With NFL legend Tom Brady in attendance, Manchester United‘s Cristiano Ronaldo became football’s all-time top scorer. Elsewhere, drama in the Bundesliga and Serie A are providing some title races, but Sevilla‘s LaLiga chances against Real Madrid are shrinking. ESPN’s Mark Ogden, Alex Kirkland, and Bill Connelley wrap up all the big action across Europe.
Toney the top from spot?
Who is the best penalty-taker in world football? Mohamed Salah, Jorginho and even Mario Balotelli, who has missed just five times from 47 career spot-kicks, could all claim to be as reliable as anyone when it comes to beating the keeper from 12 yards.
The Brentford forward has now scored three penalties in less than a week after adding to his two at Norwich in midweek with one in Saturday’s 2-0 win at home to Burnley.
Toney has taken 24 penalties in his career and has missed just once, while playing for Peterborough United in a League One clash with Barnsley in Oct. 2018. Since then, the 25-year-old has taken 19 penalties and scored every single one of them.
His penalty style is slow and deliberate, with Toney watching the goalkeeper until he strikes the ball. It is a technique which continues to work and one that has contributed to five of his 11 Premier League goals so far this season.
Both England and Jamaica are watching Toney, with the Northampton-born striker saying earlier this season that he is undecided about his international allegiance. But whoever he ends up choosing, they will benefit from a potential match-winner in a penalty shoot-out. — Ogden
Race for Bundeliga’s UCL spots in full force
With Borussia Dortmund‘s win over Arminia Bielefeld and more dropped points from Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga race tightened a bit over the weekend: BVB are now back within seven points with a game in hand. That’s technically a race, but it’s not quite close enough to get enthused just yet. The race for the other two Champions League spots, however, couldn’t possibly be any closer.
Bayer Leverkusen lost to Koln, Hoffenheim pulled a draw against Bayern and both Freiburg (in dramatic fashion over Wolfsburg) and RB Leipzig (less so over Greuther Furth) won, so here is how things currently stand for third through sixth place:
3. Bayer Leverkusen: 45 points, +23 GD
4. RB Leipzig: 44 points, +27 GD
5. Freiburg: 44 points, +14 GD
6. Hoffenheim: 44 points, +12 GD
Koln (39 points) and Union Berlin (38) aren’t completely out of the race, but odds are good that two of the four teams above will reach the Champions League. When it comes to recent history, player value, etc., it’s easy to assume that Leverkusen and a smoking hot RBL have the edge, even despite Leverkusen star Florian Wirtz tearing his ACL on Sunday. But neither Freiburg (unbeaten in six matches) nor Hoffenheim (unbeaten in five) are backing down. Better yet, there are still five matches remaining between these four, starting with RB Leipzig’s trip to Hoffenheim on April 10 and ending with Bayer Leverkusen at Freiburg on May 14, the final matchday. — Connelly
Barcelona win title in fitting fashion
They’ve done it with six games to spare and with a truly awesome record: 24 games, 24 wins, 136 goals for and just six against. They’re the kind of freakish stats that have become business as usual for Barca: this is their third league in a row, and a seventh since 2011. The match showed just how far Madrid have to go to build a team to consistently compete with Barcelona for trophies.
The last time the teams met — in January’s Supercopa — Madrid managed to hold out for 90 minutes before the world’s best player, Alexia Putellas, scored in added time. Here they lasted half as long. Two Putellas goals in two minutes before half-time ended it as a contest. A Patri Guijarro rocket, a Babett Peter own goal and a fifth from Jenni Hermoso underlined the gap between the two teams, as if the 31-point margin in the table left any room for doubt.
Madrid have improved under coach Alberto Toril since his appointment in November. They went into this match on a seven-game winning streak and although they’re fifth, their games in hand over those above them mean you wouldn’t bet against a top three finish which would mean European qualification.
Before that, a two-legged Champions League quarterfinal against Barca awaits this month. Sunday’s game saw a record 5,430 attendance at the Johan Cruyff stadium; the Champions League return leg will take place at a sold-out Camp Nou. — Kirkland
Napoli in chase but Milan in driver’s seat
Napoli has taken 21 points from its last 10 league matches following Sunday’s 2-1 victory at Hellas Verona. Victor Osimhen‘s brace gave the Azzurri all three points and pushed them ahead of defending Scudetto winner Inter thanks to the latter’s sloppy 1-1 draw at Torino.
Aside from an ill-timed draw here or there, Napoli haven’t done all that much wrong in the Serie A race. They don’t lead Serie A, however. Those honors go to AC Milan, who took an early lead over Empoli on Saturday thanks to Pierre Kalulu‘s long putback of a deflected free kick. They couldn’t find a second goal despite a solid performance from Olivier Giroud (seven shots, 0.51 xG), but they limited Empoli to only five total shot attempts, two of which were speculative long-distance attempts late in the match. It wasn’t the Rossoneri’s most impressive performance of the season, but avoiding a hangover after last week’s win over Napoli was good enough.
After pulling seven points from recent matches with the rest of the league’s top four (1-0 over Napoli, 2-1 over Inter, 0-0 vs. Juventus), Milan’s late-season slate is awfully friendly if they can keep up a level of form that has seen them lose just one league match since mid-December. A first Scudetto in 11 years is beginning to feel more and more realistic.
Yarmolenko’s goal brings emotion
West Ham manager David Moyes said earlier this month that Yarmolenko had asked for time out of the team in the wake of Russia’s invasion of his home country. Yarmolenko, Moyes said, was “bogged down” by the situation in his homeland and would be supported in any way possible by the club.
So Yarmolenko’s appearance against Villa was significant on its own merit, but scoring a goal and then breaking down in tears in the moments afterwards gave it even more weight and emotion.
It was a stunning goal too, with Yarmolenko turning neatly inside the penalty area before curling his shot into the net from 12 yards.
But it could have been a scruffy tap-in and the reaction would have been no different inside the stadium. — Ogden
Schlotterbeck comes with the heat
Your team has blown a 2-0 halftime lead, and you desperately need three points to keep up in the battle for a Champions League spot. What do you do? If you’re Freiburg’s Nico Schlotterbeck, you let one rip from 20 meters.
Nico Schlotterbeck rips a goal from distance in the 87th minutes, giving Freiburg the 3-2 win.
The centre-back’s 87th-minute screamer was his fourth goal of the season and his second match-winner in the last month, and it kept Freiburg in a top-four dead heat in the Bundesliga. — Connelly
Fidel finishes off exquisite move
But the goal that gave them a 1-0 win at Granada on Saturday was Spain’s best this weekend, and demands your attention. Thirteen seconds and 11 touches were all it took to progress the ball from deep in Elche’s half to the back of the Granada net.
Elche’s Fidel puts one into the side netting to give his side a 1-0 lead over Granada.
Fidel started the play himself when he collected the ball just outside his own box, moved upfield to get involved again with a quick-thinking pass for Pere Milla, before making a lung-bursting run to get on the end of the No. 10’s through ball and finish with composure. It was a sweeping, clinical move in which every single player made the right decision along the way — a team goal worthy of Barcelona, Real Madrid or any other side you care to mention. — Kirkland
Teams in trouble
Atalanta need to right the ship
When striker Duvan Zapata went down with a severe hamstring injury in early February — he is expected to miss the rest of the season — Atalanta were in a dead heat with Juventus for fourth place and what would be a fourth straight appearance in the Champions League. Since then, the club has won just once in Serie A play, taking five points from five matches.
Gian Piero Gasperini’s Nerazzurri were held to a scoreless home draw against Genoa on Sunday, dropping them eight points behind Juve and just two points ahead of eighth-place Fiorentina. They scored four goals on Sampdoria on February 28 and have otherwise scored just twice in their last six Serie A matches. They are still scoring in the Europa League, where they will take a 3-2 lead over Bayer Leverkusen into next week’s second leg in Germany. But unless they plan on winning the Europa League altogether, they need to re-discover their scoring touch back home in Italy, and quickly, if they want to play in Europe again next year. — Connelly
Sevilla slipping in LaLiga race
Sevilla are supposed to be the team best placed to challenge Real Madrid for the LaLiga title but six draws in their last eight league games — albeit with five of them coming away from home — is a long way from title-winning form. Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Rayo Vallecano left them seven points off the leaders, a gap which could grow to ten points by the time Madrid visit Real Mallorca on Monday night.
Manager Julen Lopetegui left Vallecas complaining about the VAR — which ruled out a first-half Rafa Mir goal for handball and later overturned a penalty award — and the state of the pitch, but Sevilla really had no-one to blame but themselves for a display that saw them create far too little danger until it was much too late. Sevilla would be wise to forget about any remaining title aspirations and instead look over their shoulders at the teams desperate to overtake them in the race to finish second.
Atletico Madrid and Barcelona lead the chasing pack — both in form and just five points behind — with Real Betis two points further back. If Sevilla don’t start turning these draws into wins soon, they’ll be battling to hang onto a place in the top four. — Kirkland
Ronaldo responds with Brady-worthy outing
Cristiano Ronaldo has always possessed an incredible ability to write his own scripts, so was it really any surprise that, following a week of headlines questioning his future at Manchester United, the 37-year-old responded to the off-field noise by scoring a hat-trick in the 3-2 win against Tottenham?
It was Ronaldo’s first United hat-trick since 2008, during his first spell at the club, and came on a day when FIFA confirmed him to be football’s all-time highest goalscorer. And yes, he also did it on the day that NFL legend Tom Brady watched from the Old Trafford directors’ box. It was almost as though Ronaldo put on a personal show for one of the very few sports stars who could claim to be in the same stratosphere as the Portugal captain.
Remarkably, Ronaldo even scooped the rest of the world by a day, quizzing Brady over his future a full 24 hours before the 44-year-old confirmed that he was returning to the Buccaneers for his 23rd season in the NFL.
Ronaldo knew about Brady before us 👀 pic.twitter.com/8dxeFu5MhN
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 13, 2022
Meanwhile, the question marks over Ronaldo’s own future haven’t, and won’t, go away until we learn the identity of the club’s new permanent manager, but Saturday’s performance against Spurs proved that the final decision will be his.
Ronaldo has blown hot and cold in recent weeks, but Spurs will attest to his enduring quality. His first goal was a long-range stunner, not too dissimilar from one he scored for United against Porto in 2009, while the second was the kind of poacher’s finish that have accounted for many of his 800-plus career goals.
In many ways, Fred was United’s best player on Saturday, with the Brazil midfielder producing his best performance in a red shirt, but goals win games and steal the headlines and nobody is better than Ronaldo at doing both. — Ogden