After another action-packed weekend in soccer, Gab Marcotti reflects on the big talking points in his latest edition of Monday Musings.
Bayern wrap up turbulent season with another league title
There was no drama on the final day of the 2018-19 Bundesliga season. Bayern won and did it emphatically, beating up Eintracht Frankfurt, 5-1, to win their seventh straight title. Despite being 90 minutes away from a Double -- they play Leipzig in the German Cup final next weekend -- Niko Kovac's job is on the line.
The fact that he said "I'm convinced I'm staying" rather than simply "I'm staying" speaks volumes here, and if you followed Bayern's season, you'll know why.
- Honigstein: Can Bayern ever replace Robben, Ribery?
This is a team that was nine points back from Borussia Dortmund in December. And rather than putting together an inspired comeback, the narrative of the campaign has been more about taking advantage of their rivals' stumbles (and there have been many). In Kovac's case, it was also about less-than-inspired football -- the ghost of Pep Guardiola still haunts the Allianz Arena -- and occasionally stormy relations with a number of first-team players.
Saturday also marked the goodbye for three men who have marked Bayern's recent history: Rafinha, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery after a combined 30 seasons at the club. Robben and Ribery in particular ought to be singled out. It's easy to forget that both started and made their name as traditional wingers, only to evolve into something different and more modern, during the Guardiola era. It's one thing for young players to adapt to a new boss, quite another for two veterans pushing 30 to reinvent themselves and make a radically different change. That's a credit to their professionalism and the environment that existed at the club.
There are big decisions ahead for Bayern even if Kovac ends up staying, but the lasting legacy of this season ought to be a warning shot across their bow: this title is more about your opposition's flaws than your own merits. Fix things or watch someone else win next season.
Praise for Vincent Kompany
How much will Man City miss Vincent Kompany?
Ale Moreno and Shaka Hislop discuss the void Vincent Kompany leaves behind at Man City following his decision to become a player-manager at Anderlecht.
Watford failed to put up much of a fight in the FA Cup final as Manchester City romped to a 6-0 win, matching a record for margin of victory that stood since 1903 when Bury defeated Derby County. The win seals City's domestic Treble and yes, they probably are the greatest English side in the Premier League era, although they certainly did not need Saturday's win to prove it.
In some ways, the day was all about Vincent Kompany, who announced his departure to join Anderlecht, the club where he grew up, in a player-manager role. Kompany, of course, may be City's greatest-ever captain and the way he stormed back into the starting line up after three injury-riddled seasons, scoring the key goal at Leicester in the most improbable way only cements his place in history. (The fact that by shooting from 30 yards out, he chose not to follow the standard Guardiola instruction for a center-back in that position -- play it out to the wings -- also shows what a leader is: someone who knows when to follow orders and when to trust his gut.)
Anybody who has met Kompany will tell you he is precisely the sort of charismatic, intelligent and empathetic individual who is bound to do something important in football upon retirement -- if he so chooses. The fact that he opted to return home when, you'd imagine, City were willing to roll out the red carpet for him and groom him as a future coach or club executive -- as they did with Patrick Vieira and wanted to do with Frank Lampard -- as well as giving him the option of another season on the pitch, says plenty about him.
He's been a tremendous servant to City, but the Etihad is not reality. It's an extreme situation, with a unique set-up and manager. If he wants to learn the ropes, he needs to dig in further down the food chain. The fact that he can do it at the (other) club he loves is a bonus.
A big summer ahead for Real Madrid and Gareth Bale
How to fix the Gareth Bale dilemma at Real Madrid
ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti shares his best solution for both Real Madrid and Gareth Bale to part ways following his underwhelming season.
Real Madrid's season finished with a whimper, beaten 2-0 at home by Betis in Quique Setien's final game in charge of Betis. It was their 18th defeat of the season, their 12th in La Liga. It also marks arguably their worst campaign in more than two decades, and while the arrivals of Eder Militao and Luka Jovic may inject new life in the side next season, Sunday also offered a reminder of how they can't just flip a switch, blow up the team and start over.
After two straight weeks where he was fit but wasn't even called up to the match day squad, Gareth Bale made the substitutes' bench against Betis. He was an unused sub as Zinedine Zidane sent on Marco Asensio, Isco and Lucas Vazquez instead. Cameras pictured him laughing on the bench with Toni Kroos. At the final whistle, he disappeared down the tunnel while his teammates gathered to salute the fans: few got resounding cheers, other than Keylor Navas, who is leaving.
Bale is one of the five highest-paid players in the world, with a salary of more than $30 million a year. While his output, when prorated over minutes on the pitch, has actually been relatively steady, at least statistically, he no longer fits into the club's plans. They have Vinicius Junior, Asensio, Lucas Vazquez, Brahim Diaz and they hope to sign Eden Hazard. It's seemingly an open secret that they'd love to sell him.
Except Bale's contract runs through 2022, on the eve of his 33rd birthday. And the reality is that very few clubs can afford those wages and those who do maybe don't want or need Bale. Certainly not at that salary, anyway, and not if they also need to pay a transfer fee however small. Bale doesn't want to go on loan, and as far as we know, he won't take a pay cut either.
That's his prerogative, of course. If he's willing to sit and wait for Zidane to change his mind about him or for a new manager to take over, that's his choice. But he shouldn't be surprised if people don't understand how a guy who likely has close to $100 million in the bank is unwilling to take a pay cut in order to play. His pride may be wounded, sure, but in a couple seasons, his body won't allow him to play the game at all. And he'll never get that opportunity back.
Here's hoping he takes a leaf out of the Arjen Robben play book, swallows his pride, cuts his salary -- in the short term, at least, in the long-term it might extend his shelf-life and the money he earns -- and relaunches his career elsewhere.
I don't want Bale's Real Madrid tenure to end the way Jack Rodwell's did in Sunderland. I refuse to believe the fire has gone out and that this really is all about golf.
Serie A's top-four race goes to final weekend
Who will lay claim to the final UCL spots in Serie A?
The FC crew have their say on who among Atalanta, Inter, Roma, or Milan will be celebrating Champions League football qualification next weekend.
Serie A is going down to the wire in the battle for the final two Champions League spots after the weekend's matches which saw Roma draw away to Sassuolo (0-0), Inter get thumped at Napoli, Milan overcome Frosinone (2-0, after Gianluigi Donnarumma saved a penalty with the game scoreless) and Atalanta concede a late equaliser away to Juventus (1-1).
The first obvious point to make is that the old trope whereby late-season Serie A games yield "weird" results as teams that don't need points happily gift them to the opposition is out the window. Napoli had nothing to play for and neither did Sassuolo. Juventus stormed back in the second half after a horrendous first 45 minutes. And sure, you can say that they didn't want to spoil the postgame scudetto party but equally, quite a few of their fans wouldn't have minded seeing Atalanta knock one of the Milanese clubs out of the Champions League places.
Atalanta -- home to Sassuolo in theory but in practice away to Sassuolo, since Atalanta's stadium is closed for renovations -- and Inter (home to Empoli) control their own destinies. A win guarantees a place in the Champions League. Milan (away to SPAL) need to win and hope that Inter or Atalanta draw or Milan can draw if Atalanta lose since the head-to-head tiebreaker favours the rossoneri. There's also a scenario where Roma can qualify, but it would require three different results to go their way, and they'd need a massive swing in goal difference.
The stakes are high for everyone, particularly Inter and Milan.
The former have just come out of their financial fair play settlement agreement, but missing out on Champions League revenue would limit the much-needed rebuild. (And yes, if you saw how awful they were at Napoli, you'd agree they need serious help beyond just a new manager). The fact that they're playing Empoli, who desperately need the points to stay up, isn't encouraging either. Meanwhile, Milan have their own FFP issues, of course, and things will only get more complicated if they miss out, particularly after shelling out $90 million in January on Krzysztof Piatek and Lucas Paqueta.
Whatever happens, even if they don't qualify Atalanta have already won Serie A, metaphorically speaking.
Will the real Dortmund please stand up?
From one vantage point, it's hard to tell who the real Borussia Dortmund are. Are they the side that lost just twice before February and enjoyed a six-point lead at the top of the table? Or are they the team that won just eight of their past 17 games in all competitions the rest of the way?
Youth can be an excuse for many things, and this is undoubtedly a side packed with promising talent. Then again, that's why they signed an experienced coach in Lucien Favre who was supposed to guard against a second-half collapse. Instead we saw a side lacking maturity in the spring, particularly when injuries hit.
In some ways, their final act of the season, away to Borussia Moenchengladbach, was a metaphor of the season, only in reverse. Against an opponent that still had a shot at winning a place in the Champions League, Dortmund looked chaotic and flimsy in the first half, only to rediscover themselves in the second and storm back to a 2-0 victory. Favre needs to convince the players that the real Dortmund is the one we saw after the break Saturday.
When you throw titles away, it always hurts more, but this is the club's third highest points total ever. There is plenty of raw material with which to work, and if they sell a prize asset or two, there will be plenty of resources available to narrow the gap with Bayern, who look to be heading towards a transition year next season.
Messi wraps up another Golden Boot?
Having sealed their eighth league title in 11 years, the main purpose of Barcelona's final match of the Liga campaign away to Eibar was Lionel Messi getting a chance to pad out his goals total with a view towards winning his sixth European Golden Boot. (Whether or not he cares and whether he'd happily swap them all for a World Cup, Copa America or even another Champions League is a matter for debate.)
As it happened, he bagged both goals in the 2-2 draw, which means his season ends with 36 Liga goals: he has 50 overall, with the Copa del Rey final to come. Assuming Kylian Mbappe fails to score five goals in Paris Saint-Germain's final game of the season (not likely he will) and Fabio Quagliarella doesn't bag 11 in Sampdoria's last outing (even less likely), it's yet another piece of silverware for his trophy cabinet.
De Rossi's exit causes chaos at Roma
News that Daniele De Rossi will be leaving Roma at the end of the season marks the end of an era. The man once known as "Captain Future" because, of course, there can only ever be one Capitano at Roma, will play his final game next weekend at home to Parma after 18 years at the club. The club are fortunate that they have quality ready-made replacements ready to take over the armband. Just as they went from Francesco Totti to De Rossi, they'll go from De Rossi to Alessandro Florenzi and, perhaps, one day to Lorenzo Pellegrini and then to Luca Pellegrini (no relation, in case you're wondering).
That said, it's telling how De Rossi's departure is wreaking such havoc at the club. He simply said he imagined himself playing for Roma until he could no longer stand and they "dragged me off the pitch." He also said that had he been in charge, he would have renewed his contract another year. He even said he was willing to stay on a "pay-for-play" deal. That was enough for a popular uprising among some supporters against the Roma top brass, from owner Jim Pallotta to executives Mauro Baldissoni and Franco Baldini. Even Claudio Ranieri, the outgoing manager, appeared to take a swipe when he said that he would have kept De Rossi around.
You can get the fans' reaction -- we want our heroes to be immortal -- but some of this also feels like a case of "point-scoring" against the club for what has turned into a disappointing season.
As for De Rossi, you can't picture him wearing different colors, and you'd imagine that if he has to play for a different club, he'll want it to be as far away as possible. The fact that he speaks good English and his wife is British-American (although she was raised in Rome) has prompted some to see Major League Soccer in his future. You'd imagine that would be an option, although the legacy of great European midfielders moving to MLS isn't great: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Steven Gerrard and Andrea Pirlo didn't exactly pull up trees.
So here's hoping he takes the more romantic option, mooted by some: he has long been an admirer of Argentine football, what if he rocked up at Boca Juniors or River Plate for a season or two?
I have no idea if this is even a possibility, but yeah, if it happens I'll want to witness it. And so will you.