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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Final day talking points: De Vrij's €40m foul and serial whiners

With the domestic seasons over in Europe Ian Hawkey reflects on some of the main talking points from the final round of games

Stefan de Vrij is dejected after his costly foul allowed Inter Milan back into the match against Lazio. Angelo Carconi / EPA
Stefan de Vrij is dejected after his costly foul allowed Inter Milan back into the match against Lazio. Angelo Carconi / EPA

Inter Milan’s trip to Lazio on Sunday night was always going to be tense. Fifth against fourth in Serie A, three points apart, but with an Inter win guaranteeing they would leapfrog their hosts on the head-to-head tiebreaker. Quite a scenario to finish a season in which, thanks to new Uefa rules, the top four from Italy all go through to the Uefa Champions League group phase, and fifth just gets the Europa League.

That made the 90 minutes worth a minimum of €40 million (Dh172m) in future revenue for the victors. Lazio took an early lead and on 77 minutes they were 2-1 up. Cue a long Inter ball forward and a stretched, slightly mistimed challenge just inside the Lazio penalty area by defender Stefan de Vrij as Mauro Icardi brought the pass under control. Icardi converted the penalty and, momentum regained, Inter then struck another to win 3-2.

Poor De Vrij. He will not play for Lazio again. That we already knew. The Dutchman, who allowed his contract to run down so he could move in the summer, has had an agreement in place with his next club for a while. That club? Inter, subject to official confirmation. Nobody at Lazio, whose manager Simone Inzaghi has been praising the defender’s professionalism, doubts De Vrij’s commitment to Lazio, but, Italy being Italy, conspiracy theories about his unfortunate role in Sunday's drama has spread voraciously across social media.

Memphis Depay bagged a hat-trick in Lyon's win over Nice to finish third in Ligue 1 and secure with it Uefa Champions League qualification. Emmanuel Foudrot / Reuters
Memphis Depay bagged a hat-trick in Lyon's win over Nice to finish third in Ligue 1 and secure with it Uefa Champions League qualification. Emmanuel Foudrot / Reuters

Marseille’s Memphis blues

Almost as nervy as the showdown in Rome was the 38th-day French tussle for Champions League bounty with three clubs in the frame for the two places left to join champions Paris Saint-Germain in Europe’s elite competition. Monaco made easy work of securing runners-up spot, with a 3-0 win at relegation-bound Troyes, but the ownership of the next slot shifted agonisingly back and forth.

Marseille, beaten in the Europa League final last Wednesday night, shook off any gloom from that quickly, 2-0 up against Amiens by the 18th minute. By half time, their advantage had been halved but they went into the dressing-room to the happy news that Lyon, third and a point ahead of Marseille at kick off, were losing to Nice.

A Memphis Depay equaliser in that match, on 48 minutes, still left Marseille above Lyon. The minutes ticked by. Only with a quarter of the contest left did Lyon scramble back to third. Their hero? Depay, whose 18th goal of the league season put Lyon 2-1 up and who completed his hat-trick four minutes from full time to cushion his club against a very late second goal for Nice. And so voilà: another Europa League campaign for Marseille, although at least it will not be as gruelling as the last one, an odyssey that started way back in the July qualifying rounds.

Serial winners ... and whiners

Antonio Conte carried a catchphrase into his post-match media duties after guiding Chelsea to victory in the FA Cup final. He was, he reminded reporters more than once, a “serial winner”. And indeed, the cup triumph over Manchester United maintains Conte’s fine record: four league titles and now England’s main knockout prize in his last five seasons in club management.

But serial winners, as Conte knows, are not quite the rarity they used to be in Europe's elite leagues. Juventus have this month wrapped up their seventh successive Italian championship, of which Conte oversaw the first three; Bayern Munich are Bundesliga winners for the sixth year on the trot, while PSG regained a French title that has been theirs for five of the last six editions of Ligue 1. Barcelona, deposed in 2016/17, have won three of the last four Liga crowns.

Granted, the Premier League, in which Chelsea have finished 10th, first and now fifth in the last three attempts, is more fluid. No club has retained the title for nine seasons now. Conte may have been right when he emphasised the difficulties of staying ahead of the competition in England. He will not, though, be applauded by his Chelsea dressing-room for saying fifth-place in the table felt like “the maximum for these players”. Conte is almost certainly be taking his "serial-winning" elsewhere after a two-year stint London which will be remembered for the two trophies, yes, but also some serial whining.

Adios, Arrivederci, Auf Wiedersehen

Emotional farewells this weekend to some genuine legends. Jupp Heynckes really does intend not to return to management. He is in his mid-70s and although his fourth spell coaching Bayern Munich finished with a defeat in Saturday’s German Cup final – to an Eintracht Frakfurt coached by his designated Bayern successor, Niko Kovac – he won the league in style and with his usual dignity.

Gigi Buffon, Fernando Torres and Andres Iniesta will play football again, but not in the jerseys they have worn with most enthusiasm. Buffon leaves Juventus leaving the club's next wearer of the captain’s armband and goalkeeping jersey with an impossibly tough act to follow. Torres leaves Atletico Madrid with a winners medal from his boyhood club, in the Europa League, the certainty they are in far better shape than the Atletico he captained, as a teenager, in the second division.

As for Iniesta, much of Camp Nou cried on Sunday at its last sight of an impeccable Iniesta pass. At least for the rest of us, there should be more of those to admire at the World Cup.