Ten Hag, Casemiro key to Man United’s UCL return, and how to stop racism in football after Vinicius abuse?

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.

Manchester United are back in the Champions League

Man United secured Champions League football on Thursday after a 4-1 victory against Chelsea so we begin with a nod to the Red Devils. First, let’s talk about Casemiro, who scored the opener and had a tremendous match (did you see his no-look pass to Jadon Sancho?) but most importantly, has been a major factor when talking about United’s success this season.

Back in February, when United won the Carabao Cup, ending their six-year trophy drought, it was the Brazilian who scored the opening goal, but notably I remember how he reprimanded Bruno Fernandes after the final whistle, after they had won the trophy, because of a bad play towards the end of the game. That’s Casemiro through and through. A born competitor who wants to win no matter what, and that’s what Man United need.

The second person is obvious. Erik ten Hag deserves so much recognition for what he has achieved in his first season managing the club. He has solved many problems thrown at him through the season (Glazers’ possible sale, Cristiano Ronaldo’s exit, Mason Greenwood’s suspension following his arrest) and yet, the former Ajax manager established a culture that permeated all over the club. This is the most important factor when it comes to building success. In order to win, you have to create a culture that demands excellence because practice doesn’t make perfection, perfect practice makes perfection, and that’s Ten Hag football.

I was very surprised when he wasn’t nominated for Manager of the Season. Regardless, under Ten Hag, Man United may not have brought back the carbon-copy days of Sir Alex Ferguson, but finally, they have an auteur, a man who understands the importance of hard-earned accomplishments and a collective desire to compete with anyone.

There’s still work to do, that’s abundantly clear, and let’s not forget there’s one more trophy to win: the FA Cup against Manchester City and a chance to disrupt their treble chase.

United are a club that needs to challenge for the title, not just a top-four place, and much of it depends on how they handle the summer transfer window. “We make progress with this team and squad. But yeah, we need better players if we want to compete for the highest honours. Manchester City, they are playing outstanding football, so we have a way to go. We are in the right direction but we have work to do,” said Ten Hag.

A salute to this club and their incredible season as Wednesday’s 1-1 result against Manchester City confirmed Europa League football for the first time in their history. The equalizer was scored in magnificent fashion by 19-year-old Julio Enciso, a young, brilliant Paraguayan talent who signed for $12 million from Libertad. Enciso is just another example of Brighton’s savvy transfer strategy that focuses on undiscovered gems who are later turned into stars for significant profit. Moises Caicedo, Alexis Mac Allister are others who will surely leave this summer for big money.

The other valuable asset is the manager. Former manager Graham Potter built a foundation and Roberto De Zerbi elevated it. Word around the campfire is that when the club’s owner Tony Bloom and his team met the Italian head coach for the job last year, it took him one interview to hire him.

Hamilton: How De Zerbi took Brighton to Europa League

Brighton’s project — prepare, identify, develop, produce, repeat — is a nice antidote to overspending narratives around the league that focus so much on shiny reputations as opposed to potential and need. It will be interesting to see how they handle a busier schedule next season, now that they have to worry about European competition. Regardless, it’s a good problem to have and one that’s welcomed by the shrewdest club in the Premier League.

For 10 seasons, Bayern Munich have dominated the Bundesliga. They are the Goliath in a sea of Davids. But their loss to RB Leipzig last weekend allowed Borussia Dortmund, who have kept plugging away, to take control. And that’s exactly what they did after beating Augsburg 3-0 last Sunday and taking top spot in the league. One final match remains. Win against Mainz (or an equal/lesser result from Bayern Munich vs. Cologne) and BVB will have their first league title since 2011-12.

It’s a remarkable achievement when you take a few factors into consideration. They said goodbye to their leading man and focal point Erling Haaland last summer and replaced him with Sebastian Haller from Ajax in June. A month later, as the club embarked on a new journey with their new striker, Haller was sadly diagnosed with testicular cancer, thus keeping out of action in order to get treatment. Well, two surgeries and four sessions of chemotherapy later and Haller returned to training in January. Three weeks later, he scored against Freiburg on World International Cancer Day. The goals have kept coming and last Sunday, his second-half brace helped the aforementioned 3-0 victory, sending Dortmund to the top of the table.

This is an incredible story and an inspiring achievement from Haller and the professionals who helped him back to his best. As someone who has seen too many family members leave this world (including my parents) at the cost of cancer, I will be rooting for Haller and Dortmund this weekend. Because these stories of redemption are worthy of celebration.

It’s incredibly difficult for me to express in a few paragraphs my anger, frustration and sadness in regard to the racist abuse continuously aimed at the young, Black Brazilian star and the countless examples — past and present — of racism and xenophobia toward Black players. But one thing is simple to understand. You’re either part of the problem or the solution, and if you don’t see how racism infiltrates society, becoming a systemic issue, notably in Spain and other parts of European football, then you’re enabling the heinous acts, directly or indirectly.

No, not everyone is racist but here’s what people fail to understand: a failure to acknowledge racism, turning the victim into a perpetrator for your own narrative, is also a contributor to racism. Fans see their club as a reflection of themselves, so when Valencia fans — or any club — become defensive, it’s because they are protecting their own identity and reputation at the cost of challenging the only thing that deserves attention: the racist act.

The same goes with the league. LaLiga’s obsession with its own persona and reputation congests the actual problem, so then what happens? We go in circles. Hashtags are created, banners and social media campaigns in order to put a proverbial bandage on the wound. Even a press conference from LaLiga president Javier Tebas to suggest there is no problem at all, is all part of the strategy to protect an image over the fight.

So, enough is enough. It’s time for legitimate action. Arsenal legend Ian Wright said it perfectly in his podcast. “I think that the time now has definitely come for, ‘I’m not playing, walking off,'” he said this week. “To walk off now and affect the money. If they do that and don’t play, they start worrying, because when it comes to the money, that’s when they worry.”

There has to be change and it has to be, as Wright said, impactful. It has to be resilient. It has to be communal. It has to be forceful. It has to be effective. So follow the money.

After Sunday’s final games of the Premier League season, two out of these three clubs are joining Southampton in the Championship next season, and the sad thing about it is that in one way or another, they all could do with time in the lower division in order to press the reset button. Everton seem the likeliest to escape the drop because quite simply, they control their own destiny. A win at home against Bournemouth does it.

Alternatively, if Leeds United don’t beat Tottenham and Leicester City fail to beat West Ham, then the Toffees escape. But we have seen crazy things on the last day of the season so I’m sure the drama will unfold as the games develop. Leeds need a win against Spurs and a few things to go their way, so I don’t know if Big Sam can work his magic with this particular squad. Dean Smith’s Foxes salvaged a crucial point against Newcastle so a victory against the Hammers coupled with an Everton loss or draw (Leicester have a better goal differential) could do the trick.

As someone whose club has experienced relegation, I don’t wish this type of scenario on anyone, but that’s the reality of the Premier League.

Juventus, you’re the football equivalent of Blockbuster. Once the dominating institution for video rentals (I do miss it so much), it eventually failed to innovate with the technological changes. For Juve, once the most feared teams in Europe, it’s been a horrific season. In November, the club’s president Andrea Agnelli and the board resigned after an investigation by the Turin Public Prosecutor’s Office discovered fraudulent accounting and alleged hidden payments to players. The case was opened and a 15-point deduction was given, only for the club to be temporarily cleared after an appeal in April.

A new trial followed and this week, it gave out a 10-point deduction, on the same day the club lost to Empoli 4-1. Juve are now 7th in Serie A and out of a Champions League place, but most importantly, their future is on a thin sheet of ice. I have no idea where to begin with them but my friend Adam Digby said it well on Twitter:

Who knows what’s next for Juventus but it seems that just like Blockbuster’s comedy section, their reign is done.

Congrats to Rachel Daly, Aston Villa’s first ever Player of the Season in the Barclay’s WSL. The England international has been an absolute force this season. 21 games, 21 goals.

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