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Emery’s Aston Villa surge, Dortmund sunk again

Emery's Aston Villa surge, Dortmund sunk again


Another weekend of European football is in the books and plenty of action to sink our teeth into. Aston Villa are making a late-season surge for a Champions League spot, Borussia Dortmund slipped up once more, and PSG are marching onto another league title despite bad form.

Elsewhere, Inaki Williams ensured Athletic Club took Basque derby honors and John Stones is the latest and unlikeliest Manchester City star finding the back of the net.

ESPN correspondents Rob Dawson, Julien Laurens, Alex Kirkland, Mark Ogden and James Tyler break down the most interesting and important stuff you need to know about the weekend.


Talking points

Emery finally getting credit in English game

Unai Emery is one of Europe’s great coaches, but his unsuccessful 18-month stint in charge of Arsenal had cast the Spaniard unfairly as a figure of fun in English football. No one is laughing at him now, though, with his Aston Villa side threatening to make a late charge for a shock Champions League qualification spot.

As the man hired to succeed Arsene Wenger at the Emirates, Emery was perhaps always destined to fall short due to having to rebuild a squad and a club that had been in decline for the best part of a decade.

He was arguably the right manager at the wrong time and attempted to change things too quickly, but having been bold enough to hand debuts to the the likes of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Emile Smith Rowe, he laid the foundations on which Mikel Arteta has built a title-challenging team.

Having rebuilt his reputation in Spain with Villarreal, where he won the Europa League for a record fourth time, Emery is now tearing it up at Aston Villa having been appointed as manager last October, replacing the sacked Steven Gerrard with the team just three points above the Premier League relegation zone.

Since suffering a 4-2 defeat at home to Arsenal on Feb. 18, Villa have won seven and drawn one of their eight league games, culminating in Saturday’s 3-0 victory against Newcastle and are now in such form that a top four finish is not out of the question.

With games against top four rivals Manchester United and Tottenham still to come in their final seven fixtures, Villa are just six points behind fourth spot and have players such as Ollie Watkins and Jacob Ramsey in top form.

Their transformation under Emery has been remarkable, but then maybe it isn’t. His track record deserves the utmost respect — respect he hasn’t always had in England — and he is showing just how good he is at Villa Park. — Mark Ogden

Why can’t Dortmund just have a normal game?

There are definitely still some twists and turns remaining when it comes to the Bundesliga title race, but Borussia Dortmund really did pick a bad time to have one of those meltdowns they’ve been known for in recent years. Form is temporary and the only permanent thing in life is change itself, but Bayern’s 1-1 draw opened the door for BVB to climb back to being level on points… and they just couldn’t do it.

What might be the most painful way to draw? How about being 2-0 up after 76 minutes and 3-2 up with three minutes of stoppage time left? That might fit the bill, right? And against a struggling Stuttgart side that’s perched precariously above the relegation zone, winning just one league game since mid-February, that’s exactly what happened. Dortmund conceded as casually as they scored, with two goals in seven minutes — both involving Donyell Malen, who had a goal and an assist for Sebastian Haller — wiped out by two goals in six minutes near the end of the second half.

First, a rather benign Tanguy Coulibaly shot was deflected in thanks to Emre Can, before a failure to clear a header in the box gave defender Joshua Vagnoman a chance to thunder it into the roof of the net. (Being a former Schalke 04 player probably made it a little sweeter, I’d bet.) And even after Giovanni Reyna did the unthinkable — scoring a lovely goal after coming on as a late sub, something I thought he wasn’t supposed to do — Dortmund folded cheaply with virtually the last kick of the game. Sub defender Soumaila Coulibaly inexplicably failed to clear a gentle cross into the box, the ball sitting up nicely for Silas Mvumba to finish.

And so the table remains where it was prior to the weekend, and with time running out for Dortmund to add one more twist to an enchanting season. — James Tyler

Williams finds scorer’s touch in Basque derby win

Inaki Williams is many things: one of LaLiga‘s fastest players, a charismatic, thoughtful role model, and older brother to rising star Nico Williams. But he hasn’t often looked like a goalscorer. Which, when you’re first choice centre-forward for Basque giants Athletic Club, is a bit of a problem.

Williams’ highest tally for a league season was 13 goals in 2018-19, but that was the only time he’s reached double figures. His finishing has been frustratingly inconsistent, the one glaring weakness preventing him from developing into an elite player.

But if you caught Athletic’s 2-0 Basque derby win over Real Sociedad on Saturday — and especially Williams’ second goal, in the 70th minute — you might be wondering if we’re talking about the same player. The Ghana international expertly chested down Raul Garcia‘s crossfield ball, confidently took on defender Robin Le Normand and nonchalantly blasted an unstoppable shot past goalkeeper Alex Remiro.

This *was* the finish of a goalscorer. And it was Williams’ second goal of the game, his fourth in 11 days. It might not last, but while it does, it’s good news for Athletic. Reliable goalscorers are gold dust, and even more so when your proud philosophy restricts you to signing players born or raised in the Basque Country.

Athletic haven’t done too badly despite that self-imposed limitation — think Aritz Aduriz or Fernando Llorente leading the line in the last decade — and right now, Williams’ form looks like it could help them secure European football for next season. — Alex Kirkland

PSG on way to another title despite struggles

It was 1st vs. 2nd this weekend in Ligue 1. Paris Saint-Germain hosted Lens after a week of turmoil for their manager Christophe Galtier, accused of racism and with only a six-point cushion over the northern side. A third home league defeat in a row for PSG, after Rennes and Lyon, and they would see Lens c just three points behind them, with all the momentum and a lot of suspense.

Alas for the neutrals and the Lens fans, there will not be any suspense. Lens started very well, PSG struggled to beat their press and to deal with their intensity. But Salis Abdul Samed, the Lens midfielder, got himself sent off after 19 minutes for a pointless foul on Archaf Hakimi and offered the win to the Parisians. Just like that, the Ligue 1 leaders were 3-0 up twenty minutes later!

Kylian Mbappe, who was goaless in his last three club matches, scored a lovely opener before Vitniha made it two and before the French gave the assist of the weekend to Lionel Messi with a left foot back heel.

However, this PSG team is never in control. They don’t press and don’t move the ball well enough for that. Lens had chances in the second half, even with 10 men, while the defending champs were falling asleep. Nevertheless, it finished 3-1 and PSG are heading towards their 11th French title, which would be a record. Mbappe scored his 139th Ligue 1 goal, the highest in the league for a PSG player, another record for him. — Julien Laurens


Goals

Stones getting in on the scoring party at City

You know things are going well when your centre-back is scoring weaker foot volleys from outside the box. John Stones seemed a little surprised after his opening goal against Leicester but it was just more evidence of a player and a team full of confidence. Manchester City have won 10 in a row in all competitions and are still chasing a Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup treble.

Stones, whether at centre-back, right-back or in the midfield, has been a key part of City’s impressive run with his stunning strike against Leicester coming just days after his man-of-the-match performance in the 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League on Tuesday – Rob Dawson

Forgotten man Jésé nets a rare goal

Sampdoria need a miracle to stay in Serie A next season as they are 10 points behind the first team outside of the bottom three. But their fans must have thought that anything was still possible considering who was their saviour against Lecce on Sunday.

Jésé Rodriguez, the former Real Madrid talent (94 games, 18 goals), who won the Champions League and la liga with them and since then lost his way totally, scored his first league goal of the season to get a point late in the game!

The Spaniard, 30, had seven clubs in the last five years (PSG, Stoke, Betis, Las Palmas, Sporting, Ankaragucu and Sampdoria) after his loan in PSG didn’t work out and turned into a nightmare. At times, he looked like he couldn’t be bothered anymore with his football career so it was good to see him dink the ball over the Lecce keeper and celebrate. He looked happy, which has not happened to him much in these last few years. — Laurens


Teams in trouble

Hertha look finished after Schalke shocker

Friday’s trip to Schalke was every bit the proverbial “relegation six-pointer” for an embattled Hertha Berlin side that has picked up just seven points from a possible 39 since the winter break. Guess what happened, then? That’s right: Schalke raced to 2-0 (inside 13 minutes) and 3-1 leads (in the 38th minute), running out 5-2 winners over Sandro Schwarz’s struggling side and compounding their malaise.

It’s hard to see Hertha getting out of this mess, especially with trips to Bayern, Koln and Wolfsburg in their remaining six league games, but they shouldn’t give up. They do host Stuttgart and Bochum — who are 16th and 15th respectively – and those games are must-wins. With just four points separating dead last from safety, it’s not impossible. — Tyler

Valencia are teetering on relegation disaster

Valencia‘s 2-0 home defeat to fellow strugglers Sevilla on Sunday saw them end yet another weekend in the bottom three, in another step towards what would be just the second relegation in the club’s illustrious history.

One of LaLiga’s true giants — fourth in the all-time points table, league winners just 19 years ago, and a top four side playing Champions League football as recently as 2019 — systemic mismanagement and year-on-year weakening of the first-team squad have made relegation the logical, unwelcome next step for Valencia. Club legend Ruben Baraja hasn’t been able to stop the slide as coach, and if something doesn’t change, fast, their imposing Mestalla stadium will be hosting Second Division football next season.

“We knew how important this game was,” captain Jose Luis Gaya said after this latest loss. “But if anyone thinks that we’ll give up, we won’t. Today hurts, but we’ll pick ourselves back up.” They have nine games left to do so. — Kirkland


Weekend MVP

Watkins is why Villa can think of European return

Aston Villa are heading for Europe and Ollie Watkins is leading the charge. Unai Emery’s side have won their last five games to rise to sixth in the Premier League table; a run of form which has been built on Watkins’ goals. He scored twice in the 3-0 win over Newcastle on Saturday to make it five goals in his last four games.

Of his 14 Premier League goals this season — already matching his best tally — 12 have come since the World Cup with 11 of those coming in his last 12 games. It will mean even more to Watkins that his double against Newcastle was seen live at Villa Park by England manager Gareth Southgate. The 27-year-old has scored twice in seven games for England since making his debut in 2021 but he didn’t go to Qatar and was left out of the squad for games against Italy and Ukraine in March.

Southgate, though, will have been impressed by his performance against Newcastle and if he was picking a squad now for June games against Malta and North Macedonia, the former Exeter and Brentford striker would have to be in it. Along with Erling Haaland, Watkins is the most in-form striker in the league and a few more goals between now and the end of the season will help clinch Aston Villa a place in Europe and a place in the England squad for himself – Dawson





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