Fresh off a World Cup draw, the European club season resumed this weekend and provided plenty to talk about. From Juventus and Inter‘s fiery Serie A clash to more woe for Man United, it was a packed schedule. Elsewhere, Pedri was a superstar when Barcelona needed one, Real Madrid got some (lucky) penalties to stay ahead in LaLiga and Liverpool and Man City both won to keep the Premier League title race on a razor’s edge.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Juve-Inter fallout | Rangnick under pressure? | Magical Pedri | Real Madrid joy | Man City cruise | Goretzka back for Bayern | Kane masterclass | Mbappe staying at PSG? | Liverpool keep winning | Dortmund’s season is over | Felix amazing for Atletico | Chelsea thumped | Napoli stay alive in Serie A
A statement win for Inter, but Juventus right to feel aggrieved (they’re on the right track, too)
The focus in some quarters will no doubt be on the refereeing in Inter’s 1-0 victory away to Juventus on Sunday night. It’s kind of inevitable in Serie A, especially with these two teams and this rivalry.
To me, the story is that while Juve’s unbeaten run comes to an end after 16 games, they ought to be proud of this performance: They played with intensity, consistency, bravery and attacking intent. As I saw it, this game had two big calls, both of which went Inter’s way.
One was the penalty awarded when Alvaro Morata and Alex Sandro came together with Denzel Dumfries in the Juve box. VAR intervened and at first, you weren’t sure why, since the contact seemed incidental. But replays showed Morata’s foot coming down on Dumfries’ foot, and based on a strict reading of the directives given to referees, that’s a foul every time … and a foul in the box means penalty. You can argue about discretion, or whether every incident like that should be treated equally, but those are the directives.
(As for the penalty itself, in case you were confused by what you saw, this is what happened. Hakan Calhanoglou‘s shot was saved by Wojciech Szczesny. The Inter midfielder poked in the rebound while colliding with the keeper and Matthijs de Ligt. Referee Massimiliano Irrati did not give the goal, and instead the penalty was retaken because De Ligt had encroached on the kick. Why didn’t advantage apply here? Beats me. Maybe because the encroachment negated what came after? Either way, it had no material effect on the outcome.)
The other was Lautaro Martinez, who had already been booked, not getting a second yellow card for his foul on Giorgio Chiellini. Here, I think the referee got it wrong and that he was maybe influenced by not wanting to send somebody off after 23 minutes. Adrien Rabiot railed against the officiating after the match and probably went over the top, but what you can say is that games like these tend to confound the supposed age-old narrative whereby all the close calls go Juve’s way.
Beyond that, I thought Massimiliano Allegri’s set-up — a 4-2-3-1 formation with Paulo Dybala in the hole and Morata out wide — was effective, in part because of the intensity and drive that Juve showed. It’s something they’ve been lacking most of the season and the worst thing that could happen now is that they abandon this approach simply because they lost. (Yes, there are some fools who think the result is all that matters.) Very few successful teams play reactive football of the sort Allegri served up much of this season, and Sunday night showed Juve can play a different way.
As for Inter, they coped well in defence and midfield, though Juve did hit the woodwork twice, and in the second half had a couple chances to add to their lead. But while the result is huge in keeping them in the title race, they really shouldn’t rest on their laurels. The breaks went Inter’s way on Sunday; that’s not something to be taken for granted.
Rangnick bemoans Man United’s lack of physicality in lackluster Leicester draw
Gab Marcotti speaks about Manchester United’s lack of attacking threat against Leicester City.
It was another afternoon to forget Saturday for Manchester United on Saturday as they drew 1-1 with Leicester City. With Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani unavailable (plus Mason Greenwood still out of the squad), Ralf Rangnick played Bruno Fernandes through the middle, with support wide from Anthony Elanga and Jadon Sancho (yes, Marcus Rashford still can’t get in the starting XI), but it still didn’t yield dividends and they were outplayed for long stretches.
After the match, Rangnick noted his team’s lack of physicality, blamed poor recruitment choices and donned his Captain Obvious cape after the game: “It takes the right decisions and [deciding] where you want to go, what kind of players you want, what kind of manager you want, and then in every transfer window try to get the best players possible. This is not rocket science.”
It’s hard to argue with him when he says that it’s difficult “to change a technically great player into a physical, aggressive player,” but there’s more than one way to win games, and not every great side is filled with “physical, aggressive players.” Some succeed by prioritising technical ability, which only raises the question, again, of recruitment.
Rangnick’s brand of football has been built around pressing and athleticism. Did United not know that when they hired him? If so, it only reinforces his point: They made serious recruitment errors, starting with him.
Pedri on top of the world as Barca down Sevilla to go second in LaLiga
Alejandro Moreno sees a potential Ballon d’Or future if Pedri can continue to score for Barcelona.
It was one of those games where the ball just won’t go in. And where, at every counter, you’re one bad decision away from conceding a goal despite dominating for long stretches.
With 20 minutes to go on Sunday night, Barca were frustrated. They had been in control at home to Sevilla, with Ousmane Dembele (who got a standing ovation when he was substituted, an unthinkable thing even just a month ago) running rampant down the right and only a combination of Yassine Bounou and some lacklustre finishing denying them the lead.
This was the moment for great talents to shine, and Pedri seized the moment.
The 19-year-old wunderkind got the ball just to the left of the D, put two defenders on their backsides and then rifled a vicious long-range finish into the back of the net. It was the sort of individual game-turning brilliance to which the Camp Nou had become accustomed over the past 15 years, coinciding with the reign of one Lionel Messi. It was not something you see often, either, much less from a kid of Pedri’s age.
– Highlights: Pedri magic lifts Barcelona past Sevilla (U.S.)
Some have compared him to Andres Iniesta and you can see why. To me, he seems in some ways better rounded and possibly more dynamic (though maybe not as good a pure passer). The hope is that he’s allowed to grow, because he’s still extremely young. Last season, he was very clearly overworked and paid the price with his injury layoff. That can’t happen again.
Pedri can definitely grow to make this his team, but the operative word is “grow.” And things grow when you create the right environment for them.
Three(!) penalties propel Real Madrid past Celta
Having been left stewing by the 4-0 home humiliation at the hands of Barcelona in the Clasico (one that lasted two weeks, given the international break), it was imperative that Real Madrid get a victory away to Celta to get things back on track. They got a 2-1 win, albeit one marked by three penalties (two of them controversial) and a disallowed (correctly, but frustratingly) Celta goal.
–Highlights: Benzema’s penalties give Real Madrid the win (U.S.)
With Karim Benzema and Ferland Mendy returning to the XI, Real were at full strength — minus Carlo Ancelotti, absent following a positive COVID-19 test — and still struggled against the usual brave, high-energy game preached by Eduardo “El Chacho” Coudet. There’s no argument on Madrid’s first penalty, but the second (Jeison Murillo on Rodrygo) looked generous and the third (Kevin Vazquez on Ferland Mendy) even more so. If the gap to Barcelona in LaLiga’s table was smaller, you can imagine the venom in the media across the land.
Madrid need to move on quickly and focus on their trip to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. This was not a good collective performance and the worry for Ancelotti has to be whether the drop is purely down to Celta or whether, somehow, his players were thinking ahead to the Champions League. With eight games to go, the gap is 12 points, but Barca have a game in hand.
Man City brush Burnley aside with little effort
Steve Nicol says Manchester City’s win over Burnley was never in doubt as they return to the top of the Premier League.
When Manchester City took the pitch against Burnley, they were second in the table given that Liverpool had played (and beaten Watford) earlier in the day. Any suggestions that this would get in the way of their performance against an opponent battling against relegation, one who could be spiky and tough, were quickly dismissed when Kevin De Bruyne‘s gorgeous strike put the visitors ahead.
It’s a cliche, but it’s true. Scoring early — in this case, within five minutes — against an opponent who thrives on defending deep and creating density opens things up. Ilkay Gundogan made it 2-0 after 25 minutes, and City never looked back.
It was interesting to see how well the all-English frontline of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish did, changing positions, creating space and generating chances. Harry Kane is untouchable for England, of course (and Gareth Southgate has other options too), but this sort of setup might be a potential Plan B come the World Cup … provided the right framework is put together behind them. (It’s easier said than done, since there is no De Bruyne behind them.)
Goretzka’s return lifts Bayern (and don’t mind the 12th man)
It took Bayern Munich a while to get going away to Freiburg — it was tied 1-1 with 20 minutes left — but don’t let the goal sequence fool you. Julian Nagelsmann’s men were in control and eventually outlasted a combative Freiburg side that simply ran out of gas. A big part of it was Leon Goretzka‘s return after nearly four months out. He lasted an hour (and scored a goal), but already the middle of the park looked far more comfortable than it has in recent weeks.
The incident with Bayern having 12 men on the field for less than a minute was curious, and it seems that blame is to be split between the Bavarians and the fourth official. But it didn’t influence the game, and frankly, it should go down as nothing more than a piece of football trivia.
Kane doesn’t score, but still puts on a masterclass for Spurs
Shaka Hislop wonders if Antonio Conte has found a winning formula at Tottenham after they demolish Newcastle.
Tottenham Hotspur‘s 5-1 win against Newcastle United puts them, at least for a few hours, into fourth place alongside Arsenal (and suggests that maybe Antonio Conte was a bit over-the-top when he suggested a few months ago that there was no more than a “one percent” chance of Champions League football next year). Spurs had actually gone a goal down before equalising before the half, and they ran rampant after the break.
But it’s worth underscoring just how impressive Harry Kane was. He didn’t find the net, but he was pivotal in linking play and setting up teammates with his movement. And this wasn’t as some kind of false nine — Kane remains a regular presence in the box with his well-timed runs — but as a genuine, all-around centre-forward capable of putting his skill set at the service of the side.
In that sense, there are some parallels with Benzema: Kane is perhaps a somewhat better passer and Benzema somewhat more athletic, but both are devastating, intelligent and fundamentally team-oriented.
Having endured a nightmarish first half of the season, Kane is hitting new heights of late. Whether it’s Conte or the fall out from the Euros and his aborted move to Manchester City is up for debate. What’s not in question is that when he’s like this, he’s one of the very best around.
“MNM” all score vs. Lorient, but Mbappe’s words overshadow PSG’s day
Gab Marcotti debates what could be influencing Kylian Mbappe’s decision regarding his future at PSG.
Paris Saint-Germain beat Lorient 5-1 on Sunday and for the first time, Kylian Mbappe, Lionel Messi and Neymar all got on the scoresheet, with Mbappe grabbing two and being involved in the other three. Of course, it all feels flat given the way the season has panned out and once again there were boos, especially for coach Mauricio Pochettino.
Some solace came after the final whistle when free-agent-to-be Mbappe was asked about his future: “I haven’t decided yet,” he said. “But there may be new elements to consider?”
New elements? Way to tantalize the PSG faithful. Maybe that move to Real Madrid isn’t as done and dusted as some would have us believe?
Liverpool keep up the pressure
Steve Nicol and Don Hutchison share their thoughts on Manchester City’s and Liverpool’s clash and the impact the game has on the title race.
To borrow another footballing aphorism, it can be a bigger challenge to play a weaker team fighting for survival (like Watford) at this stage of the campaign than a better side in mid-table with little to play for. Liverpool were put on the ropes by Watford for long stretches, even after taking the lead early with Diogo Jota (who might have had a hat-trick) before adding as second late on via the penalty spot.
Coming off an international break, with Trent Alexander-Arnold not fully fit and on the bench (Joe Gomez filled in and didn’t do badly, but he’s simply an entirely different sort of player) and with a Champions League clash at Benfica coming in midweek, this was a “trap game” and Jurgen Klopp’s crew avoided it in part because of Watford’s wastefulness. But it’s three big points in the bag that keep them on track ahead of their mega-clash with Manchester City on April 10.
Borussia Dortmund‘s season is over … it’s time to take stock
It was the first full house at the Westfalenstadion since before the pandemic and the 81,000-plus fans in attendance were treated to a horror show as Borussia Dortmund fell 4-1 to RB Leipzig. It was a compendium of everything that’s gone wrong for Dortmund this season: sterile possession early without a cutting edge, horrible defending not helped by a lack of cover (especially from the wide areas), and a ramshackle siege that left them open to every counter.
– Highlights: Leipzig smash Dortmund 4-1 (U.S.)
They’ll probably finish second this year and you hope Dortmund don’t treat this as evidence that they’re doing much of anything right, because very little has gone right. Sure, they have more points than they did at this stage last season, but they don’t look any closer to Bayern (on the contrary…) and they were knocked out by St Pauli in the DFB-Pokal and Rangers in the Europa League, the latter coming after losing half their Champions League group games and being dropped into the secondary competition.
Dortmund can’t get away with simply blaming injuries and scapegoating manager Marco Rose (who certainly hasn’t helped, but can’t be the only culprit). If they want to progress, folks higher up the food chain than Rose need to take a long, hard look at themselves. Especially if, as appears certain, Erling Haaland is on his way out.
As for Leipzig, the turnaround under Domenico Tedesco has been remarkable. They’ve lost once (to Bayern) since mid-December and have momentum on their side in the battle for a Champions League spot.
Pablo Zabaleta explains why he isn’t worried about Manchester City’s chances vs. Atletico Madrid in the Champions League.
There has been a lot of (justified) hype surrounding Barcelona’s revival, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that Atletico Madrid, who beat Alaves 4-1 on Saturday, have won six in a row and are level on points with the Catalans. Not just that, but it’s six goals in six league games for Joao Felix, which is as many as he scored in the previous 16 months. The Portuguese starlet may never live up to his enormous transfer fee, but, still just 22, he’s offering quality and consistency of a sort that we haven’t often seen during his time at the club.
– Highlights: Felix, Suarez score twice each in big Atletico win (U.S.)
That said, despite the scoreline, it wasn’t the best performance from Atletico Madrid and it was still 1-1 just 15 minutes from full-time. Diego Simeone’s substitutions (especially Matheus Cunha and Luis Suarez, who grabbed two goals) helped turn the game and, at the risk of stating the obvious, having plenty of options on the bench is a real boon.
Chelsea smacked around at home by Brentford, and Lukaku still on the bench…
Steve Nicol singles out Chelsea’s inability to convert chances as their biggest problem against Brentford.
Chelsea’s run of 14 unbeaten games (including 12 wins) came to an end in the most emphatic way at home to Brentford on Saturday with a 4-1 defeat. Thomas Tuchel’s crew had the bulk of possession, but fell prey to what Brentford do best: win second-balls and hurt you in transition.
What surprised me was that this game seemed primed for Romelu Lukaku to make his first league start since mid-February. Tuchel was switching to a 4-3-3 formation, which meant he’d have service from wide areas. Lukaku was fresh, having not played over the break unlike Kai Havertz, who started both Germany games on international duty. And with that huge Champions League first leg against Real Madrid coming up on Wednesday, you figured this might be a good time to give Lukaku a run out. Instead, he only came on with 25 minutes to go, when Chelsea were already 3-1 down.
Chelsea have made a huge commitment to Lukaku, and you don’t want to turn it into a “him or me” situation. This was a low-stakes game — barring a miracle or a cataclysm, Chelsea will finish third — and everything was set up for him.
As for Brentford, Christian Eriksen scored his first Premier League goal for the club. More than that, he offered a clinic in exquisite touches and intelligent runs. He’s different from his teammates and, in many ways, that’s why he’s adding value to the club.
Napoli change the script to stay alive in Serie A, winning at Atalanta
Traveling away to Atalanta isn’t fun at the best of times, but it becomes downright unpleasant when you’re missing your star striker (Victor Osimhen) and half of your starting back four (Giovanni Di Lorenzo and Amir Rrahmani). So Napoli adapted. They sat deeper, soaked up the pressure and struck on the counter, taking the lead from the spot and adding a second before half-time.
It wasn’t swashbuckling, and they were more reactive on this occasion — Atalanta had 55% possession — but still, Napoli mostly kept the danger away from David Ospina‘s goal. They have arguably the toughest run-in of the three title contenders in Serie A, but they’ve also shown themselves to be perhaps the most adaptable of the three. Down the stretch, that can make all the difference.