European soccer news: Leverkusen continue their winning ways

Marcotti calls Liverpool's injury time penalty claim 'stonewall' (1:32)

Gab Marcotti reacts to a controversial end to Liverpool vs. Manchester City, as the hosts are denied a chance to win it from the penalty spot. (1:32)

On a Saturday in which Arsenal looked like they might lose pace with the Premier League's title protagonists, they dug deep to steal a vital result. Barcelona, too, kept their title hopes alive -- if only just. Inter Milan already have one hand and four fingers on the Serie A crown, and they showed why.

Bayern Munich may be off the Bundesliga's championship pace, but that didn't stop them from putting on a show against Mainz. And the Women's FA Cup saw any hope Liverpool had of a cup semifinal extinguished by Leicester City.

On Sunday, we saw Bayer Leverkusen's unbeaten streak continue following their win over Wolfsburg as Real Madrid hit Celta Vigo for four at the Santiago Bernabeu and finally, a late thriller in the Women's FA Cup saw Tottenham prevail on penalties over Manchester City. Let's get into the action.

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The lead: Leverkusen continue to march towards maiden title following rock-solid performance

After playing their worst game of their campaign against Azerbaijani champions Qarabağ on Thursday in the UEFA Europa League, Bayer Leverkusen bounced back with a commendable performance as they beat Wolfsburg 2-0, staying 10 points ahead of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga table.

You might think that Xabi Alonso's team could run out of gas as we enter the final third of the season, but there are rarely any signs that Leverkusen will experience a drop-off in the next couple of weeks. In fact, the Rhineland side looked more vulnerable immediately after the winter break than right now.

The only real point of concern is the striker position, with Victor Boniface still being sidelined due to an adductor injury. Patrik Schick has not performed at his very best and Borja Iglesias, who joined Leverkusen on loan from Real Betis in January, needs more time to be integrated into Leverkusen's attack properly. A lack of force up front was also visible during their win over Wolfsburg on Sunday, with Leverkusen controlling the ball comfortably but being unable to create a decent number of big chances.

Still, with the numerical advantage due to Wolfsburg defender Moritz Jenz being sent off before the 30th minute, Leverkusen's 21st victory of the Bundesliga season seemed never really in danger. Their success against Wolfsburg was especially important because second-placed Bayern Munich have regained confidence in light of two decisive wins over Lazio and Mainz in recent days.

From a mathematical standpoint, Leverkusen need to win six of the remaining nine league games to secure the first championship win of their 120-year-long history. -- Constantin Eckner

Sunday talking points around the leagues

Vini. Jr inspires Madrid in 4-0 win over Celta

"He's kicked, he's whistled, he's insulted," Carlo Ancelotti said on Saturday. "And what does he do? He scores goals and provides assists." He was talking about Vinícius Júnior, and a day later, the Brazilian proved his coach right, scoring the opener and creating the third goal in Real Madrid's 4-0 LaLiga win over Celta Vigo at the Santiago Bernabeu.

The goal was the forward's fourth in a week, after he scored twice against Valencia last weekend, and once against RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League. It took him to 10 league goals this season, the same tally that he managed in all of the 2022-23 campaign, with 10 games still to play.

This performance was another illustration that Vinicius has become more versatile this season, evolving from being a tricky, touchline-hugging winger into a player who's also comfortable playing through the middle, just as likely to score a scrappy, striker's goal inside the six-yard box as a dribbling solo effort.

Vinicius Jr. taps in to make it 1-0 Real Madrid

Vinicius Jr. needs two attempts before prodding home to give Real Madrid the lead over Celta Vigo.

In the 21st minute, Celta goalkeeper Vicente Guaita had already made a double save from Antonio Rüdiger and Vinicius when the Brazilian was there to bundle the ball over the line from close range. The goal set Madrid on the way to all three points.

Rüdiger's late header, crashing off the bar, into Guaita and over the line, made sure of the result before Vinicius' cross was touched in by defender Carlos Dominguez for the third, and substitute Arda Güler added a brilliant fourth to maintain Madrid's seven-point lead at the top of the table.

All that meant Jude Bellingham, who was serving the first of his two-game suspension after being sent off against Valencia, wasn't missed at all on the pitch at the Bernabeu, although Madrid's fans displayed a banner reading "Hey Jude! Madridismo is with you" behind one of the goals before kick-off, to make sure Bellingham wasn't entirely forgotten.

There was one moment of drama involving Vinicius too. In an echo of his shove against Leipzig in midweek -- which only earned him a yellow card -- he pushed over Celta's Óscar Mingueza after he'd been cynically pulled back by the defender. Both players were booked. It felt unnecessary.

Otherwise, this was a straightforward win for Madrid, with none of the uncertainty that gripped the team against Leipzig. Guler's late strike, rounding the keeper and finishing from a tight angle, was a reminder of the huge quality the team have in reserve. In LaLiga, most of the time, they're simply too good for the opposition, regardless of whether they're at their best, and with or without Bellingham. -- Alex Kirkland

Spencer's sublime shootout saves send Spurs into semis

If the saying is "know thy enemy", there is no team in England that Robert Vilahamn's Tottenham Hotspur will feel as confident against as Manchester City, as in fact of the six games the Lilywhites have played at Brisbane Road since the turn of the year, three have been against Gareth Taylor's team. With each sparring in Leyton, Spurs have gotten a little better at handling the Citizens, disrupting the forged partnerships, and finding more balance against an opponent that likes to dominate their opposition.

A goal down six minutes in thanks to a deflected effort from Mary Fowler, the game could have gone the same way as their last encounter when a first-half Yui Hasegawa thunderstrike knocked them out of the League Cup. The hosts, however, didn't let their heads drop but rather grew into the game, going on to have the better of it in the second half.

However, struggling with their final ball, it looked like time had all but run out for Spurs and it would be four losses from four against City. Miscommunication between City's young goalkeeping sensation Khiara Keating and defender Laia Aleixandri gifted the hosts a chance at the death, one that captain Beth England pounced upon, rolling the ball into the unguarded net and pushing the game to extra time.

Lawson: Spencer the hero as Spurs oust Manchester City

Sophie Lawson reacts to Tottenham's penalty shootout victory over Manchester City in the quarterfinals of the Women's FA Cup.

The two ensuing 15-minute periods brought about little drama but rather set up a grandstand shoot-out between the two tired teams, soggy from the persistent East London rain. Having netted from 12 yards for England in both the Finalissima and World Cup (as the fourth and fifth takers respectively), Alex Greenwood and owner of the strongest shot in the world Chloe Kelly stepped up for City's first two but both were denied by Becky Spencer.

Keating then came up strong to stop the shoot-out from getting away from the three-time FA Cup winners, denying Rosella Ayane from the spot, but fighting a deficit, City could only watch as Spurs cancelled out each of their subsequent converted penalties with successful strikes of their own.

Amy James-Turner's spot-kick was the last of the usual 10 to send Spurs to their first-ever FA Cup semi-final and wrap up a bruising week for the Citizens that saw them knocked out of the league cup at the semifinal stage at home on Thursday, before their trip to the capital.

For Spurs, who are still settling into their new style under Vilahamn, the win and history it brings will feel richly deserved and will be another marker for their collective growth this season. For City and Taylor who only penned a new deal on Monday, when the treble was still on the cards, it's been two games to forget, the loss of Bunny Shaw to a second-half injury only pouring salt into the open wound. -- Sophie Lawson

Americans abroad: Pulisic and McKennie stand out once again in Italy

It was a great Sunday for the USMNT players abroad as we begin in Italy and in particular in Milan, as Christian Pulisic was on the scoresheet again for the Rossoneri in their 1-0 win over Empoli, scoring in his second straight game for Stefano Pioli's side after he drilled his shot thanks to a Noah Okafor assist.

With that goal, Pulisic has now reached 14 goal contributions in Serie A this season, the 4th-highest total in the last 30 top five seasons by an American behind Clint Dempsey and national team teammate Folarin Balogun.

Elsewhere in Italy, Weston McKennie stood out for Juventus in their match against Atalanta, contributing to two assists for goalscorers Andrea Cambiaso and Arkadiusz Milik. However, his assists were not enough to give the Bianconeri all three points as they ended their game in a 2-2 draw. That result only extends Inter's lead atop of the Serie A for both Pulisic and McKennie's teams as even with Milan's win, Inter holds a 16-point lead between their neighbors who are in second place following their 1-0 win over Bologna. -- Roberto Rojas

News of the day

And finally, on Sunday ...

Even after Paris Saint-Germain had secured qualification to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League by eliminating Real Sociedad, the Kylian Mbappé saga continues as the Parisians' star player was only able to play the last 17 minutes coming off the bench, as they were unable to snatch all three points and were subjected to a 2-2 draw against Reims in Ligue 1 action. Even though Luis Enrique's team has now gotten three straight league draws, it probably won't be enough to derail their chances of winning another Ligue 1 title, as they hold a 10-point lead over Brest who are in second.

But the main thing from the game was not the result, it was afterward. When asked afterward about Mbappe, Luis Enrique gave a really interesting response that signals that even after all the drama, he praised him and wished him the best of luck for the future.

This also comes after Mbappe downplayed any sort of rumors of a possible rift with the Spanish manager. Nevertheless, Mbappe will still want to win a trophy (or more) if it is indeed his last few months playing in his native France, as rumors continue to increase about a looming exit from PSG and a potential move to Real Madrid. -- Rojas


The lead: Havertz keeps Arsenal on course to push for title

Kai Havertz has spent much of this season looking like the expensive Arsenal signing who didn't quite fit, but on Saturday, he continued what is rapidly becoming a priceless contribution to keep the Gunners on track in the Premier League title race.

There is a debate to be had about whether the £67.5 million summer signing should have been on the pitch to head in an 86th-minute winner to secure a 2-1 win over Brentford -- more on that later -- but it continued a timely run of form that kept the pressure firmly on Liverpool and Manchester City. Havertz now has four goals and two assists from his past four games operating primarily as a central striker, the position that many questioned whether he could fully make his own both at Arsenal and previous club Chelsea.

"If somebody told me after the first two or three months that the whole stadium would be singing his song with that passion, with that feeling, with that chemistry, I would have found it hard to believe," manager Mikel Arteta said after the match. "That's what happens to good people. He's an exceptional player."

Time will tell whether he ultimately wins that battle, but Arsenal are doing everything they can to show the resilience and quality required to take the title race down to the wire.

They are only the fourth side to win each of their first eight league games of a calendar year, and the previous three all went on to win the title that season: Manchester United in 2009, Liverpool in 2020 and Man City in 2021. Brentford made them work for it, however.

For a long period here, it seemed as though Aaron Ramsdale would have an impact on the title race for all the wrong reasons after he gifted Thomas Frank's side an equaliser in first-half stoppage time. After Declan Rice's excellent 16th-minute header put the home side in front, Ramsdale took too long to clear his lines and allowed Yoane Wissa time to charge down his clearance, diverting the ball into the net.

It was a bad individual error for which Ramsdale must take the blame. Perhaps he was too eager to please; perhaps it was a lapse in concentration.

Yet Arteta might feel a little responsible, too. He has openly talked about the unusual tactic of substituting goalkeepers previously, yet he had chosen not to give Ramsdale any game time since Jan. 7 despite two things: (A) his team winning by fives and sixes of late, and (B) knowing he would be required to play here given David Raya was ineligible against his parent club.

"Errors are part of football," Arteta said. "It's how you react to it, especially for the keepers, which is probably the most difficult position. He did so in an amazing way. I'm not surprised because the whole team and the whole stadium was behind him. He has earned that respect and admiration. We really wanted to win for him."

Still, hindsight is a wonderful thing and in any case, Havertz ensured Ramsdale's difficult night -- which improved with two important saves after his error -- was merely a footnote to a game in which Brentford seemed to follow FC Porto's playbook in breaking up play with some gamesmanship, time wasting and cynical fouls.

Porto are the next visitors to north London on Tuesday aiming to hold on to a 1-0 lead in their Champions League last-16 tie. Frank was aggrieved about the officiating, though, specifically Havertz avoiding a 66th-minute dismissal for going down softly under a challenge from Nathan Collins.

"Havertz is a clear, clear dive," Frank said after the match. "That should of course have been a second yellow and a red card and then he wouldn't have been able to score the winner."

But he did, and Arsenal stay on course to push the top two all the way. -- James Olley

Saturday talking points around the leagues

Baby Barça keep slim title hopes alive

Barcelona's youngsters kept their slim title hopes alive on Friday as Lamine Yamal's brilliant goal helped them beat Mallorca 1-0 at the Olympic Stadium. The win moved them within five points of LaLiga leaders Real Madrid, who host Celta Vigo on Sunday.

Yamal, 16, was one of three teenagers named in the Barça side, with 17-year-old centre-back Pau Cubarsí and 18-year-old striker Marc Guiu also starting. He scored the only goal of the game in the 73rd minute -- after Ilkay Gündogan had missed a first-half penalty -- when he cut in from the left and found the top corner having hit the bar with a near-identical effort minutes earlier.

Lamine Yamal breaks deadlock for Barca with stunning goal

Lamine Yamal's gorgeous curler gives Barcelona a 1-0 lead over Mallorca.

Mallorca coach Javier Aguirre said all he could do was "stand and applaud" the artistry, comparing watching Yamal to the first time he saw Lionel Messi play 21 years ago. Barça boss Xavi Hernández has always been reluctant to indulge that comparison, but even he admitted the Spain winger shows "flashes" of the Argentine great.

Yamal now has 13 goal contributions in his debut campaign with Barça. This was his sixth goal of the season and it drew two reactions from the crowd in Montjuic: the initial roar when the ball hit the back of the net and then a gasp of amazement when the slow-motion replay was shown on the big screen.

However, it was Cubarsí who Xavi reserved most praise for. He lauded a "captain's performance" from the teenager, highlighting his ability to both deal with the physical threat of Mallorca's powerful front two and his talent on the ball playing out from the back. Barça, so erratic in defence at times this season, have now kept three clean sheets in a row with Cubarsí in the team.

With so many players currently injured, including Frenkie de Jong, Gavi and Pedri, the dependence on players as young as 16 and 17 at both ends of the pitch is remarkable. Things don't get any easier, either. On Tuesday, they will be tasked with helping Barça reach a Champions League quarterfinal for the first time since 2020 when they welcome Napoli to the Olympic Stadium. -- Sam Marsden

Inter's lucky 13th straight puts Serie A in their grasp

The question is no longer who can stop Inter Milan -- with an 18-point lead atop the Serie A table and just 10 games remaining, they likely can't be stopped -- but who in Italy can actually beat them?

It stood to reason that Bologna, the revelation of the season sitting fourth in the table, had a chance having beaten the Nerazzurri in the Coppa Italia. In the end, though, Inter were just too strong and earned their 13th straight win across all competitions. They have only lost once in 27 league games, a defeat to Sassuolo taking place way back in September. They are cruising toward their second title in four years, having been crowned Serie A champions in 2020-21.

Saturday's contest also pitted Simone Inzaghi against Thiago Motta, the two best managers in Italy this season, very much master vs. apprentice. Tactically, it was fascinating. The home side put a lot of pressure on the leaders with 60% possession and 19 shots, but despite Inzaghi's squad rotation (Lautaro Martínez, Benjamin Pavard and Federico Dimarco all watched from the bench), they controlled the key moments in the game.

Their hero is an unlikely one, though, as 23-year-old Germany youth international centre-back Yann Aurel Bisseck scored the only goal of the game. In only his sixth domestic start of the season, he proved his worth as an important squad member.

Now Inter can focus on their Champions League last-16 second leg at Atletico Madrid. They will travel to the Spanish capital with a one-goal advantage and a 13-game winning streak to defend -- Julien Laurens

Foxes end Liverpool cup semis hopes

In the third meeting of the season between Liverpool and Leicester City, the Foxes came out on top to book their first ever spot in the Women's FA Cup last four.

Without a win in their past three at home, Liverpool started well but were pushed to the back foot after failing to clear their lines, allowing Finland international Jutta Rantala to smash the ball home on the quarter hour. The goal drew a positive response from the hosts, but struggling to put anything meaningful on target, they left themselves open for a devastating second from the in-form Rantala, whose shot in off the bar gave the Foxes the cushion they needed.

On a day when shots on target were at a premium, the visitors had the margins on their side as they nullified Liverpool's best efforts.

After the game, Liverpool boss Matt Beard spoke of his frustrations after the pieces had failed to fall into place at Prenton Park. This marks the seventh straight season without appearing in a cup semifinal.

For the Foxes, who were without head coach Willie Kirk following allegations of a relationship with one of his players that has resulted in an internal investigation, the focus was the task at hand on the Wirral. Led by assistant manager Jennifer Foster and coach Stephen Kirby, the Foxes played to their strengths to got the better of it away from home, penning a new page of club history. -- Sophie Lawson

Americans abroad: Adams makes Bournemouth squad

He didn't see the pitch, but Tyler Adams was in an AFC Bournemouth Premier League matchday squad for the first time this season. The 25-year-old has been recovering from a hamstring injury dating back to March 2023, limited to a single 20-minute Carabao Cup appearance for the Cherries in September. The South Coast club were held to a 2-2 draw at home by relegation-threatened Sheffield United, whose Auston Trusty played the full 90 minutes.

Down in the English second division, Josh Sargent got on the board in Norwich City's 5-0 demolition of Rotheram United, with eight goals in his past eight games. He wasn't the only American scoring in the Championship, though, with Haji Wright scoring twice in Coventry City's 2-1 win at Watford, his 12th and 13th tallies in 35 league appearances.

Elsewhere in England, Chris Richards played the entirety of Crystal Palace's 1-1 draw with Luton Town while Antonee Robinson went the full 90 in Fulham's 2-1 loss at Wolverhampton Wanderers. In the Bundesliga, Joe Scally went start to finish as Borussia Monchengladbach drew 3-3 with FC Cologne.

News of the day

  • Wayne Rooney has said he believes Marcus Rashford is the only player at the club who can overtake him as Manchester United's all-time top scorer, but said he has limited sympathy amid a difficult season for the forward. When asked by TNT Sports ahead of the Everton clash whether he has sympathy for Rashford, Rooney said: "Not much to be honest. He's in a privileged position where he's playing for Manchester United."

  • Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti said Vinícius Júnior is treated worse on the pitch than any player he has coached in his career as he passionately defended the forward on Saturday. "I've looked back a bit, at history, at statistics, and I've never seen a player who's been persecuted like Vinícius," Ancelotti said in a news conference on Saturday, ahead of Madrid's LaLiga game with Celta Vigo. "He's kicked, he's whistled, he's insulted. And what does he do? He scores goals and provides assists. And then I'm supposed to talk to him about his attitude? No!"

  • Michael Edwards is in renewed talks with Liverpool's American owners, Fenway Sports Group (FSG), over a return to Anfield as the head of the club's football operations, sources have told ESPN. Edwards, the man credited with overhauling Liverpool's recruitment strategy and identifying Jurgen Klopp as manager in 2015, left his role as the club's sporting director in 2022 to pursue other opportunities. Edwards now wants to head up a new football setup at Anfield, with Bournemouth technical director Richard Hughes lined up to fill the vacant sporting director role at the end of the season.

And finally, on Saturday ...

Bayern Munich, the same Bayern Munich that are labouring ten points behind league leaders Bayer Leverkusen, crushed Mainz 8-1 on Saturday. Harry Kane scored three of those goals.

He made a little history in doing so. No one has ever scored more goals in a debut Bundesliga season than the 30-year-old England captain's 30, and no one in the history of the German top flight has ever scored four hat tricks in their debut campaign.