In England, they used to call it “Fergie Time.” In Germany, Hertha boss Pal Dardai called it the “Bayern bonus” after the Bavarians equalized 59 seconds past the allotted 5 minutes of time added on decreed by referee Patrick Ittrich.
Prior to that, a decidedly humdrum Bayern had gone a goal down after Vedad Ibisevic put the Berliners ahead following a rather dubious free kick. Carlo Ancelotti’s crew played as if they were hung over from pounding Arsenal 5-1 in midweek, looking sluggish and devoid of ideas in the final third. Thomas Muller, given a start ahead of Robert Lewandowski up front, felt like a foreign object, confirming that this season really is his “annus horribilis.”
The crowd at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium roared on the home side as the game slipped into injury time. The fourth official held up the board showing the number five, as in the minimum number of additional minutes to be played. And then came the equalizer courtesy of Lewandowski, who had come on for Arturo Vidal at the hour mark, followed by lots of shoving and recrimination — and for Ancelotti, a gob of phlegm he said came from the stands, to which he responded with the classic middle-finger salute, suggesting you can push the jovial, laid-back one too far.
Two points are worth making here. First, while you understand Dardai’s annoyance (and yes, maybe they did deserve to win the game as he suggested) the fact of the matter is that the rules are quite clear. When the fourth official holds up the board, it’s always a minimum of time added on. What’s more, when there are substitutions during injury time, it’s pretty customary for the referee to add 30 seconds for each one. And guess what? Hertha made two changes, in minute 92 and minute 94.
The other point is a broader one and an age-old issue. We’re told that football matches last 90 minutes, but in fact, the “running clock” means there is no real rhyme or reason to when a game ends. We’re used to it because we love the game and it’s been that way since the very beginning. But that doesn’t mean it’s right or even desirable, particularly since stopwatches aren’t the expensive luxury item they might have been back in the 1870s.
As a result, the amount of time the ball is actually in play — i.e., when there is actually a game going on rather than 22 guys and a referee standing around — can vary dramatically, as this piece by analyst Colin Trainor shows. I was most struck by how Swansea’s game against Manchester United in November featured 64 minutes of football, whereas their win over Crystal Palace three weeks later had just 44 minutes.
So let’s dispense with this myth that “injury time” is anything but a vague, arbitrary measure. Heck, they play the same sport in Germany and in England, and yet in the Premier League there is, on average, an additional 2.2 minutes of injury time added.
The solution to this, of course, is not having a running clock at all but playing two 30-minute halves and stopping the time when the ball is dead or out of play. It’s an old idea that surfaces occasionally, most recently when Marco Van Basten talked about it (and if you watch the ESPN FC show, you’ll know most of the guys on it, particularly Brian McBride, hate it). Not only would it cut down on time-wasting, but it would also avoid controversial endings like we saw in Berlin.
If that’s too much for the traditionalists, then why not simply get rid of the running clock once you hit the 90th minute? Whatever minutes flash up on the board, they only count when the ball is in play. That way you’d have no fake injuries or snail-walks to the touchline when someone makes a substitution. And no angry chasing of referees or accusations of favoritism at the final whistle, either.
Barca fans’ booing is totally justified
On the surface, Leganes were the ideal opponents for Barcelona following the Champions League trauma at the Parc des Princes. Teetering on the edge of the relegation zone, no wins since November and beaten 5-1 at home earlier this season: Nothing like a good 5-0 or 6-0 spanking to get the juices flowing and banish the clouds just long enough that you can get on with the key questions. Like figuring out whether Luis Enrique will be back next year, or getting Lionel Messi to finally put pen to paper.
For the first few minutes, it looked as if things were going to pan out exactly as hoped. Messi put Barca ahead early, Rafinha was looking sharp, the “MSN” were getting fed. But then Nabil El Zhar came close and as the first half counted down, nerves got jittery. In the second half, they got downright frayed, particularly after Unai Lopez found the equalizer with a bit of help from Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who had otherwise made some key saves.
Boos were audible at the Camp Nou, but they turned to relief when, at the very end, Martin Mantovani fouled Neymar and Messi coolly converted from the spot. He didn’t celebrate — rightly so, because there was nothing to celebrate. This was another poor performance, one that you’re not going to explain away with the half-dozen absentees, not when none of them are named Luis Suarez, Neymar or Lionel.
Luis Enrique (again) took responsibility, while sticking up for his players. “I accept that [fans boo] me, that they are hurt because of Paris, but not that they [boo] the players,” he said. “I do not understand. As a fan, [booing] your own team does not make sense.”
You can understand why he’s going to go to bat for his crew, but equally, his assessment of what makes sense for fans to do falls a little flat. Or, at the very least, it suggests he doesn’t view the game through their lens. (In fact, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t going back to his playing days: after all, he left Real Madrid as a free agent to join, of all clubs, Barcelona. Which is fine if you’re a professional, less so if you’re a fan.)
A significant portion of the Barca support are angry and frustrated right now. Sure, they can take it out on Luis Enrique, but they know all too well he’s not the source of all their ills and it’s too easy to scapegoat him. The fact is, they’ve been badly let down by some of his players as well (and by some club officials, too.) How else are they going to voice their disapproval?
Sometimes people feel that after years of carrots, it’s time to turn to the (metaphorical) stick. And not only is it their right but yeah, sometimes it actually makes a whole load of sense.
Lincoln live up to ‘magic of the Cup’ talk
It’s easy to be cynical of the FA Cup, particularly when so many teams (not just in the Premier League, but in the Championship, too) field shadow sides and almost give you the impression they wouldn’t mind getting knocked out in the third or fourth round so they could concentrate on the league.
Juxtapose this with media and commentators often engaging in a game of make-believe where they pretend we’re seeing the “real” version of these teams and it can feel somewhere between empty and condescending. Particularly when they trot out the old “Greatest Cup Competition in the World” trope and talk of the “Magic of the Cup.”
But then you get days like Saturday, and you sort of get what they mean.
Lincoln City are 80 league places below Burnley. They play non-League football, and while they are a professional team only five years removed from League Two, they were the prototypical minnows. That didn’t stop them from recording a dramatic late goal and knocking Burnley out of the competition, in the process becoming the first non-League team in the modern era to reach the quarterfinals of the competition.
(In case you’re wondering what “modern era” means in England, they’re the first non-League team since 1914 to make it this far. And bear in mind that the “league” back then consisted of just two divisions, not four like today.)
It’s a remarkable story not least for the characters involved. Matt Rhead, the veteran, XXL center-forward who gave James Tarkowski and Michael Keane fits all afternoon (and in the process, caused Joey Barton to lose his marbles). Alan Power, the hyperactive midfielder who grew up with UFC icon Conor McGregor (and played on the same team with him as a kid). And, of course, the Cowley brothers, the manager and assistant frantically giving instructions in stereo on the sidelines.
It’s the umpteenth reminder that part of the beauty of the game is that once you cross that white line it’s still 11 vs. 11, every match begins at 0-0 and yes, anything can happen. Just not very often. Which is what makes this so special.
Zidane rings the changes, Real still win with ease
Rationally, you assume there is no such thing as momentum and rhythm and this business with one good result begetting another. But then you watch Real Madrid follow up their 3-1 victory over Napoli in the Champions League with a 2-0 win over Espanyol and you’re not so sure.
Zinedine Zidane made no fewer than seven changes — Dani Carvajal, Toni Kroos, Raphael Varane and, obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo were the only holdovers — against Quique Sanchez Flores’ crew and they cruised to the most comfortable of victories. The fact that Real Madrid’s scorers were Gareth Bale and Alvaro Morata is another bonus for Zidane, simply in terms of lifting confidence.
Bale returns with a bang after nearly three months out injured while Morata is quietly showing that when called upon, he can more than carry the scoring burden. He has 14 goals in all competitions this season despite limited minutes and, in fact, is scoring a goal every 90 minutes. That’s actually more than the guy he understudies, Karim Benzema. The Frenchman has 13 goals in substantially more minutes (one every 146). It doesn’t mean Morata ought to be ahead of Benzema (not yet, anyway) but does suggest Morata is proving his worth and maybe sooner rather than later, it will be time to talk succession.
One more thing about this team. They have gotten on the score sheet in every single game this season. In fact, the last time they failed to score was in the 0-0 draw with Manchester City in last year’s Champions League semifinal. That was way back in April. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you score, it’s a whole lot less likely you’re going to drop points.
Mourinho, Man United are making progress
Jose Mourinho had to call on the cavalry in the form of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to overcome Blackburn Rovers, 2-1, after going a goal down and then equalizing through Marcus Rashford. Mourinho said afterward that the prospect of a replay at Old Trafford would have been “a disaster” and you can see why. With United still in the running in the FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League, there’s the prospect of a serious fixture pile-up.
United’s season, though, is quietly turning into a glass half full/glass half empty situation but equally, they can’t let up on any front. They play in the League Cup final against Southampton next Sunday, they’re in the last eight of the FA Cup and the bookmakers make them favourites to win the Europa League. They’re also just four points from second place in the league.
And yet if you look at the table, they’re sixth. If that’s where they finish, it will be their second-worst league season since 1991.
In other words, you can spin this any way you like. For my money, though, there has been obvious progress this season. It’s not just the cup runs, though silverware does matter, especially for Jose Mourinho: It’s also the way they’ve played. They are developing an identity, and what’s more, it’s as attacking an identity as any team Mourinho has ever coached, with the possible (arguable) exception of Real Madrid. (And even that side had two holding midfielders in Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, whereas this one does not.)
There is still plenty to work on, of course, and there are more challenges ahead: Ibrahimovic can say he wants to play into his 40s, but there’s good reason not to believe he’ll be able to, not at this level anyway. But if the season ended today, despite their place in the league, it would feel, for the first time since the Sir Alex Ferguson era that this team is moving forward.
Deulofeu is just what Milan need
This has been the mother of all transition years for Milan. The decision to finally turn the youngsters loose has been (largely) vindicated by growth, if not results. And, of course, the biggest change of all is imminent, with the Chinese consortium Sino Europe on the verge of completing their takeover. (That said, they’ve been “on the verge” for nearly a year now and we’re still holding our breath.)
Meanwhile, as the rossoneri tread water between the past and the future, there’s a whole Serie A season to play, including Sunday’s clash with Fiorentina which, in some ways, was a playoff for the Europa League: the loser can make alternative plans for Thursday nights next season and the winner continues to hope.
Milan didn’t exactly impress, particularly in the second half, but they nevertheless won 2-1, with the winner coming courtesy of Gerard Deulofeu. The Spaniard has already had an impact in the four games he has played and right now, he’s exactly the sort of player they should be betting on. He’s young, talented and hungry for a comeback.
Deulofeu is on loan from Everton, but Milan are confident that if he does well they’ll be able to work out a permanent move, particularly since Ronald Koeman (for whom the Spaniard made just four league starts) does not appear to be a fan.
Deulofeu may have been over-hyped when he first broke in at Barcelona but the ability is there, it’s a question of whether he can consistently tap into it. With the right manager and in the right context, it’s not just a calculated gamble; it’s a clever one, too.
Balotelli back to his ‘old’ ways?
Mario Balotelli was sent off in the 68th minute of Nice’s trip to Lorient Saturday, just as he was sent off the last time he faced Ligue 1’s cellar-dwellers. Except last time, the red card was rescinded and he received an apology. That won’t happen this time: He was called for a foul, said something he shouldn’t have to the referee and that was that. Off he went with little complaint.
His performance to that point ought to be as much of a concern as the sending off. Balotelli showed all the hallmarks of “Bad Mario” we’ve seen in the past and to make matters worse, according to French media, it’s starting to rub his teammates the wrong way. What could have been a redemption season (he has 11 goals in 19 games in all competitions) risks seeing him throw it all away.
Needless to say, it’s up to him to change things. Nice are still very much in the running for an improbable Ligue 1 title: they still got the three points at Lorient and remain three behind table-topping Monaco. You’d think this, along with the chance to resurrect his career after two “lost seasons” between 2014 and 2016, would be enough motivation for him to shape up.
Zeman’s arrival gives Pescara a little hope
Zdenek Zeman spent much of his career dividing opinion. Was he a genius capable of reinventing the game, turning long-held precepts on their head with an outrageous brand of attacking football? Or was he simply a con man, an inveterate gambler who pandered to crowds by arrogantly neglecting the defensive side of the game?
The truth (yeah, I know, it’s boring) is somewhere in the middle, though perhaps close to the former than the latter. But few managers, let alone among those who’ve made no fewer than 22 different stops in their career, have managed to connect with fans the way he has. (The fact that he may well be the only person ever, living or dead, who is adored by both the majority of Lazio and Roma fans says it all.)
So when Pescara, dead last in Serie A and with the worst record of any top-flight team in Europe’s big five leagues, decided to call on him to replace Massimo Oddo, there was a distinct “What do we have to lose?” vibe about it. Currently 13 points from safety with 14 games to go, if you’re going to go down you might as well go down swinging, right?
All Zeman did on his debut was lead Pescara to a 5-0 thumping of Genoa. To put it in context, it was their first league win of the season on the pitch (they did get three points back in August when an opponent forfeited a match) and he’s now weaving his magic again. Pescara are still last and safety is still 10 points away but with Zeman on board, fans feel anything is possible, even when reason and logic suggest the opposite.
PSG suffer Champions League hangover
Just like Bayern, Paris Saint-Germain were also held to a draw after a resounding Champions League victory. The difference though is that although they failed to score, PSG roundly dominated Toulouse, particularly in the second half.
Yet the draw means they remain three points behind Monaco, who were also held 1-1 by Bastia on Friday. In these situations, it’s normal to speak of a “psychological letdown” but I’m not sure that was the case. PSG were better but against an opponent that defends well, they failed to put their chances away. The trick for Unai Emery is that he sells his players on this idea, particularly with the trip to Marseille coming up next week.
RB Leipzig show they can win ugly
Leipzig aren’t going away just yet. Much has been made of their youth and inexperience — almost as much as their intrinsic unpopularity — and after back-to-back defeats, you wondered if the wheels were going to come off and they were going to get sucked back down the table.
Still, in winning 2-1 at Borussia Moenchengladbach, they showed plenty of ruthlessness and just as importantly, the ability to seize good fortune when it came. They took the lead with Emil Forsberg, gave up a silly penalty that Thorgan Hazard missed and pulled ahead when the lightning quick Timo Werner struck in the second half. When Jannik Vestergaard pulled one back for the hosts, they hunkered down and weathered the inevitable late siege, all of this happening in a cauldron-like environment with plenty of nerves, gamesmanship and nastiness.
The finale wasn’t pretty (and Werner cemented his reputation as an arch-villain with another ridiculous bit of play-acting) but it showed that Leipzig can suffer, grind things out and bring home the bacon. The gap is five points between them and first place in the Bundesliga: if Bayern keep playing the way they have been domestically and run out of late miracles, who knows what could happen?
Guess who’s back. Back again. Marcelo Bielsa’s back. Tell a friend.
Bielsa will be coaching Lille next season, which ensures that the 2017-18 campaign at the Lille Metropole will be rather more exciting than this one. Franck Passi, one of his assistants at Marseille, has already taken over the time and “El Loco” will follow in June.
Buckle up. This being Bielsa, a wild ride is guaranteed.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.