For the second season in a row, there’s no springtime doom and gloom at Newcastle. No talk of fans rallying with banners demanding a club that tries, no claim of the players letting down the fans, and no sign of a squad underachieving. Tyneside feels alive and buoyant, smiles are on faces fans, and the team is overachieving by sitting in the top half.

‘It’s very good what is happening in this club, in this city. We are where we deserve to be, I think’, said Mohammed Diame, who put in a man of the match of performance as Newcastle came from behind to beat Arsenal. Yes, Newcastle beat Arsenal. After 10 defeats in a row, spanning six years, and no wins against the Gunners in eight years, the Magpies grabbed a completely deserved win, their fourth in a row, as well their fourth successive home win. ‘With the last four results, we’ve won four games in a row now, and confidence is high’, said defender Paul Dummett.

And there was no shortage of confidence, even when Arsenal took the lead. It had been 13 years since the Toon celebrated a home win over Arsenal, Nolberto Solano bagging the solo goal back in the winter of 2005. Then Alan Shearer and Michael Owen were the headline men up front, Rafa Benitez was managing at Liverpool, with Glenn Roeder in charge. Normally Newcastle heads would have dropped, conceding the first goal against a bogey team and that familiar feeling would start to creep in, of those 10 games in a row that they lost to the Gunners, only in one of them did they score equalisers- yet they were hit 7-3 in that one- so perhaps a shot in morale would have been expected the moment Alexandre Lacazette latched on to Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s pass, and became the first player to score against Martin Dubravka at the St. James Park this season.

But dropping heads isn’t quite a feature of the new Toon, not what has made punch above their weight, made them win four games on the bounce. This may have been a shuffled Arsenal side, but there’s no discrediting Newcastle’s resolve. ‘People were talking about the changes they made but you could see the quality which they had, especially in the first half’, said Benitez. For quality, Benitez would have been delighted to see that that was the word surrounding his side’s equaliser. From Jonjo Shelvey’s superb pass, to Deandre Yedlin’s one-time cross, and Ayoze Perez’s one-touch finish, the goal that gave Newcastle parity involved eight of their 11 players, with nine passes.

It was a third goal in as many games for an in-form Perez, who bagged winners against Huddersfield, and at Leicester lately, but it’s the Spaniard’s work ethic that has been his most brilliant characteristic, and that has also been the watchwords for the rest of the squad. That work ethic, not so similar with Newcastle’s Premier League teams in recent past, always accused of a lack of trying and giving up too easily in the past. Not this side. ‘Everyone was pulling in the same direction…’ said Benitez, while Dummett pointed out ‘the organisation between the back four and midfield’ as key. But perhaps bigger proof of their hard work and focus is Diame pointing out that the team would enjoy this ‘for a few days, then get back to work’. There’s no room for resting on laurels, no room for slacking off, as they showed in the second half, with Islam Slimani and Perez combining to play in Ritchie, who- just like he did against Manchester United here- grabbed the winner.

With 41 points, Newcastle are one point behind ninth-placed Everton, whom they face next. ‘We’ll go to Everton hoping to beat them and take over them’ Dummett added. A win at Goodison Park next weekend takes them to ninth place; only twice in the past 11 Premier League seasons have they finished higher. Not that Benitez is one to get carried away, it’s still a case of one step at a time. The first step was always survival, and with 41 points that has been achieved, just ask Dummett. ‘Yes, definitely’.

City kings of the land, inevitably

You could excuse the nerves from the Manchester City fans and manager when Tottenham halved their advantage. City had been on top and took a deserved- yet fortuitous- two-goal lead, until Christian Eriksen pulled a goal back for Spurs (insert Harry Kane joke here). There was semblance to City’s implosion at home to Manchester United the previous weekend, and Spurs sensed it, the fans roaring them on while the players forced City to cede the ball, both at the end of the first half, and the start of the second. But City didn’t give up control or their lead this time, and with less than 20 minutes left, Raheem Sterling- guilty of a few misses in the derby and here as well- put the game to bed. City have won at Chelsea, Arsenal, United and Spurs this season; more importantly they got to within touching distance of the title. A West Brom win at Old Trafford would suffice.

Not that Pep Guardiola was watching, though. The City boss was presumably on the golf course when United took on West Brom, laboured at home to the bottom club, and, courtesy of a Jay Rodriguez header, suffered a second home league defeat of the season to hand City the title. Which means United had delayed City’s coronation at the Etihad on derby day, only to gift them the title by losing to a side that had won only twice in the league all season. Sums up this week of football. This also means City have won the league at the joint-fastest time ever (with five games to spare, just like United in 2000-01), and in seven years they’ve won three league titles, half the number of times United manager Jose Mourinho pointed out that he has won eight career championships in his post-match conference.

Elsewhere:

  • That defeat at St. James means Arsenal are yet to record an away point in 2018, the only side in the top four divisions in the country awaiting their first spoil on the road. Incredible.
  • Now it’s five wins in a row for Burnley. Not only did Sean Dyche’s side put some considerable daylight between them and recent opponents Leicester, they are now only two points behind sixth-placed Arsenal.
  • Mohammed Salah scored. Next!!
  • The jubilation was uncontainable, from the pitch to the dugout and the fans, when the goal went in and at the final whistle. It looked like Huddersfield-Watford would peter out to a goalless draw, until Tom Ince popped up for the Terriers in the 91st minute, his fifth goal against Watford. More Importantly, it has them on 35 points, on the brink of survival.
  • And in the crisis Clasico, Southampton managed to toss a two-goal lead at home to Chelsea, and grab defeat from the cusp of victory.
  • Oh, and welcome back to the big time Wolverhampton Wanderers

Results:

Newcastle 2-1 Arsenal

Tottenham 1-3 Manchester City

Southampton 2-3 Chelsea

Manchester United 0-1 West Brom

Huddersfield 1-0 Watford

Swansea 1-1 Everton

Crystal Palace 3-2 Brighton

Liverpool 3-0 Bournemouth

Burnley 2-1 Leicester

Monday Night Football: West Ham v Stoke

Published in International Watch

Rewind back to a fortnight ago. Manchester City, one league defeat to their name all-season, and four in all competitions- two of which were inconsequential, prepared for a weekend game at Everton. A win there would give them the chance to confirm the league title at home to neighbours Manchester United, and though their record at Goodison had been a bit underwhelming, on the evidence of this season, victory there looked a sure-fire certainty. And so it proved; by halftime City were in command, the win already in the bag, now it was United next, but first a Champions League quarter-final first leg across Merseyside awaited.

But a 3-0 defeat to Liverpool, after a chaotic 19-minute period, had them staring at European exit. Nevertheless, there was still the chance to win the league in front of United, and by halftime in the Mancunian derby they were two up, in control, and should have been out of sight. Yet, almost inexplicably, they managed to turn a position of complete dominance into utter desperation, this time it was a 16-minute period, and their 2-0 advantage became a 2-3 deficit, that they would never recover from. There was more misery to come in Europe again, as, despite City threatening a comeback with a fast start and a dominant first half, they would suffer another loss to Liverpool. Suddenly, in the space of six days, Pep Guardiola’s men have gone from near-invincible to a pack of cards, the tendency to fold all too common now.

It might well have been different, with the ever-so-common what might have been situations: what would have happened had Pep not set them up to be short-handed at Liverpool and if they didn’t panic in that first half at the back. What would have happened if Raheem Sterling had buried those first half chances against United. What would have happened if Leroy Sane hadn’t been wrongly disallowed by the linesman’s flag in the second leg against Liverpool. But that’s the thing about what might have been situations, they never happened, and because they never happened, in the end it doesn’t matter. What matters is that City are out of the Champions League, and haven’t won the league yet. They might not even do it this weekend, even with a win, but it’s just as important to find a response to a troubled week, as they face another tough test.

In terms of what might have been, none will be wondering this season than Spurs. What might have been: had they started the season well at Wembley; had they not had that torrid run in November and December; had they not been caught napping by Juventus in the Champions League in March. Yet here they are, unbeaten in 14 league games, 20 domestic outings, but have nothing more than a top four spot and a semi-final place in the FA Cup to show for it. They are well lodged in a top four place, despite their November-December scare, 10 points behind fifth-placed Chelsea, level on points with third-placed Liverpool, but having played a game less; even second place is not unrealistic, only four points separate them from United. A win at Wembley this weekend, and they all but seal their place in the Champions League next season, a win and they keep pace with Manchester United, a win and they retain their advantage over Liverpool.

A win, also, and they would have beaten all the sides in the top six at Wembley bar one. For all the talk of how much the stadium would be a drawback (and it did start like it), Liverpool, Man United and Arsenal have all tasted defeat here, and not just defeats, deserved defeats which probably should have been by even greater margins, only Chelsea managed to nick a win in August. They will be full of confidence going into this game, thanks to their form and the fact that City look like they’re there for the taking, like they can fold with the littlest form of pressure, and there’s what the league leaders need to avoid, the growing sense of invulnerability, the fear factor perhaps diminishing, the psychological beating of teams perhaps been chiselled away. It’s the sort of reputation that sort have built so far this season, and wouldn’t want to trample so late in it. A win here and they would have won away at Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Spurs in the same season, a rare feat. More importantly, though, a commanding win here, and the sneers are discarded.

Elsewhere:

  • Separated by seven points and five places, Stoke’s chances of catching West Ham, not too dissimilar with their chances of survival, look like they will boil down to their Monday night trip to the London Stadium. They’ve won only once in 10 games under Paul Lambert, and have a knack for not scoring. Get one here early, though, and they might just benefit from a potentially tempestuous atmosphere.
  • In another game with potentially massive consequences at the bottom end of the table, it’s derby day as Brighton travel to Crystal Palace. Chris Hughton’s side are within touching distance, even though they passed up quite an opportunity against Huddersfield last weekend. A win this time, and they would be on the cusp of survival, not to mention the added bonus of keeping their 17th-placed rivals firmly in the mire.
  • Mark Hughes would have had cause for optimism over Southampton’s performance at Arsenal last weekend (who wouldn’t), but as they host Chelsea on Saturday lunch-time, the question isn’t whether they can kick on but rather bag wins, even draws will hardly help their cause anymore. Chelsea’s semi-crisis wasn’t helped by last weekend’s stalemate against West Ham. At least one of these team’s worries will find little relief this weekend.
  • Oh, and there’s every chance Mohammed Salah would continue his scoring spree as Liverpool host Bournemouth. Shame that he’ll miss out on the golden boot, given all of Tottenham’s goals from now till the end of the season are likely to be awarded to Harry Kane.
  • And in what’s basically a Europa League play-off, Burnley play host Leicester City. Who’d have thought that in September?

Fixtures

Tottenham v Manchester City

Liverpool v Bournemouth

Manchester United v West Brom

Crystal Palace v Brighton

West Ham v Stoke

Swansea v Everton

Southampton v Chelsea

Burnley v Leicester

Huddersfield v Watford

Newcastle v Arsenal

Published in International Watch

It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if you even know the game at all, yet it leaves you speechless and remembering why you fell in love with it in the first place. Surely something of this sort, even by football’s ludicrous track record, wasn’t plausible. Just over a year ago, Barcelona had pulled off the seemingly impossible, coming back from a 4-0 first leg loss, thanks to three goals in the dying embers of the game, but that looked like a one-time thing, and when, this year, Luis Suarez was strolling off in celebration for the Catalans, his first Champions League goal since that astonishing comeback against Paris Saint-Germain, in the first leg to cap off a 4-1 win, they seemed uncatchable. It meant Roma had to score three times without reply, surely that wouldn’t happen.

Even when they got off to the perfect start, when Edin Dzeko got in behind Samuel Umtiti and Gerard Pique to put the ball past Marc-Andre Ter-Stegen and put Roma in front on the night after six minutes, even then it surely wouldn’t happen. But the Giallorossi wouldn’t be deterred by the stature of their opponents, nor the scale of the mountainous task that lay ahead. Even if we lost the first leg, we were confident with the way we had played and it showed tonight’, said skipper Daniele De Rossi. And you couldn’t argue with that statement, on evidence of the performance, Roma pushed Barcelona back, made them create very little, and were rather unlucky to only have had one goal to their name at halftime, Patrick Schick sent a header wide, while Dzeko’s was tipped over by Ter-Stegen.

The second period took the same form as the first, Roma on the front foot, with Barcelona creating next to nothing. But the visitors have been in positions like this more than once this season, where it looks like they’re almost incapable of fashioning out any opportunity, but then spring up with something out of nothing, and perhaps that was why there was little cause for alarm, on both the part of the players, fans and the manager, they have weathered many a storm this season, and not long ago, they pulled a rabbit out of the hat with two late goals in a league game against Sevilla.

But their patience became anxiety midway through the second half, when Pique brought down Dzeko in the box, and was booked for his trouble. Up stepped De Rossi, who had the misfortune of opening the scoring for Barcelona via an own goal in the first leg, and he made no mistake at the right end. Now it was 2-0 on the night, 3-4 on aggregate, Roma needed just one more. Dare they believe? Could they pull this off? On came Cengiz Under in place off Schick, as they sensed memorable night. And with nine minutes left, the moment came. From a corner, Kostas Manolas, another who had an own goal to his name in the first leg, peeled off to the near post, and his header found the bottom corner.

Cue disbelief, from Manolas’ face, to the rest of his teammates, down to his manager Eusebio Di Francesco, and the fans, both sets of them. Now Barcelona had to do something, astonishingly, they hadn’t done all day; attack. On they poured forward, but there would be no saving grace, not from Lionel Messi, who always found them a way to get them out of jail. Not from Luis Suarez, who was frustrated. Not from Pique, who came forward from defence. Nor from Ousmane Dembele, who was thrown on in a fit bearing semblance to desperation.

Barcelona had managed to escape from the claws of defeat on a number of occasions this season, but there would be no feat of escapology here. They had wriggled past Real Madrid, Chelsea, Juventus and Atletico Madrid this season without losing. It would be against Roma that they faltered, that they threw a Hail Mary but there would be no catch. Who writes these scripts?

Thriller at the Bernabeu

'...as Real Madrid close the book on Juventus once more'. Events at the Santiago Bernabeu would render that first leg headline from this writer on this tie rather daft. Juve had a three-goal deficit to overturn, Gazzetta Della Sport's headline before the game was 'Mission Impossible', with the 'possible' in the second part of the second word highlighted, while Marca ran 1429 simulations, with 1405 seeing Real progress. The odd 24 looked on, when by halftime they were two to the good, Mario Mandzukic with two headers. It became three-nil to the Bianconeri on the night, and three-all on aggregate, when Keylor Navas spilled Douglas Costa's cross, and Blaise Matuidi was on hand to poke it in. Then with the game on a knife edge, and extra time seemingly on the cards, Cristiano Ronaldo laid on a header towards Lucas Vazquez. A challenge from Mehdi Benatia later, Real had a penalty, Gigi Buffon was sent off for a push on the ref, and some five minutes were exhausted in an ensuing kerfuffle. Not that it mattered to Ronaldo, who buried the resulting spot kick with aplomb. For the eighth season in row, Los Blancos will be in a Champions League semi, while as Buffon walked off late on, one had to wonder: was that his Zinedine Zidane circa 2006 moment?

Elsewhere

  • For a moment it seemed plausible, Fernandinho pounced on Virgil van Dijk’s loose ball, then the ball fell to Gabriel Jesus via the boot of Raheem Sterling, and Manchester City were a goal up inside two minutes. One third of the way to the comeback, and for the entire first half, they had Liverpool pinned in their own half, Bernardo Silva hit the post, Leroy Sane was denied by the linesman’s flag, Pep Guardiola was sent to the stands, but it would be only 1-0 on the night at halftime. And there was always the worry for City over Liverpool’s potent attack, and their rather meek defence, and when Ederson’s parry from Sadio Mane’s feet fell to Mohammed Salah, the game was up. A lob over Nicolas Otamendi, and into the top corner, and City’s task became too Herculean. Liverpool still had enough time to rub salt on City wounds, Roberto Firmino pouncing on yet another Otamendi error this week. 5-1 on aggregate, Liverpool coasted through to the last four, and on the evidence of this quarter-final- and the season at large- no one would be keen to face them.

Results

Roma 3 (4)-(4) 0 Barcelona

Roma progress on away goals

Manchester City 1 (1)-(5) 2 Liverpool

Bayern Munich 0 (2)-(1) 1 Sevilla

Real Madrid 1 (4)-(3) 3 Juventus

Published in International Watch

At this point, you begin to wonder who writes these scripts. Manchester City were two up at halftime, which could well have been six, cruising against a seemingly hapless Manchester United side, and had one hand and four other fingers on the trophy. The party was in full flow and the home crowd were in dreamland; yet by fulltime it was the stuff of nightmares, Citytis had struck again, United had had the better of their neighbours and there would be no title party just yet.

And that had been the aim for United before kick-off, delay, make them wait. It was one thing to watch as City strolled past everyone this campaign, it would be another to watch their rivals confirm the league after the final whistle. Jose Mourinho had talked about United not ready to be ‘clowns’ in City’s celebrations, the same word he used when Chelsea went to Liverpool in April 2014, another of his famous away day masterstrokes. The match build-up had been spiked by claims from Pep Guardiola that he had been offered Paul Pogba and Henrikh Mkhitarayan in January by their agent and his pal Mino Raiola, comments Mourinho refused to speak on. But halfway through the first half, Mourinho would be screaming on the pitch.

City had been exposed by the high-press football at Anfield in midweek, but any suggestion that Mourinho would follow Klopp’s blueprint was extinguished early on, with United sitting deep and content to let City dictate the game. Which meant Mourinho had every right to be livid with the way they conceded the first goal. From Leroy Sane’s corner, Vincent Kompany shrugged off the attention of Chris Smalling to power home a header past David de Gea. There were shades of 2012, when Kompany beat Smalling and headed in the only goal in key game that season, but this time the eruption that came with the opening goal had barely died down when a second came, Raheem Sterling feeding Ilkay Gundogan, whose turn and finish into the bottom corner was a thing of beauty.

Mourinho was quite rightly incandescent, United were switching off at the back, and it happened again, David Silva playing in Sterling, who contrived to blaze over from point-blank range. Then Sterling did it again, from another Silva pass, before Gundogan could only direct a free header into the palms of De Gea. Still Guardiola would be at least content with the half, where the players and fans had played their part, every United touch met with a loud jeer that would echo round the stadium, while there were cheers in the same measure every time City had the ball.

For United, something had to change at the break. It wasn’t the personnel, as Mourinho felt the need to make no substitutions just yet, and he would be proved right. Only seven minutes had gone in the second half, and had United had offered more than they did in the entire first period, Pogba had fired a shot that was easy for Ederson, and it would be the Frenchman who dragged them into the game. First, after being played in by Ander Herrera’s brilliant chest down from Alexis Sanchez’s cross, he tucked home past Ederson to halve the deficit. Then barely three minutes later, he got his head onto another Sanchez cross to level matters.

Suddenly, United had gone from apparently down and out to restore parity, and City, from their seemingly unassailable position, now had to score again for the title. A goal would come with 20 minutes to go, but it complete United’s remarkable, and it was almost fitting that it came through Smalling peeling away from Kompany to jab home another Sanchez cross. Now it was truly the stuff of nightmares for the home crowd, the ‘ole’ cheers of joy were now substituted with silence of terror, and on the home bench, substitutions would follow, Guardiola disregarding Tuesday’s clash with Liverpool and throwing on Kevin de Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero. Now it was City who were on the rack and were starting to lose their heads, every decision that went against them was met with as much jeers from the crowd as it was with protests of frustration from the players, not least when referee Martin Atkinson denied them a penalty after Ashley Young did his best to detach Aguero’s legs.

Time was running out for the Citizens, and the closest they came was in stoppage time, when first De Gea pulled off another of his surreal saves to deny Aguero, and then Sterling turned Nicolas Otamendi’s effort onto the post from three yards out. But it wasn’t to be. City are still certain to win the league, but they couldn’t do it as early as possible, and could only do it next week if United fail to win.

For United, the aim had been achieved, they had pushed City’s celebrations, however inevitable, further back. Over our dead bodies, boys.

City Cause for Concern

That result, coupled with the loss at Anfield, now exposes some kind of chink in City’s armour, a large bit perhaps. Any sort of pressure and they seem to fold. Get at their defenders, and the collective solidity becomes individual frailty. Suddenly that cloak of invisibility has been ripped off. Sure, the alarm bells are somewhat overblown, a more profligate City side would have killed the game in the first half, but that’s the problem when you seem like the best team in the land. They go into that Champions League quarter-final second leg without much to stand on.

Elsewhere:

  • There was a touch of nostalgia, when Patrice Evra planted a kiss of Javier Hernandez’s face, a reminder of the Manchester United days, seeing Hernandez celebrate a goal against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. It was the Mexican’s ninth goal in 15 games against the Blues, his 50th Premier League goal, but more importantly it leaves them six points ahead of the drop zone, with six games left. For Chelsea, not only is the top four a bridge too far (no pun intended), they are now within reach of sixth-placed Arsenal.
  • Speaking of Arsenal, it was a more exciting game than expected at the Emirates against Southampton. The Gunners fell behind after Shane Long pounced on some uncertain Arsenal defending, to put it mildly, to score his second league goal in 29 months, but responded through Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Danny Welbeck to lead at the break. Charlie Austin levelled things up with 17 minutes left, his fourth goal in four games against the Gunners, but Welbeck would have the last say. In terms of goals, that is, as a late kerfuffle that saw Jack Stephens and Mohammed Elneny get sent off for either side dominated the embers of the game. Mark Hughes still hasn’t gotten a point at the Emirates, and the Saints are still three points from safety.
  • As Ayoze Perez ran off celebrating, Newcastle could almost heave a sigh of relief, as the Spaniard’s deft lob put the Toon two up at Leicester with 15 minutes left. Jamie Vardy did pull one back for the hosts, but Rafa Benitez’s side would hold on for a priceless win. With the Magpies now on 38 points, survival just about within reach.
  • Burnley have now won four in a row, and are now four points clear in seventh place. You can keep pinching yourselves all you want, Clarets fans, it’s still not a dream.
  • And on a weekend where there was a Manchester derby, Merseyside derby, and a London derby, who’d have thought it was the one in Merseyside that would be the least exciting.

Results

Manchester City 2-3 Manchester United

Leicester 1-2 Newcastle

Arsenal 3-2 Southampton

Stoke 1-2 Tottenham

West Brom 1-1 Swansea

Watford 1-2 Burnley

Brighton 1-1 Huddersfield

Everton 0-0 Liverpool

Chelsea 1-1 West Ham

Bournemouth 2-2 Crystal Palace

Published in International Watch

Pep Guardiola has revealed that the duo of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba were offered to Man City during the last transfer window.

The Man City boss said at his press conference ahead of the Manchester derby that Mino Raiola, who is the agent of both Pogba and Mkhitaryan contacted about the availability of the duo.

Guardiola, who Raiola labelled a dog in a recent interview said he told City about the availability of the players but there was no fund to sign Pogba.

“Two months ago he {Raiola} offered me Mkhitaryan and Pogba to play with us,” Guardiola said.

“We don’t have the money to buy Pogba because he is so expensive.”

On Raiola calling him a dog, he added, “Comparing me to a dog is bad – it’s not good. He has to respect the dogs.”

Published in International Watch

Pardon if the eulogy seems a bit like drooling. 65 minutes gone, Ronaldo moves to the corner at the left end of the Juventus stadium, raises his hands in a gesture that could well say ‘crown me king’ and the entire stadium obliges, with applause rendering from all ends of it. He had just put Real Madrid two up at the home of Juve, the home of the side who rarely knows what it feels like to lose at home (once in 73 games before this), let alone lose so convincingly.

It was Ronaldo who bagged a double in Real’s 4-1 humbling of this same side in last season’s final, the campaign when he began his evolution towards being a pure goal-getting centre-forward, and he’s showing little signs of letting up in that department. Between kick-off and the time Ronaldo added that second goal, aside from substitute Lucas Vazquez, he had touched the ball the least of all players, yet no one would be ready to point out such stat on a man who had 36 goals in 35 games in all competitions prior to this game, and two minutes into it, 37 in 36.

Isco found space on the left, and his low cross was poked home by the Portuguese skipper (thanks in no small part to Karim Benzema, it should be said), the 10th successive UEFA Champions League game that he had scored in, and Los Blancos had the perfect start. It wasn’t just that they had found the net early in Turin, it was that they bossed the opening minutes in Turin, pressing the home side and denying them any room, moving the ball around with authority, and, but for the crossbar, would have gone two up through Toni Kroos.

Juventus knew they had to react and get on the front foot, and after a while, they did manage to, pushing Real back, causing a threat with their quick one-two passes around the edge of the area and the movement of their full-backs, and they did come mighty close when Keylor Navas had to react quickly to deny Gonzalo Higuain. By halftime, it was 1-0, Sergio Ramos had denied Andrea Barzagli what seemed like a certain equaliser, Higuain had made a few runs in behind to create openings, and Paulo Dybala had been booked for simulation.

Juve’s start to the second half was much more comfortable then they did the first, the home fans were founding their voice, and when Ramos got booked for a foul on Dybala, ruling out of the second leg, the crowd started believing they could get past Real, especially when the resulting free-kick was deflected just past Navas’ goal. Then came the 65th minute.

From a long ball forward, some miscommunication between Gigi Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini, almost unheard of, gave Ronaldo a semblance of a chance; he pulled back to Vazquez, whose shot was saved by Buffon and the danger seemed to have been averted. Except it wasn’t; Daniel Carvajal dinked a cross, and Ronaldo tried an overhead kick, which he brilliantly pulled off, and then came the moments that signified that act of genius. From the crowd applauding, to his manager Zinedine Zidane marvelling at the sight of what he just witnessed, but perhaps the most striking was the ball itself. As it found its way into the bottom corner, with a helpless Buffon watching, the ball decided against bouncing, didn’t even move as it hit the net, it just stayed in that bottom corner, almost like it had been decreed by Ronaldo to stay put. As legendary Real Madrid goal scorers Raul and Emilio Butragueno looked on, they’d be forgiven if they were discussing the man who’s broken all the records they set.

Not that the game was over, though. There was still time for Dybala to be sent off for a reckless high-boot challenge, still time for Marcelo to add a third, created by Ronaldo of course, time for Mateo Kovacic to also rattle Buffon’s bar, and time for Ronaldo to miss two chances as he searched for a hatrick. As the clock ticked down Juve poured forward in search of a glimmer of hope, but like in Cardiff, it was both academic and non-forthcoming.

The deed was done, and Ronaldo had left his mark. Doesn’t he always.

Elsewhere

  • Jurgen Klopp couldn’t even channel his usually hyper-active self, as there was probably a bit of disbelief in his eyes. It’s not uncommon that Liverpool would race into a 3-0 lead after 31 minutes at Anfield, particularly with their front three; that they were doing it against Manchester City, top of the Premier League by a landslide, and probably the best team in Europe right now was something else. Mohammed Salah was among the scorers, as usual, and Reds fans will hope his injury that saw him get taken off isn’t lasting one, although he did return to the bench later. More importantly, Liverpool have a foot and a half into their first Champions League semi-final for 10 years.
  • And as for Bayern Munich and Barcelona, why bother to score when the opposition can just do it for you?

Results

Juventus 0-3 Real Madrid

Liverpool 3-0 Manchester City

Sevilla 1-2 Bayern Munich

Barcelona 4-1 Roma

Published in International Watch

And so they meet again. By the end of the second week of April, Real Madrid and Juventus would have met seven times in the past five years, such is the pedigree between this sides in this competition. 14 meetings in 22 years between both sides, trophies have been decided, and prestigious managers and players previously turned up for both teams, quite an illustrious past.

More importantly, by the end of the second week of April, one of Real Madrid or Juventus would be out of the Champions League, would be left stewing and ousted from a competition that has come to define them, and watch as the other sets off to be 180 minutes away from the final. 10 months on from that show-piece in Cardiff, when Real ruthlessly outclassed Juve to a 4-1 win, both sides jostle for a slot in the last four. ‘The Cardiff match was a very important lesson to grow and improve’ said Juve manager Max Allegri. ‘We could have managed the ball better in the second half and we have to be faster and deal with it in a more serene way’.

It’s no question that that loss in the Welsh capital has served as a bit of a lesson for the Old Lady, whose drop off in that game was so obvious and costly. Now it’s about maintaining focus and concentration, a trait that has served them so well in the past. ‘We have to be focused, concentrated and committed because every player on the field in great’ Allegri added. ‘We really need to be in the match psychologically as well’.

And psychologically, what would the game do for Juve? Giorgio Chiellini has said the focus is not on revenge, while goalkeeper and captain Gigi Buffon has talked about how facing Real ‘again doesn’t fill us with joy’. He may have pointed that he was referring to the quality in the side, as well that of the likes of other quarter-finalists in Manchester City and Bayern Munich among others, but you can be forgiven for thinking whether his mind was cast back to the past once again. And the past is always going to be reflected in a game of such teams, whose paths have been crossed often. Aside from that final last season, they met a round earlier in 2015, when Alvaro Morata, sold to Juve by Real, ousted his boyhood club.

They have had group stage meetings as well- Real won one and drew the other in 2013, while Juve did the double over them five years before- but their stories have been in the knockout stages, the extra-time win by Juventus in 2005, where Ronaldo (the other one) got sent off for Real and Marcelo Zalayeta grabbed the winner, Juve’s progress to the final at the hands of Los Blancos two years before, with Buffon saving a Luis Figo penalty, Predrag Mijatovic grabbing the winner for Real in the final in Amsterdam in 1998, and Juve knocking the Spaniards out on their way to glory in 1996. Not that either side seems to be placing too much thought to previous events.

Buffon has talked about how he doesn’t reflect on the previous meetings, while Zinedine Zidane, Real’s manager, who played for both sides, believes it’s ‘a completely different situation’ from last year. It might well be true, but the need from both sides is barely any different. Neither is the reality that one of them will fall at the end.

 

Fixtures

Juventus v Real Madrid

Liverpool v Manchester City

Barcelona v Roma

Sevilla v Bayern Munich

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The former Arsenal midfielder labels fellow teammate at the club, Samir Nasri as the only enemy he has in football.

 

The Ghanaian international who joined Arsenal as a nine-year-old in an interview with Telegraph UK, revealed that Nasri, who hostilely left Arsenal in 2011 was a big critic of him while the two were still at the club.

 

The 26 years old, who has been without a club since January, said the problem he had with Nasri started in a game against Liverpool at the Emirate in the 2011-12 season where silly bookable offences from him led to Arsenal eventually losing the game 2-0 – with the score still tie before the 70th minute when he was tie.

 

Frimpong narrating his ordeal in the hands of the Frenchman, said while his former manager Arsene Wenger was calm with him after his mistakes had cost the side three points, Nasri did attack him after the game.

 

He said: “When the game ended, we were in the dressing room and I expected [Arsene] Wenger to be really angry, He was actually very calm.

 

“But for some reason Nasri came in and he was like: ‘We lost the game because of you’. I was a young guy, didn’t really know what I was doing, and was devastated. I felt like I’d let everybody down and he was really blaming me, so I really didn’t like him.

 

“He always had a go at me if I gave the ball away in training and even said to me once: ‘I could buy you if I want’. To be honest, he probably could have done at the time, but still.”

 

Nasri, who later moved to Manchester City in same summer of the 2011-12 season for £25m returned to Emirates Stadium three months after he attacked Frimpong, and the Ghanaian revealed the reason the two of them fought many a times in that particular game was simply because of his dislike for the Frenchman.

 

“People never really understand why that [fight] happened but I don’t like the guy,” Frimpong says. “The reason I don’t like him is because he’s an idiot. Plain and simple. I would never, ever have respect for him.”

 

The hard tackling midfielder, who once accused Arsene Wenger as being a racist has revealed he regretted his action – saying “As a young guy he {Wenger} is the best manager you could ever have,”

 

Having been left out of a League Cup game against Chelsea in 2013, Frimpong tweeted, “Sometimes I wish I was White and English.”

 

The tweet ended his 13 years association with Arsenal, as he was sold to Barnsley three months later.

 

On Wenger, Frimpong said: “As a young guy he’s the best manager you could ever have. I’ve never come across another manager who’s so calm and understanding.

 

“He only shouted at me once, when I did something wrong in training after turning up late. I regret the accusation in that tweet because the man is obviously not racist.”

 

 

 

 

 

Published in International Watch

And amidst the fog and mist, it was gone. Paris Saint-Germain’s assault at another Champions League season has suffered another premature exit. Like the previous campaigns,  the exit was early, signalled the French big-spenders as still behind the European elite, and casts the future of their manager right into question. But unlike most of the past seasons, this was less of a valiant effort, and more like a tame surrender.

Last season’s incredible exit at the hands of Barcelona at this stage, as jaw-dropping and eye-widening as it was, still witnessed a fair amount of fight from Le Parisiens, their first leg win was an indication of how good they could now be. This term, however, against Real Madrid, it was a bit of a let-down. French paper L’Equipe’s headline on Wednesday morning translated as ‘All that, for that?’. For all the money spent, the transfer records shattered, the acquisition of arguably a Ballon D’Or winner in the waiting, and the world’s most sought-after teenager, the thrashing of Bayern Munich in September, this was the best they could produce? 

For the most part of the first leg, PSG were the better side, but a rather bizarre substitution midway through the second half seemingly cost them, leaving them with a 3-1 deficit to overturn in Paris. There were messages to the crowd, and messages from the crowd ahead of the return fixture, PSG were going to be without their star man in Neymar, but they still had a top quality side, Angel Di Maria was Neymar’s replacement, Giovani Lo Celso was dropped for Thiago Motta, and skipper Thiago Silva came back into the side for Presnel Kimpembe, all changes from the first leg.

They did try to put Real in the back foot in the first period, but the best they could muster was a few good-looking Di Maria crosses that were dealt with by Raphael Varane. Unai Emery and his side were perhaps lucky not to have conceded in the opening 35 minutes, Alphonse Areola denying Sergio Ramos and Karim Benzema on separate occasions, even if at the other end Keylor Navas was called upon to foil Kylian Mbappe and Di Maria.

Goalless it finished in the first half, PSG still needed two, and demonstrated their urgency early in the second half, when Thiago Silva appealed to the fans to ease on the flares, which caused referee Felix Brych to abruptly halt proceedings. PSG knew the work they had to do up front, but if they had forgotten that there was also work to do at the back, they were reminded when Cristiano Ronaldo flashed a header wide. It wasn’t a warning they seemed to take note of, though, as when Dani Alves played them into trouble in the 57th minute, Marco Asensio found Lucas Vazquez. A cross, a Ronaldo header and a knee slide followed, the Portuguese captain’s 12th Champions League goal of the season had broken the deadlock.

Now PSG needed three goals to just about force extra time, but they were making little inroads, and only the post prevented Asensio from putting them further behind. Still, for a side with such quality and having scored 104 goals this season, three might not such a hard ask, if only Marco Verratti didn’t go and get himself sent off for dissent, which was exactly what he did.

Now Mission Impossible looked like Mission as Good as Dead, but they would pull a goal back, Edinson Cavani deflecting home after Casemiro had deflected Javier Pastore’s header. Now it was only two more that was needed, on came Julian Draxler, but to little effect.

With 11 minutes left, Vazquez crossed into the box, Adrien Rabiot made a poor clearance, Casemiro’s follow up shot hit Marquinhos, wrong footed Areola, and bounced in. Real Madrid were through; with some ease. Los Blancos showed themselves to be at the kind of level that PSG strive to be. As Emery shook hands with opposite number Zinedine Zidane, he surely feared his time at the French Capital has been numbered.

Elsewhere:

  • 1-0 up on the night, 3-2 on aggregate, with the opposition needing to score twice and you well in control. Then suddenly, it all went South for Spurs, quickly too. First Stephane Lichtsteiner found the head of Sami Khedira, whose header was turned home by Gonzalo Higuain. Then Higuain turned provider, as Paulo Dybala raced past the Spurs defence and finished past Hugo Lloris with aplomb. All that was left for Juve to defend a lead, a job they do so well, as one they did here. Tottenham have claimed scalps over Dortmund and Real Madrid this season, but this is where their European journey ends.
  • It was a case of salvaging some pride for Basel, and that they did, as after fallen behind to Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus opener, goals from Mohamed Elyounoussi and Michael Lang secured a 2-1 win. A well-reshuffled City side suffered their first loss at home this season, not that it mattered much in context, but is still likely to bring some dressing room ire from Pep.

Results:

PSG 1(2)-(5)2 Real Madrid 

Manchester City 1(5)-(2)2 Basel

Tottenham 1(3)-(4)2 Juventus 

Liverpool 0(5)-(0)0 Porto

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74 minutes gone. Manchester City in front. Then Ilkay Gundogan passes to Aymeric Laporte, then receives it back, then passes it again, then receives it again. Gundogan then exchanges passes with Oleksandr Zinchenko, then David Silva; all done at walking pace. Literal walking pace, as Chelsea had 10 players behind the ball. Those 17 seconds were just about a microcosm of how much City had control against Chelsea at the Etihad on Sunday.

‘It was difficult’ says Chelsea midfielder Danny Drinkwater. ‘It felt like we were doing a lot of running and they had all the time in the world.’ And Chelsea did put in a lot of work to keep City at bay, which was the plan right from Antonio Conte’s setup, playing Eden Hazard in a false nine role yet again, and leaving two traditional strikers on the bench. ‘It’s not easy when they defend with nine players in the box’ Pep Guardiola said afterwards, and it wasn’t easy, as the Blues crammed out the spaces and forced City to keep going wide, particularly in the first half. City were utterly dominant, as expected, and in complete control, but their threat was minimal, the biggest when Leroy Sane controlled Kevin de Bruyne’s free-kick and saw his shot cleared in front of goal by Cesar Azpilicueta, as halftime came.

But the second period only lasted 33 seconds when City finally broke Chelsea down. From Gundogan’s pass, a poor clearance from Andreas Christensen allowed Sergio Aguero to play in Silva, whose one time was poked in by Bernardo Silva. ‘We couldn’t find space at the beginning but then Bernardo scored his goal’ said City’s captain for the game. Chelsea now knew they needed to come up with something up front if they were to get any rewards, till that point they had not managed a single shot, every hint of a counter attack was either snuffed out with immediacy by their hosts, or petered out due to some wayward passing.

For the umpteenth game, Eden Hazard looked uncomfortable in that false nine role, rather than try to dictate play with whatever little chances he was bound to have even in a deeper role, he spent most of the game isolated and his frustration seemed palpable when he was taken off in the final 10 minutes. By then Chelsea had two strikers on the pitch, but none made an impact, they didn’t register a shot on target all game, and City kept them at considerable arm’s length.

Ilkay Gundogan had over 180 touches of the ball in midfield, while in the first half City goalie Ederson had more touches than the combination of Chelsea’s back three and their two midfielders. ‘…we controlled it and we were quick with the ball…’ said Pep, who knows his side need only four wins to guarantee the title.

It was a game of contrasts, City, the champions in the making, looking well like the future, seeing off Chelsea, the champions, whose triumph last season was as remarkable as it is now almost forgotten. The Blues are five points outside the top four places. Their home game against Spurs at the end of this month will have a lot riding on it. ‘We need to look at what’s available to us now points wise’ Drinkwater added. ‘There are nine games left, 27 points, and stuff can still change. We need to force our way back in it’.

Elsewhere

  • Chelsea forcing their way back in it is going to be no easy task, especially with the form Tottenham are in. Spurs called on the in-form Son Heung-Min once again, and it was the Korean who was the star of the show as they saw off Huddersfield with relative ease. Unbeaten since December, Juventus and second leg of the Champions League are the next on the agenda.
  • Four defeats in a row. Eight league defeats this season. Eight losses in 2018 already. It was another sour afternoon for Arsenal, this time at Brighton, where they could count themselves lucky to only lose 2-1, especially if the first half at the AMEX is anything to go by. It was another game in which Glenn Murray scored, as the Seagulls move to 34 points. Arsenal are on 45, their lowest at this stage under Arsene Wenger.
  • Surely this is the end for West Brom, as despite being the better side at Vicarage Road, another defeat sees them eight points adrift with nine games left. Alan Pardew’s dismissal looks inevitable.
  • Mo Salah scored for Liverpool. Next!!
  • The Carlos Carvalhal effect hasn’t quite worn off at Swansea just yet, as the South Welsh side hit four against West Ham to climb above the drop zone. That’s eight goals conceded in two games for the Hammers, who lost Winston Reid to injury at the Liberty stadium.

Results

Manchester City 1-0 Chelsea

Swansea 4-1 West Ham

Watford 1-0 West Brom

Burnley 2-1 Everton

Tottenham 2-0 Huddersfield

Southampton 0-0 Stoke

Brighton 2-1 Arsenal

Leicester 1-1 Bournemouth

Liverpool 2-0 Newcastle 

Monday Night Football: Crystal Palace v Manchester United 

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