Real still have issues despite win, VAR debate for Man United, more
More than most games they'll play this season, Real Madrid's 5-3, come-from-behind victory over Real Betis lends itself to different readings depending on your point of view. Compared to the win over Paris Saint-Germain, Zinedine Zidane opted to drop Isco and Karim Benzema and instead unleashed Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez down the wings, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale as forwards.
Those of us who think Madrid need a proper, blue-collar central striker for this team to work may have felt somewhat vindicated as Zidane's crew took the lead through Asensio, failed to administer it and ended up going into the break 2-1 down. Part of the problem may have been that with Luka Modric on the bench and Toni Kroos injured, there simply wasn't enough possession and play-making coming from the Casemiro-Mateo Kovacic tandem in midfield. Plus having Bale and Ronaldo up front means forsaking the first line of defence, and it felt as if Betis spent far too much of the game camped out in the Madrid half.
Yet beyond tactics, Zidane's crew simply came out with a different mind-set in the second half. And they struck three times to take a 4-2 lead before swapping late goals and fixing the final 5-3 scoreline. The thing to remember here is that they won't be facing too many teams this season who play like Quique Setien's Betis, a side that plays every match like a giant roll of the dice, scoring plenty and conceding even more. It takes a while to get the measure of the opposition and for a team like Madrid, it can be disconcerting.
Still, there are positives to take away, at least on an individual level. Asensio showed (again) that he's the real deal. Ronaldo has 10 goals in his last six games. It may be supernatural and he may have other flaws, but Sergio Ramos' aerial goal-getting ability on set-pieces remains uncanny.
The question is how Zidane gets these pieces to fit together. Asensio gives them a different dimension -- as does Isco, for that matter -- but 13 players into a starting XI don't go. Dropping Benzema has consequences. Leaving out Casemiro (other than certain games) too. The absence of Kroos and Marcelo, who picked up an injury and is a doubt for the return game against PSG, offer the opportunity to experiment a little. Zidane would be wise to use it.
A word on Betis too. An age-old question facing mid-table sides is that of identity. They're not going to be in a relegation scrap but they won't be breaking into European football either. So what do they do? Setien offers an alternative: play their own devil-may-care style of football. It may not be to everyone's liking but it's entertaining, yields results and (most of all) emotions. And that's a big part of what the game is about.
Man United win overshadowed by VAR
You don't necessarily want to call it "routine," but Manchester United's 2-0 victory was as clear-cut as it was predictable, right down to Romelu Lukaku bulldozing his way through David Wagner's "happy" defence. Yes, Huddersfield Town had won this fixture back in October but if anything, it felt as if that was a guarantee that Jose Mourinho would not allow it to happen twice. As for Huddersfield, they have bigger fish to fry.
Maybe that's why the game was overshadowed by VAR and the fact that the broadcaster, in attempting to illustrate how Juan Mata was offside when his goal was disallowed, showed a replay with lines on the pitch so irregular they looked like they'd been drawn by someone who was either under the age of five or drunk or both. The broadcaster revealed that those were the pictures they had been sent from the VAR booth but those weren't the ones the VAR actually used to rule Mata offside. When we take about technical issues with VAR, this is exactly what we mean. It was a cluster-mess; take it as a learning opportunity.
More frustrating was the reaction of those who insisted that VAR had overstepped boundaries in disallowing Mata's goal. After all while Mata probably was offside, it was a really tight call -- it most definitely was "not clear and obvious."
So here's a primer. Again.
The "clear and obvious" standard applies to subjective decisions, ones where the referee has to interpret and adjudicate, like fouls or handballs. The thinking is that VAR sees the pictures and says: "Gee, Referee Bob didn't think it was a penalty when the striker was nearly decapitated by the defender's boot. I think quite clearly and obviously that the striker was fouled. Maybe Referee Bob didn't get a clear look. Because it's clear and obvious to me, I'm going to suggest that he reviews it."
With offside, there's nothing to interpret (except, of course, for situations of passive offside and interfering with play and that sort of thing, which was not the case here). And for VAR, it's not just a case of hitting the pause and rewind buttons. They have software and technology that measures distances and positioning more closely than the human eye. And that's why the "clear and obvious" standard doesn't apply.
You're either offside or you're onside. You're not Schrodinger's cat. You don't exist in two different states at the same time.
Oh, and while we're at it, there's another reason why you can't use "clear-and-obvious-otherwise-the-ruling-on-the-pitch-stands" logic in adjudicating offside decisions: common sense. Assistant referees are instructed not to flag for offside unless they are 100 percent certain. That's because if you signal offside incorrectly, you can't travel back in time and get a do-over.
We have no idea if this assistant kept his flag down because he was "100 percent certain" Mata was onside -- in which case, he'd be 100 percent wrong because even if you somehow believe he was not offside, you'd have to agree it was close -- or whether he did it because on the contrary, it was a close call and he figured VAR should be allowed to do its thing.
If it's the latter, it's not a "ruling-on-the-pitch" situation. He's not calling it because he believes it; he's calling it because he's not sure.
PSG look preoccupied in beating Strasbourg
It's been a bumpy week for Neymar and PSG following the 3-1 defeat away to Real Madrid in the Champions League. Saturday's visit of Strasbourg, who beat them last time they faced each other, was a chance to show some togetherness and reboot.
Unai Emery was booed before kick-off, which was widely predictable. Make big calls like dropping Thiago Silva and playing without a holding midfielder at the Bernabeu and lose? You get booed. It's a simple football equation. He's a big boy and he can take it.
In the cauldron and rumor factory that is PSG, Emery is trying to be his own man, navigating his way through the egos, reputations and conspiracy theories, some of which appear dangerously contradictory. (Case in point: if Neymar is the Brazilian "Godfather" at the club with Dani Alves as his consigliere, how to explain Thiago Motta's disappearance, Lucas Moura's departure and Thiago Silva on the bench?) The question though is whether he has the personality, patience and backing from his bosses to whip this team into the shape required to achieve greater things... and keep his job. And that's where the jury is out.
On the pitch, they went a goal down -- Lassana Diarra still looks off the pace -- and then stormed back to win 5-2, with Edinson Cavani (two), Neymar, Angel Di Maria and Julian Draxler bagging goals. But it's hard not to feel as if every time they step on the pitch, most of these guys are thinking ahead to their second leg against Real on March 6.
Barca must take Eibar clash as a warning
Some clubs with Champions League games coming up like to rest and rotate. Not Barcelona (who travel to take on Chelsea on Tuesday) against Eibar. Ernesto Valverde played what will likely be his starting XI -- including Andres Iniesta -- at Stamford Bridge and Barca were outplayed for much of the game, even in the last half-hour when their opposition went down to 10 men.
You can see Valverde's logic: he rotated in earlier matches but chemistry matters too and Barcelona looked spent and sluggish. Ultimately, quality matters and Luis Suarez's early goal gave them a lead they never relinquished before Jordi Alba scored at the end.
Assuming the plan wasn't to purposely play with the hand-brake on to conserve energy, the challenge for Valverde is to let this game serve as a warning. La Liga may seem locked up but they need to kick it up several notches if they want to take a run at the Champions League.
Rochdale deliver 'magic of the cup'
So we're all used to being cynical about the FA Cup and "Magic of the Cup" hype we're sometimes force-fed. But Rochdale vs. Tottenham encapsulated the current state of the competition. First, you had a big Premier League team complaining about the pitch ahead of time and ensuring it was relaid. Then they go out, make 11 changes and their second-string find themselves 1-0 down at the half. They equalize, they throw on the cavalry in the form of Dele Alli and Harry Kane and take the lead via a late penalty.
Job done, right? Nope, because little Rochdale -- dead last in League One -- grab a late, late injury-time equalizer, which means we get a replay at Wembley.
For the neutral, it was a lot of fun and maybe a bit karmic, too. For Pochettino -- despite his post-match statements that he welcomes the extra game since some of his players need more matches -- you'd imagine it was less fun.
Battle of opposites atop Serie A
The battle goes on. Juventus beat Torino in the lunchtime derby on Sunday for their ninth win in a row; Napoli overcame SPAL, also by a single goal, a few hours later and it was also their ninth straight victory. It means the gap at the top of Serie A remains a single point.
The title race is very much on a knife-edge and part of the fun is how different these two sides are. Not just in terms of style of play but in terms of depth, stadium, fans base, ownership... it's very much a case of extremes. And that's before you get into the Gonzalo Higuain storyline.
Even more remarkable is how dominant they are within Serie A. Right now, they're on pace for 100 and 99 points respectively. And yes: if they both break the 100-point barrier, that would be unprecedented in the world game.
Bayern look awful but still beat Wolfsburg
Bayern made it 10 league wins in a row with a 2-1 victory away to Wolfsburg, but this one was tighter than it should have been. The Bavarians were awful in the first half, going a goal down to a Daniel Didavi goal. More than that, they were an exercise in sterile possession. And while the fact that Jupp Heynckes rested a bunch of players ahead of Tuesday's Champions League clash with Besiktas provides some mitigation, it doesn't do much. Bayern looked listless and you still had the likes of Thiago Alcantara, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben out there.
A better explanation might be that having gone with the 4-1-4-1 system in recent games, the regression to 4-2-3-1, with Sebastian Rudy and Corentin Tolisso in front of the back four, left them a bit befuddled. So too did the fact that the guys out there were made to feel, very much, like the JV team.
Matters improved in the second half (after Robben missed a penalty) as Heynckes sent on the cavalry in the form of Thomas Muller, David Alaba and Robert Lewandowski. Sandro Wagner equalised and Lewandowski converted an injury-time penalty. The gap is still a whopping and absurd 19 points. You wonder how much Bayern get out of games like these.
Di Francesco's tweaks keep Roma ticking
Roma vaulted back into third place in Serie A following their 2-0 win over Sassuolo that featured a wonder-goal from Cengiz Under. The Turkish wunderkind is on a tear, with four goals in his last three games, but more importantly Eusebio Di Francesco switched from his habitual 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 system that worked wonders.
We often make too much of such tactical shifts but this one is pretty simple. The move allows Radja Nainggolan to move further up the pitch and make his trademark, havoc-creating runs into the box. It also means Roma's wingers can stay wide more often without having to cut in so that Edin Dzeko has someone to play off.
You can turn it around and blame Di Francesco for taking so long to make the move or you can respect the fact that a manager has his own ideas and wants to implement them. Having the humility to change them over time is a sign of strength, not weakness.
What could have been for Atletico ...
Atletico Madrid keep powering forward, an ode to "Cholismo." Against Athletic Bilbao at home, they huffed and puffed and it was tight and edgy. Then they broke through, first with Kevin Gameiro and then with Diego Costa. That's now four Liga wins on the spin and the gap to Barcelona at the top remains seven points.
Two points here. One is that they remain a terrifying defensive juggernaut. They're the only team in Europe's top five leagues to have conceded less than 10 league goals this season. Credit Jan Oblak, credit the defenders and above all, credit the spirit that runs through this side.
The other is that it's still hugely unlikely that they'll catch Barcelona. The main thing here is that Barca's remaining head-to-head games against the big boys (Valencia, Atletico and the Clasico) are all the Camp Nou, so it's hard to see them dropping too many more points.
That said, you wonder where they would be had they not been hit by the summer transfer ban and not dropped so many silly points early in the campaign. Had they won even just three of those six games they drew through week 12 of the season, the gap would be a single point right now.
'Retro' Dortmund have a lot left in the tank
When Borussia Dortmund won away at Borussia Moenchengladbach on Sunday (on a horrendous pitch), there was something rather retro about it. Lined up in a three behind Michy Batshuayi were Marco Reus, Mario Gotze and Andre Schurrle. I say "retro" not because they're old -- they're not, Reus is the oldest at 28 -- but because all three were enormously hyped teenage superstars who, for different reasons, never quite lived up to top billing.
All three were Bundesliga regulars before their 21st birthdays and while each of them has plenty of trophies at home -- Gotze and Schurrle combined to score the winner in the 2014 World Cup final, lest we forget, and but for injury, Reus would have been there too -- it's fair to say their careers haven't been the straight, vertical rise many expected. Whether it was injuries (Reus), congenital metabolic disorders (Gotze) or simply poor career planning (Schurrle), you long felt all three were hungry to regain their mojo.
That's why it was rather neat seeing them on the pitch together from the first minute, something that has very rarely happened in the 20 months that all three have been there, particularly given the club's obsession with pushing youth. And yes, the old gang did make a difference as they combined to score the only goal of the game.
Reus would say his wonder-strike, his first goal in nine months, was somewhat fortunate. Indeed, Dortmund were too as Roman Burki made a string of key saves. but no matter: Dortmund are back in second place and a trio of guys who had to varying degrees been written off in favour of youth are showing they have plenty left in the tank.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.