Man City pull closer as Arsenal slip up to Liverpool; Madrid relying on UCL; Lampard crashes on Chelsea return

What a weekend in European football! The English Premier League title race took another twist after Liverpool and Arsenal drew 2-2, Villarreal stunned Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, Frank Lampard started his second Chelsea stint on a downer, and Erling Haaland broke another goal-scoring record.

Meanwhile, Lazio are on the up and up and Manchester United are fighting for a top-four finish, while VAR drama took the spotlight at Tottenham Hotspur vs. Brighton and Napoli are wrapping up Serie A early.

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

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Liverpool and Arsenal put on an absolute show on Easter Sunday as they battled to a 2-2 draw. Yes, there were errors, but the entertainment angle is what will stick with you. Biggest takeaway? Tempting as it might be to conclude that, by failing to hang on to a two-goal lead, Arsenal threw away two points against Liverpool, given the way the game turned in the second half, Arsenal could easily have lost this. And then the damage — both real and psychological — would have been substantially greater.

(Of course, they could also have won it, had Gabriel Martinelli’s injury-time pass found its mark, but that’s football and that’s what makes it great.)

Let a two-nil lead slip and you’ve got to hold somebody responsible. Some blame Granit Xhaka for his clash with Trent Alexander-Arnold, citing it as some kind of turning point, stirring Anfield and Liverpool awake. A simpler explanation was Mohamed Salah halving the deficit just before the break and reopening the game.

We saw a different Liverpool in the second half, and Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta could do little to disrupt them. In fact, Arsenal managed just four shots for a total expected goals of 0.20 in the second half, and much of that was down to Liverpool’s relentlessness. So many people talk about wanting to see quality football and yet this was a captivating game despite it being strewn with errors. Gabriel Jesus missing at the far post, Oleksandr Zinchenko getting nutmegged, Martinelli’s wayward pass for Arsenal. Virgil Van Dijk’s mishit on the opener, Salah pulling his penalty wide and, of course, Ibrahima Konate (who was exceptional otherwise) somehow failing to put the ball into the back of the net from inches away. Errors and lack of quality are two different things. This game had plenty of the former and, still, the latter was not the issue.

Instead of errors, better to talk about heroes. Like Aaron Ramsdale, whose two saves — from Darwin Nunez and Salah — limited Liverpool to two goals. Or Roberto Firmino, coming on late, bags already packed to leave this summer and grabbing the late goal. There are more you can cite.

Arsenal can tell themselves that they have a poor record at Anfield and that, once Liverpool are roused (which hasn’t happened often this season), they’re hard to stop. And, yeah, in those circumstances, take the point. City’s victory the day before means that if they win their game in hand and the head-to-head, these teams will finish level on points. And goal difference favours City (and will probably favour them at the end of the season).

Equally though, Arsenal control their destiny and, unlike City, the head-to-head isn’t a must-win for them. I still think they have the edge, but, sure, the percentages just got a whole heck of a lot tighter.

As for Liverpool, manager Jurgen Klopp will want to channel that second half. This is how he needs them to play the rest of the season if they’re going to have a prayer of making up the 12-point gap and breaking into the top four to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

The other talking point here was the bizarre incident where linesman Constantine Hatzidakis appeared to elbow Andy Robertson at the half-time break.

While we wait to learn more details from both sides, for now, Hatzidakis been dropped. Check out our reporting pending the outcome of the investigation.

Yes, it stings to give up a lead and lose at home, as Real Madrid did to Villarreal on Saturday. But context matters too. Madrid actually played well for the first hour or so (Vinicius, again, sparkling) and had a chance to go 3-1 up. With a home Champions League game coming up against Chelsea on Wednesday, they made a bunch of changes (Dani Carvajal, Toni Kroos, Eduardo Camavinga, Eder Militao, Luka Modric and Fede Valverde were all on the bench). They know they won’t win the league, trailing table-toppers Barcelona by 12 points, and this season will be defined by how they perform in the Copa del Rey and Champions League, while Villarreal are desperately chasing a top-four finish.

– Stream replay: Madrid 2-3 Villarreal (ESPN+, U.S. only)

And, yeah, Villarreal’s Samu Chukwueze had a monster game. The Nigerian scored two goals and set up “El Comandante” Jose Luis Morales for the other. That last goal in particular isn’t anything you can legislate for. It’s just highlight reel stuff that you need to accept. Madrid can and should move on quickly from this result.

We knew this was going to be a tough stretch for Bayern. Two weeks ago, Julian Nagelsmann was sacked as head coach, and Thomas Tuchel was brought in. Defeat to Freiburg in the German Cup. Freiburg away on Saturday in the league, followed by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City on Tuesday. In situations like these, the margin of error is slim, especially against an opponent who can pack the box with the best of them.

It was critical to get the three points and, after a shaky first half, Bayern made the breakthrough with a long-range effort from Matthijs De Ligt. Stands to reason, on a day when Bayern took 22 shots on goal, it would be a defender trying his luck that made all the difference. Bayern put together a gaudy xG of 3.11 and had 66% possession, but Serge Gnabry and Sadio Mane were wasteful.

Jamal Musiala got his first start of the Thomas Tuchel era, playing in the hole alongside Thomas Mueller, which, I guess, is one way of shoe-horning both into the formation. It means giving up a central midfielder, which is fine against Freiburg, but clearly not a long-term plan (certainly not against City). But Tuchel is in react mode right now, which is fair enough: he hasn’t had time to work. Next season will need to be different if Bayern are to add up to more than the sum of their parts.

I can see why Frank Lampard would want to return to Chelsea on an interim basis: a shot at the Champions League, some high-level exposure and, yeah, he loves the club. I’m not 100 percent on why the owners thought it made sense. If he does poorly, it won’t move the needle. If he does well, they’ll be under pressure to keep him around in the summer. And, really, that’s what they should be focusing on: the future.

Lampard’s Chelsea didn’t look dissimilar to Graham Potter’s, which is understandable, given he’d been in the job a few days. Enzo Fernandez as a defensive midfielder blunts his ability to contribute, but we knew that. Marc Cucurella is average right now, but we knew that. It only takes an in-form opponent (Matheus Nunes on Saturday) to dismantle the left flank, but we knew that. And Chelsea has trouble scoring — they have more games than goals after 30 matches, and it’s the first time that has happened since 1924. But we knew that too.

Against Bayern in the league, Dortmund were flattened by goalkeeping errors and the early deficit, but against Leipzig they were well off the mark. Whichever way you shape it, given this club’s recent history, they were ripe to fold. Especially when, after going a goal up and playing well, they gave up the equaliser at the hour mark. But they kept at it, pushed themselves and eventually got the winner through Youssoufa Moukoko. It was hard work, sure, but fully deserved when you consider the xG (a whopping 2.38 to 0.42).

A word on Moukoko too. He got a bit of luck (but then he also made his own luck) on the goal, but this was his first since November. His goal drought is partly down to injury, partly because of Sebastien Haller’s return. But Moukoko gives you something different up front, and he could play a big role down the stretch.

“You see how many games Erling has played during his professional career and you compare the goals he has scored in that time to Messi and Cristiano, it’s quite similar,” said Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola after the 4-1 away win at Southampton.

We’re so used to managers avoiding comparisons with GOAT candidates when it comes to young players, that it was a bit shocking to hear. Even more shocking is the fact that Haaland has scored 179 goals in his first 204 games at senior level, compared to Messi’s 119 and Ronaldo’s 48, after the same number of matches.

Before the Messi/Cristiano armies rise up, sure, it’s apples and oranges because their goals came mostly in LaLiga and the Premier League and 49 of Haaland’s came in Norway and Austria. And, of course, as Guardiola points out, what sets the other two apart is their extraordinary longevity and all-around play. But still, look at the numbers and they give you goose bumps.

As for Manchester City, Arsenal’s draw means they pull that little bit closer and get a huge boost heading into the Bayern clash midweek. Right now, Pep can’t ask for more.

Maurizio Sarri has had his highs and lows, perhaps paying the price for being stuck between his somewhat utopian view of how the game should be played (yeah, “Sarriball”) and his teams’ needs for results (which, to be fair, he delivered, winning a title at Juventus and the Europa League at Chelsea). This season, at Lazio, he has offered up both, taking the side to second in the table without significant investment and with his key center-forward, Ciro Immobile, missing a third of the team’s starts.

Against a Juve side who opted to sit and wait for chances on the break, Sarri’s Lazio were a bit more circumspect, maintaining balance and turning on the Sarriball when it mattered. Other than set pieces (headers from Arkadiusz Milik and Dusan Vlahovic, Adrien Rabiot’s goal), Juve offered very little and Lazio looked in control throughout.

Juve will recriminate over the Sergej Milinkovic-Savic goal and the hand to Sandro’s back. It’s always tricky to identify just how strong the push is; as I see it, Alex Sandro didn’t help himself by throwing his arms in the air and falling over the way he did. And if you want to make it about the officials, then you need to bring up Manuel Locatelli’s tackle on Milinkovic-Savic, which could easily have been a red.

Best to focus instead on the performance, which was poor. The combination of results (Europa League, Coppa Italia, top four, which is still in play even if the appeals court doesn’t give them back their points) and his enormous salary will keep Juventus manager Max Allegri in a job. But it’s depressing to see them continue to play like this.

“Stellini” means “little stars” in Italian, and while nominative determinism takes you only so far, Spurs manager Cristian Stellini might want to thank his lucky stars for what happened on Saturday. Tottenham beat Brighton 2-1 to keep their top-four hopes alive, but they also got a ton of help from the officiating, as every big VAR decision seemingly went their way.

From Kaoru Mitoma’s disallowed goal to Alexis Mac Allister’s minimal deflection from Danny Welbeck’s strike to the penalty not given when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg felled Mitoma in the area, this was some atrocious officiating (which is why referee boss Howard Webb apologised to Brighton). The Hojbjerg non-call was the most egregious of the three, but each could easily have gone the other way. Either way, not a great performance for Spurs, and Brighton are right to feel aggrieved.

We also saw the weird spectacle of both Stellini and Brighton’s head coach Roberto De Zerbi getting sent off after clashing before and during the game. I’ve heard versions of events from both sides and, frankly, at the risk of sounding like an elementary school teacher, they’re both wrong. It’s one thing to lose your cool and overstep the mark over a refereeing call (shouldn’t happen, but it does), quite another because you and your opposite number feel the need to take centre stage and go at each other. To me, it’s simple. Both Stellini and De Zerbi should fine themselves for letting down their club and their players.

After two straight defeats, a loss at Nice would have left Paris St Germain in danger of surrendering top spot next weekend against Lens, who beat Strasbourg 2-1 on Friday. That’s how dramatic PSG’s collapse has been this season. It wasn’t a far-fetched possibility, given that Nice hadn’t lost in 14 games in all competitions. And it certainly felt like it could happen as the game unfolded.

Despite PSG starting well and taking the lead through Lionel Messi, Nice came alive and were the more threatening side for much of the game. They hit the woodwork twice, forced some huge saves from Gigi Donnarumma and were kept out by goal-line technology on another occasion. Sergio Ramos added a second 15 minutes from time, but it was tense throughout.

In some ways it’s emblematic that Messi and Ramos, both free agents in June, were the goal scorers. Neither is likely to be back next year, nor is coach Christophe Galtier, who was roundly abused by both sets of fans. We’ve said it before, but this season can’t end soon enough for PSG.

Man United manager Erik ten Hag may or may not be a long-term success at Old Trafford, but he has already shown a versatility and a personality that some didn’t think he had when he arrived. We’ve praised him for his man-management and pragmatism, time to do the same for his use of Fernandes.

With Casemiro suspended and Christian Eriksen only just returning from injury (he came on as a sub), he deployed Fernandes deeper and effectively handed him the playmaking keys against a side who tend to defend deeper.

Fernandes is obviously versatile — we’ve seen him as a “No. 10” and out wide — but sitting in front of the back four and quarterbacking the side was somewhat new (though he did for a bit in United’s last outing too). It worked a treat as United dominated more than the two-nil scoreline suggests.

We may not see this again — Casemiro and Eriksen will be available and Bruno is more valuable further up the pitch against most opponents — but it’s a sign that Ten Hag is far more multifaceted than some thought.

Since the World Cup, Atletico Madrid have collected 33 points in 14 games, which is one fewer than Barca (who have a game in hand). In other words, this team has come alive under Diego Simeone in a way that felt improbable last autumn. Atletico showed it again away to Rayo, blunting the opposition’s press in the first half to take a two-nil lead and then seeing out the game, especially with a man advantage.

Simeone has found the right balance in the side and he’s also found the right mix of quality on the ball, to the point that this team feels better-rounded than almost at any time over the past few years (even when they were winning titles). It only serves to sharpen the regret for their early-season Champions League debacle, but it does increase the chances that “El Cholo” may opt to stick around.

Napoli won away to Lecce on Friday, which means they’re just 12 points away from mathematically clinching the title. Milan and Inter were both held by lowly opponents, Empoli and Salernitana, respectively. Cue celebrations in Naples, desperation in the two Milan sides.

Here’s some context. Napoli were distracted and, understandably, looking ahead to the Champions League when they visited AC Milan on Tuesday. As a result, they were poor but still found the win thanks to a defensive blunder. Lucky? Yes. Does it matter? No, in the sense the league is wrapped up and they can get a pass for thinking about Wednesday night in Europe.

Inter dominated Salernitana on the road. They created dozens of chances, missed some veritable sitters (Romelu Lukaku, again …), put together an xG of 2.79 and only conceded thanks to an improbable looping shot/goalkeeping error in injury time. Unlucky? Yes. Does it matter? Yes, in terms of top four, no in terms of their chances of advancing past Benfica on Tuesday night. In fact, the performance is encouraging.

Milan took 23 shots on goal and held Empoli to an xG of 0.11. Their opponents didn’t even take a single shot until the 83rd minute. They didn’t create quite as much as Inter, but they too were wasteful when they did get opportunities. Unlucky? Yes. Does it matter? Again, yes, in terms of top four, no, in terms of assessing their overall health ahead of the Napoli game in the Champions League.

It would help if some folks didn’t just assess a team based on the result, but instead paid attention to what happens on the pitch. It’s time to grow up. You’d almost think that, instead of watching games, some folks simply judge based on the live score apps on their phones.

Bas Dost came off the bench for Utrecht and scored the winner in their 2-1 away win at Groningen. He now has eight goals in 19 appearances for Utrecht. This concludes this installment of #BasDostWatch.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *