Van Gaal's system works, Mahrez a worthy winner, Barca bounce back

Manchester United and Everton's FA Cup semifinal was billed as a clash between two embattled managers who needed to win the trophy to be sure to hang on to their jobs.


In fact, it's probably not quite like that. Louis van Gaal's future likely depends on a number of factors beyond winning the cup. Like finishing in the top four, or whether the United-owning Glazer family resolve their issues with appointing Jose Mourinho.

As for Roberto Martinez, such has been the vitriol heaped on him this season that it's hard to see how silverware would make a difference, particularly with Farhad Moshiri having recently taken a 49.9 percent stake in Everton. When you buy a chunk of an asset like that, you usually want to make your mark.

And, frankly, that's not a bad thing. Whether or not you decide to change your manager should not depend on winning a knockout cup competition but, rather, whether your team is actually making progress.

From that vantage point, there is little question that United look better now than they did a few months ago. In their 2-1 win at Wembley, van Gaal's 4-1-4-1 set-up allowed them to disrupt Everton's passing and win the ball in dangerous areas.

Louis van Gaal, left, had reason to celebrate after Anthony Martial, right, scored Manchester United's winner.

It got the best out of Marouane Fellaini as a spoiler; breaking up play high up the pitch, offering a target for outlets, holding up the ball. Wayne Rooney also benefited, receiving the ball while facing the goal where he could spread his passes around. Most of all, though, United played with an intensity and an energy we hadn't really associated with them under van Gaal.
Yet you still wonder whether this setup is about long-term development or about simply getting a trophy (not that there is anything wrong with the latter). Rooney still feels as if he's shoehorned into his current role. Yes, he can spread the ball well because he's a technically gifted passer. But that doesn't mean he can be a difference-maker.

Fellaini played very well but, equally, his skill set is close to unique. If your scheme is predicated upon a Fellaini-type, then you either need to stick with the original -- and it's hard to see as a long-term starter -- or you get someone who can do the same job, only better. And what Fellaini does is rare; there aren't too many of his kind out there.

Whatever United end up looking next season -- even if van Gaal is still around -- it likely won't look much like what we saw at Wembley.

The other issue has to be that, as well as United played, they made the kind of individual errors you simply don't expect at this level. Chris Smalling scored an own goal; deflections can happen, but they are more likely when you try to clear a cross with your wrong foot. Timothy Fosu-Mensah gave away a penalty and there was a late counterattack that gave Everton a four vs. two advantage, which was eventually broken up by Fellaini's recovery.

As for Everton, one theory is that what rankles many is Martinez's relentless positivity in the face of poor performances. He did it again when he suggested that Everton did not deserve to lose. It's one thing to emphasize the positives, it's quite another to appear to ignore the evidence.

Juve get the job done
Juventus' victory over Fiorentina was their 24th victory in 25 league games and all but wrapped up the Serie A title, which was confirmed on Monday when Roma beat Napoli. It also showed all the qualities that will make the bianconerichampions.
Juventus' win at Fiorentina came a day before their fifth straight Serie A title was confirmed.
Against a hugely motivated Viola team, Juve showed all their chameleon-like qualities. First, they absorbed pressure, bending without breaking. Then they took the lead through Mario Mandzukic and focused on the counter.

When Fiorentina did finally and deservedly grab an equalizer through Nikola Kalinic, you expected it to be a game-changer, the kind of momentum shift that would deliver Paulo Sousa's side three points. But no. Within two minutes, Alvaro Morata had materialized at the far post and to restore Juve's lead.

It's a testament to Fiorentina's spirit and belief that they battled on, only to be thwarted again when the eternal Gigi Buffon saved a dubious penalty (and the rebound). When Kalinic got his head to a late, late injury-time chance, he was denied by the woodwork.

Fiorentina probably deserved more, but -- and I know it sounds like a contradiction -- it's tough to say Juve deserved less. This is how they won the title: By being tough and resilient and hitting back almost instantly when bloodied.

Mahrez is a deserved PFA Player of the Year
Riyad Mahrez became the first African player to win the English footballers' player union's (PFA) Player of the Year award. As many have pointed out, few would have complained if either of his nominated teammates, N'Golo Kante or Jamie Vardy, had won it. That's how engrossing the Leicester City story has been this year.

Still, Mahrez has 17 goals and 11 assists in the Premier League this season, which means he had a hand in nearly half of Leicester's goals this season. And he has delivered when it mattered most, like Sunday's win over Swansea.

Sure, it finished 4-0, but it was Mahrez who broke the ice when he seized on Ashley Williams' botched clearance and kept his cool to beak Lukasz Fabianski. Without that goal, might a Vardy-less Leicester have faltered or succumbed to nerves? We'll never know but, if you're Claudio Ranieri, you're glad Mahrez was there to do the business.

Mahrez's rise should also be an inspiration to all the players out there who were told they weren't good enough, and a reminder of the fallibility of scouting around Europe. No, I'm not just talking about the fact that he cost Leicester around half-a-million dollars, but rather what happened before that.

This is a guy who grew up playing the game on the outskirts of Paris, yet not a single academy thought it would be wise to give him a shot. At 18, Mahrez was playing for amateur club Quimper in the fourth tier of French football. It wasn't until he was 21 that he became a regular at Le Havre in the second division.

Four years later, he has the world at his feet.

Bale saves Zidane and Real Madrid
When he picked his team to face Rayo Vallecano, Zinedine Zidane was obviously thinking ahead to Real Madrid's Champions League semifinal first leg against Manchester City.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Casemiro and Dani Carvajal were all left out, while Luka Modric and Sergio Ramos were named as substitutes. After all, it was only Rayo and last time the teams met, Real scored 10. (Yes, 10.)

Except when you play Paco Jemez, anything can happen. And, for a while, it did: Rayo raced into a 2-0 lead and, while Gareth Bale's umpteenth headed goal pulled one back, Real still trailed at half-time. And with Karim Benzema going off with a knock before the break, Zidane's BBC was left with just the "B".
ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti gives his take on Laurent Blanc's future at Paris Saint-Germain.
You may have been expecting James Rodriguez at this point -- I know I was -- but instead Zidane sent on Lucas Vazquez and played Jese through the middle. It worked: Real pulled one back early in the second half and eventually grabbed the winner through Bale.

Credit to the Welshman for strapping the club to his shoulders. Let others debate his transfer fee and whether he rides Ronaldo's coattails or humbly toils in his shadows. When Madrid needed him, when the other big guns were out, he delivered.

Credit also Zidane. He may have overdone his squad rotation but, whatever Real Madrid are lacking, it's neither spirit or strength of character. The French manager is still learning on the job but the fact is his team are a single point off the top of La Liga and in the last four of the Champions League. For now, that's all you can ask for.

Treble on for Paris Saint-Germain
Just as was the case last season, Laurent Blanc's PSG are on course to win Le Championnat, the French League Cup and the French Cup. Plus ca change.

Having wrapped up the league in the middle of March, PSG defeated Lille on Saturday to grab the League Cup. (The French Cup final sees them face Marseille on May 21.)

It wasn't a great performance and, in fact, the day was rather muted, which is in keeping with much of the uncertainty that currently surrounds the club, in particular whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Blanc himself will be back next season.

PSG chief executive Nasser Al-Khelaifi reiterated that Blanc will return but, given the visceral -- some might even say frenzied -- reaction in the French media after the club was knocked out of the Champions League, you wonder if it's one of those empty statements of which you later say "Well, it was true at the time."

I have no problem with clubs changing managers if they think they can upgrade the position. And it's not as if Blanc is some kind of giant, though his trophy haul -- PSG entered 11 major competitions in the past three years and won seven of them -- is impressive and this season he managed to keep a lid on the controversy and egos at the club.

But public statements such as Al-Khelaifi's often have a boomerang effect, which is why we joke about the "dreaded vote of confidence." The fact of the matter is that actions speak louder than words.

Barcelona bounce back
So last week we speculated that Barcelona's front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were, perhaps, a bit tired, having played and traveled more than the attacking crew of any other top European side.

Since then, they've played two and won two, scoring 14 goals and conceding none in the process, with 12 of the goals coming from the uber-fatigued MSN.

Not so fast. When you win 6-0, as Barca did against Sporting Gijon at the weekend, there's only so much you can say. But it's worth noting that, for more than a half, Barcelona did not play well at all. They took the lead and then saw Alex waste a gilt-edged chance, while Gerard Pique and Javier Mascherano had to make last-ditch clearances.

But then Luis Enrique's men scored five times in the last 26 minutes, including three penalties in 11 minutes -- at least one of which was dubious -- and it was lights out.

What you can conclude from this is that, after Atletico and Real Madrid had each won earlier in the day, the MSN and Barca overall had the character and quality to produce, at least against a side like Sporting Gijon, who are desperately fighting to stay avoid relegation.

Conventional wisdom is that, because Barcelona have a supposedly easier run-in with no Champions League distractions and an edge in the head-to-heads with Atletico and Real, they're bound to win the title.

That may well be the case. But it also means one slip and you're done. And, perhaps at this stage, this Liga will be decided as much by mental strength as by quality.

Sakho faces suspension

Mahamadou Sakho has been sidelined by Liverpool after UEFA announced they were investigating a possible anti-doping rule violation.

If, as French radio station RMC reported, he took "fat-burning pills," then this is an exercise in extreme stupidity, because anyone in football knows that some supplements contain substances that can lead to positive results.

Reading the ingredients on the label is not enough; that's why top-flight players won't take so much as an aspirin without first consulting their club's medical staff.

Sakho should have known better, simple as that. He's 26 years old and in his eighth season as a professional. And his own teammate Kolo Toure received a six-month ban in 2011 for taking weight-loss supplements while he was at Manchester City.

A "B" sample will be examined but if, as is expected, it emerges that Sakho's positive was for a "specified substance" -- one that is banned but which could have been accidentally ingested rather than one whose sole purpose is performance enhancement -- then he'll likely get a ban of six months to a year, rather than the two- or four-year suspensions handed out in more serious cases.

Still, even the lighter punishment will mean he misses out on the European Championship and possibly the Europa League final. And he will have a stain on his career that won't go away anytime soon.

Atletico win amid Simeone controversy
There are some games that just epitomize Atletico Madrid and the 1-0 win over Malaga was one of them. It wasn't pretty, it wasn't easy and it had a fair amount of what some consider luck and others consider the happenstance you build for yourself with persistent hard work.

The difference between Atleti and Javi Gracia's men came when Angel Correa's shot deflected past Memo Ochoa in the second half. It was the sixth time that the 21-year-old Argentine has come off the bench to score this season, which also might not be entirely coincidental.

In many ways, though, the game was overshadowed by the ball thrown onto the pitch from Atletico's technical area, which stopped a Malaga counterattack. Referee Mateu Lahoz asked Diego Simeone who had thrown the ball and he said he didn't know. It was enough to get the boot, as managers are responsible for their technical area.

Replays later suggested a ball boy had physically thrown the ball and plenty speculated whether or not Simeone had instructed him to do it. You can draw your own conclusions, but it's hard to imagine a ball boy doing something like that without the green light from the manager.

And the way Simeone rather calmly accepted his punishment after the game, saying the referee made the right decision, suggests he knew he wasn't going to get away with it. Atleti's boss now faces a ban that could keep him off the bench for the last three games of the Spanish league season.

Disgraceful scenes in Turkey
There's not much you can add to the scenes of a match official attacked by a pitch invader in the game between Fenerbache and Trabzonspor.

But it's worth mentioning the incident to underscore how there is still plenty of work to do in some parts of the world. And how, while fan education and the like are important, when it comes to this sort of thing zero tolerance is the way to go.

Nobody should have to go to work in football in fear of being attacked.

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