European soccer news: Why Xhaka was key to Leverkusen's title

Leverkusen celebrate first Bundesliga title in 5-0 thrashing (1:54)

Bayer Leverkusen dominate Werder Bremen in a 5-0 victory and celebrate the club's first Bundesliga title. (1:54)

It's another weekend of European football and, as we edge closer and closer to the end of the season, a number of clubs have one hand on some silverware, and one who were able to grab their title with both hands!

On Sunday, Bayer Leverkusen lifted their first ever Bundesliga title to end Bayern Munich's grip on the league. Manchester United edged Chelsea to go through to the Women's FA Cup final, and Arsenal thumped Bristol City in the Women's Super League.

On Saturday in Spain, Real Madrid got their win over Mallorca which sees them edge closer to another LaLiga title, while Barcelona defeated Cadiz to put them in good form before their UEFA Champions League return leg against PSG midweek.

In Germany, Bayern Munich delayed the early celebration of Bayer Leverkusen winning the Bundesliga with their win over Cologne and over in Wales, it was party time as Wrexham secured another promotion, this time to League One.

Let's get into the action.

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An Arsenal outcast helped Bayer Leverkusen win maiden championship

Thousands of fans flooded Leverkusen's BayArena on Sunday evening, celebrating the club's first German championship win. Bayer Leverkusen's historic campaign has reached a first summit, with two more titles -- the DFB-Pokal and the UEFA Europa League -- being within reach. Obviously, the name of Xabi Alonso has been on everyone's lips, given how the former world-class midfielder has transformed Leverkusen into a seemingly unbeatable side.

But as much praise as the 42-year-old manager rightfully receives, he couldn't have done it without an exceptional group of players. Arguably, the one player who has impressed most this season is Granit Xhaka. The 31-year-old's switch from Arsenal to Leverkusen last summer might have looked like a step down for an ageing midfielder who saw the writing on the wall when Arsenal were pursuing Declan Rice.

But it turns out that the move to Leverkusen was perfect for Xhaka, who had already played for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga early on in his career. Rather than just being an auxiliary figure at Arsenal, Xhaka has found himself in a leadership role at Leverkusen. In the past, the Basel native has often hit the headlines due to his outspoken personality and politically charged statements. But he's been nothing but a true leader and helping hand for Alonso since his arrival.

Plus, he has proven that he can serve as the Alonso-type-of-midfielder within Leverkusen's tactical system. Throughout the season, Xhaka has shown how he can read the field exceptionally well and commit very few mistakes in the build-up of plays. Florian Wirtz and others have benefited greatly from Xhaka's assistance out of the backfield. With his football IQ and consistency in performance, Xhaka embodies what Leverkusen have made so successful under Alonso. -- Constantin Eckner

Sunday talking points around the leagues

United topple Chelsea's FA Cup stronghold

Coming into their FA Cup semifinal, the history between Manchester United and Chelsea could be described as one-sided, with the Blues the dominant team in all previous meetings with the Red Devils. But Sunday at lunchtime, the hosts finally scratched a checkmark in their W column after a 2-1 win.

A goal for United 40 seconds into tie helped disrupt the uneven balance between the two. It was the first chance and first shot all in the first minute, and Lucía García took it with aplomb. A second chance, again from a nippy cross, presented itself for the hosts 22 minutes later and this time it was for Rachel Williams to nod into Hannah Hampton's waiting net. The lineup and tactics from the hosts were spot on, the first two chances resulting in a lead that, try as they might, Chelsea couldn't topple.

Joao Felix scores bicycle goal to give Barcelona the lead

Joao Felix finds the back of the net with a bicycle kick to give Barcelona a 1-0 lead.

A goal for Lauren James, who has consistently robbed Mary Earps' of a clean sheet when the two sides meet, deep in first half stoppage time could or should have announced the comeback, but time and again the visitors came up empty. There were necessary plaudits for Earps who made a pair of sublime saves, as well as her tireless defense that endeavored to make life hard for the visitors. Even after Chelsea manager Emma Hayes had thrown the metaphorical kitchen sink at the match, substituting three attackers into the mix, there was no equalizer to be found and all too soon, the Blues found themselves out of the running of another piece of silverware.

For Chelsea, the match should have provided a chance to respond after their last outing -- a league cup final loss -- yet the ball never quite sat kindly for the visitors, their flow towards Earps' goal never quite believable, even when they were on dominant, as they were for large swathes of the game.

For United, a second successive trip to Wembley awaits and a first chance to dominate their opposition on the day, and for United Marc Skinner, who has been under fire all season, a chance to test his tactical nous with a view to coming out on top, just like against Chelsea. -- Sophie Lawson

Arsenal cruise past Bristol City to keep European dreams alive

Off the back of victory in the Continental Tyres League cup in their last outing, Arsenal displayed their most ruthless and cohesive performance for 90 minutes in the Women's Super League thus far this season, thrashing Bristol City 5-0 at Mangata Pay UK Stadium. Beth Mead and Alessia Russo both struck twice alongside Ella Powell's own goal that contributed to the Robbins' demise, stretching the gap with fourth-place Manchester United to nine points.

It was never going to be an easy task to break down Bristol City's low block, a specific area where Arsenal have struggled, yet the Gunners proved they can conjure all the answers and display creativity to break down even the most organized of defenses. The use of the left-flank link-up between Australian duo Steph Catley and Caitlin Foord proved to be Arsenal's best attacking threat, with multiple chances stemming from their dominant display.

Coming off an international break, a team can often lack cohesion and connection, having spent the past 10 days with various national teams. Yet for Arsenal, they were the picture of a connected squad.

With the victory under their belt, Jonas Eidevall's side are comfortably in contention for a place in Europe next season with four games of the season left to play. -- Emily Koegh

Americans Abroad

It was a quiet Sunday for U.S. players abroad. Few players either played or stood out, which included Fulham defender Antonee Robinson, who helped his side clinch a 2-0 victory over West Ham United. The Cottagers sit in 12th place of the table, and Robinson has been instrumental to their victories this season.

Elsewhere, Christian Pulisic came off the bench in the 65th minute for AC Milan in a thrilling 3-3 draw against Sassuolo. However, Pulisic only managed one shot for the Rossoneri, who are 13 points behind leaders Internazionale with only six rounds of matches remaining in the season. -- SherShah Atif

News of the day

  • Chelsea's American owner Todd Boehly is confident the club will not breach the Premier League's Profit and Sustainability Rules (PSR) despite their latest accounts showing losses of £89.1 million ($111m) for the financial year ending in June 2023. "The club continues to balance success on the field together with the financial imperatives of complying with UEFA and Premier League financial regulations," Boehly said in the accounts. "The club has complied with these since their inception in 2012 and expects to do so in the foreseeable future."

  • Manchester United goalkeeper André Onana said he wants to "start to pay back" club fans for their support at the start of the season. Onana had a turbulent beginning at United, marked by high-profile errors. "I received a lot of positive messages when I arrived here and when I was facing difficulty here, [the] message from the fans, from Manchester United fans [across] the whole world there was like, 'André take your time. We know who you are and everything will be alright,'" Onana said.

  • Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was at a loss to explain their defeat to Crystal Palace on Sunday. "Could be," Klopp said, when asked if the result was because of a hangover from the defeat to Atalanta. "If you look at my teams over the years, I think you could say our pressing is usually good, the counterpress is there. The first half [against Palace], we were open -- like how can that happen?"

And finally, on Sunday...

Was there ever any question of what this Sunday's "and finally ..." would be about? Bayer Leverkusen players were soaked with beer after their celebrations in the dressing room, hallways, news conference and on the pitch. The man at the center of the club's historic title, Alonso, was not spared, either. -- Atif


The lead: Madrid's narrow Mallorca win edges them closer to LaLiga title

Real Madrid's trip to Mallorca in LaLiga was always going to be an awkward test, squeezed in the middle of a Champions League quarterfinal, and facing a team in need of points at the bottom of the table. And so it proved, with Aurélien Tchouaméni's long-range strike -- which appeared to take a significant deflection -- the difference between the two teams, giving Madrid a valuable 1-0 win and another step towards clinching the league title.

Coach Carlo Ancelotti's decision to make five changes, benching Vinícius Júnior, Rodrygo, Toni Kroos, Eduardo Camavinga, and Dani Carvajal, was understandable given the context of the Manchester City tie. But the result was a disjointed first-half performance which saw Madrid create just one half chance when Jude Bellingham's curling shot hit the bar.

In the second half, things improved. Tchouaméni put Madrid ahead in the 48th minute, and the team's attacking threat increased after an hour when Ancelotti introduced Camavinga and Vinicius. The Brazil forward immediately went close to scoring twice himself, before more quick footwork set up Federico Valverde, who rounded goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic before his shot was somehow blocked on the line.

At the other end, keeper Andriy Lunin had to save at full stretch from Sergi Darder to maintain Madrid's lead. There were a few minutes for back-from-injury Éder Militão, too, introduced as a late substitute in added time, although not enough to suggest that the centre-back is in contention for a starting spot against City on Wednesday.

Ultimately, a win was all that Madrid needed, in what was never going to be a straightforward game against a Mallorca side stung by their penalty shootout defeat in last weekend's Copa del Rey final. Thanks to Tchouameni and a stroke of luck, they got it. -- Alex Kirkland

Saturday talking points around the leagues

Barca's win over Cadiz puts them in good form before PSG return leg

João Félix's brilliant bicycle kick earned Barcelona a 1-0 win against Cádiz at the Nuevo Mirandilla on Saturday as they remained eight points behind LaLiga leaders Real Madrid ahead of next Sunday's Clásico at the Santiago Bernabéu.

Félix scored the only goal of the game in the 37th minute, finishing acrobatically from a corner to take his tally to 10 goals in all competitions this season.

The Portuguese winger also hit the post in the second half -- although the flag belatedly went up for offside -- and was responsible for some of Barça's best moments in an otherwise unremarkable game.

He hopes his performance will earn him a place in the team for Tuesday's Champions League quarterfinal second leg against Paris Saint-Germain at the Olympic Stadium, which Barça go into with a 3-2 advantage.

However, the fact he started here suggests he may have to settle for a place on the bench, with wingers Lamine Yamal and Raphinha two of eight players to drop out of the side that won in Paris as coach Xavi Hernández rung the changes.

Despite those rotations, Barça got the job done against Cádiz, who remain in the bottom three, to extend their unbeaten streak in all competitions to 13 matches.

As well as Félix, Barça also had goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen to thank for the points against Cádiz. The German goalkeeper made a superb save from Diadie Samassékou in the second half to extend his team's run of clean sheets in the league to six matches.

Barça's upturn in form may have come too late to challenge in LaLiga. They remain eight points adrift of Madrid after their victory at Mallorca and a failure to win next weekend's Clásico will likely end their slim title hopes.

That makes Tuesday's game against PSG so big as Barça target their first Champions League semifinal since 2019. -- Sam Marsden

Bayern delay Leverkusen's Bundesliga triumph as they beat Cologne in convincing fashion

With their backs against the wall, Bayern Munich delivered a mature performance against Cologne, beating the relegation-threatened side 2-0 thanks to goals by Raphaël Guerreiro and Thomas Müller. Bayern, therefore, delayed the almost inevitable Bundesliga win by Bayer Leverkusen. The Xabi Alonso-led team play Werder Bremen on Sunday and have the chance to secure their maiden championship with a win at BayArena.

Bayern manager Thomas Tuchel, who was not allowed to coach from the sideline due to a suspension, decided to make several personnel changes for the game against Cologne, as he seemingly intended to rest some players in anticipation of the second leg of Bayern's UEFA Champions League quarterfinal tie with Arsenal in a few days.

Still, the record German champions did not want to fumble yet another league game, leaving Cologne as little room to breathe as possible during most of the game. As seen so often this season, Cologne were primarily hoping for opportunities to hit their opponents on the break, with fast-paced striker Sargis Adamyan being positioned near the offside line throughout most of the first hour. The 30-year-old Armenian had two chances to hurt Bayern early on but could not convert.

From there on, Bayern took over completely, waiting patiently for Cologne's defense to commit more and more mistakes. Guerreiro scored the go-ahead goal in the 65th minute after a Joshua Kimmich corner kick, while Müller cleared up any remaining doubts during stoppage time, capitalizing from a miscue between Jacob Christensen and Luca Waldschmidt. Bayern would have needed a solid performance like the one on Saturday much more often throughout the season, though Cologne are clearly a below-average team at the moment.

While Cologne are looking towards a future in 2. Bundesliga, their local rivals Bayer Leverkusen are on the verge of the biggest success in the club's long history. It all comes down to their game against Bremen on Sunday. -- Constantin Eckner

Americans abroad: Reyna impresses in first Forest start

It took a while to happen but Gio Reyna finally was able to get his first start for Nottingham Forest, the club he is on loan at Borussia Dortmund. Despite playing eight matches for the Tricky Trees this season, the USMNT attacker was unable to get a start until Saturday against Wolves and did not disappoint manager Nuno Espírito Santo as he was able to get an assist from a corner kick to allow Morgan Gibbs-White to score an equalizer in what ultimately ended in a 2-2 draw for the hosts.

Forest will take every point they can get at this stage. With five games to go until the end of the season, Reyna and Co. sit just one point above relegation zone, with Luton Town currently occupying the last spot with five games to go until the end of the season.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Weston McKennie was unable to provide any spark to Juventus in their scoreless Derby della Mole match against Torino as they continue to be in pole position to qualify for the Champions League next season. Finally in the Netherlands, both Sergiño Dest and Malik Tillman started to help PSV defeat Vitesse 6-0 as they pushed closer and closer to the finish line to an Eredivisie title, which was also buoyed by Tillman scoring the second goal for Peter Bosz's side. -- Roberto Rojas

News of the day

  • Manchester City provisionally climbed to the top of the Premier League table after defeating Luton Town 5-1 which also saw Erling Haaland score his 20th league goal of the season. Pep Guardiola's side now have 73 points with six games as a three-way title race continues with them being two points ahead of both Arsenal and Liverpool, who can climb over City with victories in their respective games on Sunday. Relegation-threatened Luton Town are 18th, a point away from safety.

  • Drama occurred in Germany after Borussia Dortmund midfielder Marcel Sabitzer was denied a hat trick on Saturday when his penalty kick against Borussia Monchengladbach was canceled by the video assistant referee (VAR) after he had scored from it. It was later revealed that the referee Florian Badstübner deemed that Omlin touched the ball before taking out Karim Adeyemi, thus invalidating the penalty. Dortmund went on to win 2-1.

And finally, on Saturday ...

League One says "Welcome to Wrexham!" The Welsh club co-owned by Hollywood celebrities Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have officially earned promotion to English football's third tier for the first time since 2005 after they defeated Forest Green Rovers 6-0 with two games to spare in the EFL League Two season.

Though they can technically still win the League Two title over the team above them (and who they still have to play) in Stockport County, Wrexham continues their quest to achieve their goal of moving up the English football pyramid and eventually up to the promised land that is the Premier League.

Nevertheless, both Reynolds and McElhenney can feel a sense of pride towards the Welsh club and they took to social media to express that.

With back-to-back promotions from the National League to League Two to now League One, another back-to-back promotion could potentially mean Wrexham playing in the Premier League in 2026. A long way to go of course, but the dream remains intact. - Rojas