It was another fun weekend in European soccer as Chelsea became world champions, Bayern Munich capitulated defensively, while Real Madrid and Barcelona struggled to draws. Elsewhere, Manchester City and Liverpool won, as Manchester United and Tottenham dropped more points. We also saw AC Milan claim top spot in Serie A as Juventus, Napoli and Inter Milan drew.
It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Chelsea are world champions | ‘Other’ De Jong saves Barca | United not playing like a Rangnick team | Bayern’s horror show | Tottenham lose again | Napoli, Inter share spoils | Juve given a reminder | Liverpool get ‘dirty’ win | Bale back for Real Madrid | Man City in cruise control | Rafael Leao sends Milan top | Depleted Dortmund bounce back | Atletico still can’t defend
Chelsea are world champions, but what does it mean?
Few things are as culturally divisive (in a football sense) as the Club World Cup. My colleague Craig Burley called it a “tinpot” trophy. At the same time, tens of thousands of Palmeiras fans made the trek to Abu Dhabi and the final against Chelsea was treated as one of the biggest the team have played in recent years (and lest we forget, the Brazilian side won the last two Copa Libertadores titles).
Chelsea certainly celebrated like it meant something, and it does: This was the only trophy the club had not won, and memories of 2012, when they were the last European side not to triumph, left a sense of unfinished business. It certainly wasn’t a cakewalk, though maybe that says more about the current state of the team. Chelsea have blown hot and cold for the past few months, and the absence of manager Thomas Tuchel (who only arrived from his COVID-19 self-isolation a few hours before kickoff) in the build-up likely didn’t help. Nor did Mason Mount coming off injured in the first half, or Romelu Lukaku and Kai Havertz, who started up front, still playing like two guys who have just met.
Palmeiras set out to stifle Chelsea, and while Tuchel’s crew had the bulk of possession, they failed to create much in the way of reasonable opportunities until Lukaku put them ahead early in the second half. The lead didn’t last long because Thiago Silva gave away a penalty, which Raphael Veiga converted. It went to extra time and looked as if it was headed to penalties, which likely suited Palmeiras just fine, until three minutes from the end, when Luan’s handball gave Chelsea a penalty of their own. With Jorginho (on the bench) and Lukaku (substituted) unavailable, up stepped Havertz (who scored the winner in the Champions League final last May) and slotted it away.
Chelsea celebrated with gusto, possibly because attitudes toward the competition elsewhere aren’t quite what they are in England. Many of us grew up with the old Intercontinental Cup, pitting the champions of Europe and South America against each other, and it was a hugely competitive affair played each year in Tokyo. Before that, we grew up on stories of what the competition was like when it was a two-legged (and often spiky) affair. Of course, this was back when club football was evenly matched, before the big European clubs had wage bills that were 20 times those of their South American competition (not to mention the rest of the world).
Laugh at it if you like, but the only way you can legitimately call yourself world champion is if you beat out the champions of other continents, which Chelsea did. And no, neither the final against Palmeiras nor the semifinal against Saudi Arabia‘s Al-Hilal were straightforward affairs. Things — including tournaments — are worth the value people assign to them. And for most of the world, this means a lot. For Chelsea, too. And it’s kinda depressing how this tournament is some sort of bone of contention, shoehorned into the calendar, between FIFA’s expansion into the club game and UEFA protecting its big, cash-generating clubs. It could be so much more if it weren’t treated like a pawn or as merely another way of generating revenue.
Luuk de Jong’s header in stoppage time rescues a point for Barcelona against Espanyol.
The ‘other’ De Jong rescues Barcelona vs. Espanyol
If a genie had appeared out of a bottle even just a year ago and told Xavi that not only would he be managing Barcelona, but that two of his more important players would be Adama Traore (then at Wolves) and Luuk de Jong (then at Sevilla) he might have believed the first bit while scoffing at the second. Yet here we are.
De Jong has scored in four of his past five Barcelona appearances (three of those goals resulting in points), Traore was instrumental both in last weekend’s win over Atletico and in Sunday’s derby vs. Espanyol and, yeah, Xavi is Barcelona manager. And, in part because of the aforementioned pair, not necessarily in the way he wanted.
Against Espanyol, Xavi played the same lineup as against Atletico, except for Sergino Dest in for the suspended Dani Alves at right-back. Barca got the early goal and while they had most of the ball, they didn’t quite look as sharp as you’d expect (especially midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets) against Espanyol’s five-man midfield. Then, just before half-time, came twin blows. Sergi Darder‘s deflected long-range effort made its way past goalkeeper Marc-Andre ter Stegen for the equaliser, then centre-back Ronald Araujo picked up an injury, which meant Eric Garcia had to come on at half-time.
– Sergi Darder interview: Espanyol’s captain on his mental health, facing Barcelona and working through stress
Garcia lost Darder’s ball over the top, allowing Raul de Tomas to put Espanyol ahead with just under half an hour to go and the rest of the game turned into a frantic Barcelona chase, with most of the production coming from Traore’s flank. The “other” De Jong’s header got them the point in the end and it was probably deserved, but it’s still the stuff the purists will sniff at.
Credit to Xavi for not being concerned with the purists right now. He has an idea of how he wants to play and he remains loyal to those principles, but he also knows he needs to grind out results. That’s because if Barca miss out on a top-four finish, there will be even more painful financial waters ahead. Traore may be one-dimensional, but in terms of beating opponents wide and putting in crosses, he’s as effective as any Barca player right now. And if the crosses are going to come, Luuk De Jong is a better option to have up front late in games than Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang or Ferran Torres, or what his old boss Pep Guardiola used to do when he sent defender Gerard Pique up there.
It’s a balancing act right now, and Xavi is walking it in difficult circumstances. Half the battle is insulating the team from the doom-mongers and those who don’t seem to realize just how dire the situation is. (Not just financially, either.) The way things are going, expect it to be like this for the rest of the campaign.
Craig Burley sounds off on Manchester United’s 1-1 draw against Southampton.
Man United aren’t playing like a Ralf Rangnick team, but that’s not the problem
Three straight games — Middlesbrough away in the FA Cup; Burnley and Southampton in the Premier League — and three straight 1-1 draws for Manchester United. Toss in Cristiano Ronaldo not scoring for six straight games, and those who measure the game solely by results are fretting. Results are critical, of course, but they don’t always tell you how a game went. The fact of the matter is that, in those three matches, United recorded a cumulative xG of 8.97 while conceding 3.10. That suggests they’re creating more and better chances than the ones they concede. Which is sort of the essence of football. But then you watch games like the one against Southampton and you see the opposition dominating them for long stretches at Old Trafford, winning loose balls, getting into the final third and generally making them look subpar.
Weirdly, both things can be true. Or seem to be true in this situation. And the simplest conclusion is that United aren’t a 90-minute team right now. They have enough quality to mitigate this, but it doesn’t mean they’re anywhere near where they ought to be or where Ralf Rangnick wants them to be.
In fact, there’s very little of Rangnick in this team. He’s not even trying to do the things he did at RB Leipzig and Hoffenheim. Possibly because the fixture list is congested, possibly because he doesn’t have the players to do it, possibly because he can’t get his message across as well as he’d like. So he sticks to basic, rudimentary systems that are easy to understand and lets the players’ quality make the difference. Sometimes for the better; sometimes for the worse. But he seems like a doctor who takes the Hippocratic Oath very seriously (“Above all, do no harm”) rather than the visionary some thought United were getting.
United could easily have won all three games with a modicum of better finishing. If they had, they’d be facing Tottenham at Old Trafford in the FA Cup on March 1 and they’d be fourth in the table, three points clear of West Ham. But that wouldn’t mean they’d be any further forward in their rebuild.
Napoli, Inter share spoils to stay in title race
As the cliché goes, there are “must win” games and “can’t lose” games. Inter’s 1-1 draw at Napoli on Saturday turned into a “can’t lose” in the second half for both clubs. Napoli had the better chances — in addition to their early goal, Piotr Zielinski hit the post and goalkeeper Samir Handanovic conjured up a late miracle (which partially redeems some of his blunders in past games) — but it did feel that the home team opted to be a little more cautious after Edin Dzeko equalized after the break.
Inter did not play particularly well — they struggled in midfield and missed Alessandro Bastoni at the back — but did their part in seeing out the game. Defeat would have seen them slip to third (with a game in hand, sure, but games in hand aren’t quite the same thing when you’re chasing) ahead of a huge Champions League week when they face Liverpool, and it was best to live to fight another day.
As for Napoli, folks have been sleeping on them, perhaps dazzled by the prospect of a Milan derby for the title. This is a deep and talented team and Luciano Spalletti is getting the best out of them, including insulating the players from some of the off-pitch stuff, which has been Napoli’s undoing in the past. For now, they’re content to stay up near the top and take their chances on Milan and/or Inter slipping up.
Janusz Michallik is heavily critical of Bayern Munich’s defending after a 4-2 loss to Bochum.
Bayern Munich’s defensive horror show
In the grand scheme of things, if the season ends and Bayern celebrate their 10th Bundesliga crown in a row, Saturday’s 4-2 defeat in Bochum will be little more than a piece of trivia. Mighty Bayern played Bochum from the lower half of the table and conceded four goals in a half, something they had not done since 1975. Fine. And in the here and now, folks will point to the absence of Manuel Neuer, Dayot Upamecano making his first start in nearly two months and Niklas Sule already with his head in Dortmund ahead of his summer transfer, and explain away the four goals conceded. Fine too, though, to be fair, as outstanding as Neuer is, stand-in goalkeeper Sven Ulreich wasn’t exactly to blame for the goals.
But maybe manager Julian Nagelsmann ought to be a little bit concerned. Because this probably wasn’t the game to switch back to a four-man defensive line, after trying a back three in previous outings. And especially not with an undermanned midfield, which saw Thomas Muller pressed into duty far deeper than he normally plays. A defensive pairing of Upamecano-Sule with only Joshua Kimmich in front of them and no reliable attacking full-backs to provide an out ball is not something we need to see again.
That said, before you freak out, remember this: Nagelsmann usually learns from his mistakes. And as horrendous as Bayern were in conceding goals, they still outshot Bochum 21-12 and recorded an xG of 2.29, nearly twice that of the opposition. (And of course, Robert Lewandowski got his two goals.) Which rather suggests that they can budget for days like these when nothing works.
Tottenham suffer third straight league defeat as Antonio Conte manages expectations
Less than 20 minutes into Tottenham’s 2-0 defeat to Wolves, Antonio Conte’s team were two goals down thanks to the sort of individual defensive blunders that condemned them to a 3-2 defeat against Southampton in their previous game. If Conte had the sort of hair that could be ripped out, he likely would have done so. Instead, he tweaked (Ryan Sessegnon was taken off inside half an hour for Dejan Kulusevski) and prodded and pleaded. While he said he got a good reaction from his team in the second half, the upshot was a third straight league loss — something he hadn’t experienced since 2009 when he managed Atalanta briefly (and badly). Hugo Lloris, Ben Davies, Davinson Sanchez were this week’s villains, picking up the unwanted baton left by Emerson and Japhet Tanganga in previous outings. Some expected Conte to throw his players under the bus and go on about the need for summer investment. He opted not to do that on this occasion, choosing instead to note how dangerous it is when expectations get too high and you don’t meet them and how, since Mauricio Pochettino’s Champions League finalists of 2019, this team haven’t competed very often near the top.
Conte knows — or should know — that Tottenham aren’t going to spend their way out of this. Most would have said they needed help at the back and another forward in January. The fact that they got a central midfielder (Rodrigo Bentancur) and a long-term project (Kulusevski) instead speaks more to the fact that they needed help in multiple areas and weren’t going to make four signings in one window.
Conte has to fix things on the pitch, and there are two tiny silver linings to this cloud. The first is that as a manager you prefer when things go badly due to individual, rather than systemic, errors. The former are so grotesque you imagine they’re easily stamped out. The second is that even as Spurs slip behind Wolves into seventh place, West Ham and Manchester United also dropped points in the race for top four this weekend.
Danilo’s late show saves a point and serves as reminder to Juventus
A week ago, following Juventus’ win over Verona and the stellar debuts of January signings Dusan Vlahovic and Denis Zakaria, some were asking whether Max Allegri could get his team back in the Serie A title race. Pump those brakes. Sunday showed us that buckling down to finish in the top four is enough of a mountain to climb. So much so that Juve needed Hans Hateboer‘s miss-of-the-season contender (his finish into an empty net somehow hit the crossbar) and Danilo’s late goal to avoid a defeat away to Atalanta that would have seen them drop out of the top four once again.
There are encouraging signs from this Juve team. For the first 20 minutes or so, they were exceptional, with Paulo Dybala looking like the player he’s supposed to be rather than the player he has been (Is it looming free agency? Is it Vlahovic? Is it simply being fit? Jury’s out.) Defender Matthijs de Ligt had maybe his best game in a Juve shirt, while Allegri was willing to take risks. Plus, the game’s finale showed that these players still buy into the club’s hashtag: #finoallafine (#untiltheend) just like in the good old days.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Juve weren’t able to capitalise against a depleted Atalanta side that had won just one of their previous six games. And nobody in this league is going to lie down for them just because they’re Juve. They’re going to need to work for their points. But, at least, slowly, it feels as if Allegri is getting the raw material to make it happen.
Shaka Hislop praises Liverpool for coming away from a tough trip to Burnley with a vital win.
Liverpool get a ‘dirty’ three points in Turf Moor battle
Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp previously referred to wins such as these as being “dirty.” Not in a bad sense, but rather in an ugly, fingernails in the mud type of way. Burnley played to their physical stereotype on Sunday and the weather — wet and windy — did the rest. But Liverpool were by no means intimidated, getting the three points when Fabinho pounced on Sadio Mane‘s header off a corner kick.
It’s what you call a “character win” and it counts just as much, but it should also come with a bit of a warning. Burnley striker Wout Weghorst created problems, enough so that he squandered two gilt-edged chances as the home side actually ended up recording more shots on target than Klopp’s team. Midfield was far from flawless and Mohamed Salah, making his first start since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations, had a quiet game. It’s also a reminder that at this stage of the season, teams with something left to fight for — like those threatened with relegation — are far more dangerous opponents for a side like Liverpool than more gifted ones whose race is already run.
Real Madrid and Villarreal both hit the woodwork as they each struggle to find the back of the net in a 0-0 draw.
Gareth Bale is back for Real Madrid — at centre-forward
The last time we saw Gareth Bale in LaLiga was back in August, but Carlo Ancelotti nevertheless turned to the Wales international to lead the line for Real Madrid for the tricky away trip to Villarreal. With striker Karim Benzema unavailable, the Madrid boss held de facto open auditions for the centre-forward role, with Marco Asensio, Rodrygo and even Isco getting a shot. Conventional wisdom would have suggested it was Luka Jovic‘s turn, but instead Ancelotti put his faith in Bale, whose contract expires in June and who isn’t exactly top of Madrid fans’ Christmas card list.
Real Madrid were outplayed in the first half, but had more than their fair share of chances after the break, hitting the woodwork twice in the 0-0 draw. And Bale showed that, whatever his foibles, there is still a ton of ability and athleticism packed into his lanky frame. Not freezing him out is a quintessential Ancelotti move — as long as you’re around, if you want to contribute, you’ll get a shot — and without getting carried away, you wonder if maybe this marks the beginning of a Bale revival, just in time to help Wales in the 2022 World Cup playoffs.
The draw sees Sevilla, who beat Elche on Friday night, cut the gap to four points, and it did look for long stretches of the first half that maybe Madrid’s heads were on the mega-clash with Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League this week.
Long ball to Rafael Leao sends AC Milan top
Milan scored early against Sampdoria to leapfrog Inter into first place in Serie A. They played well and could have had more, but the story is all about Rafael Leao’s performance (a week after a lacklustre derby showing) and his goal after eight minutes.
Milan set up to build from the back, sucked in Sampdoria’s press and then goalkeeper Mike Maignan drew on his inner Patrick Mahomes to deliver a pinpoint 60-yard pass for Leao to run on to. The Portugal striker took it past Bartosz Berezynskyi with an exquisite first touch and rifled it into the back of the net. It was reminiscent of a goal Raheem Sterling scored a while back for Manchester City after a similar long pass straight from Ederson. And it shows how the ability to mix things up remains one of the best weapons for any team (if you have a keeper who can pass and a forward who can run). That quick long pass is the best antidote when the opposition knows you’re going to build from deep most of the time.
Janusz Michallik praises Raheem Sterling after his hat trick helped Manchester City win 4-0 vs. Norwich.
Man City are in cruise control
There’s a ton of hard work, creativity and, yes, money, behind it, but Manchester City are at the stage where neutrals can sit back and admire where they are. This isn’t just a team nursing a hefty lead in the Premier League, it’s a team that — with a Champions League knockout clash against Sporting CP coming up midweek — can leave three key men like Joao Cancelo, Rodri and Kevin De Bruyne on the bench, as well their second- and third-best central defenders (John Stones and Aymeric Laporte) and record signing (Jack Grealish) out altogether — and romp past Norwich away, 4-0.
Sure, Norwich are battling to avoid relegation, but they also went into the game with two wins and a draw from their last three games. No matter. City conjured up 5.39 xG while enjoying 72% possession. You would never have known this isn’t Pep Guardiola’s first-choice XI if you hadn’t seen them play before. That’s the luxury of a team that’s injury free and on a run that has seen them take 43 of a possible 45 league points since their last defeat in October. Right now, they look as if they could play blindfolded and it wouldn’t matter.
Marco Reus shines as depleted Dortmund bounce back
A week after shipping five goals at home to Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund travelled to Union Berlin with a cloud hanging over their heads. Away from home, an opponent gunning for a top-four finish, no Erling Haaland, half a dozen guys out through injury and faith in coach Marco Rose waning.
It was set up for another painful day. But two goals from emotional leader Marco Reus inside the first half hour and a solid defensive performance (maybe a consequence of playing a central defender like Manuel Akanji as an emergency right-back) saw Dortmund through. There were still shaky moments, mind you, and this was more about pride than quality. But there’s fight in the side yet.
Angel Correa scores a brace as 10-man Atletico Madrid beats Getafe 4-3.
Mario Hermoso finds redemption, but Atletico Madrid still can’t defend
If you’re the sort of person who generally views the glass as half-full, then maybe Atletico Madrid’s emotional 4-3 win to come back against Getafe on Saturday is a turning point, and Mario Hermoso’s dramatic 89th-minute winner (an overhead kick, no less) a symbol of persistence after his stinker against Adama Traore and Barcelona the week before.
Maybe. But the fact is that Atletico Madrid showed all their limits in that game, underscoring just why they’re embroiled in a race to finish in the top four. Simply put, Diego Simeone can’t find any sort of balance in his team. It goes beyond the many absentees (though that didn’t help) and what was once a magnificent defensive unit, No. 1-11, is now a wild-eyed nervous mess (which Felipe made worse by getting sent off). Remarkable as it sounds, Atletico have already conceded more goals this year than any of Simeone’s previous seasons at the club. They don’t lack talent — they lack discipline and organisation, exactly what Simeone built his success on.
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