When CONMEBOL president Alejandro Dominguez compared the Copa Libertadores final to its UEFA Champions League equivalent, referring to the former as “real football” and the latter as “Playstation” football, part of me wanted him to be correct.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Champions League. But football needs an alternative to the sanitized, corporate, often rootless feel of the high-end European game, where outcomes are often decided by whose suits are best at chasing global revenue.
Moreover, the guy with the biggest bank balance invariably wins and that, most of the time, is simply down to genetics and luck. “Were you born into football’s aristocracy? Yes? Well, then you can have nice things. Are you part of the nouveau riche elite who pumped in money at the right time? Super, you can have nice things too.”
That side of football is a bit too much like real life for my liking. Give me leagues where clubs have identity. Where fans support their local clubs. Where you have neither light shows nor club-organized tifo and plastic flags. Where supporters are not customers. Where the bumpy pitch is a challenge, not an affront to the game.
As such, I was ready to celebrate the SuperClasico Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate as an antidote to the slick sports entertainment product seen so often elsewhere. Like most of the rest of the world, I was badly let down.
Some will say that the flip side of the hype and the rawness and the celebration of old-school values is the violence seen in Buenos Aires over the weekend and that we can’t have it both ways. Want your game unsanitizied and unfiltered? OK, but it comes with rock throwing, hooligans and tear gas.
Except that the argument is nonsense. This happened last April in Liverpool, a Premier League city, for a Champions League game; the difference between the two cases — in terms of potential damage — amounted to better reinforced windows on the Manchester City team bus and no tear gas canisters.
So blame the folks who think it is appropriate to throw rocks, bricks and flares at an opposing team’s transport, sure, but do not think they only exist in certain footballing environments. Nor that they are the only ones at fault.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but two factions stand out above all else.
One is the police, whose job it is to guarantee the safety of players and supporters. Their task should have been made easier by the fact that away fans were banned, that River Plate are from Buenos Aires — surely law enforcement would have had intelligence about how and where trouble might start — and that they had a long time to prepare. Instead, they drove right through a hotspot (Avenida Monroe) with a paltry and, as we found out, ineffective escort composed of a few dozen cops on motorbikes.
Yes, policing is difficult and dangerous and so too is public order, but Buenos Aires police deal with this every weekend. For whatever reason, on Saturday it all fell apart.
The other is CONMEBOL. To delay kickoff three times when players on one team have been teargassed and hospitalized is foolish beyond belief, simply from the perspective of the integrity of the competition. Unless they received a direct order from the police that the match had to be played on safety grounds — something that did not happen — then the thing to do is to postpone everything. Integrity should come first.
This past weekend will be remembered, above all, for a missed opportunity, and the shame of those responsible should linger for a long time.
Spurs surge past error-strewn Chelsea
Tottenham’s clash with Chelsea at Wembley on Saturday marked the first leg of a terrible trifecta that includes a must-win Champions League clash with Inter on Wednesday, followed by the North London derby vs. Arsenal four days later. To say they came through the first test with flying colours would be an understatement.
The 3-1 win over Maurizio Sarri’s crew was a beatdown that showed the best of what Spurs can do when they are firing on all cylinders. When folks rave about Mauricio Pochettino and others wonder what the big deal is since “he hasn’t won anything,” show them the first half of this game and the coordinated movement of Dele Alli, Son Heung-Min and Christian Eriksen.
The challenge, as ever, is bottling that to ensure Spurs can achieve consistency. However, the fact that they are third in the Premier League, five points behind leaders Manchester City, and have injured stars returning and finding form — Jan Vertonghen, who was on the bench vs. Chelsea, is next — speaks volumes about the job Pochettino is doing.
Previously, when they needed to win ugly, they did. On Saturday, with the tools to win pretty, they did that too. What is more, a guy like Moussa Sissoko, derided by some as a perpetually underachieving malcontent, turned into a devastating contributor to the cause.
As for Chelsea, the defeat inevitably brought back the old N’Golo Kante-should-be-playing-defensive-midfield-instead-of-Jorginho trope. We have covered this before: Simply put, Sarri’s system will not work without Jorginho or someone with a similar skill set — it could be a younger Cesc Fabregas or Mateo Kovacic — in that role. If you put Kante there, you lose what makes Sarri effective and you might as well get a different guy to be manager.
Chelsea were 2-0 down inside 16 minutes; one goal was off a set piece and the other came when Harry Kane shot from 35 yards out and David Luiz got out of the way. From that moment, the complexion of the game changed. Chelsea were chasing, Tottenham made them pay and you are not going to fix that by giving Kante playmaking responsibilities in front of the back four.
Son’s goal was spectacular but it was also made possible because Jorginho, who was never going to win a foot ace with the South Korean forward, did not resort to the much-maligned tactical foul and David Luiz was a revolving door a few seconds later.
Chelsea’s problem is twofold. First, their pressing high up the pitch was nowhere near as crisp and intense as it needs to be for the system to work, something Sarri highlighted. That is an issue to be fixed on the training pitch. The second, trickier concern to deal with is that individual errors suggest some players may not be good enough in one-on-one situations.
Barcelona escape Simeone’s trap
You probably figured out long ago that Diego Simeone is less bothered by aesthetics and more with results. That, and kicking butt. The Atletico Madrid manager took Cholismo to another level against Barcelona and it nearly paid off.
For 77 minutes, we witnessed a frankly horrendous game at the Wanda Metropolitano, with Atletico frustrating Barcelona and the visitors stuck in an uninspired rut. Very little happened in the final third until Diego Costa’s header beat Marc-Andre ter Stegen. (Believe it or not, it was his first Liga goal in nine months and yet, weirdly, it seems strangely appropriate on a Simeone team.)
However, just when it looked as if the hosts’ manager had bust the house with his combination of grit, spit and by-any-means-necessary bloody-mindedness, Ousmane Dembele grabbed Barca’s equalizer with the help of deflections. It was not pretty, like much of the game, but it kept the defending Spanish champions a point behind Sevilla at the top of the table.
It also served as a reminder that there is plenty for Ernesto Valverde to work on. Without Ivan Rakitic and Philippe Coutinho, he opted for a blue-collar midfield, leaving out both Dembele and Rafinha and counting on Arturo Vidal to provide drive into the final third. It is going to take more than that to find your way past Atletico — or, indeed, most top sides — and all it did was put more stress on Lionel Messi.
As for Atletico, Simeone does his things way and it is hard to find fault, given they came within minutes of a win that would have taken them top. In games like this, you are reminded how quickly newcomers — even those who come from entirely different types of football — absorb his philosophy; just consider Rodri, Santiago Arias and Thomas Lemar. That said, you also wonder what their more creative types could do in a more expansive setting.
More woe for Mourinho
Manchester United’s 0-0 home draw with Crystal Palace means the club has made its worst start to a league season in 28 years.
Jose Mourinho heard his team booed off the pitch and looked dejected after the match, going through the motions as he talked about “brains” and “heart.” Had he thrown in “courage,” he would have set himself up for Wizard of Oz cracks and how there is nobody behind the curtain.
Bayern send mixed signals over Kovac
The approach to Bayern Munich manager Nico Kovac is almost as befuddling as the defensive errors that cost them two points against relegation-threatened Fortuna Dusseldorf.
Just over a month ago, following defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach — since then, while not playing particularly well, they have only lost once — club president Uli Hoeness and CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, among others, presided over a scathing press conference, in which they professed undying support for Kovac while savaging their critics in the media.
After Saturday’s 3-3 draw, Hoeness said that Kovac will be in charge for the midweek Champions League game in midweek and then they will evaluate the situation. Consistency much?
Kovac might be out of his depth at Bayern. Indeed, you get the impression that some think it is such a well-run super-club that any Hans, Wolfgang or Nico (German for “Tom, Dick and Harry”) can sit on the bench and watch the silverware roll in.
Evidently, that is not the case. Just as evidently, major mistakes were made in terms of talent evaluation — whether by Hoeness, Rummenigge or Hasan Salihamidzic, the sporting director — that go well beyond Kovac.
What helps nobody, though, is putting Kovac on notice and ratcheting up the pressure.
Solari endures reality check
It did not take a genius to figure out that the four straight wins with which Santiago Solari began his reign as Real Madrid manager were fools’ gold. Consider the teams they beat: Third-division Melilla, Viktoria Plzen (who might as well be in the third division), Valladolid (the deadlock was only broken seven minutes from time) and Celta Vigo (one victory in their previous nine).
Then again, few would have imagined the sort of beatdown Madrid suffered at Eibar. It finished 3-0, but the home side also hit the woodwork and forced some tremendous saves from Thibaut Courtois.
Very little worked for Solari. Not the attack, with Karim Benzema back to his chaotic self and Gareth Bale a phantom’ not the midfield, where Luka Modric’s post-World Cup hangover continues; and certainly not the back, where Sergio Ramos and, especially, Raphael Varane were repeatedly turned inside out.
The good news is that, in this Brave New Liga, Madrid are just six points off the top. Solari said his team need to find their “cojones” — a euphemism for guts — but it is going to take more than that. Demanding a show of pride is about the only thing you can do when you do not have the alibi of absentees (Dani Carvajal and Casemiro were the only missing starters). It should also be a last resort.
Questions for Lazio, Milan bosses
Joaquin Correa’s injury-time equaliser for Lazio left Milan dejected and plenty taking Rino Gattuso to task for not making substitutions late on, but the critics might want to look at the bench before they chastise the manager.
Other than, maybe, Diego Laxalt’s fresh legs, Gattuso had little or nothing to turn to. In fact, it is a minor miracle that his makeshift 3-4-3, with Ignazio Abate and Ricardo Rodriguez as emergency center-backs, worked at all.
As for Lazio, they had the upper hand for much of the game and arguably deserved more than a draw. However, they too ought to ask questions of their coach, given Simone Inzaghi took off Luis Alberto and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic with 25 minutes to go and the score 0-0. That smacks of settling for a point and, when you are on top, is a dangerous thing to do.
Emery’s explanation for Ozil omission raises eyebrows
Away to Bournemouth, Arsenal manager Unai Emery mixed things up to break a funk of four straight Premier League and Europa League games without a victory. His side lined up in a 3-4-3 and won 2-1, but it could have been a different story if not for a weird Jefferson Lerma own goal and a disallowed David Brooks strike.
More ominous were Emery’s words on Ozil, who was left on the bench. Asked about his decision, the manager said: “It’s a very demanding match with physicality and intensity.”
Emery is no newbie. He knows his words have weight and that Ozil, who has retired from international football, spent the last two weeks training and has a “gimme” Europa League tie with Vorskla coming up next. Emery also knows that Bournemouth aren’t exactly Tony Pulis’ Stoke when it comes to physicality.
Overall, it was an odd decision and an odd explanation toward a guy he made captain earlier this season.
Jury still out on PSG
An early Edinson Cavani goal sent Paris Saint-Germain on their way to a 1-0 win at home to Toulouse. It was a classic maximum result / minimum effort game and did not feature either Neymar or Kylian Mbappe, who missed out through injury ahead of Wednesday’s huge Champions League clash with Liverpool
PSG still feel difficult to decipher. They have won all 14 Ligue 1 games they have played this season, but only one of four in Europe. However, they did draw home and away with Napoli and only lost narrowly at Anfield, despite playing terribly. We should find out more about Thomas Tuchel’s side later this week.
Dortmund find a way to win again
We have said it before, but one of the most significant differences between Borussia Dortmund past and present is the ability to win ugly, or at least when not firing on all cylinders.
Away to a prickly Mainz side, they struggled to find openings until super-sub Paco Alcacer put them ahead just past the hour mark and two minutes after coming on. Later, after Mainz’s equalizer, a stunning Lukas Pisczek goal — entirely rejuvenated by Lucien Favre — grabbed the win.
Alcacer’s scoring numbers — he has 10 goals in 429 minutes in all competitions — continue to look like statistical oddities, which is why it is not surprising that the club triggered their purchase option, acquiring him from Barcelona for $24 million and locking him up through 2023. At some point, the debate will turn to whether he should start regularly. For now, they are getting the most out of him in spot duty.
Sevilla should target a title tilt
With his first league goal since the end of September, Andre Silva returned to scoring at the right time to help Sevilla overcome Valladolid and move into first place. While the club have alternative firepower, manager Pablo Machin needs the Portuguese international in form if they are going to make a real run at the title.
And, yes, you have to say that that is what the club must think about. This time last year, Sevilla had one fewer point but they were fifth, 10 points off the top. This is a different season; given how tight it is and the flaws elsewhere, there is no reason to think they cannot be in the mix.
Dost scored twice for Sporting in their 4-1 victory at Luistano Vildemoinhos in the Taca de Portugal fourth round. Despite missing 10 weeks of the season, he nevertheless has five goals in five league appearances and, overall, has seven in eight in all competitions.