Another weekend of European club soccer is in the books, and with it, plenty to talk about! There was Serie A drama between AS Roma and Juventus, LaLiga intrigue as Valencia complained about Real Madrid‘s (well-earned) 4-1 win, and FA Cup magic galore as Arsenal lost to a lower-league opponent. (Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea also had to put in some effort to advance.) Elsewhere, Barcelona got another goal from their “unwanted” striker, Luuk de Jong, and Atletico Madrid were lucky to get a result vs. Villarreal.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Juve vs. Roma | Valencia whine as Real win | Arsenal’s cup exit | Messy Dortmund | Barcelona draw | Spurs avoid embarrassment | Sevilla keep winning | Chelsea’s big cup win | PSG turn to youth | Ibra makes history | Atletico get lucky | Gordon stars for Liverpool
Juventus make an epic comeback at Roma, but Chiesa’s injury a massive blow
Sunday’s 4-3 game between AS Roma and Juventus was one of the wildest games of the season in Serie A and once the dust settled, we were left with some basic takeaways.
First, there’s life in the Old Lady yet. Their credo #FinoallaFine (“Until the end”) isn’t just a trite hashtag; it’s something they showed they believe in. Because at 3-1 down, with Federico Chiesa having hobbled off the pitch and Roma in firm control, they somehow contrived to roar back. They scored three times in seven minutes, Wojciech Szczesny saved a Lorenzo Pellegrini penalty and they weathered Matthijs De Ligt’s sending-off. And they did it on the road, with Mattia De Sciglio (who, believe it or not, scored the winner) and Daniele Rugani (whom many treat as if he’s their club’s Phil Jones) on the pitch.
When a team concedes three goals after being 3-1 up at home with 20 minutes left to go, it’s natural to blame them rather than praise the opposition, but in this case, more than one thing can be true. Juventus showed a relentlessness and a drive we haven’t always seen this season. Arthur changed the match after he came on — no, I didn’t think I’d ever be writing that — half-time substitute Alvaro Morata upped his game and Manuel Locatelli served up a delicious assist.
Yet Roma did have the upper hand for the first 70 minutes or so. It wasn’t just the goals — one was deflected, the other a peach of a free kick from Pellegrini — it was the way they took the pitch with intensity and a determination to dictate the game. It looked like old-school Jose Mourinho, when his teams strode out with confidence and work ethic and overwhelmed the opposition. And, in fact, other than Paulo Dybala‘s goal (a gorgeous strike of the sort he doesn’t deliver often enough), Juve managed very little.
After Locatelli cut Roma’s lead to 3-2, Mourinho reacted by sending on Eldor Shomurodov for Felix: a strong, powerful forward for a lighter, quicker one. On paper, it was a positive change — we have another aerial specialist on the pitch for the set pieces, and we’ll have the strength to defend the lead higher up the pitch, maybe we’ll even score a fourth — but it didn’t change the inertia of the game. Roma made individual errors at the back (Ainsley Maitland-Niles, making his debut, wasn’t awful, but equally, maybe he shouldn’t have stayed on the pitch for 90 minutes given he’d arrived only 24 hours earlier and had barely a training session under his belt) and were overwhelmed by the opposition.
After the game, Mourinho praised the referee, lamented his team’s collapse and said he had “too many nice guys.” He also did some expectation management. “I am not accustomed to teams of this level,” he said. “If Roma finished seventh last season, there must be a reason. We’ll be on the same level last year.”
Well, Roma did finish seventh last season after being in the top four for most of the year and reaching the Europa League semifinal. And there were reasons: a sporting director who was named later, a change in ownership, their most talented player (Nicolo Zaniolo) missing the whole campaign through injury and their star center-forward (Edin Dzeko) making just 20 starts and scoring just seven league goals.
But that was last season. This season, Roma spent more than any other team in Serie A, hired one of the most expensive managers in the world (Mourinho) and they’re about to bring in Sergio Oliveira from Porto as well. So yeah: to hear that they’ll be in and around seventh place again is a little bit disconcerting.
“I thought these players were better than they are, I thought it would be easier to improve,” Mourinho added. “Of course, the easiest way to improve is to bring in five or six expensive players, but I respect the owners and we can’t go wild in the transfer market.”
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss the impact of Federico Chiesa’s ACL injury on Italy’s World Cup qualification chances.
Mourinho also said they lacked leadership, mentality and were “psychologically fragile.” His reaction was somewhat surprising. A lot of managers might have focused on the positives of the first 70 minutes rather than the late collapse, but Mourinho is not like most managers.
A final word on Chiesa: We won’t see him for a very long time and, as can happen with ACL injuries, we don’t know what he’ll be like when he returns. It’s a body blow for Juventus as much as it is for Italy, heading into the World Cup playoffs in March.
Vinicius and Benzema power Real Madrid, while Valencia play to the crowd
Real Madrid rolled over Valencia this weekend with an emphatic 4-1 in which Karim Benzema and Vinicius bagged two goals apiece. Madrid opened the scoring with a disputed penalty — in my opinion, one that shouldn’t have been given — when Casemiro appeared to run into Omar Alderete, who simply stops in his path. Valencia’s Twitter account reacted by making a crack about the number of “robberies” in Madrid. It’s an age-old theme — referees favouring big clubs or, in this case, bigger clubs, specifically Real Madrid — but it was pretty puerile coming midgame from an official club account.
Leave aside the fact the penalty was very soft, though hardly highway robbery. Leave aside the fact that if the refs were going to put together a vast pro-Madrid conspiracy, it would have been far more straightforward to give one for Cristiano Piccini‘s handball earlier in the game. Leave aside too the fact that Madrid ended up dominating the game statistically: 67% possession, 3.87 xG to 1.62, 23 shots to 12 and, according to StatsBomb’s race chart, a 91% win probability. And leave aside the honest assessment of Valencia left-back Jose Gaya (“We shouldn’t use the penalty as an excuse”) and even Valencia coach Javier Bordalas (“The penalty affected the game, but we can’t use it as an excuse”).
Focus instead on Valencia’s message, which basically amounts to: Let’s accuse the opponents of thievery while dressing it up as a “joke” (and tagging the “Money Heist” account in the process). I’m all for cracking jokes about match officials, and if you do think there is active bias against you — and yes, I do think it can happen and has happened — then come out, say it and face the consequences. But these little cracks to maintain plausible deniability are weak and cowardly. Got something to say? Say it.
Beyond that, Benzema and Vinicius now rank first and second among LaLiga scorers this season, with 17 and 12 respectively. Between them, they’ve scored more than all but six LaLiga sides. Benzema scored his 300th and 301st goal for the club, and he’s fourth on the all-time charts behind Cristiano Ronaldo (450), Raul (323) and Alfredo Di Stefano. (The three guys behind him are Santillana, Ferenc Puskas and Hugo Sanchez, which is pretty good company.)
Benzema’s numbers are all the more remarkable when you consider that early in his career, he was often in and out of the side, platooning with Gonzalo Higuain. And he spent his first nine seasons at the club alongside Ronaldo, who is only one of the greatest goal scorers in history. Plus, he only became the club’s designated penalty-taker once Ronaldo left, in 2018. In the nine years previous, he had converted just three penalties; in the 3½ since, he has 12.
Benzema’s status as the club’s “cult Galactico” all these years — and why that was the case — ought to be something for football historians to study.
Arsenal‘s FA Cup exit has no silver lining
Arsenal are out of the FA Cup after a 1-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest in the third round.
Sometimes when clubs play weakened teams in the FA Cup and get dumped out early, we talk about how they can focus on other competitions, how the fixture list becomes a little less cluttered and so on. I’m not sure it’s going to work that way with Arsenal. All they have left is a Carabao Cup semifinal against Liverpool and the race for a Champions League spot. A race, by the way, where they’ll need to come in ahead of West Ham, Manchester United and Tottenham to win.
It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy, either.
My impression is that Mikel Arteta simply underestimated Nottingham Forest. While they’ve fallen on tough times, they aren’t some non-League outfit, but two-time European champions who are currently ninth a division below the Gunners. And that, evidently, filtered through to the players who took the pitch.
Get a result against Liverpool (also easier said than done) and maybe it won’t matter.
Borussia Dortmund close the gap on Bayern, but it’s the usual mess from Marco Rose
The takeaway, of course, is that, coupled with Bayern Munich‘s COVID-affected defeat on Friday night, Marco Rose’s Borussia Dortmund have clawed back three points on the Bavarians and are now six behind. And yes, whenever a team comes back from two goals down to win 3-2 on the road — with three goals in the last 20 minutes, no less — it’s evidence of their fighting spirit. (It’s something we say ought to be a given, but often isn’t.)
On the flip side, Dortmund took an absolute beating defensively, and it’s hard to fathom what Rose had in mind, leaving Emre Can and Mats Hummels woefully exposed defensively (though the pair contributed to their own downfall as well). Donyell Malen still hasn’t found his position (and I suspect it may not be in a front two with a diamond midfield behind him), Julian Brandt blows hot and cold far too often, and Mahmoud Dahoud isn’t convincing as a holding midfielder. Sure, there’s enough talent to beat most teams, which is why they’re second. But the Rose Revolution is taking far too long.
10-man Barcelona held to a draw and the ‘other’ De Jong shines (again)
Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss Barcelona’s performance in their 1-1 draw with Granada.
Barcelona’s past nine months have been so wild, in so many ways, that many of us have become numb to the enduring slaps this club has taken (many of them, yes, self-inflicted). But let us remind ourselves of another: the sheer weight of absentees.
Xavi’s Barca took the pitch against Granada on Saturday without Frenkie De Jong, Pedri, Ansu Fati and Memphis Depay. Those are, arguably his four best players (or close to it). Go watch Real Madrid without Benzema, Vinicius, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos and see what a hoot it is. And that’s Real Madrid: a side with one of the most experienced managers around in Carlo Ancelotti, and one that is not on the brink of insolvency.
It’s good to bear this in mind when assessing Barcelona these days. Because while it’s fair to question their inability to defend a lead by keeping the ball in the opposition half (the way Xavi demands and the way his teams used to do when he was playing), it’s also worth remembering what a hodgepodge this group is, how young so many of them are (three teenagers in the starting XI) and how little time they’ve had to work together. Xavi can bemoan the two dropped points as well as Gavi‘s two yellow cards — he’ll learn his lesson, he’s 17 — but he can also draw heart from the way these players are responding to him, and maybe even reevaluate some of what we took as read.
For the second straight game, Luuk De Jong, the unloved center-forward, came up big: He scored Barca’s goal and had another disallowed for a very marginal offside. Even though so many want him to leave the club, he may end up sticking around and showing that, with the right service, he can give Barca something that isn’t only different, but also worthwhile.
Conte calls in the cavalry and Tottenham avoid embarrassment vs. Morecambe
Tottenham fought back to win 3-1 against Morecambe and progress in the FA Cup.
For a while, it looked as if Tottenham could be going the same way as Arsenal would a few hours later. They were a goal down against Morecambe at home, after Antonio Conte pretty much named 11 reserves against the League One side. He called on the big guns — Harry Kane, Lucas Moura and, er, Oliver Skipp (don’t laugh, he’s a starter these days and he has improved) — with 20 minutes to go and duly turned it around to win 3-1.
Would he have had egg on his face the way Arteta does if Spurs had lost? Sure. But the circumstances are a bit different.
Conte knows that at some point, he needs to figure out whether guys like Dele Alli and Tanguy Ndombele can contribute, and league games are too important to be used (regularly, at least) as a proving ground. And unlike Arteta, he has only been in charge a few months. Simply put, Tottenham are at a different stage in their development relative to Arsenal.
It took an improbable Rafa Mir early goal (and a blunder by David Soria, who happens to be a former Sevilla man), but Julen Lopetegui’s train rumbles on. The 1-0 win over Getafe — who are no soft touch by any means, as this was only their second defeat in their last nine games — was gritty and at times ugly, but it delivered the three points.
The gap with Real Madrid is five points. They have a game in hand and the head-to-head against Carlo Ancelotti’s crew is at home. Lopetegui — who has an ax to grind given his time at the Bernabeu — is going keep this up as long as he can.
Study in contrast as Chelsea beat Chesterfield
This weekend’s FA Cup third-round tie between Chelsea and Chesterfield was what you often get with ties of this nature: duty vs. dreaming.
The home side had to play (and had to win), so Thomas Tuchel set out to do the bare minimum in picking his lineup. He rested anybody who had even a hanging toenail, he named a kid who only turned 17 in October to the starting XI (Lewis Hall, who did very well), he kicked the tires of a Romelu Lukaku–Timo Werner partnership, and he gave minutes to guys like Malang Sarr and Saul, who don’t get very many. And he rolled to a 5-1 win. Meanwhile Chesterfield got to visit the European champions and discovered that despite not even being a part of a football league, yeah, they can hang with the big boys for stretches and even score a goal. And their fans loved it.
There’s not much more to it than that. It’s the FA Cup third round. It’s football, but not as we know it.
PSG held to a draw, but Pochettino taps into the youth team
Without Lionel Messi, Neymar and a host of others, Paris Saint-Germain found themselves a goal down early away to Lyon in the sort of away fixture that should be problematic. (I say “should” because on paper, Lyon have good players; in real life, they’re a bit of a mess.) Mauricio Pochettino wasn’t fazed and, chasing the game with 20 minutes to go, turned to youngsters like Xavi Simons and Eduard Michut, both 18, to power the midfield.
It was the sort of choice that underscores how, despite the rumours surrounding him, Pochettino feels comfortable enough to play the youngsters. It was also a smart choice, too, because PSG are going to need the kids, whether to aid the first team or to balance the books. And it was the sort of bold choice that got rewarded when Thilo Kehrer grabbed the equalizer.
Milan thrash Venezia to stay second … and Ibrahimovic makes history
Milan have a knack for scoring early this season and Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s strike after two minutes sent them nicely on their way to a 3-0 away win.
If this club feels a bit Jekyll-and-Hyde this year (when they’re good, they’re really good, when they’re bad — like against Porto — they stink it up like few others), it may have more to do with growing pains and needing to have the right guys in the right places to work. Not so much as the back — where Matteo Gabbia and Pierre Kalulu are fourth and fifth-choice but still got the job done — but in wide areas, where the drive of Rafael Leao, Alexis Saelemaekers and Theo Hernandez is non-negotiable.
As for Ibrahimovic, he added two records to his collection. Venezia were the 80th club he has scored against in his career, a record only matched by one Cristiano Ronaldo, and he has now scored in 23 different calendar years, just like Francesco Totti and Ryan Giggs. The Ibrahimovic-Olivier Giroud rotation can work for Milan this season, too, and Ibrahimovic even let Theo Hernandez take a penalty – signs that he cares more about the team’s success than his own.
Stefano Pioli needs to keep it that way if Milan are going to go down the wire with Inter, who have a one point lead and a game in hand.
You have to feel a little bit for Unai Emery. He hasn’t caught many breaks domestically this season and on Sunday, his Villarreal side was held to a 2-2 draw by a late Geoffrey Kondogbia strike and a ridiculous Angel Correa finish from the halfway line. In between, it was pretty much all Villarreal, while Atleti seemed to succumb to the old demons.
We saw another error from Jan Oblak, we saw a 4-4-2 formation that didn’t quite work, and we saw a team that is still finding itself, both in terms of formation and personnel. Ordinarily, it wouldn’t be a reason to worry, but we’re halfway through the campaign and Diego Simeone has been there for a long time: his 10th anniversary as manager was Dec. 23. This could easily have been their fifth defeat in six games.
Kids come good for Liverpool vs. Shrewsbury
Fabinho shows his skills from the spot for Liverpool against Shrewsbury.
If there’s one guy you wouldn’t fault for tanking the FA Cup third round, it’s Jurgen Klopp. With all his absent players, with Carabao Cup semis and Champions League knockouts and the task of chasing Manchester City coming up, I would have given him a pass for playing the kids and bowing out early of this competition.
He did play the kids (mostly), though they did not bow out because the gap between Liverpool and Shrewsbury Town is just too massive and, these days, it includes the kids. Kaide Gordon, who arrived from Derby last year, may be just 17, but he has the personality and footwork of a player many years his senior.
Does it mean he’s going to fill Mohamed Salah‘s big boots straight away or even in a couple of years? No. Pump the brakes quicker than you can say “Rhian Brewster.” But Gordon did show, en route to a 4-1 win, that he’s not fazed by the big(gish) stage of the FA Cup and full house at Anfield. That’s already something.