Europe in a Nutshell: Ivan Rakitic brings balance to Barcelona

Lionel Messi's goal wins La Liga; a team golazo from Poland; Steven Gerrard's last hurrah; PSG wins Ligue 1. Plus, how Ivan Rakitic has been an invaluable addition to Barcelona.

EUROPE IN A NUTSHELL. Two of Germany's bottom dwellers got crucial wins on Saturday, with VfB Stuttgart, which was dead last, beating Hamburg 2-1. While Pep Guardiola's nightmare second half of the season continued, giving away a lead at Freiburg, and losing on a goal by Nils Peterson in the 89th minute, 2-1, Freiburg, now in 14th place, entered as one of three clubs tied above Stuttgart.

Three teams will be vying for France's final UCL berth next weekend, with AS Monaco two points ahead of Marseille and Saint-Etienne. Paris Saint-Germain had much bigger dreams but had to settle for claiming its third straight Ligue 1 title on Saturday, with Blaise Matuidi and Ezequiel Lavezzi scoring in a 2-1 win at Montpellier, leaving Lyon locked into second.

Theo Walcott came on in the 72nd on Sunday for Arsenal, and his cross resulted in a Tyler Blackett own goal in the 82nd, after Ander Herrera had given Manchester United lead in the 32nd. David De Gea left the game in the 74th minute, acknowledging the Old Trafford crowd, as he had before the game, with the Premier League's best keeper packing his bags for Real Madrid next season. It was the last game for Falcao as well, the Colombian is property of Monaco, bit his future likely lies elsewhere. The 1-1 tie should give the Gunners third-place, allowing them to avoid a play-in for the UCL group stage, where United look headed. "It feels like a win for us today," said Walcott.

Manchester City is quietly finishing the season strong, with Sunday's 4-2 win at Swansea its fifth-straight win. Yaya Toure scored a pair of goals, raising his total to seven, in 20 games. Toure was the driving force for City last season, scoring 20 goals from midfield in 35 games. Big changes are expected at the Etihad this summer, after a disappointing season, but expectations were probably too high, with several players on the decline, and Chelsea's rise to power making retaining the EPL title unrealistic, although their games both finished 1-1. City also made progress in the Champions League, beating Bayern Munich in Manchester and losing by one goal in Germany, City took four points in two games from Roma, second in Serie A, and gave Barcelona its stiffest test yet over two legs -- but none of this means that Coach Manuel Pellegrini won't get fired.

Southampton's Sadio Mane claimed a hat trick inside three minutes against Aston Villa on Saturday, breaking the record for the fastest ever in the Premier League, set by a 19-year-old Robbie Fowler in 1994, in 4 just minutes and 33 seconds against Arsenal. The Saints were leading 5-0 by 38 minutes, and went on to win, 6-1. Southampton, which sold several of its best players last summer, is in seventh-place, after making solid additions, the 23-year-old Senegalese from Salzburg among them.

The attackers from Crystal Palace thought Steven Gerrard's final game at Anfield on Saturday would be a great time to show people how dangerous, and entertaining, they are, terrorizing Liverpool's defense in a spotlight game, with Allan Pardew's visiting side blowing out the candles on Gerrard's going away party, 3-1. There were tributes of all kind before, during and after, including Palace' players all making a beeline to congratulate the walking icon after the whistle, a man who clearly didn't want to lose his last game there, showing his loyalty once more after the game, shunning any uniforms but those of Liverpool, for now.

MESSI, WHO ELSE? Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone is one of the world’s fiercest competitors, but before and after he tries to rip your heart out, he seems like a barrel of monkeys. He said this after losing 1-0 at home to Barca on Sunday, a result that gave the visitors the La Liga title, on a goal from Lionel Messi – who else?

"First of all to congratulate Barca, they deserved to be champions, above all for their superb second half of season," Simeone said. "This is absolutely deserved.”

"In the moment when game was most under control, a piece of genius from Lionel appeared," he said. "Above all the image that we were competing, and just beaten by piece of genius from Messi."

Just another Sunday game for the best player on planet earth.

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT EM, BREED EM. In a coincidence so unusual that there has to be a reason behind it, Cristiano Ronaldo, now 30, is 869 days older than Messi, who is 27, and, Cristiano’s son, humbly dubbed Cristiano Ronaldo Jr., will turn 5 in June, and he’s exactly 869 days older than Leo’s son Thiago, who is still just two. Crazy.

They try to avoid comparisons, but it sure feels like something bigger at work here. Say or think what you will of Cristiano, but he’s no dummy, he may be destined to go down as the best ever athlete, who wasn’t the best of his generation, or the No. 1, No. 2, if you will.

But there’s only one way to react to failure in the Ronaldo household, with a serious workout. Thiago likely doesn’t have a care in the world, but Junior’s coming for you Pulgito, after some crunches with papi.

IVAN RAKITIC BRINGS BALANCE TO BARCELONA. If Barcelona wins its final game against Deportivo next weekend, they will take La Liga's goal differential record away from Jose Mourinho's 2011-12 Madrid team, which had a differential of +89, a figure Barca tied by scoring 108 goals and allowing just 19.

A large part of Barca's resurgence this season can be credited to its defensive stability behind its stars up front. Especially in midfield, where Xavi, at 35, now comes off the bench, backing up Andres Iniesta, who now plays a hybrid between Xavi's former conductor role and his more risk-taking and innovative former self. Which allowed Luis Enrique to insert the unselfish, hard working and talented Ivan Rakitic in Xavi's place beside Iniesta, unleashing "the three monsters" -- Iniesta's term for Leo Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.

The Croatian's constant activity reduces the inevitable odd-man rushes against a team willing to put 10 players in your half. Inserting the slightly more conventional 27-year-old midfielder, with feet quick enough to play in tight spaces, and maturity, has brought balance to the force in Barcelona for perhaps the first time since Jordi Alba took over at left back for the more defensively inclined Eric Abidal after arriving in June 2012, just after Pep Guardiola left. Alba is an excellent player, but playing him opposite Dani Alves with the slow-footed Sergio Busquets protecting your central defenders was always asking for trouble, on counters especially.

I always thought Barca would eventually have to replace Alves or Alba with a more committed defender in order to bring balance (to the Pulga force) once more, but the powerful influence of inserting a relatively unknown player into what is clearly the best Barcelona team since Guardiola left, treble or no, reveals that for all the advantages of Barcelona's, and La Masia's, style of play, it also produces unique challenges, requiring unorthodox solutions. Playing a conventional central midfielder is hardly thinking outside the box, unless you're coaching in Catalonia.

Suarez has chipped in without scoring as many goals by harassing opponents, leading Barca’s preference to defend from the front, and Gerard Pique's form now living up to his reputation once more, helping Spain's stingiest defense give up only 19 goals in 37 games -- the La Liga record for a season is 18, by Deportivo in 1993-94.

In a constellation of superstars, a steadying force that helps them to shine can easily be overlooked, but the contributions of this Croatian international have been a welcome addition at Barcelona, and a key member of the 2014-15 La Liga champions.

TEAM GOLAZO FROM POLAND. This is a beautiful goal from Friday’s 2-2 draw between Wisla Krakow and Lechia Gdansk, made even more appealing by the backheel in the buildup, and the fact that Wisla’s Jean Barrientos also scores the goal with wrong end of his cleat --- great stuff in Gdansk.

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