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Lionel Messi scored his league-leading 20th goal of the season as football in Spain resumed this past week © AFP JAIME REINA


Five talking points from European football this weekend

PARIS, France, Jun 14 – Football returned to Spain and Italy, two of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic, this weekend after a three-month shutdown while the German season is approaching the finish line after setting the example for other leagues to follow.

AFP Sport looks at five talking points from this weekend’s action across the continent:

Different look, same Messi

— More than three months had passed since Lionel Messi’s last appearance on a football field. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner will be 33 in little over a week, but while he approaches veteran status, his post-lockdown look is more of a reminder of the young Messi.

The hair is longer and swept over to one side. Most strikingly the beard has gone, leaving the Argentine looking fresh-faced.

La Liga’s leading scorer looked sharp with the ball at his feet too, and scored the final goal of a 4-0 win away in Mallorca — after earlier strikes by Arturo Vidal, Martin Braithwaite and Jordi Alba — as Barcelona stayed two points clear of title rivals Real Madrid.

Hazard health again a concern

Eden Hazard made his first start since February but his injury troubles may have resurfaced © AFP / PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU

— Real Madrid made a convincing first step in their renewed chase of Barcelona, sweeping Eibar aside 3-1 in their new training ground home at the Alfredo di Stefano Stadium.

However Eden Hazard, making his first start since February, gave Real fresh cause for concern as he was replaced on the hour, with icing strapped to his right ankle — the one which required surgery in March.

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The Belgium star has endured a trying first season in Spain but played a part in all three goals Sunday before his withdrawal. His fitness will require close monitoring with each team playing their remaining 11 matches over just 39 days.

Having surrendered the initiative with a patchy run of form before the interruption, Real face two tricky assignments in the coming week with games against Champions League chasing Valencia and Real Sociedad.

Rusty Ronaldo, Juve reach final

Cristiano Ronaldo missed a first-half penalty in the Italian Cup semi-final second leg against AC Milan © AFP / Miguel MEDINA

— Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty but Juventus scraped into the final of the Italian Cup on away goals despite a 0-0 draw at home to AC Milan on Friday, on what should have been the opening day of Euro 2020 in Rome.

The semi-final second leg in Turin was the first match played in Italy since March 9.

“It was odd and difficult at the start, playing in an empty stadium after 90 days away,” said Juve defender Leonardo Bonucci. More than eight million TV viewers tuned in to watch the match shown free-to-air on national broadcaster RAI.

Juve will take on Napoli on Wednesday in the final. Dries Mertens scored his club record 122nd goal in a 1-1 draw at home to Inter Milan on Saturday, sending Gennaro Gattuso’s team through 2-1 on aggregate.

Bayern on brink of coronation

Hansi Flick has steered Bayern Munich to the cusp of a record-extending 30th Bundesliga title © POOL/AFP / Christof STACHE

— Hansi Flick is one win away from capping a whirlwind first season in charge of Bayern Munich with the Bundesliga title, the club’s eighth in a row.

Bayern overcame the absence of suspended duo Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Mueller to edge past Champions League hopefuls Borussia Moenchengladbach 2-1. Victory at relegation-threatened Werder Bremen on Tuesday would secure a record-extending 30th league trophy for the Bavarians.

More could follow, with Bayern through to the German Cup final against Bayer Leverkusen and the dream of a treble alive as they still have the latter stages of the Champions League to look forward to.

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Cutouts in vogue across Europe

Cardboard cutouts have become a familiar sight at grounds at Europe © POOL/AFP / ERDEM SAHIN

— The Turkish Super Lig resumed on Friday with games behind closed doors, although Fenerbahce joined a number of clubs across Europe in filling the empty stands with cardboard cutouts of supporters.

The Istanbul giants marked their return to action with a 2-1 victory over bottom side Kayserispor. Strict health measures have been introduced including taking the temperature of every individual entering the stadium, dividing substitute players between the bench and empty stands, and regularly disinfecting the footballs.

However, the Turkish federation is holding out hope fans could return in the coming weeks if the situation improves.

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