Barcelona found a new hero this weekend in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, just as Manchester City were reminded of the one that got away as Harry Kane inspired Tottenham Hotspur. Meanwhile, AC Milan’s big two dropped points in their Serie A title pushes, while Luis Suarez went all spectacular again.
Here are Sam Marsden, Mark Ogden, Julien Laurens and James Tyler with what you need to know from around Europe.
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Four talking points
Aubameyang announces himself at Barcelona
The third might have been contentious, but the (updated) record books show that Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang opened his Barcelona account with a hat trick as the Catalan side continued their upturn in form under Xavi Hernandez with an impressive 4-1 LaLiga win at Valencia .
In just his second start since a free transfer from Arsenal, Aubameyang netted either side of a Frenkie de Jong strike as Barca raced into a three-goal lead by half-time. Carlos Soler pulled one back and then fired just wide as Valencia made a comeback attempt, but the hosts’ hopes ended when Pedri scored with a powerful strike from 25 yards.
Or so it seemed. Only later, after replays showed the ball had taken the slightest deflection off his back, was Aubameyang awarded the goal. Barca later posted a video on social media, with the smiling Gabonese striker clutching the match ball, which was signed by his teammates.
Pedri may not have got the goal, but he did get praise aplenty from Xavi — « There is no player in the world with as much talent as him, and he is only 19! » — after coming off the bench for the final 30 minutes to help wrestle back control.
Barca are unbeaten in nine LaLiga games and remain in the fourth and final Champions League spot. They have taken 69% of the points available under Xavi, with that haul of 25 points from 36 available showing marked improvement on Ronald Koeman’s record of 15 from 30. –Marsden
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) February 20, 2022
Smith Rowe, Saka are symbols of Arsenal optimism
Something good is beginning to happen at Arsenal. Whether Mikel Arteta’s side can clinch Champions League this season remains to be seen, but the style of their 2-1 victory against Brentford pointed toward a bright future, and two reasons for the excitement stem from scorers Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka.
Between them, the youngsters have scored 16 league goals this season — Smith Rowe leads 9-7 — and their flair and adventure have seen them become figureheads of a side that finally appears to be heading in the right direction after years of drift.
Arsenal stuck by Arteta as he cleared out under-performing high earners such as Mesut Ozil and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Now, though more ups and downs will come, the ability at the manager’s disposal means Gunners fans have reason to believe their team can be a true force to be reckoned with. –Ogden
Milan clubs slip, Serie A race tightens
While some European leagues already appear to have champions-elect, Italy’s top flight continues to serve up twists and turns, with this weekend’s action seeing leaders AC Milan and Inter, in second, dropping points to boost the hopes of third-place Napoli, who travel to Cagliari on Monday knowing they will go top with a win.
Milan opened the scoring inside five minutes at bottom-side Salernitana, only to be thankful for an Ante Rebic goal to claim a point from a 2-2 draw, while Inter were stunned at home by Sassuolo, who scored twice in the opening half hour and never looked back.
The pressure of a title race is taking a toll: Milan have won only two of their last five league games and Inter are winless in three, which opens the door for Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli, who have taken 17 of a possible 21 points since the start of 2022 after a tough spell of their own in December. — Laurens
Liverpool maintain Premier League title pressure
You can understand why things felt a little « second gear » for Liverpool against Norwich at Anfield. The Canaries’ struggles make them easy prey — with four wins in 25 games, they are likely preparing for another season in the Championship — yet it took more than an hour for Jurgen Klopp’s side to find their stride.
After the impressive Milot Rashica scored against the run of play, Liverpool roused themselves. Sadio Mane’s acrobatic scissor kick pulled them level, before Mohamed Salah’s 150th goal for the club — via an assist from goalkeeper Alisson that induced panic in goalkeeper Angus Gunn and his defense — made it 2-1 three minutes later. Luis Diaz then capped a dizzying last half hour with his first in red.
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All of which drew Klopp’s men closer to the previously-thought-untouchable Man City, although it did leave you wondering why attacking panache took so long. Regardless, this Liverpool squad has weathered injuries and Africa Cup of Nations absences, rotated steadily and reinforced in January.
And now, they lie just six points back of Man City, with a game in hand and an Etihad Stadium trip to come. Buckle up! — Tyler
The ESPN FC crew reacts to Manchester City’s 3-2 loss to Tottenham.
Three must-see goals
Merlin magic helps Nantes beat PSG
Three days after the likes of Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior failed to muster a shot on target, let alone a goal, against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, Nantes left-back Quentin Merlin scored his first goal as a professional in a stunning Ligue 1 win against the French champions.
From the edge of the penalty area, 19-year-old Merlin hits the purest, most perfect left-foot strike you will see this season to lodge the ball in the top-right corner, rooting Keylor Navas to the spot. While Alban Lafont was player of the match for wonderful saves to deny Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Co., this game will be remembered for Merlin’s moment of magic. — Laurens
— beIN SPORTS Español (@ESbeINSPORTS) February 19, 2022
Larsen gets on his bike for Hoffenheim
Hoffenheim left it quite late to get a win at Wolfsburg, but Jacob Bruun Larsen began the comeback from a goal down in style when he managed to swing his leg up and over to meet a Pavel Kaderabek header, slicing a shot beyond the helpless goalkeeper Koen Casteels from close range.
Bruun Larsen has had a tough time since struggling to live up to expectations at Borussia Dortmund, but the 23-year-old winger made the necessary impact on this occasion and set the stage for Andrej Kramaric to thump home Christoph Baumgartner’s low cross, sealing victory for top-four-chasing Hoffenheim. — Tyler
Hoffenheim’s Jacob Bruun Larsen brings them equal with a phenomenal scissor kick.
Suarez caps much-needed Atletico win
Luis Suarez had scored just once in his last 15 club games, leading to questions about his place in the team, as well as his long-term future at the top level, but he silenced his critics with a stunning 40-yard lob in a 3-0 win at Osasuna that boosted Atletico’s top-four hopes.
The former Barcelona striker, who turned 35 last month, spotted goalkeeper Sergio Herrera off his line as Atletico countered and executed the finish perfectly. The goal drew comparisons with one scored by the Uruguayan striker against Norwich in 2012, while playing for Liverpool in the Premier League. –Marsden
WHAT A FINISH FROM LUIS SUAREZ 😲🔥 pic.twitter.com/nve9B28IaX
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) February 19, 2022
Two teams that should be worried
Signs do not augur well for Augsburg
Ricardo Pepi’s Bundesliga move in January was the latest accomplishment in a remarkable rise for the US national team striker, but his new club is going to find it hard to remain in the German top flight given an ongoing struggle to collect points, the latest of which came in a 2-1 home defeat to Freiburg.
It was Augsburg’s fourth reverse in six games and it offered fresh frustration: An elegant counter-attack goal by Michael Gregoritsch canceled out Nils Pedersen’s early header for Wolfsburg, but goalkeeper Rafal Gikiewicz gifted the visitors a second, after which Augsburg created little — the xG for the game was a one-sided 0.96-2.49 — even after Pepi came on as an 80th-minute substitute.
It sounds weird to say their position in the bottom three is a positive point, but it is true: Lying 16th, they are above a Greuther Furth side that seem sunk and a Stuttgart team that have amassed just two points since early December. Augsburg would be favorites to stay up via a relegation playoff, but time is running out. — Tyler
Goals from Nils Petersen and Nico Schlotterbeck sees Freiburg move to 5th in the Bundesliga.
Sevilla struggling at the wrong time
Sevilla failed to beat Espanyol and their chances of reeling in LaLiga leaders Real Madrid are going to disappear if they cannot turn draws into wins. Julen Lopetegui’s side led through Papu Gomez at the RCDE Stadium, but went on to draw 1-1 to slip six points behind Madrid, who beat Alaves.
Finishing second, and therefore ahead of Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, would represent a huge step forward for Sevilla, who have not ended a season in the top two since 1957, but there will also be a tinge of disappointment if title hopes fade because of draws against teams in the bottom half.
Since losing to Madrid in November, Sevilla are unbeaten in 11 league games, but have been held in four of their last five and have won just three of their last eight. Next weekend is the derby against Real Betis, who are third and, with a win, would cut the gap on their local rivals to two points. –– Marsden
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) February 20, 2022
Kane hurts Man City in more ways than one
ESPN FC’s Shaka Hislop praises Harry Kane and Antonio Conte following Tottenham’s 3-2 victory over Manchester City in the Premier League.
Nobody had a better weekend than Harry Kane, but it was all about the timing for the Tottenham striker, whose two goals in a 3-2 win at Man City not only blew the Premier League title race wide open, but also showed the champions exactly what they missed by failing to sign him last summer.
The 28-year-old displayed everything that made him a priority target for Pep Guardiola, making Tottenham’s first goal with a pinpoint pass to Son Heung-Min — who teed up Dejan Kulusevski — then putting on a centre-forward masterclass in the second half to dominate centre-halves Ruben Dias and Aymeric Laporte.
Kane conjured a first-time finish to make it 2-1 and then, moments after Riyad Mahrez appeared to have saved a point for the hosts with a penalty, headed a fine winner. Indeed, without a VAR reversal early in the second half, when Kulusevski strayed offside at the start of a move that led to a goal, the England captain would have had a hat trick.
As it was, two was enough to boost Spurs’ top-four hopes and complete a home-and-away league double over City. Guardiola’s side have done pretty well without Kane, but the player, whose £160m valuation was deemed too high, showed they missed out on a world-class striker. — Ogden