Lucky us! We were treated to another big weekend across European soccer as Man United won the Carabao Cup -- the first trophy of the Erik ten Hag era -- and Napoli took another huge step toward their first Serie A title since 1990. Meanwhile Arsenal and Man City won to keep the Premier League race interesting, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid shared the points in the derby, and Bayern Munich brushed aside another challenger in the Bundesliga.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Man United's first trophy of the Erik ten Hag era, but the road ahead is long
Sometimes, to appreciate where you are, it's good to remember where you've been. And just over six months ago, Erik Ten Hag had debuted with consecutive Premier League defeats (2-1 at home to Brighton and 4-0 away to Brentford). Cristiano Ronaldo was still around, angry supporters were showing up outside new chief executive Richard Arnold's house and there was a sense that things could easily slip from bad to abject.
Many, including yours truly, questioned how Ten Hag's brand of football was going to be effective with this group of players (starting with Ronaldo). And the club's insistence on signing players who, other than Casemiro, all seemed to be either Eredivisie alumni did not bode well. But here we are.
The League Cup is what it is, but psychologically it matters because it's the first piece of silverware the club have won since 2017, snapping the longest trophy drought at Old Trafford since the early 1980s. And no, it's not a bauble won in isolation. United are third in the Premier League, and they just knocked LaLiga leaders Barcelona out of in the Europa League.
Two things appear evident. The first is that Ten Hag receives a ton of credit for showing a combination of firmness (from being unwavering in his stance on Ronaldo when he didn't feel he was a tactical fit to discipline Marcus Rashford when he showed up late to a game), nuts-and-bolts coaching (Rashford's resurgence is Exhibit A) and pragmatism: He realized United weren't going to press high and dominate the ball the way his Ajax teams did, so he found another way.
The League Cup final is an example of this. United had 39% possession and narrowly lost the xG battle to Newcastle, but they rarely felt threatened and were savvy in managing the game after going two goals up.
The other is that there is still a way to go to get where they want to be, which is fine: we're only at the start of the journey. But imagine a United side winning the Premier League or competing in a Champions League final in a couple of years' time. How many in this squad would be a part of it?
Other than Rashford and Lisandro Martinez, most of this season's biggest contributors are past or close to 30 years old: Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen, Raphael Varane, Casemiro and David De Gea. In other words, if this team is to continue to grow, it will need to reload with new talent and get the best out of existing talent like Antony and Jadon Sancho.
Ten Hag isn't Sir Alex Ferguson, and he's working in a different era. It will be critical that he receive the right support in terms of scouting and recruitment. Equally, it should be clear that he's a coach and he should be allowed to focus on that, because that's his skill set. And while that's true in most situations, at United there's the added uncertainty of the club being up for sale, which only increases the potential for missteps.
As for Newcastle, conventional wisdom is that they're ahead of schedule in their grand plan to become a European power. That's probably true, though I suspect too many people are making the "rich owner equals massive spending equals Paris Saint-Germain or Manchester City" experience. The owners say they are going to grow organically and live within their means, respecting Financial Fair Play. Whether we believe them or not, that's what they've done thus far.
Given what they've been through, nobody is going to criticise Eddie Howe. But if he's going to take them where they want to go, he's going to need to use Sunday as a teachable moment. Sometimes you learn more from defeats than you do from victory. Howe saying that "some of these players won't make it back to Wembley" speaks volumes.
For better or worse, Madrid derby was all about Alvaro Rodriguez
Luis Garcia thinks Real Madrid brought intensity to their game against Atletico quite late to save a 1-1 draw in the derby.
Remember the old trope about how it's not about how many times you get knocked down, it's about how many times you get back up? Alvaro Rodriguez, who turned 18 last July, obviously got the memo.
Having come on as a substitute with 13 minutes to go in a scoreless Madrid derby -- for just his second appearance for the first team -- barely a minute had passed when he allowed Jose Maria Gimenez to get in front of him and put Atletico ahead. Seven minutes later, he redeemed himself by sending a powerful and accurate (albeit, unmarked) header past Jan Oblak for the equalizer.
That ability for a young player to metabolize an error and bounce back straight away is not something to be underestimated. And it's (almost) as impressive as his headed equalizer.
Beyond that, it felt like Real Madrid paid a hefty price for the middle leg of their huge trifecta, which sees them away to Liverpool last week, in the derby on Saturday and with a Copa del Rey clasico on Thursday. Karim Benzema was off his game and Vinicius struggled to find space. Meanwhile, Carlo Ancelotti's changes in midfield -- Toni Kroos and Dani Ceballos for Eduardo Camavinga and Luka Modric -- were enough to keep them in the game, but not enough to break down Atletico.
Barcelona's unexpected defeat the following day means they're actually a point closer to the top of the table, but seven points are still a lot to make up. Unless Barca implode, Real need to step up and that's a big ask when you're battling on three fronts.
As for Atleti, they caught few breaks on the day. Reinildo's injury after 23 minutes was a body blow -- as is the fact that his season is likely over -- and Angel Correa's red card was a flat-out blown call by referee Gil Manzano. There are positives for Diego Simeone to take from this game, though again, he's walking a fine line with Betis just two points back.
Bayern ruin the fairy tale in statement win ... and now Mane's back
I think it's fair to say most neutrals were rooting hard for Union Berlin when they traveled to take on Bayern Munich this Sunday. The little engine that could, the underdog team from the capital pulling ahead of the ultimate juggernaut at the top of the Bundesliga ... well, it didn't happen.
Numbers aren't the gospel truth, but they're not habitual liars either. Union Berlin were top of the table with a negative expected goals difference for a reason: They've had a ton of breaks this season, and regression to the mean catches up to you. Especially when you face a Bayern side with a big chip on their shoulder after last weekend's 3-2 loss to Borussia Monchengladbach.
Bayern wrapped up the game at 3-0 in the first half, but they could easily have scored more. Kingsley Coman ran rampant down the flank, Matthijs De Ligt was a de facto playmaker and Jamal Musiala dispensed magic from midfield. Drafted in at the back, Benjamin Pavard was imperious -- now there's something I never expected to write -- and there's more to come.
For example, Sadio Mane played his first minutes since his injury in early November. He can be the real value-add for this Bayern side down the stretch. Even as we've chronicled Bayern's ups and downs this season, too many have forgotten that the man signed to fill Robert Lewandowski's big shoes has himself missed a big chunk of the campaign.
Chelsea's free fall continues vs. Tottenham
Julien Laurens says it's time for Chelsea to move on from Graham Potter, with no improvement to be seen.
The numbers are straight out of a horror show. Six games without a league win (the last time that happened was in 2013). One win and four goals scored in 2023. Two victories in their last 15 games in all competitions. Chelsea are in a bad place right now and while there are plenty reasons for it, sacking Graham Potter would simply create more chaos.
It's not about whether Potter "deserves" to keep his job; it's about whether you can bring in somebody who can do better in the long term, and about whether you know enough about Potter to be certain he's the wrong guy. On the first criteria, the answer is "no" -- the time to find a replacement, should you want one, is May, and that's also when you'll have more data points about Potter. Sure, the buck stops with him but -- news flash! -- Chelsea are going nowhere this season. There's no point in making a change now with some interim guy. Assess where you are in May.
As for Spurs, once again without Antonio Conte, who is convalescing in Turin, they've won three games on the spin at home against tough opponents (Manchester City, West Ham and now Chelsea). That's enough to suggest the horrid defeat to Leicester was just a blip and they're on the right track. There's a ton of uncertainty hanging over the club -- Conte's future, a potential sale -- but one thing everyone agrees on is that now that they're in the Champions League spots, they can't afford to let them go.
Barcelona stumble at Almeria in 'worst game of the season'
Steve Nicol thinks Arteta's Arsenal fully deserve the 1-0 win at Leicester in the Premier League.
Hey, those are Xavi's words, not mine... and he's right. Barcelona created little for much of the game, which only reinforced how important Pedri and Ousmane Dembele are to this team. Without the former, the midfield felt one misplaced pass away from conceding a counter (which, by the way, is how Almeria scored). Without the latter, play out wide becomes a maddeningly predictable string of crosses.
There was obviously a residual effect from Thursday night's disappointment at Old Trafford in the Europa League and, maybe, some were looking past relegation-threatened Almeria to the clasico against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey. But that can't excuse this sort of performance and, you imagine, Xavi will be demanding his players stand up and be counted. Instead of going into the clasico with a 10-point lead, it's seven points and the risk of a momentum shift.
One more thing. Ronald Araujo was initially rested for Eric Garcia -- who played like, well, Eric Garcia -- and after he came on with 20 minutes to go, he was asked to do the old Gerard Pique routine and go up front as a second center-forward next to Robert Lewandowski. That shtick may have worked occasionally for Pique and Pep Guardiola back in the day, but I'm not sure it's a good solution for Xavi. Barca lumping balls into the area -- they had 47 crosses on the day -- doesn't just go against their brand of football, it's also ineffective.
If it was the sort of thing that worked, you'd imagine they'd be playing Araujo up front from the first minute.
Don't tell their fans, but yeah ... Napoli have Serie A wrapped up
Neapolitans are some of the most superstitious fans on Earth so they'll probably curse me for saying this, but there's a greater chance of Jake Paul getting a rematch against Tommy Fury's brother Tyson than there is of them throwing away the scudetto.
The 2-0 win over Empoli leaves them 18 points clear at the top of the table with 14 games to go. I haven't looked, but I don't think anybody in the history of the game has had such a big lead in March and thrown it away. Oh, and they're in-form too, with seven wins on the bounce. I'd say stranger things have happened, but I'm not sure they have...
Please don't take this as a jinx. I'm only stating fact. Napoli are head and shoulders over the competition in Serie A.
Arsenal dominate defensively to get three points against Leicester City
I'm not sure you're going to see as overwhelming a defensive performance as the one Arsenal delivered away to Leicester City in their 1-0 win, which keeps them two points ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table. The Gunners limited Leicester to 34% possession, a single shot on goal and an xG of 0.03. That's a statement, considering Leicester had racked up an xG of 1.33 on the road at Old Trafford the previous week and prior to that, had scored eight goals in their previous two games (wins at Aston Villa and home to Spurs).
The game also underscored the wisdom of adding Jorginho and Leandro Trossard to the mix in January. Both started and both were major contributors. As we've noted before, Mikel Arteta rotated very little this season, but this pair gives him the depth to do that as fixtures come thick and fast, starting with Wednesday's clash against Everton.
Mbappe becomes PSG's all-time top scorer as they wipe the floor with Marseille in Le Classique
Sometimes there's no answer to talent -- both physical and technical -- unleashed, which is how Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe -- with a bit of help from a supporting cast that was sharper than usual -- were able to put on a show in PSG's 3-0 hammering of Olympique Marseille.
Coming on the heels of three straight defeats -- against Marseille in the cup, Monaco in the league and Bayern Munich in the Champions League -- and a laboured win over Lille, they needed something emphatic and they got it.
The 3-0 against OM stretches their lead over Igor Tudor's side to eight points. But what was staggering was the fluidity and the ease with which Messi and Mbappe took the opposition apart. And at the risk of sounding mischievous, how much more balanced this side looks without Neymar.
Quite the turnaround as Borussia Dortmund make it nine in a row
It's worth reminding ourselves where Borussia Dortmund found themselves heading into the break: sixth place, nine points back and with the customary cocktail of injuries, chaos and inconsistency. And look at them now: nine wins on the spin, joint-top of the Bundesliga and 90 minutes away from a Champions League quarterfinal. Most of all, while they remain less clinical than they could be, they've managed to minimize the defensive wobbles that afflicted them for so long.
We knew they could perform in big games, but the way they resolved a more pedestrian task -- like winning away to relegation-threatened Hoffenheim as they did Saturday -- is what was sorely missing for a long, long time.
Why the turnaround? Plenty of reasons. Sebastian Haller's return, Karim Adeyemi's new-found confidence, Emre Can being fit and productive, but above all, Terzic's patience in putting it all together. They're not favourites for the title, but in terms of belief and confidence, they're taking giant steps.
Champions League hangover and usual error slow Liverpool
It was perhaps telling that Jurgen Klopp, looking for a reaction after the 5-2 home defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League, opted to deploy 37-year-old James Milner in midfield for the trip to Crystal Palace. It wasn't just a case of picking Milner over, say, Fabinho or Harvey Elliott, or even squad rotation. It felt like an attempt to calm the nerves and remind everyone that there's still an improbable, but not impossible, pursuit of the top four to play for.
On the pitch it finished scoreless and while Liverpool had their chances, they also displayed the limits that have dogged them of late. Cody Gakpo still feels like a foreign object in this squad. Jordan Henderson has always offered more quantity than quality, but these days less quantity than before. And Fabinho (when he came on), Naby Keita and Trent Alexander-Arnold showed few signs of ironing out the errors that have dogged them for the past year or so.
Klopp said this won't be a "season to look back on." Assuming they don't pull off a miracle at the Bernabeu, he's right.
Milan go second in Serie A as Ibrahimovic and Maignan return
Milan's 2-0 win over Atalanta saw them return to joint-second place alongside Inter, but more importantly, it vindicated Stefano Pioli's shift to a back-three a month or so ago. There were some teething problems, sure, but it's now yielded four wins in a row in all competitions and, crucially, help is on the way. Zlatan Ibrahimovic came on and played his first minutes since last May, Ismael Bennacer and Alessandro Florenzi could be back as early as next weekend and most importantly, "Magic" Mike Maignan was back between the sticks.
This matters because while the back three is yielding results -- and also enables Pioli to squeeze the impressive Malick Thiaw into the starting lineup -- I'm not sure it reflects how they want to play in the longer term. At some point, you'd imagine, they want to get back to last season's football, which is predicated on a back-four and a ball-dominating midfield (for which they need Bennacer).
Pioli will be tempted to keep the back three -- only if because if he does change it and they don't win, media and pundits will flip out -- but I don't see it as a permanent shift.
Man City dominate, but Foden's performance leaves you wondering
Manchester City demolished Bournemouth 4-1 this weekend to keep the pressure on Arsenal. Erling Haaland got his goal -- he's up to 27 in 24 league games this season, and 33 in 32 overall -- but what stood out was Phil Foden's performance. He scored one and set up another, played on both wings and moved with grace and intelligence.
It seems wild that he has started just 20 of City's 38 games this season. And no, he hasn't had long injury spells either: in the league, he started 15 games and was on the bench for another eight.
Given that he can play multiple positions in attacking midfield, it seems strange that he has played relatively little. But then, Pep Guardiola likes to do things his way and heavy rotation is part of that. In fact, just four players have started 80% or more of City's league matches: Ederson, Rodri, Erling Haaland and Kevin De Bruyne.
Inter stumble badly at Bologna, but please don't blame rotation
Inter's performance in their 1-0 defeat away to Bologna was so poor that Lautaro Martinez apologized to supporters and said he was "disappointed" in his team. Some have criticised him for speaking out; in fact, he has the captain's armband and being honest in these situations is exactly what he should be dong.
Inter's inconsistency continues to be maddening and because we love simple explanations, the stock answer this week is that Simone Inzaghi relies too much on squad rotation. It's true that he rotates a lot, but given the age of his squad, the fact that Inter are still in two cup competitions and the number of players easing their way back after long injury spells, what is he supposed to do?