If you’re an optimist, Barcelona’s 3-1 win Sunday over Atletico Madrid was the watershed moment when it all came together. It was the point where Lionel Messi set the record straight on his relationship with manager Luis Enrique and, more importantly, when the team finally came together and produced a “statement win” against the Liga champions, an opponent they had not defeated in six attempts.
If you’re of a more cynical, negative persuasion, this was a classic example of papering over the cracks. What else was Messi going to say? If he didn’t get his way with Enrique, he sure as heck wouldn’t come out and say he tried to get him fired but failed. And if he had succeeded in getting him axed, it would be a moot point.
As for the win, sure, it’s a good three points for Barca, but as Enrique himself put it: “The next time we stumble, the tension will return. It’s inevitable.”
Time will tell. In the meantime, though, it’s not lost on anyone that Enrique went “traditional” for the Atletico game. There was no messing with the lineup and no exotic schemes to surprise a name-brand opponent, as we’d seen in the past.
Ivan Rakitic may have got the nod in midfield even if Xavi had not been injured, but either way, Barca simply run better when he’s in the mix, particularly off the ball. Up front, there was none of this “free-flowing formation” business but a fairly straight-forward, right- to-left battery of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar. It was back-to-basics stuff, with Messi lining up wide and cutting inside, something on which he built the first half of his career.
And, guess what? It still works.
Barca’s opener came from just such a move, with Messi turning Diego Godin into stone and delivering the ball inside after half the Atletico defence converged on him. It was a similar drill on the second. Yes, it may have been a handball, but the concept remains the same: Simple right-to-left movement makes him unplayable.
Messi supposedly doesn’t like playing on the right wing anymore, hence all the talk about the “false nine” and being more involved and all that jazz. However, odds are he likes winning more than he dislikes starting on the flank.
When he is out there, like an isolation play in basketball, you know what’s coming; you just can’t stop it. Unless you deny him the ball, once he starts converging, your options reduce. If you defend him one-on-one, odds are you’ll either give up the foul or get beat, paving the way for a shot or a pass.
Alternatively, if you send numbers to contain him, he simply lays off in the vacated space, as he did for Suarez’s goal. Messi on the right makes it easier for Suarez, as it keeps the game simpler, which is key for a guy still trying to integrate. It also gives Dani Alves a new lease of life, because there’s someone clearing space for him.
Whether we see it again — and how often — is Enrique’s call, which means it’s anyone’s guess. But it has to be comforting for all to know that it’s something you can always go back to.
As for Atletico, when you set up to play on the counter and through set-pieces and give up an early goal, it’s always tough, particularly on the road. Diego Simeone’s side tried to get physical and were fortunate referee Alberto Undiano Vallenco was so lenient.
Jose Gimenez is a phenomenal prospect, but the 19-year-old was making just his eighth Liga start and it showed. Meanwhile, Jesus Gamez on the left flank is something we don’t really need to see again.
The resilience was there — Arda Turan created some magic and Claudio Bravo had to make some big saves — but on days like these, you’re going to be overmatched.
The politics of Barcelona
Messi spoke after the game about the reports that had him secretly meeting with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu and demanding manager Luis Enrique be removed.
He said they “hurt him,” in particular because they came from Barcelona (as in the city), rather than Madrid, like last time (a reference to his tax trouble and the idea that he was being persecuted by the Castillan media.)
The problem for Messi (and Bartomeu) is that Barcelona isn’t a straight-forward traditional entity and not just because — as they keep reminding us — it’s “more than a club.” Bartomeu is the president, but not the owner. It’s not his club. It’s a public trust.
There are plenty who want Bartomeu out and what better way to cast him in a bad light than be suggesting he’s so weak that he’d entertain a supposed request from his star player to ax the manager?
I don’t know where the stories came from, but I’m pretty sure they’re not made up by the media. If they’re lies, it’s because somebody lied. Not Bartomeu or Messi, because neither has an interest in revealing them, but someone else. If they’re true, it’s pretty safe they don’t come from Bartomeu or Messi either, because it makes neither look good.
With elections on the horizon, expect more of this in the coming months. It’s the price you pay for a club with tens of thousands of members who have the power to elect the president.
Falcao absence highlights Man United’s problems
Southampton’s win at Old Trafford left Louis van Gaal waxing philosophical. He basically said that what comes around goes around: United dominated, were the better team and lost, whereas when they played at St. Mary’s last month, United were worse and won.
Except it’s a question of degrees. United were roundly outplayed in Southampton. On Sunday, they created enough chances to win, but their supremacy was far slimmer. Much has been made of Juan Mata’s opportunities but it’s not as if those were three sitters that he missed.
More of a concern ought to be how for much of the first half Southampton shackled United, turning the match into a tactical war of attrition. Even with Mata, Wayne Rooney and Angel Di Maria on the pitch at the same time, van Gaal could not find a way to bust Ronald Koeman’s barriers.
It’s telling that business only really picked up once Marouane Fellaini came on and United started going through the air. It’s a useful alternative to have, but clearly not what van Gaal had in mind
And now he may have a Radamel Falcao situation to deal with. The Colombian striker is fit but didn’t make the matchday squad. Van Gaal said there was no room for him in the starting lineup because of tactical balance and no place for him on the bench because he wanted to have a speedy forward (19-year-old James Wilson) as well as three central defenders (Paddy McNair, Jonny Evans and Tyler Blackett) because Luke Shaw and Daley Blind were short on fitness. With the other three slots understandably going to a backup goalkeeper, plus Ander Herrera and Fellaini, Falcao was the odd man out.
There may or may not be something else behind this. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time van Gaal made an unorthodox choice, unimpressed by reputation. But if I’m the Glazer family, who own United, I’m asking questions, whether of the manager or executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.
Between loan fee and wages, Falcao is costing United nearly $3 million a month. That’s a heck of a lot to pay for a guy who your manager doesn’t think is worthy of a place in the top 18 players for a home game vs. Southampton, particularly when the alternative is Di Maria as a striker alongside Robin van Persie.
Youth and experience shine in Rome
Felipe Anderson wasn’t even born when Francesco Totti made his Serie A debut, yet on Sunday the pair stole the show in the Rome derby. The young Brazilian who is, to put it in technical terms, playing out of his skin right now, dominated the first half.
His twisting run and deliciously delicate dinked assist allowed Stefano Mauri to open the scoring and his daisy-cutter shot made it 2-0.
Roma were reeling. Maicon, clearly unfit, was getting overrun and Radja Nainggolan was spinning like a top, hopelessly befuddled every time Lazio transitioned. It was two but could have been more.
However, as the cliche goes, it’s not about getting knocked down, it’s about getting back up and Roma manager Rudi Garcia found the right fixes at halftime. Adem Ljajic brought calm in the final third, while Kevin Strootman provided muscle, presence and that lovely cross for Totti to pull one back just after the break, a momentum-changer if ever there was one.
And then Totti went one better. As Jose Holebas’ cross dangled at the far post, he launched his body in the air and somehow conjured the athleticism and coordination to scissor it past Federico Marchetti in the Lazio goal. Cue madness. Cue apotheosis. Cue the selfie celebration which, were it anyone else in any other circumstance, we’d condemn as cheesy. But this was a 38-year-old legend who has only ever played for the team he supported as a boy, scoring the equalizer in a derby.
Which means he gets a pass.
Roma will be happier, because that’s what happens when you come back from two goals down to end on a high. But you can’t but praise the job Stefano Pioli is doing at Lazio. Until they ran out of steam and Anderson limped off, they looked in control and dangerous. They fully deserve their place in Serie A’s top three right now.
Arsenal’s goalkeeping conundrum
I have no idea whether Arsene Wenger’s decision to drop Wojciech Szczesny after he was caught smoking in the shower is a one-week thing or if he’ll stick with David Ospina for a while.
The Colombian didn’t have much to do in Arsenal’s 3-0 thumping of Stoke City, a game that featured another Alexis Sanchez master class, but what little he did do, he did extremely well.
Two things are pretty obvious here. Wenger, a former smoker himself, likely didn’t drop Szczesny for smoking, but for violating team rules. Had he seen him out on a street corner puffing away he may have been annoyed but I doubt the reaction would have been this severe.
The other is that, if you’re going to flout rules in that way, you had better be pretty sure of your position in the pecking order. And the fact of the matter is Ospina isn’t some guy Wenger found hanging around outside Arsenal’s London Colney training ground.
He’s a goalkeeper who was starting in Ligue 1 as a 20-year-old and who at 26 already has 50 caps for Colombia, for whom he was instrumental in helping reach the quarterfinal of the World Cup, a competition Szczesny watched on TV last summer.
Szczesny is 6-foot-5, athletic and a good shot-stopper. There’s a reason why Wenger gave him the starting job when he was just 20. But he’s been dropped before — two years ago — which suggests the manager isn’t shy about change if he deems it necessary.
Fine margins for Napoli
So Napoli are livid after their 3-1 home defeat vs. Juventus.
President Aurelio De Laurentiis raged on Twitter that refereeing performances like these are either “bad faith” or “incompetence” and if it’s “incompetence,” then the entire crew ought to be suspended for a long time.
Napoli boss Rafa Benitez opted instead for sarcasm: “I’m 100 percent convinced the referees are in good faith. In years’ past, they got decisions wrong by centimeters, this year it was a question of millimeters. What I always hear when we play Juve is, ‘I’ve seen them given.’ So, yeah, ‘I’ve seen them given.’ ”
You can explain the anger. Having gone a goal down to Paul Pogba’s first-half strike, Napoli equalized 20 minutes into the second half through Miguel Britos and were pegging Juve back.
But then an Andrea Pirlo free kick found Martin Caceres, who headed it home. Replays showed Caceres was offside, though it was at best a marginal call and tough for any assistant (at least in my opinion).
Napoli were further infuriated 15 minutes from full-time when a Caceres own goal was disallowed after Kalidou Koulibaly was judged to have fouled Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
To me, it looked as if Buffon had collected the ball in the air in the six-yard box and simply collided with Koulibaly, who made no effort to get out of the way and jarred the ball loose.
As I see it, it’s the kind of play that is — strictly speaking — a foul (goalkeepers get protection in the six-yard box), but probably should not be. Not least because it’s not as if Koulibaly can very well dematerialize on command. Juve then marched up the pitch and scored a third through Arturo Vidal.
The Napoli anger can be explained, as the disappointment is huge. But that doesn’t mean it’s justified. We’re talking marginal calls here. And you wonder if maybe De Laurentiis and Benitez shouldn’t be even angrier at their own striker, Duvan Zapata. Through on Buffon in a classic one-on-one situation late in the game, what did he do?
He desperately looked for contact and threw himself to the ground.
He was booked — rightly — for diving. You expect your centre-forward to have the guts and confidence to at least finish off a chance like that. Or at the very least not to cheat.
Bale boos will restart speculation
One moment can set the tone for the whole game. Maybe that’s why Gareth Bale got booed when he uncorked his shot wide rather than teeing up an open Cristiano Ronaldo during Real Madrid’s 3-0 win over Espanyol.
That, and the fact that Ronaldo himself threw a hissy fit, the kind you may have done when you were a child and got a sweater — rather than a “proper” present — for Christmas.
Maybe the fans remembered Bale doing something similar a week ago against Valencia, when he failed to set up Karim Benzema and Madrid lost 2-1. Whatever the case, the moment of selfishness apart — and a superstar like Bale has to be selfish when he believes he has the best chance to score — the Welshman actually played quite well on Saturday.
The win comes after back-to-back setbacks at the Mestalla and away to Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey and takes some of the pressure off Madrid. It will, though, inevitably fuel more rumors of a club in the Premier League willing to break the bank to bring back Bale.
Matic in need of a break?
Nemanja Matic had his worst game of the season for Chelsea on Saturday against Newcastle. He wasn’t bad — or even mediocre — but simply wasn’t the one-man wrecking crew in front of the back four he has been for most of the season.
Credit Newcastle for making life difficult Matic. When he dials it down a notch or two, the difference is palpable and opponents start to materialize in and around the Blues’ back four.
The flow when Chelsea win the ball isn’t the same, either. Tim Krul’s catnap in the Newcastle goal led to Oscar’s goal and put the visitors in the hole and a neat finish from Diego Costa did the rest. Three points in the bag, which saw Chelsea — with Manchester City held at Everton — extend their lead at the top.
But you wonder if Matic’s performance might not be something of a warning sign. His stellar production, coupled with the work rate of the front four this season, has enabled Jose Mourinho to effectively carry a striker plus four attacking midfielders: Cesc Fabregas (even when he plays deeper, that’s what he is), Eden Hazard, Willian and Oscar. It’s a huge luxury.
Yet Matic is human, too, and there will be opponents against whom he’ll be stretched if he has to do things largely on his own, particularly if he’s not in beast mode. You wonder if we’ll see more of Ramires or John Obi Mikel alongside the Serb between now and the end of the season.
That would mean shifting Fabregas farther forward and giving either Oscar or Willian a rest, but there will be opponents against whom it will be the right thing to do.
Tragedy in Germany
Junior Malanda was a 20-year-old Belgian footballer playing for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. On Saturday, he died after the car in which he was traveling swerved, flipped over several times and crashed.
There’s not much you can say when such a young life ends; it goes beyond the football sphere.
But let it serve to remind us just how fragile our existence is. And how quickly what we hold most dear can be taken from us.