We're almost at the end of the 2022-23 European season, and the talking points keep coming. Manchester City completed the second leg of their attempt at the treble, wrapping up the FA Cup win over rivals Manchester United and now turning their attention to the UEFA Champions League. Real Madrid's longtime star, Karim Benzema, announced his surprise exit this weekend, scoring in his final game for the club ... and giving them a chance to properly and authentically rebuild.
Elsewhere, RB Leipzig won the German Cup, Inter Milan continued their positive momentum ahead of Saturday's CL final, Paris Saint-Germain's season ended in dismal fashion and the legend, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, brought his career to an end after 24 brilliant seasons.
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It's Monday, and for the final edition of Musings in 2022-23, Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Two down and one to go, but for Pep Guardiola and Man City, it's all about the Champions League
There are his words, not mine. "More than ... the treble, is the fact to win the Champions League," Pep Guardiola said. "We have to admit it, without the Champions League -- it has been amazing, it has been fun -- but we are missing [something]. We have to do it.
"We get more and more credit for what we have done these years, we have done many things, but I said to the players 'you have to put the pressure on yourself, to be recognized as something good, you have to win in Europe.'"
It's an understandable thing to say, but it's remarkable when, for the longest time, Guardiola's tune was rather different. After seven years of being asked pretty much variations on the same question ("How important is winning the Champions League to you?") and replying in a very rational if rather coachspeak-y way ("We want to be the best that we can be, sometimes in a knockout competition there are things you can't control, the league is the best measure of what you are achieving") he sounded like a fan. And maybe a bit irrational, too, because he knows full well that in 90 minutes -- just like Saturday's Champions League final against Inter -- anything can happen.
Manchester City can be unlucky, Inter can have the game of their lives, the referee could make a terrible mistake... it's the nature of the sport: the best team doesn't always win. City played 61 games in all competitions this season. On paper, they were the best team in every single one of them going into the game, and yet they only won 44 of those 61 games. That's less than three out of four.
Guardiola has never been about banging on about silverware in public (like, say, Jose Mourinho). He's talked about performance, improvement and all those those things clubs strive for without measuring them exclusively in terms of trophies. So why layer on this extra dollop of pressure on yourself and your players now, especially since it doesn't come from the ownership or the supporters?
City don't need to win the Champions League for their business model to work and Sheikh Mansour, who has famously been to watch a game at the Etihad just once in the nearly 15 years he's owned the club, presumably isn't bombarding him with text messages. The fan base is diverse and global, but certainly the hardcore -- the folks who boo the Champions League anthem -- has such an acrimonious relationship with UEFA (stemming from the Financial Fair Play investigations) that it's never been part of the club-defining narrative the way it has been at, say, Real Madrid or Liverpool.
Nope, you suspect this comes from within. From Pep himself. Analytical and intellectual he may be, in his heart he's still a footballer, and this is how players measure success. He may have three of these trophies at home, including the one he won as a player, but he knows what another Champions League trophy (one without prime Lionel Messi on his team) would mean to his legacy. At least to those who measure these things in cups.
Pep Guardiola believes Manchester City need to win the Champions League to be recognised among the greats.
In terms of how good they are, there's not much to prove, and he showed it against Manchester United in the FA Cup final.
It wasn't so much about the performance -- United won the xG battle, even without the generous penalty for the Jack Grealish handball, and they had two chances to equalize at the very end -- it was the way they seemed unfazed throughout, looking as if they could have kicked it up a gear or two at any time. And that opening goal, after just twelve seconds, was the epitome of directness, long passing, second balls and all those things you would never have associated with a Guardiola team even just a few years ago.
As for United, the game pretty much confirmed what I wrote leading up to the final. There's a style gap, there's a stability gap and there's a personnel gap and Erik Ten Hag will need time to close it (assuming he does).
I'm not sure his results this year -- he took his team to two domestic finals and the last eight of the Europa League, while finishing third in the Premier League -- are how we should measure his progress in the long term, but in the short term he showed he can deliver on what he needs to do to keep the side ticking over and the media off his back.
Benzema goodbye is a chance for Real Madrid to rebuild
It happened so quickly. It began with early rumours on Friday, Carlo Ancelotti's firm denial -- he said he had "no doubts" that Karim Benzema would be staying -- on Saturday, Real Madrid's club statement on Sunday afternoon and, on Sunday night came the farewell after the 1-1 draw with Athletic Bilbao, in which he scored his 353rd and final goal for the club.
After 14 seasons, five Champions League crowns, four league titles, three Copas del Rey, a Ballon d'Or and an assortment of lesser trophies, Benzema is swapping the Bernabeu for (reportedly) Saudi Arabia.
Where does this leave Real Madrid? As I see it, in adversity there is opportunity, and maybe his farewell is a chance to accelerate the rebuilding process.
Alejandro Moreno explains why he believes Harry Kane is the only candidate to replace Karim Benzema at Real Madrid.
Marco Asensio (reportedly close to Paris Saint-Germain), Nacho, Luka Modric, Mariano Diaz, Dani Ceballos and Toni Kroos are all out of contract this summer. Eden Hazard is rescinding his deal, which had another year to run. The club, reportedly, were going to extend Modric and Kroos another year, partly out of gratitude, partly because they can still contribute, partly to help the youngsters grow.
I'd be tempted to move on from all of them with the possible exception of Ceballos, who is 26, if he was willing to commit to a club-friendly deal. Doing so would knock close to 100 million euros off a wage bill that is the second highest in Europe. That savings, plus the money set aside for the Kylian Mbappe deal that never materialized, can provide the basis for a proper rebuild.
It may mean not being among the Champions League favourites straight away, but one of the good things of being in LaLiga, as opposed to Serie A or the Premier League, is that you know you're pretty much assured of a top-four spot. (And given Barcelona's myriad issues, who knows? Maybe you can still win the title.)
Florentino Perez has rebuilt this team time and again. It may be time to do it once more if you want to give yourself the best possible way to get back to the top in the next few years.
Zlatan has left the building ...
We knew he was going to address the crowd and say farewell to Milan. We just did not know he was leaving for good.
And yet, really, we should have known that even the man who calls himself God, at 41 years of age and having logged just 145 minutes of football this season, was ready to pack it in.
It's a cliche to describe Zlatan Ibrahimovic as larger than life, but as often happens, there's plenty of truth in that trite phrase. He was a Paul Bunyan-esque folk hero who sometimes rubbed people the wrong way -- just ask Pep Guardiola -- but also could charm and entertain like few others. He often did this, especially once he reached his 30s, by adopting the Zlatan persona, sometimes making you wonder whether he was simply playing a character named Zlatan. And yet, somehow, that character felt more real and genuine than so many of his cliche-ridden colleagues.
Julien Laurens reflects on Zlatan Ibrahimovic's career after the AC Milan striker announced his decision to retire from football.
Few men his size came anywhere near his ability on the ball. And while it's true that teams forcibly adapted to him rather than the other way around (what else are you going to do when you sign a guy with his unique skill set?), it's equally true that he won 14 league titles in a 24-year career, almost all of them as a front-and-center protagonist.
When Julien Laurens and I interviewed him last year for "Gab & Juls Meets ..." we asked what the next chapter would be and he told us he was "a little bit panicking." That's understandable, after three decades of an athlete's daily routine, but given his personality, I wonder how long before he tells us that others are the ones who will soon be panicking as he embarks on the next phase of his life.
An appropriate end to PSG's nightmare season: A home loss and Neymar, Messi booed
Paris Saint-Germain's home defeat to Clermont Foot on the final day of the Ligue 1 season was a fitting metaphor for their campaign. They went 2-0 up only to lose 3-2, sort of mirroring the excitement of what a Kylian Mbappe-Neymar-Lionel Messi strike force may achieve and the subsequent letdown. Neymar, injured in the stands, was booed during the postgame celebration, as was Messi and coach Christophe Galtier.
PSG fans know there's plenty of blame to go around, but it's obvious that those with the biggest paychecks are going to be held to a higher standard. When you then take your annual spring injury sabbatical (Neymar) or jet off to Saudi Arabia for a photo shoot (Messi)... well, you're going to be targeted. The club's dysfunction obviously runs deep, but the reaction to Messi in particular tells us something about fandom in the modern age.
PSG were a big club with a big fan base before Messi arrived, and it grew even bigger after he landed. And this where there's a bit of a disconnect between Messi fans who started supporting PSG because he was there -- as evidenced by the 1.5 million followers the PSG Instagram account reportedly lost after his final game -- and the PSG fans who trace their lineage back to the days of Safet Susic and Jean-Marc Pilorget.
The latter are sticking around now that Messi's gone. They'll be there when/if Mbappe leaves too and they'll still be there if/when the Qataris move on too. They also likely realized that their club was used not just by Messi and Neymar, but by the current ownership and many of the players who have come through the Parc des Princes in the past few years.
They got the benefits of it, sure, but, still, to many it was a marriage of convenience. And in these situations, when it's over, you feel a little bit used.
RB Leipzig outlast Frankfurt to win German Cup. Are they ready to challenge Bayern Munich?
Marco Rose's crew had the upper hand for much of the game, but that felt largely by design as Eintracht Frankfurt handed them the initiative and looked to hit on the break. Though not at their sharpest -- and missing some big guns like defender Josko Gvardiol, forward Andre Silva and goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi -- Leipzig looked the better team throughout and added a deserved second with winger Dominik Szoboszlai.
For obvious reasons, Leipzig aren't everyone's cup of tea, but the work they've done in attracting and developing gifted youngsters, as well as developing a strong footballing identity, is groundbreaking. Plenty talk of the benefits of multi-club ownership, but they're actually the only ones to have pulled it off effectively.
Now comes the big question: can they compete for the title next season? A lot will depend on whether they can effectively replace Nkunku, Gvardiol and Konrad Laimer -- the first two are heavily linked to moves elsewhere, the latter has already committed to ... Bayern. But really, it feels as if this was the year to do it and that, maybe, without the injuries to Gulacsi (who went down in October and missed the rest of the campaign) and Nkunku (who made just 25 league appearances and was still joint-top scorer), they might have pulled it off.
Inter also close out the season on a high ...
It was a meaningless game, sure, and Simone Inzaghi rotated a few players, but Inter's 1-0 victory away to Torino makes it 11 wins in their last 12 games heading into the Champions' League final. That's form, and that matters too.
Nobody is under any illusions who the overwhelming favourite in Istanbul is going to be, and all Inter can do is give themselves the best possible shot. In maintaining their late-season momentum and ensuring everyone is as fit and as rested as they can possibly be after a gruelling campaign -- 57 games isn't quite as many as Man City's 61, but that's still a lot -- they are doing just that.
One team may be stronger than the other, but we'll nevertheless see two sides at full strength in the Champions League final. That bodes well for the neutral.