The stakes were high. Defeat at home to Chelsea would have left Manchester United behind Liverpool and joint-third in the Premier League, with Tottenham Hotspur one point behind. Coming off the back of an away draw at Sevilla in which they managed a single shot on goal — and, more broadly, a month in which they lost to Tottenham and Newcastle — it would have raised further question marks, ratcheted up the rumour of disquiet and brought the knives out.
Instead, Jose Mourinho’s United navigated Sunday’s Chelsea obstacle, and it’s the team at Stamford Bridge who has to deal with the fall-out: a drop to fifth place and more postgame negativity from Antonio Conte.
“I said at the start of the season that it would be very difficult to finish in the top four,” he said. “Unfortunately, I was right.”
In a sport where coaches are often told that being outwardly confident is a show of strength, Conte’s lugubriousness strikes a chord. Chelsea won the title by seven points last season, and while they were outspent by the Manchester clubs, they still have the third-highest wage bill in the Premier League. Finishing in the top four ought to be the minimum target, not something that is “very difficult” to achieve.
You wonder to what degree statements such as these are designed to feed Conte’s own narrative, whereby the club didn’t give him the necessary resources to compete, or whether they’re simply a way of motivating his players. If it’s the latter it feels counterintuitive, particularly after a game which saw Chelsea on top for long stretches and which (by Mourinho’s own admission) could easily have finished in a draw.
As happened against Barcelona, Conte’s game plan worked but was undone by individual errors. Alvaro Morata should have scored early on instead of whacking the ball off the crossbar, and although it was a very tight offside call on his disallowed goal near the end of the game, VAR would not have struck off that late strike. In other words, these were much better performances, and you’d have imagined he might have wanted to emphasise the positives, at least in public.
As for United, the good news is that we saw what Romelu Lukaku can do when he’s at his best. The alertness with which he controlled the ball with his right and finished with his left after that layoff from Anthony Martial (who also looked brighter, possibly because he wasn’t stuck wide right the entire game) was high-end stuff. So too was the hunger and strength he showed in winning the ball to set up Jesse Lingard’s winner with a well-placed cross.
The midfield also had a much better balance with the trio of Scott McTominay, Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba on the left. Mourinho may have gotten a bit carried away with McTominay (“He can do everything!”), but the point is that in this system, the 21-year-old doesn’t need to do everything. He needs to provide legs and effort for the guys around him and fill space intelligently; for the most part, he did that.
There’s stuff that must be worked on, too. Alexis Sanchez appeared to help set up the first goal and then was a passenger for most of the rest of the game. He and Mourinho will need time to get the balance right. Defensively, Man United aren’t there yet either. Willian’s goal was a shambles, with McTominay and much of the back four getting their defensive movements all muddled up.
The good news is that it looked worse than it probably was. When you rely on synchronised movements, one guy making a mental error will make the others appear worse. But you do feel that this back four won’t really be at their best until Eric Bailly (who came off the bench, presumably because he’s not yet fully match-fit to start twice in a week) is 100 percent.
Ronaldo steps up for Benzema
Haters gonna hate, so the saying goes, and acts that don’t fit a narrative get ignored. Cristiano Ronaldo won’t shake the me-first preening egomaniac label any time soon, but maybe some of his critics may want to reconsider after events Saturday against Alaves at the Bernabeu.
With a minute to go and the home side leading 3-0, Real Madrid were awarded a penalty. The whole stadium looked for Ronaldo, who had scored twice earlier, to step up and complete his hat trick. After all, he’s obsessed with numbers and converting the spot-kick would have been his 50th Real Madrid hat trick and his 300th Liga goal. Instead, Ronaldo gestured to Karim Benzema, who had earlier been booed by the home crowd. The France international stepped up and converted, capping an excellent afternoon that also saw him set up two goals.
It’s easy to be cynical about this sort of thing, but the gesture spoke volumes about how Benzema is viewed, at least by Ronaldo. As for the performance itself, the 4-4-2 formation, with Lucas Vazquez and Gareth Bale out wide, worked well and made up for the absence of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in midfield. At the very least, it’s a tactical alternative for Zinedine Zidane.
Arsenal woeful in Carabao Cup final
Pep Guardiola won his first trophy as Manchester City manager, beating Arsenal 3-0 in the League Cup final. It wasn’t a vintage performance in the first half, but it was enough for City to take the lead, thanks also to some grotesque defending from Shkodran Mustafi, who seemingly forgot to get goal-side (as kids are generally taught to do in little league) on Claudio Bravo’s goal kick, gifting Sergio Aguero a run at goal. Vincent Kompany scored an emotional second, with more bad defending from Arsenal, and David Silva added a third.
City barely broke a sweat, and while it was no doubt a coincidence, there was something poetic about the fact that the three goal scorers all arrived some years ago and have been a part of the club for years. The only way you can call City nouveau riche is if your time horizon spans many decades.
As for Arsenal, it was a mess of the sort that seemed to sum up every negative stereotype about Arsene Wenger. Wrong formation. Bad defending. Listlessness in midfield. Mesut Ozil disappearing. Jack Wilshere falling over. And, of course, Wenger complaining after the match that Mustafi was somehow fouled and Kompany’s goal should not have counted because Leroy Sane was offside and interfering.
The less said there, the better.
Gattuso is proving his haters wrong
It’s probably a function of the sort of player he was and the sort of press conferences he gave as a young manager a few years back, but Gennaro Gattuso was comprehensively stereotyped when he took over at Milan. He was the shouty, heart-on-his-sleeve, drill sergeant charged with whipping the pricey rossoneri into shape. And most of the critics, yours truly included, said it was bound to be an uphill struggle.
But Milan are up to sixth in the table, they’ve won five in a row in all competitions and they haven’t actually lost since before Christmas. On Sunday they won away to Roma, 2-0, the sort of match against a big club where you would have expected them to fold.
Gattuso’s mark on the team hasn’t just been motivational, although Hakan Calhanoglou now runs twice as hard, Leo Bonucci has gone back to basics and Lucas Biglia’s concentration doesn’t seem to lapse the way it did: it has been primarily tactical. His 4-3-3 set-up is compact; it works in unison. And above all, he has opened the path to the kids, Patrick Cutrone and Davide Calabria, both of whom scored on Sunday.
The big test will come next week in the Milan derby against a star-crossed Inter side. Win that and maybe a top-four finish, which seemed impossible a few months ago, can become a realistic goal.
Bayern’s draw looks bad for Robben, Ribery
Bayern were held to a scoreless draw at home by Hertha Berlin, and it’s a sign of the state of play with the Bavarian giants right now that you have to go back five months, to matchday two of the Champions’ League, to find the last time they were shut out. You need a veritable Wayback Machine to find the last time they failed to score at home: it was May 9, 2015, the manager was Pep Guardiola and it was a largely irrelevant game against Augsburg.
Other than some records that were only equalled and won’t be broken — 15 consecutive wins across all competitions, Robert Lewandowski scoring in 11 straight home games — the result doesn’t change much in terms of the league. Even if Borussia Dortmund win on Monday night, they’ll still be a whopping 17 points clear.
Where it might affect things, however, is internally. Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery both started after being benched against Besiktas in the Champions League, and neither covered himself in glory. With both veterans a few months away from free agency, this was a missed chance to stake a claim for a spot in the lineup in games that actually matter.
PSG rout Marseille but suffer Neymar loss
Paris Saint-Germain’s win over a physical Marseillle side was about as straightforward as you’re going to get near the top of Ligue 1. They took the lead through Kylian Mbappe, got a second via an own goal and Edinson Cavani made it 3-0. But all of that was overshadowed by Neymar, who was stretchered off after appearing to land awkwardly on his ankle.
Early indications suggest a sprain, but more tests are due soon. The big question mark, obviously, is what condition he’ll be in for the visit of Real Madrid in the Champions League a week from Tuesday. It’s obviously a blow, but if there is a teeny, tiny silver lining, it’s that PSG have plenty of depth across the front three. And while whoever slots in there won’t have Neymar’s quality, if Unai Emery is clever about it, he can mitigate the damage and possibly even turn it into some kind of motivational tool.
Robertson a quiet surprise at Liverpool
Liverpool thrashed West Ham 4-1 on Saturday, and the front three ran rampant, with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino all getting on the score sheet. The Hammers admittedly weren’t much of a test, and if there’s one team that matches up poorly against Jurgen Klopp’s system, it’s them.
What did stand out for me was the performance of Andy Robertson at left-back. It took him a while to make the position his own, but he’s the sort of high-energy/high-quality player that Klopp craves. He can still improve in terms of collective defending, although that applies to the entire Liverpool defence, but it’s pretty evident he’s the present and the future at left-back.
Barcelona keep getting results
There’s a school of thought that this Barcelona side isn’t a patch on previous versions. Neymar is gone, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho are still finding their feet, Paulinho is Paulinho and Luis Suarez, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Ivan Rakitic and Lionel Messi are all past or near 30 years old. Barca haven’t been playing particularly well in recent weeks and had been neutered by Chelsea for most of their Champions League clash last Tuesday.
But then you get games like Saturday’s 6-1 thumping of Girona and you rather have to reconsider. Messi stole the show with one of those performances that those present will likely talk about for decades. Suarez nabbed a hat trick. Perhaps the most encouraging sign was that Dembele and Coutinho started together for the first time) and it worked. The former offered width and pace while the latter finally looked at home.
Let all this serve as a reminder of what Barcelona can do.
Atletico Madrid keep lingering in title race
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid kept pace in the most emphatic way, by traveling to Seville and putting five past Vincenzo Montella’s crew. So much for that staggering home record. So much for the confidence boost Sevilla supposedly got by holding Manchester United to a single, tame shot on target in midweek — and with the exact same starting XI. The hosts played directly into Atleti’s hands, making the sort of errors (witness the first two goals, both with the complicity of Ever Banega) that Diego Simeone’s teams love to punish.
Throw in Jesus Navas’ first-half injury, an Antoine Griezmann who is back to his best and an Atletico team that can smell blood, and you see how they ended up winning 5-2. Next Sunday, they travel to the Camp Nou, hoping to cut the deficit to four points. If there is to be a title race in La Liga, that’s where it will happen.
Immobile’s brilliance works for Lazio
Ciro Immobile is on a veritable tear. He scored in Lazio’s 3-0 win at Sassuolo, helping Simone Inzaghi’s crew leap back into third place in Serie A. Given that their resources are dwarfed by the likes of Roma, Inter and Milan — all of whom are well behind — that pretty much speaks for itself.
He has 32 goals this season in all competitions, and while he won’t be mistaken for Marco Van Basten any time soon, there’s no arguing with that level of production. The curious thing about him is perhaps how he’s alternated stellar campaigns (like the past two or the one at Torino in 2013-14) with extraordinary droughts. He was ineffective at Borussia Dortmund, in his half-season at Sevilla and at Genoa as well.
Evidently, some players only function in a certain system or environment. He appears to be the epitome of this, although it doesn’t make him any less valuable to Lazio.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.