What a weekend! Even before the chaos of the Champions League draw, the past 48 hours delivered a ton of talking points across Europe’s top leagues. Real Madrid‘s big derby win over Atletico Madrid feels decisive in LaLiga’s title race, while Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea all won to keep all three teams where they were before at the top of the Premier League. Meanwhile, in Germany, are Bayern Munich on course for yet another Bundesliga crown?
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There was also drama for Arsenal, Juventus, Milan, and Paris Saint-Germain, as well as more concerns for Barcelona and new manager, Xavi.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Real Madrid’s derby win | Liverpool deserved victory | Inter Milan top of Serie A | Bayern’s comeback | Work ahead for Man United | Juve disappoint | Man City’s win | Xavi’s Barca stumble | Milan struggling? | Chelsea leave it late | Does PSG’s win matter? | Dortmund drop points | Napoli shouldn’t panic | Arsenal win, Auba punished | Real Betis show their worth
Real Madrid beat Atletico Madrid to make it 10 wins in a row in all competitions
Some are ready to crown Real Madrid, whose lead at the top now stands at eight points over Sevilla, who have a game in hand. I’m not ready to do that just yet, but Sunday night’s Madrid derby, 2-0 scoreline aside, looked for long stretches like men against boys.
Diego Simeone won’t like that, but it felt as if Real set the tone and the tempo and toyed with Atletico the rest of the way. Luka Modric and Toni Kroos dominated the middle of the park. Eder Militao and David Alaba snuffed out virtually all danger at the back. Vinicius Junior was there to serve up the sort of assists that seemed unthinkable a year ago, when he was much more of a “head-down” player. And Karim Benzema was there to break the ice, with a brilliant, technical finish, before heading off into the dressing room at half-time to let his body rest.
In some ways, Real Madrid play in a way that’s different to Europe’s top sides. They sit in a lower block, they look to hit you in transition and they give their quality players room to improvise. That’s not how most big boys get it done, but it feels like it’s very much a choice rather than a necessity, something tailored to the opposition. When they want to speed up, they can. When they choose to press you, they can. And when they want to let Kroos and Modric do their thing and pass you to death, they can do that too.
The main concern, of course, is depth. Carlo Ancelotti hasn’t shown much appetite for rotation — other than the Rodrygo/Marco Asensio toss-up — and you wonder whether, down the road, they might not pay a price for it. Benzema is 33, Kroos 31 and Modric 36: that’s not lost on anyone, but building up this league lead should give the club the breathing room necessary to do some load management later in the campaign.
Fede Valverde and Eduardo Camavinga are young and full of energy: we may see a different Real Madrid when they’re on the pitch, but that suits Ancelotti just fine. Benzema, of course, is a different issue though again, after Luka Jovic‘s performance last week (and a solid 45 minutes this week), he’ll be a viable stand-in against many opponents.
As for Atletico Madrid, this looked like a side where the pieces didn’t quite fit and it’s hard to tell what Simeone has in mind. With Stefan Savic and Jose Gimenez unavailable, he dropped Geoffrey Kondogbia into a center-back role and kept Yannick Carrasco and Marcos Llorente as de facto wing-backs. It didn’t quite work as the midfield was outplayed and undermanned. Here, again, hindsight being 20/20, you wondered if maybe a true holding midfielder to help Koke and Rodrigo De Paul might not have had an impact. Or perhaps Thomas Lemar, who could have added some creativity and allowed Atleti to take more of the initiative.
Gab and Juls discuss PSG’s clash with Real Madrid in the Champions League round of 16.
It’s the usual issue. Simeone has 15 or 16 great players, but very few automatic choices. And when he does make changes, the guys coming in are often very different. Nobody does what Lemar does. Matheus Cunha, who got the nod up front ahead of the banged-up Luis Suarez, has a unique skill set. Joao Felix is unlike anybody else, as is Kieran Trippier.
Against most opponents it won’t matter much, because Jan Oblak makes (or, based on this season, made) stellar saves and there’s enough talent to get one or more goals at the other end. But against quality teams, you either come up with a bespoke set-up to catch them off-guard, or you often pay the price for the lack of chemistry.
Salah scores from the spot and Liverpool get what they deserve
Don’t let the the 1-0 scoreline fool you. Steven Gerrard came back to Anfield with Aston Villa intending to defend and frustrate Liverpool. It worked for an hour, but the continued percussive game preached by Jurgen Klopp and executed by Liverpool eventually wore him down. The fact that it came from the penalty spot after Mohamed Salah befuddled Tyrone Mings matters little. Liverpool were rested and it showed. And when they’re like this, they’re very hard to stop.
Janusz Michallik reacts to Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Aston Villa in the Premier League.
With Diogo Jota not fully fit, Klopp turned to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain a go in the front three rather than Takumi Minamino. More aptly, it was almost as if he was at the tip of a diamond, with Sadio Mane and Salah running past him. It’s not an experiment we necessarily need to see again, but it was the sort of curveball Klopp occasionally serves up and a reminder that he’s by no means dogmatic. Of course, things are that much easier when you can call on your first-choice midfield trio of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Thiago Alcantara.
– Ogden: Gerrard enhances reputation despite losing on Liverpool return
Liverpool don’t look like they’re going away any time soon.
Inter Milan go top and might be better than last season… does Conte regret walking out?
I was all doom and gloom about Inter’s chances of defending their Serie A title, but Simone Inzaghi is turning me into a believer. It’s not so much the gaudy 4-0 win over Cagliari that put them top of the league, either. (It finished 4-0, and it could have been more if Alessio Cragno hadn’t made a string of superb saves and if Lautaro Martinez, who scored twice, hadn’t also missed a penalty.)
You can’t praise Inzaghi enough for how smooth the transition has been, given not just the difficulty of replacing Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku, Achraf Hakimi and Christian Eriksen, but having to do it against the backdrop of cost-cutting and the club’s huge financial difficulties. It’s as if they’ve maintained the confidence Conte gave them last season, while adding layers of creativity and unpredictability. And they’re better at using the entire squad, involving more than the core 13 or 14 players.
Conte, of course, is now at Spurs. You wonder how he feels about walking out and whether he underrated what he had.
Bayern Munich struggle for a half, but make a comeback vs. Mainz
At halftime on Saturday, Bayern were a goal down at home and deservedly so. Mainz’s staunch defending had denied them chances; Corentino Tolisso’s wayward passing (and some subsequent defensive chaos) had gifted the visitors a goal. The Bavarians came back to win because, well, Bayern are gonna Bayern, but it was a reminder that this side are nowhere near where they could be right now. (And yet they’re six points clear at the top of the Bundesliga: make of that what you will.)
The absence of Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich in midfield weighed heavily. Jamal Musiala is still just 18 and his future lies further up the pitch — his sweet winning goal offered further evidence of this — and Tolisso will, rightly, be allowed to find a new club in June. It wasn’t all on the midfield, though. The “back three-and-a-half” still needs some refining and, up front, Bayern took far too long to get going.
There may be some degree of battle-weariness here. Bayern have taken 12 of 15 points in their last five Bundesliga outings, but all four wins came by a single goal and during that spell, their xG has declined from 2.81 to 2.09. Maybe it’s not entirely coincidental that Kimmich has missed their last four league games.
Julian Nagelsmann likely won’t find relief in the transfer window this January, so this is something he’ll need to fix in-house. That six-point lead gives him the wiggle room to do it.
Man United win against depleted Norwich, but a reminder of how much work lies ahead
Jan Aage Fjortoft says Manchester United will take time to adapt to Ralf Rangnick’s style of play.
Speaking after Manchester United‘s 1-0 win at Norwich, Ralf Rangnick said David De Gea was his man of the match and that he wished his attacking players had “more intensity, pyhysicality and willingness to win one-on-one duels.” He’s right: the difference between the two sides consisted of a penalty won and converted by Cristiano Ronaldo and some exceptional saves from De Gea.
– De Gea the hero in narrow win over Norwich
The thing is, Rangnick was always going to be an agent of change rather than a quick fix. Or rather, he was a quick fix because the bar was set so low by those before him. But appointing Rangnick means, above all else, doing things differently. There’s a reason very few teams play a 4-2-2-2 formation: it’s difficult, it’s tiring and it can take time for players to learn it.
That’s the road the club have chosen (until June anyway) and they’ll just have to give him time. But this system, unlike others, only works when you press effectively and with intensity. Until you get that right — and it won’t be overnight — you’ll always be vulnerable, both out wide and through the lines.
Nevermind the result, a 1-1 draw that leaves them sixth, eight points behind the Champions League places, a whopping 12 behind Inter and amounts to their worst start in 23 years. And sure, they lost Paulo Dybala after 12 minutes, and they were without Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski as well. What’s most galling is the attitude they showed; most worrying are Max Allegri’s words after the game.
Allegri said they “failed to manage the lead” after taking the lead. But Venezia, who didn’t particularly well either, equalised in the 10th minute of the second half, meaning Juve were only in the lead for 23 minutes. How about what they did — or did not do — in the other 67 minutes when the match was tied?
Juve showed little of the aggression and forward-thinking you expect from the modern game. They had their chances, but they came not from pressing or patterns of play, but from individuals. It’s a formula that might have worked a decade ago, but not today. They need to do better.
Imaginary penalty and napping VAR aside, Man City deserved win to stay top after silly Jimenez red
Manchester City‘s 1-0 win over Wolves to stay top of the Premier League hinged on two big calls. The first was Raul Jimenez‘s brain fart that led him to collect two yellow cards in under a minute. It came at the end of a first half that saw City contained by Bruno Lage’s Wolves. Jimenez fouled Rodri, was booked and then hung around in front of the ball obstructing the free kick, even after referee Jonathan Moss warned him. A classic (and uncharacteristic) bonehead move from the Mexican veteran.
The sending-off changed the game. After the break and with the man advantage, City created plenty, enough to win the game on points if there had been a judges’ panel like in boxing. Football doesn’t work that way, however, and it took an awful penalty call for Raheem Sterling to convert.
Bernardo Silva‘s cross clearly clipped Joao Moutinho just below the armpit. Moss, perhaps un-sighted, thought it struck his arm (understandable, if you’re generous), the VAR, according to a statement released later, wasn’t sure and couldn’t find a clear replay image, and thus did not give it (which, frankly, is unacceptable, assuming he had the same feed everybody else did).
City deserved the win, albeit with the dollop of good fortune, but Guardiola will come away with a few things to think about based on the first 45 minutes.
Xavi mixes things up as Barcelona held at Osasuna, still waiting for fog to clear
Xavi is still in the experimental stage. He wants to give every Barcelona player an opportunity and wants to show that he doesn’t have preconceived notions. Hence the 3-4-3 version of the side we saw against Osasuna, with Samuel Umtiti at the back and Luuk De Jong up front.
What did we learn? Much of it is stuff we already knew. This side continues to be shaky, there are still too many square pegs in round holes and De Jong looks out of his depth, at least in the current set-up. Still, these are growing pains when you’re rebuilding and in many ways, result aside — though that is important too as they continue their improbable chase for a top-four finish — Xavi won’t be displeased with what he saw.
“I never fail. I either win or I learn.” Cheesy as it sounds, that has to be his mantra right now.
Injuries matter, yet Milan keep trending the wrong way
It took an injury-time goal from Zlatan Ibrahimovic (with the sort of pretzel twist few 40-year-olds can manage) for Milan to avoid defeat away to an Udinese side that had just sacked their manager. That goal was also the club’s first (and only) shot on target, while the draw leaves them second in the table, one point behind Inter.
Stefano Pioli can point to injuries and absentees — in particular the wrong kind of injuries, leaving Ibrahimovic as the only fit striker — but it goes well beyond that. This side suddenly looks slower and more predictable. Indeed, since Halloween, they’ve won just three of nine games. One was away to Atletico Madrid, which was also their only really convincing performance against a top opponent, while the other two were against Genoa and Salernitana, who are dead-last and second-bottom in Serie A.
Sure, Pioli’s starting XI had half a dozen players missing and when Ibrahimovic is up front, you will naturally play differently than when you have Ante Rebic or Rafael Leao. Regardless, this is not where Milan want to be right now. Not with a huge game against Napoli coming up next weekend.
Late Jorginho penalty gives Chelsea a 3-2 win, but don’t blame their defending
Janusz Michallik explains what’s behind Chelsea’s sudden inability to stop their opposition from scoring.
The hop is back, and so are the converted penalties. Jorginho had two — both won by Antonio Rudiger, of all people — with the second awarded deep in injury time, to give Chelsea a 3-2 victory over an injury-riddled Leeds side that allows Thomas Tuchel to keep pace with the sides at the top.
Chelsea aren’t playing well — that much is evident — but conventional wisdom may be barking up the wrong tree. There’s a sense that this side leaks too many goals and it’s down to the absence of N’Golo Kante. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that Chelsea are better with a fit and productive Kante, but it’s not at all clear that defensively, Chelsea are suddenly some kind of colander.
– Olley: Pressure mounting on Jorginho to keep Chelsea’s balance
They’re conceding 0.69 goals a game in the Premier League, which is basically the same as last season after Tuchel took over (0.68). Non-penalty Expected Goals tell a somewhat different story — last year they were at 0.56, this year it’s 0.88, which is higher, but still second-best in the league — but it likely has little to do with Kante. The Frenchman started just six of 16 league games this season, but last year, once Tuchel took over, it was just seven of 19.
So what ails Chelsea? Other than individual errors (like we saw against West Ham), it’s probably what’s happening further up the pitch. Defending starts from the front and as long as there is a rotating cast of characters in the front three, it’s hard to build the necessary chemistry off the ball.
PSG dispatch Monaco without impressing, but does it matter?
Two goals from Kylian Mbappe helped Paris Saint-Germain to a 2-0 win over Monaco and underscored their supremacy in Ligue 1, where the gap over second-place Marseille stands at 13 points (though l’OM have a game in hand). I say “supremacy” because right now, PSG are winning games without necessarily performing. Monaco hit the post, came close on another couple of occasions and ultimately succumbed to a (generous) penalty won by Angel Di Maria and an individual error leading to a counterattacking goal.
Does it matter? I think it does, in terms of Mauricio Pochettino’s future. You either keep your job, and your authority over this club, in two ways: by winning the Champions League or improving the team. As we know, the former is exceptionally difficult to do and pretty much out of his hands at least until the spring. The latter is what should be happening, but isn’t right now.
Dortmund huff and puff, but can’t blow down Bochum, falling six points behind in title race
A big part of winning titles is how you react to adversity. Tuesday’s 5-0 thumping of Besiktas may have been a meaningless one in the context of the Champions League, but it showed Borussia Dortmund‘s heads were far from bowed after the acrimonious defeat to Bayern the weekend before.
They carried a similar spirit to Bochum and generally outplayed the opposition, but a poor Gregor Kobel decision led to a penalty against them, Marius Wolf had a late goal (correctly) disallowed and they had to settle for a 1-1 draw. Considering Bochum have lost just once at home in the past nine months, rationally, it’s not a tragedy. Considering they’re chasing Bayern, it has to hurt.
Injury-hit Napoli fall at home, but don’t panic just yet
Napoli’s home defeat to Empoli is the sort of result that generates doom and gloom. They’ve taken one point from their last three games. They’ve gone from being top of Serie A with a three-point lead to being fourth, four points back. And they’re still coping with a rash of injuries, from Kalidou Koulibaly to Fabian Ruiz to Victor Osimhen. Manager Luciano Spalletti himself read the riot act, talking after the game about the need for hard work and humility.
I don’t see things being that grim. For all their absences, they created tons of chances, hit the woodwork twice and were only beaten on one of the most bizarre goals you’re likely to see. Good fortune is part of the game. There’s a huge match coming up against Milan next; the last thing they need is to go into that game with their heads down.
Aubameyang punished, Arsenal cruise to 3-0 win
Janusz Michallik says Mikel Arteta is justified in dropping captain Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for a breach of discipline.
Arsenal are rebuilding, so performances matter more than results. On Saturday, they got a heck of a performance against Southampton, winning 3-0, and they did it without Pierre Emerick Aubameyang, their highest-paid player and team captain. Mikel Arteta confirmed that he was left out for “disciplinary reasons,” but in his absence, the rest of the side looked good, which is what matters.
Arsenal committed huge funds to Aubameyang in September, 2020. Some of us questioned the move at the time, just like we questioned the pricey signings of Willian and Thomas Partey: it’s what you do when you’re trying to win now, not when you’re building. Now, of course, hindsight suggests it was a mistake.
With Alexandre Lacazette out of contract this summer, it seems obvious a striker ought to be a club priority. I’d also question what role Aubameyang should play going forward. This time is not built around him, nor should it be built around him. Let the kids grow.
Real Betis thump Sociedad, show they’re for real
It’s now four wins in a row for Manuel Pellegrini’s Betis and, crucially, the most recent — Sunday’s 4-0 destruction of Real Sociedad — was what you might call a six-pointer, knocking off a direct rival for a place in the top four.
It took Pellegrini a while to get going and, in particular, make this side less dependent on Nabil Fekir. But he found a striker with the hot hand and plenty of desire to bounce back in Juanmi — who has six goals in the last four games — and is getting the best out of his experienced squad. With Sevilla riding high as well, this may be Spain‘s football capital.