The international break ended and club soccer resumed with a bang this weekend that saw drama in the Premier League and a slew of controversial moments around Europe. Gab Marcotti recaps the action in his Monday Musings.
Jump to: Zidane begins sorting his Real | Dortmund get a boost | VAR drama in Chelsea’s win | Spalletti revives Icardi drama | Solskjaer has work to do | Donnarumma not an issue | Messi does it again | Mbappe magic again | Is Roma’s season over? | Bayern frustrated | Kean shines for Juve | Aspas rescues Celta Vigo
It’s almost a philosophical question. If you get breaks and the rub of the green, does it mean you are somehow blessed with destiny? Or does it simply mean you’re lucky and your good fortune will soon run out?
Steve Nicol raised this on the ESPN FC show a while back after Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Crystal Palace, a match marked by deflected goals and goalkeeping errors. He said that it was the sort of match where you’re not at your best, but things work out in your favour. In title-winning seasons, you get games like these, which made him confident that after nearly three decades, the title was heading back to Anfield.
Steve should know — he’s won enough titles — but from a rational perspective, it’s hard to swallow. Games have turning points and margins are wafer-thin. Consider the two obvious ones in Liverpool’s 2-1 win over Tottenham that restored their two-point lead over Manchester City (who still have a game in hand).
The first was the counterattack in which Moussa Sissoko and Heung-Min Son were 2-on-1 with Virgil Van Dijk. Sissoko’s left-footed finish soared over the bar. Had he been able to square it to Son, or even just work himself into position for a right-footed shot, it may well have been a very different story. You should definitely credit Van Dijk for denying the pass and also, somehow, for keeping enough pressure on Sissoko to force him to shoot with his left, but this was an opportunity squandered.
The other, obviously, was Hugo Lloris‘ mishandling of Mohamed Salah‘s otherwise innocuous header in injury time. If he doesn’t spill it, it never gets to Toby Alderweireld and never bounces off him into the back of the net. While you can’t really blame Alderweireld, if he had reacted slightly quicker, or if he simply had been tracking a different player and been a yard to the right or to the left, that ball doesn’t go in.
Liverpool worked for those breaks, so simply dismissing them as lucky is incorrect. But equally, plenty of teams work for those breaks all the time and they do not go their way.
It’s important to recognise this because this was an uneven Liverpool performance, particularly in midfield, where they struggled in possession against an undermanned Spurs’ side. What saw them through, in addition to the majesty of Van Dijk, was the play of the two full-backs: Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson were magnificent, turning into adjunct midfielders and wingers as needed.
Liverpool march on, but Jurgen Klopp himself said the midfield needs to be addressed. The good news is that he has plenty of options now that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is available again. And Fabinho’s contribution can’t be overlooked, either.
In some ways, the argument works in reverse for Spurs. Things did not go their way at Anfield, but they got plenty of breaks earlier in the season. Still, the trend isn’t good. They gained just a single point from their previous five games. Six weeks ago, they were five points from the top of the table and 10 points clear of fifth place. Now, they’re 18 points back and if Arsenal beat Newcastle on Monday night, they will be fourth only thanks to goal difference and a single point clear of Chelsea in sixth place.
Mauricio Pochettino has earned tons of kudos for steering Spurs through difficult times with (relatively) limited resources. Another huge test looms.
Did we see a glimpse of next season’s Real Madrid?
Last month, Graham Hunter and I talked about how the rest of Real Madrid’s season should revolve around Zinedine Zidane assessing what he has and who he wants to keep. We had a glimpse of the process on Sunday for the visit of Huesca.
Zidane left out Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Raphael Varane, Marco Asensio, Keylor Navas, Casemiro and Lucas Vazquez. With Thibaut Courtois, Vinicius and Dani Carvajal also injured, it felt like a casting call. Luca Zidane made his first start between the posts, as did Brahim Diaz in the front three. Guys like Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Isco — a trio whose future is very much in doubt — were in there too, as well as Alvaro Odriozola, Marcos Llorente and Dani Ceballos.
It felt like a preseason friendly (the sparse crowd of under 50,000 didn’t help, nor did the fact that there was little chemistry) as Real Madrid went behind, took the lead, conceded the equalizer and eventually nabbed the winner through Karim Benzema. In fact, the Frenchman was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise unremarkable performance (Marcelo and Bale in particular did themselves no favors). He may have his critics but Benzema showed again he’s ready to stand up and be counted. Don’t be surprised if he’s back next season.
Dortmund looking good ahead of Bayern clash
How’s that for a twist? Ninety minutes into a scoreless sleepwalk against Wolfsburg, it looked as if Borussia Dortmund would need a result next Saturday in Der Klassiker to be in with a realistic shot at the Bundesliga title. And then, out of the blue, Paco Alcacer‘s free kick squeezes by Koen Casteels in injury time, and suddenly Dortmund find themselves two points clear. (The Spaniard would add a second for good measure.)
Lucien Favre needs to treat this win like a gift, like that unexpected turn of good fortune that says “yes, you can do this!” Without Marco Reus, Dortmund were frighteningly flat, almost as if they were resigned to sharing the spoils. That can’t happen again — and you assume Reus (away for the birth of his child) won’t allow it to happen.
It’s all set up nicely for Saturday’s visit to the Allianz Arena to face Bayern when Dortmund will have the luxury of being able to afford to draw, given their run-in is arguably easier.
Drama reigns as Chelsea defeat Cardiff
It’s true: referees have a difficult job and everyone can make mistakes and blah blah blah blah — we’ve heard it all before. But what we saw in Cardiff for Chelsea’s 2-1, smash-and-grab victory was really quite extraordinary. Cesar Azpilicueta was way offside when he steered his equalising header late in the game, and there were at least three penalties (two for Cardiff, one for Chelsea) that could have been given.
Cardiff boss Neil Warnock called Premier League referees “the worst in the world” after the match. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s clear they’ll get help from VAR next season. As for Chelsea, Maurizio Sarri’s decision to rest Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante did him no favours with the traveling fans who called for his sacking, although you suspect Chelsea’s turgid first half also had a lot to do with it.
Sarri admitted they were poor and lucky to win. He needs to do better and get his team to put on some convincing performances, but criticising him for leaving out Kante and Hazard is silly. The pair were just back from international break, and Chelsea were facing seven games in 23 days. Rotation at this stage is, frankly, par for the course.
Spalletti drags out the Icardi drama after Inter defeat
Inter’s capacity for self-harm remains staggering. Rather than the stunning derby win being channelled into something positive, it turns into a wasted weekend. A win over Lazio at the San Siro would have sent them eight points clear of fifth place. Instead, the gap is five points, and Lazio have a game in hand.
As so often happens with Inter, when they go down a goal early — this time to Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, roaring back after a poor start to the season, after 13 minutes — the rest of the match turns into a ponderous, predictable procession. And this time, there’s no escape or excuses for Luciano Spalletti. Already devoid of Lautaro Martinez, he opted not to include Mauro Icardi in the matchday squad.
That in itself was a questionable choice given that the club had reached an agreement –via a lawyer — with Icardi’s camp for him to return to training, which he did a week ago. Spalletti, though, went further, reportedly dropping him because the striker did not apologize for his absence in front of his teammates. At this stage even this seems petty to the extreme, but whatever: if that’s how Spalletti wants to play it, so be it.
What’s a lot less rational is Spalletti’s behaviour after the match. He ranted about the media (par for the course), pointed out that Icardi is no Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi (yeah, we know that), that Inter lost plenty of games with Icardi (true, just as Barcelona lost games with Messi), that the whole negotiation with the club for his return was “humiliating” and “embarassing” (fine, but it was the club’s choice) and that leaving him out was a question of “credibility.”
Really? It smacks more of a grandstanding coach for the umpteenth time shifting blame on others. That Icardi is unhinged and a pain in the butt is without question. But Spalletti has a responsibility to his employers (and to the 60,000 plus fans who put up with this nonsense every week). All he had to do was say: “I made my decision, he’ll be available for selection for the next game, I’m not going to talk about this further.”
Instead, he poked the hornet’s nest and reopened the can of worms. You wonder sometimes if he prefers continual chaos. If so, he’s at the right club.
Solskjaer’s got work to do
Among the many aspects that differentiate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from his predecessor on the Manchester United bench is his honesty. After the 2-1 win over Watford at Old Trafford, the United manager said: “The feeling in the dressing room was almost like a funeral … They all know that this was a below-par performance.”
It’s refreshing to hear something other than the usual nonsense about results-above-all. Solskjaer knows that you can play badly — really badly — but get lucky and win. And when that happens, which is pretty much what happened against Watford, you don’t gloat.
David De Gea faced no fewer than 20 shots, the midfield kept giving the ball away and United found themselves pushed way back and forced to counterattack. The fact that Solskjaer recognises this and acknowledges that there’s work to do is surely encouraging. The question is to what degree he can fix it.
Donnarumma is the least of Milan’s issues
It’s easy to forget that Gianluigi Donnarumma only turned 20 in February. Easy to forget but worth remembering when you see him make a mistake in the first minute that leaves Milan with a mountain to climb away to Sampdoria. And this version of Milan, inevitably, struggles to get back into games, particularly when there’s no Lucas Paqueta option.
Donnarumma woke up the next day to headlines about how he had cost them the game and how he might end up costing them the Champions League. Technically, that may be true, but few goalkeepers, at age 20, face this much responsibility. And few have his ability to bounce back, to not let mistakes affect him. He’s the least of Milan’s issues right now.
Messi does it again for Barcelona
Espanyol have a horrendous record at the Camp Nou (12 straight defeats) so it’s not a surprise they set up to defend on Saturday. And, for 70 or so minutes, it worked — right up until Victor Sanchez somehow contrived to deflect Lionel Messi’s free kick past his own keeper. (It was headed in, so it counts as Messi’s goal.) He added a second for good measure and that was that.
It’s always reductive to distill Messi down to numbers, but yeah, he’s doing it again. He’s on pace to score 41 Liga goals which would be his highest total since 2015 (and his fourth-highest ever). Overall, he has 41 in 38 appearances, and the good news is that Barcelona have a minimum of 12 games left.
Mbappe magical as PSG win again
Between cutbacks inspired by financial fair play and old-fashioned injuries, Paris Saint-Germain were down to their bare bones for the trip to Toulouse on Sunday. In fact, they only named 16 players in their match day squad (and that included the two 19-year-olds, Moussa Diaby and Stanley N’Soki).
Still they won, making it 11 victories in their past 12 in all competitions. And the difference-maker — again — was that man, Kylian Mbappe. He has scored 12 goals in PSG’s past 11 games and, most importantly, has stepped up in the absence of Edinson Cavani and Neymar (out since early February and late January respectively). And, yes: he only turned 20 just before Christmas.
Is Roma’s season already over?
Roma’s 4-1 collapse at home to Napoli drew harsh words from owner Jim Pallotta, who asked that his players “stand up and show they have balls.” Nobody is going to argue with that and the hefty defeat was as much down to individual mistakes as it was to Napoli’s quality, and there’s no question that, right now, Carlo Ancelotti’s crew, is several notches above.
When things go wrong in Rome, everyone looks for a scapegoat. Now that Monchi is gone, it’s the players who are getting it and, to some degree, Claudio Ranieri, who inherited a mess but hasn’t made any inroads with his cleanup effort. Roma are four points away from a top-four finish, but the real concern is that, other than Inter away, they have no head-to-head games left against the top four contenders. Soon it will be time to think about next season.
Bayern frustrated by Freiburg
Just as Borussia Dortmund were breaking the ice against Wolfsburg, Robert Lewandowski failed to convert a (for him) routine chance to secure the three points away to Freiburg. There’s a certain symmetry there, of the sort that makes this sport so much fun. You can point to Lewandowski’s finishing on the day, but you also have to credit a tremendous performance from Freiburg keeper Alexander Schwolow.
And, perhaps, concede that Bayern were entirely flat in a first half where they could easily have gone two goals down. Niko Kovac said he was “annoyed” at the team’s attitude in the first half. You can see where he’s coming from: relative to past Bayern sides, this one seems less resilient and more careless when it counts.
Moise Kean the bright spot for lifeless Juve
There was a moment in Juventus’ 1-0 win over Empoli that they started getting booed by their own fans. That can happen when you’re 15 points clear and have nothing to look forward to apart from the clash with Ajax, and on top of that, you don’t play well. Which is what they did for much of the game: slow, predictable, bordering on listless against a relegation-threatened opponent.
You understand automatic starters perhaps deciding to mail it in. It’s tougher to understand how guys like Joao Cancelo, Rodrigo Bentancur, Daniele Rugani and others didn’t seize the opportunity to give Allegri something to think about in terms of team selection. Good thing, then, there’s Moise Kean to liven things up. He came on and found the net for the third consecutive game if you count his Italy appearance over the international break.
Aspas rescues Celta Vigo in brilliant, emotional victory
Stories like this are what make this game so great. Iago Aspas is Celta through and through. He joined the club at age 8 and except for two seasons elsewhere has been there his entire career. His life also followed the returning hometown hero archetype: hugely hyped youngster breaks into first team, moves to bigger clubs (Liverpool and then Sevilla), comes up short, returns home and carries the club on his back, as evidence by his 22 goals last year.
Heading into Saturday’s relegation six-pointer with Villarreal, Celta had taken just four of a possible 36 points in their previous 12 matches. Iago himself had been out for nearly a month, and this was his first game back. At half-time, Villarreal were 2-0 up, meaning the gap between them (17th) and Celta (18th) had ballooned to seven points. It wasn’t quite mathematical relegation for Celta but with nine games left, not too far off it either. So he got to work. He pulled one back with a free kick and then, after Maxi Gomez equalized, converted the penalty winner. Unsurprisingly, he broke down in tears on the bench afterwards.
Goosebumps — that’s why we watch.