Manchester United to face Barcelona in Europa League knockout playoff | Europa League

Manchester United have been drawn against Barcelona in the Europa League knockout play-off round.

Barcelona have dropped down into the competition after failing to get out of their Champions League group but now provide a stern test for Erik ten Hag’s side, who finished second in their Europa League group.

United will travel to the Camp Nou on 16 February for the first leg of the tie, with the return at Old Trafford taking place on 23 February. They have some fond memories of the venue having completed the 1999 treble there with a last-gasp victory over Bayern Munich in that year’s Champions League final.

“We will have to compete, going to Manchester against a really top rival and an historic side which has grown a lot with the arrival of [Erik] ten Hag,” said Xavi, the Barcelona manager. “[They have] great individual players and it is the toughest rival once again in the Europa League.”

Arsenal, who won their Europa League group, have already progressed to the last 16 of the competition.

Sevilla, who have won the Europa League six times, have also dropped down into the competition from the Champions League and will take on PSV Eindhoven in the first knockout round. Juventus must overcome French side Nantes to secure a place in the last 16 in March.

Roma, who won last season’s inaugural Europa Conference League competition, are up against Austrian league champions RB Salzburg, while Shakhtar Donetsk take on French side Rennes.

Portuguese league runners-up Sporting have been paired against Midtjylland of Denmark, Ajax face Union Berlin and Bayer Leverkusen take on Monaco.

Champions League roundup: Eintracht Frankfurt reach last 16 for the first time | Champions League

Eintracht Frankfurt staged a second-half comeback, scoring twice in 10 minutes to beat the hosts Sporting Lisbon 2-1 on Tuesday and qualify for the Champions League last 16 for the first time, knocking the Portuguese club out of the competition.

Sporting needed only a point to advance and they took the lead when the winger Arthur Gomes volleyed in at the far post after a looping cross was headed on in the 39th minute.

Eintracht, the Europa League champions last season, hardly got a look-in during the first half but came out fighting after the break, needing a win to secure a top-two finish.

A handball by the Sporting captain, Sebastian Coates, in the 62nd minute gave Frankfurt a penalty and Daichi Kamada drew them level with a well-taken spot-kick.

The France international Randal Kolo Muani then powered into the box and drilled home the winner 10 minutes later to complete their comeback and secure second place behind Tottenham in Group D.

Bayern Munich completed a perfect group stage by beating fellow qualifiers Internazionale 2-0 thanks to goals from Benjamin Pavard and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting in their final Group C game.

Bayern ended top on 18 points, eight ahead of second-placed Inter with both teams having already reached the knockout stage.

In Pilsen, Ferran Torres scored in each half as Barcelona eased past Viktoria Plzen 4-2 but both sides were already eliminated from the competition. Barcelona remained in third place in Group C behind Bayern and Inter and will drop into the Europa League. Plzen ended their European campaign without a point.

Barcelona, who rested a number of regulars including Robert Lewandowski, struck six minutes into the match when the defender Marcos Alonso poked the ball over the line.

The visitors doubled the lead just before the break when Jordi Alba deftly nodded the ball to the feet of an unmarked Torres who calmly slotted the ball into the net for a goal initially ruled out before a VAR review.

The Czech champions briefly cut the deficit in half when Tomas Chory converted a penalty after winning a spot-kick in the 51st minute before Torres nabbed his second of the night on the break minutes later.

Plzen responded with a glancing Chory header in the 63rd minute to potentially set up a nervy finish until Pablo Torre slammed a shot into the roof of the net on his Barcelona debut to wrap up the victory.

Porto’s Iranian forward Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring against Atlético Madrid
Porto’s Iranian forward Mehdi Taremi celebrates after scoring against Atlético Madrid Photograph: Miguel Riopa/AFP/Getty Images

Goals from Mehdi Taremi and Stephen Eustáquio helped Porto to secure a 2-1 win at home against Atlético Madrid to finish top of Group B.

Porto had already qualified for the last 16 but leapfrogged Club Brugge to finish as group winners with 12 points, one point ahead of the Belgian club who also went through. Atlético finished last, failing even to qualify for the Europa League knockout round playoffs.

Porto went ahead in the fifth minute when the forward Taremi tapped in a cross from Evanilson, registering his fifth goal in the Champions League this season.

The midfielder Eustáquio doubled Porto’s lead in the 24th minute, drilling the ball into the bottom corner after Galeno sprinted down the left and played a cross inside the box.

Atlético’s Antoine Griezmann found the net in the 68th minute but the referee had already blown the whistle for a foul from Rodrigo De Paul on Galeno in the build-up, while the Porto keeper Diogo Costa saved a shot from Angel Correa six minutes later.

The Porto defender Ivan Marcano scored an own goal in added time, but it did not do much damage to Porto who went on to seal three points.

Club Brugge finished second in their Champions League group after failing to win at Bayer Leverkusen, drawing 0-0 in their final Group B game.

Brugge had already qualified for the round of 16 in February following their first four games after emerging as the surprise package of the Champions League group campaign.

But a 4-0 defeat at home against Porto last week and the draw at the Bay Arena on Tuesday meant they ended on 11 points from their six games, one behind Porto.

Leverkusen finished third to take a Europa League place ahead of Atletico on their head-to-head results against the Spanish club.

Brugge came closest to victory when their Canada international Tajon Buchanan struck the upright shortly after half-time although Leverkusen were the more attacking and forced visiting goalkeeper Simon Mignolet to make some key saves. Mignolet kept five clean sheets in the six group games.

Barcelona humiliated, relegated to Europa League then defeated by Bayern | Champions League

Barcelona’s players sat beneath the stand at the Camp Nou and watched their Champions League campaign come to an end, then ran out on to the pitch and demonstrated some of the reasons why. Already eliminated when this game began, witnessing any last, tiny hope extinguished on the television where Internazionale beat Viktoria Plzen in the early kick-off, they were not even able to have a bit of fun before bidding farewell, nor leave much to remember them by. Instead, they head into the Europa League with a 3-0 defeat, their sixth in a row against Bayern Munich. Aggregate score: 19-2.

Who knows: maybe if it had mattered, it would have been different. Maybe watching their own execution immediately beforehand was not the greatest idea, either: “Being knocked out before the game affected us,” Xavi said. And this is Bayern too, a “super team” in his words. But ultimately Barcelona brought about their own demise, left feeling this level is still beyond them, so soft is their underbelly. “We’re a young team and we don’t yet have enough to compete in the Champions League,” Pedri said.

“You learn through taking the hits, and this is a big hit, Xavi said.

Bayern were better in everything, he admitted. If there was pride at play, a point to prove, it didn’t often show. It is not that Bayern destroyed them exactly, although they competed, more that they eased past. Goals from Sadio Mané and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting were already enough before Benjamin Pavard added another with the very last touch.

Barcelona had not managed a single shot on target. Even when Robert Lewandowski thought he had a penalty before half-time it was not to be, the ball taken from him on the spot, Anthony Taylor consulting the VAR and deciding he had dived – which spoke of frustration, the impotence that defined them. Him too, unable to score in either meeting with his former club.

In any case it was already done, confirmation of what Barcelona had known from the start of the day: that their fate would be decided on a far away field. Or, perhaps more accurately, already had been, even then. That said, on this evidence having it in their own hands wouldn’t have been any better.

Barcelona players show their disappointment.
Barcelona players show their disappointment. They were beaten 3-0 by Bayern Munich but already knew their fate before the match. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

In Munich and Milan, Barcelona had moments but were beaten, those defeats followed by an error‑strewn 3-3 draw with Inter that left Barcelona facing the abyss and Xavi calling the competition “cruel”. They had to win their remaining two games and needed Inter not to win either of theirs.

“Hope is the last thing you lose,” Xavi had said, but it was the first.

Inter faced the side who had lost all four matches and conceded 16, Barcelona’s players called in to watch it together. It was not great motivation: before half-time, the Italians were two ahead; exactly as Barcelona ran out to warm up, they scored their fourth. It was over, they knew. Time for Europe’s second tier.

Xavi tried to avoid the word failure but the Europa League is not the place Barcelona are supposed to be. Not the place they budgeted for, either – still less for a second season running. The last manager to take charge of two consecutive years in the Uefa Cup here was Terry Venables. If last year was a reflection of their reality – “it is what it is,” to use Gerard Piqué’s words – this was supposed to be different, which made it hurt more.

Barcelona cannot afford this, certainly. At a time when every euro matters, this early exit costs around 20 million of them, plus knock-on effects.

There is an emotional element as well: the (in)famous levers pulled, multiple signings made and assets sold were a risk designed to begin a virtuous cycle. Instead, Barcelona have been knocked out earlier than at any time in 24 years, gone with a game to go. Two games, in fact.

Nor could they enjoy the first of those, or offer hope for the future, Serge Gnabry slipping in the knife. Just nine minutes had passed when he sent Mané away from Héctor Bellerín to clip in the opener and on the half hour he did it again, rolling the ball into Choupo-Moting to score. At the death, he hit a volley that Pavard turned in for the third, and his third assist. Gnabry had thought he had scored one of his own earlier, only for it to be ruled out, but it didn’t matter. Ultimately none of it did, over before it had started.

European roundup: Oshimen’s stunner seals victory for leaders Napoli at Roma | European club football

Napoli’s seemingly unstoppable winning streak continued when Victor Osimhen’s late strike secured a 1-0 win at Roma in Serie A, giving them 11 straight victories in all competitions.

In front of a raucous crowd at the Stadio Olimpico, both sides were evenly matched in a largely uneventful first half. Napoli thought they had a penalty in the 38th minute when Roma goalkeeper Rui Patrício challenged Tanguy Ndombele but the decision was rescinded after a VAR check.

Napoli were in control by the hour mark and had several chances, with Roma struggling to get the ball out of their own half. Osimhen secured the win for Napoli 10 minutes from time when he half-volleyed in a brilliant rasping shot from an acute angle, after getting the better of his marker Chris Smalling.

Napoli have a three-point lead at the top with 29 after 11 games, three ahead of Milan in second. Roma are fifth with 22 points.

Mattia Zaccagni and Felipe Anderson scored to give Lazio a comfortable 2-0 win at Atalanta, moving up to third as a result. Zaccagni converted in the 10th minute, poking in a Pedro cross.

Anderson made it 2-0 seven minutes after half-time, firing a low shot into the bottom-left corner. The visitors continued to control the game and Atalanta had Luis Muriel sent off in the 90th minute for a second booking.

The Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini said: “It’s a fair defeat. It’s true that Lazio had an extraordinary first half and we were unable to limit their passing, while the early goal put them in the best possible situation. Only after the second goal did we see something positive.

“It’s a loss we deserved and we will learn from this experience. We hoped that Lazio would drop their tempo and we got close after the second goal but it was too late,” Gasperini added. “We had not yet met a team that was so good on a technical level and with a high press; they always got to the ball first, and perhaps we had not yet faced a team of this level.”

In Spain, Ousmane Dembélé scored and provided assists for Sergi Roberto, Robert Lewandowski and Ferran Torres as Barcelona defeated Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in La Liga.

Barça remain second in the table on 28 points, three behind leaders Real Madrid and five clear of third-placed Atlético Madrid. The hosts scored three times in 10 minutes in the first half, starting with Dembélé’s towering header from close range in the 12th minute.

The France forward then put Roberto through with some brilliant one touch build-up play in the 18th minute, with the Spanish full back’s strike bouncing in off a defender past a helpless Unai Simón.

Ousmane Dembélé scored one goal and set up three in Barcelona’s 4-0 win against Athletic Bilbao.
Ousmane Dembélé (centre) scored one goal and set up three in Barcelona’s 4-0 win against Athletic Bilbao. Photograph: Quique García/EPA

Four minutes later, Dembélé ran down the right channel before crossing to Lewandowski who swivelled and finished with a powerful shot. Barça took their foot off the gas after the break but there was still time for Dembélé to deliver another assist less than 20 minutes before the end, playing the ball in from the left touchline for Torres to score.

Two second-half goals from Antoine Griezmann, one scored directly from a corner kick, gave Atlético Madrid a 2-1 win at Real Betis, extending their unbeaten run to five games. Griezmann opened the scoring in the 54th minute directly from a corner.

Fifteen minutes later, substitute Matheus Cunha passed to Griezmann whose right-footed shot found the bottom right corner. Betis replied with a Nabil Fekir free-kick in the 84th minute but the visitors held firm.

In Germany, relegation-threatened VfL Bochum scored once in either half to stun Union Berlin 2-1, leaving the Bundesliga leaders with only a one-point gap at the top and moving off the bottom of the table.

Union, with the league’s best backline before the game, suffered only their second loss of the season. Philipp Hofmann’s glancing header two minutes before the break put Bochum with the hosts’ high press proving a major problem for Urs Fischer’s team.

Union’s Milos Pantovic whipped a shot just wide on the hour mark but it was Bochum, who had also hit the woodwork early in the second half, who scored again.
This time they struck on the break with Gerrit Holtmann completing the lightning-quick passing move, tapping in from a Christopher Antwi-Adjei assist.
Union remain in top spot on 23 points, one ahead of champions Bayern Munich. Freiburg are third on 21.

Schalke 04, who sacked coach Frank Kramer on Wednesday, dropped to bottom place following their 2-1 defeat at Hertha Berlin courtesy of Wilfried Kanga’s 88th-minute winner.

Barcelona fans take legal action over Lionel Messi’s transfer to PSG | Lionel Messi

A small group of Barcelona fans have quietly begun a process that could bring about seismic change in European football, after they went to court over the transfer of Lionel Messi to Paris Saint-Germain.

On Tuesday lawyers appeared before a senior judge at the European court of justice to argue that Messi’s move from Catalonia to Paris broke European laws on state aid, and call for the European Commission to investigate the transfer.

The session in Luxembourg lasted three hours in front of Judge Marc Jaeger, a former president of the court. The hearing was effectively an appeal, after an original claim against the European Commission was rejected. A verdict is expected within two months.

Messi joined PSG last summer in perhaps the most high-profile transfer of modern times. The eight-times Ballon d’Or winner left on a free transfer and agreed a contract reported to be worth £94m over three years. Last month Uefa found PSG to have been in breach of its financial fair play (FFP) regulations during this time and demanded €65m by way of financial settlement.

The supporters’ case argues that the French football authorities should never have allowed the Messi transfer to go through and that it distorted the competitive environment in continental football. But in calling for an investigation into the deal by the European Commission, they are also hoping to bring the world of football finance away from the game’s governing bodies and into the scope of Europe’s lawmakers for the first time.

According to notes provided by the European Court, the full claim by the fan group would see the original decision by the court overturned and the commission instructed to “order the French Football Federation (FFF) to immediately cease any … distortion of competition and to bring itself into compliance with Uefa club licensing and financial fair play regulations”. It also calls on the commission to instigate proceedings against the French government, for “illegal state aid to PSG and the French football clubs in national and European competitions”.

A fan sits on a chair with a Barcelona shirt draped over the back at the European court of justice
A fan sits on a chair with a Barcelona shirt draped over the back at the European court of justice. Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/EPA

The case was heard against the backdrop of a dispute over the future of European football. Despite the collapse of the Super League last year, there is constant tension between clubs, competitions and their governing bodies. The three remaining ‘super league’ clubs – Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid – have taken Uefa to court claiming the governing body acts as a monopoly.

PSG have insisted the signing of Messi did not breach FFP regulations and on Tuesday a source said: “There is nothing to comment on – PSG isn’t even a party to the case.” The Ligue de Football Professionnel, which runs France’s major leagues and operates under the authority of the FFF, was approached for comment.

Real Madrid’s Benzema and Valverde set up deserved win over Barcelona | La Liga

Just when Barcelona thought there was a little life left in this game and in them too, Rodrygo slipped in the knife. Down 2-1 and heading into the last minute chasing an equaliser that had seemed so implausible for so long, Xavi Hernández’s team were caught again, complicit in their own demise as they had been all afternoon. First-half goals from Karim Benzema and Fede Valverde had looked to have ended this early, Madrid easing to victory, until a Ferran Torres strike five minutes from time gave the Catalans a chance only for an Eric García tackle to take it away.

His trip on Rodrygo had to be revised by the VAR but the referee, Sánchez Martínez, pointed to the spot from where the Brazilian brought the clásico to a close. It had finished with a Real Madrid victory, which was no real surprise; the surprise was that it reached the point where that was in doubt. The closing minutes here at least saw a rebellion from a Barcelona team that had long looked defeated. It also saw nerves from home fans who had spent much of this match sitting comfortably.

Madrid never seemed in a hurry but were ahead early. Toni Kroos strode from deep. Not sprinting, exactly, but quick enough – not least because his pursuer was Sergio Busquets. Following from behind, unable to get in front, Barcelona’s captain hung on to Kroos, dragging at him, trying to pull him to the ground before he released Vinícius Júnior. He failed. Vinícius was free, into a huge space behind Sergi Roberto. All the way into the area, he went, clean through, where Marc André ter Stegen was out quick, spreading himself wide, to make the save, the ball running free. Four Barcelona defenders were arriving; Karim Benzema beat them all.

It looked easy, and not for the last time. At that stage, Barcelona weren’t able to get the ball as often as they would like – as often, you suspected, as Madrid would have liked them to get it, either, the plan to draw them in and then run past.

When they started to, it didn’t seem to carry much of a threat either. One long move on 20 minutes offered a portrait. Barcelona kept possession, playing the ball around but doing so a little timidly, with no real intent. Madrid dropped in and waited. They walked even. Barcelona progressed to a point, and then turned round and went back again. Madrid were looking at them go again, standing there as if asking: is that all you’ve got?

Yeah, pretty much, it would seem. A neat move on the right, Pedri finding Raphinha, ended with Robert Lewandowski sliding in at the far post and somehow putting the ball over the bar from a yard. Not long after, a swift pass from the Pole set Roberto away. But mostly the ball was moved slowly and to no real end. Pedri would turn and see no one moving, spaces that should have been occupied, a teammate running into them, simply lying there vacant. There was no cleverness, no incision, no vision. Just vulnerability.

Ferran Torres celebrates after scoring against Real Madrid
Ferran Torres celebrates after pulling a goal back for Barcelona but Real Madrid ended up 3-1 winners Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

If Barcelona were closer to Madrid’s goal, that was right where Madrid wanted them. And so the second came. It began with neat footwork from Benzema and continued with a clipped ball forward. García leaped to clear – presumably that was the intention – but only sent it looping on towards his goal. Vinícius was, per the plan, running into the space behind while the rest were running to join him. He rolled it under his studs to Aurélien Tchouaméni, who laid it out to Ferland Mendy. Mendy pulled it back to Fede Valverde, who was on the edge of the area but with no one there to bother him.

From there, he could treat this shot like a penalty, taking his time, choosing his corner and side-footing hard and low past Ter Stegen.

Almost from the kickoff Frenkie de Jong ran all the way through, denied by Andriy Lunin, but if that might have awoken Barcelona, and much as Lewandowski ran and offered himself and asked for the ball, he grew ever more frustrated. Madrid, meanwhile, had grown comfortable, aware that they didn’t really need very much more. They could have done without the linesman’s flag going up when Benzema thought he had made it three, though. Again, it had been quite simple: Vinícius’s diagonal into space leaving the Frenchman free to come inside and bend into the corner.

If there was a flaw from Madrid, perhaps it was that they didn’t move in for more against an opponent, a rival, that is not their equal and could have suffered more damage. Still, they enjoyed the olés as they played the ball around on the hour, and perhaps that might have hurt Barcelona more. Kroos had controlled early on; Luka Modric was gliding now, superior to those around him. As the game went on, the overriding feeling though was of a team that thought it had already won this and just wanted it to come to a close now, with no damage done.

And that may have been the risk. For Barcelona, Ousmane Dembélé kept running, but mostly into trouble. And when Lewandowski just about reached across to head goalwards, all he got were ironic oohs from the Bernabéu as Lunin made a simple catch. Not long after he had a free-kick that might have made a game of this with 20 minutes to go, but struck his shot straight into the wall. He then thought he should have had a penalty when Dani Carvajal bundled him over in the area, but the referee said no.

There was something now, Tchouaméni stepping in to stop the Pole soon after and Ansu Fati striking wide. His introduction, like that of Gavi and Torres, at least brought some reaction, some rebellion. Gavi, in particular. His challenge – and he alone seemed to make them – set Fati away on the left, dashing past Valverde and into the box. His pass evaded Lewandowski but Torres was there for a finish that few expected but ultimately there was a winner that everyone had.

Robert Lewandowski keeps Barcelona alive in pulsating draw with Inter | Champions League

Barcelona stepped back from the edge but they still stare into the abyss. A late, late goal from Robert Lewandowski, his second of the night, keeps them in the Champions league – but only just and quite probably not for long. Three-two down, Robin Gosens having seemingly slipped in the knife with just two minutes to go, they were in the 92nd minute when the Pole headed Barcelona level. Their fate is not in their own hands, but at least they are not finished. Not yet, anyway.

This was a wild night, with an even wilder finish. From 1-0 up to 2-1 down, from 2-2 and chasing the winner that would change everything, to 3-2 down and then 3-3, Barcelona were left breathing, if barely. Having seemingly lost it and then found a way back in, they almost lost it again, only for Marc-André ter Stegen to make an astonishing save right at the death. Had that gone in, and it should have done, they would have been knocked out of the Champions league with two games to go. Instead, they stumble on. They need to win their final two games and hope Inter do win either of theirs.

The place was packed and Barcelona were keen to get on with it, the fans whistling Inter goalkeeper André Onana for wasting time before he had had any time to waste. It was true though that on his return to the stadium where he once lived but never played, he wasn’t in the kind of hurry the home side were – and yet it was Inter who had the first chance, when Lautaro Martínez escaped on the left and struck a shot into the side-netting.

As it turned out, the flag was up but that was an early glimpse of the threat that Inter posed when they went long beyond the press and of Barcelona’s vulnerability to that out-ball. That risk was revealed again when from a Barcelona corner Nicolò Barella pushed his way past Gavi and into the open space beyond, reaching the area and rolling the ball into the path of of Denzel Dumfries, whose shot was blocked by the left arm of Ter Stegen.

By then, Inter had come even closer as Edin Dzeko dived in to take Hakan Calhanoglu’s delivery on the bounce, his half-volley hitting the bar and dropping on to the line, where it was somehow scrambled away from the waiting Martínez. Yet it was Barcelona who carried the weight of the game, Lewandowski seeing an early header cleared off the line. The problem at that stage appeared to be that it was a little predictable, the ball put into the area too early. A superb angled ball from Eric García in to Pedri was an exception.

Robin Gosens (right) celebrates with his teammates after scoring Inter’s third goal on the counterattack
Robin Gosens (right) celebrates with his teammates after scoring Inter’s third goal on the counterattack Photograph: Joan Monfort/AP

Chances came though, and Barcelona were growing. So was the corner count, reaching seven within half an hour. Raphinha volleyed over the clearest of the opportunities from Lewandowski’s cross. Onana almost knocked the ball into his own net as his dive saw him fall on to the ball from an Ousmane Dembélé shot, next he spilled a Sergi Roberto shot, just about recovering as Lewandowski slid in, and then he made a sharp save at the feet of Pedri.

Barcelona though did find a way through. From deep in the corner Raphinha won the ball and took Federico Dimarco and Henrikh Mkhitaryan out of the game with a clever pass into Sergi Roberto. Alone in the area, he sent it across to Dembélé, who sprinted in to score and didn’t stop running until he had reached the touchline and was in Xavi’s arms.

That was five minutes before the break; five minutes after it, Inter were level. A speared pass to Alessandro Bastoni caught Gerard Piqué behind his defence, playing everyone onside. Worse, not only did he step up late, he raised his hands to see the ball through, unaware of the danger behind him. Barella, to Pique’s horror suddenly alone from close range, controlled, turned and provided the finish.

The urgency returned, the game opening up: This was a lot of fun – or it would have been had there not been so much depending on it, tension tearing at Barcelona, on edge. Lewandowski volleyed over at one end. At the other Gavi had to make a sharp intervention, Ter Stegen saved superbly from Bastoni, and Marcos Alonso had to rescue Piqué deep inside his area. When Busquets gave the ball away and Calhanoglu struck another long diagonal into the box, Martínez stepped away from García and struck a shot that flew into the net off both posts.

Barcelona threw everything at this now. They had to, whatever the risks. There was no other way back. Frenkie De Jong, Alejandro Balde, Ansu Fati, Franck Kessié and Ferran Torres were all sent on, the noise level rising. Lewandowski scored one, had one ruled out for offside, then drew a save from Onana.

A long ball sent Dembélé scampering but he shot into the side netting. Time raced and so did they, Balde bombing up the line to deliver the ball that got them level. Stefan De Vrij made a mess of the clearance and Lewandowski was there, a deflected shot making it 2-2 and bringing brief hope and a wild finish but ultimately a troubling reality.

Champions League roundup: Napoli pummel Ajax 6-1, Inter beat Barcelona | Champions League

Giacomo Raspadori scored twice as Napoli came from behind to deliver a masterclass and score a runaway 6-1 win at 10-man Ajax in the Champions League on Tuesday.

The captain, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, Piotr Zielinski, Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and the substitute Giovanni Simeone added the other goals for the Italian league leaders, after Mohammed Kudus had given the hosts the lead inside the opening 10 minutes.

Napoli, who might have scored more such was their dominance, have a 100% record at the halfway point in Group A, leaving Ajax with three points from their opening three games and in danger of missing out on next year’s knockout stages after their biggest defeat in European football.

Internazionale bounced back after two consecutive losses in Serie A with a crucial 1-0 win against Barcelona thanks to a Hakan Calhanoglu goal. The midfielder slotted home a clinical strike from just outside the area, with the ball going into the corner to the goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen’s right in added time before the break. The home win lifted Inter to second place in Group C on six points, three behind leaders Bayern Munich and three in front of Barcelona.

Bayern struck three times in the opening 21 minutes en route to a 5-0 demolition of Viktoria Plzen to set a record for the longest unbeaten run in group matches. The German champions have now gone 31 group games in the competition without defeat.

Elsewhere, goals from Club Brugge forwards Kamal Sowah and Ferran Jutglà saw the Belgian champions beat Atlético Madrid 2-0 at home to extend their perfect run in Group B this season. The hosts took the lead in the 36th minute when Jutglà’s low pass across the goal found Sowah, who tapped the ball into an empty net for his second European goal in three games.

Jutglà doubled the lead in the 62nd minute after winger Tajon Buchanan calmly waited for the right moment to set up the Spanish forward inside the box. Atlético had a chance to get back into the match with a penalty 15 minutes later but Antoine Griezmann lashed the ball against the bar and moments later the forward thought he had scored but his effort was ruled out for offside. Porto substitutes Zaidu and Galeno were both on target as they beat Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 to seal the Portuguese side’s first victory in the group stage. They are level on points with Leverkusen after three matches.

Marseille secured their first Champions League win of the season when they recovered from a shaky start to outclass 10-man Sporting 4-1 in an incident-packed Group D encounter at an empty Stade Vélodrome. The game, played behind closed doors after crowd trouble marred Marseille’s home match against Eintracht Frankfurt, was delayed by more than 20 minutes following Sporting’s late arrival at the stadium due to a traffic jam.

Barcelona knew Robert Lewandowski was good. But not this good | La Liga

Turns out the guy who had scored 618 career goals, and run at more than 25 a year every year for more than a decade, was quite good. There were plenty of players missing when La Liga returned from the international break this weekend, but not him. He, it seems, is inevitable. And so when they had finished, there he was, quietly standing above them all. Robert Lewandowski, the Polish Ian Rush and the Spanish Pichichi. And, who knows, perhaps something more: he, after all, has just taken his team to a place they hadn’t been in two and a half years.

This was the weekend the Williams brothers kept rolling, Nico and Inaki returning home from debuts with different countries to set each other up as Athletic scored four for the third time to go top of the everyone else league. The weekend in which Girona and Real Sociedad went wild, scoring eight between them, including one that was ridiculous from Rodrigo Riquelme and something a bit special from Alex Sorloth in a 5-3 away win. The weekend when so, unexpectedly, did Getafe and Valladolid: not normally Spain’s great entertainers, they served up the best show the Coliseum’s seen since 325AD.

This weekend had what was briefly the season’s silliest mistake from Espanyol goalkeeper Álvaro Fernández – until he went one worse three minutes later, letting in a 96th-minute equaliser against Valencia. It didn’t have much Iago Apas, sitting on the bench with a dodgy tummy, but it did have Gabri Veiga hitting an outrageous 30-yard winner for Celta against Betis, beaten on the road for the second time running and only the third all year. In all likelihood, it had Julen Lopetegui’s last stand, Sevilla a single point and a single place from the relegation spots, and the manager a single call from the sack after a 2-0 defeat by Atlético Madrid. And it had Osasuna at the Bernabéu, where Sergio Herrera’s strange grip over Karim Benzema tightened.

In a game nowhere near as good as any of those, it also had a goal from Robert Lewandowski, which isn’t really news any more but which is the point. You have to go back to the opening day of the season for the last time he didn’t score. “A killer,” Mallorca coach Javi Aguirre had called him in the hours before they met, and he knew. “There’s no dignity in defeat: they all hurt,” he said 24 hours later. It was late on Saturday at Son Moix, and his team had taken more shots than Barcelona, but had been beaten. Because if they had 13, Lewandowski had one – and that was enough.

Cutting inside, he bent a finish as perfectly placed as it was unfussy, excellence made to look easy. And that was pretty much that, the only goal. If he had led them in and benefited from a the team having a good night before – Barcelona had scored four, four, three, four, three in their previous five league games and put five past Viktoria Plzen – now he had seen them through a bad one. “Lewandowski, the Zahori,” AS called him. A water diviner, basically. Some sort of mystic, he had found an oasis in the desert, Santi Giménez wrote, “and when you’re dying of thirst and find water, you’ll believe in anything”. Even in Barcelona. This, one headline had it, was “Lewy’s Law”. No wonder Sport and Mundo Deportivo thought they could go one better than Thomas Müller.

They were wrong. So very, very wrong.

You may remember the delighted look on the Bayern midfielder’s face, all pleased with himself when he told the press: “We call him Lewangoalski … geddit, LewanGOALski” – a line full of fondness and so bad it was good. This Sunday, Sport splashed their front cover with Goalandowski, while Mundo Deportivo went for Lethaldowski – a pair of lines so bad they were just bad. And yet if they lacked the charm, warmth, or imagination of the original – and did they ever – it was understandable. This was Lewandowski’s ninth in seven league games – he is three ahead of Borja Iglesias, having not taken any penalties to Iglesias’s three – and his 12th in nine games over all. Only László Kubala, Alfredo Di Stefano and Christian Vieri had scored as many seven games into spells in Spain. He has scored in six league matches running. He is, Xavi says, a “guarantee of goals”.

But then you knew that, and so did Xavi. There is a reason Barcelona kept pushing even when Bayern pushed back, why they saw through their commitment to him even when the price went to twice, three times what they had excepted to pay. Just look at his club totals over the last seven seasons: 42, 43, 41, 40, 55, 48, 50, for goodness’ sake. Whatever the reason – they said it was all down to eating pudding before his main course, always putting sweets first, but that’s rubbish, this column has been trying for years – he has always scored goals. This is nothing new: it’s nine years since he put four past Real Madrid, almost as long since Madrid made the first of many attempts to sign him, and that Polish Ian Rush thing goes back to Lech Poznan. His success doesn’t surprise.

Except it sort of does. “He goes into the area, a pool of crocodiles, like it was his own home,” Jorge Valdano writes. “Calling him a goalscorer is reductionist like all he knows how to do is the hardest thing of all. And anyway before a goalscorer, he is a player. Someone you can give the ball to and he never lets you down.” That’s part of it: you never know if it will work out for any footballer, and even if the productivity might not have surprised some of the play has: the intelligence, the touch, the movement, the subtlety, the vision and variety. The timing, which is not just about being there at the finish. After he produced a gorgeous back-heeled assist to Pedri, Eric García insisted, impressed: “I can’t see that pass from the bench and he can see it on the pitch.” Xavi says “he understands the game”, knows what to do and when.

Robert Lewandowski (centre) celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win at Mallorca.
Robert Lewandowski (centre) celebrates with Jordi Alba after scoring the only goal in the 1-0 win at Mallorca. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Then there’s the personality, a natural ascendency over others carried lightly, not eroded over the years. “He feels comfortable, he adapts, he’s aware of his responsibility coming here,” Xavi says. “He has maturity, he talk to the young players, he’s humble and hard working. He’s calm, he has confidence in himself, and he’s a natural leader for the team.”

You can know a footballer is good but not how good; you can see him somewhere else, but it’s not the same as when he turns up at your team, your league. There’s always a discovery, even of the known. There are also always doubts, the hint of risk, and when a player arrives into an environment where there are enough doubts already, then all the more so. Lewandowski came at 34 on a four-year deal, Bayern refusing to offer more than one. And he admitted having seen firsthand some of the issues Barcelona had last season when he was on the other side; he also, though, insisted that he focused on where they were going, not where they had come from, a calm authority about him. If a good player can always be brought down, a really good one can bring those around him up.

Which is why what happened in Mallorca impressed less than other nights but mattered more, symbolising something significant.

Quick Guide

La Liga results


Real Mallorca 0-1 Barcelona, Sevilla 0-2 Atlético Madrid, Getafe 2-3 Real Valladolid, Cádiz 0-0 Villarreal, Real Madrid 1-1 Osasuna, Girona 3-5 Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo 1-0 Real Betis, Espanyol 2-2 Valencia

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On Sunday, a wild weekend ended with Osasuna, this season’s revelation so far, holding Madrid to a 1-1 draw. Kike García headed in a goal that Antonio Rüdiger called “one in a million” and then Benzema hit the bar with a penalty 10 minutes from time – the fourth he has missed in six, three of them against Herrera. It was the first time Madrid had failed to win all season, but enough to allow Lewandowski’s goal to take his team top.

It is very early still, the clásico is coming soon, injuries and the fixture list suggests they will be vulnerable this month, and Barcelona haven’t beaten the most illustrious of opponents: Mallorca, Elche, Cádiz, Valladolid and Sevilla are all bottom half. Their run of six wins and a draw hasn’t been all about Lewandowski either – Marc André ter Stegen extended his run without conceding a goal to a personal best 534 minutes and that’s 18 away games without defeat under Xavi, stretching back to last season. But this is the first time they have been top since June 2020 – when Quique Setién was in charge and stadiums were still empty, 91 matches ago. Valencia, Granada, Betis, Madrid, Getafe, Real Sociedad and Atlético have all been there since but Barcelona haven’t. Lewandowski has, and now he’s back again in a position to compete for his ninth league title in a row, his 11th in 13 years.

“Lewandowski is a blessing,” Xavi says.

When Ronaldo joined Inter from Barcelona and tore Serie A to shreds | Football

It’s 8 June 1997 in Lyon, where Italy and Brazil are preparing to square off in Le Tournoi for their first meeting since the World Cup final three years earlier. Italy coach Cesare Maldini walks over to Fabio Cannavaro and says: “Fabio, we’ll see if this Ronaldo truly is a phenomenon.” By the end of a pulsating 3-3 draw, Ronaldo has scored and tormented both Cannavaro and Paolo Maldini. Cannavaro returns to his manager and tells him that the young Brazilian is indeed the real deal, to which Maldini replies: “Yes Fabio, you are right.”

Ronaldo joined Inter six weeks later. According to former Inter president Massimo Moratti, the idea of signing Ronaldo occurred after a drab, goalless draw at Fiorentina three months earlier. Moratti supposedly concocted the plan in the back of a Florentine taxi. And true to his word, he delivered, exploiting rising tensions between Ronaldo and Barcelona to activate the Brazilian’s buyout clause. The transfer sent a wave of excitement through Italian football not seen since the summer Diego Maradona joined Napoli 13 years earlier.

The revisionist narrative surrounding Ronaldo’s career is that the year in Barcelona was the pinnacle of his career. According to the statistics, this is true. The fact he rifled in 47 goals in 49 games in all competitions, including the wonder goal against Compostela in October 1996, where he swat away defenders with such outrageous ease, reinforces the narrative.

Yet his true peak came in his first season at Inter, where this perfectly assembled force of nature destroyed everything in his path. Rampaging through La Liga was one thing, but doing it in Serie A – by far and away the greatest league in the world (and with 1997-98 perhaps the strongest single season the sport has ever seen) – was quite another.

Bobby Robson, José Mourinho and Ronaldo celebrate winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997.
Bobby Robson, José Mourinho and Ronaldo celebrate winning the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1997. Photograph: Colorsport/REX/Shutterstock

Serie A had been home to the world’s best players and the game’s most feared strikers for years. Italy’s grizzled defenders were used to locking horns with great foreign players, but they weren’t quite ready for Ronaldo. If Maradona possessed dribbling genius, Zinedine Zidane the ethereal technique and Marco Van Basten, Gabriel Batistuta and George Weah raw physicality and pace sprinkled with a dash of elegance, Ronaldo was an intoxicating cocktail of them all. A PlayStation footballer come to life.

Ronaldo’s highly anticipated debut was upended by Álvaro Recoba, who scored two howitzers in the space of five minutes to overcome Brescia. The second game of the season saw Inter travel to face Bologna in a game billed as “Ronaldo v Baggio”, a battle between the game’s two premier players for a large stretch of the decade. The game at the rain-drenched Stadio Dall’ara was an instant classic, with Baggio scoring two and Inter scoring four. Ronaldo got off the mark, twisting Bologna defender Massimo Paganin like a pretzel on the edge of the box with a right foot shimmy before planting the ball into the bottom corner with his left.

“Ronaldo? Mamma mia! What a player,” reflected Baggio in 2021. “He came from the future. He played football with technique and speed ahead of his time. I saw him do things that were unthinkable, which no one had done or thought of until then. He was unique.”

Ronaldo scored six in his next seven games, including a mesmeric performance against Parma in October. He danced and glided his way past players at will, even crashing a free-kick past Gianlugi Buffon from 25 yards out that clipped the underside of the crossbar. By Christmas, he had nine goals in 13 games.

“He was an alien among humans,” said Buffon. “It seemed like he was created in a lab. He was the perfect player, as he had power, speed, intuition, technical skills and quickness.” That was the beauty of the first Ronaldo. He could do everything: he took penalties, free-kicks and even corners in his first season at Inter; he would pick up the ball near the halfway line and dribble past as many players dared stand in his way.

Ronaldo and Inter suffered a bit of a dip following the 1-0 win against Juventus in early 1998, dropping 10 points in January and February. His one and only league hat-trick came in the 5-0 demolition of Lecce in the middle of this sticky patch.

Ronaldo has his boots polished after scoring in the Uefa Cup final.
Ronaldo has his boots polished after scoring in the Uefa Cup final. Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images/Reuters

If you want a snapshot of just how good Ronaldo was during his golden period at Inter, his performance against Spartak Moscow in the second leg of their Uefa Cup semi-final is the perfect distillation of a player operating in a different orbit. Describing the pitch at the old Dynamo Stadium as a potato field would be an affront to potato fields the world over. Even though the surface was laced with ice and snow, the game was inexplicably allowed to go ahead. It made little difference to Ronaldo.

He scored twice and his second was spectacular. Like his goals against Sampdoria, Lecce and Schalke, Ronaldo collected the ball from deep. He spun on a dime, ran deep into the heart of the defence and passed to Iván Zamorano, who squeezed the ball back to Ronaldo, who danced through two defenders with a single touch, rounded the goalkeeper and slotted the ball home, while effectively playing on an ice rink. “Straordinario” shouted legendary Rai commentator Bruno Pizzul.

The season had been building to the titanic clash between Inter and Juventus at the end of April. The most important Derby d’Italia in years, with only a point separating them, was essentially stripped down to a battle between Ronaldo and Alessandro Del Piero, the two best players in the world. They had been upstaging one another all season, forcing the other to raise the stakes even higher. “When you arrived at Inter you were already in my head, and you inspired me to become better,” said Del Piero to Ronaldo in 2020. Ronaldo had scored 22 in 28 Serie A games and had dominated the Uefa Cup; Del Piero had 20 in 30 games and had dominated the Champions League. Whoever won the game would win the title.

The game now lives in infamy, a tale of two penalties: one denied to Inter and one given to Juventus just 15 seconds later. The controversy went right to the top, with Italian politicians even debating the decision – and fighting over it in parliament. But the truth is that Ronaldo had missed several chances before Mark Iuliano sent him tumbling in the box. The story of the game was of missed chances rather than a penalty not given. The 1-0 defeat knocked the wind out of Inter’s sails and, with the league mathematically gone following a surprise defeat to Bari in early May, the focus now became the Uefa Cup final against Lazio in Paris.

Ronaldo stole the show. “I have watched that game on video so many times since then, trying to work out what I did wrong,” recalled Alessandro Nesta. “We lost 3-0, but I don’t think it was my fault. Ronaldo was simply unstoppable. He is so quick he makes everyone else look as if they are standing still.” Nesta, one of the most elegant defenders Italy ever produced and a player who shackled Lionel Messi at the age of 36, could do little to stop Ronaldo at 22.

The Brazilian produced the most complete performance of his career, toying with Lazio for 90 minutes. Javier Zanetti and Zamorano had already scored before Ronaldo sprung Lazio’s offside trap in the 69th minute to utterly bamboozle the hapless Luca Marchegiani, putting the goalkeeper on the floor without so much as touching the ball before stroking it into the empty net.

Ronaldo lifts the Uefa Cup in 1998.
Ronaldo lifts the Uefa Cup in 1998. Photograph: Kolvenbach

“It was incredible, but he did tricks like that in every training session,” recalled Youri Djorkaeff. “We were used to it. Ronaldo was phenomenal. He proved that he was a cut above the rest that season.” It became one of the defining goals of the 1990s, confirmation that Ronaldo was a 21st-century footballer playing in the dying embers of the 20th.

Ronaldo would end the 1997-98 season with 34 goals in all competitions, 25 in Serie A. He had torn the most unrelenting league the world has ever seen to shreds. “My toughest opponents would be Maradona, Ronaldo, who was phenomenal in his two years at Inter, and Zidane,” said Maldini when asked by La Gazzetta dello Sport to name the players who gave him the hardest time in his 24-year career. “Ronaldo was the only player who really stirred fear in me. Just walking on the same pitch as he did was terrifying for me,” wrote Cannavaro in 2018.

Inter did not win the Scudetto, but going into France 98 there was no doubting Ronaldo was the finest footballer on planet Earth. Everything seemed to be there for the taking and most assumed that he would only get better. Yet, just two months after his Uefa Cup zenith in Paris, the same city bore witness to the beginning of the end of peak Ronaldo, and he was never the same. The human knee simply wasn’t built for that level of contorting, pulling and pushing – not on a frame as muscular as Ronaldo’s and at such devastating speed.

But, if you were fortunate enough to witness it, Ronaldo was special in 1997-98. The ultimate cheat code player. Il Fenomeno.