Are Barcelona back? It sure seems so as Xavi & Co. completed an emphatic 4-0 win at rivals Real Madrid in a most memorable of Clasico clashes at the Bernabeu. Elsewhere, Liverpool and Man City set up an FA Cup semifinal date with wins over Nottingham Forest and Southampton, respectively, Serie A's title race continued to pick up pace as Milan won, Napoli won and Inter Milan's free fall continued, while recriminations should begin at Paris Saint-Germain and Dortmund as they continue to underwhelm.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Clasico fallout | PSG misery | Liverpool keep winning | Bayern roar back | Milan stay top of Serie A | Man City come alive | Dortmund blow it | Inter's free-fall | Chelsea roll on in FA Cup | Dybala's Juve future | Abraham, Roma win derby | Atletico won't quit | Tottenham beat West Ham | Osimhen, Napoli keep pace
Xavi works miracles, Ancelotti's choices hasten Clasico self-destruction
Exactly four months after his first game in charge -- a 1-0 derby win over Espanyol -- Xavi led his Barcelona side to a 4-0 Clasico victory over Real Madrid of the sort they'll be talking about for years to come. It was four; it could have been six, maybe even eight. But the remarkable part isn't Barcelona's domination of their eternal rivals (we'll get to that): It's the way Xavi achieved the footballing equivalent of getting an aircraft carrier to do a U-turn in a swimming pool.
With zero coaching experience in European football, a backdrop of perpetual uncertainty (chief executive Ferran Reverter's resignation last month, LaLiga setting their spending cap at next season at nearly a billion dollars less than Real Madrid's), a nasty contract dispute involving his highest-paid star (free-agent-to-be Ousmane Dembele) with a scrimp-and-save January window ... with all this working against him, he took Barcelona into the top three and achieved a historic win at the Bernabeu.
You can look at the individual game and praise Barcelona (and we will), but the broader context and trend is more significant (and remarkable). Yes, Barca benefited from four arrivals in January, but let's remind ourselves who they are and where they were then arrived. Ferran Torres hadn't played club football since September. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hadn't played since early December and was suspended by Arsenal for violating team rules amid one of the worst spells of his career. Dani Alves is 38 and had not played at all in three months. Adama Traore had managed to start only half of Wolves' games this season.
It's not as if it was the Four Horsemen riding into the Camp Nou; it was four guys who needed a reboot and Xavi provided it, just as he did it for the club as a whole. All of it on the fly, all of it in difficult circumstances. All while staying true to the Barca ethos, albeit adding pragmatic touches: Ronald Araujo at right-back to counter Vinicius, Torres starting wide, but coming inside early and often to clear space for Jordi Alba, Dembele playing a key role after some at the club were willing to freeze him out over his unsigned contract extension ...
... All of this is Xavi.
Barca were firing on all cylinders on Sunday night, but there's no question Real Madrid made things a whole heck of a lot easier for them. Without Karim Benzema, Carlo Ancelotti essentially had two options. He could keep the same system, replacing Benzema with another center-forward (either a markedly worse version than Benzema like Mariano Diaz or Luka Jovic, or an adapted wide man like Marco Asensio). Or he could think outside the box and come up with something entirely new. He chose the latter, adding Fede Valverde to the midfield and pushing Luka Modric into some kind of advanced tip of the diamond/false nine role.
Maybe the idea was to bolster the middle of the park, keep the ball and release Rodrygo and Vinicius on the counter. Whatever it was, it didn't work. Modric, at 36, was unable to offer any semblance of a press and because Toni Kroos often got sucked forward alongside him, it left Valverde and Casemiro outmanned against Barca's midfield. Vinicius had one dangerous run that he capped with a clumsy dive ... and that was about it. Rodrygo offered even less.
Ancelotti took it on the chin -- he could scarcely do otherwise -- and at this stage, you wonder what the fallout will be.
If you're the glass-half-full type, you can easily tell yourself that there's no need to overreact. Benzema has been one of those carrying this team; without him they're not just a little bit worse -- they're a lot worse. We knew that. Ancelotti got his approach all wrong, and his substitutions made things worse. We know that too. But we also know that Real Madrid are nine points clear with nine games to go and they have a Champions League quarterfinal coming up against a Chelsea side that have problems of their own. That's not a bad spot to be in. And sure, this squad needs an overhaul, but we knew that too, which is why they're shedding hefty salaries in the summer and have been linked with many of the high profile free agents on the market (none more so than Kylian Mbappe).
That's the message Ancelotti will want to drive home to his players and to all of "Madridismo." Whether they buy it or not, remains to be seen, because a Clasico humiliation at home isn't swiftly forgotten, no matter what the table says.
More misery for Paris Saint-Germain means it's time to make some decisions
PSG were horrible, again, at Monaco this weekend, losing 3-0. And while the defeat in itself is irrelevant -- they somehow still have a 12-point lead with nine games to go and just as important, the sides behind them are either poor or inconsistent -- the damage being done to morale and image is not. It's time to think about next season, not least because this is when clubs start planning their summer moves.
Many want Mauricio Pochettino gone, but there's no point doing it now, see how you feel at the summer. But this is the time to think about whether Leonardo should be back as sporting director, because that will inform who Pochettino's replacement is (assuming he goes) and that will determine the summer moves.
Somebody new might also re-energize some players and help calm down the fans. Sure, they're still waiting on Kylian Mbappe, but they have to accept that it's increasingly looking like "Waiting for Godot." Mbappe is the least of their problems; in some ways, 2022-23 begins right now.
Jurgen Klopp takes the long view, and Liverpool get results
Managers like to say what players (and sponsors) want to hear. Jurgen Klopp sometimes does it too, but to his credit, his actions speak volumes.
The pursuit of a quadruple is a nice tale and all, and sure, you want to win every game, but if you look at the big picture, you have to prioritize, which is what he did away to Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. That's why he made seven changes from the side that beat Arsenal last Wednesday and we saw the likes of Kostas Tsimikas, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Harvey Elliott, while neither Mohamed Salah nor Sadio Mane was on the bench.
It could have cost Liverpool -- Forest had their chances and proved to be a tough out -- but it was the right decision from Klopp, and he was vindicated. The FA Cup is nice and all, but the Champions League and the Premier League are how a club like Liverpool -- at this juncture in their history -- must measure success.
Bayern Munich roar back and return to record-setting pace, at least in terms of goals
Bayern Munich had dropped several notches in the past weeks, but in Saturday's 4-0 demolition of Union Berlin, they showed they can pick up the pace even with pieces missing.
Folks may point to the return to a back four (of sorts), with Josip Stanisic on the right or Jamal Musiala's solid outing in central midfield. But it's probably simpler than that: the gap is so big that you need to get everything right to take points off Bayern, even when they're not at 100 percent.
For all the chin-scratching surrounding Julian Nagelsmann at times, this team is averaging three goals a game, which means they're on pace to set a single-season goal record (102, a mark set by -- who else? -- Bayern 50 years ago). Then there's Robert Lewandowski, who bagged two goals.
Never mind the fretting over his contract: He has 31 goals in the Bundesliga this season and 45 overall. It might take some effort, but if he manages 11 goals in Bayern's last seven league games, he'll break his own single-season scoring record in the league (which he set just last year). And if he manages another 11 in all competitions (he'll have anywhere between two and five Champions League games remaining), then he'll have his finest goal-scoring campaign to date.
Ismael Bennacer keeps Milan top of Serie A
Never mind the 1-0 scoreline: Milan dominated away to Cagliari on Saturday, recording an xG of 2.42 while managing 21 shots on goal. Ismael Bennacer scored the only goal, but more importantly, Milan looked sharp and effective against an opponent who defended deep and looked to shut up shop.
The ugly note at the end concerns Milan keeper Mike Maignan, who was racially abused at full-time by a number of Cagliari fans. It's not the first time this has happened in Cagliari in recent years -- just ask Moise Kean, Blaise Matuidi or Romelu Lukaku -- and the league has opened an investigation, but if there is a small ray of hope here, it's that Cagliari appear to have gotten the message.
Rather than complaining that they're not a racist club and that Cagliari is not a racist city (which they've done in the past), they have already pledged to identify and ban the offending supporters. To be fair to them, that's what they did last time, handing out lifetime bans to three abusers. This needs to happen again. It's not enough to punish clubs; they need to understand that their first responsibly is acting against their own supporters when they act like this.
It won't fix things overnight, as this will take time, but individuals need to be held to account, just as much as clubs.
Man City come alive after lucky break to advance to FA Cup semifinals
Kevin De Bruyne lamented Manchester City's "too many stupid mistakes" after their game over Southampton, and it may sound unusual to hear somebody complain after a 4-1 win. But Southampton in particular have shown how they can make life difficult for Pep Guardiola's crew and to be sure, until half-time, the two sides were evenly matched.
City picked things up after the break and saw out the game -- a skill you need at this stage of the campaign, particularly when you're battling on two fronts for two bigger prizes. Liverpool may be on track for the Quadruple, but City are (quietly) on track for a treble. One of the two is going home on April 16, after they meet at Wembley in what promises to be an epic semifinal.
Borussia Dortmund drop points (and probably title hopes) in Koln
That victory in midweek, when they pulled within four points of Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich, had given some hope. What if, after everything they've been through this season -- injuries, tactical mishaps, Donyell Malen, defensive blunders -- they somehow get back in the race?
Well, we don't need to worry about that anymore, and they threw this away in typical Dortmund fashion. Marius Wolf (whose look suggests he's trying to do the Erling Haaland "mini me" thing) gave them an early lead, they gifted the opposition the equalizer and then failed to impose themselves after the break.
The season is, in many ways, over. They'll finish second and while that may look good on the books, it will also leave a bitter taste for how everything unfolded (especially in the cups). Time for serious stock-taking and, perhaps, planning for a post-Haaland future.
Inter Milan free fall continues in draw against Fiorentina
Past performance is no guarantee of future success -- it's the standard disclaimer familiar to anyone who buys financial products. But it also applies in some ways to Inter's manager Simone Inzaghi. In each of the past five seasons at Lazio his teams have tailed off in the second half of the season, and it's happening again to Inter, who have won just two of their last nine games. (OK, so one of those was at Anfield against Liverpool, but still...)
In early February, they were top of the league with a four-point margin and a game in hand. Now, they're third and six points back (they still have their game in hand). What's changed? Opponents have figured out how to disrupt their build-up play (Fiorentina on Saturday did just that, coming close to beating them and settling for a 1-1 draw) and the absence of Marcelo Brozovic makes them even more one-dimensional.
Inzaghi needs to come up with something new, or the campaign will peter out.
Chelsea wrap things up quickly against Middlesbrough while they wait for clarity on their future
For a Chelsea side facing bigger issues (so many questions remain over the sale after interested parties submitted bids last Friday) the quarterfinal against Middlesbrough was simply something to get out of the way with as little fuss as possible. They did just that, scoring twice in the first half-hour or so and rotating just enough to preserve tired legs.
Romelu Lukaku found the net, just as he did in his last start (also in the FA Cup) and in some ways, it reinforces what we already suspect. If you get him service, he can be effective as a lone striker. But to do that, you really need wingers (Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech started) and that means no 3-4-2-1, which is Thomas Tuchel's preferred setup, which is why, right now, Kai Havertz remains first choice.
Dybala shows up for Juventus at Salernitana... enough for a new deal?
If you wanted to be unkind, you could get really snarky about Paulo Dybala. He's set for crunch talks with Juventus over a new contract this week -- he's a free agent in June and wants a hefty bump on his current salary -- and against bottom-of-the-table Salernitana, he scores a great goal and shows off his full array of talent.
Except, critics may suggest, Juve don't need Dybala for games like Salernitana. They need him in the Champions League and, alas, he was still injured on Wednesday when they were humiliated and knocked out by Villarreal, 3-0.
I've pointed this out before, but Juve should take the hardest of lines with Dybala. He's 28, this is the last big contract of his career, he has missed tons of time through injury over the past few seasons... keep him, but only at a price that make sense. Beyond that, Juve looked brighter against Salernitana than they did in recent outings (perhaps the level of the opposition had something to do with it) and remain on track for a top-four finish. Max Allegri will take that as they wait for better days.
Abraham leads Mourinho's Roma to rousing derby win over Lazio
The old cliche is that for both Rome teams, winning the derby is more important than what happens the rest of the campaign. Put another way, you can stink it up, but as long as you get the better of the crosstown rivals, you're good in the eyes of the local media and the supporters. It isn't quite that provisional anymore, but Jose Mourinho knows all too well how big his impressive 3-0 win over Lazio will be between now and the end of the campaign.
It helps to purge both the first derby (which they lost to Lazio 3-2), their struggles in Europe (they're still alive in the Conference League, but needing an injury time goal to avoid extra time against Vitesse Arnhem is nothing to write home about) and frankly, in Serie A, they're fifth now, but remain inconsistent.
Tammy Abraham's two goals sent them on their way and they could have had more. There's no doubting the fact these players believe in Mourinho; the challenge is finding some continuity between the highs and lows. A top-four finish is improbable, what you settle for is a sense that they're moving in the right direction, and this win will help tremendously in that regard.
Koke fires Atletico Madrid past Rayo Vallecano ... and they're not going away
It was another "Cholista" victory for Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid away to Rayo Vallecano: guts, grit, a red card, a folk hero finding the net ... and hanging on at the end. It's working for them in the Champions League and all told, it's the getting the job done in the league.
This was their fifth straight win in all competitions and they've now opened up a nice four-point cushion over fifth place. It helps that the early season pretenders for a Champions League spot -- Real Betis, Real Sociedad, Villarreal -- are all dropping off for different reasons.
Tottenham win 'top-four playoff' against West Ham
OK, it's not quite a playoff for the top four, because Manchester United and Arsenal are still very much in the mix for that fourth and final Champions League place. But Tottenham's 3-1 win over West Ham is huge, because it opens up a gap and because it breaks the weird W-L-W-L roller coaster they were on (they beat Brighton in midweek) while offering glimpses of where Antonio Conte wants them to be.
The front three of Harry Kane, Son Heung-Min and Dejan Kulusevski is clicking nicely, Rodrigo Bentancur was effective in midfield and at the back, Cristian Romero is growing into a leader. There are still issues of depth and the wingbacks need work. But at this stage, we can definitively say Conte was off the mark when, in one of his grumpy moments a few weeks ago, said there was a "1% chance" of Tottenham playing in the Champions League next season.
Osimhen does it again, and Napoli keep pace
For the second straight game, Victor Osimhen grabbed both goals as Napoli won 2-1, downing Udinese to stay three points behind Milan in second place. I've written about his growth and Napoli fans will be wondering what things might have been like if he hadn't missed two months through injury earlier this season. On a points-per-game basis, with Osimhen, Napoli would be first.
The challenge now is to keep things going without him, as a rather harsh yellow card picked up in the dying seconds against Udinese means he'll miss Napoli's huge outing after the break away to Atalanta. What's certain is that Napoli have both a gem and a leader on their hands.