Barcelona have lost their safety blanket, the ace in the hole that sees you through tough times, the guy whose technical ability, creativity and decision-making can make the best-laid tactical schemes redundant. That’s what Lionel Messi brings to the table and the broken arm he suffered early in the Sevilla game means Ernesto Valverde will be without his services for a good three weeks. In that time, they’ll play matches that matter: Inter home (and possibly away) in the Champions League, Rayo Vallecano away and, of course, next Sunday’s Clasico.
It’s not enough to define a season, but it can define Valverde and what he can actually do with this team. Based on recent evidence, there’s plenty to do. Barca went into the Sevilla game with one win in their previous five — against a severely under-strength Tottenham — and while they came away with a 4-2 win, a closer look reveals all is not well.
Messi was the difference-maker in the 26 minutes he spent on the pitch, setting up Philippe Coutinho’s opener and then making it two with his 12th goal of the season. But from that moment, it was all Sevilla. And while opting to play on the counter with the fleet-footed Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele on the pitch isn’t necessarily a bad idea, you still need to manage your lead.
That’s where Barca came up short. That defence, which hasn’t kept a clean sheet since August, was all over the place, often getting overrun in midfield and conceding an industrial quantity of chances. It finished 4-2 — Barca scored a penalty and the other was a long-distance gem from Ivan Rakitic — but had it not been for one of the best goalkeeping performances we’ve seen all year (danke, Marc-Andre ter Stegen), they might even have lost this.
It’s too easy to simply blame Gerard Pique and Clement Lenglet though the former, especially, is having a tough time. Pablo Machin’s side are a well-drilled unit but you still expect Barca to be able to nurse a two-goal lead at home without conceding chance upon chance. Fixing that, in many ways, ought to be as much of a priority during the Messi-less spell than finding solutions up front.
You’re not going to replace Messi, so you’ll need to figure out a Plan B. And there, Valverde might find a silver lining. Coutinho ought to have more freedom of movement without Messi on the pitch. Dembele, inconsistent though he may be, can stretch the opposition and Luis Suarez — who still has scored just twice from open play since early May — might respond to the added responsibility. It’s up to Valverde to make the pieces fit.
As for Sevilla, they came to the Camp Nou where they often struggle and they showed they could hang with the champions. They’re still just two points off the top. You get the sense there’s more to come.
Melee overshadows Chelsea vs. Man United
Saturday’s draw between Chelsea and Manchester United was a great opportunity to remind ourselves of certain basic facts.
Rolling around in the penalty area — even if you’ve been fouled and it hurts — is not a good idea: referees tend not to stop the game (unless it’s a head injury) and Anthony Martial will punish you. Territorial supremacy without creating and converting chances, which is what Chelsea had until 10 minutes or so into the second half, won’t get you far. United have really good individual players (Juan Mata and Martial stood out this time) to the point that even if things break down, they can conjure something up, as they did in United’s last two comebacks. (Speaking of Mata, if you’re going to play him, have him operate in central areas.)
Then came the equalizer and Mourinho in the headlines again. Mark Ogden wrote eloquently about this but I’d like to add a couple more points.
First off, Chelsea assistant coach Marco Ianni’s behaviour was unacceptable and you assume he’ll be disciplined by the club and possibly charged by the FA. But that doesn’t mean he should be sacked as folks like Phil Neville (who really should know better) have suggested. Sacked for what? For celebrating a goal, however disrespectfully? Really?
Mourinho was rather more grown-up about this. He confronted Maurizio Sarri who, in his own words, “immediately realized [Chelsea] were in the wrong.” Ianni was brought in to apologize and Mourinho accepted the apology. “It’s over,” as Mourinho himself said. He added that he had done his own share of silly things in emotional moments in the past (and his critics are only too happy to bring it all back up) and he could understand the situation. (Certainly more so than Phil Neville, evidently.)
That said, those who justify Mourinho jumping up off his bench to chase Ianni, starting a melee in the process, need a reality check. Sure, it’s a human reaction: emotional moment, opponent rubbing his face in it, whatever. But it doesn’t become justified. We don’t teach people to respond to insulting behaviour by running after the offender.
Back to the football. The result gives Mourinho a bit of a platform to build on ahead of Tuesday’s match with Juventus in the Champions League. Given how poor Valencia and Young Boys have been, it also offers a bit of wiggle room to be more bold at Old Trafford. Stay tuned.
Mourinho’s interpretation of “respect”
One more Mourinho point: his obsession with respect. Walking around Stamford Bridge with three fingers up to remind everyone that he’s due respect for the three titles he won at Chelsea is misguided to the extreme. He’s not being booed because people don’t know he won three Premier League titles at Stamford Bridge, and he’s not being booed because Chelsea fans think he’s a bad manager.
Nope: those who boo him do it because his Chelsea career ended with the club on the verge of relegation, embroiled in a lawsuit with Eva Carneiro and with their best players at loggerheads with Mourinho. That, and the fact they simply don’t like him, especially now that he’s managing a rival club.
Mourinho often brings up the subject of silverware. It has nothing to do with respect. You don’t respect people based on how much they’ve achieved professionally in life. You respect them based on how they behave and carry themselves.
Is Lopetegui doomed at Real Madrid?
Real Madrid’s 2-1 home defeat to Levante makes it one point from his last five matches for Julen Lopetegui and leaves him teetering on the edge of the sack. Early indications are that it wouldn’t happen until after the Clasico next weekend but heck, Florentino Perez is the man in charge so who knows? The fact that the Madrid president met both Lopetegui and Sergio Ramos (his captain and de facto Director of Football, judging from the outsized influence he seems to enjoy) after the match and that he did so separately makes it clear he’s taking this seriously and is ready to act, if needed.
The funny thing here is that a year ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Real Madrid would have won this game for the simple reason that there was no VAR in La Liga. Marco Asensio’s goal would have stood and Raphael Varane would have conceded a free-kick at the edge of the box, not a penalty. Lopetegui’s side would have won 2-1 while hitting the woodwork three times. All this while resting Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale, with a supposed gimme coming up against Viktoria Plzen.
You wonder whether this is playing in Florentino’s mind or the fact that, despite the horrendous run, they’re still just four points off the top. Or that some of the players who, supposedly, are having second thoughts about Lopetegui are the ones he might not mind seeing the back of come the end of the season. Or that the Clasico against a Messi-less Barca isn’t quite the hurdle it appears.
Lopetegui may not have been the right appointment and if you think back to the way he was hired, well, karma’s a witch. But changing things up now makes little sense. Especially when you consider that the last time Real Madrid started this poorly (2001-02) they stormed back to finish third and won the Champions’ League.
Inter edge the Milan derby
The Milan derby may have been scoreless until deep into injury time but the 78,000+ sell-out crowd, the grandeur of San Siro and the pre-match hype served as a reminder of what once was and what might be again. (The backdrop was special too but that has always been the case.) The city with the 10 European Cups is on its (long) way back after a lost decade of mismanagement, poor decisions and snake oil.
As for the game itself, Mauro Icardi’s late winner and, more so, Matias Vecino’s picture-perfect cross after 90-odd minutes of tension and tired legs were the difference between the two teams. Gianluigi Donnarumma misjudged the cross, possibly because he switched off, thinking there was no way Vecino could whip it in like that: let it be a lesson for all young keepers, including him.
Prior to that, we saw an aggressive Inter that played most of the game in Milan’s half, pressing hard and doing the grunt work though perhaps not the creative, pretty stuff. And we saw Milan pushed back, unable to impose their short-passing game and quality on the match. The impression is that unless Milan are on the front foot, we simply don’t see the best of them.
Man City rout Burnley, Sterling sits
Manchester City pummeled Burnley 5-0 in a match which saw some spectacularly bad officiating: Vincent Kompany and Leroy Sane could both have been sent off. City were miles better so it didn’t affect the result, but it does make you wonder about some of these officials.
One of the sub-texts was Raheem Sterling, whose contract talks are on hold. His current deal expires in June 2020 and he reportedly wants a bump from his present $11.8 million to $19.5m, which is Kevin De Bruyne/Sergio Aguero-type money. He has been linked to Real Madrid, among others, and obviously, his market value will fall as his contracts winds down.
Sterling was on the bench Saturday and while he’s been excellent for the past year or so, City are right to hold the line here (they’ve reportedly offered a smaller raise, to $13m). Sterling is an asset but he’s not an indispensable one. And calling his bluff (Real Madrid? We’ll see…) is the right way to go.
Juve lose focus vs. Genoa
Juventus dropped points for the first time this season, having been held at home by Genoa, and Max Allegri was furious after the match, saying they had looked past their opponents to the midweek trip to Old Trafford, particularly in the second half.
Indeed, Genoa’s equalizer came on a terrifying lapse of concentration. Central defenders Leo Bonucci and Medhi Benatia evidently assumed Christian Kouame was going to let the ball run out of play for a corner. When he didn’t, instead setting up Daniel Bessa for the equalizer, they were totally unprepared. Benatia and Bonucci, both in their early 30s, are far too experienced for this sort of thing. Allegri is right to read them the riot act.
Bayern win but aren’t yet back on track
Bayern stormed back to victory after four winless games and a remarkable press conference from team bosses Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and Uli Hoeness. It was meant to be a show of unity and support for Nico Kovac but it degenerated into a tit-for-tat with the media, various accusations and the slaughtering of the departing Juan Bernat: “the only reason we lost to Sevilla last year,” according to Hoeness.
You hope Kovac realizes that it’s not with public “shows of support” like these that he’s going to get a handle on this team. If anything, they’re counterproductive. String together some victories, make some tough decisions (and call their bluff on whether they back you or the veterans) and you’ll be fine. Easier said than done.
PSG have more depth than we thought
Paris Saint-Germain made it 10 wins out of 10, beating up Amiens 5-0 at the Parc des Princes. The fact that they did it without Neymar (given a couple days’ holiday), Thiago Silva, Presnel Kimpembe and Thomas Meunier — and with Edinson Cavani struggling — only underscores their hegemony over Ligue 1.
Yet, of course, that’s not what they’re judged on. The fact that Thomas Tuchel is discovering that he has a deeper bench than first thought can only help with the season’s true objective: the Champions’ League.
Liverpool are trying to develop a Plan B
Liverpool’s 1-0 win at Huddersfield was anything but convincing, though the three points are obviously big. It’s the price you pay when you rotate (Xherdan Shaqiri, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge all started) and change your DNA (this was a far more defensive and less pressing-oriented team).
Jurgen Klopp likened it to teaching a dog new tricks, and it’s not a terrible analogy. It’s also something he’ll have to do if he wants to keep his big guns fresh, and his squad involved, for the stretch run in the spring.
Dortmund keep rolling
The Lucien Favre bandwagon rolls on. This time, Dortmund dismantled Stuttgart, scoring early and often on their way to a 4-0 win. The only real question mark is who is more impressive on a per-minute basis. Is it Jadon Sancho, who has eight assists in 310 minutes, or Paco Alcacer, who is up to 7 goals in 129 minutes?
Yeah, they’ll regress to the mean. But there is enough firepower — think Maximilian Philipp, Marco Reus and Christian Pulisic — to get hot and make up for it. The way Favre has transformed this side remains one of the stories of the season.