European Football Round-up: 20 March

Events on and off the pitch in England and Spain in the past week have shown that despite what Bill Shankly may have said, football really isn’t more important than life and death. Football is just a game; albeit one that evokes tremendous passion and partisanship. Sometimes however events happen to unite the footballing family. On Sunday night Real Madrid put years of rivalry and bitter enmity to one side to show support for Barcelona’s Eric Abidal. They also demonstrated the global support for Fabrice Muamba.

One year on from having a tumour removed from his liver, it’s now been announced that Abidal needs a liver transplant. Muamba of course collapsed during Bolton’s FA Cup quarter final tie against Spurs at White Hart Lane and remains in a critical condition at London’s Chest Hospital in Bethnal Green. Before their game against Malaga the Madrid players wore t-shirts bearing the messages ‘Animo Abidal’ and ‘Get well soon Muamba’. Footballers, particularly at the highest level, are often seen as detached from reality due to the wages they earn and lifestyles they live; Madrid’s gesture among many others over the weekend show that when it comes to the things that really matter, the health and wellbeing of fellow professionals, fellow human beings, they are completely in touch with the rest of us and do care.

To the match itself: Santi Cazorla curled in an injury time free kick to equalize Benzema’s goal for Madrid and end the 11 match winning run that Mourinho’s men had been on. Malaga are now really starting to make a case for themselves as potential Champions League qualifiers and this result in the capital will undoubtedly give them confidence. For their part Madrid will need to quickly return to winning ways or Barcelona may get the feeling that they can, despite what Pep Guardiola said three weeks ago, actually challenge for the title. After this weekend’s fixtures, Barca are now only 8 points off the top, Xavi and unsurprisingly Messi scoring in a 2-0 away victory over Sevilla. In truth, Barca were even more comfortable than the two goal margin suggests and never really needed to move into top gear.

Third placed Valencia found their form again at the expense of Manchester United’s Europa League conquerors’ Athletic Club Bilbao. Valencia inflicted only the third loss on Bilbao in front of their home fans all season, running out 3-0 winners. Levante held onto fourth spot, beating Villareal 1-0 at home. After the match, stugglers Villareal sacked their second coach of the season, with Jose Molina heading for the exit door having only got the job in December. Former Espanyol, Deportivo and Celta Vigo coach Miguel Angel Lotina has now taken over the reins until the end of the season and will be tasked with saving Villareal from the drop. Granada meanwhile took a huge step to securing their La Liga standing for another year with a 2-1 victory over 19th placed Sporting.

In Italy, Juventus finally found their shooting boots to answer their growing band of critics, myself included. They travelled to Fiorentina and put 5 unanswered goals past the Viola. Fiorentina’s cause wasn’t helped by Cerci seeing red early in the game for an off the ball incident, but all credit to Juve for not letting off the throttle and punishing their opponents. The result leaves them still 4 points behind Milan in top spot. For their part, Milan had gone to struggling Parma and taken all the points with a 2-0 victory, Ibrahimovic (who else?) giving them an early lead before Urby Emanuelson scored a fantastic second. Inter, dumped out of the Champions League by Marseille continue to struggle, especially in finding the net, this time coming up blanks at home to Atalanta. Fortunately for Inter, Atalanta also failed to score and they claimed a point. Also on the back of a Champions League exit were Napoli, they showed tremendous resolve away to Udinese. The Udine club took a 2-0 lead, but Napoli inspired by a world class performance and two late goals from Edinson Cavani shared the spoils with them. The result didn’t really suit either team as it meant they weren’t able to make up more ground on 3rd place Lazio who had lost to Catania by a single goal.

Bayern Munich are determined to show Dortmund that they are not giving up in the Bundesliga title race just yet. Munich hammered relegation threatened Hertha Berlin 6-0 in Berlin, with a Robben hat-trick the highlight. Bayern have now hit 20 goals in their last 3 games. Dortmund however kept the gap at five points overcoming Werder Bremen 1-0 at home. Shinji Kagawa scored early on and Dortmund continued to dominate whilst not being able to add to the score. Schalke tightened their grip on the fourth Champions League slot, coming from a goal down to beat bottom team Kaiserslautern 4-1 away from home, with both Huntelaar and Raul finding the net. Hamburg meanwhile continue their slide into a relegation dog fight, losing 3-1 at home to fellow strugglers Freiburg.

Paris Saint-Germain failed to take full advantage of Montpellier’s 2-1 loss away to Nancy as they only drew 2-2 away to struggling Caen. PSG again had to rely on an injury time goal, this week it was Christophe Jallet providing the lifeline that clinched a point after Frau and Hertaux had fired Caen into an unlikely lead following Javier Pastore’s opener. PSG now have a 2 point advantage over surprise package Montpellier, while Lille closed the gap on the leading pair with a convincing 4-0 victory over Valenciennes. Everybody’s transfer target, Eden Hazard, was again on target for the reigning champions. At the bottom of Ligue 1, Sochaux drew level on points with 18th placed Nice by beating them 2-0, while Auxerre remain rock bottom after losing by the same score to Evian.

The Dutch Eredivisie remains the tightest title race in Europe with only 5 points separating the top 6. Four of those six sides were in action against each other this weekend; Feyenoord travelled to Enschede and defeated Twente 2-0 while PSV under new coach Philip Cocu got a huge 5-1 win over Heerenven to get their season back on track. AZ Alkmaar could only manage a goalless draw at home to NAC Breda and this allowed Ajax to close the gap to one point. Ajax went to ADO Den Haag and got a 2-0 win, they may just be hitting form at the right stage of the season, although this title is sure to go to the wire.

With this weekend’s action done, all that remains is to say ‘Forza Muamba’ and ‘Animo Abidal’

Il Capocannoniere