LIVERPOOL, England — Pep Guardiola has told his Manchester City players to forget about winning the Premier League title against Manchester United and focus on the Champions League.
In their first game after a three-week break because of FA Cup matches and the international break, City moved to within one victory of a first title in four years after a comfortable 3-1 victory over Everton at Goodison Park.
While it sets up a dream scenario for fans of clinching the title against bitter rivals United in a Manchester derby next Saturday, Guardiola is focused on the crucial quarterfinal first leg away to Liverpool three days beforehand.
“We were a long time without being together, and after three weeks I didn’t want to play with maybe seven, eight or nine players who are going to play on Wednesday to have gone four weeks without playing together,” Guardiola told a news conference.
“So that’s why we needed to be together to find the pace, to find our rhythm, the way we want to play, for our massive, massive two games against Liverpool.
“I understand the people are talking about United now but all the decisions I am going to take is thinking about Liverpool, the game before United and after United, so that is what it is.”
City maintained their 16-point lead at the top of the Premier League with an easy victory over Everton after first-half goals from Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Raheem Sterling.
They eased up slightly in the second half with Guardiola taking off Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling to give them a rest with Liverpool in mind.
“Now we are closer than ever, we have one game to win and if we are not able to win, then we have six more chances,” Guardiola added.
“I’m so happy with the performance today after three weeks without a game. You never know how we will react after not being together for a long time. But the first half was so good, even the second half was good too.”
Everton manager Sam Allardyce admitted City simply had too much quality for his side. The former England boss picked an attacking lineup and said his side needed to take their chances if they were to live with a team like Guardiola’s.
“Manchester City are a top quality team, you have to admire a team that especially in the first half were too good for you,” he said. “As much as the lads tried it was something we couldn’t cope with.
“The real turning point was when we should’ve scored with Bolasie, gone 1-1, and then they scored. It was very difficult when they scored, I thought Silva was offside for one of the goals but what can you do.
“We fought, battled, scored and tried to go until the very end. All their 11 are fantastic in that system and that’s why they are so far ahead.”
Borussia Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke believes that Matthias Sammer, and not Pep Guardiola, was the trigger for Bayern Munich’s ongoing dominance.
Sammer, who is set to return to Borussia Dortmund as an “external advisor,” joined Bayern as sporting director soon after BVB’s rise to the top of the Bundesliga in 2012 and was part of the set-up which led to the Bavarian’s ongoing dominance in the league.
A winner of three Bundesliga titles — two as a player and one as a coach — as well as a Champions League trophy with Dortmund, Sammer left BVB in 2004 as the club headed into a financial crisis which nearly led to its collapse.
“We overtook Bayern in 2012,” Watzke told Funke Media in a wide-ranging interview on the future of Dortmund. “And then, first of all, Matthias Sammer joined them. Not Pep Guardiola. They won the Treble that year. And that was also down to Matthias. From that moment on, the gap opened.”
In 2013, Mario Gotze joined Bayern Munich from Borussia Dortmund, with both teams clashing in the Champions League final that year. And only 12 months later, Robert Lewandowski joined the rivals on a free transfer.
“Because it was his job, he indeed parked his tanks on our lawn, I must admit,” Watzke said of Sammer.
Dortmund are also set to appoint the club’s former captain, Sebastian Kehl, as the head of the professional football department, a newly created role to react to Borussia’s growth in recent years. And sporting director Michael Zorc will remain the person in charge of the greater scheme.
“We don’t need yes-sayers. Our goal is to put everything under scrutiny. We will face challenges,” Watzke said. “It’s a sign of greatness that Michael Zorc says: ‘The discussion with Matthias Sammer makes us better.’ He opens the window, and we’ll get some fresh air.
“We have to lay it on the line for us. But one thing is clear when us four discuss things, there won’t be a vote after that. Michael Zorc makes the calls in our sporting department, and I will surely weigh in with my opinion before that.”
Watzke also said that he has made his “inner peace” with the sacking of Thomas Tuchel. The 44-year-old, currently linked with Paris Saint-Germain, clashed with the club’s hierarchy and had to leave his role despite winning the 2017 DFB-Pokal.
Watzke said: “Because I think he’s an extraordinary expert, I wish him all the best for his new job. There was a lot of unjustified criticism for me, and I could have swept all away with one sentence. I didn’t do that. I never wanted to damage him as a person.
“I will be delighted for him should he one day win his second trophy outside of Dortmund. One day, Thomas Tuchel and I will talk again. I am convinced.”
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.
Robert Lewandowski scored a hat trick as Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich demolished his old club Borussia Dortmund at the Allianz Arena once more.
Second-placed Schalke’s win earlier in the day meant Bayern could not seal the title against Dortmund, but they showed no sign of any disappointment as they netted five times before half-time alone.
Having beaten Dortmund at home 5-1 and 4-1 in the league in the previous two seasons, Bayern’s margin of victory was even greater this time as James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller and Franck Ribery also scored in a 6-0 triumph.
The demolition job began in the fifth minute when Lewandowski latched on to Muller’s through ball, feinted to make goalkeeper Roman Burki sit down and lifted the finish beyond him.
Replays showed the Pole may have just strayed beyond Manuel Akanji when Muller’s pass was made, but Dortmund did get a decision go their way from the video assistant referee when Ribery thought he had scored moments later.
Although the goal was initially allowed to stand, replays showed Rodriguez got a touch on Muller’s cross and Ribery was therefore offside.
Yet Dortmund did not learn from their dreadful defending there as Rodriguez ghosted into the box and steered a finish beyond Burki from David Alaba’s pull back.
It was Gonzalo Castro who had failed to track Rodriguez and when the Dortmund midfielder attempted to nutmeg the same player, Bayern broke to score a 23rd-minute third.
Lewandowski fed Rodriguez and his perfectly-weighted chip in to Muller allowed the German international to place home a controlled volley.
Castro was substituted for Julian Weigl shortly afterwards but there was to be no let-up from the hosts as they scored twice more on the stroke of half-time.
The first was made by Ribery’s brilliance, as he turned Lukasz Piszczek to bear down on Burki. Though his chipped attempt did not go over the goalkeeper, the ball came back and inadvertently hit a hurdling Ribery on the arm, with Lewandowski sliding in to touch the ball beyond the line via Ribery’s back.
Ribery might not have been able to claim that one but there was no doubt he scored the fifth.
Castro’s replacement Weigl inexplicably gave the ball away to the Bayern winger and he fed Rodriguez, who returned the pass to Ribery for him to scoop a classy goal past Burki.
With the damage already done, and Bayern thinking about the first leg of their Champions League tie with Sevilla next week, the second half was largely a non-entity.
The closest the visitors came to a consolation occurred when ex-Bayern midfielder Mario Gotze hit the post from the edge of the area.
Jupp Heynckes kept Lewandowski on the pitch and Bayern’s striker must have been grateful, as he was for more slack Dortmund defending when he rounded off the rout by tapping in Joshua Kimmich’s cross from close range to complete his hat-trick three minutes from time.
Bayern Munich CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has finally ended speculation that Jupp Heynckes could return next season, while also saying he is so confident that Robert Lewandowski will not be leaving this summer that he is “willing to take bets.”
Bayern hired Heynckes as interim coach in October after Carlo Ancelotti’s dismissal, and though he was widely expected to step down after this season, the 72-year-old earlier this month insisted he had never said he would definitely retire.
However, Rummenigge confirmed ahead of Bayern’s Der Klassiker clash against Borussia Dortmund on Saturday that Bayern would be looking to hire a new coach before the end of April.
“It’s Heynckes wish to retire at the end of the season,” Rummenigge said.
But the CEO also said that Bayern will not pursue any coach who does not speak the local language.
“We want a German-speaking coach,” Rummenigge added. “That’s the way it will be.”
“Our sporting director Hasan Salihamidzic has held talks with coaches and Tuchel was among them,” the CEO said, noting that he couldn’t say a “bad word” about Tuchel.
“He informed us that he’s signed for another club. But that isn’t a problem for us, we are relaxed.”
Former Bayern legend Lothar Matthaus has strongly suggested that Eintracht Frankfurt’s Niko Kovac, a former Bayern defender and coach of Croatia, is a leading contender for the job.
As for the upcoming transfer window, Lewandowski’s split from his agent last month added fuel to reports that Real Madrid are interested in signing the 29-year-old, but Rummenigge told Sky that Bayern were not looking to sell the Poland international.
“I know they are well aware at Real Madrid that Robert Lewandowski has a three-year contract with us,” he said. “He will definitely stay with us next season at Bayern. I’m willing to take bets on that.”
Heynckes had also refuted the transfer rumours in his prematch news conference a day earlier, saying: “I know the Spanish media, there is a lot of speculation. I assume that Lewandowski will break my Bundesliga goal-scoring record in the next two or three years.”
ESPN FC’s Bayern Munich correspondent Mark Lovell contributed to this report.
Hibernian struck twice in the space of five minutes to remain on the coat-tails of Aberdeen and Rangers in the battle to be crowned best of the rest in the Ladbrokes Premiership as struggling Partick Thistle endured another afternoon to forget in Edinburgh. Australia international Jamie Maclaren opened the scoring after 71 minutes, finally breaking a stubborn Jags resistance following some fine work out wide by Martin Boyle. Paul Hanlon bagged his second goal of the season to seal a 2-0 success before Daniel Devine, who had seen an earlier strike ruled out for offside, was dismissed by referee Andrew Dallas in the closing stages. The win keeps Hibs four points behind the Dons and Gers – they have a game in hand over the Glasgow giants – while Partick stay in a relegation play-off berth following an eighth match without victory. The Jags, seeking to bounce back from a 3-0 defeat at Hearts in their last outing, produced a bright start, with Devine’s curling effort narrowly over the bar representing the first attack of note. Hibs, missing the driving force of the suspended John McGinn during the early sparring, gradually roused themselves and Efe Ambrose was inches away from latching on to an inviting in-swinging free-kick from Scott Allan with the goal gaping. Fit-again Dylan McGeouch then forced a magnificent save from Thistle custodian Tomas Cerny, who turned away the midfielder’s curling effort from 20 yards at full-stretch. It proved a bittersweet intervention by the Czech keeper, however, as he was injured making the stop and had to be replaced by Ryan Scully. Between the sticks at the other end, Cammy Bell was staking his claim to replace the banned Ofir Marciano permanently, making a fine block to deny Conor Sammon following some good work by Miles Storey. The contest exploded into life when Baily Cargill met a superb Ryan Edwards corner and powered a header towards goal. Despite a touch from Bell, the effort appeared on course to cross the line, but Devine made sure by lashing the ball home, prompting assistant referee Douglas Ross to flag for offside. With several Thistle players still remonstrating with referee Dallas, Hibs broke forward through Boyle. His dash down the right flank and pin-point delivery was perfect for Maclaren, who converted from close range. With the wind in their sails, Hibs doubled their advantage when Hanlon rose highest to meet an Allan corner kick, sending a bullet header beyond Scully. Any hopes of an unlikely Thistle comeback were dashed in the dying moments when Devine was shown a second yellow card for hauling down Florian Kamberi.
Aberdeen moved level on points with second-placed Rangers in the Ladbrokes Premiership with a 4-1 win against St Johnstone. Ryan Christie and Stevie May’s first-half goals were added to by Greg Stewart’s brace after the break, while on-loan Manchester United midfielder Matty Willock scored for the visitors. Derek McInnes’ men took full advantage of Rangers’ draw against Motherwell, who are the Dons’ opponents on Tuesday when a point will move them into second. It was a slow start, and although Stewart saw an early shot blocked, it was St Johnstone who had the better of the early chances. Liam Craig sent a 25-yard free-kick over the crossbar and Chris Millar’s snap-shot from the edge of the area was deflected off target. On-loan Aberdeen midfielder Christie curled narrowly wide of the upright after being slipped in by May on the right, but things were generally quiet in front of goal until the game exploded into life after 34 minutes. May charged down a St Johnstone clearance in the centre circle and a fortunate bounce saw the ball fall to Gary Mackay-Steven. His through-ball found Christie, who was forced wide by Saints goalkeeper Alan Mannus but kept his cool to open the scoring through a ruck of bodies from six yards. Two minutes later Mackay-Steven played a reverse pass to May, who was denied by Mannus, and soon after the former St Johnstone striker hit the crossbar from a Graeme Shinnie cross, with Mannus denying Christie on the rebound. But May would not be denied and got himself on the scoresheet four minutes before half-time. He sent a low shot across Mannus and into the bottom-right corner after Christie’s clever pass left him in acres of space. And the home side kept the momentum going into the second half, adding a third goal in the 51st minute. Andrew Considine swung over a superb cross from the left to fellow full-back Shay Logan at the back post. His header looked destined for the net but Stewart got the final touch from close range. A bad afternoon for St Johnstone was compounded only three minutes later when half-time substitute Blair Alston was injured as he tried to keep the ball alive in the corner. Logan saw another header pushed on to the crossbar as the home side searched for another goal, but it was the visitors who pulled one back. Liam Craig’s inswinging corner was headed home by Willock, with the aid of a deflection off May. But any hopes of a comeback were extinguished with eight minutes left when Stewart added a fourth for the Dons with a superb half-volley from the edge of the area.
In the most anticipated tie of the Serie A weekend, Juventus defeated Milan 3-1 to extend the gap at the top of the Serie A table and prove their efficiency.
Despite scoring an early goal, Juventus were mediocre at best for much of the match, relying on individual moments of brilliance as opposed to working as a team to overcome a well-organised side.
Milan reacted well to going down a goal in the sixth minute and proved better for much of the game thereafter as they pressed Juve, pushed them back and stopped them from going forward as a team. When they finally scored their well-deserved equaliser, the home fans began to worry.
However, the Bianconeri boast experience, depth and intelligent players who can always change the face of the game. Massimiliano Allegri opted to throw on Douglas Costa and Juan Cuadrado in the second half and together they brought energy back to the attack while Sami Khedira’s intellect ensured superiority.
Another three points for the Old Lady.
The squad depth is proving important. Juventus can start matches with the brilliance of Paulo Dybala, the sacrifice of Gonzalo Higuain and still have the option to introduce the likes of Cuadrado and Costa, who have the pace and skill to change the face of the game.
Barring the fact that Juventus are less reliant on playing as a team and more dependent on individual play, the more worrying aspect of their performance is that they once again lost control and interest in the match after scoring an early goal. Juve continue to invite sides back into the game and lose the will to attack and control if they score early. While they are good enough to win a game in 20 minutes against sides like Tottenham Hotspur and Milan, they cannot always take such risks, especially since their next opponents might not be so inefficient with their scoring opportunities.
Manager rating out of 10
6 — Allegri’s substitutions changed the game while he kept faith with Khedira, keeping him on despite a poor first half. More importantly, his players never give up and always look to win. However, Allegri’s side are struggling to play with fluency and unity to keep control of the match throughout the 90 minutes. Milan looked better as a unit and had they boasted better individuals, may have well won the match.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best; players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating):
GK, Gianluigi Buffon, 6 — Had to be alert, as he never knew what Milan would try from distance. There was nothing he could do on the goal but was always focused and authoritative between the post to ensure safety at the back.
DF Andrea Barzagli, 6 — Troubled by the opponent and was part of the blame for Leonardo Bonucci’s goal. Wasn’t offered much support from the midfield and was often left exposed but had a great moment in the second half when he ran back to stop Suso in his tracks.
DF Mehdi Benatia, 6 — A mature and important performance at the back from the Moroccan, who proved the best at the back. Played with authority and proved composed in the vital moments.
DF Giorgio Chiellini, 5 — An emotional performance from the player who was also at fault for Bonucci’s goal and looked out of sorts. Aggressive, dramatic and not as composed as usual, but he can still be relied upon even when he’s not at his best.
MF Stephan Lichtsteiner, 4 — He conceded the corner that led to Bonucci’s goal and looked overwhelmed whenever Milan pushed forward. Could not produce accuracy or even get the basics right under the pressure.
MF Sami Khedira, 7 — A bizarre performance. Poor for much of the game to provoke jeers from the crowd, he didn’t do enough to help support the team defensively, often leaving Barzagli exposed. However, he sprang to life when it mattered, reading the moments well to change the face of the game with his positioning and decisive play. Delivered a sublime assist for Cuadrado and scored the third Juve goal.
MF Miralem Pjanic, 5 — Where did the real Pjanic go? Another game and another disappointing performance from the player, who is struggling to play with character and authority. A few good moments here and there, both in attack and defence, but looked lost and void of confidence on the whole, destabilising the team in midfield.
MF Blaise Matuidi, 5 — Barely completed any passes, poor in possession and incapable of helping the midfield assert itself. Not the usual Matuidi and we hope we see a better version against Real Madrid.
MF Kwadwo Asamoah, 6 — Had many moments of difficulty and inaccuracy but also played with determination, always trying.
FW Paulo Dybala, 7 — What a sensational goal to open the scoring! Dybala played with character and with intelligence in an important match. He looked to create danger, always looked to relieve the pressure when pushing forward and delivered the assist for Khedira’s goal.
FW Gonzalo Higuain, 6 — Well-guarded and defended against but Higuain tried, combined well with Dybala and always attempted to break away and create danger but struggles when the side doesn’t play as a unit.
FW Douglas Costa, 7 — Showed off his sublime ability to evade his markers but struggled initially to produce decisive actions thereafter. However, his accelerations and determination eventually produced the results. He never gave up on a ball and was always looking to provide a key pass or an accurate cross, helping to change the face of the game.
FW Juan Cuadrado, 7 — What a performance from the player who announced his return to the side. He read the game well, showed composure and played with character, scoring the goal to relieve the pressure off his team.
MF Rodrigo Bentancur, N/A — His arrival ensured greater balance in the midfield and he played with determination.
Mina Rzouki covers Juventus and the Italian national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter: @Minarzouki.
AC Milan fell 3-1 to Juventus in Turin on Saturday night, a scoreline that flattered the hosts but remains a real blow to Milan’s hopes of securing a top-four finish in Serie A. The Rossoneri saw Leonardo Bonucci silence the home crowd with an equaliser in the first half, but a strong finish from Juve sealed the win.
Milan were arguably the better side for large periods in the first 70 minutes. They enjoyed plenty of possession and created chances while frustrating Juve, yet it was bitterly disappointing to come away empty-handed. However, they can certainly be proud of the effort that they put in and will learn from it.
Ultimately, the result will be what is remembered, not the performance. It’s a setback in the pursuit of a Champions League qualification spot, while a lack of quality in depth and experience against these top teams shows that there are still improvements that Milan must make to compete at the highest level.
Manager rating out of 10
6 — Gennaro Gattuso deserves a huge amount of credit for the belief he has instilled in the players, and from a tactical perspective, his game plan was working perfectly as it was a pleasant surprise to see Milan play so well. However, he left himself down with his substitutions as they didn’t have the desired influence on the game.
Players ratings (1-10; 10 = best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Gianluigi Donnarumma, 6 — There was little he could have done for the second and third goals, but there was an element of fault that he didn’t do better to prevent Paulo Dybala from opening the scoring. Nevertheless, he did produce some other important saves, too.
DF Davide Calabria, 6 — A welcome return to the starting lineup, but he did have his troubles defensively in coping with Juve’s attacks down his flank. Certainly made an impression from an attacking perspective, as he put in a decent shift.
DF Leonardo Bonucci, 7 — Faced jeers and whistles from the home crowd on his return to Turin, but that seemingly inspired him. Defended resolutely to deny Gonzalo Higuain much joy, while he also scored a crucial goal in a top performance.
DF Alessio Romagnoli, 6 — Similar to his defensive partner, he produced a solid display to keep Higuain quiet for the most part. However, he perhaps lacked that steeliness that he has shown in recent weeks with his injury arguably playing a part. Faded along with the rest of the team late on.
DF Ricardo Rodriguez, 6 — Impressed for the most part defensively as he kept things tight on the left flank and involved himself in build-up play. However, the introduction of Juan Cuadrado caused him many problems.
MF Franck Kessie, 7 — Undoubtedly won the battle with Blaise Matuidi in midfield, as he used his physicality, energy and combativeness to great effect. Was a driving force in midfield and covered plenty of ground in an impressive display.
MF Lucas Biglia, 5 — Will miss the Derby della Madonnina next week after being booked, and there could be a case that it’s a blessing in disguise. Allowed far too much room in front of the defence for the opening goal, got cautioned and looked off the pace and fatigued as the game went on.
MF Giacomo Bonaventura, 5 — One of the more disappointing performers on the night, as he didn’t really have a positive influence on proceedings and was wasteful when in good situations. Fortunate it wasn’t him who was substituted off earlier.
FW Suso, 6 –– Compared to other big games in which he has disappointed, the Spaniard was certainly more involved and influential. However, he still couldn’t find that decisive touch to make the difference despite getting into dangerous positions throughout.
FW Andre Silva, 6 — Deserved his start after his match-winning heroics in the last two games and showed his quality with his ability to link play up and offer a different threat up front. To establish himself as a regular starter, he needs to be more clinical in front of goal and a bigger threat in the box.
FW Hakan Calhanoglu, 6 — Criticised by Gattuso after the game for abandoning his defensive duties, which ultimately played a part in the second goal. That aside, it was another positive performance as he provided the assist for Bonucci’s goal, struck the crossbar with a thunderous effort and was generally very sharp and precise in possession.
FW Nikola Kalinic, 5 — Failed to have any sort of positive impact off the bench, and for those who might have raised eyebrows over his introduction over Patrick Cutrone, he certainly did little to silence his detractors.
MF Riccardo Montolivo, N/A — Came on at a difficult time with Juve growing in confidence and going through the gears. In Biglia’s absence against Inter, it would be interesting to see Manuel Locatelli get the nod instead.
FW Patrick Cutrone, N/A — With Juve in the ascendency as he was brought on, he wasn’t able to have his usual impact on the game.
Sumeet Paul covers AC Milan for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @SP_Calcio.
Jamie Murphy rescued Rangers on his Fir Park return as the Ibrox men hit back for a 2-2 draw with Motherwell.
Gers were looking to bounce back after successive defeats to Celtic and Kilmarnock but strikes from Curtis Main and Allan Campbell put Stephen Robinson’s well-drilled outfit on the verge of handing the Light Blues a third straight league defeat.
However, a James Tavernier penalty just after half-time gave the visitors hope before on-loan Brighton winger Murphy — back at the ground where he started his career for the first time since departing for England in 2013 — rifled Rangers level to spare them their worst top-flight run of losses since October 2000.
Those defeats to Brendan Rodgers’ Hoops and Steve Clarke’s on-form Killie seemed to have robbed Gers of the verve they had built up under Graeme Murty and it showed during a shambolic opening 45 minutes.
It took the hosts just nine minutes to exploit Rangers’ fragile confidence as Bruno Alves got caught the wrong side of Main as he flicked the ball to Chris Cadden.
As the winger set himself to turn he found himself flattened by Russell Martin’s clumsy barge.It was an unnecessary challenge and Main made him pay as he tucked home after referee Nick Walsh pointed to the spot.
The build-up to the game had focused on whether Gers could cope with Well’s physical approach and the doubts appeared well-founded as they conceded again after 16 minutes.
Martin failed to tidy up in midfield, allowing the excellent Main to pounce on a loose ball before muscling Tavernier out of the way. His slide-pass ball for Campbell was perfect, who steered a tidy finish past Wes Foderingham for number two.
Murphy tried to lead Rangers’ response but saw Trevor Carson get a firm wrist to his low drive while Alfredo Morelos had a strike deflected wide.
But Well could have struck again before the interval. Cadden’s shot clipped the top of the crossbar while Martin had to dive in at the last second to prevent Campbell netting again after the youngster was given the freedom of the box to drive forward.
Gers got their lifeline six minutes after the restart though as Walsh pointed to the spot again — although it was a dubious call to say the least.
Elliott Frear got caught in a tangle of legs with Tavernier but definitely got a touch on the ball. It made no matter to Tavernier, who chipped the spot-kick down the middle.
And Rangers incredibly found themselves level just two minutes later as Murphy drove in from the left before drilling a stunning strike into the bottom corner.
But the action almost took another twist as Main came close to regaining Well’s lead as his dipping strike crashed off the bar moments later.
However, the striker almost cost his side as he gifted possession to Josh Windass but Carson rescued him by blocking as Daniel Candeias burst into the box.
Gers piled forward looking for a winner but Well stubbornly resisted as they clung on for a result which now leaves Murty’s hopes of retaining his position beyond the summer hanging by a thread.
Paul Lambert believes criticism of Arsene Wenger is over the top as he prepares to take his Stoke side to the Emirates Stadium.
The pressure on the Arsenal boss from the club’s fans has hit a peak during this campaign, with the Gunners looking certain to finish outside the top four in the Premier League for the second successive season.
Lambert said: “If he’s getting criticism then we can all get it. It’s ludicrous to say he’s out of touch with the level of success he’s had and everything he’s done. If you can just get a part of that success then you’re doing all right yourself.
“It’s never nice to see a fellow manager (face that), regardless of how long you’ve been at a football club. I don’t agree with it. He’s a victim of his own success really, the amount of trophies he has won and high level trophies. He’s transformed so many players.”
Arsenal are 13 points adrift of the top four but go into Sunday’s clash on a high after three successive wins, including two against AC Milan in the Europa League, which could yet give them a route into the Champions League.
“I don’t think they’re a team in decline,” added Lambert. “I think maybe a lot of their focus will be on the Europa League, because if you win that you go into the Champions League.
“They’ve been a terrific football club in Europe as well and I still think they’re a really top side with some really top players. The bar’s been raised by Man City — I think Man City are a team who are out on their own at the minute — but I still think Arsenal are a really good side.”
Stoke are desperate for points down the other end of the table but have lost on all nine previous visits to the Emirates — a sore point for fans given the needle between the two clubs. Not that any of that will concern Lambert.
He said: “I know there’s maybe history between the clubs but this is new for me. You respect the history at any football club but I don’t go into the game thinking what’s happened before, I go and try and win for my own team.”
Stoke go into the match on the back of successive defeats by Manchester City and Everton, with the latter featuring an increasingly rare substitute appearance by Saido Berahino.
The former West Brom forward has gone more than two years without scoring a goal and seems no closer to winning over Lambert than he was the Scot’s predecessor Mark Hughes.
“He’s not given me the (selection) problem and he knows that,” said Lambert.
“I’ve been totally open with him about what I expect and he’s not hit the height I thought he should have. The club bought him for a lot of money and we should be looking at, when someone’s injured, you’re in.
“I think the penny is starting to drop. My standards are that high to try to get the best out of them. You have to perform and do the right things. I don’t have any question about the way he is as a goalscorer but there’s more to the game than just that.”
Borussia Dortmund coach Peter Stoger suggested that the hammering his team suffered in Saturday’s 6-0 loss away to Bayern Munich may have been for the best.
Second-placed Schalke’s win earlier in the day meant Bayern could not seal the title against Dortmund, but they showed no sign of any disappointment as they netted five times before half-time alone.
Having beaten Dortmund at home 5-1 and 4-1 in the league in the previous two seasons, Bayern’s margin of victory was even greater this time as James Rodriguez, Thomas Muller and Franck Ribery also scored with Robert Lewandowski claiming a hat-trick in a 6-0 triumph.
Dortmund are focusing on securing Champions League for next season, and Stoger said the result would at least provide a good learning experience in the months to come.
“The ambition of this team is to be second, to secure a Champions League spot but it will be very tight until the end this season,” Stoger told Sky after the game. “Maybe the shellacking was a good thing for the sake of assessing the situation correctly [in regards to the summer] so that no stone will be left unturned.”
Asked whether he would include his own position as manager being up for discussion, the Austrian replied: “[The club] has to figure out which adjustments to make and there are big adjustments to be made, in my opinion. The position of the coach is certainly part of the equation and it eventually has to be assessed as well.
“The club has to define which sort of football it should stand for, determine what the philosophy is and then take a detailed look at what kind of players are needed for that philosophy. We have many ways to play successfully. We have technically gifted players, we have pacey players that can play on the break.
“I’m just saying what has to happen in order to build a team that will meet the ambition and to achieve the Champions League qualification. If that assessment means that another guy is necessary for the job then that’s fine by me. It’s not really about me.
“I’m glad and proud to be working here but my life isn’t completely defined by me standing on the sideline at BVB. I’ve done so many things in my life, I’m a very serene, happy person.”
Stoger agreed the Black and Yellows were comprehensively outplayed by the hosts, lacking the individual class, attitude and tactical finesse to keep the league leaders at bay.
“It wasn’t the first time this season that the basic virtues, on which former successes were built, lacked entirely,” Stoger said. “Bayern pounced on every mistake we made. They intentionally let us have the ball to lurk for errors. Additionally, we committed individual errors where we gifted goals to Bayern.”
It was Gonzalo Castro who had failed to track Rodriguez and when the Dortmund midfielder attempted to nutmeg the same player, Bayern broke to score a 23rd-minute third. Castro was substituted for Julian Weigl shortly afterwards but there was to be no let-up from the hosts as they scored twice more on the stroke of half-time.
“It’s not just about those situations, though,” Stoger said. “Such a result unveils the underlying issues. This is a team with the ambition to be in second place but at the moment they do not match that at all.”
Stefan Buczko covers Borussia Dortmund for ESPN FC. Twitter: @StefanBuczko.
Lionel Messi came off the bench on Saturday to spark a late Barcelona comeback that resulted in a 2-2 draw against Sevilla.
Messi scored an 89th-minute equaliser to stretch Barca’s unbeaten record in La Liga to 37 games as coach Ernesto Valverde lauded a player who “makes a difference every time he touches the ball.”
After missing Argentina’s games against Italy and Spain with hamstring trouble, Messi started the game on the bench at the Sanchez Pizjuan and watched as Sevilla took a 2-0 lead.
That prompted Valverde to introduce him to the game on the hour mark, but he left it late before making his mark.
Luis Suarez’s 88th-minute strike gave Barca hope and Messi fired home his 36th goal of the season from 25 yards just one minute later to keep his side’s hopes of an unbeaten league campaign alive.
“With or without Messi, any team would be different,” Valverde said in his postgame news conference when asked if Barcelona would be doing as well as they are this season without the forward.
“I won’t make reference to anything that’s been said recently [after Spain’s 6-1 win against Argentina], but of course he’s an important player. He makes a difference every time he touches the ball.”
Valverde added that regardless of the result it was always the plan for Messi to come on in the second half “even though he’s got a small [muscular] problem.”
“It’s been a while since he’s played after missing the [Argentina] games and he needed to play,” the coach said.
“He didn’t start the game as a precaution. We think he will be fine for Wednesday [against Roma in the Champions League] but we will see how he feels after tonight’s effort.”
Valverde says Barca’s never-say-die-attitude is proof that despite beginning the weekend with an 11 point lead over second placed Atletico Madrid they don’t think the title is already wrapped up.
“We don’t think the league is already won, not at all,” he said. “We competed until the very end here. The celebration which followed Messi’s goal shows the spirit we have in the team and the importance which we gave to getting the draw.”
However, Valverde didn’t let his side’s late turnaround disguise the fact Sevilla caused them far too many problems.
“We weren’t able to control their counter-attacks,” he admitted. “That’s not happened to us before this season. From three of our own corners, we didn’t control [the counter-attacks] and each one led to danger. That unbalanced us, we had problems.”
Sevilla coach Vincenzo Montella, whose side are in action against Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday, was left to lament a lack of efficiency in the final third.
After goals from Franco Vazquez and Luis Muriel had given them a two-goal lead, the home side had chance after chance to wrap the win up and become the first side to beat Barca in the league this season.
“We have to improve in terms of taking our chances,” Montella said in a news conference after declaring himself “proud” of the spirit showed by his players on the night.
“We could have killed the game off. It’s a shame. But Barcelona have great players and this can happen if you don’t [take your chances].”
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.
BORDEAUX, France — Three thoughts from PSG’s 3-0 win over Monaco in the Coupe de la Ligue final.
1. PSG win first part of the domestic treble
Paris Saint-Germain have added to their record as the most successful club in the Coupe de la Ligue after beating Monaco at Matmut Atlantique in Bordeaux for their fifth consecutive title and eighth overall — five better than their three closest rivals.
Edinson Cavani scored two goals (one penalty), while Angel Di Maria added a second, but it was Kylian Mbappe, playing against his formative club, who was the real star of the show.
Video Assisted Referee (VAR) played a significant role in PSG’s opener and a first half Monaco effort being ruled out, but Leonardo Jardim’s men were significantly inferior to the capital rivals on the night — regardless of technology.
After the disappointment of the loss of last season’s Ligue 1 title to Monaco, PSG needed to re-establish their domestic dominance with a clean sweep of French trophies.
Taking into account a second consecutive Champions League round-of-16 exit, this time at the hands of Real Madrid, it became even more imperative.
This win over Les Monegasques was the first step towards that, and with Le Championnat on its way to being wrapped up — PSG hold a provisional 17-point lead — the Coupe de France is the last remaining obstacle. The biggest threat to Unai Emery’s men there is fellow top-flight outfit Caen with semi-professional third-tier sides Chambly and Les Herbiers playing in the other semifinal.
It would have been easy for PSG to show little appetite for a domestic cup — even if it was against Monaco — after their latest Champions League setback, but they stayed hungry and punished the men from the principality.
In fact, there was more apathy in the stands than there was among the players, with a less than full house at Matmut Atlantique.
Perhaps that is simply a reflection of the fact that, more than ever, a domestic clean sweep is the minimum expectation and the Champions League is the only prize that will bring true satisfaction to everybody at the club.
2. Mbappe flourishing in Neymar’s absence
There is no doubt that Mbappe and injured superstar Neymar can play together and combine very well, but the France international has really come on since the Brazilian suffered a fractured metatarsal.
Mbappe did not score in Bordeaux, but he did provide two direct assists and won the penalty for the other goal in an unselfish display.
The 19-year-old punished his former club with his electrifying pace and was deservedly voted man of the match, making up for his disappointing return to Stade Louis II earlier in the campaign.
After a mixed start to life with PSG, despite some impressive statistics, Mbappe appears to be hitting form just in time to potentially star at this summer’s World Cup in Russia with France.
3. Back to the drawing board for Monaco
It is hard not to feel sorry for Jardim, who ruled himself out of the running for the PSG job on the eve of the match, after his team’s inadequacies were laid bare.
Term after term, the Portuguese does his best to make Monaco as competitive as possible and after the immense success of last season, this campaign has been difficult, and any hope of silverware is now dead.
More than ever, Les Monegasques appear in need of their next cycle. Although the likes of Radamel Falcao, Fabinho and Joao Moutinho have plenty to offer to other European clubs, they look out of place in this transitional ASM side.
Falcao has been excellent this term, while Fabinho has been decent but not at his absolute best, and a change of scenery (perhaps PSG) would arguably do him the world of good.
There is young talent in this current Monaco squad, such as Youri Tielemans, Rony Lopes and Keita Balde Diao, but a large number of regular starters, such as Danijel Subasic and Andrea Raggi, need replacing if this intriguing project is to be revitalised.
Whether or not Jardim has the desire to oversee this next cycle is another question, and an important one that the principality outfit must ask themselves with former Chelsea man Michael Emenalo now overseeing transfer dealings at such a critical moment.
Jonathan Johnson covers PSG and the French national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @Jon_LeGossip.
LONDON — Antonio Conte insisted that he is not worried about the possibility of being sacked if Chelsea fail to finish in the Premier League’s top four this season.
Chelsea, currently fifth in the table, face fourth-placed Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on Sunday knowing that anything short of victory will leave them with no more than an outside chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
Conte has long argued that a top-four finish is Chelsea’s most realistic target this season despite their Premier League title triumph in 2016-17, but the Italian added that his future at Stamford Bridge will be out of his hands if the Blues find themselves exiled from Europe’s elite club competition.
Asked if he feels he will be sacked if Chelsea finish below the top four, Conte replied: “I must be honest, I don’t know. This is not my problem [to worry about]. It’s a problem for the club. It’s not my problem.”
Conte is widely expected to leave Chelsea this summer after months of escalating public tensions over transfer strategy, and he declined to commit himself to the Blues beyond this season when it was put to him that summer signing Davide Zappacosta would like to see him stay.
“I think as you know very well it is more simple for the player to know if in the future he can stay here,” Conte added. “Our job is totally different. For us it is not sure. You can have a contract but you don’t know what will happen after one or two games. We depend a lot on the result.”
“I can have a great admiration for Tottenham because everyone can see their good work they are doing in this years,” he continued. “To compete for the title in every season is not simple especially in England. I have plenty of admiration for the work they are doing, they are doing a great job.
“Don’t forget in the last two or three years we lost important players for Chelsea. When you lose important players with great experience and charisma and players used to win you lose a lot.
“Before to replace this type of player you need to have passion, and then to improve the young players and to improve their mentality, their charisma, to have new players ready to fight and win something important.”
Liam is ESPN FC’s Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.
Real Madrid have left Cristiano Ronaldo out of the squad to face Las Palmas on Saturday ahead of the Champions League next week.
Ronaldo, Marcelo and Toni Kroos were all left out out of the travelling party for this weekend’s La Liga game, the club confirmed on Friday evening.
Real Madrid will travel to Juventus on Tuesday for the Champions League quarterfinal first leg, and Zinedine Zidane made the decision to rest some of his top players, though earlier in the day he had insisted he was not looking past relegation-threatened Las Palmas.
“Whoever travels tomorrow will be well,” Zidane said at his news conference. “We are not thinking of Tuesday’s game. We have a complicated game tomorrow. In order to prepare for Tuesday’s game, we have to do a good job tomorrow. There are no small teams in La Liga and we must be ready.”
Real trail La Liga leaders Barcelona by 15 points and have a 13-point advantage ahead of fifth-placed Villarreal in their fight to qualify for next year’s Champions League.
Zidane confirmed captain Sergio Ramos would not feature against after picking up an injury with Spain on Tuesday, but that Gareth Bale will be ready to play.
Ronaldo, who played 68 minutes in Portugal’s 3-0 defeat to Netherlands on Monday, has scored nine of Madrid’s last 13 goals. He is the second leading scorer in La Liga with 22 goals — three fewer than Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
Kroos played 90 minutes in both of Germany’s friendlies against Spain and Brazil, while Marcelo also played every minute in two games for Brazil over the international break.
Follow @ESPNFC on Twitter to keep up with the latest football updates.
The French government did not give Neymar tax breaks to encourage him to leave Barcelona and sign for Paris Saint-Germain last summer, France’s public accounts minister has told BFMTV.
In a book titled “PSG: Revelations of a Revolution” published earlier this week, the writers claimed Neymar, who moved to PSG in a €222 million world-record transfer, had been given financial incentives to do so.
The book alleged PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi had told politicians “France must make a gesture,” and that former France president Nicolas Sarkozy, who is a PSG fan, had “lobbied for the state to not look too closely at the deal’s financial structure, i.e. the taxes.”
“There was no kind of fiscal favour,” Darmanin said. “Everything was done within the fiscal laws of the Republic. It is better Mr. Neymar pays his taxes in France rather than he goes to play in another country. Mr. Neymar pays what he has to pay.”
Ian is ESPN’s French football correspondent. Twitter: @ian_holyman
FIFA can only show its determination to stamp out discrimination in football if it encourages referees to stop games after racist incidents, France great Lilian Thuram has told AFP.
World football’s governing body announced earlier this week it is investigating allegations that Paul Pogba and Ousmane Dembele were targets of monkey chants by home fans during France’s 3-1 win over World Cup hosts Russia on Tuesday in St. Petersburg.
Thuram, a 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winner whose foundation aims to end racism in football, believes more radical action must be taken, notably at this summer’s tournament.
“Is there a real will from FIFA, from the Russian Federation and society in general, to resolve this problem?” Thuram said. “How to explain that things don’t change radically? For how long have we been talking about racism in stadiums? When will a referee stop a game or the players walk off the pitch when there are racist incidents?
“If this happens during the World Cup, will the referee stop the game? I doubt it. We will only see how serious FIFA are if they decide to stop a game.”
Manchester United’s Pogba — who scored one goal and set up another in the victory — and Barcelona’s Dembele were abused by a section of the crowd in St. Petersburg, French media reported.
An AFP photographer confirmed Dembele was abused while taking two corners and Pogba was targeted in the 73rd minute.
“The most important thing is to thank the photographers and TV viewers who denounced those acts,” Thuram said.
The allegations had provoked a swift response from France’s Minister for Sport, Laura Flessel.
“Racism has no place on football pitches,” Flessel wrote on Twitter. “We have to act in unison at a European and international level in order to stop this inadmissible behaviour.”
Ian is ESPN’s French football correspondent. Twitter: @ian_holyman
This might not be the last time Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte meet this season. Their Premier League showdown at Stamford Bridge has serious ramifications. A Tottenham victory would almost ensure that Chelsea will fail in their quest for a top-four finish. If the home side win, Spurs will become twitchy. They have a record of failing in crunch matches. The gap going into the game is five points; with eight games remaining, it could be a critical result.
Pochettino is currently one of the hottest properties in football management. There has been speculation that he could replace Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid. Interest has been expressed from Bayern Munich. The 46-year-old appears to have the world at his feet.
By contrast, Conte will be leaving London in the summer. He won the Premier League last season and his record is significantly more impressive than Pochettino’s — three titles at Juventus and another in the English capital — but the 48-year-old’s availability in the summer is generating much less heat than the possibility of the Argentine leaving Tottenham.
The chances of Pochettino going to either the Bernabeu or the Allianz in the summer are small. Spurs, who are moving into a new stadium next season, are committed to keeping their biggest stars, even if they’re not players. Even though there has always been a sense that Pochettino views White Hart Lane as a stepping stone, it’s hard to see Tottenham allowing their manager to leave.
Paris Saint-Germain, in the market for a manager who can bring them European success, are likelier to turn to Conte. The other big jobs that might be free — Chelsea and, perhaps, Arsenal — would seem to rule out Pochettino for local rivalry reasons.
There has been much discussion about whether Tottenham need to win a trophy this season. The trajectory of this young team has been upward under their manager but in the FA Cup semifinal last season, Pochettino was so comprehensively out-thought and out-maneuvered by Conte that it was humbling.
In the Champions League knockout round, Max Allegri produced a tactical masterclass in the second leg at Wembley. Just when Tottenham appeared to have the tie won, the Juve coach switched things around with substitutions that left the home side reeling. Spurs and their manager didn’t react quickly enough. Games like these throw up questions about whether Pochettino is quite ready to make the step up to a more prominent and pressurized job.
In short, Pochettino’s reputation has outgrown his achievements. He’s turned Spurs into a team to be reckoned with but has not yet reached the point where his team is feared. It is too early to imagine him in one of the “top” foreign jobs — Real, Barcelona, PSG, Bayern — but he has the perfect opportunity to elevate Tottenham to the top table in the meantime.
By contrast, Conte has seen his reputation slip during his second year at Stamford Bridge. The former Italy coach performed a near miracle by winning the title in his first campaign, taking over an imbalanced squad and managing to shape it into a side that was significantly better than the sum of its parts. That he could not maintain the momentum says more about Chelsea’s methods than Conte’s. The Italian is high on PSG’s wish list given that he brings a strong record in the Champions League. The hierarchy in Paris crave success outside France.
Pochettino will be under scrutiny at Stamford Bridge this weekend. The weeks between now and the end of the season give him a chance to bolster his standing. Tottenham need to consolidate their place in the top four and a trophy would enhance the reputation of the Spurs manager. To win the FA Cup, the only silverware available, Pochettino needs to get past Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United in the semifinal and then, assuming Chelsea are too strong for struggling Southampton, Conte in the final.
Managers have a short window when they are in demand. Things can change very quickly in that department: Just ask Conte. If Pep Guardiola is excluded (and Manchester City will do almost anything to retain the Catalan’s services) then Pochettino is the most exciting young coach in the world and a man in demand. He needs to stamp his mark on the season, starting at Stamford Bridge. Once he can show he can get the better of Conte, his stock will rise even higher.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.