Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses his likes and dislikes from the soccer world including standout performances, games you might have missed and what to keep an eye on in the coming days.
Erling Haaland, Manchester City and their masterclass
In Nordic culture, long hair was regarded as a symbol of power, so when the hair goes down it’s a message to suggest the end of a warrior’s journey. “My work here is done,” they might say.
And when Haaland let his pony tail down right before scoring Man City’s fourth goal against Arsenal, you knew this game — and most notably this title — was done. Pep Guardiola’s men put on a masterclass against Arsenal at the Etihad on Wednesday with a 4-1 victory and despite the mathematical uncertainty, it’s fair to say that City’s chances of winning their seventh league title — fifth in the last six seasons — are all but set. Not only that but they are also 11 matches away in all competitions from being crowned treble winners as a Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid and an FA Cup final vs. Manchester United await. The match at the Etihad was a clear message to everyone else who is standing in their way, including Madrid and United: this City side is in no mood to slow down.
“Our destiny is in our hands,” said Guardiola after the match. Indeed, and the scary part is that aside their already-formidable squad (John Stones is one of the best center backs in Europe, Jack Grealish is having his best season under City) the combination of Kevin De Bruyne and Haaland creates this perception to the naked eye that there are 15 players on the pitch for City, not 11. That’s how good they are. They cover so much ground and create so many chances that no matter what you throw at them, City — much like the White Walkers from Game of Thrones — just keep coming.
However, it’s important to remember that there is a dark side. This is a club dealing with more than 100 alleged financial breaches over a nine-year period charged by the Premier League, so it’s important to have the whole picture. Guardiola’s City is a sight to behold and there are major controversies off the pitch. You’re allowed to enjoy your delicious, Michelin-star meal. You must also know how it’s made.
Regardless, Manchester City are getting closer to a historic treble, which has only been achieved by their fiercest rivals, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 1999, and that my friends is quite the campaign.
Haaland better buy more hair elastics.
Aston Villa’s renaissance under Unai Emery
You really didn’t think our first Onside/Offside column wasn’t going to include my beloved Aston Villa did you? Good.
This, however, is more than just an ode to the midlands club. It’s a testament to the incredible work being done by Emery and his staff and to simply reiterate what the numbers are already telling us: Aston Villa Football Club are for real.
Tuesday’s 1-0 victory against Fulham propelled the club to fifth place in the table, at least until Thursday’s action when Tottenham Hotspur face Man United, thus continuing their incredible hopes for achieving European football next season. To put things in perspective, and to illustrate this incredible run, the last time Villa played Fulham was in October, which consequently was also former head coach Steven Gerrard’s final match. After that dreary 3-0 loss, Villa were only above the relegation zone based on goals scored and the future seemed bleak.
Fast forward to the present and Emery’s Villans are on a mesmerizing journey. Wednesday marked Villa’s fifth straight home victory without conceding a goal and they have not lost a match since February 10, which was to league-leaders Arsenal. In fact, since Emery’s arrival in November, no Premier League club has earned more victories and only the Gunners have picked up more points than Villa.
What’s less apparent is how the club is doing it, and the simple answer is cohesion. Emery has brought back an identity to Villa and with it, a purpose, on and off the ball. The win against Fulham wasn’t an overwhelming one but it was resilient. After a great first half, Villa dropped offensively in the second as Marco Silva’s Fulham improved significantly.
In other seasons, under other managers, Villa would have surrendered the lead and probably the game. But Villa’s unit is so tight, so focused that even throughout Fulham’s best moments, the home side stood firm. By the final whistle, Villa ended with only one attempt allowed and didn’t let the visitors have one single shot on target.
Emery’s Villa is a prime example of where controlling a game doesn’t mean possession of the ball, but rather absorbing pressure and learning to suffer without it.
Valentín Castellanos nets 4 goals for Girona against Real Madrid
Valentín Castellanos finds the back of the net four times for Girona vs. Real Madrid.
Taty Castellanos’ dream night in Madrid
I think it’s fair to say that Real Madrid are not a team to be messed with. They’re an absolute force, full of scintillating, world-class talent and despite the fact that they’re trailing Barcelona in LaLiga, Los Blancos can punish anyone in a split second.
Well, someone didn’t tell Girona’s Valentín “Taty” Castellanos. On Tuesday night, the Catalan club — about an hour away from Barcelona — hosted the Spanish giants and beat them for the first time in LaLiga since 1947. A jaw-dropping 4-2 result. Castellanos, who arrived on loan from MLS’ New York City Football Club (City Football Group owns both clubs) last summer, scored all four goals.
“It’s a dream night. We played a great game against one of the best teams in the world. I never imagined this,” said the Argentinian attacker after the game.
NYCFC fans are probably not surprised at this performance as Taty also created havoc in MLS, scoring 54 goals in five years in the league. In 2021, when the club won MLS Cup, he won the Golden Boot. But with all due respect to MLS, this is Real Madrid, and to net four past the league and Champions League defending champions is quite the achievement.
He also became the first Argentinian to score four goals past Madrid, so I ask: Was Argentina head coach Lionel Scaloni watching?
Pele immortalized in the dictionary
The legendary Brazilian, the only player — male or female — who has won the World Cup three times and passed away at the age of 82 last December, has always been synonymous with excellence.
Now, it’s official.
The adjective “Pele” has been added to the Portuguese edition of the Michaelis dictionary to describe “someone out of the ordinary” after his foundation launched the “Pele in the dictionary” campaign as a statement of recognizing his incredible legacy. 100,000 signatures were collected and so here we are.
O REI OFICIALMENTE ESTÁ NO DICIONÁRIO! 🤴🏿♾️
Ele é o pelé do Basquete. Ela é a pelé do Tênis. A expressão que já era usada para se referir ao melhor naquilo que faz está eternizada nas páginas do dicionário! Fizemos história e colocamos o nome do Rei do futebol na nossa língua… pic.twitter.com/yQDtrit3mC
— Santos FC (@SantosFC) April 26, 2023
The definition will also be seen in the printed edition of the dictionary. “The Pele campaign in the dictionary is one of the most original we have ever participated in. His name in the dictionary is a very important piece of his legacy that will keep Pele alive forever,” said Joe Fraga, executive director of the Pele Foundation. A wonderful act of respect.
Finally, I can claim to be the Pele of Fettuccine Alfredo home-cooking.
Napoli is getting ready to celebrate
Back in February I wrote about Napoli’s incredible season in the Italian top flight and how their success has been a result of smart decision-making and scouting, great coaching, and team unity but above all else, a continued never-say-die-attitude. Well, Napoli are now one weekend away from securing their first Scudetto in more than 30 years, back when their adopted son Diego Maradona led them to victory.
If Napoli — who are 17 points clear at the top of Serie A with just seven matches left — beat Salernitana on Saturday and Lazio fail to beat Inter Milan the following day, then the title is theirs. Let me tell you, the scenes in Naples will be incredible and if you’re a non-football fan tourist heading that way, just be ready.
Authorities in the city have asked Serie A to move the match to Sunday so it can be simultaneously played alongside Inter/Lazio but that request has not been granted as of now. We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, enjoy this video of Napoli fans following the team bus after their win over Juventus.
The view from Napoli’s team bus at 3am after they landed back in Naples.
They could be crowned Serie A champions next week 🎉
(via anguiss_29/IG) pic.twitter.com/w6CPMzZpjB
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) April 24, 2023
Arsenal, oh Arsenal
Mikel Arteta is a fine manager and Arsenal are a fine team so it’s vital to remember that they’re actually ahead of schedule with their project. Remember, this is the youngest squad in the Premier League with an average age of 23.9 so the fact that they’re still leading the table — albeit by two points with two extra games played — is remarkable. However, if they lose their lead and ultimately the title, it’s partly because of their inexperience.
It wasn’t their loss at Man City this week that probably cost them the title. The real damage occurred in prior matches against Liverpool, West Ham and bottom-of-the-table Southampton. Those three draws were the final nails in their proverbial coffin.
Youth is a wonderful thing but it’s also just one necessity. You need more to win the toughest league in European competition. Not one single Premier League-winning side relied solely on it. Even Man United’s 1995-1996 squad — the one that prompted Alan Hansen to say, “you’ll never win anything with kids,” after losing the opener 3-1 against Aston Villa — had experience. That’s why I started by praising Arsenal, because what’s happening right now is actually ahead of schedule.
The objective to earn Champions League qualification is the ultimate priority, which they’ve achieved by a definite top four finish. Winning the league? That’s just the sweetest cherry on the top. So, yes. I understand the frustration from Arsenal fans. But I think this campaign should be looked at with an optimistic view towards the future.
But yes, I deem this one as “offside” because in the end, Arsenal have only Arsenal to blame if they don’t win the Premier League.
Spurs players refunding fans
After Sunday’s embarrassing 6-1 loss against Newcastle United, Tottenham’s first-team squad announced via the club that they will be collectively refunding the 3,000 traveling supporters who were forced to watch their team’s humiliating display.
You would think that this could be considered as an “Onside” talking point. However, this to me is “Offside” for many reasons. For one, I know a PR move when I see one and as much as I appreciate the players’ sentiment, it’s condescending. Losses happen. Whether they’re last-second-in-stoppage-time defeats or — as we witnessed on Sunday — devastating capitulations, they are an integral and agonizing part of the game. So allow me to ask Spurs owner Daniel Levy something: What happens on Thursday if Spurs don’t beat Man United? Another round of refunds?
Plus, if Tottenham had to pay supporters every time they did a bad performance, they’d be a Sunday League team by now.
Champions League in the U.S.? Perhaps. Champions League final? I hope not.
Earlier this week, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin discussed the possibility of Champions League fixtures in the U.S. “It’s possible,” he said. “We started to discuss about that but then one year it was the World Cup, 24 is Euro, this year [the final] is [in] Istanbul, ’24 is London and ’25 is Munich and after that, let’s see.”
Here are my two cents. In order to maximize the potential of a brand, which in this case is the Champions League, this statement from Ceferin is not a surprising one. Market revenue and the potential benefits of attaining a new, young audience, specifically in a promising market such as the U.S. and North America, show it makes sense to experiment with attendance outside of Europe.
This is exactly what the NFL does. Next season, the league will host a record five games in the old continent (two in Germany and three in England). Given the U.S.’s European community, the right teams could pose a great atmosphere, whether it’s the Meadowlands or SoFi stadium.
However, a couple of things are different when comparing this idea to what the NFL or NBA is doing. For one, there’s the player’s mental and physical health to take into consideration. Traveling across the pond for a Wednesday fixture and then flying back almost immediately in order to be ready for a weekend fixture in their respective leagues sounds daunting.
And when the NFL hosts these games abroad, they are within the regular season, so the only way I can envision this concept is for it to happen during the group stage. A final or even a knockout stage fixture doesn’t make sense to hold outside of Europe. It’s the same reasoning that the NFL would never host the Super Bowl in Europe, equally the ultimate European knockout competition should never have its final anywhere else.
Either way, as a New Yorker, the idea of Napoli in the Meadowlands sounds amazing.
Ronaldo grabs opponent by neck, avoids red card
Cristiano Ronaldo wasn’t sent-off, despite an apparent grab of an opponents neck.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Saudi Arabian journey
Who would have thought that a $75-million-per-year contract wasn’t enough to please Cristiano Ronaldo? I hate to be the guy who says “I told you so” but…*taps mic* “I told you so.”
After spending a ludicrous amount of money on the Portuguese star, Al-Nassr is quickly finding out that money is not everything as their season is not going to plan. The club trails Al-Ittihad for the lead in the Saudi Pro-League by three points but with an extra game played, and on Monday they were knocked out of the Saudi King Cup of Champions (that’s quite a tongue twister) after a 1-0 loss to a 10-man, 13th place Al-Wehda in the semifinals.
38-year-old Ronaldo was seen yelling at his coaching staff at the break. It wasn’t the first time this happened as he was involved in another shouting rant earlier in the month after a draw with Al-Feiha. He was also lucky to escape a red card last week against Al-Hilal after taking down an opponent with a flying headlock. Oh, and the club is managerless after Rudi Garcia was fired after the aforementioned 0-0 draw with Al-Feiha.
Listen, I’m not saying there’s a Ronaldo curse going around — and my colleagues at ESPN (I won’t mention any names but *cough cough* Kay Murray *cough cough*) love to tease me on how I am not his biggest fan — but Juventus were doing just fine in Serie A before he came along. Then, Man United were second in the table until he returned and they ended sixth and now Al-Nassr?
Tweet of the week
It’s not a football tweet but one worth highlighting. After bowing out of the NBA playoffs against Miami, Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo had to answer the inevitable question, “do you consider this season a failure?”
Gianis has gone through a lot. From selling handbags in the streets of Athens to being stateless for his entire childhood. So his answer is wonderful and reflective. His point is for all of us to reconsider the perception of failure.
He’s a very special human.
“There’s no failure in sports. There’s good days, bad days, some days you are able to be successful, some days you are not, some days it is your turn, some days it’s not. That’s what sports is about. You don’t always win.”
Giannis comments on “failure” pic.twitter.com/QxqkuSMP7b
— NBA (@NBA) April 27, 2023