Barcelona can thank Messi for latest title but Valverde also a hero. PLUS: Breaking down Man United-Chelsea
After another action-packed weekend in soccer, Gab Marcotti reflects on the big talking points in his latest edition of Monday Musings.
Jump to: Valverde's magic | Top four race | Dortmund's derby woe | New low for PSG, Neymar | Aguero the hero | Inter vs. Juve | Allegri loses his cool | Bayern aren't champs yet | Real in summer mode | Arsenal lose again | Milan in trouble?
What a job Valverde's done at Barcelona
The fact that there was a sense of inevitability to it -- the gap at the top was already seven points some two and a half months ago -- shouldn't take anything away from Barcelona's eighth Liga title in 11 seasons. Nor should we stop marvelling at Lionel Messi's 46 goals in 45 games (and counting) and yes, it was apt that he should come off the bench to score the winner against Levante on Saturday. None of this is normal -- far from it; this is exceptional -- it's just that sustained excellence becomes humdrum.
Relative to past Barca sides, this time may not excite or titillate the way Pep Guardiola's or Tito Vilanova's team did. Ernesto Valverde is a different coach, with a different skill set and different priorities. But he's still the man who accomplished a tremendous feat, navigating the trauma of Neymar's departure and succession, managing the veterans -- six of this starting XI are now in their 30s -- and creating the sort of environment that allowed Messi to be Messi.
If Barcelona are still on track for a Treble, a chunk of the credit belongs to him. (In a cruel twist, the only Treble at Real Madrid this season has been regarding the number of managers in the space of six months.)
Standouts? Messi's minutes (and his body) were cleverly managed without hurting his goal numbers. Gerard Pique roared back with a vengeance. Jordi Alba broke assist records for a full-back. Arthur, Clement Lenglet and Arturo Vidal were integrated into the rotation, and each gave something different, but critically important, to the cause. Marc-Andre ter Stegen cemented his place as one of the top two or three keepers in the world and Ousmane Dembele, when fit, showed he might just live up to his transfer fee.
Not everything is perfect. Samuel Umtiti looks a shadow of his former self. The Philippe Coutinho Conundrum has yet to be cracked and Sergio Busquets is slowing down, but what this group has achieved will live on. And, perhaps, another Treble is on the horizon.
Man United, Chelsea whiff on securing top four spots
Between them, the four teams vying for the Premier League's final two as yet unclaimed Champions League spots have recorded four defeats, three draws and one win in the past two rounds of league games. (And that victory came only thanks to a late, late screamer from Christian Eriksen at home to Brighton.) That's what you call backing into Europe, and that's also why Manchester United's 1-1 home draw with Chelsea doesn't definitely knock them out of a top-four spot: given the nature and form of the competition, (almost) anything can happen.
That said, after a positive first half, United played like what they are: a team that have lost seven of their past 10 games. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's experiments -- this time, it was a 4-3-1-2 formation with Juan Mata in the hole -- are an attempt to get them out of their funk, but at this stage, sneaking into the Champions League and re-evaluating everything in the summer is the best-case scenario.
Then there's David De Gea, tackled here by Mark Ogden. Everything is made more difficult by his contract talks: he becomes a free agent in 2020 and wants serious money, but dropping him at this stage is something United should not even contemplate. He played himself into this, he can play himself out.
As for Chelsea, for all the abuse and mockery Maurizio Sarri got this year, they're two points out of third place, lost a cup final on penalties and are 180 minutes away from the Europa League final. Given the tactical overhaul that took place -- and the fact that he took over way late in the summer -- those aren't bad results. Whether this is something on which you can build, given the Eden Hazard/Callum Hudson-Odoi situations and the uncertainty over Roman Abramovich's plans and whether or not they'll have to serve a transfer ban, remains to be seen.
Dortmund sink but aren't finished in Bundesliga
It looked like it was downhill from here. Sure, it was a derby, but there were 42 points separating Borussia Dortmund from Schalke, and the Yellow Wall was bouncing. So when Jadon Sancho's delicious assist set up Mario Gotze to bury the opener, the three points looked like a foregone conclusion.
But then, within 15 minutes, Schalke were 2-1 up thanks to a VAR penalty that enraged Lucien Favre and a Salif Sane header. Still, you wouldn't have counted Borussia Dortmund out. Not until the red cards to Marco Reus and Marius Wolf left them with nine men, and Daniel Caligiuri's second goal sandwiched in between. The two sides swapped late goals to fix the scored at 4-2.
For Schalke and Huub Stevens, it meant virtual safety. For Dortmund, it was "the end of the title race" according to Favre. (He was wrong, as it turned out, and not just about that.) Favre went to town on the handball call -- "Football is making itself a laughingstock ... The people who invented these rules ... I don't know how they look at themselves in the mirror" -- but the simple fact is that if there is consistency (yes, a big "if") then we're better off than when referees made subjective judgement calls. There are enough of those anyway (witness Reus' red, which was harsh.)
Favre didn't know it at the time, but Dortmund would get a lease of life 24 hours later. It's up to him and his crew to make it count.
PSG, Neymar hit yet another low
It was always going to be a downer of a finale to their season, but the way Paris Saint-Germain squandered a 2-0 lead over Rennes in the French Cup final has to set off alarm bells. Sure, there were the injuries that plagued them all season (hands up, those -- other than PSG fans -- who knew who Colin Dagba was before this year), their painful Champions League elimination and their woeful form, heading into the final with one win in four. But not being able to manage a lead against a mid-table opponent, before losing on penalties, is hard to justify.
Fingers will be pointed at Thomas Tuchel, and undoubtedly he has a lot to figure out. His deal has been extended for a season, through 2021, but the PSG brass need to carefully assess what progress has or has not been made this year. His tendency to say that poor performances (like the one against Rennes) are "inexplicable" doesn't help him either. He's the boss, figure it out. You might still lose, but at least understand why. With financial fair play sanctions still a possibility, the margins for error are slim.
And then there's Neymar. When PSG went up into the stands to collect their runners-up medal -- by the way, how about we lose this stupid tradition, since nobody enjoys it? -- some fool masquerading as a Rennes fan filmed the players as they trooped past and insulted them one by one. Most took it for what it was, but Neymar, who of course recently received a three-match ban for his postmatch comments after the Manchester United game, responded by whacking him in the head. Neymar apologized, but you can equally understand his frustration: it's one thing to be insulted, mocked and abused by your own fans (who pay your wages), getting it from some random fan is tough to swallow.
Aguero the hero as Man City remain on course for title
Manchester City nosed their way back to the top of the Premier League with a narrow 1-0 win away to Burnley. The game followed a very familiar script, with Sean Dyche's crew defending ultra-deep and keeping City out for nearly an hour simply via commitment, intensity and the density of human bodies in front of Tom Heaton's goal. In those circumstances, the ice usually gets broken either by a long-range effort, a set piece or a scrappy goal. In this case it was the latter, with Sergio Aguero getting a fortunate bounce to retain control and then burying the winner.
Credit Guardiola though for making adjustments such as moving Raheem Sterling inside, shifting Bernardo Silva wide and going to a virtual 4-4-2 in the second half. The extra body in a Burnley box is something you can get away with when you've got guys with this sort of quality and close control.
As for Aguero, it's now five straight years of scoring 20 or more goals in the Premier League. Sure, scoring goals is a heck of a lot easier when you have the kind of support and service he enjoys, but it's still an incredible feat.
Inter let it slip vs. Juventus
If you're a glass half-full type of person, there's plenty of good to take away from Inter's 1-1 draw with Juventus. (A demotivated Juve playing for pride, plus Cristiano Ronaldo playing for an Italian Golden Boot to go with the Spanish and English ones he already has, but Juve nonetheless.) For more than an hour they played as well as they have in a long time, they could have gone a couple goals clear, and Radja Nainggolan did exactly what he was supposed to do: carry the team (and score a screamer).
If your glass is half-empty, however, you'll wonder about how they let a deal slip away, how they seemed to forget Ronaldo was on the pitch and how they were befuddled by Miralem Pjanic's back-heel. A spot in next season's Champions League is still not in the bag either. One way or another, it appears uncertainty and suffering will reign until the end of the season. It's the Inter way right now.
Allegri loses his cool
Max Allegri blew his cool after the 1-1 draw, storming out of the customary postmatch two-way with Italian television analysts, most notably former international Lele Adani.
The latter has developed a reputation as a bit of a tactical guru with a soft spot for "system" teams -- not coincidentally he waxed lyrical about Ajax after they knocked out Juventus -- rather than pragmatic approaches. Allegri called him a "theorist" who "never managed" and who should "shut up and listen." Adani fired back saying Allegri was "talking nonsense." No doubt some will call it unseemly, but I found it honest. It strikes to the heart of the conflict between those who do and those who critique (like me and, most likely, you).
It won't surprise you to know where I stand: most art critics aren't artists and frankly, they don't need to be. Self-analysis -- let alone self-criticism -- is difficult for anyone, let alone someone under the stress of managing a superclub. It also underscores the basic dilemma Allegri has struggled with for the past two years: he wants to dominate opponents and constantly talks about how important it is, but his side, especially this season, can't do it for 90 minutes. Those who thought Ronaldo could fix that on his own were badly mistaken.
Don't crown Bayern as champs yet
In the end Bayern did not take advantage of Borussia Dortmund's defeat, getting held to a 1-1 draw by second-to-last place Nurnberg. And, in fact, it could have been worse: Alphonso Davies gifted Nurnberg a penalty in injury time, which was thankfully missed. Bayern did hit the woodwork twice but also had moments of panic at the back, created little up front and had a good dose of fortune on the equalizer.
Sure, this was a derby too and Nurnberg are desperate, but there was a sense of complacency and general lack of preparation in the team Niko Kovac sent out. Why you would drop Serge Gnabry at this stage of the campaign is also a mystery. The lead is two points, which means two wins and a draw secure the Bundesliga regardless what Dortmund do. But two of those three games are against Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt, who occupy two of the Champions League spots. Stay tuned.
Madrid can't wait for season to end
It's not often that Zinedine Zidane, the great stone-face legend, loses his cool (at least since becoming a manager), but Sunday was one of those days that likely left him wanting to head-butt somebody. Real Madrid traveled across town to cellar-dwelling Rayo Vallecano and contrived to lose 1-0.
"I always defend my players, but not today," he said. "We gave nothing. It was all bad. I am also responsible."
Real Madrid as a club have nothing to play for but as a group of players, there is plenty at stake: many of these guys ought to be thinking about their futures. None more so than Gareth Bale, who had another wretched game and was singled out by Zidane. "Was he focused? I don't know. You'll have to ask him."
The best thing that can happen is for this season to end as quickly as possible.
Emery's doing the best he can with Arsenal
It's a transition/rebuilding year, he already has more points than Arsene Wenger collected last season, and they're in a Europa League semifinal ... OK, now that the Unai Emery excuses are out of the way, let's remind ourselves of a few things. Like the fact that when you're competing for a top-four spot, losing three games in a row with the sort of paucity they displayed is hard to swallow. Or that unless they win their final two matches (Brighton at home and Burnley away), only one Arsenal side in the past 23 years -- Wenger's last season, when the club was a zoo -- will have finished with a lower points total.
Emery is a gifted coach dealing with a bunch of square pegs in round holes. There's every reason to back him to get them back to where they want to be. But equally, let's remind ourselves too of just how deep a hole they're in, and how some of the hefty contracts hastily dished out last season (Mesut Ozil, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang) leave them very little room to manoeuvre going forward.
Milan have no margin for error
At the beginning of March, Milan were third in Serie A, with a four-point lead over the fifth-placed side. By Monday night, if Atalanta beat Udinese at home, they could be seventh, three points away from the Champions League spots. That's what a run of one win and two draws in seven Serie A games gets you.
Even Krzysztof Piatek, dropped to the bench in the 2-0 defeat to Torino, has stopped scoring. As always, Gennaro Gattuso ia taking all the hits. Nobody doubts he's a class guy who has done a great job from a man-management perspective. But he's been in charge for nearly 18 months now and even when Milan were getting results, they weren't playing well.
The new owners' project is predicated upon getting into the Champions League and growing revenue. Even if they do, they will likely get another FFP straitjacket thanks to the inane excesses of the Li Yonghong/Marco Fassone era. That's how high the stakes are.