European Roundup: Your weekly continental fix

When it comes to European competition, English football clubs are like the posh boy at school: they have all the money, buy all the best boots and assorted accessories, but when it comes to the actual playing, they look like they’d really rather be anywhere else.

Football in England has become less about actual football and more about the idea of football. The storylines, the controversies, the narratives and the gossip all seem more important than the sport itself. Consuming fans in Britain isn’t the epic tale told on grass, it’s the soap opera told on social media and dark corners of football websites.

It’s little surprise that the only English representative still left in the Champions League isn’t one of the aristocratic posh boys, but the festering, verminous upstarts of Leicester City; a team who captured the nation’s hearts before repulsing that very same country by showing an obscene sleight of hand to oust manager Claudio Ranieri.

And yet, they’re the ones who actually like football. They may have been in a relegation battle when they faced European specialists Sevilla, but it was the chance at getting a crack at the biggest competition in European football that inspired them. It was a love of the game.

This week in Europe the fallout of the last 16 stage was still being felt, for both varieties of European Leagues, Champions and Europa.

Italy

In Italy, just looking at the table will tell you everything you need to know. Serie A has only one representative still in European competition. Guess who.

Juventus are eight points clear at the top of the table, but that gap doesn’t really do justice to just how far ahead they are of the rest of the teams in the league. The stadium, the squad, and the aura around the club are all head and shoulders above the rest of their nation. It’s little surprise, then, that Italy’s sole representative in European competition in the quarter-final stage is the Old Lady.

This weekend, only a few days after beating Porto for the second time in two legs, Max Allegri’s side kept up their winning form by beating Sampdoria 1-0 in Genoa. Away trips after big midweek European ties are probably the only hope Roma and Napoli have of catching Juve at this point, and if this week’s anything to go by, they may not have much. Juve scored early through Juan Cuadrado and after that, well, this is a team who have conceded just 19 league goals all season. Even if their attack wasn’t firing due to second-half fatigue, their defence was good enough for the win. Why is it that the teams with the best defences seem to do so well?

Immediately behind Juventus, Roma and Napoli did their best, though. Both managed wins and both scored three goals. But with Lazio drawing a blank away to Cagliari and Inter being held at Torino, you get the feeling both the second and third placed teams are happy to have an eight point buffer to the Europa League spots, rather than disappointed to be eight points behind the leaders.

Germany

If you thought Italy was a damp squib, though, just wait until you see Germany: no longer are RB Leipzig looking above them towards catching Bayern Munich at the top of the table, but the Red Bull upstarts are now looking below them at the clubs below.

On Sunday afternoon, Borussia Monchengladbach – freshly dumped out of the Europa League by German rivals Schalke – hosted Bayern Munich, whose European trip the week previous was a more serene jaunt to London to take a walk around Islington.

The outcome was predictable, but the 1-0 win to Bayern Munich – courtesy of only Thomas Muller’s second goal of the season – means that Bayern are now 13 points clear at the top. A win for Borussia Dortmund, too, puts them only three points behind Leipzig, who lost 3-0 to a struggling Werder Bremen.

Perhaps we’ll get the Bayern-Dortmund one-two were expecting, if not the title race we were hoping.

France

But if exciting title races are your thing, then France is your league. No, really.

PSG remain just three points behind Monaco at the top of Ligue 1 in what is set to be one of the most exciting title races in European football this season.

After Nice could only draw with Nantes, they saw themselves drop to seven point behind the leaders on Saturday, before Monaco set the pace on Sunday with a win over Caen. Three goals without reply means that Leonardo Jardim’s side now have 87 league goals already, but fresh off victory over Manchester City, the momentum Monaco have is making them look nigh-on unstoppable. Well, that and Kylian Mbappé.

That left it all up to PSG in the Sunday evening flagship fixture. They welcomed another high-flying side in Lyon to the Parc des Princes. After they managed to see off Roma in the Europa League, France have two representatives still left in Europe, which isn’t bad for their coefficient – and is the same number of teams as England have left.

An early Alexandre Lacazette goal looked like pouring more misery onto Unai Emery’s side, but the Parisians rallied and found two goals to see off a physically fatigued Lyon side, who had played in an away Europa League tie just a few days previously.

Some good form over the last few weeks, as well as a European adventure still doesn’t make up for the fact that Lyon should be in the top three rather than lagging 14 points behind it. Their only shot at Champions League qualification for next season seems to be winning the Europa League.

Spain

There was a while ago when it looked like Barcelona were dead and buried in the La Liga title race. But then again, there was also a time when they looked dead and buried against PSG in the Champions League. Probably more than one time, in fact. But they managed to pull it out of the fire right at the end.

The same thing could well happen in La Liga.

This weekend, a crazy end to the first half of Barcelona’s game against a recovering Valencia saw Luis Enrique’s side suffer and labour to a 2-2 scoreline at half time. A red card to Eliaquim Mangala right at the end of the first half made most of the second half much easier, and in the end Lionel Messi and Andre Gomes added second half goals to earn a victory, but Valencia made it hard for quite a while.

But Barcelona have a habit of winning the hard games this season. Without enthralling quite as much as they usually do, Luis Enrique’s men are just so used to winning that they don’t know when to quit. They are still just two points off Real Madrid, even though Zinedine Zidane’s side have a game in hand.

They beat Athletic Bilbao 2-1 this weekend, extending their lead at the top to five points before Barcelona played. That game in hand will be crucial in deciding the destination of the title at the end of the season, though. Barcelona still have to go to Madrid at the end of April, and if Real can’t win their game in hand, that game will take on a sort of all-or-nothing feel.

The title race will surely go down to the wire once again, and with Barcelona’s habit of turning defeats into victory this season, you wouldn’t bet against them: for a team who were pronounced dead after their Valentine’s day massacre in Paris, they’re still on course for yet another treble.

Elsewhere, Sevilla’s horrible weak was compounded with a 3-1 defeat to Atletico Madrid. The two will, perhaps, have been comparing notes on Leicester City, who Atleti will meet in the quarter-final of the Champions League, but if Leicester thought Sevilla were tough opponents, maybe they shouldn’t watch the ease with which Diego Simeone’s side took them apart.

Atletico are now just two points behind Sevilla, and seven ahead of Villarreal in fifth place. The top two look to be battling themselves for the title, and the other two look to have sewn up the Champions League spots – though you get the feeling that a Sevilla collapse could be just around the corner.

 


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