This article profiles six winners and losers of this weekend of world football action.
With the season coming to a close, the drama and the excitement is often being taken to another level in many leagues across the world. Another collection of top-class encounters made for an engrossing week of competition; naturally, great highs are accompanied by crushing lows, and for every glorious moment, there is often an even more glorious failure.
In truth, a clutch of exciting results made losers and winners of teams right across the globe over the last few days, and there are any number of sides that could have featured in this list. I haven’t included Alex Frei’s retirement goal, an impressive victory for a Diego Forlan-inspired Internacional or a 5-0 rout of Granada by Atletico Madrid, for example—all of which could have easily been featured here.
Read on to discover my big winners and losers of the weekend’s action…
For the best atmosphere, the best spectacle and, arguably, the best result of the weekend, look no further to the northeast, and to Sunderland, where new boss Paolo Di Canio’s regime is looking very exciting indeed.
Rarely this season have Sunderland looked anywhere near as effective as they did against local rivals Newcastle on Sunday. Rarely have they shown such zip and confidence, as well as such endeavour and desire.
Clearly the Italian is working wonders with the players’ self-belief and confidence, and they also displayed a resolve that had often been lacking under Martin O’Neill, weathering the storm, defending resolutely in the face of Newcastle pressure and making the most of the lucky breaks that came their way.
This is perhaps even more impressive considering the absence of club captain and resident ‘spoiler’ Lee Cattermole!
While a 3-0 is always a pleasure and while a victory away in the home of your fierce, local rivals is a treat as delightful as almost any other, the broader context of Sunderland’s relegation struggles made this an invaluable afternoon on Tyneside.
Few among the delirious Black Cats contingent at St James Park entertained any notion of a departure from the EPL come the final whistle of one of the Premier League’s most engrossing encounters this year.
No one was smiling in Milan this evening. Faces in the streets, in churches, and in the coffee bars and restaurants of this welcoming city were of pallor and dismay. Things rarely look this unconvincing for both of the two proud sides that call Milan their home.
Internazionale were the big losers of the pair; their fourth defeat in only five league games came at the hands of Cagliari. Mauricio Pinilla won a penalty midway into the second half and confidently dispatched it—further heaping pressure on Andrea Stramaccioni and his injury-ravaged side.
Sadly, they were unable to rise above this setback, and the Islanders doubled their lead as the Chilean struck once again. Once again, defeat has prompted a flurry of frustration and excuses from the blue and black half of the city, and the fallen giants fell to seventh position. The Champions League looks like a distant dream.
It isn’t that much more guaranteed for their neighbours either. The Rossoneri laboured to another draw, this time against second-place Napoli.
While the point suits the Naples side—who hold a firm grasp on second place—it must count as a missed opportunity for Milan. They remain in third place and look unlikely to snatch the automatic CL qualification position from their weekend opponents.
A place in the playoffs looks much more likely, and this is not a challenge that will be relished by Berlusconi and Co.
Former Arsenal midfielder Mathieu Flamini compounded the city’s woe by picking up a straight red for a lunge on Juan Zuniga. It was a mixed occasion for the Frenchman, who also opened the scoring in the 1-1 draw.
The relentless dominance of the ‘Big Two’ teams of Spanish football may have become mundane for some, but there is still something hugely admirable about the ease with which Barcelona and Real Madrid dispense of some of their competition.
The domestic league may be a formality now, but these two are clearly still keen to flex their muscles ahead of crunch Champions League semifinals against German duo Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
Any Germans watching this weekend may well have felt a chill of fear as La Liga’s giants demonstrated varying qualities.
League holders Real Madrid dispatched Athletic, 3-0, with Cristiano Ronaldo in blistering form. The Portuguese superstar scored a brace and demonstrated his array of skills with a powerful header and a delicious free-kick.
Barcelona registered the same scoreline against Real Zaragoza, but their victory held a very different merit. Beyond one player stealing the limelight and demonstrating his indisputable prowess, the Catalonians’ display was evidence of the strength in depth at the club, despite an infamously small squad.
Cristian Tello stepped up to the plate with two goals, and an opener from Thiago Alcantara set the tone, even in the absence of Messi, Iniesta, Pique, et al.
North London giants Tottenham Hotspur may not have played this weekend, but the terrific revival of their local rivals and all-round nemesis Arsenal has capped off a dreadful week in the existence of this iconic club.
With the Gunners struggling against Norwich and behind to a Michael Turner goal, it looked like Christmas was coming early at White Hart Lane. An unlikely victory for the Canaries would have given Spurs a two-point cushion over their neighbours in the fierce race for a top-four spot.
Unfortunately, unlikely is the word, and Arsenal made the most of their game in hand—a late rally managing to secure all three points as the East Anglians crumbled and succumbed to the Arsenal onslaught.
First Mikel Arteta scored from the penalty spot, then Oliver Giroud and Sebastien Bassong combined to push Arsenal ahead, before Lukas Podolski completed a mesmeric six minutes.
While the Canaries left the Emirates deflated and aghast, imagine the communal frown to have fallen upon Spurs and their fans.
It is imperative that Tottenham pick themselves up from their recent European exit, take their rest, revive their spirits and return to the domestic cauldron primed for the fight of their lives. There is certainly everything still to play for, but results like this don’t help shake the perception that no team knows how to throw away a good thing quite like those famous Lilywhites.
Marseille and France stopper Steve Mandanda was the star of the weekend in Ligue 1, as OM demonstrated resolve and character to scrape a 0-0 draw with Lille. Even though recent league champions Lille hammered away at the door throughout the contest, Mandanda and his defence held firm and secured a valuable point.
Two decades ago, this kind of result would have been a major disappointment for Marseille fans, but these are different times, and the side are harbouring more modest ambitions in light of the influx of money and talent at fierce rivals PSG.
In the decade before the Qataris decided to take their sporting and branding aspirations to the capital, Olympique Lyonnais were France’s dominant side. They have stumbled around in recent seasons, however, and have fallen far from the European high table.
Victory against Toulouse this weekend not only ended a slump which included a spell of three games without a point, but it also sent them above their local enemies Saint Etienne.
The race for the Champions League is sure to be just as fierce in France as it is in England, and their recent victory have put Lyon firmly in the hunt.
Stoke just can’t get it right at the moment, can they?
Before our eyes, the discourse at the Britannia Stadium has shifted from ‘Can Tony Pulis ever do anything more than keep us in mid-table?’ to ‘Can Tony Pulis possibly do anything to halt our seemingly inevitable slide back down into the Championship?’
The origin of this recent fear isn’t hard to identify; in 2013, Stoke have won just one Premier League game—at home to Reading in early February. It just isn’t enough, and their run of seven games without victory is beginning to tell in the table.
Their latest defeat, to league leaders Manchester United, has left them in 16th place, only three points ahead of Wigan in 18th who—unfortunately for the Potters—have two games in hand. Also beneath them are a resurgent Aston Villa, keeping the pressure on and leaving Tony Pulis and his boys very little scope for their sustained malaise.
Pulis knows he is in the midst of a dogfight to stay in the division, and their remaining five games (against QPR, Norwich, Sunderland, Spurs and Southampton) look set to loom large in his legacy. The side need to find their ferociousness and their power once again and, almost as importantly, find some goals.