One of the best bits of Saturday’s clash between Chelsea and Liverpool came at the very end. The cameras showed Maurizio Sarri with a wide, child-like smile (about as child-like as a guy who looks like Sarri can appear) turning towards Jurgen Klopp, whose own grin was ear-to-ear and embracing him. It was a great game, it was fun, it was entertaining and it was wonderfully refreshing to witness. No psychodramas, no hissy fits, no recrimination.
Daniel Sturridge’s wonder-strike salvaged a point for Liverpool, who had the upper hand for much of the game but failed to convert, in part because Chelsea defended narrow and defended smart on a day when Roberto Firmino (and Mohamed Salah in particular) were a little less sharp than usual. At the other end, Chelsea created chances counterattacks but were snuffed out by some top quality open-field defending and a couple of “wonder-saves” by Alisson.
Liverpool are joint-top and the biggest threat to Manchester City’s title while Chelsea find themselves ahead of schedule on the Sarri plan. Win-win.
Why Marotta is leaving Juventus
It’s rather odd when the departure of a chief executive makes the headlines, but then Beppe Marotta isn’t your average stuffed suit. His eight seasons at Juventus saw the club turn into the juggernaut they have become in Italy while becoming a European force as well, culminating with the capture of Ronaldo last summer.
Marotta isn’t jumping, he’s being pushed. He himself says it wasn’t his choice to leave — he and club president Andrea Agnelli were no longer “on the same wavelength” — and he hopes to be back next season, albeit at a different club. You suspect there’s more to come from this story and, if you’re a Juve fan, you hope it won’t come back to haunt the club. Not so much for the decision to go in a new direction, but for the way it was done.
Man United should prepare for life post-Mourinho
I wrote this last week about Jose Mourinho and this weekend’s performance only underscores his increasingly erratic behaviour. He praises Paul Pogba, saying “nobody trained better than him” last week, and then yanks him in the second half. Jesse Lingard and Alexis Sanchez mysteriously disappear. Scott McTominay shows up in central defense, first in a three and then in a two. Anthony Martial gets thrown under the bus (again). Along the way comes a 3-1 defeat at West Ham and wholly turgid performance.
Some wonder whether United should just pull the trigger now. Others want them to step up the hunt for the unemployed Zinedine Zidane.
I think that all this talk is premature. This is still the same group of players who finished second last season. Rushing to appoint Zidane — simply because he’s available and has won three Champions’ League crowns — would be needlessly risky: you need to make the case that he has the desire and skill set to manage Manchester United. (Real Madrid is a wholly different proposition, not to mention a club where he spent 15 years.)
That said, United can’t sit on their hands either. You need a contingency plan and you need it now. They shouldn’t even think of going for a permanent manager in midseason. There is no reason to limit your options; rather, stick with Mourinho while finding an interim boss should the situation degenerate and become unsustainable. In the meantime, start working on a manager for 2019-20, come what may.
You do this by being straight with Mourinho, telling him something like the following: “Jose, one way or another it’s over in June. You will walk away and get the rest of your contract, more than dollar;20 million paid up. In the meantime, we expect you to continue working and take us as far as you can but we’re also going to come up with a Plan B. You have a lot of pride, make it work. Salvage this campaign and you’ll still be in high demand elsewhere.”
Barca’s rotation policy had its limitations
Ernesto Valverde’s hunt for a Plan B, continues, though it’s turning into a rather expensive search. Barcelona have taken just two points in their last three games — two home draws and that ugly defeat at Leganes — and after four straight wins to start the season, they are now neck-and-neck with Real Madrid, with Sevilla a point back and Atletico two back.
The easy explanation is that when you drop Sergio Busquets, and especially, Lionel Messi, you make yourself vulnerable, especially against a well-drilled Athletic Bilbao side. The cavalry come on in the second half and Barca had plenty of chances but it wasn’t enough.
You get what Valverde is trying to do: build chemistry, rest his regulars and find new combinations that don’t involve his meal ticket(s) but there’s always a risk when you take the opposition too lightly. And, come the end of the season, those seven dropped points might have come in handy…
Ronaldo enjoys best game yet for Juventus
He didn’t score, but he turned in his best performance since joining Juventus. And he put on a display that might suggest to the perpetual haters that no, maybe he’s not just about goals. Or, perhaps, his ego is just as sated after working his butt off for others.
Cristiano Ronaldo played a key role in each of the three goals with which Juve dispatched Napoli, 3-1, to open up a six-point lead at the top of Serie A. He uncorked a vicious long-range strike against the post, which Mario Mandzukic then turned in, he rolled back the years to his days as a fleet-footed winger to tie Elseid Hysaj up in knots before delivering a picture-perfect cross for another Mandzukic goal and he used his full vertical, and uncanny, timing to steer a headed assist to Leonardo Bonucci for the third.
But it wasn’t just about Ronaldo. Juve as a whole looked sharp, with Paulo Dybala playing in the hole and the midfield making their physical (and technical) advantage count. And this was against a Napoli side that played well for as long as they could right up until Mario Rui’s foolish second yellow left them down a man. (Even then, they came close to an equalizer.)
There’s only so much Carlo Ancelotti can do with such an evident talent gap — play the “combined XI” game and other than Kalidou Koulibaly, you won’t have too much to ponder over — but if Juve slip up, you trust Napoli to be there.
Real let Atletico set the tempo in the derby
Real Madrid looked tentative in Saturday’s derby against Atletico, particularly in the first half. That’s understandable given their midweek performance and what was at stake. Less understandable, at first glance, is how the 0-0 draw ultimately turned into the sort of match that Diego Simeone wanted to play: tight, defensive and with the two keepers playing the role of protagonists.
Avoiding defeat here is what mattered most and there are plenty of mitigating factors for Julen Lopetegui: Karim Benzema’s form (dreadful), Isco’s absence (injured) and Gareth Bale not coming back out for the second half (the 20th time in his Madrid career that he gets hurt). But you do start to wonder about what this team can do given the ease with which an energetic — but chaotic — Atletico managed to pin them down.
Arsenal are still a work in progress
Arsenal overcame Watford 2-0 but the goals came in quick succession and on the counter after, for a long stretch, they were physically struggling against their opponents’ strength and athleticism. I’ve long held that performances are just as important as results and this was not a good one. That said, if you’re a new boss like Unai Emery who is trying to do a U-turn in a supertanker after two decades of Arsene Wenger, the table matters: it gives you belief and credibility.
Emery echoed the concept after the match. “The points give us confidence, the game shows us he we can continue improving.”
He’s right. Arsenal right now are nowhere near where Emery wants them to be.
Look out: PSG are looking like a team
Paris Saint-Germain set a new record as they made it eight straight Ligue 1 wins to start the campaign with a 3-0 thumping of Nice. That part isn’t surprising or noteworthy. What does matter is that unlike earlier in the season, when they were winning simply thanks to individual talent but otherwise deeply underachieving in terms of performance, they looked like a team. And not just any team, but a Thomas Tuchel team.
This was a high-energy, front-foot performance against an opponent who sat deep and tried to get physical. Relative to the languid outings witnessed earlier, it looked as if PSG were actually paying attention to what Tuchel was telling them. Take it as early signs that Tuchel is achieving “buy-in” from his players, which is absolutely critical if the season is going to be a success beyond the French borders.
Andre Silva is soaring for Sevilla
Like those warning labels on financial products, “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” Andre Silva scored again in Sevilla’s 3-1 away win at Eibar, making it seven in seven in La Liga. He’s the second-highest scorer in Europe’s Big Five leagues after another surprise package, Genoa’s Krysztof Piatek. Not bad for a guy who scored twice in 24 Serie A appearances at Milan last season.
The 22-year-old is a huge part of Sevilla’s early season heroics. Pablo Machin has energized the side and found the perfect attacking terminus in the fleet-footed Silva. He’s on loan this season, but that option to buy at around dollar;40 million the club negotiated looks like a massive bargain right now.
Pellegrini, Roma answer their haters
Some were ready to write off Eusebio Di Francesco going into Saturday’s Rome derby against a Lazio side that had won five games on the bounce. There were the usual questions about how this was apparently a poorly constructed squad, how the departures of Radja Nainggolan, Allisson and Kevin Strootman were too much to handle, how owner Jim Pallotta saying he was “disgusted” was the beginning of the end.
Instead, Roma soaked up the pressure and let it wash over them on their way to a 3-1 victory. Best of all, the guy who stole the show was none other than Lorenzo Pellegrini, who had been on the receiving end of some of the harshest criticism in recent weeks. Rome-born and bred, a derby win means more to guys like him.
Dortmund pass Bayern in Germany
Bayern’s 2-0 defeat on Friday, coupled with Borussia Dortmund’s 4-2 comeback win at Bayer Leverkusen, mean Lucien Favre’s crew sit top of the table in the Bundesliga. We knew Favre was going to bring some tactical order after last season’s follies but he has gone further than that: he has galvanized the young core of players he inherited.
His back four on Saturday had an average of less than 21 years old. Out on the wing, both Christian Pulisic and Jacob Bruun Larsen are 20. And the guy who came off the bench and helped turn the game, Jadon Sancho, is still just 18 and ranks first in terms of assists across Europe’s Big Five leagues, despite having played just 130 Bundesliga minutes).
You don’t want to get carried away but there are shades of the young Dortmund side of the early Jurgen Klopp era….