This was the final weekend before European soccer goes on hold until after the World Cup, and it certainly delivered plenty for us to talk and think about over the coming weeks. There were big wins for Juventus, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool. There were concerns for Man City and Milan to dissect during the break, too, but the biggest event of all was arguably Sunday night's seismic remarks by Cristiano Ronaldo about his unhappiness at Manchester United.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Ronaldo's words give both him and Man United a chance to move on
It's Monday, and we really should be talking about Alejandro Garnacho's last-ditch winner for Manchester United against Fulham and how they've lost just once since Oct. 2. But of course, it's all overshadowed by Cristiano Ronaldo's bombshell interview in which he said he felt disrespected by coach Erik ten Hag and therefore "doesn't respect" the United manager.
It's easy to get emotional, and to be sure, right now everybody is vilifying Ronaldo. Any player who comes out so explicitly against his manager and the folks running his club is unlikely to ever play for the club again, barring some improbable 180-degree turn. And while Ronaldo isn't "any player," the rules apply to him as well. Especially since -- let's face it -- he doesn't come at this from a position of strength.
United and Ronaldo's agent spent last summer trying to get him a move. Not because he wasn't productive -- lest we forget, he was the third-highest scorer in the Premier League last season -- but because the club recognized they were embarking on a long rebuild process and that Ronaldo simply doesn't fit the style of football Ten Hag played at Ajax. And at age 37, with a year left on his massive contract, it made little sense for him to stick around.
The move never materialised mainly because the clubs who could afford Ronaldo didn't want him at anything near his current salary (or didn't want him at all), Ronaldo wasn't prepared to take a sufficient pay cut and United weren't willing to take a financial hit to let him go (something they could have done by waiving the transfer fee or simply paying part of the wages owed to him in 2022-23).
We don't know exactly what the holdup was and where the blame lies for the fact that he stayed at Old Trafford, but it's evident that both the club and Ronaldo's agent, Jorge Mendes (as well as Ronaldo himself), are all responsible for the fact that no deal was struck. (Ten Hag is pretty blameless in that regard, despite repeatedly saying that Ronaldo was never going to be a problem and talking about how he wanted him to stay: He was a newly installed manager, he had very little clout at that time and was in no position to make demands of anyone.)
That's the obvious starting point here, and why nobody should be wholly surprised that things turned out the way they did. Disappointed, sure. Surprised, no. Least of all Mendes, Ronaldo's longtime agent, who is having a nightmarish few months.
Janusz Michallik thinks Manchester City are in danger of becoming a little one-dimensional in attack with Erling Haaland when they are trying to get back into games.
Let's leave the pompousness about "Ronaldo ruining his legacy at the club" and other nonsense to one side. I'd imagine most United fans see Ronaldo for what he is: a legitimate GOAT candidate who achieved more than almost anyone who has played the sport and who was instrumental to their success in his first stint with the club (and the €100m fee he fetched when moved to Real Madrid was a world-record fee). But also, like many ultra-elite athletes, a protected species who lives in an echo chamber of "yes men" and is accustomed to being treated differently because, well, he's different. (And, before we get hypocritical about this, others in his position, from Michael Jordan to Tom Brady to Diego Maradona, have also not been treated like the bulk of their teammates.)
Most fans understood the pros and cons of bringing him back to United, and you'd hope the club did too. And most, I think, appreciate that whatever bitter taste his words on Sunday night might leave, they're not going to impact what he brought to the club over 7½ seasons.
Did Ronaldo break club rules by giving an unauthorized interview? Absolutely, yes. Was he out of line and needlessly disrespectful of his employers? Sure, and like many, I think Ten Hag is entitled never to pick him again. But what surprises us, I think, isn't what he said, because we all imagined it's how he felt. Twenty years in the limelight has given us a pretty clear idea of his personality, and that this is exactly how we expect him to feel. (Indeed, the only thing that surprised me is that he had never heard of Ralf Rangnick and had to look him up.)
The surprise is that he went ahead and said in such a public way what most thought he was thinking. Because that's not how we expect highly paid professional athletes under contract to behave.
So why did he do it? Was it to get a move away from United? That will be the effect, you'd imagine, but he certainly didn't need to go and sit with Piers Morgan for hours to achieve that.
Was it to shower United fans with truths about the club's situation and remind them of how much he loves them? Maybe, but if so, it's the umpteenth exhibit of how whoever is advising him (and it can't be just Mendes) misreads the room. If it was purely sincere, he badly misunderstood how people would react: After a decade of false starts and frustrations, they don't need Ronaldo to remind them of what they already know. Also, an act of brazen indiscipline like this one offends them more than the fact that the jacuzzi at the training ground hasn't been upgraded in a decade.
Was it some sort of Machiavellian power play to undermine Ten Hag and effect change at the club? If so, he really is deluded. It might have had that effect after United lost their opening two games to the campaign, and if Cristiano had been banging in goals. But not now that they're in fifth place, and not when Ronaldo has managed just three goals in all competitions this season (two of them against Sheriff Tiraspol).
My guess is he did it to clear his head ahead of the World Cup and to not have this sort of uncertainty hanging over him. He got it off his chest, he accepts (you presume) that he probably won't play for United again, and he'll deal with it after Qatar 2022. For now, all his mental energy can be focused on one thing: Portugal and trying to win the World Cup.
And maybe this is the positive spin you can put on it for all involved. Not moving last summer was a massive screw-up, whether the fault is to be collectively shared by Mendes, Ronaldo and United, or whether it lies more with one party than the other. And make no mistake about it: While there may have been no formal offers beyond the one from Saudi Arabia, there were a number of clubs who would have taken him if the price tag (i.e., his wages, contract length and whatever United might have wanted in return) were lower.
Are those interested parties still around today? I think so, but it depends on price. Like I said, I don't see -- barring a grovelling apology -- how he can play for United ever again. And if the alternative is to spend six months not playing football at his age (he's 38 in February), that should give him all the motivation he needs to take a pay cut and find another team. Equally, from United's perspective, if you're not going to play him and still pay him north of €20m, it makes no sense to keep him around.
Shocking as Sunday night was, the outcome can end up being a positive for Manchester United and, maybe, for Cristiano too. The sour taste, however, will linger.
Juventus are on the upswing thanks to youth -- but don't get carried away
Juve's 3-0 win over Lazio made it six consecutive Serie A victories and six straight clean sheets, which has lifted them into third place. That's the good news. But before we proclaim that Max Allegri has been vindicated and that mainstream opinion was wrong in calling for his job, let's take a breather, shall we?
First, if we're taking trends, let's remember that there were two Champions League defeats mixed into the six league wins. And one of those was against Benfica, when they were battered for 75 minutes. Second, while Juve were impressive against Lazio, they were a whole lot less impressive in the two previous wins, against Inter and Verona (when they lost the expected goals, or xG, battle in both).
Third, while the team gets praised to high heaven for having the stingiest defence in Serie A, it's worth noting that the six goals they've given up coincide had an xG conceded figure of 13.94, and numbers have a way of regressing to the mean. Fourth, none of this changes the basic fact that Allegri himself said he needed his front six of Dusan Vlahovic, Federico Chiesa, Angel Di Maria, Paul Pogba, Leandro Paredes and Adrien Rabiot to be competitive. Rabiot has been exceptional, but Vlahovic has missed the past four wins. The other four started zero games between them during their winning run.
All of which tells you that whatever plan Allegri had, this isn't it. In fact, Juve's recent success has been driven by youngsters (Nicolo' Fagioli, Fabio Miretti, Moise Kean) and guys who, in his view, were meant to be squad players. This suggests maybe Allegri is better when he works with what he has and encourages his players, rather than moaning about the guys who aren't there.
Man City get undone by Brentford; is that a reason to worry?
Pep Guardiola was full of praise -- as he usually is when City lose -- for Brentford and Thomas Frank after seeing his side tripped up at home 2-1, a defeat that leaves them five points behind Arsenal at the top of the Premier League.
Contradictory as it might sound, Brentford's game plan was at once simple and sophisticated. Simple in the planning -- three holding midfielders to congest the area in front of the defence, counterattacking via long balls to Ivan Toney, who scored twice, to evade the press -- but sophisticated in the execution. There is a fiendish amount of work and physical skill that goes into making a deep-lying defence work, and Toney's long balls only function if players make the correct runs around him, which also takes work and sophistication. Brentford managed to turn City's 74% possession into sterile possession and, even before Toney's winner, the xG favored the visitors, which says a lot about their performance (and City's).
So should Pep worry that opponents being organized in this fashion can be his kryptonite? I'm not sure, because few teams are built the way Brentford are and fewer still can execute this well. More of a concern, perhaps, is how City appeared switched off for long stretches. It might simply be a function of the upcoming World Cup, in which case there's nothing to worry about.
Bayern Munich roll on as Musiala shines again, Choupo-Moting scores again
Julian Nagelsmann's crew weren't especially devastating away to Schalke, though the scoreline could have been plenty more than 2-0 in the end. With the World Cup around the corner, that's more than understandable: Get the three points and move on.
What we did see was Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting's scoring streak resume after the brief interlude against Werder Bremen: He's got 10 goals in his past nine games. We also saw yet another standout performance from Jamal Musiala, who, lest we forget, doesn't even turn 20 until February. Musiala's dad is Nigerian, his mom is German and he grew up near London, spending eight years in Chelsea's Academy and representing England right up to the Under-21 level. At some point, Chelsea and England will want an inquest on how he got away.
If Arsenal don't win the Premier League, it won't be because Gabriel Jesus doesn't score 20 goals
Arsenal's 2-0 win away to Wolves wasn't a foregone conclusion. Yes, they were playing the bottom club, but one that had players wanting to impress a new manager (Julen Lopetegui was up in the stands), defending deep and perhaps thinking about the long break ahead. After all, this Arsenal side put arguably their worst performance of the season against Southampton, and the Saints are just one place above Wolves. In the end, Martin Odegaard's two goals steered them to the three points, which extends their league lead to five points following Manchester City's defeat at Brentford earlier in the weekend.
I still see City as favourites for the title, mainly because of the two remaining head-to-heads and the difference in quality, experience and depth between the two sides. But if Arsenal don't win it, it won't be because Gabriel Jesus doesn't score 20 league goals this year.
The Brazilian player has been proving me wrong -- I had my doubts given the size of the fee with one year left on his deal and the type of player he is -- with his performances, but he's not on track to score 20 goals -- or close to it. Through 14 games he has five, which projects to 13 or 14 goals.
But the cliche that you need a 20-goal scorer to win titles is just silly. Three of the past 10 Premier League winners did not have one. Sure, teams that win titles tend to score plenty of goals and center-forwards tend to score lots of goals, so it's likely that a league winner will have a 20-goal striker. It's likely, but not indispensable.
Arsenal are the second-highest scorers in the Premier League and have the third-highest non-penalty xG. That's what matters. It's not as if you get more points when your center-forward scores rather than your right-back.
'MNM' say au revoir to Parc des Princes as PSG roll past Auxerre
So much for players picking up phantom injuries before their last club game ahead of the World Cup. Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe all started for Paris Saint-Germain in the 5-0 walloping of Auxerre. Messi and Neymar came off with just over 15 minutes to go, but nobody is going to fault them for it -- least of all Hugo Ekitike, the 20-year-old heir apparent up front, who scored his first PSG goal.
It's a testament to the environment Christophe Galtier has put together at PSG that it was never an issue whether any part of the "MNM" trio might want to take a breather before jetting off to Qatar. On the contrary, they looked like they were having a rip-roaring time out there.
Result is the only positive takeaway for Milan right now
The win over Fiorentina came late, as is becoming a regular occurrence for Milan, and it was not without controversy either. Ante Rebic tried to head Aster Vranckx's looping cross toward goal, Fiorentina keeper Pietro Terracciano collided with him, both missed the ball and it ended up in an own goal by Nikola Milenkovic at the far post. Fiorentina protested that Terraciano had been fouled, but as I see it, they were wrong.
Still, it wasn't much to crow about for Milan, who were thoroughly outplayed in the first half and who became ragged and chaotic in chasing the game, even as they came away with a 2-1 win. We've said before that they have a number of injuries and that their results (33 points after 15 games) aren't bad. But it's the performances that leave a lot to be desired, not just in terms of quality, but in terms of intensity too.
Stefano Pioli can, of course, still catch Napoli (eight points ahead), but above all, he needs to kick it up a notch to protect Milan from the sides around them, because fifth place -- and no Champions League -- is just three points away.
Newcastle sink Chelsea, too, as top-four becomes more of a reality with every passing day
OK, so Chelsea have a ton of injuries, a poorly assorted squad and were coming off consecutive defeats in the Premier League. Still, it was striking how passive and disjointed they looked en route to a 1-0 defeat against a Newcastle side that wears its blue collar proudly but still has plenty of quality.
At the very least, you would have expected some of the players not going to Qatar or who had been on the fringes of the squad to give you more. Nope. They were defeated by a single goal, and it could have been more.
Chelsea are now eighth, and while everyone agrees about how difficult a job Potter has and how he needs time to work, things can get ugly very fast. As for Newcastle, a top-four finish this season would see them slightly ahead of schedule, but it's very much a possibility. And the points they're putting away now will serve them in good stead after the break when, you presume, the likes of United, Liverpool and possibly Chelsea will be back with a vengeance.
Yet another come-from-behind win for Tottenham, this time against Leeds
Two late Rodrigo Bentancur goals turned a 3-2 defeat against Leeds into a 4-3 victory. That's the good news for Antonio Conte and Tottenham. The bad news is that they were sucked into the sort of cluster-mess vortex of mistakes and chaos that often materialises whenever Leeds roll into town.
This was such a wild game that I don't know there are too many takeaways, other than the fact that Spurs are a far better team when Dejan Kulusevski and Richarlison start, and that the VAR (video assistant referee) made an incomprehensible mistake when he didn't send the referee for an on-field review for Harry Kane's equaliser after Clement Lenglet pancaked IIIan Meslier.
This is not where Conte wants to be, and he'd be the first to admit this game could have gone every which way. The reaction (and the fact that they weren't terrible in the first half, unlike previous outings) is nice, but it won't be enough for Conte. I suspect he'll spend the World Cup rooting against whichever countries his players represent so he can get them back into training and begin working things out.
Napoli bandwagon rolls past Udinese despite late scare
Actually, it wasn't much of a late scare -- more a case of a home team dominating, going 3-0 up, spurning chances for more and then conceding two goals in the last 11 minutes, one of them after an individual error from the normally rock-solid Kim Min-Jae. And then, realising they didn't want to needlessly drop points at home like they did in past seasons, they shut up shop, limiting Udinese to a single, innocuous shot on goal as they preserved the 3-2 win.
The upshot? Napoli go into the break in first place with an eight-point lead over Milan. In the Champions League, they topped their group with five wins and get, on paper, a beatable opponent in Eintracht Frankfurt when the tournament resumes in February. They have won 16 of their past 17 games in all competitions, and they're sending only five players -- Kim, Andre-Frank Zambo-Anguissa, Hirving "Chucky" Lozano, Piotr Zielinski and Mathias Olivera -- to the World Cup, which bodes well for the restart.
Nobody wants to get carried away, but ...
Nunez delivers for Liverpool, but there's a long way to go
With Jurgen Klopp in the stands serving his one-game suspension, Southampton having just changed their manager and this being the final game before the World Cup break, everything coming out of Anfield on Saturday ought to be taken with a grain of salt, starting with Liverpool's performance, which was OK, without being the Liverpool of old. Everything that is, barring two things: the three points and the play of Darwin Nunez.
The three points matter because making up seven points on fourth place with a game in hand is easier than making up nine. That's just a fact and it matters, particularly with Fenway Sports Group being open to a full or partial sale of the club. Liverpool is simply worth more if they're in the Champions League.
As for Nunez, this was possibly his best performance since joining the club. It wasn't just the goals -- it was the movement and energy he brought to his flank. There were shades of his predecessor, Sadio Mane, though, of course, in an entirely different package. Nunez's transfer fee might have been in in the Erling Haaland range, but it was always going to take him time to settle in a very different system from the one he knew from Benfica.
Dzeko powers Inter comeback against Atalanta
It was your classic game of two halves. We saw a reprise of the high-energy Atalanta, man-marking all over the pitch, taking the lead and making Inter look silly for much of the first half. And then we saw the comeback, led by Edin Dzeko, who bagged two goals en route to a 3-2 win.
It's been said that times have changed and that center-forwards -- from Karim Benzema to Cristiano Ronaldo, from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Jamie Vardy -- have changed the paradigm, looking after themselves and staying fit into their mid-30s. Dzeko is 36 and has shown plenty of productivity in the Bundesliga, Premier League and Serie A. Other than the usual and cliched (but accurate) lines about fitness and looking after yourself, the secret to his longevity is simple: His mind is as sharp as ever and he is a technically brilliant and unselfish player.
You're never going to judge Dzeko on goals alone (though he's still scoring plenty), because he does so much more. And with a few tweaks and the right system, he can still be a difference-maker. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to spend his final year backing up Romelu Lukaku.
... and finally, #BasDostWatch
Bas Dost started for Utrecht and scored in their 4-0 away victory against Volendam. He now has six goals in 13 appearances for Utrecht and is on pace to score 15 goals in the Eredivisie.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.