May 24, 2021
Gabriele MarcottiSenior Writer, ESPN FC
The final day of the 2020-21 campaign in the Premier League, Bundesliga, Ligue 1, La Liga and Serie A provided plenty of drama as titles were decided (congrats to Atletico Madrid and Lille), relegation spots were confirmed and Champions League spots were clinched (Liverpool! Juventus!), or lost (Leicester City! Napoli!), in the final 90 minutes. There was also a new reason to celebrate the accomplishments of Luis Suarez and Robert Lewandowski.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past weekend in Europe.
Ronaldo dropped for must-win Juventus game as Pirlo’s gamble pays off
You could just boil it down to courage. Milan had it, to a degree. Juventus manager Andrea Pirlo had it in abundance. Napoli, as a team, did not. Going into the final Serie A round of the 2020-21 season, all Napoli had to do was equal or better Juve’s result against Bologna to be assured of a Champions League spot. In practical terms, that meant Napoli controlled their destiny and a win against midtable Verona would get it done. All Juve could do was win and hope.
To do this, Pirlo made a huge call: he left out Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s not the reason Juventus won 4-1, of course, but it showed that he was unafraid and confident. And perhaps some of that spilled over into his team. Enough confidence and lack of fear to make them better without Ronaldo (as opposed to having him in the lineup) and being a better team overall, but continually being beset by doubt and uncertainty as they have been for most of the campaign.
Juventus snuck into Serie A’s top four thanks to Napoli’s draw vs. Verona, but the big news was how Pirlo benched Ronaldo and got a positive outcome. Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images
Juve director of football Fabio Paratici wasn’t quite so cut-and-dried about why Ronaldo — who, lest we forget, is Serie A’s top goal scorer and became the first player to top the scoring charts in England, Italy and Spain — was dropped to the bench. He simply said Ronaldo was a bit tired and, after a meeting with Pirlo, they decided together that it was best if he didn’t start.
Maybe VAR would have shown Paratici’s nose getting a bit longer as he spoke, because frankly, it’s hard to believe that Ronaldo would willingly sit out Juve’s biggest game of the campaign, not to mention a massive game in determining his own future and whether he plays Thursday nights in the Europa League. This is a guy who, in a career spanning two decades, has never shirked responsibility, has played injured more often than he cares to remember and who never wants to come off the pitch. So yeah, Paratici’s explanation is hard to swallow.
Far more plausible is the one Juventus put out before the game that it was purely a “technical decision,” meaning the manager’s choice. And that speaks volumes about Pirlo.
You can read it as some sort of Jedi mind trick, like Luke Skywalker turning off his navigation as he approaches the Death Star and letting the Force guide him instead. Or you could look at it as the desperate act of a man who knows he has nothing to lose and implements his own personal decision matrix. Drop Ronaldo and fail to qualify, and folks will call you a fool and you’ll get fired. Play Ronaldo and fail to qualify, and you’ll still likely get fired. Play Ronaldo and qualify, and you might keep your job, but nobody will give you credit for it. Drop Ronaldo and qualify and, at least, somebody will credit your intestinal fortitude. Plus, you might keep your job.
As it happened, he opted for Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata up front, with Dejan Kulusevski and Federico Chiesa out wide, and Juventus rolled to a straightforward 4-1 win. They played well, continuing the trend that began in the second half against Atalanta in the Coppa Italia final midweek (though that was with Ronaldo).
Alejandro Moreno says Luis Suarez’s late-season heroics were crucial to Atletico lifting the La Liga trophy.
Maybe Pirlo just did a cost-benefit analysis. He knew against this demotivated Bologna that he could have played Ronaldo McDonaldo up front instead, and they still would have won, and it might not have mattered because their fate was out of their hands. Short of loaning Ronaldo to Verona for one game (which isn’t allowed), there was nothing he could do to further his cause anyway. And besides, he’s Pirlo. If it doesn’t work out and he gets fired, he still has his millions, his beard and his cool, with the added Wikipedia line of being the man who dropped Ronaldo.
Either way, he showed guts… unlike what we saw from Napoli, which seemed to approach the Verona game with a sense of entitlement, as if the opposition — with nothing to play for and just one win in their past 12 games — would simply roll over for them. They played with the sort of urgency and enthusiasm you’d see from a teenager asked to clean up his room. This was before they took the lead at the hour mark, only for Verona to level nine minutes later.
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Other than sending on more strikers in the form of Dries Mertens and Andrea Petagna, Rino Gattuso had no answers, but frankly, after the season he’s had, you can’t really point the finger at him. From injuries to the continuous tension within the club, it was a minor miracle that they controlled their Champions League destiny with 90 minutes to go. Gattuso may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he deserved better than the treatment he got at the hands of President Aurelio De Laurentiis, who dispatched him post-game with a tweet thanking him for his service and sending hugs to his wife and kids.
As for MIlan, two penalties from the magnificent (and magnificently reliable) Franck Kessie powered Stefano Pioli’s team past Atalanta. Without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they looked tentative and insecure until they took the lead, but at least they had the excuse that they were playing Atalanta, who approach every game as if the fast-forward button was stuck. Having gone a goal up, you were curious to see whether Milan would push on for a second and go toe-to-toe with Atalanta, or sit back and risk conceding an equalizer. They opted for the second and it felt like the wrong choice at the time, not least because this team isn’t built to sit and counter like some Italian sides of yesteryear.
But Pioli was vindicated. The dam held. Atalanta were stifled. And Milan got what they deserved for what they showed over the entire season: a place among Europe’s elite.
What would Premier League’s final day have looked like with a Super League?
This applies to the Premier League as much as it does to Serie A above. The real perversion of the Super League project wasn’t that it was a “closed” or “breakaway” league — technically, it was neither — but that the 12 “founder” clubs would have enjoyed birthright status in that they didn’t need to qualify.
What would the final day of the season — heck, the entire run-in — have looked like? What incentive would Chelsea or Liverpool have had to put in any ounce of effort in the last game of the season? Or, for that matter, Tottenham: yeah, the Europa Conference isn’t much of a prize, but why not just lie down for Leicester?
Instead, we had a dramatic final day with the Champions League places continuously shifting. We went from Chelsea/Liverpool to Leicester/Chelsea to Liverpool/Leicester to Liverpool/Chelsea to Liverpool/Leicester to Liverpool/Chelsea all in the space of 90 minutes. It was a two-hour carousel of emotion and expression.
The terror on Rhys Williams‘ face when he missed that sitter of a header, leaving him to wonder whether he had just cost Liverpool a place in the Champions League (and a hundred million dollars, if not more). Kasper Schmeichel‘s despair when Harry Kane rifled the ball between his legs. Bertrand Traore‘s “aw shucks” smirk (considering he was part of Chelsea’s “loan army” earlier in his career) when he gave Aston Villa the lead vs. his former club. Sadio Mane‘s elation as he wheeled away after breaking the ice against Crystal Palace. Jamie Vardy‘s grin after winning his second (generous) penalty, the look of a man who knew he’d convert it and put Leicester back among the elite… temporarily. Timo Werner‘s wide-eyed confusion after his umpteenth miss. Kasper Schmeichel’s bellows at his defenders after his dreadful mistake that led to Tottenham’s equalizer. Cesar Azpilicueta‘s searching look to the bench for news from Leicester as he walked off following his second-half red card.
When the dust settled, Liverpool end up third; it may have been a mild disappointment at the start of the season, but given what they went through in terms of injuries — and how they finished — has to be a net positive. There are still plenty of questions to be answered in the transfer market — Georginio Wijnaldum is a free agent, Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez will be coming back from season-ending injuries, Mane, Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino, Thiago Alcantara, Jordan Henderson and Van Dijk will all be 29 or older when next season begins — but at least they will be on much firmer financial footing when they make the big calls.
Gab Marcotti reacts to Lille securing the Ligue 1 title by a single point over French giant PSG.
Viewed in the context of where they were when Frank Lampard was replaced, Chelsea have plenty to cheer: a top-four finish, an FA Cup final and, of course, the Champions League final next weekend. But this is also a side going into the European final on the back of three defeats in their last four games, with serious questions being asked about their attacking firepower. Their top league goalscorer is Jorginho, with seven (all of them penalties), they had the eighth-best attack in the Premier League and Werner continues to have major issues with finishing and staying onside.
(If you’re of an analytical bent, Werner has underperformed his xG (11.95) by nearly six goals. I get statistical variance and all that, but after 38 games you expect some regression to the mean, especially since he outperformed xG in his two previous campaigns.)
As for Leicester, losing out on the final day of the season — just like they did last season — has to be heartbreaking. Equally though, this is a side that was in the third tier of English football just 12 years ago. Finishing one point from fourth spot after a season where they’ve had to deal with a terrifying spate of injuries — Jamie Vardy and Youri Tielemans are the only Leicester outfield players to have featured in at least 75 percent of their games — is a massive achievement. And that’s before you get into the FA Cup they won (not to mention the Premier League crown five years ago).
In many ways, the Foxes are a model club; the only shame is that missing out on the Champions League makes it a little bit harder to build and progress, but you have to feel confident that the owners aren’t ready to sell the crown jewels just yet. And while we’re at it, those who say Leicester lacked squad depth are simply wrong. Go look at their squad. There’s plenty, but when you have half a dozen guys out seemingly every week, it only goes so far.
Suarez the figurehead for Simeone’s masterpiece, but there’s more to it than that
You don’t have to like Luis Suarez, and there are plenty reasons not to, from the biting (yes, somebody even made a compilation), to the abuse of Patrice Evra, to the fact that he’s being investigated for cheating on a citizenship exam. But it’s hard not to be moved by what we witnessed this season, culminating with the tears and FaceTime with his family on the pitch of the Wanda Metropolitano Saturday.
This was raw emotion. This was as real as it gets. And he played a huge part in it, poking in the late winners against Osasuna and Valladolid that took Atleti to the title. Before that, he had notched 16 goals in the first 17 games of the season, then hitting the skids and scoring just twice from open play in his next 13. Yet that’s spirit of Suarez. He’s relentless and he just keeps going, secure in the belief that either the goals will come, or he’ll leave everything on the pitch pursuing them.
Jurgen Klinsmann says Robert Lewandowski has earned his place alongside Gerd Muller in Bundesliga history.
The backstory — with Barcelona showing him the door in the summer and effectively paying him to leave — is just another layer to this, one that resonates for its narrative richness more than its reality. Hindsight is 20/20 and Barcelona will forever be chastised for letting him go, but the fact is their finances were (and are) a mess, he was costing the club roughly $35 million a season, he was 33 with a year left on his contract and they thought they could bring in somebody else who was young and cheaper.
It wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision at the time; it’s just that, like most of what Barca did, it was executed poorly. And from Suarez’s perspective, it provided plenty of virtual bulletin board material. (As if he needed any extra motivation.)
Read all the latest news and reaction from ESPN FC senior writer Gabriele Marcotti.
He’s the darling of this title win, but it’s worth remembering Diego Simeone’s foot soldiers who got them there, and how, in a stunning first half of the season, they recorded no fewer than 50 points. From Marcos Llorente to Yannick Carrasco, from Stefan Savic to Angel Correa, from Kieran Trippier to Koke, right down to the magnificent Jan Oblak in goal, this is a side that effectively played three seasons in one, like a 10K runner who races to a massive lead, falters and then guts it out on the home stretch.
I said it before: do a combined XI with the 2013-14 title winners and it’s no contest. Oblak vs. Thibaut Courtois is close, and you might take Trippier over Juanfran, possibly one or two others, but that’s it. That was a better side that beat better competition than this one, but this one is no less a masterpiece.
Lille, the unlikeliest champions, pip PSG to the Ligue 1 title
You’ve heard me moan about the creeping polarization and imbalance in the European game. One of the downsides of the twin forces of globalisation and commercialisation that have swept football in the past two decades is that most of the money has flowed to a select group of clubs, and the system — which rewards things like historical merit and size of TV market — has only accelerated the process. As a result, clubs can have objectively bad seasons, where they underachieve relative to their resources, and there’s no real consequence beyond a managerial sacking or two: this year it was Arsenal, Tottenham, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund; next year, it might be somebody else.
Even in England, the epitome of parity and competitiveness (relative to the others), you have situations where the Big Six usually finish in the Top Six, no matter what. It didn’t happen this year — Tottenham were seventh, Arsenal eighth — but no Big Six side has finished lower than eighth since 2008-09. (And that season began before the Abu Dhabi takeover, which means the Big Six was a Big Five).
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That’s why Lille winning Ligue 1, which they did by beating Angers 2-0 on Sunday, ahead of Paris Saint-Germain is a big deal. And it’s an even bigger deal when you consider that the club flirted with insolvency in mid-season — owner Gerard Lopez was forced to sell — and yet somehow remained consistent throughout, taking over first place on Jan. 31 and staying there, sometimes in cohabitation, until the very end.
This is a side with a net positive transfer spend of around $120 million over the past two seasons, a club that triumphed despite losing the likes of Gabriel (Arsenal), Victor Osimhen (Napoli), Thiago Mendes (Lyon), Nicolas Pepe (Arsenal) and Rafael Leao (Milan) since 2019. A team whose top goalscorer, Burak Yilmaz, is a 35-year-old free agent from Turkey who had never played in a “Big 5” league and whose defensive leader, Jose Fonte, is a 37-year-old who arrived from China. But it’s also a team that boasts some of the most coveted young talent around: Jonathan David (21), Boubakary Soumare (22), Sven Botman (21) and Jonathan Ikone (23) will no doubt end up in your transfer talk columns this summer.
It’s not a fairy tale; it’s a success story built on aggressive recruitment (so much so that at times it has raised some eyebrows) and a steady hand on the bench in the form of manager Christophe Galtier. It also shows the lengths clubs outside the elite have to go to in order to compete.
Lewandowski leaves it late to beat Muller’s record, but the pair have plenty in common
Robert Lewandowski had to wait for injury time and a goalkeeper spill to break Gerd Muller’s Bundesliga record. It doesn’t diminish it one jot — Muller did it in 34 games, Lewandowski in 29 — but it does serve as a reminder that great strikers keep going even when it feels as if the opposition goal is cursed. And you’d forgive Lewandowski for feeling that way after spurning several chances in Bayern’s 5-2 romp past Augsburg in their season finale.
As you’d expect, Lewandowski had words of praise for Muller, German football’s greatest-ever goal scorer. There are evident parallels, not least the fact that to hit 40 league goals in a season, you need to be playing on a very, very good side that scores plenty of goals.
When Muller set his record in 1971-72, Bayern won the title winning 24 of 34 games and scoring 101 goals. Lewandowski’s Bayern also won 24 of 34, and ended up with 99 goals. Both had an A-list supporting cast. Muller had Sepp Maier, Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner and Uli Hoeness; Lewandowski has Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich, Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry.
The point here is that in this sport, you need to be on a dominant team to score this many goals. (Though, of course, that may also seem like a tautology: simply having a Muller or a Lewandowski in your team will likely make you dominant). How you score though is another matter. And it’s striking how different these two legendary center-forwards were. Muller was short and stout, with a near-supernatural sense of where the ball was going to go. Lewandowski is tall and athletic, with an engine that never lets up.
What they share is a hunger for goals and trophies.