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What Real Madrid’s LaLiga title means, Haaland’s four-goal day, more

It’s been another wonderful weekend in European soccer! Real Madrid finally clinched LaLiga on Saturday, when Carlo Ancelotti’s side beat Cadiz 3-0 and then Girona beat Barcelona. In England, Erling Haaland scored four goals as Man City swiped past Wolves 5-1 and seemingly moved closer to yet another Premier League title of their own.

Elsewhere, Liverpool thumped Tottenham to show the work ahead for both clubs (in different ways), Xavi has a challenge at Barcelona, there are talking points galore for Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Inter and more.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)

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

What does Real Madrid’s 36th LaLiga title actually mean?

Real Madrid celebrated the title in front of the TV (or, more likely, their phones) on Saturday. Their 3-0 victory over Cadiz — a match they dominated despite it being scoreless at half-time, with a heavily changed team ahead of the Champions League semifinal return leg — coupled with Barcelona‘s defeat at Girona later that day secured the league.

There are several ways to read this. If you want to talk them down, you can point to the fact that it’s no big deal that the club with the highest budget wins the league. Especially when the team with the second biggest (Barcelona) stands at the brink of financial oblivion, and the one with the third biggest (Atletico Madrid) is dealing with its own identity crisis. However, that reading would ignore some truths that make this a truly special season — and not just because they are 90 minutes away from another Champions League final as well.

Indeed, along the way there were so many events that could have made this team unravel … but did not.

Like the fact that in the summer they lost their top goal scorer, Karim Benzema, who had bagged 31 goals the previous year. His “replacement,” Joselu, arrived on loan at 33 years of age and in real terms, they dealt with Benzema’s departure by changing their system to a diamond midfield. That it worked was down to the tactical nous of Carlo Ancelotti and the adaptability of newcomer Jude Bellingham who, at 20, plays with the poise and maturity of a veteran.

They lost their starting goalkeeper (Thibaut Courtois) in preseason, their best central defender (Éder Militão) on opening day and their second-best central defender (David Alaba) by mid-December — all three to season-ending or near season-ending injuries. And despite not signing anyone in the January transfer window — something that many critics, including yours truly, said was a mistake — did not miss a beat.

Along the way, depending on the situation, there were times when Ancelotti got Aurélien Tchouaméni to play centre-back, Eduardo Camavinga to play left-back, Vinicius to play centre-forward and Luka Modric to accept the role of impact sub. Sure, you should credit the coach for his management skills, but credit also the players for putting the team first. Along the way, Toni Kroos turned back the clock in midfield, Rodrygo grew into a man, Andriy Lunin became a viable keeper and Antonio Rüdiger showed the world what a leader looks like.

Real Madrid say there’s no such thing as a transition season at the Bernabeu, but this campaign — especially after the injuries to Courtois and Militao — was shaping up to be just that. It was looking like a year in which you ease out the old (Kroos, Modric and also Ancelotti, who got a new deal only in December), develop the kids (Bellingham, Aurelien Tchouameni, Camavinga, Rodrygo) and wait for Kylian Mbappe, or, in case he changes his mind, whatever megastar you bring in with the funds in the Mbappe piggy bank. Instead, the results are there for all to see.

Real Madrid are top scorers in LaLiga and have allowed the fewest goals (by a huge margin). They’re on pace for 97 points, which would be the highest total since Barcelona in 2012-13, when that Lionel Messi guy scored 46 league goals and 60 overall. They have played 49 games thus far this season in all competitions and only one team has beaten them: Atletico Madrid (who, admittedly, did so twice, in the league and the cup).

Yes, the bar is set higher for Real Madrid to do something special precisely because they have so much more than all but a handful of teams in Europe. This season — one that saw their considerable resources stretched — they managed to clear that higher bar, and they made the 2023-24 Liga campaign one of the more memorable in a long time.

That’s what this 36th title means to all those involved, from Florentino Perez on down.

Haaland scores four and silences his critics as Man City stay on track for another league title



Nicol on 4-goal Haaland: ‘How can you defend against that?!’

Steve Nicol can’t believe the athleticism on show from Erling Haaland after his four goals in Manchester City’s 5-1 win over Wolves.

It’s easy to write this after he scored four goals — something he did on Saturday in Manchester City‘s 5-1 demolition of Wolves — but I never quite got the criticism of Erling Haaland. Sure, he’s not as two-footed as some would like, and for a man of his size and athleticism, he could be better in the air. And yes, he plays — even more so this season — as an attacking terminus rather than like those strikers who drop off and pick out passes for teammates (a la Harry Kane).

Yet you suspect the latter is down to tactical instruction and really, I’m bound to trust the guy with the three Champions League titles (Pep Guardiola, in case you missed it) on this one. If he doesn’t occasionally retreat into midfield and whip out 40-yard cross-field assists and Pep Guardiola is good with it, so am I. As for his two-footedness and aerial ability, he’s only 23 and can clearly improve.

But what is absurd is doubting Haaland the way he is now, even this season, when (supposedly) he hasn’t hit the heights of last year. The Norwegian has scored 36 goals in 41 games this season, with 28 of them coming from open play. That doesn’t happen without being fearsomely consistent and it’s his misfortune that — even though we should know better — we judge goal scorers on the benchmarks set by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who might as well be superhuman.

That’s why the other charge levelled against him — that he’s somehow streaky — is questionable too. He has never gone more than three starts without scoring and regardless of whether he scores or not, he’s not shy about continuing to shoot, which is what you want from a scorer. He was second in the Premier League in shots on goal last year with 3.55 (behind Darwin Núñez) and is second behind Nunez again (3.72). Fully 18% of his shots turn into goals: only Newcastle’s Alexander Isak has a higher conversion rate among Premier League strikers in the top 20 for shots.

Rodri might be Guardiola’s only irreplaceable player and Phil Foden might have grown in leaps and bounds, but make no mistake about it. If City go on to win the title — and right now, their game in hand makes them favorites — then Haaland will be a huge part of it.

Tottenham are in a tailspin while Liverpool have more than something as Slot all but confirms



Do Postecoglou’s Spurs need a Plan B after late-season collapse?

Mark Donaldson and Luis Miguel Echegaray reflect on a disappointing end to the season for Tottenham.

Liverpool’s 4-2 win over Tottenham on Sunday left the clubs in very different states of mind. For Tottenham, it’s four straight league defeats in which they conceded a total of 13 goals and could have given up more. I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of the opposition “figuring out” how to counter Ange Postecoglou or the players not being up to scratch, but whatever it is, it’s critical that Postecoglou offer his players a cogent explanation, one they buy into.

Postecoglou’s decision to switch to a 4-3-3 formation for the Liverpool game might have made sense in principle, but doing so without adequate time on the training pitch (Spurs played Thursday night) smacks of improvisation and desperation (and, not coincidentally, it backfired badly). The last thing Tottenham need is a squad that thinks its coach can’t diagnose the problem, let alone figure out how to fix it.

As for Liverpool, you imagine they’ve metabolised the realisation that there will be no fairytale end to the Jurgen Klopp era, but there’s still pride to play for and — with Arne Slot talking openly about moving on and getting on the phone with Klopp — a new boss to impress. In that regard, we had confirmation that this Liverpool team still struggles to put together a 90-minute performance: as devastating as they were early in racing to a 4-0 lead, they tailed off badly for a big chunk of the second half.

However, we also got the sense that this team might be deeper than some realize. Cody Gakpo had arguably his best game at centre-forward, Harvey Elliott (who, despite starting just nine league games, has a case to make as Liverpool’s Player of the Season) was exceptional both in terms of work rate and quality (and not just because of his goal), and Jarell Quansah fully justified his inclusion ahead of Ibrahima Konaté. In other words, there’s plenty for Slot to work with and not necessarily much to do in the transfer window, especially if Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah stick around for another season.

That last one, of course, is the biggest call of all.



Will Mo Salah stay at Liverpool this summer?

Gab & Juls wonder if Mo Salah will stay at Liverpool next season after an impressive performance in their 4-2 victory over Tottenham Hotspur.

Quick hits

TEN — Kai Havertz is a bad dude (in a bad-is-good sort of way): Bournemouth were incensed by the penalty Havertz won just before half-time, when he dragged his foot to seek contact with Mark Travers. Bournemouth coach Andoni Iraola said it was a dive; I might not go that far, but there’s no question he played for it. I’m more comfortable with calling it “amoral” — he’s a pro, he plays to win and if that means generating incidents referees will sanction, so be it. That’s the kind of edge Havertz brings, and it’s part of why Arsenal are top of the table. Games like the one with Bournemouth — in which Mikel Arteta’s men were in control, but failed to score until Bukayo Saka converted that penalty — are the sort of games that can slip away from you if it’s scoreless at the break. Instead, it turned the game and Arsenal went on to a 3-0 win. Havertz isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a good thing for Arsenal that Arteta likes him (and uses him correctly).

NINE — Bayer Leverkusen trounce Eintracht Frankfurt in classic “trap game”: Now, their unbeaten streak stands at 47 games and the record is in sight: they can equal Benfica‘s postwar record on Thursday against Roma in the Europa League and beat it away to Bochum next Sunday. Truth be told, I thought this was where they might slip up. Eintracht are inconsistent, but they weren’t lacking for motivation and at home, they enjoy raucous support. Xabi Alonso even rested half a dozen starters. The Europa League and DFB Pokal — the other two legs of the treble — are logically the priorities from here on out, so what happened? They won only 5-1 away. They’re truly walking on air right now.

EIGHT — The City Football Group clout matters, but Girona remain miracle-makers: It’s not just the comeback against Barcelona this weekend that impressed, but the quality they continue to show, even after knowing their place in next season’s Champions League is in the bag. Yes, the City connection opens doors — and there’s a conversation to be had about it — but this club’s budget for 2023-24 was a paltry €52 million, smaller than 12 other LaLiga sides. They’ve been a model club all season and this achievement will be talked about for a long, long time.



Why Pochettino and Gallagher are vital to Chelsea’s progression next season

Mark Donaldson looks back on Chelsea’s big win over London rivals West Ham in the Premier League.

SEVEN — Chelsea‘s young guns are firing, but is it them or is it the opposition? Probably a bit of both. It certainly helps when, in consecutive home games, you get to face a free-falling Tottenham (Chelsea won 2-0) and a West Ham side with one win in their past eight games and a lame-duck manager in David Moyes (Chelsea won 5-0). But that doesn’t change the fact that Noni Madueke and Nico Jackson are delivering in ways they weren’t earlier in the campaign. (Cole Palmer was pretty good too, but that’s not news.) They’re young and they’re inconsistent and they might never make the grade, but now Chelsea can at least legitimately chase a Europa League spot, something that seemed unthinkable for much of the season.

SIX — We have a Federico Chiesa sighting! On a good day, he’s one of the best wingers in the world. On a bad day, he’s anonymous (or injured, or recovering from injury and therefore at half-speed). Chiesa was exceptional for Juventus against Roma on Sunday. It wasn’t enough to move the needle — the match finished 1-1 and Roma would have won if Tammy Abraham hadn’t squandered his late chance — but it offers a glimmer of hope for Azzurri fans at the Euros. As for what Chiesa can do for Juve next season? That will depend on his fitness and what Max Allegri (or his replacement if, by some miracle, he’s no longer there) opt do with him.

FIVE — Marco Reus and the Borussia Dortmund B-team run rampant: With next season’s Champions League spot wrapped up and this season’s Champions League future still in the balance, Borussia Dortmund served a chance to see the second-stringers and youngsters, plus a golden oldie: Marco Reus. He turns 35 this month and will be leaving in the summer, so it was nice to see him dispense goals, assists and that flair that made him a fan favorite for so long. For some of us, he’s among the greatest players the Bundesliga produced over the past two decades and if injuries had not slowed him down in key moments, many more might share that view.

FOUR — Milan fans are annoyed and they’re letting the club know it … but are they barking up the wrong tree? I have no problem with the sort of protest the Ultras staged in the club’s 3-3 home draw with Genoa. They didn’t cheer, they held up banners questioning the club and they left five minutes early. Message sent, and if that wasn’t clear enough, they outlined their complaints in a detailed open letter. Some of their complaints are valid (the lack of clear and public communication, other than coach Stefano Pioli), some less so (the belief that the club could have done more to avoid being penalised by poor officiating, especially in the Champions League). Their dissatisfaction with the club’s transfer activity seems misguided to me, and Milan might — rightly — rebut that they’re balancing the books, unlike some of their competitors. But the fans are right in saying that for two years, they’ve backed the club at every turn and now they want their dissenting voice to be heard. And if you’re going to run a business, as Redbird is doing, you need to listen to your customers.



Moreno slams Barcelona’s fragility after gifting Madrid LaLiga title

Alejandro Moreno reacts to Girona’s comeback win against Barcelona in LaLiga.

THREE — Days like these remind you of another reason why Xavi said what he said: He could yet do a 180-degree turn and decide to leave again — who knows? — but when Xavi looks back at the 4-2 defeat against Girona (with Barca letting a 2-1 lead slip with 25 minutes to go) he might end up reflecting on the number of his players who look like they’ve checked out. This was a defensive horror show, with Ronald Araújo (one of the best in the world at his position 12 months ago) leading the show of futility. Things weren’t much better farther up the pitch or, indeed, with many of his substitutes. If you can’t get the right mindset for a game like this, against a team just below you in the table with second place in LaLiga to secure, you’ve got the sort of issues that can’t just be blamed on the manager.

TWO — Inter fall as Sassuolo become the answer to future trivia questions: Motivation, and maybe hangovers, are key in football and we saw it as Serie A champions-elect Inter fell to second-bottom Sassuolo 1-0. It means little to an Inter side that paid a hefty price for Denzel Dumfries‘ mistake, other than the fact the team won’t be breaking the 100-point mark this year. To Sassuolo, it means hopes of an improbable relegation escape (safety is three points away, with three games to go). That, and the honour being the only side to have defeated Inter this season in Serie A (and they did it home and away).



Are Bayern Munich interested in Erik ten Hag?

Gab & Juls discuss the rumours that Bayern Munich have added Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag to a list of possible successors to Thomas Tuchel.

ONE — Thomas Tuchel likes to be different and doesn’t rotate his Bayern team much … but it does him no good: League games like these — sandwiched between high-stakes semifinal legs and with nothing but bragging rights to play for — see most managers rotate their squads heavily, in part to give players a breather, in part to avoid injury. Only Tuchel isn’t most managers, which is why he played Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich, Eric Dier, Raphaël Guerreiro and Harry Kane from the first minute against Stuttgart. Maybe he wanted to teach arrogant Stuttgart — the Bundesliga’s surprise package — a lesson … and, well, it didn’t work, as Bayern were thoroughly outplayed en route to a 3-1 defeat. I have no clue what Tuchel learned from this exercise that will help him on Wednesday night, and, if anything, it will hurt him: Guerreiro came off injured in the first half and Dier had to be substituted in the interval after getting whacked in the face. As for Stuttgart, they confirmed what we already know: Sebastian Hoeness is a hell of a coach and despite the new deal he reached, you wouldn’t rule out Bayern coming back in for him.

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