And, just like that, Barcelona crash back to earth, talk of another Treble seems ludicrous and Luis Enrique goes back to being a dolt. At least in the eyes of the overreaction professionals.
Barcelona’s 2-1 defeat at Deportivo La Coruna, who went into the match one place above the relegation zone in La Liga, can be attributed to many factors, some of which are more credible than others.
You need to start by giving credit to Pepe Mel, who in eight previous meetings with Barcelona, had collected a single point. And he was without four guys you’d reasonably expect to start: His top scorer Florin Andone, his top center-back Sidnei, his holding midfielder Guilherme and his experienced playmaker Pedro Mosquera.
Maybe that’s why, unlike teams that simply try to bolt the door, Depor pushed on when in possession and put the Barca back three under strain. Marc-Andre ter Stegen — and, to a slightly lesser degree, Javier Mascherano — bear plenty of responsibility for giving up the first goal; Jordi Alba, who doesn’t seem a great fit as a third center-back, got out-jumped for the second.
Luis Enrique said his team paid a “dear price” for the midweek Champions League comeback win vs. Paris Saint-Germain. Presumably he’s talking mostly in psychological terms because, even without Rafinha and Neymar, both of whom apparently picked up knocks against PSG, they had more than enough firepower to overcome Depor.
But when Lionel Messi turns in arguably his worst performance of the season, when Andre Gomes and Arda Turan are as bad as their critics say they’ve been all season, when you leave out both Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta, this is what you can end up with.
Simply talking hangover is not an acceptable excuse. This defeat is on “Lucho” as much as it is on his players.
Sanchez saga rolls on
Arsenal, predictably, rolled to an easy win over Lincoln — fairytales only go so far — but I was more struck by something that emerged pregame.
Before Tuesday’s game vs. Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Arsene Wenger was asked for the umpteenth time about Alexis Sanchez and said: “Look, you have all the information available on the performances of the players after the game and you can decide for yourself what is going on in the pitch. Every physical data, every pass, the number of times a player touches the ball, how much he runs, how much he sprints, how much he doesn’t sprint… you have all that available, you don’t need me.”
It seemed a little cryptic at the time and, in fact, some of the data isn’t quite as readily available to the rank-and-file as Wenger might believe. But, sure enough, members of the media got their hands on it.
The focus was on running stats, like the fact that Sanchez has failed to cover 10 kilometres in a single Premier League game this season, whereas Olivier Giroud, who has only lasted 90 minutes on three occasions, did it three times. Mesut Ozil, meanwhile, achieved it 14 times in 16 90-minute appearances. The number of “high-intensity” sprints Sanchez has made is also down, relative to the first part of the campaign.
Now, I’m all for data and statistical analysis. But this strikes me as, at best, out of context and at worst, mischievous. Sprinting and covering ground depend on many different factors, ranging from the players’ characteristics, to what he’s asked to do, to the guys around him, to the situation in the game, to how opponents defend him.
The way you determine whether Sanchez has declined physically or, as some suggest, is being lazy, is by watching tape and assessing his movements. You don’t do it by some aggregate score, with little in the way of reference points or baselines.
It was suggested to me that all this is purely some kind of power play with Sanchez’s contract in the background. Maybe that’s true. If so, though, it leaves an obvious question: If Sanchez is a lazy, declining dud, then why are Arsenal offering him a contract to make him the highest-paid player in the history of the club?
Bayern move closer to another Bundesliga title
The leaders’ advantage is up to 10 points with 10 games to go. If they do win the title, it would be the club’s fifth in a row, extending their own record.
Plenty has been written about how Carlo Ancelotti has yet to get the best out of this team relative to his predecessors Pep Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes. At the same stage of his three seasons in charge, Guardiola had nine, two and three more points, whereas Heynckes had four more in 2012-13.
More than the results, though, it’s the performances that either haven’t hit the heights of the “Pep Era” or simply feel less satisfying. It was a similar story against Frankfurt for most of the first half, at least until Robert Lewandowski broke the ice and sent them on the way to a comfortable 3-0 win.
What strikes you, though, is that, if Bayern can be so dominant while at half-throttle, what happens if Ancelotti gets them to the next level?
Second-placed Leipzig, meanwhile, contrived to lose at home to a Wolfsburg side that had taken just four of the last 21 points available. Ironically, it was ex-Bayern striker Mario Gomez who got the winner, which condemned Leipzig to their fifth defeat in the last 11 league games.
It raises the legitimate question of whether this season’s surprise team in Germany are paying the price physically for their style of play or whether opponents are simply figuring out their approach.
Real Madrid scrape past Betis amid Navas scrutiny
For 15 minutes it looked as if this would be one of those wacky weekends when both Barcelona and Real Madrid lost.
Zinedine Zidane’s crew should have been a man down against Real Betis when Keylor Navas wiped out Darko Brasanac. They went a goal down shortly thereafter when the Costa Rican goalkeeper contrived to fumble an innocuous shot into his own net. But then Cristiano Ronaldo found the equalizer and, in the second half, for the umpteenth time, a Sergio Ramos header ended up giving Real Madrid all three points.
It goes without saying that, given Ramos’ history, that it’s difficult to understand why he gets open so often in dead-ball situations. Sure, his movement is very good and his timing is exceptional. But the ease with which he slips marking mechanisms makes you wonder how well some coaches prepare set pieces.
Navas redeemed himself to a point with a stunning injury-time save from Antonio Sanabria, but the earlier spill and, particularly, the near sending off are worrying. It’s fair to say he has surpassed expectations since that botched 2015 Deadline Day deal for David De Gea meant Navas suddenly found himself as the club’s No. 1.
But, with plenty of speculation about Madrid targeting a new keeper in the summer — De Gea? Thibaut Courtois? Gigi Donnarumma? — you get the sense Navas is playing for his job. And that may be unsettling.
Inter’s improvement continues
Stefano Pioli is too polite to tell you but, since taking over as Inter manager, the nerazzurri have collected 37 points from 16 games. Had Inter maintained that rate all season, they’d currently be second, five points behind Juventus.
On Sunday, Inter took on Atalanta, one spot above them in the table and with the third-fewest goals conceded in Serie A. All Pioli’s men did was win 7-1, with hat tricks from Mauro Icardi and Ever Banega. It wasn’t just a huge win, it was a statement win in front of a 60,000-strong crowd that lights a fire under the club that hasn’t really been seen since a certain Jose Mourinho was patrolling the sidelines.
Pioli is nothing like Mourinho and this team has a long way to go before even being in the same conversation as the 2009-10 Treble winners. But what is remarkable is his combination of tactical nous and willingness to make big calls — he left out Joao Mario and Jeison Murillo at the weekend — as well as his ability to keep a lid on the controversy and in-fighting that has long accompanied Inter.
Six points separate them from the Champions League spots and it’s possible that early-season slips mean that ship has sailed. But, other than the Coppa Italia game against Lazio, there have been very few occasions under Pioli when Inter haven’t been competitive or have gotten their approach entirely wrong.
Now all he needs is patience from the club’s owners and stability around the club; two things that, in years past, have been in short supply.
Son can cover in Kane’s absence
Tottenham routed Millwall 6-0 to reach the FA Cup semifinal but the win was marred by an injury to Harry Kane, who twisted the same ankle that kept him out earlier this season. If he’s out for an extended spell, then things get a whole lot tougher for Mauricio Pochettino.
The Spurs manager’s choice may come down to a traditional center-forward like Vincent Janssen or a more versatile type like Son Heung-Min. If that is the conundrum, then it’s no choice at all and not just because Son notched a hat trick on Sunday to take his season total to 14 goals in all competitions, whereas Janssen’s goal was his first from open play for the club.
Son doesn’t just allow Tottenham to press, he also helps take Pochettino’s beloved pressing game to another level. And while he may not hold up the ball or finish as well as Kane, he can more than match him for quickness and work rate.
Tottenham will have to change if Kane is out. With Son, they’ll be different and maybe not as good, but different in a positive way.
Dortmund slump as winning run ends
I’m a huge Thomas Tuchel fan. I drank the Kool-Aid. I’m on board with the risk-taking, the constant rotation, the square pegs in round holes; if you never try anything different, then you never grow, right? And if that means there are only two Borussia Dortmund players who have started more than 75 percent of Bundesliga games this season, then so be it.
But I can also see just why some are ready to cut him loose, given the inconsistency that sees his side win four games on the bounce, scoring 16 goals in the process, and then turn in a meek performance in a 2-1 defeat to Hertha Berlin.
It’s not as if Hertha are a poor side — in fact, they might pip Dortmund to third place — it’s the way the game unfolded. You can blame individual mistakes — Mathias Ginter and Andre Schurrle are the obvious scapegoats here – but, at some point, you start to wonder whether they are not an inevitable by-product of the way Dortmund play.
Defenders of Tuchel say he’s under fire for the simple reason that he doesn’t have the same kind of relationship with the club bosses — above all sporting director Michael Zorc and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke — that his predecessor Jurgen Klopp enjoyed.
Moreover, Tuchel is a bit too detached from the club’s fans, certainly relative to Klopp, who seemed to bask in their adulation. But those aren’t reasons to question Tuchel. The maddening inconsistency, on the other hand, is.
Liverpool get the result, if not the performance
Jurgen Klopp called Liverpool’s 2-1 victory over Burnley an “ugly win” and it certainly was. There’s a school of thought that sees the positives in being able to in this manner but I don’t know if that’s logical. Sure, an ugly win is better than an ugly draw or an ugly defeat. But it still means you’re not performing and that there’s something to be worked on.
In Liverpool’s case, the bulk of the problems were up front. Without Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi stepped in and ran into a sequence of cul-de-sacs laid out by Burnley manager Sean Dyche. Sadio Mane did what he could but it’s hard to ignite something that isn’t there. And, above all, Philippe Coutinho, Liverpool’s difference maker early in the season, failed to provide the creativity needed to break down well-organized opposition.
Coutinho looks a shadow of the player we admired early in the campaign, when some had him as a Player of the Year contender and tabloids were linking him to Barcelona. Whether it’s physical or just a passing phase, Klopp needs to get on top of it. Simply put, it’s hard to see his team keeping hold of a place in the top four without an in-form Coutinho.
Monaco maintain their lead
There were some nerves around as Monaco struggled to break down Bordeaux at home in a lacklustre first half, before they got goals six minutes apart after the break from the ubiquitous Kylian Mbappe and Joao Moutinho.
Monaco enjoy a five-point lead over Nice, who drew 2-2 at home against Caen on Friday, and have an advantage of three over PSG, who downed cellar-dwelling Lorient 2-1. What’s more, things are set up nicely for Leonardo Jardim in terms of the fixture list: Of Monaco’s nine remaining matches, just two – Lyon in fourth and seventh-placed St Etienne — are against clubs currently in the top eight.
PSG have not progressed under Emery
The adjective “dreaded” before “vote of confidence” is only there because we remember the times a manager gets sacked after being reassured he won’t be, rather than when we’re told he has full support and nothing happens.
That’s worth bearing that in mind when considering the backing of PSG boss Nasser Al-Khelaifi of coach Unai Emery following the Champions League debacle in Barcelona. In other words, it would be worse for Emery — and the way he’s perceived — if Al-Khelaifi said nothing.
That said, it’s by no means guaranteed that Emery will be back next season. And nor should it. Not so much because of what happened at the Nou Camp — there were refereeing calls that went against PSG and Barcelona took things to an otherworldly level — but because it’s not clear to what degree the club have progressed, especially relative to domestic opposition.
A year ago this past weekend, PSG were mathematically clinching the league with a 9-0 win at Troyes. Today, they’re three points in arrears of Monaco and just two ahead of third-place Nice, who they visit on April 29.
It’s not just about PSG not winning the French title, it’s the fact that finishing third really does matter in terms of the Champions League. It could see them matched up against Borussia Dortmund, Atletico Madrid, Manchester United, Manchester City or someone of a similar ilk in the qualifying round.
Not only would that be no fun at all, but it could also condemn them to the Europa League. And that’s a chance PSG really don’t want to take.
A mutually beneficial transfer
I’ve been a frequent critic of Ed Woodward’s transfer dealings in his early seasons as Manchester United executive vice-chairman, largely because of the way he moved late and the prices he paid.
But after Jose Mourinho gave Memphis Depay just 24 minutes on a Premier League pitch in the first half of the season, shifting the Dutch international winger for $20 million — rising to a potential $26.5 million — plus a sell-on clause and buy-back agreement, was a very good piece of business.
And it’s also turning out to be good business for Lyon. Memphis bagged two goals in OL’s 4-0 thumping of Toulouse — one of which came from just inside his own half — to bring his total to five in nine appearances. Still just 22, he’s proving to be a worthwhile gamble.
It was quite the weekend for our hero, as Bas Dost notched all four goals in Sporting Lisbon’s 4-1 win at Tondela.
Dost is now up to 25 goals for the season in all competitions. In the Portuguese League, he’s averaging one every 86 minutes.
This concludes the latest instalment of #DostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.