This weekend was again full of talking points, from Cristiano Ronaldo‘s hat trick to lift Manchester United over Tottenham, to Lionel Messi and Paris Saint-Germain being heckled by unhappy fans in their first Ligue 1 game since being dumped out of the Champions League. Liverpool, Chelsea, Barcelona and Juventus picked up impressive wins, Bayern Munich stumbled (but don’t worry) against Hoffenheim, and Serie A’s title race continues to percolate nicely.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: What Ronaldo means for Man United | Barca keep rolling | Diaz fits at Liverpool | Bayern will be fine | Resilient Chelsea | Milan stay top | PSG fans show fury | Inter drop points | Arsenal top four? | Morata shines for Juve | Too late for Dortmund? | Osimhen dazzles for Napoli
Ronaldo answers the critics, but what does it mean for Man United?
Man United manager Ralf Rangnick tried to make a joke out of it, saying that if getting treatment in Portugal makes Ronaldo score a hat trick upon his return, he’s welcome to go every week. (Heck, maybe he can commute.)
Each of the three goals he scored in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur was special, but his performance went well beyond his scoring exploits. We saw Ronaldo drop deeper in certain situations, and we saw him thrive with wide support.
Given the way everything gets exaggerated and turns into a psychodrama at Old Trafford, the importance of the result and the performance can’t be overstated. Prior to this, United had gone three games without a win: a draw with Atletico Madrid, a scoreless home draw with Watford and the 4-1 thumping in the derby.
Ronaldo rightly took the headlines, and his day was only amplified by the presence of one Tom Brady in the stands. (In fact, the day after the game, Brady let the world know that he was not going to retire and would, in fact, be back for his 23rd season. It’s fun to wonder whether seeing another golden oldie perform like that influenced his decision.) But there were other bright spots for United.
Jadon Sancho looked sharp out wide, Fred continue his sparkling form in the middle of the park and Paul Pogba had a big influence in Bruno Fernandes‘ absence. You wonder to what degree these factors are related, especially Pogba. He wasn’t relegated to playing deep or wide, he had freedom to roam, and he interpreted the role with personality and quality.
(It’s likely a moot point if, as expected, Pogba moves elsewhere after his contract expires in June, but it’s also a reminder that sometimes clubs would be wise to think about how pieces fit together rather than simply assembling Panini sticker collections of pricey stars.)
Of course, some might say that Ronaldo fits into that category as well. In many ways, at this stage of his career, he actually exemplifies it. If you want him to be a difference-maker, you need to adjust the pieces around him to make it work, and you need to think long and hard about what you want him to do and how you want him to play. That much ought to be obvious.
In fact, going forward, the single most important question United ought to be asking prospective managers is this: “Is Ronaldo part of your plan? And, if so, how you plan to use him?” How they answer that question will tell you a lot about them, and not just about their tactical nous. (Presumably Rangnick had a plan for Ronaldo, too.)
They’ll know United have committed an enormous amount of resources to Ronaldo through June 2023. And equally, they’ll know that given the size of his wages — unless he decides to take a pay cut, or make some sort of sentimental choice in a World Cup year (like a return to Sporting) — it will be difficult to move him on.
Of course, it’s not just about asking the right questions; it’s about knowing how to evaluate the answers (because there is no correct answer here). And in that department, the track record of United’s decision-makers hasn’t been good.
As for Spurs, their yo-yo results continue, but the difference here is that the loss came accompanied by a performance (unlike recent defeats to Middlesbrough and Burnley, when they were awful).
The goals themselves — the penalty for a handball and the Harry Maguire own goal — were gifts, but they showed a reaction to get back into the game each time. Dejan Kulusevski looks sharp and while they could definitely have defended better, there were baby steps of progress in that department too.
Still, Saturday wasn’t about them. It was about a GOAT candidate still going strong at 37 years of age.
Barcelona show no signs of slowing down … and this Dembele may want to stick around
Luis Garcia points out Ousmane Dembele’s performance in Barcelona’s 4-0 win over Osasuna in LaLiga.
Barcelona wrapped up the Osasuna game early, going 3-0 up at half-time and then managing their way to a 4-0 win. This was a comprehensive performance from Xavi’s crew, and it underscored their fine form: five wins from their last six in all competitions and unlucky against Galatasaray in the Europa League, the one game they drew.
Ferran Torres got two goals, but for me the story is the duo of Ousmane Dembele and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Rewind six or seven weeks, and Aubameyang was an aging malcontent whom Arsenal literally had to pay to go away. Dembele was a free-agent-to-be who was roundly booed by his own fans because he would neither take a pay cut nor accept a move elsewhere in January.
On Sunday, they were a delight to watch. Dembele offered width pace and a precision assist that was a sight to behold. Aubameyang worked and battled and scored, doing what a center-forward in a Xavi system is so supposed to do: make the players around him better. Weirdly, he now has more goals for Barcelona (five) than he managed for Arsenal (four).
Aubameyang’s form shows us that context does matter to performance, and that sometimes you need new stimuli to get going. Dembele is interesting and, for the first time in a while, the Camp Nou didn’t boo him. Xavi has completely changed the vibe at the club, and you wonder if Dembele will be tempted to stay at a price Barcelona can live with. Because if he can perform regularly like he did on Sunday, then he’s entirely worth it.
You imagine that Barca can find some formula, perhaps involving bonuses, that keeps everybody happy. Especially since I’m not sure that, as of right now, Europe’s other top clubs are beating a path to Dembele’s door. Also, he won’t find a bigger stage than the one he already has.
So much for an adjustment period: Luis Diaz and Liverpool roll on
Mark Donaldson and Janusz Michallik discuss Robert Sanchez avoiding a red card after his challenge on Luis Díaz.
In recent weeks I had pointed out how Liverpool were churning out results while looking less than dominant. That script wasn’t followed against Brighton: Liverpool got the three points and dominated play, proving they can turn it on when needed. It could have been a much wider scoreline than 2-0, too: how Robert Sanchez did not get sent off for catching Diaz with both his arm and his leg is one of those Premier League refereeing mysteries we’ve had to get accustomed to.
But focus on Diaz, as the ease with which he has settled into the Liverpool XI has been staggering.
Everything is different relative to his previous club, Porto. From the style of play to the pace and intensity of the league, to the fact that Liverpool — who have played weekends and midweek for the last six weeks — have only had a handful of training sessions since he signed on Jan. 30, while on international duty. So much for the idea that you can’t make impact signings in January, or that players need months and months to settle.
Everyone could see how gifted Diaz is even at Porto, but maybe not everyone could do what Liverpool did: confidently project how he would seamlessly fit into the team, and then give him the tools to adapt so quickly.
Bayern drop points, but they’ll be fine in the long run
Jan Aage Fjortoft says Europe’s other top sides have far more strength in depth than Bayern Munich.
The glass-half-full brigade will probably point to the fact that Andrej Kramaric could have scored a winner for Hoffenheim, that the back three is still problematic when you’ve got wingers (rather than wing-backs) wide, and that Bayern have won just three of their last seven games in all competitions.
Fine, but Bayern still created industrial quantities of chances, as evidenced by that 3.26 xG (I’ll see your Kramaric chance and raise you Serge Gnabry‘s post and that goal line scramble). The back three is what it is right now (and Benjamin Pavard is what he is), but the wingers-turned-wingbacks looked a little more aware this time around. And following on from the 7-1 thumping of FC Salzburg in the Champions League, I didn’t see much of a drop.
This team should make a quantum leap forward when Leon Goretzka or Corentin Tolisso (more the former) return to midfield (Jamal Musiala belongs further forward), and another one when Alphonso Davies returns. Until then, it’s about incremental progress. And they still have enough firepower to thrash most opponents.
Result best thing for Chelsea on day of uncertainty and refereeing errors
Janusz Michallik praises Kai Havertz after his late strike ensures Chelsea win all three points against Newcastle.
Chelsea’s first home game since the sanctions were slapped on owner Roman Abramovich saw them take on Newcastle United. (The symbolism wasn’t lost on those who want a serious conversation about the sort of folks the Premier League may want as owners.)
With his wingbacks unavailable, Thomas Tuchel reverted to a back four and wingers to get around Eddie Howe’s stout counterattacking system. Chelsea were frustrated and fortunate that Kai Havertz wasn’t sent off for an elbow on Dan Burn — all l can think of is both jumped, elbows out, and it’s a question of millimetres that Havertz himself wasn’t worse-off — or that Trevoh Chalobah wasn’t punished with a penalty for pulling down Jacob Murphy. (It seemed like a cast-iron penalty to me, but, you know, Premier League VAR …) Still, Chelsea got a big three points when Havertz’s delicate control and finish (on an exquisite pass from Jorginho) beat Martin Dubravka.
Trite as it may be, all Tuchel and his men can control right now is what happens on the pitch. They got a bit of luck, and they exploited it to the max.
Minimalist Milan stay top with 1-0 win over Empoli
File Milan’s victory over Empoli on Saturday night in the “ugly win” category. Ugly, except for Pierre Kalulu‘s stunning strike. Milan simply aren’t the same when Theo Hernandez is out, especially if their wide players — it was Rafael Leao and Junior Messias this weekend — aren’t performing either.
Still, we’ve seen Milan dominate and stumble so many times against smaller teams (dropping points to Udinese and Salernitana, to name but two), this makes a nice change from Stefano Pioli. And Zlatan Ibrahimovic is almost ready to start again after injuries, which means Olivier Giroud can share the load with him down the stretch.
PSG win 3-0, but fans vent their ire on Messi, Neymar, Leonardo… almost everyone but Mbappe
Janusz Michallik explains why Paris Saint-Germain supporters chose to boo superstars Lionel Messi and Neymar during their 3-0 win over Bordeaux.
Defeat hurts, but this felt more like an unraveling. A healthy chunk of Paris Saint-Germain fans covered many of their key men with boos and abuse even as they dispatched Bordeaux 3-0. From Lionel Messi to Neymar, from sporting director Leonardo to chief executive Nasser Al-Khelaifi, from Mauricio Pochettino to Georginio Wijnaldum — Kylian Mbappe was one of the few who was spared (and he’s likely leaving this summer). It might have been worse if the PSG Ultras had been there from the start (they came in late in protest and, when they did, it was to boo).
Viewed from the outside, you may conclude that PSG fans are simply ungrateful. Sure, they threw it away against Real Madrid and they probably didn’t get the bang for the transfer buck many expected. But where were they before Nasser and the Qatari cash showed up? Not going deep in the Champions League and not having Messi and Neymar and Mbappe up front, that’s where.
Anybody who thinks the above likely doesn’t get the essence of being a fan. Holding your owners, your stars and your executives to account is a big part of it, because they’re only looking after your club. One day, they’ll be gone and you, the fan, will still be there. We can have a conversation about how fair it is to verbally abuse people who (you would hope) are doing their best. And we can discuss whether Messi or Neymar or Leonardo or any individual deserve it. But you can’t question supporters’ rights to make their voices heard.
Beyond that, looking at things from an on-the-pitch perspective, this club needs major surgery, and there will be time to discuss this. Right now, let the fans vent. They have every right to and, maybe, some folks may want to listen.
Inter held by Torino, and it could have been worse as they drop to third
It’s hard to believe that the same Inter team that could play so well and win away at Anfield would come close to collapse a few days later away to Torino. OK, strictly speaking it wasn’t the same team — manager Simone Inzaghi made five changes — but it was by no means a worse team (Edin Dzeko and Nicolo Barella started). Except they played substantially worse and played into Torino’s hands, going a goal down and getting extremely lucky that neither the referee (nor the VAR) punished Andrea Ranocchia‘s foul on Andrea Belotti.
A late Alexis Sanchez strike, beautifully set up in injury time by Dzeko, helped them avoid the loss, but this should give Inzaghi something to think about.
It’s hard to explain how the mindset can feel so different just a few days apart. Sometimes, you might make the “motivation” argument — Liverpool are a better side, so you’re more focused on them than Torino — but I’m not sure it works here. They were 2-0 down away from home at Anfield; that’s not exactly motivation material. Not relative to a three-way dogfight for the scudetto, anyway. Inzaghi will want to turn this into a “teachable moment” in double-quick time.
Arsenal are playing with house money, but avoiding injuries is crucial
Janusz Michallik praises Martin Odegaard’s recent performance against Leicester City as Arsenal secure their fifth win in a row.
Arsenal’s 2-0 win over Leicester City confirmed what we already knew. This is a side where everything is clicking, confidence is high and some of the younger players — Bukayo Saka and Martin Odegaard spring to mind — are really hitting their stride. They’re in fourth, just a single point ahead of Manchester United, but crucially, with games in hand.
That those three games are away to Chelsea and Spurs and home to Liverpool means Mikel Arteta won’t be resting on his laurels. But just as important as what they get out of those three games is ensuring they remain fit in key areas, particularly central midfield and up front.
Part of the weirdness of this squad is that there’s relative depth across the back line and among attacking midfielders and wingers, but very little in other areas. An enforced absence in those conditions won’t just mean a loss of individual quality, either; it will likely mean a change in how they play. At this stage though, given how the campaign began (zero points in three games), even dropping out of the top four would mean substantial progress.
Morata shines as Juve show progress in win at Sampdoria
Juventus’ unbeaten streak is now 15 games after the 3-1 win away to Sampdoria. While the three points are critical — not least because on top of the usual long list of absentees, including Federico Chiesa and Paulo Dybala, Max Allegri also started without Dusan Vlahovic — Juve got a boost from Alvaro Morata, their star-crossed striker.
Morata bagged two goals, but more than that, he proved to be mobile and unselfish playing in a front two with Moise Kean. Morata has divided opinion for years — he has size, athleticism and technical ability, though in the past it has often added up to less than a sum of the parts — but at this stage, it appears clear he’s at his best in a front two. Whether Kean or Vlahovic, being able to play front-to-goal, with a partner and without the responsibility of a target man, seems to free him to bring out his best.
As for the team, it wasn’t quite a vintage performance — they went two goals up via an own goal and a penalty, while Sampdoria missed a penalty and pulled one back later before Morata made it 3-1 — but there was progress, especially on the defensive end and in midfield, where Arthur is delivering alongside Manuel Locatelli.
Dortmund return to winning ways as Haaland and Reyna return … is it too little, too late?
If you’re the happy-go-lucky eternal optimist, you might point out how maybe they’re back in the title race. If they win their game in hand, they’ll be just four points behind Bayern and if they then win the head-to-head (on the road, but still), the gap will be a single point.
It still feels like a stretch. For one thing they dominated Bielefeld, sure, but Bielefeld are a poor side with a number of regulars missing. And while Dortmund will no doubt be better with Haaland back, the structural deficiencies that Marco Rose has been trying (unsuccessfully) to fix all season long will likely still be there. So don’t hold your breath.
Victor Osimhen does it again as Napoli stay second
Napoli got a huge 2-1 win away to Verona and vaulted over Inter into second place in Serie A, three points behind Milan. Victor Osimhen bagged both goals and, at 23, continues his development into one of the better center-forwards in Europe.
Osimhen has been much hyped throughout his career — he scored 16 goals as a teenager at Charleroi — but where scouts once marvelled at his directness, we’re now seeing a different side to him. He’s scoring headed goals, he’s moving like a genuine center-forward and he’s showing the kind of vision on the pitch that comes from maturity. As good as he was last season, he seems to have reached another level under Luciano Spalletti this year.
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