The weekend didn't disappoint when it came to soccer across Europe. Manchester City won another Carabao Cup, this time against Tottenham Hotspur, while Inter Milan inched even closer to winning the Serie A title. In La Liga, Barcelona got a boost from Antoine Griezmann in their title race as Real Madrid (draw) and Atletico Madrid (defeat) ceded ground, and Bayern Munich turned in an awful display against Mainz to delay their celebrations of yet another Bundesliga title.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past weekend of internationals in Europe.
Jump to: Guardiola keep innovating | Griezmann stars for Barca | Juve top-four spot under threat | Real Madrid take it easy | Inter close to Serie A crown | Solskjaer, Man United cruising | Mbappe on fire for PSG | Liverpool's bad week gets worse | Bayern crack | Atletico slip again | Werner scores for Chelsea | Haaland, Dortmund surging up | Atalanta's renaissance
Guardiola keeps busting conventional wisdom
There was a part of me that wondered whether Pep Guardiola would give some regular first-team players a breather against Tottenham. Sure, it was a cup final, but it was the League Cup against Ryan Mason's Spurs. (One day that may mean a lot, but not now, not when Mason is 29 and has been in charge for less than a week.)
Plus, he already had three League Cups sitting at home in his trophy cabinet and, on Wednesday, Manchester City have a Champions League first-leg semifinal against Paris Saint-Germain. And while it's true that he also has a couple Champions League trophies at home, City have never won it and he hasn't won one in a decade. (And, as his eagle-eyed critics like to point out, has never won one without Lionel Messi.)
Instead, there were three changes from what can plausibly be considered his Best XI. One was enforced (John Stones was suspended, so in came Aymeric Laporte), one was calculated (Zack Steffen has always played ahead of Ederson in this competition) and one was perhaps a bit sentimental (Fernandinho turns 36 in May, so he got the nod ahead of Rodri). But the set-up, with no center-forward and, really, not even a "false nine" -- Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden took turns playing centrally, but from a deeper position -- is now his go-to set-up.
We can debate the benefits; what's not in question is that it explodes one of the age-old conventional wisdom myths, that of the "proven goal scorer, the 30-goal a season man leading the line." Or, when you don't have a prolific center-forward, the importance of having a "reference point" up front, a theory that pre-Guardiola, was especially popular in Spain and Italy. Ilkay Gundogan is City's top goal scorer this season in all competitions with 16, and he's a midfielder. Guardiola's strikers, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero, have scored 13 and three goals respectively.
Guardiola is not the first manager in history to dispense with a front man altogether, but you can add it to his list of achievements. And by the way, we're not talking "false nine" here -- that is, a center-forward who drops deep in hopes of dragging a defender with him or opening space for others. We're talking about, essentially, a line of four -- on Sunday, it was Riyad Mahrez, De Bruyne, Foden and Raheem Sterling -- playing high up the pitch in the opposition half, stopping them from getting out.
When it works, it's breathtaking, both in and out of possession. And it worked a charm against Tottenham who, especially in the first half, struggled to cross the halfway line. It wasn't just a case of them defending too deep; it was a case of getting thwarted at every turn. (There's no sense pointing fingers at Mason, though you wonder if maybe a guy like Tanguy Ndombele might have helped.) City had to wait for a set piece from Laporte (by the way, City's central defenders have scored nine goals this season) towards the end, but they created plenty before that.
For Spurs, it's a missed opportunity and again, you wonder about the wisdom of dispatching Jose Mourinho before such a crucial game. Getting to the last few minutes of the game at 0-0, with the Special One prowling the sideline, would have left most neutrals with a sense that anything might yet happen. With Mason -- who only had a few training sessions under his belt -- not so much. You can only conclude that things must have gotten really bad internally for them to make the move when they did, which, by the way, was also very expensive, with a reported $25 million-plus payoff going Mourinho's way as a result.
Griezmann hits stride at the right time for Barcelona
Antoine Griezmann turned 30 last month and there is every chance his Barcelona move will be remembered as a stark warning against spending nine figures (his buy-out clause was €120m or around $145m) on players in their late 20s, no matter how gifted. (Before Barca fans get agitated over this, yes, Real Madrid's move for Eden Hazard fits the same category.)
But there's the long view, and there's the here and now, and that's where Griezmann is coming in handy. Against an awkward opponent like Villarreal, Griezmann scored the two goals that propelled Barca to a 2-1 win, which, provided they win their game in hand against Granada (not a given), will launch them to the top of La Liga. He now has six goals in his last seven games, taking some pressure off Lionel Messi (who had, by his standards, a quiet afternoon) and providing a major attacking boost in the stretch run.
Together with Frenkie De Jong (who, despite fluffing a massive chance, has already emerged as a natural leader on this team), he made all the difference for a Barca side who were far from perfect -- they suffered more than they should have playing against 10 men in the final half-hour -- but were good enough to take home the three points.
That's the thing about talent: even if you massively overpay for it, it doesn't actually go away. And it can pop up to surprise you at any moment.
Juve's Champions League hopes hanging by a thread
"I haven't done the job I wanted to do and the job others wanted me to do," he said. "You try to improve every match, but I'm not happy with the progress and, I think, neither are the club." The result leaves them third, but with Napoli, Lazio and Milan all playing on Monday night, Juventus could find themselves in a three-way dogfight for the last two Champions League places behind Inter and Atalanta, with Lazio two points behind and a game in hand.
Without Federico Chiesa's spark, Juve were plodding in a horrendous first half. They improved, slightly, after the break, when Alvaro Morata came on for Paulo Dybala and scored, at least offering a threat in behind the defenders. There was no Cristiano Ronaldo get-out-of-jail-free card, either. He had a rough day and, uncharacteristically, missed an open chance on a header when he totally mistimed his jump. When it rains, it pours.
Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici was asked about the top four finish and Pirlo's future after the match. "We're not contemplating the possibility of missing out on the Champions League. We have total faith in him. Yes, if we make it, Pirlo will definitely be back."
Way to relieve the pressure, there, Fabio. (Though, to be fair, he also said that "Andrea Agnelli has been transparent throughout when it comes to the Super League," so take what he says with a grain of salt.)
Pirlo's future should not hinge on results, though Paratici's words suggest it will. Instead, it should hinge solely on performances and whether Juve thinks they're going in the right direction.
Real Madrid held to scoreless draw with an eye on Chelsea
Zinedine Zidane's smoke-and-mirrors show continued against Betis on Saturday. He did welcome back Dani Carvajal, but Toni Kroos, Sergio Ramos, Ferland Mendy and Vinicius were all missing from his starting XI against an unpredictable side (who, to be fair, were also without arguably their most talented player). With Chelsea and the Champions League semifinal coming up on Tuesday, he took no chances -- Nacho played left-back -- and after a rain-soaked first half, even switched to a back three.
It was all to no avail. Karim Benzema was quiet, Luka Modric only has so many Superman acts up his sleeve and even the reappearance of Eden Hazard, while good news, didn't move the needle. The Champions League is more important right now, so be it. There's only so much you can squeeze out of this team right now even if it means potentially ceding the Liga title. Zidane -- and Real Madrid -- will be judged on the Big Cup anyway.
Conte finally admits the obvious: Inter will likely win Serie A
Even after going 11 points clear with five games to go, Antonio Conte would only go so far as to say his team had a "95%" chance of winning Serie A. Hey, Antonio, whatever floats your boat. If you want to be superstitious, go for it, but the rest of the league knows you'll win the Scudetto, especially now that this laser-focused, "grind-it-out" version of Inter is on the pitch.
It was far from straightforward against a tough opponent like Verona, and it took until 15 minutes from time for Achraf Hakimi (arguably Inter's most important player not named Romelu Lukaku in the latter part of the season) to set up Matteo Darmian for the only goal of the game.
And yeah, as I saw it, Davide Faraoni's goal should have stood -- the old playground maxim whereby "you can't touch the keeper in the six-yard box" simply isn't a thing -- but heck, it wouldn't have made a difference.
After 11 years, the boys in black and blue are back.
Man United are playing out the season ... and that's OK
Following the drab scoreless draw against Leeds on Sunday, Manchester United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer pointed out how they did create a few chances and were disappointed because they wanted to win and "put pressure on Manchester City."
I don't blame Solskjaer for saying this, but if you looked closely, you might have noticed that his nose got that little bit longer as he spoke. City are 10 points clear with five games to go.
Of course, he can't say what he was really thinking, so I'll take a stab at it: "That Marcelo Bielsa is sneaky because he defended deep against us, which meant my plan to play Daniel James with Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood didn't work because they had no space to run into. That messed us because Bruno Fernandes was quiet and Paul Pogba was on the bench and because nobody else on this team can create, it was always going to be tough. But guess what? I don't care. We're second in the table, we are closer to a dominant City side than we are to Liverpool and we have a Europa League semifinal against Roma coming up. That's more important right now. I want some silverware."
Mbappe, PSG peaking at the right time
Paris Saint-Germain looked like a team intent on pacing themselves away to FC Metz. Despite being in a full-fledged title race, Mauricio Pochettino rested Angel Di Maria, Mauro Icardi, Danilo and Idrissa Gueye. Even Kylian Mbappe appeared to do just enough. He opened the scoring early and, after the Metz equalizer, bagged a second, before a Mauro Icardi "Panenka" made it 3-1.
Mbappe's first saw him burst through midfield and outrun everybody, while he surprised Metz keeper Alexandre Oukidja with a first-time strike from the edge of the box. Mbappe's confidence is sky-high right now and, as the returning Marco Verratti said after the game, "We're in the best possible shape to face Manchester City."
With Mbappe in form like this, you tend to believe him.
A bad week gets worse for Liverpool
Let's face it, not all Super League rebels are created equal. The ill-fated project was driven, primarily, by four clubs: Real Madrid, Juventus, Manchester United and Liverpool. A large plurality (if not a majority) of supporters of the first two actually back the idea. United's majority owners, the Glazer family, are about as popular as Man City among their supporters, but, as we know all too well, they don't care about being liked.
But Liverpool are a different story. John W. Henry and Mike Gordon were praised for "getting" the club and their fans, almost as much as they were applauded for bringing in Jurgen Klopp and, subsequently, the Champions League and Premier League. It felt like a betrayal, hence -- unlike the other three -- Henry's grovelling apology. That anger, however, is still there, as are calls from fans for Fenway Sports Group to sell the club and leave.
Did those frayed nerves lead to them dropping two points against, of all opponents, Newcastle United? I don't think so. Liverpool created plenty of chances and should have been up by several goals even before Joe Willock's late, late, late equalizer. (Oh, and for the record, regarding Callum Wilson's disallowed goal, I don't have a problem with it: if it doesn't hit his arm, it doesn't sit up for him and he doesn't score. That said, I'd still like to see referees given discretion rather than the black-and-white changes we're getting next year, whereby such situations only see goals stand if a teammate scores, rather than the guy who handled the ball.)
More simply, Liverpool, despite the chances created, aren't what they were last year. Not up front, where the finishing is wayward, not in midfield, where Thiago Alcantara hasn't papered over all the cracks, and not at the back, where absences and lack of quality weigh heavy.
It only hurts more because of the week they had.
Bayern Munich have an awful weekend, but it only delays their Bundesliga coronation
If you're going to have a stinker, this is the time to do it.
Bayern were horrid in the opening half against Mainz. It was the classic game between a hugely motivated side that was firing on all cylinders in their rise out of the relegation zone, and one for whom the end of the season feels like a procession.
Bayern were a mess at the back, particularly in the first half (even Manuel Neuer was less than stellar on the first goal, though without his saves later, the damage would have been worst) and the returning starters -- Robert Lewandowski, Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry -- showed plenty of ring rust.
It doesn't change much -- barring a cataclysm, they'll win their ninth consecutive Bundesliga title in the next week or two -- but it's a reminder that even a side like Bayern can't coast.
Did the Hansi Flick controversy -- he announced his departure, much to the annoyance of the club -- have an impact? I doubt it and, in fact, the club's statement where they upbraided him felt like needlessly making a mountain out of a molehill. If anything, there's clarity and they can veer towards their top choice, whether it's the heavily linked Julian Nagelsmann or somebody else.
A cruel irony for Atletico Madrid
We got so used to seeing Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid get outplayed by opponents and still win that it's a bit disconcerting to see the opposite happen. Against Athletic Bilbao, desperately needing a victory, Simeone's side dominated long stretches of the game, but eventually capitulated 2-1 to a late, headed goal (something that seemed unthinkable in the Diego Godin days).
The loss leaves them two points clear of Real Madrid and Barcelona, but the latter, of course, have a game in hand. It's tough to know what to say. Athletic had been in free-fall; they were there for the taking. If Atletico fail to bring home the title, considering the lead they had, it would be a remarkable collapse. But Simeone has to drive home the simple truth: they still control their destiny. Win all their games, and the title is theirs.
Werner back to scoring as Chelsea win 'six-pointer'
OK, so the pedants will point out that they're not really worth six points, but getting three points when your direct opponent fails to secure three points? Well, that's where it comes from, and that's what Chelsea won on Saturday against West Ham. The 1-0 win sees them move three points clear of fifth place and offers just enough momentum heading into the Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid on Tuesday.
West Ham defended deep and defended well, but couldn't stop Chelsea's incisive passing that led to Timo Werner's goal. It's his first goal in more than two months, and only his third in five-and-a-half months. Needless to say, you expect more from a forward, whether leading the line or starting out wide.
It's a bit ironic that one of the media tropes being thrown around to explain Thomas Tuchel's arrival was his ability to get the best out of Werner and Kai Havertz. Well, the former has done worse than under Frank Lampard, while the latter remains a long-term project (and, despite playing up front more often, has also been scoring less). That doesn't matter much, though, because Chelsea's march under Tuchel continues: 16 clean sheets in 21 games and nobody, bar Manchester City, has won more points since his arrival. There are still some big questions out there, but the future looks bright.
Haaland scores twice as Dortmund surge back up the table
It was only three weeks ago that Borussia Dortmund lost their head-to-head clash with Eintracht Frankfurt, dropping to seventh in the table, seven points from the Champions League places. Since then, they've won four straight league games -- including Saturday's 2-0 win over Wolfsburg -- and while they lost home and away to Manchester City, they more than held their own on the pitch.
Erling Haaland scored twice, bringing his seasonal total to 37 and, most encouragingly, Dortmund looked tougher in the face of adversity, like when Jude Bellingham got sent off around the hour mark. It was a huge win against the third-place side in the table and an important one, as Wolfsburg are now wobbling too. They've lost three of their last four games, while Eintracht have lost two in three. It's a momentum shift, and at least some credit has to go to Edin Terzic. He may be a lame duck with Marco Rose's arrival, but he knows he can win his own personal title in delivering a top-four finish.
Atalanta flying high ... regardless of whether or not you believe Gasperini
Atalanta are no longer a fairy tale, but are in fact a well-run reality. We praised their style of play over the past few years and the way this team was assembled. But the way they transitioned from being a team dependent on Alejandro "Papu" Gomez and Josip Ilicic, to one where you feel anyone can step up and exact damage is remarkable, and a credit to the club. And they're finishing the season on an absolute high -- witness the 5-0 demolition of Bologna Sunday night -- with the only regret being the two legs against Real Madrid who, they felt, were there for the taking.
So was Gian Piero Gasperini getting a little carried away when he, like most, had his pop at the Super League, saying "I hate the idea of being invited to a competition, I want to get there on merit ... in fact, if I was invited, I'd turn them down?"
Probably, but that's OK. He's earned it. Like he earned Atalanta's place in the Champions League.