With all the attention being paid to the football in Las Vegas this weekend, the other football across Europe’s top five leagues was jam-packed with numerous huge matches that could decide titles and also paint a picture to see how teams will prepare in the European competitions with the UEFA Champions League and Europa League returning after this weekend.
In Spain, we saw Real Madrid bring surprise packages Girona back to earth with a 4-0 thumping at the Santiago Bernabeu. Meanwhile in Germany, we saw Bayer Leverkusen continued their unbeaten run at the top of the Bundesliga following an impressive 3-0 win over Bayern Munich, and in France, Paris Saint-Germain defeated Lille 3-1 to continue top of Ligue 1.
On Sunday, 16-year-old Lamine Yamal salvaged a draw for Barcelona against relegation-threatened Granada. Declan Rice was magnanimous as anyone can be in a 6-0 win over your former club. And two titans of women’s football kept one another at arm’s length in Division 1 Féminine.
Here’s what else you missed in European soccer this weekend.
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The lead: Yamal bails out Barça
Barcelona’s helter-skelter season continued with a 3-3 draw at home to a Granada side who are battling relegation and had scored just once in their previous four games. If not for the heroics of 16-year-old Lamine Yamal, the few whistles that greeted the final whistle at the Olympic Stadium may have been much louder.
Yamal scored the opening goal before Barça, beaten 5-3 here by Villarreal last month, once again allowed an opponent back into the game. Goals from Ricard Sánchez and on-loan Manchester United winger Facundo Pellistri either side of the break handed Granada the advantage. Robert Lewandowski levelled for Barça in the 63rd minute but, fewer than three minutes later, Granada restored their lead when Marc-André ter Stegen, returning from injury, failed to keep out an Ignasi Miquel header.
What was incredible from that point was that, with Barça chasing the game and the likes of Lewandowski, Ilkay Gündogan and Raphinha on the pitch, it was the teenager Yamal who the supporters were screaming for the ball to be given to.
With 10 minutes to play, he won possession himself and then hammered in a brilliant finish from 20 yards to earn Barça a point. He almost won it late on when a whipped cross bent just wide.
His brace means he is the only player to ever score three LaLiga goals before turning 17, with his increased importance both exciting and worrying. Exciting because there is something special about watching a generational talent emerge; worrying because we have seen what an over exposure to first-team football has done to the careers of Ansu Fati, Pedri and others before him.
Yamal is all Barça have to cling on to at the moment, though. The defending is horrific — and that is possibly being kind. Real Madrid fielded no centre-backs due to injuries against Girona on Saturday and were rarely troubled. Barça had four on the pitch against Granada, with Jules Koundé at right-back and Andreas Christensen in midfield, and looked like they were being asked to defend for the first ever time. At the time of Granada’s first goal, Barça had conceded from nine of the last 12 shots on target they had faced.
Barça are now 10 points behind leaders Madrid. The title is all but gone — they will be looking over their shoulders at Atlético Madrid and Athletic Club in the race for the top four. With this defending, they can forget about making an impact on the Champions League, too. There is only so much you can ask for from a 16-year-old. — Sam Marsden
Sunday talking points around the leagues
Chance at silverware slips through Arsenal fingers
For Arsenal, who had sagged to a loss in the Women’s Super League last time out, a response was needed as they hosted Manchester City — who had leap-frogged them in the WSL — at home in the fifth round of the FA Cup. With City in midweek action in the league cup, but Arsenal’s Wednesday game called off due to an unplayable pitch, the fine margins looked to be on the side of the hosts, who could boast a record 14 FA Cup titles.
Indeed, it was a game when the Gunners could or should have relied on muscle memory, diverting energy to extending their streak in the competition and trying to grab the decreasing amount of silverware available to them. Once again this season, though, the football was flat. The hosts were predictable and easily muted, although their opposition were having similar struggles, the top billing around the game had raised the expectations that the football was a long way from living up to.
Denied two good penalty shouts in the first half, City found the breakthrough late in the day when Laia Aleixandri stabbed the ball home at an uncleared corner for what was, on balance, a deserved lead. A goal down, the Gunners sparked into a close approximation to life and began to pressure the visiting defence, drawing a pair of late saves from Khiara Keating. Time was not on their side, however, and the hosts were made to pay for the dour 70 or so minutes of football they’d put in as again, a general lack of ideas was their undoing, the Gunners growing easier for teams to play against. City, not for the first time this season, finding a way through and relying on improvisation for a win. — Sophie Lawson
Mazzarri sets Napoli up to fail in Milan
Walter Mazzarri did promise, when he took over for Rudi Garcia in November, that he would not play his beloved back three at Napoli because that was not the style of the team. Alas! The promise didn’t last, and what happened at San Siro against AC Milan on Sunday night summed up very well the tenure of the 62-year-old so far.
He set up his team in a 3-5-2, which made little sense for a side that has been playing so well for the past few years in a 4-3-3. He set his team up to fail because once again, like they did in the defeat to Inter Milan or the scoreless draw at Lazio in recent weeks, his team struggled to get into the game.
Milan weren’t even that great on Sunday. They scored thanks to a lovely move and finish from Theo Hernández halfway through the first half, but they didn’t need to get much better considering how poor the defending champions were. They had one shot, off target, in the whole first 45 minutes and were heading for another disaster.
Mazzarri had to change something at the break and he did so by moving back to a 4-3-3 with Matteo Politano, a winger, coming on for Leo Ostigard, a centre-back. And guess what? Napoli had a much better second half. It still wasn’t enough to get back into the game, but at least they tried and put Milan under pressure, hitting the post late in the game and creating some real moments of danger.
This loss, their eighth in Serie A already this season and the fifth under Mazzarri, leaves Napoli ninth in the table, seven points behind fourth place.
For Milan, a comfortable third in the table, it was an important win to stay in touch with Juventus, just a point ahead with a game in hand. The Rossoneri didn’t play well and missed chances on the break in the second half, but they will be just happy enough with the three points. — Julien Laurens
Lyon’s perfect record blemished by old rivals PSG
Ten points adrift, albeit with a game in hand, coming into their second clash of the season with title favourites and perennial winners Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain were given a chance to show their recent evolution under Jocelyn Prêcheur. Lyon, who had routinely had PSG’s number over the years, were going through their own off-pitch evolution and the match took place under the watchful eye of their new présidente, Michele Kang.
The match was an expected tussle, and although the hosts had the better of the opening exchanges, PSG found their footing later in the first half and gave the current champions a run for their money. The images of the Parc OL showed a modestly filled lower bowl, a timely echo of the words from Kang’s news conference earlier this week about the work she’s already put in to growing the fanbase, or simply understanding why they’ve been so shy to support the grossly successful women’s team over the years.
On the pitch, the two teams sparred like old enemies who held little love for each other, the challenges were robust and referee Clemence Goncalves was happy to let the game flow, adding to the heady tension.
The second half saw Lyon assert their dominance once more, and during their best spell, PSG’s Polish shot-stopper Katarzyna Kiedrzynek kept her team in the game, quietly stealing the show before a wicked counter from the visitors broke the deadlock. With nine goals from her previous 13 league games for the Parisiennes, Tabitha Chawinga again came up with the goods, tearing away after the hour to carry an Eva Gaetino ball through the Lyon half, wrestling with Vanessa Gilles as she broke into the box and flicked the ball beyond Christiane Endler. The hosts continued to pile on the pressure and, as the clock ticked into the 90th minute, were handed an equaliser as Élisa de Almeida poked Delphine Cascarino’s teasing cross into her own net, settling the tie and sharing what spoils there were to be had.
With D1F having reverted to a playoff format to decide the title, PSG’s deficit won’t instantly declare Lyon as champions once more, but will rather give France’s second team confidence ahead of the playoffs at the end of the season. — Lawson
Americans abroad: Pepi adds to his tally
Ricardo Pepi netted his fifth Eredivisie goal of the season as PSV Eindhoven cruised 5-1 over FC Volendam. Now, five goals at this point in the Dutch season may not sound like a lot, but they’ve come in just 229 minutes (one every 45.8 minutes); imagine what he could do with more opportunity.
Christian Pulisic played 81 minutes in AC Milan’s 1-0 win over Napoli. Yunus Musah came off the bench for the Rossoneri in place of Ismaël Bennacer for a 25-minute cameo in the heart of midfield.
Luca de la Torre went the full 90 minutes as Celta Vigo looked set to earn a valuable point in their fight against relegation, only to concede in the 89th minute, allowing Getafe to snatch a 3-2 victory. And Folarin Balogun saw out the final 10 minutes of AS Monaco’s back-and-forth Derby de la Côte d’Azur win over Nice. — Austin Lindberg
News of the day
And finally, on Sunday …
A 6-0 defeat at home, at the hands of your rivals from across town, with your ex-captain scoring the sixth and final goal for the visitors? West Ham United fans had plenty of reason to walk out of London Stadium before the full-time whistle blew, but before the half-time whistle blew?
These were the scenes in Olympic Park in first-half stoppage time. Just minutes before these pictures, Arsenal had scored four times in a span of 15 minutes, giving the Gunners a commanding 4-0 lead before the interval.
“The train station in Stratford is going to be busy shortly” 😬
West Ham fans find a quick exit as their side goes 4 goals down against Arsenal in the first-half 😮 pic.twitter.com/OnZQfZziYr
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) February 11, 2024
Those who left didn’t spare themselves too much heartbreak, though. Bukayo Saka added his second from the penalty spot in the 63rd minute and Declan Rice refused to celebrate against his former club when he struck a worldie from distance two minutes later.
For the fans’ sake, let’s hope that the Stratford train station wasn’t as busy as it might’ve been had they stuck around for the full 90 minutes. — Lindberg
The lead: Real Madrid thrash Girona to send a message in LaLiga title race
Jude Bellingham didn’t quite last an hour at the Bernabeu, but that was more than enough. By the time the midfielder limped off with an ankle problem on 57 minutes, Real Madrid were 3-0 up against title rivals Girona. Bellingham had scored two of them, taking his tally for the season to 20 goals. The game was over, and maybe the LaLiga title race was, too.
The match billed as a title decider between the league’s two best teams finished Real Madrid 4-0 Girona. Brazilians Vinícius Júnior — who was outstanding — and Rodrygo opened and completed the scoring, either side of Bellingham’s brace. It was a statement win for Madrid, one that said: “Is this all you’ve got?” Right now, in this league, no other team comes close. Not even Girona.
Real Madrid now have a five-point lead at the top of the LaLiga table. There are still 14 games left to play, and plenty of room for more twists along the way. But after such a comprehensive win over their closest rivals — Girona couldn’t manage a single shot on target in 90 minutes — the feeling walking away from the Bernabeu was that only one team can win LaLiga this season.
Madrid led from the sixth minute, Vini putting them ahead with an out-of-nowhere, curling shot. On 35 minutes, Bellingham made it 2-0, Vinicius the provider this time, Bellingham rounding goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga and finishing from a tight angle. Any hope of a second-half fight from Girona was extinguished on 54 minutes, Bellingham scoring from close range after Vinicius’ run. By then, the England midfielder was already feeling his ankle and was substituted not long afterwards. Four minutes later, Rodrygo made it 4-0, as Girona fell apart. There was even time for Joselu to miss a late penalty, hitting the post.
Madrid’s comfort was all the more surprising given that they went into this game without a single fit centre-back after Antonio Rüdiger joined Nacho, David Alaba, and Éder Militão on the sidelines. An improvised partnership of Dani Carvajal and Aurélien Tchouaméni was never tested. Bellingham’s ankle is a major concern ahead of Madrid’s Champions League Round of 16 first leg away at RB Leipzig on Tuesday, and so is that scarcity of defensive cover. But in terms of LaLiga, it’s now Madrid’s title to lose. — Alex Kirkland
Saturday talking points around the leagues
Leverkusen distance Bayern with decisive win on a tumultuous day in the Bundesliga
On yet another Bundesliga matchday filled with fan protests, Bayer Leverkusen manifested their status as the current top dogs of the league by beating Bayern Munich 3-0. The kickoff of the highly anticipated clash was postponed only a few hours after the game between Union Berlin and VfL Wolfsburg encountered a lengthy interruption, as fans across Germany continued to demonstrate their opposition against negotiations between the German Football League (DFL) and potential outside investors.
As for the game at Leverkusen’s BayArena itself, Xabi Alonso and Thomas Tuchel, the two managers, underlined how much respect they had for one another by both deviating from their usual tactical formation, with Leverkusen playing a back four instead of a back three and Bayern switching from a back four to a back five.
While Bayern, who were two points behind Leverkusen going into the game, looked like they could impose their will on the hosts early on, Tuchel’s side seemed unable to maintain control of the affair after the first quarter hour, as Leverkusen took over and, for stretches of the game, dominated Bayern, which had not happened to the record champions in quite some time.
How Real Madrid stopped one of the most attacking teams in Spain
Craig Burley explains how Real Madrid managed to completely shut down one of the best attacking teams in Spain.
In a typical football moment, Josip Stanisic, who currently plays for Leverkusen on loan from Bayern, scored the go-ahead goal in the 18th minute. The guests were unable to stop a quick attacking play by Alonso’s side and Sacha Boey, the recently signed full-back, acted indecisively in his attempt to mark Stanisic.
Anyone who expected Bayern to respond to such an early setback in vigorous fashion was probably disappointed because Leverkusen kept the game mostly under control moving forward, as Tuchel scrambled to find ideas to inject more life into his team. In the end, Leverkusen, who had previously won three games thanks to last-second goals and appeared to be running out of gas a bit, were simply the better team, even without a few of their usual starters.
Alonso and his players have just laid the groundwork for dethroning Bayern in the Bundesliga for the first time since 2013. — Constantin Eckner
PSG’s B team does the job against Lille
Four days before PSG’s Champions League last 16 first leg against Real Sociedad at the Parc des Princes, manager Luis Enrique decided to rotate his team heavily to face Lille in Ligue 1. No Kylian Mbappé, Bradley Barcola, Marquinhos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Vitinha, or Warren Zaïre-Emery in the starting lineup as they were all rested before Wednesday’s clash. It was a risk considering that the northern side, who were fourth in the table before the game, have been one of the best teams in France this season. And PSG only got a point in the reverse fixture a few weeks ago. But the Spaniard will be delighted by the performance of the usual subs.
Not only did the Parisians secure a solid 3-1 win despite going a goal down just six minutes after Yusuf Yaziçi shocked the league leaders, but the players who needed to make a difference did so. Gonçalo Ramos and Randal Kolo Muani have both been struggling since joining in the summer from Benfica and Eintracht Frankfurt in big-money moves but they scored a goal each against Lille. Fabián Ruiz was efficient, Danilo Pereira was solid at the back, and Keylor Navas in goal, shockingly in his first league start since May 2022, did what he had to do with two saves on three shots on target.
There is still some vulnerability in this PSG team and, if it continues, it will be a real issue against top teams, domestically and in Europe. The ease with which Lille scored their goal, so early on as well, was quite baffling. Even if the Parisians’ press was quite efficient and at times forced Lille into making mistakes, like on the equaliser, it still feels like they don’t control much at times when they don’t have the ball. Lille could not take advantage despite having 50% possession while PSG will be delighted that, despite playing such a weakened side, they still managed to beat a really good team and now have an 11 points lead at the top of the table before Nice’s clash with Monaco on Sunday in the Mediterranean derby. — Julien Laurens
Americans abroad: Cardoso and Ream stand out in Europe
Beginning on Friday, we saw some USMNT impact made in Spain as Real Betis snatched a 2-0 win over Cádiz, but the main talking point was from Johnny Cardoso who was able to find the space to play the ball from the right to Willian José to score the opening goal for Manuel Pellegrini’s side and are currently in sixth place occupying the final Europa Conference League spot with 38 points, one point ahead of seventh place Real Sociedad. It might be a long way to go before we are certain if Betis will play in European competitions, but hopefully, we will see more USMNT players being involved next season.
How Xabi Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen broke Bayern Munich
Alejandro Moreno breaks down how Xabi Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen were able to outplay a deflated Bayern Munich side.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Fulham were able to snatch their first Premier League win of 2024 after defeating Bournemouth 3-1 with Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson in the heart of the defense, starting and playing all 90 minutes for Marco Silva’s side. They were able to leapfrog the Cherries to 12th place, only two points from the team above them at the minute, their west London rivals Chelsea. They will look to continue their charge up the league table and hopefully put themselves in a position to go into the top half, without the fear of getting into a relegation race. — Roberto Rojas
News of the day
After winning the Asian Cup in a 3-1 win over Jordan, Qatar’s hat trick hero Akram Afif says he’d be open to playing in Europe again but that his decision is not his own. “Moving to Europe is something all players want but this is a decision which has to be made with great consideration,” he said post-final, speaking through a translator. “It’s not me who decides. My wife also has to make the decision with me, it’s not easy to leave the club and country.”
And finally, on Saturday …
Despite Cardoso, Ream, and Robinson impressing in Europe so far this weekend, there was more sad news for the USMNT players abroad as West Brom’s Daryl Dike was carted off the pitch in tears following a foot injury in his team’s 2-2 draw against Ipswich Town.
The 24-year-old has continued to struggle with injuries since joining West Brom, as he has played just four times in the Championship this season after tearing his Achilles back in April of last year. Now, he only lasted 10 minutes coming off the bench on Saturday before going down hurt, visibly distraught as he left the pitch.
West Brom manager Carlos Corberan said the club will wait for scans before discussing the severity of Dike’s latest injury. “The injury is to the left foot, the same place as his Achilles injury,” Corberan said post-match. “We don’t know if it is as serious as the previous injury.”