 second leg at Atletico Madrid. They will travel to the Spanish capital with a one-goal advantage and a 13-game winning streak to defend — Julien Laurens

In the third meeting of the season between Liverpool and Leicester City, the Foxes came out on top to book their first ever spot in the Women’s FA Cup last four.

Without a win in their past three at home, Liverpool started well but were pushed to the back foot after failing to clear their lines, allowing Finland international Jutta Rantala to smash the ball home on the quarter hour. The goal drew a positive response from the hosts, but struggling to put anything meaningful on target, they left themselves open for a devastating second from the in-form Rantala, whose shot in off the bar gave the Foxes the cushion they needed.

On a day when shots on target were at a premium, the visitors had the margins on their side as they nullified Liverpool’s best efforts.

After the game, Liverpool boss Matt Beard spoke of his frustrations after the pieces had failed to fall into place at Prenton Park. This marks the seventh straight season without appearing in a cup semifinal.

For the Foxes, who were without head coach Willie Kirk following allegations of a relationship with one of his players that has resulted in an internal investigation, the focus was the task at hand on the Wirral. Led by assistant manager Jennifer Foster and coach Stephen Kirby, the Foxes played to their strengths to got the better of it away from home, penning a new page of club history. — Sophie Lawson

He didn’t see the pitch, but Tyler Adams was in an AFC Bournemouth Premier League matchday squad for the first time this season. The 25-year-old has been recovering from a hamstring injury dating back to March 2023, limited to a single 20-minute Carabao Cup appearance for the Cherries in September. The South Coast club were held to a 2-2 draw at home by relegation-threatened Sheffield United, whose Auston Trusty played the full 90 minutes.

Down in the English second division, Josh Sargent got on the board in Norwich City’s 5-0 demolition of Rotheram United, with eight goals in his past eight games. He wasn’t the only American scoring in the Championship, though, with Haji Wright scoring twice in Coventry City’s 2-1 win at Watford, his 12th and 13th tallies in 35 league appearances.

Elsewhere in England, Chris Richards played the entirety of Crystal Palace’s 1-1 draw with Luton Town while Antonee Robinson went the full 90 in Fulham’s 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton Wanderers. In the Bundesliga, Joe Scally went start to finish as Borussia Monchengladbach drew 3-3 with FC Cologne.

Bayern Munich, the same Bayern Munich that are labouring ten points behind league leaders Bayer Leverkusen, crushed Mainz 8-1 on Saturday. Harry Kane scored three of those goals.

He made a little history in doing so. No one has ever scored more goals in a debut Bundesliga season than the 30-year-old England captain’s 30, and no one in the history of the German top flight has ever scored four hat tricks in their debut campaign.

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