The weekend in soccer had everything: seismic results (Milan winning the derby, Barcelona scoring four against Atletico Madrid, Senegal’s first Africa Cup of Nations title), and tons of FA Cup drama as Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea rallied for third-round wins. Oh, and Borussia Dortmund did what Dortmund do a lot these days (lose in style) while Bayern Munich barely broke a sweat to defeat RB Leipzig and maintain their grip on the Bundesliga.
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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Giroud, Milan win derby | Barca thrash Atletico | Senegal’s AFCON triumph | Real Madrid bounce back | Dortmund implode | Vlahovic, Zakaria star for Juve | Liverpool win | Bayern cruise vs. Leipzig | Kane lifts Tottenham | Sevilla heartbreak | Chelsea thump Plymouth | PSG wake up vs. Lille | Fulham no match for Man City
Giroud pushes Milan past Inter in the derby and reopens Serie A title race
Nobody wanted to say it, but it was pretty much do-or-die for the Rossoneri at the San Siro on Saturday. A win for Simone Inzaghi’s men would have sent Inter seven points clear over Milan with a game in hand. Not quite lights out, but near enough, and until 20 minutes from the end, that’s how it was looking.
– Report: Giroud goals lead Milan to derby win over Inter
Inter were a goal up and probably would have had a greater lead if not for Mike Maignan’s heroics in goal for Milan. Edin Dzeko turned himself from center-forward into playmaker to nullify Franck Kessie’s man-marking job on Marcelo Brozovic. Milan struggled to get anything going and Olivier Giroud, starting in place of the injured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, was somehow even less mobile and involved than the 40-year-old he was replacing.
Substitutions change games, however. Inzaghi replaced Lautaro Martinez (tired) with Alexis Sanchez, Ivan Perisic (knock) with Federico Dimarco and Hakan Calhanoglu (booked) with Arturo Vidal. He had reasons for each change, but it’s undeniable that Inter suddenly got markedly worse. They were pushed back into their own half and lost the confidence they had shown to that point.
Meanwhile, Stefano Pioli had thrown on Junior Messias’ quality for Alexis Saelemakers’ pace and Brahim Diaz’s invention for Kessie’s physicality… and the game changed. Having struggled to get the ball to Giroud, Milan were suddenly more threatening. Giroud himself won the ball from Sanchez and started the move that eventually led to the equaliser. (Some felt Sanchez was fouled; in the context of how the game was called, it was never a foul and, in fact, Sanchez himself popped right back up without complaint.) Milan’s winner came after a delicious flick, turn and finish from Giroud that left Stefan De Vrij rooted to the spot.
What does it tell us about the title race? The worst thing Inter can do is panic. They dominated for long stretches and showed they’re not just a better team — or, at least, better than a Milan side without their starting defensive partnership, and without Ibrahimovic and Ante Rebic — they’re also a more versatile side that can create chances from more positions. Individuals determine games, and the two keepers had plenty to do with it. Maignan was superlative, while Samir Handanovic should have done better on the second goal.
The next 10 days won’t be easy: Mourinho’s Roma in the Coppa Italia on Tuesday night, Napoli at the weekend and then Liverpool in the Champions League round of 16. But if they can navigate it by remembering what got them this far and without losing their heads (and Milan Skriniar came close to doing so on Saturday) they’ll still be favourites for the title, regardless of results.
As for Milan, you have to praise them for their belief and spirit in fighting until the end, while acknowledging that Stefano Pioli got outcoached for much of the game. He got a stellar performance from Mike Maignan and Sandro Tonali and the patched-up central defence held up, but, collectively, spirit aside, this is not where they want to be. Theo Hernandez’s needless red card at the end — suspension incoming — didn’t help either. But the three points — and the reaction — matter, and it’s something on which Pioli has to build further.
Craig Burley speaks after Barcelona’s 4-2 win over Atletico Madrid in LaLiga.
Some said it was Barcelona’s best performance under Xavi and regardless of whether you agree, it was arguably the most important. Sunday’s 4-2 victory sends them back into the Champions League places and, psychologically, that in itself is huge. It also underscored Barca’s superiority over Atleti, as well as Xavi’s tactical chops in the way he used his wingers.
On the right, he deployed Adama Traore, who arrived on loan from Wolves. Traore may be something of a one-trick pony and Mario Hermoso did not defend him well (particularly in the way he kept showing him outside where his pace would be notable), but he was a constant stress for Atleti to the point that Diego Simeone dismantled his set-up to help contain him, shifting Joao Felix, Yannick Carrasco and Thomas Lemar. Traore’s runs allowed Dani Alves to come inside from deep, and it’s something which, at this stage of his career, suits more.
– Report: Barcelona put four past Atletico in remarkable win – Xavi pleads with Barca fans: Don’t boo Dembele – Toe Poke: Celebrating Dani Alves’ unique hat-trick vs. Atletico
On the other flank, we saw the opposite. There, Xavi lined up with Gavi, playing Ferran Torres at center-forward. Gavi drifted into midfield, ensuring Barca had the man advantage, supported Torres through the middle and cleared space for Jordi Alba (who scored a phenomenal goal). These aren’t necessarily long-term solutions — Ansu Fati will return, there’s a reason they signed Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and there’s no guarantee that Traore will be around next year — but they showed that Xavi can improve and come up with solutions.
Dani Alves had a hat trick of his own — a goal (a great one as well), an assist and a red card — and showed that he can be both an asset and a liability. The fact that Barca managed just one shot on goal after the Brazilian scored to make it 4-1 early in the second half (and it was 11 vs. 11 until 20 minutes from time) has to be a concern. And while the scoreline was gaudy, let’s not forget Barca were outshot at home by Atleti, who also had the better xG (1.32 to 1.16) at the Camp Nou. So there’s definitely room for improvement.
As for Atletico, this was another defensive horror show beyond the difficulties faced by Hermoso and Sime Vrsaljko on the opposite flank. Joao Felix contributed less and less as the game wore on and, despite the many shots in the second half, it never quite looked as if they were going to reopen the game. Simeone needs to figure things out, otherwise they won’t be back in the top four this season.
Senegal are African champions … but Gabaski shines again
Julien Laurens and Nedum Onuoha give perspective about Senegal earning their first Africa Cup of Nations title by defeating Egypt in penalties.
Senegal are Africa Cup of Nations champions for the first time and, over the course of the tournament, deservedly so. They came in among the favorites and started slowly, scoring just once in the group stage, but then grew as the tourney progressed decisively winning each knockout game by a margin of two goals. They were the better side in the final, too, creating the bulk of the chances and missing an early penalty against an Egypt side who had done the opposite, failing to win any of their knockout ties in the 90 minutes.
Egypt rode the plan they used through the tournament: staunch defending, stellar goalkeeping from the exceptional Gabaski and wait for Mohamed Salah to create something at the other end. Somehow, it worked and it went to penalties.
For a while, it looked as if this would follow past AFCON blueprints, with Egypt gutting out a win in adverse circumstances. But Edouard Mendy saved Mohanad Lasheen’s penalty and, immediately afterwards, Sadio Mane buried his, exorcising the memory of the earlier miss. Mane and Mendy made the headlines, but this was an exceptional Senegal side from top to bottom — the drive of Cheikh Kouyate, the maturity of Abdou Diallo, the immense leadership of Kalidou Koulibaly all played a part. As did, of course, Aliou Cisse from the bench.
Gabaski was named Man of the Match: it’s not often it happens to a player on the losing side, but his performances throughout the tournament thoroughly warranted it. His place in history is secure and he won’t be forgotten. On a different note, let’s also pray that the lessons learned from the stampede at Olembe aren’t forgotten, either. It’s far too often — not just in Africa, but on every continent — that supporters go to a game but fail to return. Safety must come first.
Real Madrid bounce back from cup defeat to beat Granada
Carlo Ancelotti described the 1-0 win over Granada as important, and it was. Not only does it further open their league lead over Sevilla, it also came on the heels of a defeat and, crucially, without Ferland Mendy, Casemiro, Vinicius and Karim Benzema. That’s not something to be taken for granted.
With Isco as a makeshift center-forward and Rodrigo preferred to Eden Hazard, it was Marco Asensio who gave Madrid the three points with a long-range effort. Real Madrid can grind out the sort of wins that are required to win a league, the main priority right now.
Can they also raise their level to challenge for the Champions League? Possibly, but it’s a whole heck of a lot easier with Karim and Vini leading the line.
Jan Age Fjortoft and Archie Rhind-Tutt explain what led to Bayer Leverkusen’s 5-2 demolition of Borussia Dortmund.
Dortmund looked like a parody of themselves against Bayer Leverkusen as they were beaten 5-2 at home. And by a “parody,” I mean a team that already makes ample defensive mistakes making even bigger ones as if they were exaggerating the issues for comic purposes. Dan-Axel Zagadou and Manuel Akanji started at the back, and they will want to forget this game. Against a potent Leverkusen attack led by Patrik Schick (who did everything but score) and able to count on the quality of Florian Wirtz and Moussa Diaby, Marco Rose’s crew were simply road-graded.
Sure, the absence of Erling Haaland didn’t help, but the defensive issues have very little to do with him. They’ve dogged Rose all season (and Lucien Favre before him) and it just seems as if they’re making zero progress in achieving some sort of balance. When you outscore people it doesn’t matter, but with Haaland out, they’re not going to be doing that anyway — especially when he persists in the notion that Donyell Malen can be effective up front on his own. He can’t, and to make matters worse, Rose waited until they were 4-1 down to send on a real center-forward like Youssoufa Moukoko. In fact, take away Steffen Tigges’ garbage time strike and Dortmund generated just 0.48 xG. Sure, you can blame the defenders, but save some blame for the attack, because it’s equally dysfunctional.
Rose supporters will point to the fact they’re second. Great. They have the second-highest wage bill, they have Haaland, they finished second in two of the past three years. That in itself is not a sign of forward progress. The question they ought to be asking is whether this team is progressing at all under Rose.
New boys Vlahovic, Zakaria lift Juventus into the Champions League spots
Dusan Vlahovic could not have imagined a more impressive debut (he could have had a hat-trick), Denis Zakaria showed he’s got goals and not just tackles in his locker, and Max Allegri once again looks like he thinks he’ll have the last laugh. Juve’s two big January signings both scored in the 2-0 win over Verona, but what ought to get Bianconeri fans excited is the way they line up.
There had been a ton of speculation about how this team would fit around Vlahovic and how Paulo Dybala and Alvaro Morata would factor in. Allegri made it simple: both got to start, but both had to play wide and work their butts off, which they did. It’s the right attitude to take towards two talented veterans who are effectively playing for their contracts right now. And, until Federico Chiesa returns, it’s as good a platform as any to exploit Vlahovic’s skills.
With Atalanta losing at home to Cagliari, Juventus rise into fourth place (though they’ve played one more game). They’re unbeaten in 10 Serie A games and haven’t conceded in three. The January market no doubt helped Juventus, but to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of the Old Lady’s demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated …
Luis Diaz shines on debut, Harvey Elliott makes returns and Liverpool are through
Don Hutchison praises Harvey Elliott after the midfielder caps his return from injury with a goal vs. Cardiff.
Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Cardiff could have taken a different turn if the visitors had been awarded a penalty (Ibrahima Konate on Mark Harris) and if Caoimhín Kelleher had been sent off for his tackle on the very same Harris. (Some analysis talked how it wasn’t a “denial of a goal-scoring opportunity” because Konate was back there, too: Focus instead on Kelleher’s boot to Harris’ ankle.) But the calls went Liverpool’s way, so the more interesting talking points concern two substitutes.
Luis Diaz came on and showed flashes of a young Luis Suarez in a red shirt, fighting for every ball and offering quality both out wide and in the box. And Harvey Elliott, back after some five months, scored a gorgeous late goal. Their performance suggests that Mane and Salah can take their time when they return from the Cup of Nations and, in fact, Jurgen Klopp now has an embarrassment of riches in his forward line, which is why you should probably expect Elliott to be part of the rotation in midfield, like he was before his injury.
Bayern’s win over Leipzig says more about their opponent
Leipzig are on the rebound — with three Bundesliga wins on the spin — since Domenico Tedesco took over from Jesse Marsch. It hasn’t been a handbrake turn and there have been setbacks, but they’ve been playing with more confidence and had been climbing up the table. I say that in the past tense, of course, because the 3-2 defeat against Bayern reminded us of their limits. Leipzig gifted them two goals building from the back. It’s the flip side of being confident: Do it at the wrong time against the wrong opponent and you will be punished.
– Report: Own goal lifts Bayern to win over Leipzig
I mention Leipzig because Bayern seemed to play within themselves, preoccupied with metabolising Julian Nagelsmann’s new 3-2-4-1 scheme. But it always felt as if they had another gear, which is why there’s not too much to read into their performance. They’re very good, they’re trying something new and they can still win without going full-throttle. There’s a reason why they’ve won 10 of their past 11 in all competitions, are nine points clear and can afford to lose Manuel Neuer to knee surgery for the next few weeks. Bayern are simply on another level, even when not at their very best.
Kane scores twice to lead Spurs past Brighton as newcomers make their debut
It may sound reductive to say that as Harry Kane goes, so do Spurs, and it probably is. But there’s also a kernel of truth in it. If you get the Harry Kane that showed up against Brighton this weekend, scoring twice in the 3-1 FA Cup third-round win, the Kane who has scored seven goals in his last 11 outings, then things get a whole lot easier. If you get early-season Kane, the one who scored just once in Tottenham’s first 15 Premier League games, well … it’s a different matter.
Tottenham newcomers Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski made their debuts against Brighton — Cristian Romero also made his return — and they will be critical to Antonio Conte’s plans (and Tottenham’s success) this season. But nowhere near as critical as Kane. Especially since the window closed without Spurs, again, picking up a reserve center-forward.
Heartbreak for Rakitic, but Sevilla’s performance says it would have been undeserved
Ivan Rakitic’s missed penalty in injury time away to Osasuna is what separated Sevilla from an ugly win rather than the ugly draw they got. It means the gap with Real Madrid increases by two points, but there was some justice in Rakitic’s miss because frankly, Julen Lopetegui’s crew were poor.
They created little and showed even less urgency against an opponent that shut up shop effectively. There’s still a ton to play for, so it’s best not to dwell on it (or Rakitic’s miss), but instead focus on how you can play better. Starting with Anthony Martial, who looked just like what he is: a guy who has played very little competitive football in the last few months and looked like a foreign object on the pitch.
Plymouth run Chelsea close in terms of goals, but little else
Stewart Robson believes Romelu Lukaku’s current form is cause for concern following Chelsea’s narrow victory over Plymouth Argyle.
They call it the “Magic of the Cup” for a reason, and you can file this one away as Exhibit 8,675,309. Plymouth Argyle travel from the third flight to the home of the European champions, take the lead, go into extra time, go a goal down and come within a missed spot kick of taking the game into penalties. All this with a total wage bill that is probably less than one of Chelsea’s expensive substitutes.
– Report: Alonso’s extra-time goal lifts Chelsea past Plymouth
That’s fun and magical, but it’s also not much of an indicator of how the game actually went. Chelsea hit the woodwork three times. They had at least one pretty crystal-clear penalty appeal turned down. They took 41 shots on goal and had 72% possession. As a novelty cup competition, this was great, but you probably wouldn’t want to see games like these week in, week out.
PSG wake up at the right time
It was the defending champions (Lille) against the future champions (Paris Saint-Germain) and it was a demolition job. If a big part of success is having your big guns well-calibrated and firing at the right time, PSG couldn’t have chosen a better moment for Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe to come alive.
Sunday’s 5-1 away thumping of Lille came on the heels of being knocked out of the French Cup by Nice and a string of uninspired performances domestically. Messi scored his second league goal of the season (yeah, I know it looks like a misprint … it feels like one, too, but believe me, it’s not) and hit the woodwork with one of his trademark ballistic efforts, while Mbappe took his seasonal total to 20.
The lead is 13 points, so you imagine all they have on their minds is Real Madrid in the Champions League. And PSG appear to be peaking at the right time …
Unsurprisingly, Championship leaders no match for Premier League leaders
Craig Burley analyses Jack Grealish’s performance in Manchester City’s win against Fulham in the FA Cup.
It was a neat pregame billing: the cream of the Championship visiting the Premier League pacesetters (and defending champions), but nothing more. Manchester City went a goal down against Fulham, hardly stuttered and took the lead within 10 minutes, before Riyad Mahrez added two in the second half. The gulf was obvious.
– Report: Man City thump Fulham, Mahrez scores twice
Pep Guardiola — as often happens when City beat smaller sides in knockout competition — was effusive in his praise for Fulham and, despite a cameo lasting just 13 minutes, Liam Delap, who happens to be Rory’s son and the sort of brawny center-forward some believe City need (though not necessarily him). Sometimes you wonder if Guardiola, when City do the business, enjoys throwing out random talking points for the benefit of those in the media. After all, many seem numbed by the routine excellence his team serves up every week.