Mitrovic madness, Barca’s Clasico comeback, Haaland the shark: Weekend Review

Football

Another weekend of European football is in the books and, once again, there was drama across the board. Fulham turned a one-goal lead into a red-tinted calamity at Manchester United in the FA Cup, while Bayern Munich slipped up to let Borussia Dortmund take the lead in the Bundesliga title race.

Elsewhere, Christophe Galtier and Antonio Conte look on borrowed time at Paris Saint-Germain and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, while two events had us all thinking Thierry Henry had come out of retirement.

ESPN correspondents Rob Dawson, Julien Laurens, Luis Miguel Echegaray, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler break down the most interesting and important stuff you need to know about the weekend.


Talking points

Mitrovic deserves a long suspension after FA Cup chaos

Marco Silva suggested after Fulham’s FA Cup loss to Manchester United that striker Aleksandar Mitrovic should escape a lengthy ban for barging into referee Chris Kavanagh, but behaviour like that on a football pitch cannot go unpunished.

Mitrovic will get an automatic suspension after his red card, but the FA should make an example of the striker by making it longer. Referees all over the world at all levels of the game face abuse from players every weekend and it will only stop when incidents are dealt with in the harshest possible way.

– Dawson: Man United seize on Fulham’s indiscipline

The message after Mitrovic’s push on Kavanagh has to be that man-handling an official in any way is completely unacceptable and that will only happen if the Serbia international is sidelined for a long time. Paulo Di Canio received an 11-game suspension for pushing over referee Paul Alcock in 1998 and Mitrovic should face something similar. The FA insist they are serious about protecting referees and they’ve been given a chance to show they are serious.

Even if it was a moment of madness which he now regrets, Mitrovic has to pay the price for his actions. — Dawson

Bayern’s slip opens the door for Dortmund

It’s been a theme in recent Bundesliga seasons that Bayern have lacked a champion’s consistency, yet still manage to amass enough points from those poorer performances to remain head and shoulders above their peers. But this weekend, that ability eluded the Bavarians when they needed it, and Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen has given Dortmund the advantage once more at the top of the table.

Folks, we have a title race.

– Watch replay: Leverkusen 2-1 Bayern Munich (ESPN+, US only)

After a super lively start by Bayern and a string of early shots in the opening 20 minutes, Leverkusen fans would have been forgiven for expecting a tough afternoon. Joshua Kimmich gave the visitors the lead, with his shot taking a chunky deflection on its way to the roof of the net. But that would be as good as it got for a sloppy Bayern side who, without the injured Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, were punished in full after the break.

Amine Adli won two penalties for the hosts in the second half, each of which was only awarded after VAR review and after referee Tobias Stieler had awarded the Leverkusen winger a yellow card for simulation. In both cases, the cautions were obviously overturned as replays showed both Benjamin Pavard and Dayot Upamecano made clear and consequential contact. Up stepped Exequiel Palacios to beat Bayern keeper Yann Sommer on both occasions, and Leverkusen — led by the super-stylish Xabi Alonso — could then celebrate a famous win.

Bayern’s slip means Dortmund (who thundered past FC Cologne 6-1 on Saturday) finished the weekend in first place for the first time since Matchday 2 in 2019-20, a trivia note that might surely fuel some good vibes for BVB over the international break. All eyes are on April 1, when Dortmund visit Bayern in the first round of games after the break, to see whether this title race is for real. — Tyler

PSG going nowhere with Galtier

It was, without a doubt, one of the worst tactical decisions of the season. Christophe Galtier, the Paris Saint-Germain manager, thought it was a good idea to position Juan Bernat, a 5-foot-7 left-back, as a centre-back in a back three in their 2-0 defeat against Rennes on Sunday. Rennes are a very good Ligue 1 team with great firepower in attack but Galtier’s decision to start Bernat was ridiculous, and guess what happened? The Spaniard was at fault on the first goal Paris conceded. He got done like a novice playing out of position. What a surprise! And, by the way, Bernat also made a mistake for Rennes’ second goal.

This is more proof that Galtier is out of his depth; he has no clue of what he is doing or of what he should be doing. Compared to the previous clubs he has been in charge of — Saint-Etienne, Lille and Nice — PSG’s level of talent, pressure and expectations is too high for the 56-year-old. He cannot manage a dressing room like the one at PSG. He is too limited tactically, not good enough in his man management and has struggled to create any style for this team. He has lost four league matches already, all in 2023, to add to elimination against Bayern in the last 16 of the Champions League and against Marseille in the Coupe de France.

The season so far is a failure and even if PSG win the league again — which is not a given at the moment seeing how badly they are playing — it will still be a failure. Much more was expected this year and Galtier is mainly responsible.

The problem might be bigger and deeper than the manager and of course the players, the sporting director Luis Campos, the club led by the chairman Nasser al Khelaifi also have to take some of the blame. Galtier should finish the campaign, but it would make no sense from a Paris point of view to still have him on the bench next season. He is not taking the club forward and he is not good enough. — Laurens

Barca’s LaLiga to lose

Barcelona‘s 2-1 Clasico win over Real Madrid at Camp Nou on Sunday all but secured the LaLiga title for Barca for the first time since 2019.

Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois admitted as much after the match: “We have to be honest. They’d have to lose four games, and we’d have to win them all. Nothing is impossible, but it’s very difficult.”

– Marsden: Barca’s 100th Clasico win has decided the LaLiga race

Franck Kessie‘s 92nd minute goal gave Barca the three points as the home side hit Madrid, desperate for a winner themselves, on the counter-attack. Just 10 minutes earlier, Marco Asensio looked to have revived the title race, only for his close-range finish to be disallowed with a narrow offside call. It was an evenly matched game — both teams had good spells — but Barca were more dangerous overall, with 17 shots to Madrid’s 11, seven on target to Madrid’s three, for an xG of 1.64 to Madrid’s 0.58.

The visitors were at their best when chasing a win late on after coach Carlo Ancelotti introduced the dynamic Dani Ceballos, Rodrygo and Asensio, only for Kessie to break their hearts in added time.

Madrid will be back at Camp Nou on April 5, looking for revenge in the Copa del Rey semifinals, as their attention turns to their preferred competition, the Champions League. As for Barca, they can relax — just a little — and enjoy the rest of the league season, with the pressure off. — Kirkland


Goals

Doyle calls game for Sheffield United

It was one of the most thrilling encounters in the FA Cup this season, a proper Championship battle between Sheffield United and Blackburn Rovers in which the latter had less than 10 minutes to hang on and seal a place in the semifinals.

But in front of their fans at Bramall Lane, the Blades overturned the result in magnificent fashion. Oli McBurnie‘s equalizer in the 81st minute made it 2-2 and with extra time looking certain, Manchester City loanee Tommy Doyle scored a beautiful goal from way outside the box in the 91st minute to give Paul Heckingbottom’s squad a famous win.

Sheffield United, currently second in the Championship with high hopes for a return to the Premier League, now have a semifinal spot in the FA Cup. The only caveat? Their next opponent is City, and Doyle sadly won’t be able to feature against his parent club.

Oh, well. It’s the Cup isn’t it? Great, almost impossible things have happened. You’re allowed to dream, Sheffield United. Even if your next opponent is the Godzilla that is Man City. — Echegaray

Zaccagni or Henry?

Mattia Zaccagni will never ever forget March 19, 2023. His goal was the only one in Lazio‘s huge victory against AS Roma in the Derby della Capitale. His winning strike, just after the hour mark and after a clever — and maybe lucky — touch from Felipe Anderson, has taken Lazio to second in the Serie A table, five points clear of their archrivals and Roman neighbours in fifth place.

It is a huge step towards Champions League qualification for Maurizio Sarri’s team. They dominated the ball against a side reduced to 10 men after 32 minutes but struggled to really create much, until Zaccagni’s goal. The precision and curve on his finish was Thierry Henry-esque.

Lazio have now done the double over Roma in the league for the first time since the 2011-12 season and Sunday was very much Zaccagni’s day. Amongst Italian players, only Vincenzo Grifo at Freiburg (16) has been directly involved in more goals than Zaccagni (13 with nine goals and four assists in 24 games) this season in the big five leagues, which makes Roberto Mancini’s decision to not call him up for Italy next two matches hard to understand. Nevertheless, the 27-year-old is the new Emperor of Rome. — Laurens

Geertruida sends Feyenoord into dreamland

The Eredivisie took what should be a decisive turn on Sunday as Feyenoord took on Ajax Amsterdam. The title seemed to hinge on this game: Feyenoord nursed a three-point lead over their hosts prior to kick off with nine games remaining, meaning whoever won this weekend had a major psychological edge heading into the international break.

Santi Gimenez fired Feyenoord in front after just five minutes, before Ajax took charge of the game and held a 2-1 lead thanks to Edson Alvarez and Dusan Tadic. Sebastian Szymanski tied it at 2-2 with about 40 minutes to play and after plenty of nervy passages, the stage was set for Lutsharel Geertruida to steal it four minutes from time. The local lad, born and raised in the Feyenoord academy, was celebrating his first Dutch national team call-up already this week and got to be the hero on Sunday, heading in David Hancko‘s cross to take all three points.

The table makes good reading for Feyenoord fans: they’re now six points clear with eight games left. If they go on to win a first title since 2016, remember this moment. — Tyler


Teams in trouble

Tottenham are teetering on the brink

Tottenham Hotspur are fourth in the Premier League with 10 games left to make sure they qualify for the next season’s Champions League, but you wouldn’t know it listening to Antonio Conte’s news conference after the 3-3 draw with Southampton on Saturday. Conte has every right to be frustrated after watching his team concede twice in the last 13 minutes against the bottom side in the division to throw away two valuable points but there’s a real possibility that his post-match rant — aimed at the club, players and owner Daniel Levy — will have wider consequences.

Spurs are still very much in the race for the top four, but there’s a danger the season could implode if the squad stop playing for their manager. Newcastle United and Liverpool are both within touching distance of Spurs in fourth, and coaches Eddie Howe and Jurgen Klopp will have secretly enjoyed watching Conte set fire to everything on Saturday. It will only fuel the sense that the wheels are coming off at Tottenham and that will suit the teams hoping to pinch a place in the Champions League.

Momentum can have a huge influence during the run-in and Spurs look like they’re going backwards. — Dawson

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Conte blasts Spurs in sensational post-match conference

Antonio Conte lets loose on Tottenham in a furious post-match press conference following their 3-3 draw with Southampton.

Rayo’s penalty shambles sees them slip

Passing a penalty kick: spontaneous, free-thinking genius when it works; embarrassing showboating when it doesn’t. For every Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez — who pulled it off for Barcelona in 2016 — there’s a Robert Pires and that man again, Henry, who got it wrong for Arsenal in 2005.

On Saturday, Rayo Vallecano‘s Oscar Trejo and Isi Palazon joined the elite club of players to have attempted football’s cheekiest move. It didn’t go well. Rayo’s LaLiga game with Girona had already provided its fair share of entertainment — Trejo and Isi scoring one spectacular goal each to put the home side 2-1 up — when Rayo were awarded a first-half penalty. Trejo’s initial effort was saved, but when it had to be retaken, the Rayo captain opted to roll the ball to Isi, who — stretching for the ball — shot over the bar to red faces all round.

Girona’s second-half equaliser, leaving the match tied at 2-2, only made matters worse.

Rayo are having an excellent season but it’s now six games without a win, dropping to eighth in the table and losing ground in the race for European football. — Kirkland


Weekend MVP

Haaland dominates yet again

Through the years, football fans have had the pleasure of witnessing many marvelous players who have thrilled us with their creativity on the pitch. Some have mesmerized us with their footwork or educated us with their precise vision; others have dazzled with their technique. Ultimately, as football fanatics and lovers of the game, when it comes to the plethora of talent across the globe, we are privileged enough to say that we have seen it all…

… and yet I don’t think we have seen anything like Erling Haaland.

Let’s run through the numbers. Earlier this week, the Norwegian striker kicked things off with a casual five-goal performance against RB Leipzig in the Champions League, making history and becoming the only player alongside Messi to score that many goals in a UCL knockout stage match, and one of three (Luiz Adriano the other) to score five in a Champions League game. Oh, and he broke Tommy Johnson’s Manchester City club record of 38 goals in a single season, which had stood for 94 years.

Then on Saturday in the FA Cup, Haaland notched his sixth hat trick of the season in a 6-0 quarterfinal victory against Burnley.

“Every goal means a lot to me and to win 6-0 is amazing against a really, really good Burnley side. I have not set a goal target,” said Haaland after the game. “I’m a striker, I love to score goals, but my focus is not on scoring. It is to get good chances, and then there is a good chance of me scoring, we have to go again.”

This is what makes Haaland so special. Aside from his superhuman physical attributes and incredible abilities on the pitch, Haaland’s mindset is different to almost any other striker we have ever seen. He doesn’t think about goals. He thinks about the opportunity to score them, meaning that his only objective in a game is to create a chance, not a goal.

A shark has to keep moving otherwise it will die, and this is how I see Haaland, a player who needs to keep searching for chances by constantly moving around the pitch. There is no opportunity he won’t seek to exploit.

The scariest part? He’s still not the finished product. My friends: Haaland is inevitable. — Echegaray

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