Milan keep Serie A title race alive, Ibra’s tone-deaf comments, Chelsea-Man United lessons, Barca chaos

The weekend in soccer was full of surprises, drama and action as per usual. AC Milan and Inter Milan both won their respective Serie A fixtures, keeping the pressure on Juventus (who didn’t win this weekend) when it comes to the wide-open title race. In the Premier League, Man United and Chelsea played out a subdued scoreless draw while Man City notched their 20th consecutive win (all competitions) and Liverpool returned to the win column thanks to their homegrown kid, Curtis Jones.

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Barcelona‘s big win was undermined by the police raid on their offices, Atletico went “old school” to regain some momentum atop La Liga, Gareth Bale finally delivered a match-turning performance since his return to Tottenham on loan, and Bayern Munich‘s big win was notable for the return of Serge Gnabry and Thomas Muller to the lineup.

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.

Jump to: Milan still in title race | Zlatan’s remarks | Chelsea, Man United stalemate | Barca can’t catch break | Arsenal stun Leicester | Dortmund not finished | Jones lifts Liverpool | Juve underwhelm Man City win 20th straight | Bayern get Muller, Gnabry boost | “Old School” Atletico | Bale finally stars for Spurs | Leipzig close gap on Bayern | Lukaku, Inter win again | PSG face Ligue 1 fight


Milan and Pioli show personality, courage in keeping Serie A title race alive

Milan’s trip to face Roma was depicted by some observes as a last-chance saloon for their title aspirations. Lose and they’d be seven points behind Inter. And while that assessment would perhaps have been a bit excessive — Inter are as good at anyone at throwing away leads — once you throw in the injuries (above all, Ismael Bennacer) and the negative trend (winless in four, no victories over top sides since December), there’s little question the scudetto pendulum would swing well away from them.

Instead, they overwhelmed Roma — who, lest we forget, were just behind them in the table and unbeaten at home — with a vicious assault over the first half-hour that should have seen them two or three goals up had Zlatan Ibrahimovic not been more wasteful, Ante Rebic not been more unselfish and Simon Kjaer not been that little bit more accurate. They had to wait for a penalty at the end of the first half to break the ice, and then added a second after the break en route to a 2-1 win that was far more one-sided than the scoreline suggests.

Credit the players, obviously, but also credit Stefano Pioli. We in the media have this silly obsession with looking to the past in order to assess the present. And because Pioli had a history of starting very well at his previous clubs and then ending poorly (usually just before getting sacked, which is kinda par for the course: you tend to get fired after underperforming) there was an assumption that this was where the wheels would come off.

Except they didn’t.

Pioli made some big calls. He dropped captain Alessio Romagnoli (who has been poor over the past few months) for Chelsea loanee Fikayo Tomori at the back, and he yanked Hakan Calhanoglou at half-time for the far more energetic Brahim Diaz. Most of all, he sent his team out with fire in their guts and precision in their minds, overwhelming Roma’s midfield (Franck Kessie showed again why he’s a one-man wrecking crew) and turning the screws on Paulo Fonseca.

Milan live to fight another day and they showed that, perhaps, they’re not as dependent on their veterans who are out of contract in June (Calhanoglou and Ibrahimovic) as some would have us believe.

As for Roma, their many injuries (Chris Smalling, Roger Ibanez at the back, Nicolo Zaniolo and Edin Dzeko up front) no doubt bite. It took Fonseca a while to adjust the system, dropping Lorenzo Pellegrini deeper to help in the middle of the park, and the fact they were still in it at the end isn’t insignificant. But it serves as a reminder of just how far above their weight Roma have been punching this season.

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Shaka Hislop doesn’t understand Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s stance on athletes involvement on social issues.

Zlatan’s tone-deaf remarks attract attention

Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish Zlatan Ibrahimovic the person from Zlatan the character. I would hope it’s the latter who showed up last Thursday and said that it was “a mistake” when athletes get involved in social and political issues, before calling out LeBron James by name as an example.

“[Speaking out about politics] is the first mistake people do when they become famous and they [achieve] a certain status,” he said. “Stay out of it. Just do what you do because it doesn’t look good.”

James hit back, reminding Ibrahimovic that when he does speak out on non-sporting issues, he talks about stuff he knows and he has direct experience of: poverty, lack of education, racism and empowerment.

The “stay in your lane” argument has been around a long time. Personally, I have no problem with folks speaking about whatever they like, but I can see how some may feel different. But they key thing in James’ riposte is that he talks about what he knows and what he is deeply involved in.

Maybe Zlatan misspoke. Maybe he spoke without thinking. Maybe he was talking along the lines of the old quote attributed to Michael Jordan whereby “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Or maybe he’d like to articulate his thoughts a little bit more eloquently. Because, as it stands, folks are a bit confused.

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Shaka Hislop can’t believe the controversy surrounding a potential penalty in Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Chelsea and Man United share spoils, but not much to cheer about

I didn’t think Sunday’s 0-0 draw between Chelsea and Manchester United was as poor a game (especially in the first half) as some made out, but it did rather photograph where these teams are. If Bruno Fernandes has an off-day and Paul Pogba isn’t playing, it’s hard for United to create chances. Chelsea remain a work in progress, with Thomas Tuchel trying different combinations in midfield and attack, which, ironically, is rather what his predecessor was doing too.

Had Stuart Attwell not overruled VAR and given that penalty when the ball struck Callum Hudson-Odoi‘s hand, it might well have opened up the game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was adamant that it was a ‘clear penalty.” What he seems to be missing though is that, contrary to what the punditocracy keeps repeating, there is still a degree of interpretation and discretion available to the referee. The guidelines about “natural position” and “arms away from the body” are just that: guidelines. Referees are told to look at the dynamic of a situation and why a player’s limbs move the way they do.

Was it “natural” for Hudson-Odoi (and, for that matter, Mason Greenwood) to raise his arm as he was about to collide with an opponent? Attwell thought it was. You may feel different. But that’s exactly what referees are asked to judge. And I’m speculating here, the purpose of the on-field VAR review was to establish exactly what happened, since in real time it was by no means clear (other than the ball striking Greenwood, which happened after it hit Hudson-Odoi). So if he takes a look, judges the entire dynamic of the incident and comes to this conclusion, I have no problem with it.

There’s still room for common sense in the game.

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Barcelona face a first-leg deficit in the Copa del Rey and the election of a new president in the wake of the arrest of former president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Barcelona can’t catch a break

The good news was somewhat overshadowed by the bad. Less than 48 hours after a 2-0 win over Sevilla that featured a new-look set up — three at the back, Ousmane Dembele at center-forward — police raided Barcelona’s offices and arrested former president Jose Maria Bartomeu, his right-hand man Jaume Masferrer and chief executive Oscar Grau in connection with the “Barcagate” scandal. Further details are unavailable at this time, but it’s not lost on anyone that with elections less than a week away, it’s another blow and the path on the long road back just got that little bit steeper for whoever triumphs on Sunday.

It’s a shame, too, because Koeman’s new formation worked well against Sevilla and Julen Lopetegui. Dembele (usually a winger) offered the kind of threat behind the defense that unlocked space for Lionel Messi, while the wing-backs, Jordi Alba and, especially, Sergino Dest, looked sharp. The fact that Sergio Busquets, who struggled earlier this season, looked far more comfortable is another bonus.

Is it a viable set up long-term? Possibly, though you need three central defenders to make it work and, other than Ronald Araujo (currently injured) and Samuel Umtiti (likely to be injured, based on his record), there aren’t any others. It also leaves no room for Antoine Griezmann (unless Messi is absent), but given the club’s current situation, it’s a solid Plan B that can work in certain games.

Arsenal still beat Leicester even as Arteta chooses Europe over league

Mikel Arteta may not like to admit it, but actions speak louder than words. And for Sunday’s visit to high-flying Leicester City, he made six changes from the side that played Thursday in the Europa League, with his bench featuring the likes of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Bukayo Saka, Martin Odegaard, Thomas Partey, and Hector Bellerin — guys you’d expect to see starting. Arteta’s job is to improve Arsenal, yes, but it’s also to get them in the Champions League. And with the club sitting 11th with an 11-point gap as of Sunday morning, winning the Europa League is a more realistic route.

What’s encouraging, though, is how they managed to come from behind and dominate Leicester for large stretches despite the clutch of second-stringers on the pitch, from Cedric Soares to Mohamed Elneny to (these days) Willian. In a season marked by inconsistency, they looked fully on-message and committed, deservedly winning 3-1.

As for Leicester, injuries are clearly catching up with them and the loss of Harvey Barnes to a knee injury is another, unneeded massive blow. Brendan Rodgers has done a phenomenal job in difficult circumstances and even — should it happen — a late-season collapse and missing out on the Champions League won’t change that.

Why is Reinier still at Dortmund?

Borussia Dortmund dispatched Arminia Bielefeld, 3-0, without breaking too much of a sweat. Yes, the goals came in the second half, but the chances came throughout. The gap with the top four is down to three points and that matters.

Beyond that, Erling Haaland didn’t score, but he got an assist and scared the bejesus out of defenders on more than one occasion. Mahmoud Dahoud broke the ice early in the second half and you wonder if, perhaps, he can be some sort of value-add in the middle of the park between now and the end of the season. Reinier, the young Brazilian on loan from Real Madrid, scored the third after coming on.

Speaking of Reinier, his loan at Dortmund remains a bit of a mystery. Given the amount of competition in attacking midfield — Gio Reyna, Jadon Sancho, Julian Brandt, Jude Bellingham, Marco Reus, Kylian Hazard — it seemed fairly obvious he wasn’t going to get many minutes (indeed, he hasn’t) so you wonder why Real Madrid chose to send him there after spending some $35 million to acquire him from Flamengo. Equally, you wonder why Dortmund took him on and why he didn’t go elsewhere in January.

Curtis Jones is a beacon in Liverpool’s star-crossed campaign

Unless they win the Champions League, Liverpool’s season will likely be remembered mainly for the diabolical rash of injuries that hampered their title defence. It probably should also go in the history books as the year Curtis Jones, who only turned 20 last month, showed he belonged.

On Sunday night against Sheffield United, he may well have been the difference between another winless outing in the Premier League and the three points that keep the Reds on track for, at least, a top-four finish. Jones didn’t just score the opener, offering personality, work-rate and quality — we knew he had all those – but he also displayed tactical intelligence, often turning up on the left flank, which enabled Sadio Mane to push inside and Roberto Firmino to drop deeper.

It’s the sort of tweak that Jurgen Klopp has been loathe to make in the recent, troubled weeks, but it’s an added element to the side. Come next year though, you imagine Jones will be firmly entrenched in the middle of the park where he does his best work.

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Ale Moreno wanted to see more grit and determination from Juve to get a win vs. a limited Hellas Verona.

Juventus can’t have it both ways in terms of style, results

Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Verona means Juventus have won one of their last five games. The fact that prior to that, they had beaten Inter and Roma by playing a more conservative, deep-defending game — “Allegri-style” as some put it — prompted some pundits to wax about their new-found balance.

Sitting deep and waiting for Cristiano Ronaldo to do something isn’t “balance” — it’s just a brand of football that rarely yields sustained results in the modern game. That’s why Andrea Pirlo was appointed. To boldly go in a different direction… which, really, isn’t even that bold, it’s the football played by the vast majority of successful clubs in Europe.

The problem is that until they get there, they won’t be very good. Partly because they don’t have the players to do it in key areas of the park (midfield, though maybe the 20 minutes played by Nicolo Fagioli herald a brighter future with an actual specialist playmaker), partly because it’s Pirlo’s first season (and yes, he’ll make mistakes), partly because maybe not everybody in the dressing room is on board with it. (Notice how when Giorgio Chiellini and Leo Bonucci play, they defend 20 yards deeper.)

And so, they play like a weird hybrid of the past and the present. They play with fear. Folks will focus on Alex Sandro playing in a three-man defence (and getting beaten for the equalizer), but more of a worry, to me, ought to be the first 45 minutes, which were simply woeful.

You can see what Pirlo is trying to do. Playing Federico Bernardeschi, Federico Chiesa and Dejan Kulusevski behind Cristiano Ronaldo can work and it can be proactive, but when the rest of the side can’t keep up their end of the bargain, it won’t work. Sure, there were plenty of players unavailable for this game, but that doesn’t excuse a performance like this.

Getting growth and results at the same time isn’t impossible; it’s just very, very hard. And it’s especially difficult for Pirlo, particularly with this group of players. It gets a whole lot more difficult if the environment around the club freaks out over the lack of results and pines for the golden years of Allegri. That ship has sailed (and let’s not forget how — and why — it ended.)

You said you were building and trying to grow. Give it a go.

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After 20 consecutive wins, Shaka Hislop feels only Bayern Munich rival Man City as the strongest in Europe.

Man City make it 20 wins… but is Guardiola happy?

Manchester City made it 20 wins in a row in all competitions, beating West Ham, 2-1 this weekend. That’s a frankly ridiculous number, and if you consider that they beat Arsenal (twice), Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Spurs during this run, it’s a testament to where they are. They are 12 points clear at the top of the table and, barring a cataclysm, will win his third league title in the past four seasons.

So why has he been complaining about how his team could be “more clinical?” Because while they’re winning, they’re not the overwhelming force they were three years ago.

If Expected Goals are your thing, they’re trending downwards (albeit slightly, though that’s offset by the fact they are far stingier defensively), but it goes beyond that. They’re simply scoring less. They’re averaging two a game in the Premier League, which is substantially lower than last year (2.68), 2018-19 (2.50) and 2017-18 (2.78). In fact, unless they pick up the pace, this could be the lowest-scoring Guardiola team in history.

Against West Ham, we saw Sergio Aguero make his first start of the season and, with his contract expiring this summer and the fact that he showed plenty of rust, it will probably be one of his last. Is that enough to explain the drop in goals? Probably not. And that’s why Guardiola keeps bringing it up.

Perfectionists, eh?

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Jan Aage Fjortoft shares his excitement for the title race brewing in the Bundesliga after RB Leipzig’s comeback win.

Bayern win big, but real impact is return of Gnabry and Muller

Forget the gaudy 4-1 against a self-destructing Lazio in the Champions League. Bayern hadn’t really played particularly well since before the Club World Cup and for most of the 5-1 win over Cologne, we still didn’t see anything approaching the real Bayern. That happens when your wingers are Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and the monument to inconsistency that is Leroy Sane. They took a 2-0 lead (in part thanks to the brilliance of Robert Lewandwoski) and then, early in the second half, allowed Cologne to reopen the game.

Enter Thomas Muller and Serge Gnabry with nearly half an hour to go, and everything changes. They rolled to a 5-1 win which, in many ways, confirmed what we already know. Bayern have a core of outstanding players and when more than a few are missing, the level drops exponentially and they are left to individual solutions or waiting for the opposition to screw up. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the real Bayern needs Muller (and Gnabry, especially if Kingsley Coman is out).

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Alejandro Moreno discusses the positives for Atletico Madrid after their bounce-back win vs. Villarreal.

Atletico ride “old-school Cholismo” to get a big win

Unai Emery’s Villarreal is exactly the sort of opponent you do not want to face, coming off two straight defeats and with Barcelona just three points back. So Atletico Madrid and Diego Simeone went back to basics, switching to a back four, sitting deep and leaving Luis Suarez so isolated that he needed to pay roaming charges to communicate with his midfielders.

Their two goals in the 2-0 win followed the script: an opposition own goal from a close-range header off a set piece, and a moment of individual brilliance from Joao Felix (who then vented his anger into the night) exploiting an opposition mistake. The rest was staunch defending and the usual Jan Oblak miracle.

Simeone has mitigating circumstances in the form of injuries, so those of us who actually enjoyed “Cholismo 2.0” earlier this season can’t get too sniffy about it. This was about keeping a clean sheet and making sure Real Madrid aren’t going to catch them when they face off in the derby next Sunday. Mission accomplished.

Bale comes up big for Spurs. What does it mean?

It was fun to watch Gareth Bale steal the show in Tottenham’s 4-0 trouncing of Burnley on Sunday. He opened the scoring, rolled back the years with a tremendous goal and uncorked a gorgeous, outside-of-the-boot sweeping assist reminiscent of the finest Juan Sebastian Veron. It was also important that Spurs get a win after securing just three of their last 18 available points in the league. The Champions League spots are six points away and it’s critical that they stay in the running.

That said, it’s not clear how much you can read into it. Spurs scored after just two minutes and then hit Burnley repeatedly in transition. We already knew they could do that. Bale is still Bale, with all that it entails: the injuries, the golf, the baggage, the wages, the contract with Real Madrid that runs through June 2022. If Jose Mourinho only started him twice before Sunday, presumably there’s a reason. Did somebody just flick a switch? I hope so, because I enjoy watching Bale play. But it all feels very short-term.

Leipzig are anything but soft as Bundesliga title race remains on

It was all set up for Leipzig to crumble against Borussia Monchengladbach. Two goals down inside of 20 minutes despite showing plenty of attacking intent and some wasteful finishing… Pretty much the story of their season, no?

And then Julian Nagelsmann, listening to whatever muse inspires his raw genius, decided to unleash the Sorloth. As in Alexander Sorloth, the star-crossed striker who had scored just once all season. Sorloth’s large frame immediately wreaked havoc. He set up Chirstopher Nkunku and then, after Yusuf Poulsen, equalized, notched the winner, deep in injury time.

Nagelsmann’s decisions are sometimes idiosyncratic, but his belief in Sorloth was handsomely rewarded here. More than the result — Gladbach are in free-fall, with four defeats in their last five — what was impressive here was the personality and the way Leipzig kept coming en route to their 3-2 win even as it looked as if this was most definitely not their day.

The win leaves them two points back and, at a minimum, means Bayern need to stay on their toes the rest of the way.

Inter roll behind Lukaku, past Genoa to remain top of Serie A

Football gets a whole heck of a lot easier when you go a goal up inside of a minute, which is what Romelu Lukaku did for Inter on Sunday against Genoa, en route to a 3-0 win. From that point onwards, it wasn’t overly difficult for Antonio Conte to best his opponents and he made sure Inter’s intensity never flagged.

This isn’t to take away from their performance, on the contrary, this is praise. We’ve seen teams, especially in Serie A, take a lead and then manage the game, conserving energy and looking to hit on the break. That’s not what Conte wants right now. He wants them to use the extra rest to go for the jugular. And, against Genoa, he had total buy-in, including from the likes of Christian Eriksen. Yeah, Eriksen — the guy who was supposedly too weak, too day-dreamy and too nice to put in a shift actually ended up covering more ground than anyone else on the pitch (including Nicolo Barella, the human dynamo). Food for thought.

PSG have a real title race in France. When’s the last time you heard that?

Paris Saint-Germain crushed Dijon 4-0 on Saturday thanks to two goals from Kylian Mbappe and strikes from Danilo and Moise Kean (who, by the way, is up to 15 in all competitions) but Mauricio Pochettino has what appears to be a clear-cut race to deal with domestically, with four teams within four points of each other.

PSG are second, two behind Lille, one ahead of Lyon and two ahead of Monaco, who are on an absolute tear, taking 28 of a possible 30 points in their last ten games. What’s more, the three other contenders are all out of Europe and there are head-to-heads against Lille and Lyon left to come for PSG. The Champions League is obviously the club’s priority, but they simply can’t take their eye off the ball on the home front.