Another weekend of European football is in the books and, as usual, there have been enough plot twists and upsets to talk about for the next week. Giants like Bayern Munich look as vulnerable as ever, while the FA Cup saw the minnows fighting back with Wrexham and Southampton putting on thrilling performances.
Elsewhere, Valencia are doing so badly that their fans have had enough, AC Milan are in freefall, and Casemiro has been a revelation for Manchester United.
ESPN correspondents Julien Laurens, Rob Dawson, Alex Kirkland 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
Bayern crisis opens the door for Bundesliga title race
What is going on in Germany? Usually by now, Bayern Munich are winning matches relentlessly, scoring for fun while the other teams behind them are dropping points on a regular basis and just can’t compete. This season is completely different.
The champions and the Goliath of the Bundesliga are not the winning machine of old. Since the restart, they have just drawn three league games in a row 1-1, against Koln and Frankfurt at home and away at Leipzig. They are usually slow to start after the winter break but this is worrying because coach Julian Nagelsmann’s team is not playing well, not defending well, and as a result is not winning.
And the tensions are not just on the pitch. Serge Gnabry was reprimanded and benched for going to the Paris Fashion Week on his day off. Tony Tapalovic, the goalkeeping coach and Manuel Neuer’s best friend, was let go last week in a power move from Nagelsmann. And Neuer is out until next season after breaking his leg skiing while on holiday after the World Cup.
– Hollywood FC: Breaking down the drama and twists at Bayern Munich
In the meantime, the competition is gearing up for more misery for Bayern. Union Berlin, the surprise of the season, are second just a point behind the leaders. Then Leipzig, rejuvenated by manager Marco Rose, are just one behind Union with Freiburg and Dortmund another one behind. The top five of the Bundesliga within three points of each other in February has never been seen before, and it puts all the more pressure on Bayern.
It is very exciting — unless you are a Bayern supporter, of course. Their next game is on Wednesday away at Mainz, a team that sits 11th in the table. The pressure on Thomas Muller & Co. will be massive, indeed. –Julien Laurens
Welcome to Wrexham mayhem
Don’t you just love the FA Cup?
No, seriously. Don’t you just love it? It’s fair to say that the conclusion of the tournament’s weekend action at the Racecourse Ground between non-leaguers Wrexham AFC and Championship side Sheffield United delivered in more ways than one with a 3-3 result.
The only thing that would have made the six-goal thriller even better — at least for the neutral — was a seventh by the home side. At that point, I think even Ryan Reynolds would have lost all his senses and, just like his cinematic anti-superheroic character Deadpool, the Hollywood actor and Wrexham’s co-owner would have jumped out of the stands and lost all his limbs as a result of excitement.
– Interview: Ryan Reynolds talks more about Wrexham than Deadpool now, and he likes it
The game had everything you could ask from an FA Cup tie, including an overwhelming atmosphere. The second half was especially scintillating as it gave us five of the six goals on the evening — four in thirty minutes — agonizingly close chances and a red card against the visitors.
For the hosts, despite the extra man, it was sadly not a Hollywood ending as John Egan’s stoppage-time goal rescued Sheffield United, thus sending this fixture to Bramall Lane for a replay.
Every football fan knows this feeling 😭 pic.twitter.com/8OWWd1h4yH
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) January 29, 2023
Non-tangibles aside, it’s important to remember how well Wrexham have been doing since Reynolds and Rob McElhenney took over the Welsh side and appointed their man Phil Parkinson as coach.
Other than the FA Cup, they’re also joint top of the National League and play like they belong two leagues above. They were more than a match for Sheffield United, who haven’t lost a game since Nov. 8. Oh, and Paul Mullin has the absolute goods. He has no business playing in this division.
Whatever happens in the replay, one thing is for sure: season two of “Welcome to Wrexham” is going to be insane. –Luis Miguel Echegaray
Can Southampton cup wins change Premier League course?
Southampton are rock bottom of the Premier League table and manager Nathan Jones is trying to kick-start a survival bid in the cups. The 2-1 victory over Blackpool in the FA Cup on Saturday was Southampton’s fourth win in their last six games — it’s just a shame for Jones that only one came in the league.
Southampton have another cup game on Tuesday — the Carabao Cup semifinal second leg against Newcastle — before two vital Premier League clashes against Brentford and Wolves. It would be easy for a manager to throw away cup ties to focus on battling relegation but, at the very least, Jones has improved the mood around St. Mary’s with a run of positive results.
Confidence and momentum is everything when you’re fighting to stay up and Southampton should have both when they arrive at Brentford on Saturday. It’s tight at the bottom of the table with only three points separating Southampton and Leicester in 14th.
If Jones can get his team to replicate their cup form in the league then they will give themselves a chance of staying in the Premier League –Rob Dawson
Barcelona keep eking by without Lewandowski
Barcelona’s 1-0 LaLiga win at Girona on Saturday was historic. Coming after a 1-0 Copa del Rey victory over Real Sociedad and a 1-0 win over Getafe, this was the first time in 43 years that Barca have won three consecutive games by that scoreline.
– Marsden: Pedri scores game-winner in his 100th appearance for Barca
Add a 1-0 win at Atletico Madrid on Jan. 8, a 1-0 win at Valencia on Oct. 29, a 1-0 win over Celta Vigo on Oct. 9 and a 1-0 win at Mallorca on Oct. 1, and there’s a pattern emerging. It’s not the one you might have expected when Xavi Hernandez, the spiritual heir to manager Pep Guardiola and crown prince of tiki-taka, was appointed back in November 2021.
Context is important. Barca’s defensive record in LaLiga is exceptional, conceding just six goals in 18 games. They’ve kept 14 clean sheets. Much of that can be attributed to career-best form from Marc-Andre Ter Stegen, rivalling Thibaut Courtois for the title of Spain’s most reliable keeper.
At the other end of the pitch, it’s no surprise Barca struggled to score against Girona, Getafe and Atletico given that they’ve been without one of the best goal scorers on the planet, Robert Lewandowski. The team are over-reliant on him, with his 13 league goals followed by Pedri — who found the net on Saturday — and Ousmane Dembele, now injured, with five each.
Even with Lewandowski back from suspension, it’s time for a slowly improving Ansu Fati, a yet-to-convince Raphinha and the underwhelming Ferran Torres to step up and play their part. –Alex Kirkland
Mitoma is an artist, and we all need a ticket to his gallery
Kaoru Mitoma is the epitome of Brighton, and Brighton are the epitome of Kaoru Mitoma. The Japanese international — who was playing in university three years ago because he didn’t feel he was ready for professional football and ended up costing the club a measly €3 million — scored a majestic, stoppage-time winning goal for the Seagulls against Liverpool on Sunday.
It was one of those goals that deserved a microscopic re-watch. Entering the final moments of the game, Brighton earned a free-kick outside of the box. From the free-kick, the ball hovered across the pitch to the feet of Ecuador’s Pervis Estupiñán, who after a beautiful touch, crossed it above Liverpool’s defensive unit and right onto Mitoma’s orbit. There was still work to do for the Japanese winger, however, as Alisson was rightly in place, ready to react.
– Reaction: Liverpool’s troubles this season deepen in loss to Brighton
What followed, however, was a piece of art. Mitoma brought it down with his right foot with a first touch smoother than Luther Vandross’s vocal chords, then with the same foot, proceeded to fake everyone out with a second touch, and without the ball touching the ground, he smashed it past the Brazilian keeper and into the far corner of the goal.
The Amex went insane, Mitoma’s teammates rallied and jumped on him and the FA Cup had no more arguments for goal of the weekend, perhaps the tournament. Mitoma is the personification of Brighton’s outlook on player scouting and development: patient, smart and subtle. While other clubs continue to play checkers when it comes to player acquisition, Brighton keep on winning with 4-D Chess. –Luis Miguel Echegaray
All eyes on Lookman in Italy again
Week in, week out, home and away, scoring or assisting, Ademola Lookman is having the season of his life at Atalanta. And Saturday was no different.
The Nigerian international scored another worldie to lead Atalanta to another win, 2-0 at home against Sampdoria. The former England youth player received the ball on the right hand side, near the halfway line, came inside with a trick, ran with the ball, got into the box, slowed down slightly before unleashing a perfect shot in the opposite bottom corner.
It was his 12th league goal of the season already in 14 starts, with three assists on top of it. That’s only four goals less than through his all professional career in the top flight in England (Leicester and Everton) and in Germany (RB Leipzig). Lookman is unstoppable and unplayable at the moment. He has netted seven times in his last four games in all competitions.
When he made his Premier League debut for Everton back in the 2016-2017 season as a prodigy, the hype around him was huge and real. It took him all that time to finally make the most of his superb talent. Gian Piero Gasperini unlocked his potential and at 25, Lookman is only getting started. –Julien Laurens
Ademola fa quello che vuole 🤯
— Atalanta B.C. (@Atalanta_BC) January 29, 2023
Fred’s cheeky finish puts a bow on Man United win
Manchester United were already well on their way to booking a place in the fifth round when Fred made sure of the result against Reading but the Brazilian midfielder, on as a second-half substitute, made sure the best goal was saved until last.
Bruno Fernandes’ whipped cross from the right was inviting a touch and Fred did it with a bit of flair — flicking the ball into the net and making a superb bit of skill look casual.
Fred has lost his regular place in United’s team this season but with Christian Eriksen recovering from an ankle injury, he might he needed more often in the second half of the season. –Rob Dawson
Teams in trouble
AC Milan go from bad to worse
Here’s AC Milan’s recent stretch: three goals conceded against Inter Milan in the Super Cup 10 days ago, four conceded away at Lazio in Serie A on Tuesday and finally five against Sassuolo, 17th in the table, at home on Sunday in the league. That’s three defeats in row with 12 goals given away, and AC Milan, the Italian champions, are going through the biggest crisis of this era with Stefano Pioli as manager.
This is the first time in their history that they shipped four or more goals in successive league matches. The last time someone scored five goals against them at San Siro was Juventus back in April 1997.
Milan have won only one of their seven games since the restart and it was their first one, on Jan. 4 away at Salernitana, where they had to battle hard to keep their 2-1 victory towards the end. After that, there have been disappointments after disappointments, defeats and draws back to back.
Against Roma, they were 2-0 up with three minutes to go and they drew 2-2. Against Torino in the Coppa d’Italia, they had 34 shots but lost in extra time 1-0. At Lecce, they were 2-0 down after 20 minutes and drew 2-2. Then there are the disasters against Inter, Lazio and Sassuolo where they were outsmarted, outplayed and beaten by teams more efficient than them. They don’t defend well and lack creativity and execution going forward
The last time Milan lost three games in a row was in September 2019 and the manager was Marco Giampaolo. He was sacked not long after and was replaced by Pioli. Pioli has enough credit in the bank after winning the Scudetto last season to survive this terrible period. But things won’t get better with the derby against Inter next weekend… –Julien Laurens
Valencia’s own fans are protesting their poor form
Valencia’s record since the World Cup break makes for grim reading. They’ve gone four games without a win in LaLiga and the last three in particular — a 1-0 home defeat to Cadiz, a 2-2 draw with Almeria and Sunday’s agonising 1-0 loss at Real Valladolid, conceding in the 90th minute — have all come against opposition that a team with talent like Jose Gaya, Yunus Musah, Samuel Lino and Edinson Cavani should be beating.
Their start to the season was solid, at times thrilling, but a dreadful October — when they went another five league games without a win — and this latest winless streak have seen Gennaro Gattuso’s team thrust into the midst of a relegation battle. Valencia are just three points clear of the bottom three now, and although they have two games in hand over most of their rivals, you wouldn’t bank on them winning either on current form.
Furious fans protested outside Mestalla after their 3-1 home Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Club in midweek, leaving players struggling to get out of the stadium. And it’s not going to get easier anytime soon: next up it’s a trip to the Bernabeu to play Real Madrid. –Alex Kirkland
Casemiro again proves to be transformative for Man United
Casemiro wasn’t only the MVP of the weekend — he is quickly becoming the MVP of Manchester United’s whole season.
The Brazilian won the FA Cup tie with Reading on Saturday with two goals in four minutes — the first with a clever scooped finish from Antony’s pass and the second with a pinpoint effort from 25 yards out. It was a contribution that ensured a comfortable evening against the Championship side just as they were threatening to make things nervous.
Casemiro has only been at Old Trafford for a couple of months but he’s already been a transformational signing. Not only have United filled a gaping hole in their midfield, they’ve done it with one of the best players in the world in the position. He’s brought some bite in the middle of the pitch, calmness on the ball and, above all, a winner’s mentality. It’s something that’s been missing since Sir Alex Ferguson retired.
Manager Erik ten Hag is facing a busy end to the season in four competitions and the one player he cannot do without is Casemiro. The Dutchman has cover in most key positions but no one in the squad can replace the former Real Madrid man. United’s chances of success this season depend heavily on Casemiro staying fit. –Rob Dawson