Missed any of the action around Europe this weekend? A derby full of talking points between Manchester United and Manchester City, more coronavirus cancellations/postponements and a three-team title race in Italy that just became a two-horse race; Gab Marcotti is here to catch you up with all the talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Jump to: Juve dump Inter from title race | Manchester derby lessons | Real’s worst performance | Liverpool back to winning | Messi needs help at Barca | Bayern’s big weekend | Chelsea’s young stars shine | Dortmund find new way to win | Coronavirus concerns | Mourinho moaning again | End of Leipzig’s title hopes? | Milan mess continues | Atletico ready for Liverpool
Juve push Inter out of Serie A title race
Against the surreal, but not unprecedented, backdrop of an empty stadium that allowed viewers to hear every thud, crunch and shout, Juventus downed Inter 2-0, a result that knocks Antonio Conte’s Scudetto chances down to single digits. If you only saw the highlights, you might conclude that the difference was a deflected goal and a world-class strike by Paulo Dybala, but there was much more to it than that.
Juve came in having lost three of their previous seven matches including, most recently, the 1-0 Champions League stinker in Lyon. More importantly, you could count on one hand the number of times they had looked convincing this season: against Roma in the Coppa Italia, Inter away, some of the European group games and not many more. They still got results because, well, they have better players and, more generally, that’s how they roll, but this was a potential crossroads for them and for Maurizio Sarri.
So when the lineup came out and we discovered that Sarri had dropped Miralem Pjanic for Rodrigo Bentancur, that Dybala was on the bench and that Aaron Ramsey was starting in the three-man midfield, the knives came out. But Juve came out of the gates quickly, absorbed Inter’s reaction without conceding much in the way of chances and then, after taking the lead, dominated the rest of the way. Some of it is down to Inter’s flaws (we’ll get to those) but you have to credit Sarri for shaking off the negative prematch vibes and getting the approach right, tactically and mentally.
Leo Bonucci and Matthijs de Ligt were rock-solid at the back; the midfield three dominated; and Dybala was the difference maker when he came on. You can buy Sarri’s explanation that it’s best to use him only in certain situations (or not), but there is no denying his impact. And while Cristiano Ronaldo failed to score, which means he didn’t break Gabriel Batistuta’s record, he worked hard and was unselfish, particularly for Ramsey’s goal.
As for Inter, if you go for a “battling” midfield without a creator like Christian Eriksen or Stefano Sensi, they need to battle. And on Sunday night, they failed to exert enough pressure on Juve’s midfield. The front two of Lautaro Martinez and Romelu Lukaku contributed close to nothing, in part because they couldn’t get service and in part because there didn’t seem to be any kind of Plan B, like dropping deep or trying something different.
Conte has his responsibilities here, and it’s especially hard to fathom why he can’t get to grips with Eriksen. The latest line peddled — he’s not dynamic enough, he’s not intense enough, his work ethic isn’t right — is frankly absurd.
Leaving aside that he can give you something no other Inter player has (apart from Sensi, and we last saw him in Serie A in January), it amounts to Eriksen being judged by how he looks. Yes, he’s not exactly a “warrior” type. But he thrived for many years under Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs, and that was hardly a “soft” team. In fact, Inter could use the intensity and pressing they displayed right up until the last months of last season. It boggles the mind that Eriksen has started just one league game after Inter went through all that trouble to sign him in January.
Juve’s lead over Lazio is a single point, and the head-to-head tussle for the title could continue all season. If Inter win their game in hand, they’ll be six points out. It’s a lot, but with 12 games to go after that, it’s not insurmountable either.
Man City’s dismal day ends in deserved derby defeat
Ederson had his worst performance since joining Manchester City on Sunday, gifting United two goals (and it could have been three), but make no mistake about it, it wasn’t just goalkeeping mistakes that led to City losing 2-0. United, not for the first time this season, showed that while this club might be a work in progress, they know how to sit and counter effectively. And, crucially for a team that’s going to play that way, if they have to sit and defend, they’re comfortable doing so.
United broke well in attack — so well, in fact, that if Anthony Martial and Daniel James had better peripheral vision, Bruno Fernandes might have bagged another two goals — and, more importantly, they defended very well. They didn’t just pack bodies back there; they sat deep while defending actively and in an organised way. That’s a credit to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The challenge, of course, is that you don’t always get to play this way. It’s not entirely clear that they’ve progressed at all against opponents who are equally happy to sit. Witness recent games against Everton (a draw), Wolves (also a draw) and Watford (a win, but the game could have taken a different turn). That’s what Solskjaer needs to get right.
As for Manchester City, Bernardo Silva put it best when he said “we need to play better, it’s not acceptable to play like this here at Old Trafford.” He’s right, of course, which is why Pep Guardiola’s reaction — “over the 90 minutes, we played really well” — leaves you dumbfounded and wanting to look closely at his nose to see if it gets that little bit longer as the words leave his mouth. City most definitely did not play well. They missed Kevin De Bruyne; Phil Foden reminded us that he’s still a teenager; and there were the usual wobbles at the back. This is not the standard he set over the past few years. Why he feels the need to state the opposite is tough to understand.
It might be as simple as motivation, which might explain why Guardiola keeps fiddling with his full-backs. They already won the League Cup, they might yet win the Champions League and FA Cup too: that’s the Treble they’re chasing right now. They’re obviously not catching Liverpool, and they’re highly unlikely to slip to third; even if they do, given that their European future rests with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where they finish in the league might be largely irrelevant anyway. Still, it’s hard to fathom why Guardiola thinks it’s beneficial to say some of the stuff he says.
Real Madrid crumble at worst possible time
Real Madrid turned in arguably their worst performance of the season in their 2-1 defeat at Betis, which means they are now two points behind Barca (again) at the top of La Liga. Sure, their only win in their past five outings was the Clasico, but at least they played reasonably well to very well in the other outings. On Sunday night, they were just awful, and the final score could have been much worse if Marc Bartra had finished better and if Thibaut Courtois hadn’t pulled off his usual heroics.
Zinedine Zidane’s rotation has come under scrutiny and, yes, some of his choices raised eyebrows. When your front three includes Lucas Vazquez and Vinicius Jr. (instead of, say, Isco and Eden Hazard), you will necessarily have to create from deeper, and Toni Kroos and Luka Modric failed to do enough of it. That’s why I don’t buy the argument peddled by Zidane’s many supporters that Fede Valverde would have solved every problem. Play Valverde and you lose a creator (or, at least, a different kind of creator) in midfield. Of course, with Valverde you would have had more drive and intensity, which Madrid also need right now. All in all, it’s a bit of a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
– Real ratings: Ramos 5/10 in poor display
What’s evident is that Zidane needs someone like Isco back in double-quick time and that if Dani Carvajal isn’t available, we don’t need to see Eder Militao there; it’s better to give Lucas Vazquez a shot in a deeper role. It might also be time to resurrect Gareth Bale in some capacity, assuming he’s fit and wants to play. We’re getting to the point where, if the system isn’t going to deliver, the individuals need to instead.
That said, while undoubtedly poor, Betis are exactly the sort of feast-or-famine team you don’t want to meet when they’re having a good night, and they had a brilliant night Sunday, with Nabil Fekir leading the way. This is a side that has underachieved this season and, on talent alone, should be a solid top-six club. When Betis turn it on, they’re a real handful.
I’m still leaning Real Madrid to win La Liga, but it does feel like one of those campaigns where the two best teams have fundamental flaws and are playing way beneath themselves.
Liverpool get back to winning ahead of huge week
The good news is that, after beating Bournemouth 2-1, Liverpool need only another six points to mathematically win the title they’ve been waiting for since 1990. The bad news is that they didn’t play well and, really, haven’t played well since January.
– Liverpool ratings: Mane 7/10 in comeback win
Oh, and despite what some say, it’s not just down to Jordan Henderson‘s absence. As good as he is, he doesn’t make the front three sharper or better finishers. He also doesn’t ensure Joe Gomez doesn’t get manhandled, and his mere presence doesn’t make Fabinho become the player he was before the ankle injury suffered back in November.
The reality is that if they don’t turn it around against Atletico Madrid in Wednesday’s must-win Champions League last-16 second leg, their season will be over very soon, leaving plenty of time for a nice, long party. Come to think of it, that might not be such a bad thing.
Messi needs help from Barca teammates
Barcelona squeaked a 1-0 win against Real Sociedad on Saturday that sees them go top, but there’s not much to write home about. Against an opponent that left out three key men (Joseba Zaldua, Igor Zubeldia and Mikel Oyarzabal), they were sluggish. The trademark Quique Setien possession game was often imprecise, and they ended the game very much on the ropes.
There’s no escaping the fact that Lionel Messi was (once again) off his game, despite the fact that he converted the match-winning penalty (which, I thought, was a bit harsh on Robin Le Normand). He looks irritable, frustrated and grumpy, which might explain why he got booked for the third straight game for the very first time in his career.
Barca ratings: Messi 6/10 but gets the match-winner
Barcelona are leading La Liga through inertia right now. You can hang it on Messi because with great talent (and great wages) comes great responsibility. Or you can just blame Setien because the coach is always the most convenient scapegoat. But it’s pretty evident there are plenty others in that squad who aren’t pulling their weight.
A decisive weekend for Coutinho, Bayern
Bayern dispatched Augsburg 2-0 on Sunday, which isn’t really a surprise given that their opponents have taken only four of their past 27 points up for grabs. It took a while for them to get going, as there was no Robert Lewandowski to lead the way up front (and Joshua Zirkzee is no Lewa… for now, at least), but second-half strikes from Thomas Muller and Leon Goretzka got the job done.
More encouraging was Philippe Coutinho‘s performance. It was his third straight start, and he showed that he’s coming to terms with playing out wide in this system. I doubt Bayern will trigger the buyback clause to keep him around this summer unless they can negotiate a very deep discount, but he offers something very different to the other attacking midfielders and could come in handy down the stretch.
Chelsea’s young talent catches the eye in big win
Chelsea finished their 4-0 rout of Everton on Sunday with three 18-year-olds on the pitch: Armando Broja, Faustino Anjorin and Billy Gilmour. It’s a testament to the club’s long injury list (seven), but also to Frank Lampard’s steadfast belief that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. It’s not Gilmour’s ability that stands out — there are plenty of central midfielders who can ping passes accurately all day long — but his personality and intelligence.
Lampard has also helped resurrect Ross Barkley, who responded with a sterling performance and finally completed the Kepa Arrizabalaga-Willy Caballero switch in the Premier League. Whatever went on with Kepa, it now seems to be over, and Chelsea are the better for it.
Dortmund find a new way to win
Borussia Dortmund got a huge 2-1 away win at Borussia Moenchengladbach, and they did it while giving us a different look. They showed a physicality, especially in midfield, that had often been absent, while Thorgan Hazard reminded us he’s not just a guy with a famous brother. The way he turned on a dime for the opening goal was delicious.
There were plenty of chances for both sides and, yes, the defensive wobbles are still there (Erling Haaland needs to work on that whole stepping out after set pieces, rather than going in the opposite direction, as he did for the equalizer) and Roman Burki had to come up big. But this was more sledgehammer than foil from Lucien Favre’s crew and likely what they needed ahead of Wednesday’s date with destiny at Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.
Europe’s leagues still struggling with coronavirus response
Switzerland have suspended their league. Greece announced they’ll be playing behind closed doors. Italy might yet suspend their league. PSG’s game Saturday at Strasbourg was postponed and their Champions League clash with Borussia Dortmund will be played behind closed doors.
The coronavirus is real, and it’s hard to see football getting away from it. On Sunday, I wrote about how the Italian players’ association has asked for the league to be suspended. What seemed far-fetched is closer to reality with every day that passes, and not just in Italy.
Will Mourinho’s latest moaning work for his players?
Tottenham drew away to Burnley, 1-1, which isn’t a bad result, but Jose Mourinho (again) made headlines when he criticized his starting midfield of Oliver Skipp and Tanguy Ndombele, both of whom were yanked at half-time.
“In the first half, we didn’t have a midfield,” he said. “Of course, I’m not speaking of Skipp because he’s a 19-year-old kid… But I’m not going to run away, and I have to say [Ndombele] has had enough time to go to a different level… A player of his potential has to give us more than he is giving us.”
– Tottenham ratings: 8/10 Lo Celso to the rescue
Saturday marked Ndombele’s fifth start in the nearly four months Mourinho has been in charge (he has lasted 90 minutes just once) so it’s pretty evident how he feels. I’ll say what I always say when a manager throws a player under the bus: he’s got to be sure he gets the reaction he wanted for the good of the team. Some respond to sticks, others to carrots. You either trust Mourinho’s judgement or you don’t; we’ll know soon enough whether he was right.
End of the line for Leipzig’s Bundesliga quest?
Leipzig’s scoreless draw at Wolfsburg might have marked the day they bowed out of the Bundesliga race. They created enough chances to win, but with Timo Werner carrying a knock and able to play only the last half-hour, they failed to capitalize.
It’s not the five-point gap from Bayern (a lot with only nine games to go) that is concerning but the fact that Borussia Dortmund are ahead of them now too. Manager Julian Nagelsmann himself said so, adding he didn’t want to hear about the gap with the league leaders and reminding everyone that the goal is simply to finish in the top four. He’s selling himself a little short there, but you can see where he’s coming from.
Milan a mess on and off the field
On Saturday, Milan parted ways with chief football officer Zvonimir Boban, and the next day they lost at home to relegation-threatened Genoa 2-1. The match was played behind closed doors because of the ongoing coronavirus concern, which might have been a good thing given the reaction of some supporters.
I don’t think the club had much of a choice in letting Boban go after what he did. Equally, I’m not sure Ralf Rangnick is the answer as a coach. As director of football/recruiting guru, it’s a different story. What’s more, his brand of football is not incompatible with Stefano Pioli’s.
Anybody who presents this as some kind of disrespect towards the current Milan coach is way off-base.
Atletico ready for trip to Liverpool
It might feel like two points dropped against a direct opponent for a top-four finish, but there were plenty of positive takeaways in Atletico Madrid’s 2-2 draw with Sevilla. Alvaro Morata scored his first league goal of 2020 — from the spot, but still; Joao Felix is on the up again after his understandable blip; and if Yannick Carrasco doesn’t squander his late chance, Atleti would be in third place.
And let’s not forget that while Sevilla aren’t models of consistency, on their day they play some of the best football in La Liga. Atleti went toe-to-toe with them like in the old days. It’s the right mindset ahead of the huge trip to Anfield.