Best of the Rest

Europe week in review

Since my preview blog over the weekend we’ve had 5 days of football and a lot has happened so let’s take a walk around Europe and discuss some of the happenings.

I have written about Liverpool’s win against Bouremouth in depth and did a breakdown about Manchester City and PSG clinching their leauge titles over the weekend, so please go back and read those I think I wrote over 5,000 words between the two blogs. But for this walk around Europe I’m going to skip all those and focus on everything else.

1. Serie A

There is nothing more exciting in league play right now than what is happening in Italy. Maybe the Champions League or Europa League is better but as far as league play this is where the action is.

I am writing this Wednesday after an unbelievable day in this league but let’s first go back to weekend.

  • Milan/Napoli 0-0

This game and Roma/Lazio were probably the most anticipated games on paper from the weekend. It ended 0-0 but the game was far from boring.

Napoli outshot Milan 15-14 in the match. Both teams had plenty of chances and this was an example of a 0-0 draw being exciting as hell.

Milan has pretty much given up any hope of sneaking into the top 4 over the past couple weeks after an unbelievable run actually put them into the top 4 race for a second but as soon as they got themselves into it they were gone just like that. 

Counting Wednesday’s 1-1 draw with Torino, Milan has gone 5 games winless and has now brought Atalanta, Sampdoria, and Firoentina back into the battle for 6th which gets you into the Europa League. Now 7th will also get you in likely with the winner of Copa Italia getting a spot in the Europa League as well. Since that game is between Milan and Juventus it pretty much guarantees that 7th will get there.

For Napoli this was a frustrating result, they’re in must win every match territory but getting a draw out of this coupled with Juventus beating Sampdoria 3-0, it meant Napoli’s deficit after the weekend was 6 points with 6 games to play.

After the Milan game Napoli was in the middle of a stretch of 6 games where they went 2 wins, 3 draws and loss. In the same time span Juventus has won 5 and had a shocking draw at SPAL, but if you’re not good at math that would mean that Juve had picked up 16 points where as Napoli had picked up 9. So in this 6 games the lead had gone from Napoli having a one point lead and controlling their own destiny to being down 6 and almost on life support, but before you crown Juventus stay tuned because Wednesday changed things a bit. More on that in a second.

  • Lazio/Roma

Probably the biggest game of the weekend in Italy was the Derby della Capitale.

Both teams were coming off wild weeks in Europe. In case you were under a rock for the past week Roma maybe had one of their biggest moments in the history of the proud club beating Barcelona 3-0 to advance to the semis of the Champions league on road goals.

Lazio on the other hand had the opposite fate in the Europa League. They led Red Bull Salzburg 4-2 after the first leg but lost the second leg 4-1 to lose on aggregate 6-5. It was a wild game Lazio grabbed the first goal and a 5-2 aggregate lead in the 55th minute, so it was over right? Nah, Salzburg got one back a minute later, then scored 3 goals in 6 minutes. The 72nd, 74th and 76th to shock Lazio and ruin their Europa League dreams, but Lazio had to pick themselves off the floor quickly as the game against Roma was huge.

Sure any time this Derby happens it’s a big deal but this one was huge as the battle for 3rd and 4th with these two and Inter was hot.

Coming into this Lazio and Roma both had 60 points and Inter had 59.

The 0-0 result was probably predictable as they both seemed like energy was completely zapped from both teams after their prespective Europeon ties over the week.

It wasn’t as bad as the Merseyside Derby was a week ago but this game didn’t have the excitement you would have hoped.

Nothing changed over the weekend as Inter drew with Atalanta so heading into the midweek fixtures it was Roma and Lazio with 61 and Inter coming in with 60. Now this is where things got wacky.

  • Wednesday

This was one crazy day. Inter actually had their midweek fixture on Tuesday with a 4-0 win over Cagliari. It was an absolute dominant performance. Inter outshot them 21-0 on the day.

It was one of those games where everything went right for Inter, they looked like the team from the first half of the season that looked like they could challenge for the league.

On the other hand this was a very disappointing effort from Cagliari, you expect more from a team who is currently only 4 points safe from being in the drop zone.

Roma took care of business with a 2-1 win over Genoa. They were fairly dominant in this game despite the score line. They travel to SPAL over the weekend before heading to Anfield for the first leg of the Champions League semis.

But now is where the real fun comes in. I will start with Fioretina and Lazio. This was as wild as it gets. First of all Fiorentina goes a man down 7 minutes in when Marco Sportiello was handed a straight red for an intentional handball, but they didn’t have to play a man down for long as Alessandro Murgia was given a straight red for a last man foul in the 14th minute. So, now we get 10v10 for 76 minutes.

Firoentina at this point jumped out to a 2-0 lead thanks to a Jordan Veretout brace. The second being a penalty.

It didn’t take long for Lazio to get back into it. Former Red Luis Alberto got them back in it 39th minute, then Martin Caceres equalized things in the 45th minute to go the half at 2-2

Veretout completed his hat trick in the 54th minute to give Fioretina their lead back, but this rollercoaster ride wasn’t over yet as Felipe Anderson equalized in the 69th minute and then Luis Alberto bagged his second giving Lazio their first lead and a lead that they would hold onto in the 73rd minute.

Alberto is having an incredible year with 11 goals and 12 assists. Something that I will admit I never saw coming after his time with Liverpool.

The action from this one was enough for one day but the title race between Napoli and Juventus heated back up today as well.

Alex Sandro got Napoli off to a fast start getting them on the board in the 16th minute. When Udinese scored in the 41st minute the live standings had Juventus with a 9 point lead which was basically game over.

Lorenzo Insigne equalized things 2 minutes into first half extra time.  But Svante Ingelsson put Napoli back in their hole in the 55th minute.

You think it’s been crazy up until this point, well this is when it just goes off the chain.

Raul Albiol who was a monster in the back in this game scored his second goal of the season to get Napoli level. At around the same time Simy scored a bicycle to level Crotone with Juventus. I’m sure Juventus is getting a little fed up with giving up spectacular overhead kicks to opponents. They may need to rub some Buddha doll to keep it from happening or something.

Milik put Napoli ahead in the 70th minute and Tonelli added insurance in the 75th minute.

With Napoli winning 4-2 and Juve drawing, things changed quickly in the title race, earlier in the day Juve had a 9 point edge but it was down to 4 points real quickly. Which in itself brings a little life back to the title race that looked close to dead but there is life to it again and with these two meeting in Turin on Sunday if Napoli can somehow win on the road on Sunday we could have a very exciting last couple weeks in Italy in the one league that has been a gift that keeps on giving all season long.

2. Premier League relegation fight

With the title wrapped up and top 4 race  close to being wrapped up the best thing the Premier League has going for itself is a potential relegation fight. Well unless you count the epic battle for 6th between Arsenal and Burnley.

A month ago this looked like it was going to be a wild battle to the end but the past couple weeks has made this look like it could possibly not be dramatic at all.

  • Southampton

The Saints came into the weekend 3 points from safety. It all looked good for them at first on Saturday jumping out to a 2-0 lead over a Chelsea team that looks like they’re ready for the season to end.

Chelsea rallied to win 3-2 which has put Southampton in a position now where I feel like has a .5% chance of survival.

They had to feel they were screwed a little in this one. Marcos Alonso should have been given a straight red, but got away with nothing, but the real turning point in this one was when Olivier Giroud came in for Alvaro Morata in the 61st minute, right after Southampton made it 2-0.

This was a typical Morata game. He had absolutely no influence on the game at all. He played 61minutes. He had 10 passes and was involved in this game slightly more than I was from my couch.

Thankfully for Chelsea Conte woke up from his nap dreaming about who he is going to blame other than himself and brought Giroud on. He’s seriously Jose Jr with his excuses.

Giroud has been a whipping boy for Premier League fans for years. Some of it is understandable but he’s always been a much better player than people have given him credit for.

With how poor Morata is Chelsea is damn lucky they brought him into replace Batshuyai who Conte never gave a chance to and made Conte look like a fool with the way he’s played at Dortmund.

I wouldn’t want to count on Giroud as my lead striker but he’s the perfect striker to come on late in games. He’s scored so many big late goals for Arsenal and now for Chelsea. If it wasn’t for him they lose this game and Southampton might still have a chance of staying in the Premier League.

  • Crystal Palace and Brighton

Brighton was probably safe anyways but with a tough closing stretch a 7 point gap coming into the weekend could easily been blown. But when Southampton lost and Brighton picked up a big point at home against Spurs on Tuesday they are 8 points safe, so their loss at Crystal Palace on Saturday didn’t hurt that badly.

This game was much bigger for Crystal Palace than it was for Brighton.

It was another spectacular performance from Zaha who bagged a brace. He was a a monster in this game like he has been on most days this season. He is the reason they are probably going to survive. They’re still in 16th only 6 points safe but this win should be enough to stay up.

It will be very interesting to see what happens with Zaha this summer. No doubt he will bring big money to Palace with Spurs, Chelsea, and Arsenal to name a few who have been linked to him. To me Arsenal makes a ton of sense. No doubt he will be a player that has rumors linked to him until the summer window opens.

  • Swansea/Huddersfield/Newcastle

These 3 all had home games against teams not in relegation fight or even teams in the top 4 races.

Swansea had the pathetic Everton squad, Newcastle had an Arsenal team that is awful on the road, and Huddersfield had the unpredictable Watford but a Watford team that had nothing to play for.

Newcastle and Huddersfield both were able to get crucial wins. I think we can safely say with 100% certainty that Newcastle is going to be safe. Huddersfield came into the weekend only 4 points safe but with the win and the Southampton loss they are now 7 points safe and should be good.

Swansea on the other hand keeps lingering around that drop zone a little too close for comfort if you ask me.

They are winless in their last 4. 3 draws and a loss, it’s nice to be getting points during this relegation fight but when you get draws against West Brom and Everton, two pathetic teams that you should take care of business against is not optimal. If they had those 4 points right now they would have a 9 point gap and be in 12th and no doubt be safe but they keep messing around.

I’ll say it right now if any team that is safe right now that ends up going down it will be Swansea and I have this sneaky suspicion that Stoke will somehow survive and Swansea will still go down. Swansea’s play the past two weeks makes me feel really confident about this.

  • West Ham/Stoke

Speaking of Stoke they were so close to providing a real shake up in this relegation fight if it wasn’t for the Andy Carroll 90th minute equalizer then Stoke would be in 18th and three points behind West Ham and Swansea.

The Carroll goal in his first game since January the 4th gave West Ham a huge point and a point that probably ensures their safety. They now are in 14th with a 7 point gap.

It’s a fascinating turn around. When shit hit the fan against Burnley and a riot almost broke out it seemed like things were going to end very badly for West Ham, but since then they have a win and 2 draws, including a draw against Chelsea. It doesn’t seem like much but those 5 points were enormous.

I said earlier I think Stoke would find their way safe. The main reason they are in the position they are in is since Paul Lambert took over they have become a much better defensive team and are not playing like a team that should be going down. Under Mark Hughes they were a Trainwreck defensively and honestly should have been behind West Brom.

They haven’t won in their last 10, it’s been since January. During this winless streak they have picked up 5 draws but 2 weeks ago they played well enough to beat Spurs and played well enough on Monday to beat West Ham.

It won’t be easy they have Burnley at home, Liverpool on the road, Palace at home, and finish with Swansea on the road to finish the season.

Burnley is always beatable, it is in the middle of Liverpool’s Champions League semi final with Roma. If Liverpool is able to lock up top 4 this weekend they may be playing an Academy team against Stoke, then you have Palace on the road but Palace may have their safety wrapped up, so with any luck the finale at Swansea may determine who is safe and at this point Swansea would take that right now if given the chance.

As a neutral in this relegation battle I think Stoke and Swansea may be our best chance at a fight and with them finishing the season with each other that would be a dream for the last game of the season.

3. Bundesliga and DFB Polka

  • Leverkusen

The big winner of the weekend in the Bundesliga was Bayern Leverkusen. With huge 4-1 wins over Leipzig last Monday and a 4-1 win over Frankfurt this weekend has put them back on the good side of the top 4 battle.

They ended the week 4 points ahead of Leipzig. They have another big one this weekend against Dortmund who has the same points as Leverkusen with 51.

The only thing I worry about right now for Leverkusen is do they have enough left in the tank. After two crticial games against fellow top 4 competitors and the DFB Polka semi loss to Munich over the week it would be understandable if there is some mental and physical fatigue from them heading into their huge clash at Dortmund on Saturday.

  • Bayern Munich

They got one step closer to their treble by crushing a red hot Leverkusen team 6-2 on Tuesday to reach the DFB Polka final.

The first half was a wide open rather even affair with Munich leading 2-1, but the second half Munich was at their clinical best.

They scored 3 goals in 11 minutes to break the game wide open.

Right now I don’t think there is a deeper more talented team on the planet than this outfit.

You can spend hours trying to figure out their best 11, but having Alcantara back and in form and with Muller playing his best football since the world cup this team looks unbeatable. I think they beat Real Madrid and I really like their chances for the treble. My heart of course tells me Liverpool but my brain right now is telling me Munich.

Top to bottom I just don’t think there is a team better than them right now and they’re in a better position than anyone to survive an injury.

  • Schalke/Dortmund

Dortmund continues their confusing or maybe not confusing and it’s just the reality that they aren’t that good.

The game was even overall but Schalke was the better side. Dortmund is always good for a defensive mistake or two that costs them in big games and that happened here.

Dortmund’s attacking quartet of Batshuyai, Pulisic, Reus, and Phillip were terrible other than Reus. Reus was good but the other 3 were terrible.

I don’t think I’ve seen Pulisic play a worse game in his career. I mean he was brutal in this game. But Batshuyai and Phillip weren’t much better.

Schalke makes their money with their defense. They played a 3-1-4-2 in this and give their back 3 and their wing backs a lot of credit, they had a lot to do with shutting down Dortmund.

Sure, this was a 2-0 game and Schalke got the second late on a beautiful free kick finish by Naldo. The stats were also even but this was a masterclass defensive performance by Schalke they defensively dominated this game it was the type of performance that when Schalke drew up the game plan beforehand it was perfectly executed. Not a surprise that Schalke was able to get it done with their defense. Only Munich has allowed less goals than they have this season.

This win gave Schalke a 4 point lead for second and an 8 point lead for the top 4, which should be safe at this point.

Not everything was great this week for them however.

  • Schalke/Frankfurt

Frankfurt probably had their top 4 chances end with their loss over the weekend to Leverkusen but against Schalke in the semis of the DFB Polka they were able to get a 1-0 win to advance to the final against Munich.

This was a very physical chippy game that is typical of a cup semifinal.

It was also a very defensive game that shouldn’t be surprising when you get two of the better defensive teams in Germany going at it.

It looked like this could be one of those defensive struggles that ended up 0-0 and going to penalties but in the 75th minute one of those weird things that only happens in football happened. Luka Jovic broke the deadlock and put Frankfurt in the lead.

It got wild after. Gelson Fernandes was given a red moments after the Jovic goal. It wasn’t initially a red until the ref went ahead and got VAR involved but after further review he gave him a red so Frankfurt was going to be finishing this a man down.

I didn’t think this was a red. Was it a hard challenge? Yes. Was it a foul? Yes. Was it a bit dirty? Yes. But, was it a red? No. I know some dude on Twitter disagreed with me and even showed me screenshots to prove his point. Side note nothing drives me more bananas when someone on Twitter who doesn’t even follow you has to yell at you about your opinion on a play in a sporting event. Then they have to show a screenshot to prove their point. Sorry the screenshot is just a biased point of view to prove your point. You need to see the actual play to form an opinion and it was a soft red. Should have been a yellow.

The ref was not done being a factor. Franco di Santo appeared to have equalized the game in extra time but was called for a handball. Live I thought it was the right call. I thought the ball rolled down his arm, that he used his arm to settle the ball but then on the third replay I’m not so sure. It was a tough call. Schalke fans will say they were robbed but Frankfurt fans will argue it was a handball. The way I look at things, when it takes 3 replays I think going with the original call is fine.

There were a couple other penalty shouts by Schalke, things got real chippy and I thought things may get out of hand in the final moments, especially Leon Goretzka who I thought was about ready to knock the ref out. He seemed like he was about to lose his mind.

Ultimately it ended 1-0 Frankfurt. It was a wild one but a huge accomplishment for them. This is a dream season for them getting to the final of the DFB Polka and likely the Europa League.

One funny side note in this that you only ever see in this sport. Frankfurt manager Niko Kovac has agreed to be Bayern Munich’s next manager so he will be taking his current team against his new team in his last game as the manager of Frankfurt, seriously only in football does this happen.

4. La Liga

  • Betis

Anyone who has been paying attention to me this season knows I’ve been in love with this Real Betis team for no reason other than they’re fun. They attack their minds off and never stop.

They have now won 5 in a row and have moved all the way up to 5th place in the table.

It’s been an up and down season for them their goal differential is currently 0. They have scored 53 and have allowed 53.

The 53 goals they have allowed have them 18th in the league in that category. The 53 goals they have scored is 7th in the league.

Sure if they could defend who knows they may be pushing for a Champions League spot instead of a Europa League spot but what’s the fun in that.

The fun is in the way they play, it doesn’t matter who they play they aren’t afraid. Evidence of that comes with their win at the Berenbau back in September when Antonio Sanabria scored a 94th minute winner against Real Madrid.

But the other side of it is they’ve taken some bad beats by playing poor defense against teams 5th place teams don’t lose to.

Here’s an example of some of their wild games this season. They beat Levante 4-0, drew with Real Sociedad 4-4, lost to Valenica 6-3, lost to Eibar 5-0, beat Sevilla 5-3, lost to Barca 5-0, and lost to Real Madrid 5-3.

It’s been a wild but enjoyable ride and I know I will be rooting for them the rest of the way. I want more of it.

  • Barcelona

After getting their hearts ripped out by Roma last week Barcelona bounced back to beat Valencia 2-1.

It was the typical Barcelona game this season. They had the majority of the possession but looked to be outplayed during stretches of the game, but instead of Messi this time, even though Messi bounced back from his one bad game of the decade against Roma, it was Phillipe Coutinho who bailed them out.

Coutinho had 2 helpers on the day. The first was a beautiful outside of the foot pass to Luis Suarez for the opener, the second was off a corner to set up Samuel Umtiti.

There was never a doubt of Coutinho’s talent we watched him play for the Reds for years but it did take him some time to get his feet from under him with Barca.

Part of it is getting used to playing with Messi. Messi is going to have the ball a lot like Coutinho likes to, so he has to adjust what to do with himself to be productive when he won’t be seeing as much of the ball. It seems he’s getting more comfortable with his role which will be a scary proposition next season and very good for Brazil that he’s finding his form with the World Cup on the horizon.

Barca also played on Tuesday, this time they drew with Celta Vigo 2-2.

This was such a fun entertaining game. Former Red Iago Aspas continued his fine form this season scoring an 86th minute equalizer to earn his team the draw.

But he was tremendous throughout. It was almost a battle between him and Paco Alcacer who also scored for Barca and may have had his best day in a Barca shirt.

Messi only played 30 minutes and Luis Suarez didn’t play as Barca looked like they are getting ready for the Copa Del Rey final on Saturday against Sevilla.

  • Real Madrid

They won on Saturday 2-1 against Malaga on the road and drew at home on Wednesday against Athletic Club.

Obviously Zidane is rotating his side in these meaningless games in the build up to their trip to Munich for the first leg of the semis on Wednesday. They don’t have a game this weekend which is nice and convenient, but the two games this week were a little interesting.

The Malaga game was probably more of a struggle than you would have thought. They won 2-1 and the goal they conceded was in extra time but it still didn’t look good.

On Wednesday against Athletic Club it took a Ronaldo 87th minute equalizer to get the point.

Statistically they were much better. Outshooting Bilbao 29-6 with 10 shots on target. Yes, they had plenty of offense but something seemed off about them, which is why I still don’t think they will win the Champions League.

They just aren’t as fluid as they were last season and they are vulnerable in the back like when Bilbao split them wide open for Inaki Williams goal in the 14th minute. It was too easy for Inigo Cordoba to split them wide open to send Willams in all alone.

Look, they were lucky to survive Juve’s furious comeback but with the Munich attack and if they make it past them which I don’t think they will the potential of the Liverpool attack could be waiting for them. I’m just not confident that they can hold up against either of those attacks, especially Bayern Munich who they have to do it over two legs.

Yes they still have all the star power and no doubt Ronaldo himself can win this for them but I still think the flaws are ultimately too much to overcome and this is a hill I’m willing to die on.

  • Rest of La Liga

The best game not mentioned yet was probably Sevilla/Villarreal both teams are having disappointing seasons, except for Sevilla’s normal cup magic. A close loss in the Champions League quarters against Bayern Munich and a trip to the Copa Del Rey final is not a bad season for anyone but their league campaign has been lackluster. They have a -11 goal differential in league which is obviously poor. I’ve seen enough of them this season to think this team isn’t very good.

Nonethless these two put on a good show with Sevilla rallying from 2 goals down to earn a draw while both teams ended the game with 10 men.

Atletico breezed through Levante on Saturday with a 3-0 win, they get Real Sociedad on Thursday and Real Betis over the weekend.

Lastly in Spain I mentioned Valencia losing to Barcelona over the weekend but they followed that up with a loss to Getafe at home thanks to a Loic Remy brace. Remember him?

5. Benfica/Porto

The biggest game of the year in Portugal was played this weekend. Benfica came into the game with a one point lead over Porto and a 6 point lead over Sporting with 5 games left. So in a lot of ways this was for the league title.

It sure as hell looked like it was going to be a draw, which would have kept Benfica on top.

It was a tight defensive game the entire way, but the deadlock was broken and the league title might have swung Porto’s way when Mexican international Miguel Herrera may have scored one the biggest goals of his life giving Porto the win and control of the league.

Porto now has a 2 point lead with 4 games to go, it looks like the league is theirs but we all know crazy things happen in this sport. So, this could go all the way down to the last second of the last day.

One good thing for Porto is Benfica still has to travel to Sporting. Which is the game that could give them a little breathing room.

If Porto can do this it would snap Benfica’s run of 4 straight titles.

Porto and Benfica have won every championship since 2002. In that  time span Porto has one 9 and Benfica 6, prior to Benfica winning 4 in a row. Porto had won 9 out of 11 so 4 years without a title for them is an eternity, so Herrera’s goal will make him a hero in Porto lore for years to come.

6. Elsewhere

Two other big derbies took place around Europe this past weekend with Celtic beating Rangers in the Scottish Cup semifinal 4-0 to advance to the Scottish Cup Final.

I watched this entire match and it was an impressive performance by Celtic, absolutely embarrassing their biggest rival.

  • PSV/Ajax

PSV beat their biggest rival over the weekend to win the Eredivisie title for the 24th time with a 3-0 win over Ajax.

This was Ajax’s 3 title in 4 years if you take away Feynoord’s miracle title last season this looks like it is their league at the moment.

  • Coupe de Frace

Lastly one of the feel good stories of the season happened this week in the Coupe de France when Les Herbiers beat FC Chambly Oise 2-0 to advance to the final to face PSG.

Both sides play in the Championnat National which is the French third division. Les Herbiers is in 9th place and FC Chambly Oise is in 15th in a relegation spot.

If this was in England this story would be the biggest story ever but it is getting little publicity for somereason even though this story really should be the biggest story of the season. A third division team making it to a major cup final is the stuff we dream of, the stuff cheesy movies are made from, it really is everything we want and love about sports. It’s like when UMBC beat UVA being the first 16 seed to beat a 1 seed but then went on to the Championship game. Think how big that would be? Well this is what this is.

They face PSG in the final so if they would win that it would seriously be one of the greatest things that have ever happened in this sport. I know it’s highly unlikely, like as likely as it was when Leicester would win the Premier League in 2016, but I know I’ll be watching in case it happens.

The action has been hot the last 5 days, but just wait till the weekend when we get Juve/Napoli or next week with the Champions League and Europa League semis. Let’s goooooooooooo!

 

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