We sum up this weekend's action in European football...
In what felt like an eventful weekend in the European football calendar, there were four stories that sat front and center.
Everyone’s still getting into gear from the Christmas/mid-season break and there seems to be an aura of apathy about when it comes to football (at least for me). However, the season definitely had a dramatic uptick in intensity, starting with Friday night’s match between West Ham and Sheffield United. It will best be remembered for a horror decision by the Video Assistant Referee, which now appears to have become a rather unpopular change for the Premier League. Saturday saw Xavi turn down the offer for the soon-to-be-vacant post at Barcelona, and Sunday saw Man City thrash Aston Villa 6-1, including a Sergio Aguero hat-trick, while Zinedine Zidane won his 10th title as Real Madrid coach after beating Atletico Madrid on penalties.
West Ham, in rather unsurprising fashion, fell behind due to an error in goal by David Martin, with John Fleck capitalising on a botched kick and laying the ball up for Oliver McBernie to tap home in the 53rd minute. The Hammers pressed on to get back into the game and, just when they thought they had equalised in injury time, the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) intervened in the game’s biggest talking point. In the lead-up to Robert Snodgrass’ goal, Declan Rice handled the ball and it was disallowed, although the ball was headed at his hand from all of about 2m away, with his hands in a natural position. It was clearly unintentional.
After the game, Rice had his say and controversially said that “every player in the Premier League hates VAR” in what may well be considered a watershed moment for this season’s major refereeing addition to the Premier League.
Now, as a West Ham fan, I’ll always be biased in this situation, but what is abundantly clear is that Rice would have had to move his hand out of the way to avoid committing what is a foul by the letter of the law. And it’s not the first controversial decision made by VAR, although others were simply less consequential and West Ham fans have very loud voices.
As I see it, VAR has also been incredibly successful in many other ways, where illegitimate goals were ruled out and fans were without complaint. What really need to change are the laws themselves, with more detailed descriptions of what constitutes a handball or whatever it may be. And this “clear and obvious error” condition for which VAR may intervene bothers me… Either way, there’s a lot of ironing out that needs to be done regarding VAR before it’s truly embraced by football fans all over the world.
Next up, Barcelona’s crisis. Despite winning consecutive La Liga titles as Barcelona coach, Ernesto Valverde is facing the sack. His side lost 3-2 to Atletico Madrid in last week’s semi-final of the Spanish Super Cup in Jeddah in a performance typical of this season, with a late comeback showing that Barca are simply too reliant on Lionel Messi. The Argentine has been unstoppable for so long but the famous Pep Guardiola team that won a sextuple is now all but dismantled andBarcelona are no longer the force they once were.
Fans are displeased with Valverde’s style of play, while results also haven’t been on their side. They haven’t won the Champion’s League in five years and are now level on points on top of the La Liga table with arch-rivals Real Madrid, who are in ascendancy in terms of their form under coach Zinedine Zidane.
So who should the club turn to other than perhaps the most important player of Guardiola’s tiki-taka legends (and a World Cup winner with Spain), Xavi, who’s currently sitting in the dugout at Qatari outfit, Al-Sadd. However, the 39-year-old has rejected the chance to join his former club, preferring a move to Camp Nou in June.
And it makes sense… why would Xavi inherit a team that isn’t his own and plays a completely different style to Barcelona’s legendary tiki-taka brand of football which he will almost undoubtedly reintroduce when he eventually takes the reins one day? And it’s not surprising how keen Barca are to bring Xavi back, considering his legendary status. Then you can consider how bringing club legends in as head coach has played out over the last decade or so in Spain. Not only Barcelona with Pep Guardiola, but also at Real Madrid with Zinedine Zidane, created arguably two contenders for the greatest footballing side of all time. They (Barcelona 2009-2012; Real Madrid 2014-2018) dominated the footballing world, Barcelona winning the Champion’s League three times between 2009 and 2019, while Madrid conquered four times within this period. Spain’s Luis Enrique also won Barca’s last Champion’s League in 2015’s treble-winning season. Not to mention, Diego Simeone has turned Atletico Madrid into what has consistently been one of Europe’s best teams, since arriving at the club in 2011.
When clubs employ genuine club legends with the pure footballing genius that Xavi was well-known for in his playing days, the finished product has been glorious. Xavi’s appointment as Barcelona’s head coach is inevitable, but Barcelona are going to have to wait until June to appoint him and either stick with Valverde until the end of the season or find someone that will agree to take on the job on an interim basis and can guide the current team to stave off the threat that is a Real Madrid team that looks primed to mount a serious title challenge.
Although the Spanish Super Cup will not be considered a major competition, even in its new format, it will bring a major lift in spirits to the Real Madrid camp and Zidane deserves a great deal of credit, especially considering that back in October the talk of the town was a Jose Mourinho return to the Bernabeau.
Just like Zidane inherited a somewhat broken team from Rafa Benitez in January 2016, which he turned into Champions League winners, Zidane has taken the team, which has struggled a lot after Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus, and is starting to turn results in their favour with some particularly exciting performances like the 3-1 win over Valencia in the Spanish Super Cup semi-final. Last night, he only managed to beat Atletico on penalties in an eventful 0-0 draw, probably decided by Fede Valverde’s 115th minute goal-saving red card. Yet the result is what matters and this is the ninth win out of nine finals in three and a half seasons as a coach for the Frenchman.
Madrid are still struggling to find a consistent goalscorer in the post-Ronaldo era (although Karim Benzema has filled the role quite well), but they have only lost two games all season (just one in La Liga, against Mallorca) and are emerging under the radar as one of Europe’s in-form teams. You wouldn’t put it past Zidane to claim a second La Liga title on the bench and it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to see him lift the Champions League for a fourth time, considering that he’s still yet to lose a tie on his way to three consecutive titles in the competition. However, considering that he plays Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City in the Round of 16, it will certainly be a challenge…
Speaking of City, they thrashed Aston Villa 6-1 on Sunday evening, with Sergio Aguero netting a hat-trick to become the highest scoring foreigner in the Premier League of all time. Kevin De Bruyne was, once again, a force to be reckoned with as the link between City’s midfield and attack, as Riyaad Mahrez got a brace and Gabriel Jesus got a solitary goal just before half time. It was a confidence boost for City, despite the fact that runaway league leaders are still 14 points ahead of Guardiola’s team after their 1-0 win over Tottenham on Saturday.
In other results this weekend, Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick to take Juventus back to the top of the Serie A table with a 4-0 win over Cagliari. Robert Lewandowski was also on the scoresheet in Bayern Munich‘s 3-1 win over Freiburg – although RB Leipzig remain 4 points clear of the Bavarians at the summit of the Bundesliga table, following their 3-1 win over Augsburg. In Ligue 1, Neymar scored twice as PSG dropped points in an exciting 3-3 draw with AS Monaco. The French giants remain 5 points ahead of Marseille at the top of the table with a game in hand.
So we’re now starting to hit the business end of the season and both teams and tables are starting to take shape. I, for one, am excited for the various cup competitions to take center stage, the Champions League to resume, and for title races and relegation battles heat up. Exciting times are ahead!