The Champions League did not disappoint this week, producing unbelievable drama in which all four of the underdogs at the time the ties were drawn ended up progressing to the quarter-finals. Similar shocks in the Europa League coupled with some exciting league action made for an exciting seven days.
Before all of this unfolded, however, some footballers had a bit of fun for pancake day. There were different techniques on display – John Terry cracked out some silky skills, juggling his pancake with some intricate keepie-uppies, while Harry Maguire went down a more traditional route for a centre-back. He met his pancake with a bullet header, guiding it on to the kitchen side. Impressive stuff, but I think I’ll stick to using a frying pan.
On the very same night that Maguire was preparing pancakes in his kitchen, Ajax were cooking up an upset in the Santiago Bernabeu. They went to the home of Real Madrid, who have won the Champions League for three consecutive years, with a 2-1 deficit from the home leg to overturn. Their prospects looked bleak, but each and every man put in an excellent performance to overcome a sub-par Real team: Hakim Ziyech and David Neres had delivered the two goals required inside twenty minutes. Neres had his put on a plate for him by the masterful Dusan Tadic, whose roulette in the build-up was just one part of a remarkable individual highlights reel from the night. He got on the scoresheet himself to make it 3-0, whipping it wickedly into the top corner and leaving Los Blancos needing three; there was a brief response through Asensio, but thoughts of a revival were crushed by an astonishing free kick from Lasse Schone just moments later. 4-1 is how it finished, meaning Ajax marched on to the last eight at the expense of the holders.
The drama intensified on Wednesday. PSG vs Manchester United looked like a foregone conclusion after the French champions had won 2-1 at Old Trafford, but the never-say-die attitude reinstated in the club by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer worked miracles once more. Romelu Lukaku had them on the comeback trail within minutes, pouncing on a Kehrer mistake to round the keeper and score. Hope seemed to have been extinguished almost as soon as it had been rekindled, Juan Bernat tapping in a square ball from Kylian Mbappe to equalise, but with half an hour played Lukaku seized on another error to put the Red Devils back in front. This time it was Buffon at fault, spilling a swerving shot straight into the path of the Belgian. United only needed one to go through, but PSG looked by far the more likely to score next – they were on the front foot almost constantly, but never appeared particularly desperate to add another goal. A couple of uncharacteristically loose touches from Mbappe wasted the clear-cut opportunities that they did carve out, and this meant that Solskjaer’s men were still in the game as the match entered added time. They still looked unlikely to score, and a speculative long shot from Dalot appeared to sum up their lack of genuine threat, but after consulting the VAR team the match official went over to the pitch-side screen to check for a potential handball. No United players had even appealed for this, but Kimpembe was adjudged to have made himself bigger to make the block: a spot kick was awarded, which Rashford dispatched to send Manchester United into the quarter-finals. A similar story was unfolding in Portugal. After 90 minutes the score between Porto and Roma was 2-1, the same as in the reverse leg – the match entered extra time and appeared to be heading for penalties, but VAR once again had other ideas. A free kick flashed across the penalty area, evading everyone, but the apparent respite for Roma was temporary – the voice in the referee’s ear once again urged him to go to the screen, where he saw a tug on the attacker’s shirt by Florenzi. This was less controversial than the call against Kimpembe, but no less dramatic: Telles handled the pressure to send Porto through to the quarter-finals.
The Thursday night edition of European football also got the memo about excitement and upsets. Arsenal, who were forced to play in the early kick-off slot due to rules about timing clashes with teams based in the same city, travelled to Rennes as favourites – they looked as though they were going to meet these expectations when they took the lead inside five minutes through Alex Iwobi, but things soon took a turn for the worse. Sokratis saw red on 41 minutes after two bookable offences: this punishment was compounded when Bourigeaud fired home a venomous volley on the rebound from the resulting free kick. The London club could only try to hold on in the second half, but the pressure from the hosts resulted in a goal after 65 minutes, Monreal turning the ball into his own net. Sarr made it 3-1 in the dying minutes to secure a scoreline that reflected their second-half dominance. Arsenal bounced back strongly in the league, beating Manchester United 2-0 to leapfrog them into fourth.
North London rivals Spurs had less fun in their league encounter this week. Fresh from knocking out Dortmund in the other Champions League tie of the round, it seemed as if Southampton would be light work – this did not prove to be the case. Harry Kane eventually gave them the lead after missing a raft of good chances, but Hassenhutl was proactive in making changes at half time and The Saints looked a more dangerous outfit after the break. Youngster Yan Valery got the equaliser in fortuitous circumstances, his scuffed shot looping over Lloris and in, but there was nothing lucky about the next goal. James Ward-Prowse delivered his party piece, whipping a free kick deliciously into the top corner. Spurs pushed, but could not get level: they now have one point in four games since Kane came back, a run which has seen them firmly drop out of the title race. Manchester City are leading what has become a two-horse race, and they were helped on their way this week by an unbelievably poor piece of officiating. Paul Tierney took it upon himself to overrule his linesman and declare Raheem Sterling’s opener against Watford onside: he had presumably spotted that the ball was played on to Sterling, but the England winger was patently attempting to play the ball when this happened. It can only be assumed that Tierney does not have a proper grasp on the rules, given that he clearly saw the incident – this stroke of luck broke Watford’s stubborn resistance, and Sterling went on to score a hat-trick with two far less contentious goals. Another stroke of fortune for City was that Watford opted to rotate seven players out of a side that is usually highly consistent; Deeney and Deulofeu only came on at 3-0 down, and within seconds combined to score. Kompany looked very uncomfortable against Deeney: Watford fans, and indeed Liverpool supporters, may well wonder what might have been if Javi Gracia hadn’t decided to ‘rest’ players for an FA Cup game that is not for another week.
Liverpool responded with a 4-2 victory over Burnley, meaning they remain just a point adrift – their next challenge is a trip to the Allianz Arena to take on Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Bayern prepared in the perfect way, thumping Wolfsburg 6-0: this was enough to move them top of the Bundesliga for the first time in months, overtaking Borussia Dortmund by virtue of the newly-improved goal difference. Gnabry, Lewandowski, James, Muller and Kimmich were all on the score-sheet in a total rout; Muller’s was the pick of the bunch, a deft flick into the bottom corner. Elsewhere in the Bundesliga, Hannover against Bayer Leverkusen was dogged by terrible conditions: heavy snow wreaked havoc, leaving the pitch barely playable. It looked like Leverkusen were adapting well, Kevin Volland firing the visitors two ahead inside half an hour, but Haraguchi could only watch on in horror after the snow stopped his shot on the line after he had rounded the keeper. The bemused defender hacked it clear gratefully. This looked like it may prove a turning point, with Hannover coming back to level the scores at 2-2, but a late winner from exciting prospect Kai Havertz secured the win that takes Leverkusen 5th for the time-being.
Marseille are also pushing for European qualification in France, rallying after a slow start to their campaign. One man who has played a big part in the rejuvenation is Mario Balotelli, and he was on target again to score the only goal against former club OGC Nice. He left Nice in fairly acrimonious circumstances, and his goal seemed almost inevitable: Balotelli creates irresistible narratives with consummate ease. Did he show restraint in his celebrations against his former employers? Well, he didn’t get his phone out this week, but he did stage a game of rock, paper, scissors. Never change, Mario.