What a weekend! With huge weekends in LaLiga (Real Madrid and Barcelona both dropped points) and the Premier League (joy for Man City and Liverpool, more misery for Man United and Tottenham), along with a massive result in the Bundesliga involving reigning champions Bayern Munich, the calendar didn’t disappoint.
Here are Mark Ogden, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler with what you need to know from around Europe.
Four talking points
Are Real Madrid doomed without Benzema?
Real Madrid were always going to suffer without Karim Benzema, but even so, their scoring struggles in the three games since he picked up a hamstring injury — the latest being Saturday’s 0-0 draw at Villarreal — have been a painful reminder of just how much the team’s chances of success this season depend on getting the forward back on the pitch as soon as possible.
None of the alternatives at manager Carlo Ancelotti’s disposal are capable of adequately mimicking Benzema’s unique skillset. Gareth Bale was tasked with filling in at No. 9 at the Estadio La Ceramica, and he did as well as could reasonably be expected in his first league appearance in over five months. He was Madrid’s biggest goal threat by some distance and was denied three times by Geronimo Rulli, including one vicious, dipping second-half shot that the keeper tipped onto the crossbar.
Bale was later replaced by Luka Jovic, who also hit the woodwork with a deft lob in added time. Ancelotti blamed bad luck, and on another day Bale, Jovic or both could have been on the scoresheet, but the importance of Benzema’s absence goes far beyond the team missing his clinical finishing. The role he plays as the fulcrum of Madrid’s attack, and the space and opportunities he creates for wide players like Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio, are every bit as vital.
Benzema had better be fit enough to contribute against Paris Saint-Germain on Tuesday to keep Madrid on track in the Champions League, as well as helping them avoid the worst-case scenario that would genuinely jeopardise their LaLiga title push. — TK
Janusz Michallik speaks about Man United’s top four hopes after their 1-1 draw with Southampton.
Rashford woes sum up Man United malaise
Marcus Rashford registered only his second Premier League assist of the season when crossing for Jadon Sancho to score the opening goal in Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Southampton at Old Trafford, but don’t make the mistake of believing that contribution pointed towards a return to form for the 24-year-old. The assist for Sancho was actually a rare highlight in what was otherwise another below-par performance by Rashford, who has contributed just 4 goals and 2 assists in 21 Premier League appearances this season.
Rashford played the majority of the game on the right wing, and it’s no secret that the England forward prefers to be deployed on the left so that he can cut inside and shoot when he has sight of goal. But regardless of the positional nuances, it’s still a role that Rashford should be able to execute better than he did against Southampton.
If you take away the assist, he was arguably more of a liability for United than an asset because of his repeated failure to capitalise on possession. Too often, Rashford lost the ball, missed an opportunity to pass or failed to press the Southampton defender’s quickly or aggressively enough. The lack of zip in his performance was already obvious before he was replaced by Jesse Lingard in the 82nd minute, but it was highlighted even more by Lingard and fellow substitute Anthony Elanga, who both added tenacity and energy when introduced to the game.
Rashford is proving to be an enigma for United. He is clearly a talented player blessed with pace and clinical finishing skill when on form. But at the moment, Rashford is not performing to his ability or reputation and is becoming another problem that United will have to address when a new manager is appointed in the summer. — Ogden
De Jong to the rescue (again) for Barcelona
Two minutes of joy, 90 minutes of frustration and a moment of glory: welcome to Espanyol vs. Barcelona. Initially, everything was going swimmingly for Xavi’s fledgling side. Pedri met a wonderful Jordi Alba cross at the far post to give the visitors a lead at their rivals with barely 60 seconds played, and you’d be forgiven for expecting Barca to push on and score a hatful from there.
Yet Espanyol, who’ve yet to beat Barca in LaLiga in the RCDE Stadium (which opened in 2009), weren’t cowed.
Sensing Barca’s rust around goal, they flipped the game on its head by essentially converting their two best chances — one with a deflection — to be within seconds of a famous victory. First, captain Sergi Darder curled one (with help) around Marc-Andre ter Stegen on the cusp of half-time and then, around the hour mark, Raul de Tomas seized on Eric Garcia‘s now-trademark poor defending to slip in and score.
Enter, then, Luuk De Jong.
The big Dutch striker, who’s been pushed to the exit door time and time again this season while a slew of name-brand strikers have arrived (Adama Traore, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ferran Torres to name just three), popped up deep in injury time to nod a Traore cross beyond a despairing Diego Lopez and ensure honors, and points, were shared.
It’s hard to learn new things about this Barcelona team that’s been a work in progress since, say, 2019, but Sunday’s grit in the face of irritation was a welcome sight for their supporters. Resilience and persistence can make the difference when things aren’t naturally going your way; so it proved in the home of their rivals. — Tyler
Janusz Michallik is heavily critical of Bayern Munich’s defending after a 4-2 loss to Bochum.
Bayern Munich suffer the most Bayern of defeats
At first glance, the Bundesliga giants suffered the kind of calamity that would doom any team, let alone the front-runner for a league title. The last time these two teams met in the Bundesliga, Bayern strolled to a 7-0 win back in September, but Bochum were determined not to let the same happen again.
Saturday’s 4-2 away defeat at Bochum won’t have alarm bells ringing inside the Allianz Arena, especially not with a Champions League last-16 trip to Salzburg coming up in midweek. For a start, Bayern played well — far better than the scoreline indicated. It was a classic tale of a big club not taking their chances and their plucky, mid-table opponents took all of theirs. (The xG for this one? 1.36 for Bochum, 2.32 for Bayern.) Not only that, but Bochum scored a string of world-class goals that, on a different day against a different team, would have ended up in the stands.
The damage was done for Bayern in a chaotic seven-minute spell at the end of the first half in which their hosts scored three times in a variety of ways. After Bayern’s early lead (bundled in by none other than Robert Lewandowski) and Christopher Antwi-Adjej’s sharp equalizer (one touch afforded him enough room from Nicklas Sule to curl a shot beyond Sven Ulreich), Bochum exploded into life.
Jurgen Locadia converted a penalty after Dayot Upamecano’s handball, and then a lovely one-two on the right wing — including a back heel and a nutmeg! — opened up space for full-back Cristian Gamboa to knuckle a shot in from 25 yards. (He’ll never strike one as sweetly again…) With Bayern rattled, it fell to Gerrit Holtman to score a once-in-a-lifetime goal of his own, seizing on a sloppy tackle to curl one in from the left edge of the box, leaving Ulreich zero chance.
— Bundesliga English (@Bundesliga_EN) February 12, 2022
Bayern rallied as they typically do, racking up 21 shots to Bochum’s 11 and having 64% of the ball, but even a late consolation from Lewandowski couldn’t stop the heavy defeat. In the end, they’re still TK points clear of second-place Dortmund with 12 games remaining. If you’re gonna have a bad day out, this is how you do it. — Tyler
Three must-see goals
Oh my, Hermoso! Atletico drama ends in last-minute joy
Atletico Madrid’s wild 4-3 win over Getafe on Saturday already had pretty much everything — a Luis Suarez penalty miss, a six-goal first half, a Felipe red card — before Mario Hermoso applied the finishing touch with an 89th minute scissor-kick to give Atletico three points and send coach Diego Simeone joyously dancing down the tunnel at full time.
It wasn’t even defender Hermoso’s latest winning goal this season. That was his 93rd minute strike against Valencia three weeks ago. But this one was arguably even more dramatic and significant, as the team looked to bounce back from yet another setback in a season that’s been packed full of them. Atletico haven’t tended to be associated with rollercoaster, back-and-forth goal fests under Simeone. Quite the opposite. That’s all changed this year though, and while their fans’ nerves are suffering, we neutrals are loving every minute. — Kirkland
THIS MATCH WINNING GOAL FROM MARIO HERMOSO 😳
FT: Atletico Madrid 4-3 Getafe pic.twitter.com/Je3asLKXpU
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 12, 2022
Now this is how you win a derby
It’s not been the easiest of WSL seasons for Man City — with five defeats from their first 13 games, a title charge seems unlikely — but Saturday’s 1-0 over Man United gives hope for a strong finish. And it was none other than Scotland striker Caroline Weir who did the business with a goal worthy of settling any rivalry.
When it comes to cheeky chips, this one is as cheeky as it gets. — Tyler
PSA: CAROLINE WEIR JUST LOVES SCORING DERBY DAY SCREAMERS 🤯
— ata football (@atafball) February 13, 2022
Bowen comes up big for West Ham
Jarrod Bowen took his goal tally this season to 12 in all competitions when his first-half strike against Leicester gave West Ham an early lead at the King Power. Bowen’s goal ultimately helped earn the Hammers a point, with Craig Dawson’s stoppage time header making it 2-2, and the manner of the 25-year-old’s finish highlighted just why sources say he is on the brink of an England call-up for next month’s friendlies against Switzerland and Ivory Coast.
He showed pace to escape the Leicester defenders to latch onto a long ball forward and then displayed fine technique to shoot across goal with his left foot. In many ways, it was the kind of counter-attack goal that has given Leicester’s Jamie Vardy such a prolific top-flight career. England manager Gareth Southgate is keen to add more pace to his forward line, and Bowen has that in abundance.nbsp;— Ogden
Two teams that should be worried
So, uh, what’s wrong with Tottenham?
Spurs’ season has been a study in contrasts, from the topsy-turvy chaos of Nuno’s all-too-brief reign (five wins and five defeats in 10 Premier League games before he was fired) to the absolute serenity and improvement under Antonio Conte. And yet, after six wins and three draws in their last nine, Sunday saw them slump to a third straight defeat as Wolves took a 2-0 win home with them from North London.
The key word is “sloppiness.” It’s unlike a Conte team to be so slack, but they began Sunday’s game much like they ended the midweek defeat to Southampton, failing to tidy up loose balls and paying the price. Raul Jimenez and Leander Dendoncker scored in the opening 16 minutes and that was all it took. Jimenez swept home from close range after Hugo Lloris failed to hold a Dendoncker shot, and the second was borne from a poor attempt to play out from the back.
Having worked so hard to claw themselves from mid-table up to as high as fifth place in mid-January, three straight losses has them back down in eighth. Conte must redress the balance and quick if they’re to remain in the conversation for Europe next season. — Tyler
Vallecano’s season is stagnating
Rayo Vallecano are having an exceptional season by any measure. Everyone’s favourite LaLiga underdogs — led by Spain’s most impressive young coach, Andoni Iraola — signed Radamel Falcao, put together a five-month unbeaten home run that had them pushing for a Champions League place, and reached their first Copa del Rey semifinal in 40 years.
It was always too good to last, though. A paper-thin squad has been stretched by those twin demands of league and cup football, and as Iraola admitted this weekend, off-the-field divisions between the club and their fans are now starting to have a visible impact on the pitch.
Rayo haven’t won a league game in 2022, Falcao hasn’t scored since November, they lost their midweek Copa semifinal home leg 2-1 to Real Betis, and Saturday saw them comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Osasuna. Lucky for Rayo, the points cushion built up over a superlative first half of the season has them sitting comfortably in mid-table, but there’s still no room for complacency: they need to find a win again, and sooner rather than later. — Kirkland
Weekend MVP: Raheem Sterling
Janusz Michallik praises Raheem Sterling after his hat trick helped Manchester City win 4-0 vs. Norwich.
Raheem Sterling has had a disappointing season by his own high standards at Manchester City, but despite his struggle to secure a regular starting spot at times during this campaign, his hat-trick in Saturday’s 4-0 win at Norwich took him to 10 Premier League goals, making him his team’s leading goalscorer in the league.
The England forward is out of contract at the Etihad in June, 2023 and he has already spoken publicly this season of his readiness to move away from the club if a new deal is not forthcoming or if he cannot reclaim his place in Pep Guardiola’s team. Those early-season comments now seem a fading memory, with Sterling becoming a more consistent performer for City in recent weeks.
His position at City will always be under threat due to the options at Guardiola’s disposal and the £100m summer signing of Jack Grealish initially impacted on those opportunities. But his versatility in being able to play anywhere across the front three has worked in his favour, and that hat-trick underlined his ability to add a cutting edge to City’s team when he plays.
Such is Guardiola’s determination to use all his top players that Sterling could be back on the bench when City face Sporting in the Champions League in Lisbon this week. But his performance at Norwich offered everyone a reminder, if needed, how much Sterling can bring to the table when he is on form. — Ogden
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