Another weekend of European football is in the books and, once again, there is drama everywhere you look. Manchester City made up some ground on Arsenal in the Premier League title race, while Marcus Rashford ensured that Manchester United remain in the frame too.
Elsewhere, Union Berlin and Barcelona notched impressive wins, while Davide Zappacosta, Nico Williams and Jordan Nobbs all scored worldies.
ESPN correspondents Julien Laurens, Mark Ogden, James Olley, Sam Marsden, James Tyler and Luis Miguel Echegaray break down the most interesting and important stuff you need to know about the weekend.
Jump to: Talking points | Best goals | Teams in trouble | MVP of the Weekend
City turn up heat on Arsenal ahead of Wednesday title tussle
Manchester City spurned their previous chance to close the gap on Premier League leaders Arsenal but they did not make the same mistake twice on Sunday.
There was plenty to motivate Pep Guardiola’s side: a sense of injustice off the pitch following the Premier League’s decision to charge City with more than 100 breaches of financial fair play rules while on the pitch, Arsenal’s 1-1 draw against Brentford on Saturday provided fresh encouragement in the title race.
– Dawson: Angry fans boost Man City vs. Aston Villa
The Gunners can feel aggrieved at the PGMOL subsequently admitting an error in the VAR review which should have ruled out Brentford’s equalising goal but, after losing at Everton a week earlier, Arsenal were once again underwhelming as they failed to win back-to-back league matches for the first time this season. City, palpably galvanised by the week’s events, raced out of the blocks to score three first-half goals against Aston Villa, easing off in the second half to run out 3-1 winners. Erling Haaland and Ruben Dias were withdrawn at half-time as Guardiola had one eye on the Wednesday meeting with Arsenal at Emirates Stadium. Haaland picked up a knock and Dias had been booked, so neither were risked any further.
Wednesday’s game has loomed on the horizon for some time, ever since being postponed following the death of Queen Elizabeth II in September, but it has taken on even greater significance following this weekend’s results. City know that a victory will take them above Arsenal (on goal difference) for the first time since Nov. 5 — a potentially significant moment psychologically, albeit having played a game more. Conversely, the Gunners have a golden opportunity to silence any doubts about their durability in the title race. The scene is set perfectly. — Olley
PGMOL apologises to Arsenal & Brighton following VAR errors
Dale Johnson explains why the PGMOL decided to apologise to both Arsenal and Brighton following mistakes in their games.
What’s bigger? Boehly’s millions or his patience?
Last week, I wrote a very lengthy piece in my weekly column The Tap-In about the pressures that come with overwhelming expenditure and what happens when results on the pitch don’t replicate the efforts implemented off it. Chelsea, of course, being the protagonist as Todd Boehly’s accountant was undoubtedly sweating throughout January as the West London club spent more than $400 million in acquisitions.
“They mean business,” I told our own David Lloyd a few days later on SportsCenter, so the question right now is quite simple: Can Graham Potter — a very talented, smart manager — deal with the pressures to deliver?
– Chelsea ratings: Felix stars but Chelsea fail to hold onto lead
Things are getting tougher for the former Brighton & Hove Albion manager as Saturday’s 1-1 draw against West Ham United was Chelsea’s third in a row (one goal scored in that time frame), and they only have one win in 2023. Yes, they dominated the stat sheet — and Joao Felix was great — but the only stat that matters, the result, is still not going their way.
“I think you saw the potential in the first half,” Potter said after the game. “You can’t control what people say from the outside, you see it how it is and carry on working. They’re a good group and we’re excited with the team and the potential but it’s still a work in progress.”
This might be true but the question remains: How much longer does he have to continue this work-in-progress? Common sense would tell you that he should have the whole season and indeed, it takes time for a manager to incorporate his fundamentals ideals to a team that has just brought in numerous players who have not even played in the league. But this is the Premier League, where common sense comes secondary to pressure. It doesn’t help that there’s a new owner in town, one that sees Chelsea as not just a club but a business. If wins don’t come soon, coupled with a possibly poor showing against Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, then I think Potter’s time is up. Money, quite simply, drives everything. — Echegaray
Olley: Potter’s Chelsea struggles can only go on for so long
James Olley fears for Graham Potter’s place as Chelsea manager if he can’t get his expensive new signings to click.
Union Berlin continue to defy and dazzle in the Bundesliga
The German title race in recent years has followed a familiar script: Bayern Munich mess around, never really looking dominant, before pulling away to a comfortable coronation several weeks before the end of the season. This year it feels like there’s a genuine challenge for the Bavarians, but did anyone expect it to come from Union Berlin? For all the talk of Dortmund, RB Leipzig and even Eintracht Frankfurt as viable contenders, Union keep being overlooked despite arguably being the most impressive and complete of the bunch.
That’s right, tiny Union, holders of a five-game win streak in the league since the World Cup and already boasting a victory this season over Dortmund and a draw at home Bayern back in September. Saturday saw them visiting RB Leipzig — no slouches themselves with two wins and two draws since the winter break — and go 1-0 down to a thundering strike by Benjamin Henrichs before rallying to take all three points in the grittiest of circumstances.
– Watch replay on ESPN+: Union Berlin 2-1 RB Leipzig (U.S. only)
Union did things according to plan coach Urs Fischer’s plan, conceding much of the possession to Leipzig and their superior individual talent, only to create the vast majority of the best scoring chances despite the early deficit. Midfielder Janik Haberer found the equalizer on the hour mark, swinging his leg through a flicked-on header and catching it sweetly on the volley, the ball soaring beyond keeper Janis Blaswich into the top corner. Barely 10 minutes later, Union overwhelmed Leipzig again and earned a penalty when defender Mohamed Simakan inexplicably jabbed his arm into the ball while preparing to clear it. Up stepped defender Robin Knoche from the spot to send Blaswich the wrong way with what was just Union’s second converted penalty in the Bundesliga all season.
The scrappy win keeps Union within a point of Bayern at the top with 14 games remaining, which is significant considering the two meet at the Allianz Arena in just two weeks. Get your popcorn ready. — Tyler
Barca win 1-0 … again
While all eyes have been on Robert Lewandowski, Ousmane Dembele and Pedri, it’s Barcelona’s defence which has enabled them to build an 11 point lead at the top of LaLiga. They beat Villarreal 1-0 on Sunday to extend the gap to second-placed Real Madrid, who do not play until Wednesday because of their participation in the Club World Cup, which they won on Saturday.
The scoreline in Barca’s win at Villarreal, a place where Madrid lost last month, was significant. It was the seventh time they have won 1-0 in the league this season. No team in Europe’s top five league has more 1-0 wins. It was also Xavi Hernandez’s side’s 16th clean sheet in 21 league games. The numbers are remarkable.
Ronald Araujo took the plaudits at the Estadio de la Ceramica. The Uruguayan was everywhere, stopping Villarreal counterattacks and nicking the ball away from Yeremy Pino just when it looked like he might level for the home side. Throughout the season, goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s return to form has also helped, while new signings Jules Kounde and Andreas Christensen have further strengthened the back line.
However, Xavi insists clean sheets start with striker Lewandowski, “our first defender,” and Villarreal boss Quique Setien, who was in charge at Camp Nou for eight months in 2020, has been astonished by their improvement off the ball under Xavi.
“This Barca side is quick and technical, but what has changed most with them is without the ball,” he said. “They are so intense without the ball and they forced us long several times. There was hardly a moment in the first half when we could play out comfortably from the back. The data is there, they are the team that runs the most without the ball.” — Marsden
Xavi’s 11 wins in a row in all competitions equals Pep Guardiola’s best winning streak as Barça’s manager 😮
He can set the record against Manchester United on Thursday 👀 pic.twitter.com/SyxKNtNZ40
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 12, 2023
Zappa’s perfectly timed worldie
Chelsea fans might not remember much about Davide Zappacosta and, to be fair, Atalanta fans wouldn’t know much more either. The 30-year-old Italian full-back was at Stamford Bridge from 2017 to 2019 and arrived in the summer of 2021 in Bergamo where he has played only six Serie A games this season.
However, anyone who watched his wonderful goal Saturday against Lazio will never forget it. It has taken Zappacosta more than a year to be back on the scoresheet, but it was worth the wait. Just after the 22-minute mark, at 0-0, as Atalanta were attacking on the left-hand side of the Romans’ box with Ademola Lookman, the ball came back towards Zappacosta. Without thinking and without controlling the ball, the No. 77 hit a pure and superb shot which sent the ball straight into the opposite top corner.
Ivan Provedel, the Lazio goalkeeper, didn’t even move. Nothing could have been done anyway. The strike was just too perfect. Zappacosta didn’t know how to celebrate, which showed his lack of expertise in the field, but it was an incredible moment for him and his team. He set his team on the path of a very important win which saw them catapulting over Lazio and AS Roma and finishing the weekend in third place in the table. — Laurens
Sta andando in loop da ieri sera 🤤
— Atalanta B.C. (@Atalanta_BC) February 12, 2023
Nico’s solo effort increases Valencia’s problems
Nico Williams’ performances for Athletic Club have earned him a place in the Spain squad this season but there is still a desire for him to score more goals. He failed to score in 34 league appearances last season but his fourth of the current campaign against Valencia on Saturday showed what he is capable of.
Williams appeared isolated when he picked the ball up 30 yards out, but he found space where there was none, wiggling between centre-backs Eray Comert and Mouctar Diakhaby before prodding home with the outside of his boot. The goal drew Athletic level and they went on to win 2-1 to keep themselves in the hunt for a European place. The result leaves Valencia third bottom and looking genuinely like a team who could be relegated on a weekend when their fans protested against owner Peter Lim.
Also, an honourable mention for Sergio Canales. In two touches, he controlled a long ball with his chest and neatly lobbed the goalkeeper without the ball touching the floor as Real Betis beat Almeria 3-2. — Marsden
Athletic Bilbao moves into 6th after comeback vs. Valencia
Nico Williams and Oihan Sancet score to complete Athletic Bilbao’s come-from-behind win over Valencia.
Nobbs opens her account for Aston Villa in style
There were a handful of eye-catching results in the Women’s Super League this weekend, but none more than perhaps Aston Villa’s thumping win at Brighton on Sunday. Not only did they win 6-2, wild enough for most weekends, but Jordan Nobbs scored her first goals since leaving Arsenal in January after 11 brilliant seasons.
While every goal oozed class, her third was perhaps the best of the lot as she gathered the ball in midfield, cruised toward goal and uncorked a shot from 30 yards that left keeper Lydia Williams absolutely no chance. All in all, a perfect day for the England international and her new team, who moved up to fifth with the victory. — Tyler
What a way to complete your hat-trick 😮💨
— Lionesses (@Lionesses) February 12, 2023
Teams in trouble
Southampton spinning out of control
Southampton were already in trouble when they fired Ralph Hassenhuttl as manager in November and replaced him with Luton Town’s Nathan Jones, but the picture now looks even worse for the Saints after the new man was sacked at the weekend after just 14 games in charge.
Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers was the final straw for the Southampton hierarchy, who had seen Jones win just one Premier League game during his brief spell in charge.
Hiring a manager who lasted less than a year in charge of Stoke City because of his inability to deal with a squad of players that had just been relegated from the Premier League should have been a warning sign, but he was appointed by Southampton regardless.
The big concern for Southampton now will be that very few teams avoid relegation from the Premier League after sacking two managers in the same season.
Watford achieved that in 2019-20, when Nigel Pearson was their third appointment of the season, but the former Leicester City boss arrived in December, so at least had half a season to turn things around.
Whoever Southampton appoint will inherit a team rooted to the foot of the Premier League and with a squad lacking the depth or quality required to stay up. Nothing looks good for Southampton right now. — Ogden
Rennes slumping dangerously
On Jan. 15, Rennes beat Paris Saint-Germain at home in Ligue 1 to put a marker down at the start of the new year. The Roazhon Park was a cauldron with the team in contention for a top three finish, playing great football. There had been little accidents before, like the losses at Reims and Clermont. But after beating the Parisians, Bruno Genesio and his men felt on top of the world.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)
Fast forward to this weekend and Rennes have lost their second league game in a row, their third in their past four Ligue 1 games. Newly promoted Toulouse destroyed them and were 3-0 up after 37 minutes. It was an embarrassing afternoon in the south of France for a team with ambitions like Rennes.
Genesio is under pressure now as his team is sixth in the table, outside of the European places, seven points behind AS Monaco in third and only three points ahead of Nice, the form team at the moment in France. To make things worse, they have a big Europa League clash against Shakhtar Donetsk to come midweek and soon will face Marseille, PSG and Lens, the league’s top three. Rennes’ dream of breaking into that trio now looks like a long shot. — Laurens
Rashford carrying United into the title race
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When you consider the meaning of MVP — Most Valuable Player — nobody can come close to Marcus Rashford and his importance to Manchester United right now.
By scoring United’s 80th minute opener in the 2-0 win at Leeds United, the 25-year-old took his goal tally to 13 goals in 15 games since returning from the World Cup with England.
– Premier League condemns ‘tragedy chanting’ at Leeds-Man Utd
He is now delivering big goals in big moments on a consistent basis for United and he has been carrying Erik ten Hag’s team in recent weeks.
Without Rashford’s goals, United would be nowhere near the title race, but they are now just five points behind leaders Arsenal and the Gunners have still to play champions Manchester City twice, so although United’s title hopes are faint, they still have an outside chance.
And so much of that is down to Rashford, just as the win at Leeds was secured by his headed goal.
United’s hopes for this season rest heavily on Rashford’s shoulders, but he is showing he can handle the pressure. — Ogden
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