Liverpool's win over Man United wasn't a surprise, but their dominance was
What stands out about Liverpool's win over Manchester United isn't that it happened -- they were at home, and there's a reason the sides were separated by 16 points at kickoff -- it's the way it occurred.
To put on a display of this intensity just a few days after a massive Champions League clash isn't to be taken lightly. It's not just a physical thing -- it's mental as well. Great teams can win multiple games in a row against big opponents; doing it while also turning in top-notch performances is rather rarer.
That Jurgen Klopp managed to do it with Nathaniel Clyne, who had played just 90 minutes this season, and Naby Keita, drafted in as a late replacement for the injured James Milner, is significant, too. Xherdan Shaqiri's two goals may have benefited from deflections, but make no mistake about it, this was a road-grading: 36 shots on goal, with every outfield player having a crack and a 20-minute spell at the beginning in which Manchester United were put through the heavy spin cycle.
Did Manchester United contribute to their own downfall? Sure. Jose Mourinho's continuous chopping and changing of personnel and formations only makes United more awkward and insecure. On the other hand, there's Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Because United have, with a few exceptions, been consistently subpar since October, you can't entirely blame the manager for trying to shake things up week to week. That said, against a side that you know will press high and intensely, lining up a midfield without a passer to break the pressure (yes, the obvious name is Paul Pogba, but Juan Mata can hit a pass, too) seems counterintuitive at best.
One curious thing about Liverpool is that although they are ahead of Manchester City at the top of the table, most still have Pep Guardiola's crew as overwhelming favorites. So, too, do the betting markets, who predict that Liverpool will finish five points behind City at the end of the season. These are just predictions and projections, of course, and they could well be wrong, but it's interesting how people who make a living off of predicting the (footballing) future are still firmly on the City bandwagon to the point that they think Guardiola will make up six points on Klopp in 21 games.
Mourinho is running out of excuses
Asked to analyze the situation, Mourinho said: "We have lots of players [who] I could consider injury-prone, because some of our players are always injured ... and it's not with me. If you look at the stats with [Louis] Van Gaal and David [Moyes], we have players who are permanently injured."
"Then there are qualities that a player has or doesn't have," he added, going on to cite a number of Liverpool players who are both physically and technically adept. "We don't have many players with that intensity."
On the one hand, you're delighted to hear some actual analysis from a manager, rather than the usual anodyne coachspeak. On the other hand, there's a reason why people "plead the fifth" to avoid incriminating themselves.
Mourinho signed 10 outfield players over five transfer windows. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan are gone. Paul Pogba is rooted to the bench, and Eric Bailly would be, too, if not for Chris Smalling's injury.
Alexis Sanchez is injured and was poor before his injury. Victor Lindelof has started 25 of 55 league games since his arrival (and is just back from injury). Diogo Dalot is a kid, and Fred is like that Christmas present you desperately want and then discard as soon as it's opened. That leaves Romelu Lukaku and Nemanja Matic, both of whom have plenty of physicality, although perhaps not the dynamic intensity Mourinho feels he needs.
As for all those guys he inherited? Marcos Rojo, Luke Shaw, Smalling, Jesse Lingard, Antonio Valencia and Marouane Fellaini all signed new contracts during Mourinho's time as manager. Oh, and Ashley Young, Mata, Anthony Martial and Ander Herrera are all rumoured to be in contract talks, in addition to the one-year extension options the club already holds.
In other words, he's been there two and a half years, and this is the team he has built, based on the choices he made. Kudos for his honesty, but either Ed Woodward really is the root-of-all-evil ogre some make him out to be, or the buck stops with the guy Mourinho sees when he looks in the mirror.
Messi's magic stands out again for Barcelona
Yup, he's en fuego again. Lionel Messi scored a hat trick in Barcelona's 5-0 away win to Levante (which, lest we forget, had lost just one since September in all competitions). For those keeping track at home, that's 20 goals in 19 games for Messi. And if that wasn't enough, he has dished out 12 assists (catch the one where he sets up Suarez: it's worth it) and hit the woodwork 11 times.
Barcelona roll on at the top of the table, but despite the final score, it wasn't all smooth sailing at Levante. It took a while to settle in to the back three Ernesto Valverde was forced to play, and they could have gone a goal down early. Still, having Messi in this sort of form papers over a lot of cracks and gives you the time to work on your flaws in other parts of the pitch.
Signs of life for Bayern
Niko Kovac said Bayern turned in their best performance of the season in the 4-0 away thumping of Hannover. Things certainly do get a whole heck of a lot easier when you score after one minute, but the way they lined up is also significant. Thiago Alcantara was back pulling strings in his first start since October, and you had the fresh legs of Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry out wide.
Throw in the attacking masterclass offered by the full-backs David Alaba and Joshua Kimmich, especially, and you get a sense of what the Bayern of the future might look like. The question is whether Kovac is the right man to bottle this and build on it.
Club World Cup gives Real a chance to breathe
Getting booed by your own fans at the Bernabeu is a fact of life. It happens to winning teams who don't live up to the supporters' exacting (and perhaps excessive) demands, and it happens to teams like the current one, who seem stuck treading water.
Real Madrid's players got it Wednesday in the 3-0 home defeat to CSKA in the Champions League, and they got it again Saturday at the final whistle, after only a spectacular Thibaut Courtois enabled them to hang on for the three points against Rayo Vallecano.
Among the most targeted are two guys who were meant to be key figures in the post-Cristiano era: Marco Asensio and Isco. (Gareth Bale would likely have been on the receiving end, too, but he was hurt -- again.) Real Madrid are off now to the Club World Cup in the United Arab Emirates. It could well be a turning point. Either a chance to freshen up and clear the mind ahead of the second half of the season or, if there's anything other than an outright victory, more salt rubbed into the wounds of a season that got off on the wrong foot and never recovered.
Juventus play poorly (again) and still win (again)
Getting results while not playing well is something Juve have raised to an art form. That's what has enabled them to dominated Serie A: Their highs are high, and their lows are absorbed with minimum damage. They barely got out of second gear in the victory against Inter, looked absent-minded and demotivated against Young Boys, and, in the Turin derby, squeaked a 1-0 win thanks to a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty won by Mario Mandzukic after a brainless run and back-pass from Simone Zaza.
This is where Max Allegri might want to mix things up a little and give some folks time off, if only to have them fresher for when it really matters. (Or, at least, make some substitutions, which he didn't do in this game.)
While we're at it, Torino were incensed over two penalties that weren't given. Both fall in the "seen them given" category. Alex Sandro was pulling Zaza in the box, but it was a mutual thing, and in any case, Zaza let himself fall. As for Blaise Matuidi's push on Andrea Belotti, that's the sort of thing you expect VAR to pick up, although, to be fair, penalties like that, where the defender "puts off" the jumper, often don't get given (although they should).
Gabriel Jesus answers his critics vs. Everton
So last week we wondered about Gabriel Jesus' all of one Premier League goal this season and whether he might be a weak link in Pep Guardiola's mighty Manchester City machine. Wonder no more. He bagged two goals against Everton in City's 3-1 win over Everton and turned in one of his best performances in a long time.
That matters because Sergio Aguero is now on the wrong side of 30, and the past two years Guardiola has gotten the best out of him by limiting his playing time: he started just 47 of City's 76 league games in that period. This season, on the other hand, he started each of City's first 13 games before his injury. With a productive Jesus as an alternative, Aguero can pace himself and Guardiola can use him when he most needs him, which won't be every game.
Saints stun Arsenal
Arsenal's unbeaten run in all competitions came to an end after 22 matches in the 3-2 defeat away to Southampton that marked Ralph Hasenhuttl's debut as Saints' manager. You can probably give Unai Emery a pass here given the state of his back line. With Rob Holding, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Shkodran Mustafi all unavailable, he was forced to play Laurent Koscielny (who is 33 and was making his first league appearance since early March), Stephan Lichtsteiner (who is a right-back) and Granit Xhaka (who is a midfielder) in his back three.
That said, now that Mesut Ozil is presumably fit again -- he came on as a sub and played 82 minutes last week in the Europa League -- it will be interesting to see where he fits in Emery's setup, if he fits anywhere at all.
Don't worry about Roma
With Edin Dzeko injured, Patrik Schick misfiring and pressure piling up on his underachieving team from all directions, Eusebio Di Francesco tried to pull a rabbit out of the hat Sunday night when Roma hosted Genoa: he used Nicolo Zaniolo as a center-forward.
Di Francesco gets credit for thinking outside the box and trusting his 19-year-old phenom, but he looked much more comfortable when he moved deeper later on. As for the game itself, Roma's 3-2 win was messy, and Genoa have reason to recriminate for that Alessandro Florenzi push on Goran Pandev which went unpunished by VAR. That said, Robin Olsen made a howler for Genoa's first goal, and at the other end, Roma squandered a host of chances (none more so than Cengiz Under).
You worry when teams concede too much and don't create enough. That wasn't the case for Roma.
Simeone's Atletico grind out another win
Despite being hit hard by injuries, Atletico Madrid won 3-2 at Valladolid, staying three points behind Barcelona in second place, jointly with Sevilla. Diego Simeone, having criticized Ballon d'Or and FIFA The Best voters for overlooking Antoine Griezmann and Jan Oblak in favour of Luka Modric and Thibaut Courtois (who happen to play for Real Madrid) is in full "Cholo" mode already.
It's a spiel we've seen before: the underdog mentality, the "us against the world" schtick, the poor ugly duckling amid the entitled swans. As a motivational tool, it's pretty hokey. It's also -- as Courtois noted when he pointed out that when he won "The Best" award, he was still at Chelsea -- nonsense. Yet when spoken from Simeone's lips, for whatever reason, it seems to work.
Milik steps up in style for Napoli
Napoli stayed eight points behind Juventus by taking all three points in Cagliari, but it was hard work against a well-drilled, high-energy opponent, brilliantly marshalled by the impressive Nicolo Barella. Carlo Ancelotti's crew only broke through with an Arkadiusz Milik free kick deep into injury time, and in many ways, that's significant.
It was Milik, of course, who had that chance to equalize late in the game against Liverpool, only for Alisson to make himself huge and save it. Alisson did brilliantly, indeed, but a striker will always blame himself for not putting it away in that situation. The fact that he stepped up to take, and convert, such a big free kick a few days later speaks volumes of his mental toughness.
Dortmund continue to get it done
Borussia Dortmund made it six straight victories in the Bundesliga with the weekend's 2-1 win over Werder Bremen. They may be slowing down a bit in terms of team performance, but at the same time, their match winners continue to grow, with Jadon Sancho and Raphael Guerreiro standing out.
Being able to win in different ways is a sign of maturity, and that's what you get with Lucien Favre. But equally, they probably conceded more in terms of chances in this game than in any in the past few weeks. It's not a cause for concern, just something to work on over the winter break. In the meantime, they can enjoy the fact that they still have lost just once all season in all competitions. Nobody in the Big Five European leagues has done better.
And finally ...
Bas Dost scored twice for Sporting in their 5-2 home victory against Nacional, which keeps them second in the table, two points behind leaders Porto. Having missed 10 weeks of the season, he nevertheless has 10 goals in eight league appearances. Overall, he has 13 goals in 12 appearances in all competitions.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.