Man City close to Premier League crown, Real Madrid’s Supercup glory, Man United drop more points


It was another fun weekend in European soccer as Real Madrid picked up a trophy (the Spanish Supercopa) and Manchester City appeared to all but end the Premier League title race… or have they? Elsewhere, Bayern Munich and PSG labored to victory, Liverpool scored three vs. Brentford (but struggled without Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane), and Man United dropped yet more points. We also saw Inter Milan finally drop points in Serie A as Atalanta held them to a 0-0 draw.

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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Jump to: PL title race over? | Real Madrid can’t relax | Man United drop more points | Atalanta, Inter draw | Bayern dig deep | Liverpool toil minus Mane, Salah | Juve’s Dybala unhappy | PSG get it done | Why was Spurs-Arsenal postponed?


Premier League title staying where it is… unless something unexpected goes wrong

Chelsea‘s trip to the Etihad on Saturday was likely their last chance to reopen the title race. Instead, the 1-0 defeat leaves them 13 points back with 16 games to go. Never say never, but that’s a chasm.

It’s not just the gap, either; it’s the way City feel as if they have other gears to which they can go if need be. Romelu Lukaku had Chelsea’s best chance early in the second half and wasted it, but even he’d beaten Ederson, you got the sense that City would have not been fazed. There’s an unflappability, death-by-a-thousand cuts quality to Pep Guardiola’s side. Even half-chances turn into bigger chances because of the talent in the team: witness Kevin De Bruyne‘s goal.

Tuchel lamented the facts that his forwards struggled to keep the ball and relieve pressure. That’s true, but (and we’ve been saying this all season) it’s hard to build chemistry and patterns of play when the front three have been changing all season. In midfield, hindsight being 20/20, some might have said Jorginho would have been better against City’s press, but that of course would have meant leaving out either N’Golo Kante, who gives you the best chance of winning the ball back, or Mateo Kovacic, who was in excellent form and offers drive and industry in midfield. Weird as it sounds, the pieces don’t fit together as they should.

Then there’s the absence of Ben Chilwell and Reece James. It’s obvious Marcos Alonso won’t be able to contain Raheem Sterling one-on-one, but when the back three are well-drilled, that can be mitigated because he gets help. That didn’t happen against City.

When clubs squander big leads in the league table, it’s usually because the pursuing sides get hot and something goes wrong at the top. It’s hard to see Chelsea getting hot in the near future, but it’s even harder to imagine what could go wrong at City other than, perhaps, something dramatic and off-the-pitch. Injuries can strike, of course, but the thing about this group is that it’s genuinely hard to figure out whose absence would seriously derail the side. After all, this is a team that went months without Kevin De Bruyne, their most gifted and highest-paid player, and didn’t seem to notice. And this is a team that dropped Ruben Dias, who was invaluable last season, for the visit of Chelsea and Lukaku.

I batted it around with Julien Laurens and Nedum Onuoha on the Gab and Juls Show, and we sort of agreed the trickiest guys to replace would be Rodri, Joao Cancelo and Ederson simply because of the gap between them and their replacements. But even then, in the case of the latter two, it’s not as if the replacements are wholly inadequate, rather you’d lose some of the added value they bring.

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Following Manchester City’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea, Janusz Michallik explains what’s missing for the Blues’ main striker.

Cancelo brings a different dimension, sure, but it’s not as if you’re going to play substantially differently if Oleksandr Zinchenko is there in his place. Steffen may make fewer exceptional saves than Ederson and not be as good with his feet, but it’s not a massive change. Maybe Rodri out for a long spell might have the biggest impact, mainly because Father Time seems to have caught up with Fernandinho and Ilkay Gundogan, while perhaps a better footballer, doesn’t have the same physical presence.

Still, we’re talking details here, and that’s why they’re so far ahead of the pack.


Real Madrid roll to Spanish Supercup, but Ancelotti knows they can’t afford to relax

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Former Real Madrid star Steve McManaman breaks down Real Madrid’s victory in the Spanish Super Cup final.

Real Madrid’s win over Athletic Bilbao in the Spanish Supercup final was about as comprehensive as they get. They controlled the game and bossed possession (so much for those who scoff at them as mere counterattackers) and probably should have scored more than the two they bagged.

On the flip side, they didn’t have a single shot after Karim Benzema‘s penalty in the 52nd minute. And while they weren’t seriously threatened, if Thibaut Courtois doesn’t conjure up that kick-save off Raul Garcia‘s penalty (awarded by VAR for Eder Militao’s handball), you’re looking at an Alamo mess of a finish in which anything can happen.

Details, to be sure, and probably not enough to affect their run at LaLiga glory, but against a different opponent (of the sort they’ll face in the Champions League knockout rounds, not a subpar Athletic Bilbao) on a different day, the outcome may have been different. That’s why, while enjoying the trophy — his fifth as Real Madrid manager over his two stints — it’s safe to say Carlo Ancelotti might use this as a teachable moment.


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Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens say Ralf Rangnick has handled Manchester United’s Anthony Martial poorly.

Games last 90 minutes and it feels a bit churlish to say that you dropped two points because you were held to a draw, especially when your opponents notched twice the xG you did. But you get what Ralf Rangnick means when he says he felt as if his Manchester United side dropped two points away to Aston Villa. They were two-nil up, they were playing some of the best football they’ve played since he arrived — I’ll let others speculate how much, if anything, this had to do with Harry Maguire and Jadon Sancho being on the bench and Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcus Rashford in the stands — and then they conceded twice in the last 15 minutes.

Philippe Coutinho‘s return to the Premier League is a good story and his entrance no doubt helped Aston Villa, but United also mismanaged the final 20 minutes, both defensively and offensively: their only shot over that span came deep in injury time from Donny van de Beek. There’s more — a lot more — for Rangnick to fix here, though the first hour or so is also a sign of what they can do.

Speaking of Rangnick, he does himself no favours with some of his public pronouncements. When asked about Anthony Martial‘s absence, he said the French forward “didn’t want to be in the squad” (possibly because he’s hoping for a January move). Martial hit back on social media saying it wasn’t true and that he’d “never refuse to play” or “disrespect the fans.”

Obviously both things can’t be true. Either one of the two is going a bit Pinocchio here, or there’s some kind of massive miscommunication. Whatever the case, it’s not a good look and something Rangnick could very easily have avoided: a very simple “I felt we had enough options that I didn’t select him” would have sufficed.


Atalanta, Inter battle to stalemate as goalkeepers shine

Inter Milan manager Simone Inzaghi didn’t address the media after his side’s scoreless draw away to Atalanta — he shouted so much his voice was too hoarse — but it would have been curious to hear what he really thought and whether he’s a glass half-full or half-empty type guy.

Happy Inzaghi would have pointed out that Inter matched Atalanta for intensity and physicality, created plenty of chances (Juan Musso made some huge saves in the Atalanta goal) and the draw means they’ve taken a point from one of the toughest away fixtures they have left (the other two being Juventus and Napoli). Grumpy Inzaghi would have pointed out that after 39 consecutive Serie A games they failed to score, that their win streak comes to an end after eight matches, that Edin Dzeko fluffed a huge number of chances, that Atalanta were under-strength and that Samir Handanovic had to make a stellar save to preserve the result.

We’ve seen Inter undone by gross overreactions in the past and as long as Grumpy Inzaghi stays away, this won’t happen here. Inter aren’t quite at the point where they can only beat themselves — Milan are very much in the running for the Serie A title too — but they can certainly contribute to their downfall. These days, a point away to Atalanta is a good result for any team.


Lewandowski hits 300, Nagelsmann digs deep in Bayern squad

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Janusz Michallik discusses Robert Lewandowski after the striker scored a hat trick to take him to 300 Bundesliga goals vs. FC Cologne.

The headline from Bayern’s 4-0 trouncing of Koln is, of course, Robert Lewandowski‘s hat-trick and the fact that he’s now up to 300 Bundesliga goals. The all-time record, held by the legendary late Gerd Muller, is 365. It’s the sort of mark that most assumed would never be broken. At 33 years old, Lewandowski is going strong, and it’s not unthinkable that he can reach Muller’s mark. But somewhat under the radar — possibly because Cologne were so poor — was the fact that Bayern took the pitch without five bona fide starters. Marcel Sabitzer found himself playing left-back, and Marc Roca was alongside Corentin Tolisso (who scored a great goal) in midfield.

And still, they didn’t miss a beat.


Liverpool beat Brentford, but life without Mane and Salah is tough

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Steve Nicol insists that Liverpool’s front three of Roberto Firmino, Diogo Jota and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain lacked something despite beating Brentford 3-0.

Don’t be fooled by Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Brentford on Sunday, or the gaudy xG (StatsBomb had it at 3.05 to 0.52), or the 69% possession or the 27 shots to six: this was far from a straight-forward win for Jurgen Klopp’s men. Until Fabinho‘s goal — facilitated by some diabolical set-piece defending — just before the half, there was a sense they could get a nasty surprise from the visitors. And the third goal was a gift from Brentford.

This didn’t look like a Klopp Liverpool side, possibly because the front three felt so different. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane are at the Africa Cup of Nations, and Roberto Firmino was making his first league start since October. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, whom Klopp has used mostly in midfield, was out wide. It all added up to a loss of chemistry (and loss of quality), and it reminds you just how finely tuned a machine Liverpool are. If two key parts are out, the whole thing is less fluid and needs recalibrating.

Still, in those circumstances three points are what matter most. City look far away, but if Liverpool win their game in hand and then head to head at the Etihad (big ask, I know), then we’re talking five points, which is basically two defeats. It may seem improbable that City will drop many more points, but, hey, if you’re Klopp, you need to keep believing. You’ll also be a lot happier when the boys are back from AFCON.


Dybala shines in Juventus win, but he’s far from happy over his contract

A few years ago, when he was the next big thing, many thought we’d see the sort of performance Paulo Dybala turned in against Udinese just about every week. He conjured up a fine goal, provided the assist for Weston McKennie to make it 2-0 against Udinese and was man of the match. And at the end, he delivered a long, cold, hard stare at the Juventus bigwigs in the stands — the sort you couldn’t help but notice.

Dybala, who becomes a free agent in June, is unhappy with his contractual situation. His agents thought they had a verbal agreement for a new deal through 2026 that would pay him €8m net, plus a further €2m net in “easy bonuses” that would turn into base salary after two seasons. For those who like to think in pounds per week, Premier League-style, that’s just over £300,000 a week.

It’s a massive amount of money — again, for context, there are just six players in the Premier League (where clubs are much healthier financially than Juve are right now) who make more than that — and, as I wrote the other day, not a clever use of Juve’s resources. Juventus obviously feel the same way, since they said they’d review the situation in February.

Dybala is 28. He has started less than half of Juve’s league games in the past three-and-a-half seasons. But even if he’d been stellar, smart clubs pay for what you think a player will achieve going forward, not for what he did in the past, and there is no reason for anyone to think Dybala ought to be among the highest paid players in the world from now through 2026.

Juve are right to call his bluff. See where you are and figure out how to best use your resources.


PSG serve up deja vu, but get the win vs. Brest… not that it really matters in Ligue 1

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Gab Marcotti and Julien Laurens discuss why Kylian Mbappe is grumpy again.

As I’ve suggest before, maybe it’s the giant lead that engenders the lack of urgency in this PSG side, or maybe it’s the absence of Lionel Messi and Neymar. Or maybe Mauricio Pochettino is too nice. Whatever the case, it happened again at home to Brest, a side PSG should be dispatching with ease.

They didn’t go down, but they did need to rely on two huge Gianluigi Donnarumma saves to preserve their clean sheet before Kylian Mbappe put them ahead after the half-hour mark. Thilo Kehrer added a second early after the break and they could have had more at the end, but these slow starts feel as if they’re becoming endemic. Indeed, PSG have somehow contrived to drop points in four of their past six Ligue 1 games and yet their lead in the table has shrunk by just one point, from 12 to 11.

It can feel a little bit like going through the motions and unless they get a jolt that won’t bode well ahead of Real Madrid’s Champions League visit in four weeks’ time…


North London derby gets postponed… how about some transparency?

Tottenham were far from happy that the North London Derby was postponed, as you can read in this terse statement. The problem here is that, well, there’s far too much we (and Tottenham) don’t know to be able to formulate any opinion, other than that the Premier League’s lack of clarity is unhelpful and simply fosters more suspicions.

When it comes to postponements, you can either have hard and fast rules — X numbers of players available — or you can use a “common sense/case by case” philosophy. The Premier League rolls with the second (rightly, I think). They have guidelines: you have to account for each available player (including “appropriately experienced Under-21 players”) and each unavailable player (whether through injury, illness, a positive COVID test, self-isolation or whatever) and provide supporting medical evidence) — but they’re no more than a framework for the league to make decisions.

Even before you get into the fact that a player’s fitness, in many cases, is subjective (“Sven is coming back after two weeks out… can he start?” Or “Bob has a knock… can he play?”) as is illness (“Mohamed has a cold… do we want him running around in the rain?”) and that doctor’s notes are written by club employees, meaning judgment calls will be made (particularly when it comes to determining whether a club had enough players and enough time to properly prepare for a match).

That’s fine… if those decisions are then clearly and transparently explained. Let’s say Club X has 30 guys, including academy players who could be picked. Four tested positive for COVID. Eight are self-isolating. One has the mumps, another has the measles. Three have long-term injuries. OK, that’s 13 players. Is one of them a keeper? Yes? Fine, you can play. Or not. Or whatever. Just be clear.

This lack of transparency simply fosters mistrust and conspiracy theories. There’s no reason for it.



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