There’s logic, there’s expectation and then there’s what we saw at the Etihad Stadium on Sunday. When Theo Walcott put Arsenal ahead against Manchester City after four minutes, you felt as if a certain script was developing.
Arsenal could now hang back and look to hit on the break. Francis Coquelin and Granit Xhaka may not be Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, but they can bolt the door when necessary. And the pace of Walcott, Alexis Sanchez and Alex Iwobi meant there would be a perpetual threat on the counter-attack.
Meanwhile, without the suspended Fernandinho and the injured Ilkay Gundogan, City would struggle to break down a disciplined, massed defense. Without Sergio Aguero, also suspended, there was no natural penalty-box predator to pounce upon a mistake. Without John Stones — left on the bench — there was one fewer aerial threat on set pieces and one fewer passer out of the back. And with Yaya Toure in the middle of the park, it was hard to imagine some stifling pressing game either.
It was fixing to be the Leicester game all over again for the home side. How on earth was Pep Guardiola going to turn it around?
The answer was twofold: Partly it was the fact that City came out of the blocks in the second half with an intensity and belief that previously had seemed lacking. Guardiola’s decision to move Raheem Sterling wide and tuck Kevin De Bruyne inside also wreaked havoc. Throw in the directness and genius of De Bruyne’s long-range passing, and you’re halfway there.
But the other factor was a staggering implosion from Arsenal. Arsene Wenger simply failed to effectively counter Guardiola, while at the same time, some of his key players — Mesut Ozil got the most criticism, but he wasn’t the only one — disappeared and others picked up knocks. Sanchez was clearly playing through pain by the end; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain came on as a substitute and had to go off again.
It’s the sort of thing that leaves you dumbfounded. It was as if Arsenal suddenly decided to play up to all the worst cliches they’ve been saddled with over the years, the weaknesses many thought they’d outgrown.
In the space of a week, they have gone from second place and three points off the top to fourth, nine points back. And in the rearview mirror, they have Tottenham and Manchester United — one and four points behind, respectively — closing in.
The absence of Santi Cazorla weighs heavily in a game like this. He is the ball-playing midfielder who could have kept possession, relieved pressure and set up the attack on a day when Xhaka was overwhelmed and Ozil ethereal.
But that alone can’t explain Arsenal’s second-half performance and, what’s more, given that Cazorla won’t return for a while, it cannot be used as an excuse. Wenger needs to regain his mojo in double quick time.
As for City, comebacks such as Sunday’s build both character and belief. There is little question that Guardiola thinks about the game differently from his peers: It took courage to leave out Kelechi Iheanacho and, especially, Stones in such a game because, if you get it wrong, you get hammered. But, clearly, Guardiola is not affected by the commentariat as much as he is secure in what he believes.
His critics call him arrogant all the time, but it’s not arrogance. In fact, his willingness to adjust and tinker when things don’t go according to plan is a sign of humility, of being ready to get under the hood and fix what’s broken.
The jury is still out on whether City can really challenge for the Premier League title. As a team, though, they just took a heck of a step forward.
Wenger turns on referees
“Enough is enough for us,” Wenger said after the game. “Both [City] goals were offside, which is very difficult to accept in a game of that stature. There is a real problem of refereeing in England; they are a bit in their comfort zone. … Referees are protected like lions in the zoo.”
Watch the Leroy Sane goal enough times and, if he is offside, it’s the sort of marginal call you can’t reasonably expect to get. On Sterling’s winner, it’s tough: David Silva is in an offside position and does make a movement toward the ball. Whether it was enough to be deemed to be interfering is a matter of debate.
But the broader point for Wenger — other than the fact that someone ought to remind him that lions are behind bars in the zoo not to protect them, but to protect the people who go see them — is that even if both calls had gone his way and Arsenal had won, it wouldn’t change how disconcertingly awful their second-half performance was.
Real Madrid are world champions, but not without a fright
There’s a school of thought — mostly emanating from the Anglo world — that the FIFA Club World Cup is an irrelevant exercise in futility.
(If you feel that way, go ahead and jump to the next item. If, on the other hand, you think it is worthwhile to make the UEFA Champions League winner face continental champions from other confederations, as well as a representative of the host nation, for the right to call themselves world champions, then please read on.)
In Sunday’s final, Real Madrid overcame Kashima Antlers 4-2 after extra time, but this was one of the bigger scares they’ve endured during their ongoing 37-game unbeaten streak. Initially, the match followed the script, with Zinedine Zidane’s crew taking an early lead through Karim Benzema.
But then a funny thing happened. Kashima Antlers, perhaps realizing that they had nothing to lose and that most of their guys would probably never play Real Madrid again, simply went for it. They attacked with a fury and with numbers you rarely see when so-called smaller clubs take on European heavyweights.
Gaku Shibasaki scored goals either side of half-time, and suddenly, the European champions were reeling. Even after Cristiano Ronaldo equalised from the spot after Shuto Yamamoto pulled down Lucas Vazquez, Real Madrid remained uncomfortable, apparently keen to just wrap it up and get out before they re-entered a metaphorical twilight zone.
The result was a frenetic final few minutes, which saw plenty of chances for both teams and a massive call by the referee, Zambia’s Janny Sikazwe, when, right around the 90th minute, the already-booked Sergio Ramos stopped a counter-attack by fouling Mu Kanazaki.
You can debate whether it ought to have been a booking, but what’s not in doubt is that Sikazwe immediately reached for a card, which would have meant Ramos was sent off. The official walked around for what felt like an eternity with his hand in his breast pocket and then simply blew for the foul, without giving Ramos his marching orders.
Cue instant speculation. Did the video assistant referee get in Sikazwe’s ear? Did he suddenly realize he was about to send off Ramos and possibly ruin Real Madrid’s party? Was it just some kind of comforting instinctive reflex action, like chin stroking, and he does the exact same thing when deciding what to order at the drive-through window?
We’ll never know. To many, though, it looked as if he was simply terrified. “I don’t think he was very courageous,” Kashima Antlers coach Masatada Ishii said later in the most understated way possible.
Ramos stayed on the pitch, and Real Madrid, propelled by two more goals from Ronaldo, went on to win the game. Other than the trophy, the single most important thing they can bring home from Japan is a dose of humility when it comes to underestimating the opposition.
Roma cannot stop Juventus
It was always going to take something special to trip up Juventus and open up a legitimate Serie A title race. Roma boss Luciano Spalletti has delivered in those circumstances in the past, but when you spend too much time thinking outside the box, you risk trying to be too clever. Which is what happened on Saturday when Spalletti decided to deploy 19-year-old Gerson out wide.
Gerson arrived in Rome with much fanfare and a $17 million fee last January. He may or may not come good one day, but there’s a reason why, before Saturday, he had seen just 99 minutes of action: He’s raw and doesn’t fit Spalletti’s scheme, certainly not as a winger. The Roma boss was evidently going for the element of surprise against Juve but could have played one of those plastic Christmas trees in Gerson’s place and made the same impact.
As it happened, Juventus took an early lead through a brilliant Gonzalo Higuain goal, which saw him do what we expect — an elegant dribble to beat Kostas Manolas followed by a stunning finish — after he did something we do not expect from him, claiming possession outside the Roma box with a powerful body check on Daniele De Rossi.
The rest of the game saw Juve keep Roma’s dysfunctions at bay with intelligence, brilliantly marshalled by the elegant Daniele Rugani at the back and the hyperactive Mario Mandzukic up front. By the time Roma came to life, late in the second half, it was too late.
Juve showed that, even with Paulo Dybala, Dani Alves and Leonardo Bonucci out, they have more than enough quality to run roughshod over Serie A. And when that quality is intermittent — Higuain was stellar, some of his teammates did only just enough — they also have mental toughness and tactical nous in spades.
As for Roma, Spalletti might be well served to go back to basics. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you step on the pitch. A bit more faith in his players and their ability to execute, which is what we saw toward the end, when Roma were most dangerous, might serve his team better.
Veterans boost Man United
The 2-0 victory at West Brom made it four wins on the bounce for Manchester United, who are now undefeated in 10 games overall. More important, they’ve been steadily growing during that run.
Some of it, no doubt, is just time, chemistry and settling in, but a big part of it is Michael Carrick’s role in front of the back four. He’s 35, and you can’t expect him to play every game, but what’s not in question right now is that he’s adding balance to the mix and making the players around him better.
But it was another 35-year-old who provided the goals: Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The big Swede has joked that he could play until he turns 50, and while that may be stretching things, his output this season is certainly a major riposte to those who questioned whether he could be productive in English football.
For some reason, it’s something that has followed Ibrahimovic throughout his career. For a long time, the punditocracy questioned whether he could score against English clubs and whether he was just a flat-track bully. Scoring four for Sweden against England in 2012 shut up some of the critics, but plenty still wondered whether, at his age, he’d even hit double figures in the Premier League.
Well, he now has 11 in 16 league starts, 10 of which have come from open play, and is on pace to score 24 in the league alone. Given that he’s only reached that total five times in his 16-year career — three at Paris Saint-Germain, once each at Inter and Milan — you’d almost be tempted to say that either he’s improving with age, or maybe scoring goals in England isn’t quite as difficult as some think.
PSG implode as pressure on Emery grows
In midweek, Paris Saint-Germain manager Unai Emery rotated heavily in the French League Cup so he could have his best XI available for the Ligue 1 trip to Guingamp, although why he would possibly think that lineup would involve Lucas Moura on the bench and Blaise Matuidi on the wing — a solution that backfired badly the week before in the first half against Nice — is anybody’s guess.
PSG created little, and when, just after the hour mark, Emery sent on Lucas for the impalpable Angel Di Maria, they were punished by two goals in quick succession. Edinson Cavani cut the deficit and came close to equalising, hitting the crossbar and eliciting a couple of good saves, but it simply wasn’t enough. Nowhere near enough, in fact.
This was Guingamp, a team that had won just once since October. True, you’re supposed to give new managers time, but Emery has now had four full months to implement his ideas at PSG, and for whatever reason, they’re not taking hold.
Already, the French media is rife with rumours, but the extreme scattershot nature of mooted successors — from Roberto Mancini to Guus Hiddink, from Frank De Boer to Clarence Seedorf, from Louis van Gaal (wouldn’t Di Maria love that!) to Sam Allardyce (OK, I made that last one up) — suggest there’s no contingency plan just yet.
Nor should there be. You only give Emery the boot once he begins to compromise next season as well; that is, if PSG suddenly find themselves sliding out of the top three. We’re not there yet — the gap over Lyon in fourth is five points, though Bruno Genesio’s side have a game in hand — and there’s still that huge Champions League round-of-16 clash with Barcelona to come.
But it’s pretty clear that Emery isn’t living up to expectations. The nostalgia for Laurent Blanc, who was lampooned by some but relentless in his vacuuming up of domestic trophies, tells you all you need to know.
Another win for Chelsea
Purists and Expected Goals-types will tell you that Chelsea’s 1-0 win at Crystal Palace, which was an 11th straight league win for Antonio Conte’s men, wasn’t exactly a dominant performance. Palace had most of the ball, and as their manager, Alan Pardew, pointed out, the game might have taken a different turn if Jason Puncheon’s finishing had been better.
That may be so, but it also felt like once Chelsea grabbed the lead, they weren’t going to let it go. You could have left both teams on the pitch until the middle of next month and Palace still would not have scored, such was the tactical efficiency and defensive work rate of Conte’s players.
The challenge is keeping things going with different personnel — N’Golo Kante and Diego Costa are suspended for Chelsea’s next game — and, possibly, a different system. Contrary to popular belief, Conte isn’t wed to the 3-4-3, and he’s acutely aware that, to keep his edge, he needs to innovate.
Some help may come from the transfer window, but he has more than a few changes up his sleeve, regardless of whether he lands more talent in January.
Emphatic win for RB Leipzig
You would have been forgiven for thinking that RB Leipzig might have hit the skids this past weekend. They were coming off defeat to bottom-of-the-table Ingolstadt and, the week before that, had scraped a 2-1 win against Schalke with a healthy dose of luck (and an obvious dive).
With a midweek trip to face Bayern also looming, Leipzig had a tough nut to crack in the shape of Hertha Berlin, but as it was, Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side came out of the gate charging like, well, like a herd of bulls spray-painted red.
It finished 2-0, thanks to Timo Werner and Willy Orban scoring either side of half-time, but it could have been a rout. Hertha offered little credible resistance, but what really impressed was how easily Leipzig cast off the nerves of their last outings and showed that the aforementioned wobble has clearly come and gone.
Messi’s magic should be applauded
I’ve been writing this column long enough to know that, when you say something nice about Lionel Messi, the Cristiano Ronaldo fans will get upset in the comments. And vice versa.
Well, I’ll give it another shot. If Messi’s two runs against Espanyol didn’t somehow move you or engender some kind of emotion, then you’re either a cyborg or you’re six feet under. Simply put, he did stuff — at least twice — that was special and unusual and aesthetically gorgeous and, whoever you support, worthy of celebration.
I’m pretty sure that, if Ronaldo had been present, he would have stood up and applauded the Messi run that led to Barca’s second goal and the one that resulted in Jordi Alba’s strike. And, while we’re at it, Luis Suarez’s pass to Messi for the fourth was also delicious.
Barcelona beat Espanyol 4-1 but, as much as the result, there was plenty of artistry and beauty to celebrate. Sometimes it’s good to stop and appreciate it. You don’t always need to take sides.
A win, but barely, for Bayern
Bayern’s “two steps forward, one step back” routine continues. Four straight wins and some convincing performances had persuaded many that Carlo Ancelotti was finally getting a handle on this team and that they’d be primed and ready for Wednesday’s crunch clash with RB Leipzig. All they had to do was pummel cellar-dwelling Darmstadt along the way.
The good news is that Bayern did win, and Douglas Costa scored a late, wonder goal. But those are really the only positive takeaways. The German champions looked slow and devoid of ideas against opponents, who battled gamely but are a truly awful team.
The three points do mean Bayern stay level with Leipzig, but there was no hiding the fact they did not play well. “We were terrible,” said Manuel Neuer. “This outcome is a relief; now we can face Leipzig with less pressure.”
That’s true, but Bayern need to deliver on Wednesday. Otherwise, it’s back to square one.
Mertens stars again for free-scoring Napoli
I didn’t expect to write about Dries Mertens two weeks in a row, but he leaves me no choice. All he did on Sunday was score four — yes, FOUR — goals in Napoli’s 5-3 demolition of Torino. The pick of the bunch, a lob over the head of Joe Hart, was this one.
Mertens now has 14 goals in all competitions this season, or one every 93 minutes. It also happens to be more than one-time Napoli hero Gonzalo Higuain.
Napoli have scored 48 goals between Serie A and Europe in 2016-17. Last season, at this stage, they had 53, but that was with Higuain in the midst of a record-setting campaign. You can’t help but wonder to what degree that output is down to Maurizio Sarri’s system and to what degree it’s down to outstanding individual performances from Higuain last year and Mertens now.
What is remarkable is that whatever Sarri is doing seems to work both with a traditional No. 9 and with a recycled winger/false nine type.
A great weekend for Nice
With both PSG and Monaco, who suffered a 3-1 home reversal against Lyon, losing, Nice’s lead at the top of Ligue 1 is now four points after Mario Balotelli scored twice to lead Lucien Favre’s men to a 2-1 win over Dijon. The Italian striker now has 10 goals in all competitions for the season — he’s not even Nice’s leading scorer, as Alassane Plea has 12.
Not only is France the league where you least expected a title race, but Nice are probably one of the sides you least expected to be topping the table. Why, it’s almost as unlikely as Balotelli and Favre combining in a successful player-manager relationship.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.