Liverpool’s ‘special’ trophy, Modric’s Madrid magic, more woe for Man United: Marcotti recaps the weekend

Football

What a weekend! European soccer was the gift that kept giving over a thrilling two-day span in which title hopes were boosted, the Carabao Cup was won (by Liverpool, over Chelsea), Luka Modric turned back the clock with a vital goal for Real Madrid and Man United felt more woe at the hands of Fulham, who wrapped up a 2-1 win at Old Trafford to show the scale of the task ahead.

Elsewhere, there are talking points galore for Barcelona (who enjoyed a restorative win), Almeria (the best winless team you’ve ever seen), Arsenal (who shrugged off a tricky Newcastle side) and Man City (no, Erling Haaland is not in a slump), among others.

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


Nobody does narratives like Liverpool, as Klopp says League Cup is ‘most special trophy he ever won’

That’s the thing about this sport. There’s rational logic and then there’s raw emotion, enhanced by context and storytelling. You assume that’s what Jurgen Klopp was hinting at when he said Sunday’s League Cup victory over Chelsea is the “most special” trophy he’s ever won.

Logic would say it shouldn’t be the case. Liverpool are top of the Premier League: They beat a team that’s 11th in the table, and they needed extra time to do it. Plus, this is the League Cup, which holds the importance among domestic trophies that Luc Longley did with the Chicago Bulls’ three-peat team of the late 1990s.

But no. Klopp said this was more special — more than the back-to-back crowns he won at Borussia Dortmund. More than winning the Champions’ League. More than guiding Liverpool to their first league title in thirty years. And you want to believe him.

You want to believe him because by the end of the game, the number of first-choice Liverpool players on the pitch (two) was half the number of Liverpool players who had never started a top-flight game before this season (four). Because he had gone into the game without his three leading scorers (Diogo Jota, Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez), without his best midfielder (Dominik Szoboszlai), without his most creative player (Trent Alexander-Arnold) and without his starting keeper (Alisson Becker). And because, just last month, he announced he was leaving the club come the end of the season.

Ogden: Liverpool’s Carabao Cup win showcases Klopp’s trust in youth

As for the game itself, toward the end of the second half it felt as if Chelsea’s game plan had worked. Liverpool had more of the ball, sure, but Mauricio Pochettino’s team were creating chances and Klopp’s crew was flagging. They were there for the taking and when Klopp — having already lost Ryan Gravenberch to injury — replaced three more starters (Andrew Robertson, Alexis Mac Allister and Cody Gakpo) with his backup left back (Konstantinos Tsimikas) and two youngsters (James McConnell and Jayden Danns, who’ve played a total of six top-flight minutes, combined) it felt like he was opting to live to fight another day.

Instead, in extra time, it was Chelsea who retreated as Liverpool’s youngsters took the game to them. (Before some pedant points this out, I know that the average of the two teams at that stage was comparable, but in terms of experience it was no contest.) In fact, Chelsea hardly showed up and when Pochettino, after the game, suggested his side were exhausted and opted to play for penalties, it made little sense to most. Especially because for most of extra time he had a fresh front three of Noni Madueke, Mykhailo Mudryk and Christopher Nkunku, all of whom came off the bench.

The fact that Liverpool’s 118th-minute winner came from captain Virgil van Dijk — whose future at the club is far from certain beyond June — only added to the drama. It may be “only” the League Cup, but when you factor in the context, yeah, you can see where Klopp is coming from.

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Burley: Chelsea blew a huge opportunity in Carabao Cup final

Craig Burley says Chelsea blew a huge opportunity in their defeat to a depleted Liverpool in the Carabao Cup final.

As for Chelsea, while Pochettino’s plan almost came to fruition in the 90 minutes — though, to be fair, presumably it didn’t involve Moisés Caicedo being spared a red for that tackle on Gravenberch — he has to bear responsibility for what we saw in extra time. This was Chelsea’s Champions League and when it mattered, they shrivelled up.

Modric’s wonder strike powers Madrid over Sevilla on Sergio Ramos‘ return

Sometimes, you can do everything right and still need a sprinkling of stardust to get over the line. Real Madrid dominated Sevilla for much of their encounter on Sunday night: Fede Valverde hit the post, Lucas Vázquez had a goal disallowed, and Orjan Nyland pulled off a string of remarkable saves. And so, 15 minutes from the end, having tried everything else, Carlo Ancelotti called on the aging pixie otherwise known as Luka Modric. A sumptuous bit of ball control, a gorgeous strike and the ice was broken.

Real Madrid 1, Sevilla 0.

By all accounts, Modric is unhappy with his playing time: only Dani Ceballos has fewer minutes among Madrid’s corps of midfielders. The reality is he’s 38 now and at some point, Madrid need to move on. They can’t carry both him and Toni Kroos in the starting XI, while the gifted young midfielders who’ve arrived in recent years (Eduardo Camavinga, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Jude Bellingham) ought to get the playing time.

However, there are moments when Modric’s class can make all the difference. Sunday was one of them, there may be more than the stretch in LaLiga and in the Champions League. He may not be ready to be a part-time player, but given how special those cameo appearances are, he can be critical for the club between now and the end of the season.

A last word on Sergio Ramos. He received a standing ovation before the game and a rash of abuse doing it. Some may wonder whether it was disrespectful to a guy who made 671 appearances for the club over 16 seasons and won everything in sight. Far from it. He knows he’s the sort of player opposing fans love to hate and once the game kicked off, there could have been no greater sign of respect for him than the abuse from the Bernabeu.

Man United stumble at home to Fulham as Ten Hag dons rose-tinted glasses

Freshly installed minority owner — and, in an unusual arrangement, club operator — Sir Jim Ratcliffe was in attendance at Old Trafford a few days after his coming out party and if he achieves his goal of taking United to the level of Manchester City in three years, plenty of feature writers will cite this 2-1 home defeat to Fulham to show how far the club has come.

What will they remember? They’ll note that Erik ten Hag was missing a number of starters (Luke Shaw, Rasmus Hojlund, Lisandro Martínez), but then Fulham were without João Palhinha, Willian and Raúl Jiménez. In relative terms, it nets out; if anything, you might argue the visitors were more disadvantaged in terms of resources. That Marcus Rashford showed — again — that centre-forward isn’t his bag, at least in this system. That when Ten Hag decided to take off the debutant Omari Forson just seven minutes into the second half, he didn’t turn to Antony (his record signing, who came on only in the ninth minute of injury time) but rather Christian Eriksen. And that United’s goal was made possible by some improbably stellar attacking play from (ahem) Harry Maguire, the guy the club did everything to shift the previous summer.

In other words, they’ll remember a mess, which is what Saturday’s afternoon — after five straight wins — turned out to be for United.

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Nicol: Fulham outplayed Man United at Old Trafford

Steve Nicol reacts to Fulham’s 2-1 win over Manchester United in the Premier League.

They may also remember Ten Hag’s positivity.

“After one defeat you have to see the bigger picture and the bigger picture looks very good,” he said. “There are many good players coming up and real high-potential players. They will be getting better so definitely we are going in the right direction.”

Really?

Then again, it doesn’t matter what you or I think, or even Ten Hag. It matters what Ratcliffe (and the Glazers who, lest we forget, still control the club) thinks. And Saturday felt like the proverbial slide backward after some baby steps forward.

Milan pegged back by Atalanta, but Rafael Leão dispenses magic … again

Rafael Leao scored what might have been the best goal of the weekend to give Milan the lead against Atalanta. The Rossoneri scored early, created chances and then capitulated when Olivier Giroud gave up a soft penalty.

Look past the result and to the performance and this was one of the betters we’ve seen this season. The fact that it came after defeat in the Europa League is equally encouraging.

Most encouraging was Leao’s performance. His critics say that, for all his goals and skills, he occasionally disengages from games, disappearing and not in his comfort zone high up on the left flank. Not against Atalanta. He worked hard off the ball and was a continuous thorn in the opposition defence. When he plays like this, he’s among the best in the world.

Raphinha returns and Barcelona enjoy their first stress-free win in a long time

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How ‘brilliant’ Barcelona cruised past Getafe in LaLiga

Luis Garcia praises Barcelona after their 4-0 win against Getafe.

Barcelona gifted their fans something they hadn’t seen at the Montjuic since September, when they enjoyed back-to-back 5-0 victories against Real Betis and Antwerp: a victory that was fun, stress-free and convincing. Xavi had been praying for calm in this most tumultuous of seasons and he got it, with Raphinha, back in the starting lineup, doing his part as Barca tore Getafe apart in transition.

Raphinha, as he often does, could have scored more than once and on days like these, he can be close to unplayable. It’s Barca’s bad luck that he happens to play the same wide right position as Lamine Yamal. That — and injuries — explain why he has started just nine league games this season. But perhaps, with Gavi out, it’s high time Xavi experiment with a way of getting both players on the pitch.

Bayern Munich stay alive in title race with Leipzig win, but where would they be without Kane?

When the clock hit 90 minutes between Bayern and Leipzig on Saturday, Thomas Tuchel’s crew were 10 points back with 11 games to go.

Can you make up 10 points in 11 games? Mathematically, yes. Realistically, barring divine intervention, no. So Harry Kane‘s late, late winner means they still have a shot, albeit one that’s dependent on a Leverkusen implosion.

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Kane urges Bayern to ‘keep fighting’ after late win vs. Leipzig

Harry Kane speaks after scoring a brace in Bayern Munich’s 2-1 win over RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga.

Overall, it was another unconvincing performance from Bayern, with Benjamin Sesko forcing a world-class save from Manuel Neuer that could have turned the game. The odd bright spots, like Jamal Musiala, simply leave you frustrated that such a talent wasn’t being better harnessed.

And then there’s Kane. A return of 27 goals in 23 league games is nigh on superhuman, especially on a team that’s not clicking. It’s also a sign of how much Bayern have regressed. Last year, they had no real centre-forward and managed to sneak their way to the title. This year, they have one who is re-writing the record books and they’re miles off the pace.

Arteta finds right formula in bounce-back win vs. Newcastle

The visit of Newcastle United on Saturday night was a trap game for Arsenal and Mikel Arteta. Coming on the heels of that turgid defeat away to Porto, it was critical to banish any fallout. And Arsenal did just that, with Arteta employing what, in my opinion, is the right formula against sides who look to play on the counter-attack.

It involves Kai Havertz at centre-forward and Jorginho in midfield. The setup gives you creativity and control in midfield, plus physicality up front without losing any of the high press that you get with, say, Gabriel Jesus.

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Burley: Arsenal, Newcastle wasn’t much of a contest

Craig Burley breaks down everything that went right for Arsenal in its 4-1 win over Newcastle.

I assume we don’t see this more regularly because when Oleksandr Zinchenko is fit, he likes to step into midfield and do the playmaking, while Jorginho also lacks the stamina to play every game. But against certain opponents, it makes Arsenal a much-better rounded team and gives them the best possible chance of winning.

Mbappe substituted as PSG sneak late equalizer vs. Rennes

Paris Saint-Germain went 1-0 down to a peach of a goal by Amine Gouiri and only equalized deep in injury time when Goncalo Ramos was gifted a penalty (by the referee, with the complicity of VAR). Rennes are a decent side, but they were coming off a Thursday night European game unlike PSG, who had all week to prepare. That ought to give Luis Enrique food for thought.

Beyond that, the decision to sub off Kylian Mbappé just after the hour mark — and Luis Enrique’s explanation of “we have to get used to playing without him” — inevitably will make headlines. Only, I’m not sure that it should.

PSG have an 11-point lead in Ligue 1 and Mbappe is leaving in the summer barring another late change of heart. The fact is, they don’t need him to win the league. Use those games to plot out the post-Kylian PSG while keeping him fresh for the Champions League and Coupe de France.

Lay off Haaland: It’s a team game

Erling Haaland doesn’t need me to defend him (Pep Guardiola already does it daily anyway). But while his missed chances — he had another clutch of them in the 1-0 win over Bournemouth — are eye-catching and suggest that last year’s 52 goals in 53 games were maybe an overachievement and not the norm, it doesn’t really affect the broader picture.

City have taken 40 of a possible 42 points in their last 14 games. Haaland played in the last seven of them, scoring three goals. He has 22 on the season and there’s a very good chance he’ll hit the 30-goal mark for the third time in his career, which is pretty good when you’re 23 years old.

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Why Man City have struggled recently

Steve Nicol and Craig Burley react to Manchester City’s narrow win over Bournemouth.

Feel free to worry when Haaland becomes City’s only attacking outlet, his goals dry up and City stop getting results. But he’s not City’s only attacking outlet (Phil Foden scored the winner Saturday), his goals haven’t dried up and City are still cranking out results.

It’s fair to hold Haaland to account since he’s costing the club a lot of money. But even a large number of spurned chances doesn’t mean it’s time to go all Chicken Little.

If you really feel like fretting, be concerned about the second half against Bournemouth, which was decidedly subpar. But that’s a team issue (and a credit to Bournemouth), not merely a function of Haaland’s missed chances.

Inter stomp Lecce and it’s all about 100: Inter’s on-pace points total and Lautaro’s goals…

Lautaro Martínez scored twice in the 4-0 win away to Lecce, taking his seasonal total to 25 and his career total in Serie A to 101. At 26, if he sticks around, he has every chance to double that total by the time he’s done, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that just eight players in the history of the league have reached that mark and, for much of his Inter career, he was more of a support striker.

The win also put Inter on pace for a 100-point season. These have become less rare across all leagues, in recent years, but it’s still a remarkable achievement. Oh, and they’ve lost just twice all year long in all competitions. But maybe the best news for Simone Inzaghi is that he was able to rotate heavily and keep many of his regulars fresh with a view toward the round of 16, second leg against Atletico Madrid — Inter lead 1-0 — in the Champions League.

Atletico Madrid held by Almeria, football’s greatest-ever winless side

Diego Simeone made six changes after the midweek Champions League game away to Inter and that may or may not have had a lot to do with the fact they were held to a 2-2 by Almeria on the road. Given Athletic Bilbao’s defeat at Betis on Sunday, there was no real harm done — in fact, they increased their control of fourth place by a point — and they did have a late chance to take all three points, which Álvaro Morata somehow spurned. No point losing sleep over it, but here is where Almeria deserve a word, if not two.

Twenty-six games into the season, Almeria have yet to win a league game and are 12 points from safety with 12 games to go, which means they’re pretty much down. And yet, they’ve played some very good football, their xG difference would see them 15th in the league and they’ve performed especially well against the top five sides in the league. I doubt any winless side ever in any league has looked this good 26 games into the season.

Saturday also marked the first start for Luka Romero, who arrived on loan from Milan in January. Four years ago, he was a hugely hyped youngster who made his league debut at 15 years of age. He hasn’t really kicked on since then, though he did score both Almeria goals, one of them a real beauty. Imagine the story if he were the guy whose heroics keep them up.

Déjà vu: Another late Juventus winner and another subpar performance

Juventus revel in their never-say-die mentality and cite the many late goals as evidence, though I don’t really see it that way. If you need an injury-time goal to get three points at home against Frosinone, a tiny side that’s won one league game since November, you might want to take it as a sign that things aren’t working instead.

Against Frosinone they took an early lead, fell behind 2-1 and then equalised to go into the second half at 2-2. They laid siege to the Frosinone goal after the break and the winner — courtesy of defender Daniele Rugani, of all people — was probably deserved but the fact that they really kicked it up a notch only once Federico Chiesa and Filip Kostic (two of the veterans Max Allegri claims are so important to a winning team) were replaced by Tim Weah and Kenan Yildiz ought to be a concern.

Why? For a start, it’s evidence that Juve, despite being second in the table, struggle to impose themselves on weaker opponents. And, frankly, that’s on the manager. Especially when he’s been there for three years and is one of the highest-paid in Europe.

Dortmund in self-destruct mode once again

This should have been really straightforward. With Leipzig losing the previous day in Munich, all Borussia Dortmund had to do was beat Hoffenheim, a side that hadn’t won since early December and had very little to play for. Pull it off and you’re four points clear in fourth place.

Instead, two of their more experienced players — Emre Can and Nico Schlotterbeck — contrived to concede an early goal and after Dortmund took the lead, rather than managing the game, they proceeded to throw it all away, losing 3-2.

Beyond the damage in the table — which is not irreparable — you wonder about the mental harm games like these do. Dortmund’s possession with the lead was sterile, their defensive reactivity in transition wanting. Much as I like Edin Terzic, you can’t help but point fingers at the guy in charge.

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