With Arsenal as good as out and Leicester’s form making the end of their season looking more Championship than Champions League, most people in Britain will probably feel that Manchester City are England’s best hope for success in this season’s big brother UEFA competition.
Yet Pep Guardiola’s side have what is perhaps the most difficult task. Whatever the virtues of Bayern Munich and Sevilla, Monaco are Europe’s top scorers and probably the most exciting team in the Champions League this season. With Manchester City’s creaking defence and goalkeeping situation, perhaps we shouldn’t see the Sky Blues as the English side with the biggest chance at progression.
This weekend in Europe was perhaps one where many of the top sides had one eye on European midweeks, rather than domestic weekends, so this week’s Euro Roundup also has one eye on Tuesday night.
Let’s start with France, then, where Monaco should really have had the luxury of taking their foot off the gas in preparation for the Champions League tie on Tuesday night. But that’s pretty much what they did.
For Leonardo Jardim’s side, it must be hard to know which competition to prioritise. Most young sides who are tearing up all around them would surely see the Champions League as a bonus. It’s not worth torpedoing a Ligue 1 challenge over a competition with so many sharks lurking in the water.
In Ligue 1, there may only one shark for the Mediterranean coast side to worry about, but crossing the water to face Corsican side Bastia turned out to be more dangerous than advertised. It’s only natural to find yourself bewitched by the bright lights of the Champions League, but defeat to Manchester City would be much easier to take if Monaco were still clear of PSG in the league.
12 – Monaco against Bastia tonight:
1st half: 4 shots, 2 on target
2nd half: 12 shots, 2 on target, 1 goal
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 17, 2017
A 1-1 draw against Bastia on Saturday looked to give PSG the advantage, but only a few days after the euphoria of beating Barcelona at the Parc des Princes, the champions could only draw with Toulouse – who beat them earlier in the season – at the same venue. A frustrating 0-0 on a night when they could have taken an ominous gap-closing step towards crushing Monaco’s title dreams.
0 – Toulouse have stayed unbeaten against Paris this season for the first time since 2008/09 (W1 D1). Tough.
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 19, 2017
That means it was a great week for Nice, who closed their own gap on PSG by beating bottom club Lorient – now level on points with the Parisians, Mario Balotelli’s side are back in the title race… even if the former Manchester City striker did his best to ruin that with a second-half red card.
Elsewhere, Marseille will face PSG next week and warmed up with a 2-0 victory over Rennes. Dimitri Payet is hitting top form for Rudi Garcia’s side, and if PSG have an eye on the Camp Nou when the two sides meet on Sunday night, Monaco could be laughing.
5 – @dimpayet17 has been decisive in each of his last 5 home league games with Marseille (2 goals, 3 assists). Threat.
— OptaJean (@OptaJean) February 18, 2017
Last week was also a good one for Real Madrid. After watching their bitter rivals Barcelona chastened by PSG on Tuesday night, that schadenfreude turned to horror for 10 minutes as Lorenzo Insigne put Napoli 1-0 up, before three goals set the record straight.
This weekend was back to league business with the visit of the other Barcelona club, Quique Sanchez Flores’s Espanyol, resulting in a 2-0 victory for the European champions and a goal for Gareth Bale on his return from injury.
23 – Gareth Bale has scored 23 goals in his last 28 La Liga games for Real Madrid. Express. pic.twitter.com/B2aRAJDWKB
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 18, 2017
Elsewhere, Barcelona were bailed out by a late Lionel Messi penalty at home to lowly Leganes to keep up whatever pressure there is on Madrid at the top. It also spared the Catalans blushes after their midweek humbling, but a win is a win, I suppose.
— Sid Lowe (@sidlowe) February 19, 2017
25 – Last 67 league games FC Barcelona have taken 25 penalties, meanwhile they have only conceded once. Fateful. pic.twitter.com/j8sO4808M1
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 20, 2017
Only two points behind Barcelona are Sevilla, who – given Madrid’s two games in hand – are surely out of the title race. There’s a long way to go, of course, but over the last decade or so, Sevilla have always seemed more like European cup competition specialists anyway.
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 18, 2017
A routine 2-0 victory over Eibar was the perfect warm-up for what is now looking like the perfect Champions League draw. English champions Leicester City are the visitors to the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan this midweek, and if they were an unknown quantity before, they seem to have been found out by now. The high-intensity and attacking side that Jorge Sampaoli has put together in southern Spain may have to be wary of Leicester’s quick counter attacks, but they look strong favourites.
Ok, so we may have one eye on the Champions League here on the Euro Roundup this week, but Serie A’s big story couldn’t be further from the European places.
Last week Pescara were bottom of the table with no hope of survival and with a disgruntled fan actually setting fire to the club owner’s car. This week, well, they’re still bottom of the table and ten points from safety they probably still have no chance of survival. But a 5-0 win over Genoa this weekend has shocked a nation: Pescara hadn’t beaten anyone this season (their only ‘victory’ came after they were awarded the points after Sassuolo fielded an ineligible player against them in August), but after sacking manager Massimo Oddo and replacing him with a legend of Italian football, Zdenek Zeman, this victory looks like magic, sorcery and a dream all rolled into one.
5 – Pescara have won a Serie A match with 5+ goals margin for the first time in their history. Unbelievable. #PescaraGenoa
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 19, 2017
At the other end, Serie A has taken to giving its clubs Friday night games before big Champions League ties. With Juventus playing Porto on Wednesday night, their thrashing of pitiful Palermo was brought forward to Friday night rather than later in the weekend.
It didn’t matter much, a sumptuous free kick from former Palermo striker Paulo Dybala was the pick of the bunch in a 4-1 win. Juventus may be looking ominous for the Serie A title, but with Barcelona looking as good as out of the Champions League, with Real Madrid the champions (and no champions have ever defended their Champions League crown), should we really be making Juventus the favourites for European glory? And let’s be honest, Gianluigi Buffon deserves to lift that trophy at least once before riding off into the sunset.
Elsewhere, Roma thrashed Torino, Napoli did for Chievo, and Inter beat Bologna to keep things as they were in the Serie A title race. But let’s face it: this season could be a special one for Juve.
14 – Napoli have remained unbeaten in at least 14 Serie A games in a row for the first time since January 2010. Chase. #ChievoNapoli
— OptaPaolo (@OptaPaolo) February 19, 2017
Just like PSG in France, Germany’s dominant force followed up a stunning victory in the Champions League with a disappointing draw back in domestic competition, even if they did turn defeat into a draw in the sort of manner only Bayern Munich – and Robert Lewandowski – can come up with.
— OptaFranz (@OptaFranz) February 18, 2017
This weekend, though, unlike PSG, their draw with Hertha Berlin wasn’t matched by their title rivals, but rather bettered by RB Leipzig who beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 2-1.
The Gladbach fans unfurled a banner of ‘support’ for the Leipzig fans after the violent scenes last week when the Red Bull backed side travelled to the other Borussia, Dortmund, and were duly attacked by the Signal Iduna faithful for their pernicious, corporate ways. The Gladbach banner read, ‘we condemn every stone thrown… that did not hit you customers’.
"Wir verurteilen jeden geworfenen Stein… der Euch Kunden nicht getroffen hat."
Für sie sinkt: Das Niveau! pic.twitter.com/3Ez2ckVpSf
— Heiko Schomberg (@schomberg) February 19, 2017
Elsewhere, Dortmund themselves got back to winning ways after their blip last week and their defeat in midweek to Benfica. They beat Wolfsburg 3-0 to go third and with Eintracht Frankfurt’s defeat at home to Ingolstadt, they are now two points above fifth place and a Europa League spot.