So much for the idea that Real Madrid are going to run away with La Liga. They’re not — not yet, anyway. And even a win at the Camp Nou and going nine points clear would not have meant locking up the title just yet.
But what the 1-1 draw showed (Sergio Ramos’ late goal notwithstanding) is that Real Madrid are very much a team, a compact unit more than capable of going into the Camp Nou and dominating, physically and tactically. That was the case in the first half, where Zinedine Zidane’s midfield, led by the incomparable Luka Modric, disrupted Barca’s flow at every turn.
In some ways, it was a re-run of what we saw in recent outings against Real Sociedad, Malaga and Sevilla. Ivan Rakitic is having a tough time, Andre Gomes looks out of his depth and if you harass the midfield enough, the MSN doesn’t get regular service. You only need to look at Barca’s shots on target in the first half — one, and a lame one at that — to see just how pretty Real Madrid were sitting.
Of course, with this much quality, breaks can come at any time and Barca got one early in the second half, when Neymar’s free kick was met by Luis Suarez’s header. It rather reminded you how form can turn at any minute. Neymar still hasn’t scored in open play in La Liga since September; Suarez had scored just once, for club and country, in November.
To his credit, Barca boss Luis Enrique must have realized they needed a lift and so he turned to the guy whose return to fitness was greeted like some sort of magic pill: Andres Iniesta. It’s perhaps understandable that Luis Enrique opted to keep him on the bench initially: he hadn’t actually played in nearly six weeks. Forcing the saviour tag on him in a Clasico against a side unbeaten in 32 games seemed a bit over the top. And yet from the moment he took his first touch, that’s how you felt.
Suddenly, the old fluidity was back. Suddenly, Madrid’s midfield press became less intense: partly a function of the stage of the game, partly (perhaps) out of respect for his ability to pick apart teams who dare to press. Barcelona strung together at least three clear chances to put the game away and a lot of it had to do with the newfound verve in the middle of the park.
The Clasico was there for Barca to take… except they didn’t. Except for that weird, intangible, unquantifiable, maddening (for others) thing Real Madrid do. They don’t go gently into that good night. The final minutes saw the typical bombardment of Marc-Andre ter Stegen’s goal and on one of those flighted balls, it was Sergio Ramos who met Modric’s cross and headed it home for the equalizer.
There’s no rational reason why Ramos should have scored so many key goals in so many key moments, from the Super Cup to the Champions League final to this. Maybe it’s happenstance and probability. Maybe it’s stardust and voodoo. Who knows? But what you do know is that if you’re a Real Madrid fan, you would have enjoyed it.
It may not have been the greatest of Clasicos but it had moments of skill and magic and a dramatic ending. For the neutral, that will do.
In many ways, there are positives for both Barca and Real Madrid to take home. With Iniesta on the pitch, this is a different Barca side. Rakitic, Suarez and Neymar won’t stay in their funk forever. And the gap stays at six points, which is far from ideal, but manageable.
As for Real Madrid, it’s now 33 games unbeaten. The momentum continues, and it does so without Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale. Zidane is giving this team more dimensions than some thought they had. It’s a grown up side.
Also, you suspect there may yet be a few twists in this Liga tale.
Guardiola pays price for rotation
Pep Guardiola says he was happy with Manchester City’s performance against Chelsea on Saturday despite the 3-1 defeat. We’ve read this script before: City have a lot of possession and create more and better chances than the opposition. That’s the basis of playing well and that’s what, in the long run, wins you silverware.
That’s pretty much what they did against Chelsea and so, from Guardiola’s perspective, job done. Regular readers will know I have a lot of sympathy for that view: performance matters more than results because this is a low-scoring sport, happenstance and probability have an outsized influence and, over time, performance is a better predictor of outcomes than result. You’ve probably even heard me say it before.
But there’s a problem in taking this to an extreme, for the simple fact that there is always a trade-off. Set up the way Guardiola did against Chelsea and sure, you’ll create more chances. But the chances you concede will be clear-cut against a side that counterattacks as well as Antonio Conte’s crew. And the effect of each conceded chance that turns into a goal will be magnified.
City’s 3-2-4-1 formation placed an enormous strain on the back three of Nicolas Otamendi, John Stones and Aleksandar Kolarov. Chelsea weren’t able to break often but when they did, it was often in a 3-on-3 or 3-on-4 situation with open field. If you press high you will always be vulnerable to this, of course. But the problem here is that, in these instances, Guardiola’s system leaves the weakest area of his team most vulnerable.
At Barcelona, he had Carles Puyol in his prime and Gerard Pique. At Bayern he could rely on Jerome Boateng at his best. Stones may get to that level one day but he’s not there yet. Otamendi is a fine defender but also one who has spent the best part of his career in a traditional back four, with midfielders shielding him. Kolarov remains a left-back who is skilful on the ball but is also one of the slower players on the team. Those are not the three guys you want in that situation.
It was the first time those three had played together in the league this season. In fact, Guardiola has changed his defence in every single Premier league match this year. If the idea is to build some sort of chemistry, this won’t do it.
That said, on a different day, City could have taken all three points. Kevin De Bruyne hitting the crossbar led directly to the equalizer. An inch lower and it’s 2-0. While I don’t share my ESPN FC colleagues’ view that the game is over at that stage — it’s not as if City would suddenly turn into some uber-Catenaccio counterattacking unit and their record of conceding from a lead isn’t great — obviously 2-0 is better than 1-1.
The absence of Nemanja Matic was a hammer blow for Conte and he got Chelsea to defend as best he could against the City onslaught. It became clear early on that his team would have to graft and feed on scraps. And that’s what they did. That’s what they do exceptionally well, in fact.
That’s also how they stay in games against more talented opponents, like City. It’s Conte’s jujitsu and after eight straight league wins, there will be more of it coming up.
Man City’s uncharacteristic nastiness
Manchester City fans were incensed that David Luiz wasn’t sent off for body-checking Sergio Aguero in the first half. The fact is, though, that it’s not a call you’re often going to get with referee Anthony Taylor so far away and at full sprint. Especially when it appears Aguero makes little effort to avoid him or stay on his feet, and when it’s not a clear-cut denial of a goalscoring opportunity.
Aguero’s horrific tackle at the end is harder to understand. You get the intensity of battle: rush of blood to the head and all that. But at that stage, the game was over. Whatever aggro he had with Luiz was done with. And he must have known there was no way he was getting away with it.
Aguero doesn’t get booked often; he gets sent off even less. This was his first red card since February 2008. He does occasionally cross the line: witness the retrospective three-match ban for the incident with Winston Reid in October. He’s now suspended for four games, which means by the time the season ends, City’s (and arguably the league’s) best striker will have missed a minimum of seven games through his own indiscipline. That could make all the difference.
As for Fernandinho, this is is his second red card of the season. However much that slap from Cesc Fabregas annoyed him and whatever nasty things Fabregas might have said, Fernandinho’s actions were just stupid. He’s not some kid; he’s a 31-year-old veteran.
The brawl itself wasn’t pretty to watch, either. It was also not what you expect from a Guardiola team who (uber-feuds with Jose Mourinho in the Liga days excepted) generally manages to keep a lid on his players.
Juventus finally turn in a great game
And there it is. Finally: a performance. For much of the last two months, Juventus had ground out results while playing sub-par football, at least by their standards. And then, against Genoa, results followed performance and they were smacked down, 3-1.
In came Atalanta, the bright new things of Serie A, coming off six straight wins. They looked ripe for a stumble. Except they did not. Twenty minutes in, they were two-nil up and flying. And they dominated the rest of the way, winning 3-1.
Without Leo Bonucci, Paulo Dybala, Andrea Barzagli and Dani Alves, Juve made a statement — none more so than Mario Mandzukic, who was everywhere at both ends of the pitch. They remain the team to beat in Serie A and, on Saturday, they played like it.
Klopp must address Liverpool failure
A grizzled old coach once told me that if you’re two goals up with less than 20 minutes to go and come away empty-handed, it’s never a case of your opponents beating you and always a case of you losing the game.
It felt that way watching Liverpool go from 3-1 up to 4-3 down away to Bournemouth. These were three points in the bag and cruise control, with Jurgen Klopp’s men on the verge of going 4-1 up when the wheels came off.
You can blame the absentees: yes, Joel Matip and Philippe Coutinho were huge losses but then again, things were fine for 75 minutes or so. You can blame the individual errors and from Divock Origi to James Milner to the two center-backs to Loris Karius, there’s plenty to go around. But really, this felt like a systemic failure insofar as systems are designed to mask weaknesses. And Liverpool’s inability to keep Bournemouth away ended up putting their vulnerable players in positions where they could make mistakes.
Credit Bournemouth, sure, but it was a collective Liverpool failure that allowed them back. And this is something Klopp needs to address.
PSG’s worst defeat in years
Just when it looked as if Paris Saint-Germain were going to kick on comes one of their worst performances in recent memory. They didn’t just lose their first game since September; they were positively thumped 3-0 by Montpellier, their heaviest defeat in more than five years.
What has to worry Unai Emery is just how listless PSG looked. They played as if they were hungover or had just woken up from a very long nap. With Monaco and Nice both winning easily, they slip back down to third place in Ligue 1, four points behind Nice and one behind Monaco.
Alexis Sanchez, Arsenal are rolling
Alexis Sanchez is on fire. Against a West Ham side who defend like this he was always going to enjoy a bountiful harvest, yet the way Arsenal tore up their fellow Londoners beyond just Sanchez was hugely impressive. You can’t simply chalk it up to the paucity of the opposition.
If you’re Arsenal, the Chilean going on a tear isn’t news but there were other positives to take. The absence of Santi Cazorla wasn’t a tragedy: Granit Xhaka looked solid and others, from Mesut Ozil to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, picked up the creative slack.
The win allowed Arsenal to leapfrog Manchester City and Liverpool into second place. The trick now is to kick on that little bit further. And as devastating as Sanchez was, to figure out when to deploy him up front and when to tuck him that little bit deeper, with Olivier Giroud leading the line. (Yup, I know mine is a minority opinion here.)
Leipzig keep rolling atop the Bundesliga
RB Leipzig stayed top of the Bundesliga with a 2-1 home win over Schalke in what was a classic trap game. Markus Weinzierl’s crew had won five straight in all competitions and hadn’t actually lost since September. They’re unpleasant to play against and you felt they might just be a good match to derail the Leipzig express.
But the home side got a massive gift inside of a minute, when Timo Werner won a penalty after falling in the general vicinity of goalkeeper Ralf Fahrmann. There is no other way to describe it because Werner clearly was not touched by the Schalke keeper, who was then booked. Werner converted the penalty prompting Schalke’s director of football, Christian Heidel, to say: “He scores and goes celebrating to the corner. I don’t think he earned any sympathy there. But others would say he’s a professional… I’m of a different opinion.”
Whatever the case, Leipzig pressed on, weathering the Schalke equaliser and then immediately taking the lead again through an own goal. And, to be fair, in terms of chances created, it wasn’t an undeserved victory. You just wish some of the early ugliness could have been avoided.
Mourinho’s wrong about bad luck vs. Everton
I was with Jose Mourinho and his complaints of double-standards when he pointed out that his team were playing well and not reaping all they had sowed. They were playing well and they were unlucky. That was the case against Stoke, West Ham and Burnley. And, to a degree, against Arsenal too. But he rather lost me when he sung that tune after the Everton game.
Yes: Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (finally starting again) looked lively and creative. And yes, Ander Herrera hit the woodwork and probably should have scored. But it’s not as if United went to Goodison Park and beat the stuffing out of Everton only to be thwarted by an individual mistake in Marouane Fellaini’s silly penalty.
Ibrahimovic’s goal (though very well-taken) was also the result of an individual error by Maarten Stekelenburg. David De Gea made a stellar save (of the kind Tom Heaton, Darren Randolph and Ben Foster made in previous games at Old Trafford) to stop Kevin Mirallas. Reduce it down to episodes and this was not the one-sided stomp some of the previous draws might have been.
Oh, and if you want to talk refereeing mistakes, it’s true that Gareth Barry might have been sent off. But the same applies to Marcos Rojo for that early two-footed assault on Idrissa Gueye.
There has been an improvement and United really ought to have a few more points in the table and at some point, they’ll regress to the mean. But the Everton match was not an example of this. And the bottom line is that United have won just once in their last eight games. (And that was against Bob Bradley’s Swansea.)
Lulic tarnishes Rome derby
Luciano Spalletti has been criticised this season for playing “too pretty” and costing his team points. Roma did the exact opposite against Lazio and came away with a 2-0 victory. Chalk it up to derby matches being entirely different “animals” — Roma were cagey and tough and ready to punish opposing mistakes, whether it was Wallace’s demented attempt to dribble in his own box or Federico Marchetti’s slow-mo goalkeeping.
It’s a shame, though, that the game was overshadowed on some level by Senad Lulic’s comments about Antonio Rudiger.
The German defender had annoyed Lazio fans by saying he was unfamiliar with their club and their coach, Simone Inzaghi. “Rudiger was provoking us even before the game,” Lulic replied after the Derby. “Two years ago he was peddling socks and belts in Stuttgart, now he [thinks he’s clever].”
There’s a racist tinge to those words — Rudiger is of African descent, the reference is to immigrants selling on street corners — and the media in Italy quickly picked up on Lulic’s inference. Roma midfielder Radja Nainggolan also went on social media after the game to denounce the remarks.
Lulic’s subsequent statement when asked to apologize (“white people sell socks, too.”) only proves he doesn’t get it, which is especially disappointing given his own background as a Bosnian refugee who emigrated to Switzerland.
Fortunately, his club feel differently. Lazio issued a full apology. Meanwhile, the Italian league have opened an investigation and Lulic could well be banned.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.