With all the attention being paid to the football in Las Vegas this weekend, the other football across Europe’s top five leagues was jam-packed with numerous huge matches that could decide titles and also paint a picture to see how teams will prepare in the European competitions with the UEFA Champions League and Europa League returning after this weekend.
In Spain, we saw Real Madrid bring surprise packages Girona back to earth with a 4-0 thumping at the Santiago Bernabeu. Meanwhile in Germany, we saw Bayer Leverkusen continued their unbeaten run at the top of the Bundesliga following an impressive 3-0 win over Bayern Munich, and in France, Paris Saint-Germain defeated Lille 3-1 to continue top of Ligue 1.
Here’s what else you missed in European soccer this weekend.
The lead: Real Madrid thrash Girona to send a message in LaLiga title race
Jude Bellingham didn’t quite last an hour at the Bernabeu, but that was more than enough. By the time the midfielder limped off with an ankle problem on 57 minutes, Real Madrid were 3-0 up against title rivals Girona. Bellingham had scored two of them, taking his tally for the season to 20 goals. The game was over, and maybe the LaLiga title race was, too.
The match billed as a title decider between the league’s two best teams finished Real Madrid 4-0 Girona. Brazilians Vinícius Júnior — who was outstanding — and Rodrygo opened and completed the scoring, either side of Bellingham’s brace. It was a statement win for Madrid, one that said: “Is this all you’ve got?” Right now, in this league, no other team comes close. Not even Girona.
Real Madrid now have a five-point lead at the top of the LaLiga table. There are still 14 games left to play, and plenty of room for more twists along the way. But after such a comprehensive win over their closest rivals — Girona couldn’t manage a single shot on target in 90 minutes — the feeling walking away from the Bernabeu was that only one team can win LaLiga this season.
Madrid led from the sixth minute, Vini putting them ahead with an out-of-nowhere, curling shot. On 35 minutes, Bellingham made it 2-0, Vinicius the provider this time, Bellingham rounding goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga and finishing from a tight angle. Any hope of a second-half fight from Girona was extinguished on 54 minutes, Bellingham scoring from close range after Vinicius’ run. By then, the England midfielder was already feeling his ankle and was substituted not long afterwards. Four minutes later, Rodrygo made it 4-0, as Girona fell apart. There was even time for Joselu to miss a late penalty, hitting the post.
Madrid’s comfort was all the more surprising given that they went into this game without a single fit centre-back after Antonio Rüdiger joined Nacho, David Alaba, and Éder Militão on the sidelines. An improvised partnership of Dani Carvajal and Aurélien Tchouaméni was never tested. Bellingham’s ankle is a major concern ahead of Madrid’s Champions League Round of 16 first leg away at RB Leipzig on Tuesday, and so is that scarcity of defensive cover. But in terms of LaLiga, it’s now Madrid’s title to lose. — Alex Kirkland
Saturday talking points around the leagues
Leverkusen distance Bayern with decisive win on a tumultuous day in the Bundesliga
On yet another Bundesliga matchday filled with fan protests, Bayer Leverkusen manifested their status as the current top dogs of the league by beating Bayern Munich 3-0. The kickoff of the highly anticipated clash was postponed only a few hours after the game between Union Berlin and VfL Wolfsburg encountered a lengthy interruption, as fans across Germany continued to demonstrate their opposition against negotiations between the German Football League (DFL) and potential outside investors.
As for the game at Leverkusen’s BayArena itself, Xabi Alonso and Thomas Tuchel, the two managers, underlined how much respect they had for one another by both deviating from their usual tactical formation, with Leverkusen playing a back four instead of a back three and Bayern switching from a back four to a back five.
While Bayern, who were two points behind Leverkusen going into the game, looked like they could impose their will on the hosts early on, Tuchel’s side seemed unable to maintain control of the affair after the first quarter hour, as Leverkusen took over and, for stretches of the game, dominated Bayern, which had not happened to the record champions in quite some time.
How Xabi Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen broke Bayern Munich
Alejandro Moreno breaks down how Xabi Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen were able to outplay a deflated Bayern Munich side.
In a typical football moment, Josip Stanisic, who currently plays for Leverkusen on loan from Bayern, scored the go-ahead goal in the 18th minute. The guests were unable to stop a quick attacking play by Alonso’s side and Sacha Boey, the recently signed full-back, acted indecisively in his attempt to mark Stanisic.
Anyone who expected Bayern to respond to such an early setback in vigorous fashion was probably disappointed because Leverkusen kept the game mostly under control moving forward, as Tuchel scrambled to find ideas to inject more life into his team. In the end, Leverkusen, who had previously won three games thanks to last-second goals and appeared to be running out of gas a bit, were simply the better team, even without a few of their usual starters.
Alonso and his players have just laid the groundwork for dethroning Bayern in the Bundesliga for the first time since 2013. — Constantin Eckner
PSG’s B team does the job against Lille
Four days before PSG’s Champions League last 16 first leg against Real Sociedad at the Parc des Princes, manager Luis Enrique decided to rotate his team heavily to face Lille in Ligue 1. No Kylian Mbappé, Bradley Barcola, Marquinhos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Vitinha, or Warren Zaïre-Emery in the starting lineup as they were all rested before Wednesday’s clash. It was a risk considering that the northern side, who were fourth in the table before the game, have been one of the best teams in France this season. And PSG only got a point in the reverse fixture a few weeks ago. But the Spaniard will be delighted by the performance of the usual subs.
Not only did the Parisians secure a solid 3-1 win despite going a goal down just six minutes after Yusuf Yaziçi shocked the league leaders, but the players who needed to make a difference did so. Gonçalo Ramos and Randal Kolo Muani have both been struggling since joining in the summer from Benfica and Eintracht Frankfurt in big-money moves but they scored a goal each against Lille. Fabián Ruiz was efficient, Danilo Pereira was solid at the back, and Keylor Navas in goal, shockingly in his first league start since May 2022, did what he had to do with two saves on three shots on target.
There is still some vulnerability in this PSG team and, if it continues, it will be a real issue against top teams, domestically and in Europe. The ease with which Lille scored their goal, so early on as well, was quite baffling. Even if the Parisians’ press was quite efficient and at times forced Lille into making mistakes, like on the equaliser, it still feels like they don’t control much at times when they don’t have the ball. Lille could not take advantage despite having 50% possession while PSG will be delighted that, despite playing such a weakened side, they still managed to beat a really good team and now have an 11 points lead at the top of the table before Nice‘s clash with Monaco on Sunday in the Mediterranean derby. — Julien Laurens
Americans abroad: Cardoso and Ream stand out in Europe
Beginning on Friday, we saw some USMNT impact made in Spain as Real Betis snatched a 2-0 win over Cádiz, but the main talking point was from Johnny Cardoso who was able to find the space to play the ball from the right to Willian José to score the opening goal for Manuel Pellegrini’s side and are currently in sixth place occupying the final Europa Conference League spot with 38 points, one point ahead of seventh place Real Sociedad. It might be a long way to go before we are certain if Betis will play in European competitions, but hopefully, we will see more USMNT players being involved next season.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Fulham were able to snatch their first Premier League win of 2024 after defeating Bournemouth 3-1 with Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson in the heart of the defense, starting and playing all 90 minutes for Marco Silva’s side. They were able to leapfrog the Cherries to 12th place, only two points from the team above them at the minute, their west London rivals Chelsea. They will look to continue their charge up the league table and hopefully put themselves in a position to go into the top half, without the fear of getting into a relegation race. — Roberto Rojas
News of the day
After winning the Asian Cup in a 3-1 win over Jordan, Qatar‘s hat trick hero Akram Afif says he’d be open to playing in Europe again but that his decision is not his own. “Moving to Europe is something all players want but this is a decision which has to be made with great consideration,” he said post-final, speaking through a translator. “It’s not me who decides. My wife also has to make the decision with me, it’s not easy to leave the club and country.”
And finally, on Saturday …
Despite Cardoso, Ream, and Robinson impressing in Europe so far this weekend, there was more sad news for the USMNT players abroad as West Brom’s Daryl Dike was carted off the pitch in tears following a foot injury in his team’s 2-2 draw against Ipswich Town.
The 24-year-old has continued to struggle with injuries since joining West Brom, as he has played just four times in the Championship this season after tearing his Achilles back in April of last year. Now, he only lasted 10 minutes coming off the bench on Saturday before going down hurt, visibly distraught as he left the pitch.
West Brom manager Carlos Corberan said the club will wait for scans before discussing the severity of Dike’s latest injury. “The injury is to the left foot, the same place as his Achilles injury,” Corberan said post-match. “We don’t know if it is as serious as the previous injury.”