The European soccer weekend was another for the books, so let’s review. Bayern Munich are losing their grip on the Bundesliga with another shock defeat coupled with a Bayer Leverkusen comeback win that stretches their lead at the top to seven points; will Thomas Tuchel regret throwing his players under the bus? PLUS: Mike Maignan was abused as Milan won at Udinese, leaving the pitch for five minutes. The incident was praised for how it was handled in the immediate aftermath, but the deeper follow-through is what will be most important.
Elsewhere, there were talking points galore for Real Madrid (who got lucky in fighting back to beat Almeria), Barcelona (who turned a corner, we think), Liverpool (no Mohamed Salah, no problem) and Arsenal.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Bayern lose at home, drop seven points back of league lead as Tuchel appears to turn on his players
There’s a reason why coaches, in any sport, very rarely call out their players in public, and it’s down to simple power relations. You might be their boss in training and during games, but there’s a bigger boss — the club — above everything, and you know full well it’s easier (and cheaper) for the big boss to replace you than the players.
There’s no good way to do it, either. Single out the star player, and you’ve raised the stakes in a battle you’re unlikely to win. Pick on a fringe player, and you’re being a bully. Criticise them all — without using that crucial little word, “we” — and those who performed and gave everything might resent you, while some will assume you’re not talking about them, but rather one of their teammates.
Thomas Tuchel, no doubt, knows all of this, which is why you assume he was close to the end of his tether on Sunday after the 1-0 home defeat to Werder Bremen when he said: “We have to ask the players. We played inconsequentially today … deserved defeat.”
He added that they’d been training great during the week, but not getting it done in games, and that they need to find “a solution.”
Of course, if you look at the numbers — Bayern outshot Werder Bremen 22 to 8 and won the xG 1.91 to 0.44 — you might think Tuchel’s side should still have won the game, and maybe so. But what’s worrying beyond the result is the performance.
Bayern were nine days removed from their last game and still looked thoroughly unprepared. (Weirdly, they also had a long layoff before their last defeat, that horrid 5-1 thrashing by Eintracht in early December.) Your centre-forward, Harry Kane, didn’t have a shot on goal until the second half. You had 12 shots in the last 18 minutes, but none of them with an xG greater than 0.10, and you made former Bayern squad player Mitchell Weiser look like prime Neymar in the way he duped Alphonso Davies.
Tuchel’s gripes with this squad are clear and well-worn. He wants another central defender because Kim Min-jae is at the Asian Cup. He wants a right back because Benjamin Pavard was offloaded, Josip Stanisic was loaned to a rival club and Noussair Mazraoui is at the Africa Cup of Nations. He wants a “No. 6” in midfield because he believes Joshua Kimmich isn’t suited to that role.
Fine — coaches always want more — but in the meantime, how about you work with the guys you have, rather than reminding them how they’re not what you want?
It’s tricky because as any Bayern-watcher will tell you, this is a tough gig. It’s not just the size of the club and the scrutiny it gets — both externally from the media, including a gaggle of ex-Bayern players-turned-pundits, and internally from Uli Hoeness on down through the many directors and officials who are too often too loose-lipped in sharing their views — but the fact that standards are absurdly high (that’s what happens when you win 11 titles in a row) and second-guessing is the second-favorite sport inside the club’s Sabener Strasse HQ.
Tuchel was walking a fine line and now he’s crossed it. Once you turn on players, you have to be sure that you’ll get the reaction you want. If not, you can quickly become a statistic.
Maignan racially abused in Milan win at Udinese and the initial response has been positive: Now for the follow-through
How Infantino’s ideas on combatting racism in football are impractical
Gab and Juls discuss why it is good FIFA president Gianni Infantino is speaking up on racism in football, but his solutions might not be practical or enforceable.
Milan keeper Mike Maignan first heard the racist abuse when he went to collect the ball for a goal kick in the match against Udinese on Saturday night. It was coming from the stand behind him, he thought it was only a few people and he ignored it.
When he went to retrieve the ball a second time, it happened again and this time, he acted. And, for now at least, things played out the way they should.
Maignan told his bench and the match official, Fabio Maresca, and he walked towards the centre of the pitch. As word got to his Milan teammates and his opponents, they embraced him and then joined him in walking off the pitch. The referee held his arm up to signal the match was suspended and he too went down the tunnel, together with his assistants.
That’s what’s supposed to happen in these situations, and that’s what happened. A colleague is abused at work, so work stops. Period. No excuses, nobody telling him to stay on the pitch and endure it, nobody telling him they’re just trying to get into his head.
The stadium announcer explained why play had stopped, and when it resumed after five minutes, the crowd was warned that if it happened again, they wouldn’t be returning.
And it stopped.
Obviously, it can’t end there, as those responsible have to be identified — Udinese, to be fair, took full responsibility and said they’d cooperate with law enforcement — and prosecuted. It can be done: when Romelu Lukaku was racially abused in the Coppa Italia last year, Juventus immediately banned two fans and then helped police prosecute a further 171 supporters.
Maignan said he thought it was no more than a few people (“It is not the whole crowd, most fans want to cheer on their team and jeer you … that’s normal, but not this”) while investigators reportedly are looking to identify as many as 30, whether as perpetrators or witnesses. You hope it’s a sign that this is being taken seriously because we need to ensure there’s follow-through, like there was with Lukaku. We’d also do well, while we’re at it, to heed Maignan’s own words: if you do nothing, you’re complicit.
What we don’t need is grandstanding, like that which came from FIFA president Gianni Infantino, talking about “forfeiting matches” and “worldwide stadium bans.”
Forfeiting matches? Sure, maybe when it’s widespread, when clubs don’t cooperate or when there’s collusion. But if a team is losing 3-0 in the 85th minute, what sort of punishment is that? As for worldwide bans, I don’t even know how you’d even begin to enforce that.
More realistically, what we need is to vigorously enforce the rules and procedures that already exist, starting with not making excuses and then banning and prosecuting those responsible. If it’s widespread or you’re getting no cooperation from folks in that stand unwilling to report those responsible, then shut the stand. The laws are already in the books; let’s use them.
Milan’s Maignan walks off field after racist chants at Udinese
Julien Laurens reacts to AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan walking off the field after being subjected to racist chants by Udinese fans during an Italian Serie A game.
As for the game itself, Milan showed drive and belief in coming back to win 3-2 after going down 2-1, though they should never have been in that position: both goals came after defensive blunders, the second particularly grotesque. But Stefano Pioli’s substitutes, Luka Jovic and Noah Okafor, turned it around, with his regulars (Olivier Giroud and Rafael Leão) playing a big part, even after a relatively average game.
Both things bode well: Milan have a deeper bench and stars who pop up at the right time.
Real Madrid notches VAR-scarred comeback win as Ancelotti takes responsibility
At half-time on Sunday, Real Madrid were down 2-0 at home to Almeria, a team that hasn’t won a game in any competition in the past eight months. Real Madrid looked disjointed and absent-minded and had managed just five shots, none of them on target. Coming off the back of the derby defeat to Atletico in the Copa del Rey on Thursday night, it was the last thing Carlo Ancelotti needed.
In the end, Real Madrid turned it around to win 3-2 with a whole boatload of controversy. We’ll get to that in a minute, but there are two big takeaways that matter regardless of the VAR shenanigans.
The first is that they won, keeping them a point within Girona at the top of LaLiga and with a game in hand. Given Real Madrid’s history of comebacks, mental strength, manifest destiny etc., that matters, especially against a young side coming out of nowhere.
The other is that they looked really, really poor, especially in the first half. Ancelotti said it was on him, that he got his lineup wrong, that his starting XI showed signs of fatigue after the extra-time defeat on Thursday night. And, indeed, he made only two changes — one of them was Eduardo Camavinga, whom you would have thought might be able to handle two games back-to-back. More than that, the vibe was that they viewed Almeria as some sort of “gimme” game, which would be very worrying given what they’d done against Girona the week before.
As for the decisions, your view might vary. (Or VAR-y: see what I did there?) But it’s worth remembering you had an inexperienced referee (Francisco Jose Hernandez Maeso) on the pitch and a VAR (Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez) who had been harshly criticised by Real Madrid TV in the past.
After VAR ordered an on-field review, Madrid were awarded a penalty when Kaiky battled for a header with Joselu and the ball struck his arm. While there’s no question Kaiky handled the ball, it’s fair to wonder whether he wasn’t fouled by Joselu prior to that — or, for that matter, whether Antonio Rüdiger wasn’t fouling Chumi on the same play. The fact that there’s no mention of the potential fouls in the audio of the conversation released by LaLiga is not a good look, and it gives the impression that the referee didn’t even look at them.
VAR intervened again four minutes later, calling Hernandez Maeso to the monitor to disallow a goal from Sergio Arribas that would have put Almeria up 3-1. VAR had spotted a foul by Dion Lopy on Jude Bellingham, but the odd thing here is that when Hernandez Maeso looked at the monitor, he saw himself standing no more than few feet away from the incident and doing nothing.
Sure, VAR exists to correct craven errors. Was that a major mistake? Was Lopy’s hand to Bellingham’s face a foul, or just incidental contact? And if it was a foul, how could Hernandez Maeso not have seen it in real time given how close he was?
Then came what would turn out to be Madrid’s equaliser. The ball struck Vinícius somewhere on the upper arm and caromed into the net. Hernandez Maeso disallowed it at first, believing it hit below the shoulder, VAR called for another on-field review, and the referee changed his mind.
After that the tide changed, Almeria lost their discipline, their coach, Gaizka Garitano, was sent off — midfielder Gonzalo Melero would later say “the game was stolen” — and Dani Carvajal scored a dramatic winner in the ninth minute of extra time.
For my money, I thought the Kaiky handball should not have been given, while the other two could have gone either way. But you wish the referee showed a bit more personality in his decision-making. He saw the Lopy-Bellingham incident, what changed on the review? And given there were conflicting images on the Vinicius goal, why not let the ruling on the field stand?
Mistakes will happen and VAR won’t turn everything into black and white decisions, I get that. But the last thing LaLiga needs is more pressure piled on match officials and, in this regard, clubs need to also look at themselves and consider how they talk about match officials as people, rather than simply the decisions they take.
Darwin and Jota score in big win at Bournemouth, but it’s Mac Allister who shines
Goal scorers get the headlines and sure, Darwin Núñez and Diogo Jota, with their two goals apiece, can enjoy their moment in the sun after Sunday’s 4-0 away win against Bournemouth. But my difference-maker of the day is Alexis Mac Allister.
With Dominik Szoboszlai and Trent Alexander-Arnold injured, Liverpool are missing a big chunk of quality in their passing game. It was left to Mac Allister to run the midfield and he didn’t miss a beat. I’ve argued before that he’s not a great fit for the defensive midfield role and I stand by that: he has had to adapt to a very different position than he played with Brighton (or Argentina). But performances like this one, coming not long after his return from injury, show that he can carry a midfield from deep.
As for Liverpool as a whole, this still wasn’t a complete 90-minute performance. The absences of Szoboszlai, Alexander-Arnold, Andy Robertson and (of course) Mo Salah weigh heavily, but that first half was poor, even though events after the break more than made up for it.
Nicol: Liverpool are in a very good place
ESPN’s Steve Nicol tells Mark Donaldson that Liverpool are in a really good position following their 4-0 win over Bournemouth.
Barcelona show grit, quality with big win at Real Betis
Oh, how Xavi needed this. The Barcelona boss has been under huge pressure of late and while this weekend’s 4-2 win won’t silence all the critics, it’s a just reward for some of the bold steps he has taken.
Xavi put his faith in Ferran Torres, who scored twice to give Barca a 2-0 lead (he’d add another in garbage time). He trusted a pair of 16-year-olds, Lamine Yamal and Pau Cubarsí, in what could have been a watershed game: Yamal was excellent and Cubarsi more than solid in his first ever LaLiga start. Most of all, at 2-2, after Isco’s brilliance had reopened the match, he wasn’t shy about yanking Robert Lewandowski for the teenage newcomer Vitor Roque.
The winning goal was an absolute outside-of-the-boot gem from substitute João Félix, who served up a reminder that when he’s good, he’s really, really good (though a lot of the time, of late, he has been indifferent, which is probably why Xavi benched him).
Xavi called it one of Barcelona’s best performances this season, and it’s hard to disagree. Whatever happens, nobody can say he’s shy about stamping his authority in this team. If they fail, they’ll fail his way.
Another buzzer-beater for Bayer Leverkusen against RB Leipzig, and now they’re seven points clear
Regular readers will know I’m not generally impressed when teams notch late winners. Belief, toughness, whatever: it’s all words, I kinda take trying hard until the end as a given, and if it takes you that long to score, it can often mean you’re not doing that great.
For the second straight week, Bayer Leverkusen got all three points thanks to a late, late goal: this time, it was Piero Hincapié. The difference this time was that they were facing a much better opponent in Leipzig, and they had Florian Wirtz back in the lineup. (It’s not all good news: Victor Boniface is still injured, while Edmond Tapsoba and Odilon Kossounou are still on international duty at the Africa Cup of Nations.)
Leverkusen were under pressure for much of a first half marked by Xavi Simons highlight reel goal. After clawing back the equaliser, they again went behind, this time on the counter, before a Jonathan Tah header made it 2-2. It was a goal that also shifted momentum, and there was almost a sense of inevitability to the winner.
You can expect their manager, Xabi Alonso, to channel this. Yes, he can focus on how they could’ve been better, but victories like these lend a sense of inevitability and destiny to a campaign, and that can be crucial for his young team who, for those keeping score at home, are undefeated this season in all competitions and have drawn just three matches.
Arsenal beat up Crystal Palace 5-1 to draw level with Man City in league table
Facing Crystal Palace is a tonic for anyone right now given that they’ve won one game since early November and the fans are far from happy (something their postmatch banners showed). And yes, it’s true that two of Arsenal’s goals came on set pieces, two came in garbage time (Gabriel Martinelli bagging both) and the other came off a counter from a Palace corner, the sort of thing that should never happen at any level.
But none of the above that shouldn’t take away from Arsenal’s performance, who were always in control, even when struggling to break through Palace’s massed defensive ranks. There was no panic, they picked their spots and they showed the sort of maturity you don’t always get from young sides.
This wasn’t the sort of game that would tell you if Arsenal are potential title-winners, but it’s enough to tell you that if the others falter, they’ll be ready to step in.
Burley: Inept Palace the ‘perfect’ opposition for Arsenal
Craig Burley lays the blame for Arsenal’s big 5-0 Premier League win on a terrible performance from Crystal Palace.
Juventus go top of Serie A (for now) for the first time since August 2020
Juventus made it seven wins in a row in all competitions with a 3-0 road victory away to Lecce, which saw them pass Inter at the top of the table (though the Nerazzurri have a game in hand).
It wasn’t quite as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests, and Lecce might have had a penalty when Pontus Almqvist was brought down. But then Dusan Vlahovic’s scuffed shot made its way into the back of the net and the big man struck again — technically, he took a goal away from Weston McKennie — to make it 2-0.
That’s now five goals in three games for Vlahovic and while critics might call him selfish and lucky for the two he scored against Lecce, the truth is having a centre-forward who is selfish and lucky is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not just Vlahovic’s resurgence that is notable, of course: it’s also the contribution of teenage sensation Kenan Yildiz, filling in for the injured Federico Chiesa.
Manager Max Allegri is playing it down, but with no European football to contend with, Juve have to believe they have a decent shot at taking Inter to the wire and even beating them for the title.
Girona bandwagon shows no sign of slowing down with demolition of Sevilla
A week ago, Girona turned in their worst performance of the season in a 0-0 draw with bottom club Almeria that they deserved to lose. Since then, they beat up Rayo in the Copa del Rey in midweek and followed up with a 5-1 drubbing of Sevilla that was even more one-sided than the score suggests.
Sevilla played a big part in their own downfall — they were awful and Sergio Ramos showed that, as Rocky Balboa says, Father Time is undefeated — but take nothing away from Artem Dovbyk, who scored a hat trick inside the opening 20 minutes. The big Ukrainian is up to 14 league goals on the season, making him LaLiga’s top goal scorer, alongside Jude Bellingham.
Right now, it feels as if one of those two is LaLiga’s newcomer of the year … with the difference being that Bellingham’s transfer fee was 14 times higher.
Borussia Dortmund squarely in Champions League conversation now
OK, so two gaudy wins against the bottom two teams in the table need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but after beating Koln away 4-0, Borussia Dortmund are now fourth in the Bundesliga, level on points with RB Leipzig and just one out of third place. What’s more, the January signings — Ian Maatsen and Jadon Sancho, the latter making his first start — seem to have sparked this side into life.
Maatsen is showing he can be a devastating two-way player at left-back in a four-man defensive set … which is precisely why he didn’t get space at Chelsea. Meanwhile, Sancho turned in a very solid 65 minutes and won a penalty: he’s not what he was when he was a Dortmund player four years ago, but the rust is coming off very quickly. Donyell Malen looked sharp, and Youssoufa Moukoko came off the bench to score (again).
On the one hand, the real test will come against tougher opposition. On the other, with so many injuries in midfield and at the back — 19-year-old Hendry Blank made his debut and had to play the entire second half at the back after Niklas Süle came off — this will be a different side defensively when everyone is fit.
Roma’s De Rossi tries to make clean break from Mourinho era on the pitch
Most match-going Roma fans were entirely unhappy with the sacking of Jose Mourinho, and they weren’t shy about letting folks know when their side took the pitch on Saturday against Verona. There were pro-Mourinho chants, and there were boos for most of the players. (Daniele De Rossi himself received an ovation, as you’d expect for a hometown hero.)
The man once upon a time known as “Captain Future” has an interim contact to manage this team until the end of the season, and he’s determined to make it count. Most evident of his desire to turn the page is how he tried to set Roma up in the 2-1 win. No more back three (except for late in the game), two men (Stephan El Shaarawy and Paulo Dybala) in the space behind Romelu Lukaku, with Lorenzo Pellegrini playmaking in midfield and attacking full-backs on the flanks.
It all led to plenty of possession (62%), plenty of movement (not always coordinated, but then he’s had only three training sessions in charge) and less of a Dybala-dependency.
Did it work? Well, they raced out to a 2-0 lead, were fortunate that Verona had a goal disallowed and missed a penalty, and then suffered late after Rui Patrício’s blunder on Michael Folorunsho’s long-range effort. They deserved their 2-1 win, but then again Verona aren’t very good and just sold two of their better players.
The jury is definitely out, but the impression is that De Rossi wants his vision of football to be nothing like Mourinho’s.