Superstar Vinicius shows range in UCL performance, and will Man United fold in top four race?

Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, what you might have missed and what to keep an eye on in the coming days.

Real Madrid’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal was entertaining, filled with strategic moves by both sides, outstanding defensive performances (looking at you, Antonio Rudiger and David Alaba) and even some controversy. But I thought I would lead this week’s column with the star of the show: Vinicius Jr.

He was majestic on Tuesday night. Never mind his rocket of a goal (his first outside of the box in the tournament), which opened the scoring for Los Blancos. It was the fact that in a squad filled with colossal talent, it’s a 22-year-old Brazilian who acts as its protagonist. In fact, in the Champions League this season, Vini Jr. has been involved in every goal for Real Madrid aside from one match (the group stage match back in October against Shakhtar Donetsk.)

For me, Vinicius is the best player in the world right now. Yes, there are better finishers and more complete passers but when you combine his electric delivery, talent and direct contributions, there is no one better. He changes the pace of the game like a lightning bolt and just like Allen Iverson’s crossover against Michael Jordan in 1997, his change of direction is devastating. According to A.I., Jordan called Iverson a “little b—-” in that game because deep inside, Jordan knew that he had underestimated him.

Nobody is underestimating Vinicius Jr.

The second Champions League semifinal was an Italian battle at the San Siro, the famed Derby della Madonnina, and in an electric setting, Inter Milan came out in Mike Tyson-esque mode, aggressive and purposeful. After 10 minutes, they were 2-0 up against AC Milan and the only thing that might ruin their day is that they didn’t add to the scoreline.

But let me take this moment to pay an ode to one of football’s most undervalued strikers in European football: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Edin Dzeko. It was his wonderful volley from a corner that opened the scoring for Nerazzurri and set the tone thereafter. Per La Gazzetta dello Sport, it was the first time AC Milan had conceded from a corner in 104 attempts.

From his time at Wolfsburg to Man City, Dzeko has been unfairly judged, and I have always seen him a tremendous striker for one main reason: he gets the job done. At 37 years old, he is still delivering like a 15-year-old bourbon. He is football’s Cillian Murphy. Put him in any role and with any cast, and he’ll deliver.

On Monday, Everton produced their finest performance of the season as they destroyed a strong, Europe-hunting Brighton. Ahead of the game, Toffees head coach Sean Dyche must have shown tapes of Joe Royle’s Everton from the mid-’90s — famously labeled “Dogs of War” — because they mauled Roberto De Zerbi’s side 5-1 on their own front yard.

As a result, Everton climbed out of the relegation zone and now have the daunting task of defending their position against Manchester City on Sunday. Right after that match, Arsenal, who delivered a great victory against Newcastle United, host the aforementioned Seagulls. Can you imagine if somehow, amazingly, Everton beat City? Now, that would heat up the title race even further. They haven’t beaten Man City since 2017, so I am not holding my breath, but one can only hope for more dramatics and the Premier League almost always delivers.

The Championship playoffs to decide promotion to the English top flight are the most valuable matches in world football. The prize for the final spot in next season’s Premier League can reward the winning club as much as $300m because of the broadcasting and marketing/commercial difference between both leagues. The stakes are high and the matches will provide scintillating entertainment.

This season, there are some cracking stories. There’s former Manchester United player Michael Carrick’s Middlesbrough hosting Coventry City on Sunday (stream live on ESPN+ at 7 a.m. ET) but it’s the other match I am more excited about.

In 2013, Luton Town were a non-league team who managed to beat Premier League side Norwich City in the FA Cup. Ten years later and they are three matches away from making it to the richest league in the world. They will face Sunderland on Saturday (stream live on ESPN+ at 12:30 p.m. ET), opposing a team that made it to the playoffs in dramatic fashion on the last day of the season. The Black Cats are also a tremendous story as it was only a few years ago that I was writing about their Netflix documentary “Sunderland ‘Til I Die,” when they fell to League One in 2018. Now look at them.

After an illustrious career, which includes three Champions League trophies and eight league titles, Sergio Busquets and Barcelona will end their 18-year relationship at the end of the season. This is under Offside for two reasons. Firstly, it has dawned on me that I am old. I feel like it was only yesterday that Busquets — who is an artist on the pitch — joined Barcelona’s senior team after graduating from their youth academy La Masia in 2007.

Secondly, I fear that the end of Busquets and Barcelona is also the end of a style of play marked by its simplicity, which, as Leonardo da Vinci once said, “is the ultimate sophistication.” That’s Busquets, a subtle genius in a sea of confusion, and I feel we are seeing less and less of this type of player, or at least his version. Frenkie de Jong — his teammate and friend — is as close as we’ll get but even he doesn’t have Busquets’ quiet elegance.

Wherever he goes next (reports of Saudi Arabia and MLS), always remember, Busquets at Barcelona was art.

Currently sitting in fourth place by the skin of their teeth, Man United were given a free pass after Newcastle United’s loss to Arsenal, but Liverpool’s surge (six straight victories) albeit having played an extra game, coupled with two straight losses for the Red Devils, has added more pressure for manager Erik ten Hag and his side in securing a Champions League spot after missing out last season.

Sunday’s calamitous mistake by David de Gea against West Ham did not help ease the fan base’s nerves on the mental strength of this squad. What’s more, the anxious clouds of a potential sale looms over Old Trafford. If Man United, who host Wolves on Saturday, don’t earn a Champions League spot, it will be considered a massive failure for Ten Hag’s first season. But I will also say that it’s less Ten Hag’s fault and more a squad that still needs improvement in order to catch up with the likes of Man City, Arsenal and at this point, even Newcastle.

This summer is pivotal, but first let’s see how they end this season.

On Thursday, player unions that represent those in football, the NBA and WNBA released a report that analyzed abusive tweets sent to 160 professional players from July to September 2021. Part of the findings discovered 1,558 abusive tweets sent from 1,455 accounts. Not bots. Of those tweets to football players, 85% contained anti-gay or racist language. Two in every three footballers were targeted with abusive and/or discriminatory behavior. Women receive an overwhelming amount of sexual harassment.

Social media companies, specifically Twitter, have a responsibility to ensure the enhancement of safeguarding. Hashtags and posts are not enough. There needs to be a larger infrastructure in place as well as creating a stricter protocol when accepting users (identification and legitimate contact information).

Aside from my job with ESPN, once a semester I teach a class on the value and importance of reporting in the social media and digital age at my former graduate school of journalism and this is a major talking point. To create a better environment, one that can also be beneficial for business, social media platforms have to do so much more to protect their users. Freedom of speech is one thing, abusing its very principles is a whole other subject.

Please, let’s move forward. Here’s the full report.

Northampton Town’s togetherness

Speaking of empathy. A football club is more than just football. It’s also a family. Cue Northampton Town manager Jon Brady.

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