Barcelona vs Real Madrid decaf clasico still delivered drama
Next season, La Liga will adopt VAR and while it may still divide opinion, Sunday’s Clasico was a strong argument in favor of the move.
Referee Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez made a string of poor decisions in the 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Real Madrid but what we can be most grateful for is that, in the grand scheme of things, it mattered little. Other than Barca’s pursuit of an undefeated league season — it’s nice but when you step away and realize they lost in other competitions, it pales a tiny bit — the only things that mattered here were pride, tradition and rivalry.
The game itself is still hugely important, of course, but it’s also the sort of thing that, when there aren’t leagues or cups at stake, you can move on from relatively quickly. Barca have a Liga title to celebrate, Real Madrid a Champions League final to prepare. Plus neither Zinedine Zidane nor Ernesto Valverde are the types to complain and dredge up the past.
As for the officiating, it was uneven throughout. The most egregious errors? Luis Suarez clearly fouled Raphael Varane en route to setting up Lionel Messi’s goal, Real Madrid should have had a penalty when Jordi Alba upended Marcelo in the box and Gareth Bale’s assault on Samuel Umtiti merited a straight red or a yellow at the very least. (He got neither.) There were other incidents too as what many had predicted would be a “decaffeinated Clasico” proved to be anything but.
It’s always special when you see “skill” players turning up the intensity in physical terms and this game certainly delivered that, which made it harder to officiate albeit more entertaining for the neutral. But it’s obvious the referee will look back on this match as a bad day at the office and it’s equally obvious that VAR would have made his job easier.
On the bright side, we saw some real moments of sublime skill as you’d expect. Messi did his thing, Cristiano Ronaldo too, until he was hit hard in scoring his goal (a nasty whack to the ankle from Gerard Pique… we’ll know more about his condition this week but knock on wood, he’ll be ready in Kiev). Both Sergi Roberto’s goal and Suarez’s goal were picture perfect, as was Bale’s finish for the equalizer.
You just wonder whether we couldn’t have the same sort of rip-roaring game — with the snarling intensity and tough tackles — albeit with fewer craven errors. Maybe next season…
Chelsea vs. Liverpool a damp squib
Chelsea hosted Liverpool on Sunday and, in many ways, it was the polar opposite of the Clasico. There was something at stake — Jurgen Klopp’s crew could lock up a Champions League spot with a draw, Chelsea needed a win to hang on to their hopes of a top four finish — but the game was a flat affair.
Blame the heat, blame a Liverpool side that were emotionally drained and physically decimated from the midweek Champions League efforts and blame a Chelsea side that focused solely on the result (as they should).
Olivier Giroud’s header was the difference between the two sides as Liverpool couldn’t find a way past Chelsea’s low defensive block. (Mohamed Salah was booked for diving along the way, one of the few blots on his stellar season.) Chelsea’s chances of making it remain wafer-thin, and maybe they’ll reflect on the fact that if they come up short, they can blame the home defeat to Tottenham on April Fool’s Day: they need to run the table and hope that Spurs and/or Liverpool drop points. But at least it’s not ending with a whimper.
As for Liverpool, they have bigger fish to fry…
Juve’s toughest title win ever?
Juventus took another giant step towards the Serie A title, coming from behind to beat Bologna 3-1. It’s easy to be snide and take things for granted but Juve went a goal down to the sort of penalty that, supposedly, never gets called against them. And the equalizer only came via a screwy own goal by Sebastian de Maio. All this, by the way, against a Bologna team with zero to play for, which most expected to mean “on the beach.”
Max Allegri says this title, if it comes, will be the toughest he’s won. He’s right. Juventus were pushed hard by Napoli, they had to hit the highest points total of the Allegri Era to win it and they did it while undergoing a transition in key areas.
All they need is a point away to Roma (who also need a point to be sure of a top four finish) to win it next week. And if that doesn’t happen, they can get the point the next week at home against Verona. Or maybe, even if they don’t win out, Napoli will drop points.
It’s just about in the bag.
The Emirates says goodbye to Wenger
Arsene Wenger said goodbye to the Emirates crowd in an emotional and touching 11-minute speech on Sunday, as Arsenal walloped Burnley 5-0. Given the circumstances of his departure, he showed dignity and class.
The odd thing is that this wasn’t his last game. Arsenal have two more matches left, away to Leicester and Huddersfield. They’re bound to feel more than a little flat, particularly since Arsenal have absolutely nothing to play for — they will finish sixth regardless — and really, neither do Leicester, while Huddersfield may well be safe by the time Arsenal play them.
In some ways, it would probably be more fitting if Sunday had been his final match. Leave the last two to Steve Bould or whomever and get on with the next chapter, for Wenger and for Arsenal.
Tedesco works his magic at Schalke
Schalke locked up second place in the Bundesliga this weekend, their highest league position since 2010. That they’ve delivered it with a 32-year-old manager who, at that point, had all of 11 professional matches under his belt, is all the more remarkable.
We’re used to German clubs doing things their own way, chucking extremely young managers into the fray and often turning to people who never played professionally. Still, what Domenico Tedesco has achieved at one of Germany’s three biggest clubs in his very first top flight season is nothing short of remarkable. And he did it while losing his record signing, Nabil Bentaleb, for three months and having his best player, Leon Goretzka, announce in mid-season that he was leaving on a free transfer to join Bayern.
Kudos to him: the challenge now is coming up with an encore.
Napoli’s season is fizzling out
Napoli’s 2-2 home draw with Torino was their likely farewell to the title. But more than the game — twice ahead, twice pegged back — it was interesting to note the fans’ reaction to manager Maurizio Sarri and the club owner, Aurelio De Laurentiis.
The latter had appeared critical of Sarri in interviews that appeared the previous day, noting that the team were tired because he didn’t rotate them as much as he should have and lamenting the time he did rotate, against Leipzig in the Europa League. He also implied there was a “chicken-and-egg” thing going on: he couldn’t provide him with a deeper squad because players didn’t want to come if they knew Sarri wasn’t going to play them.
It was a bit of a jibe and the backstory is that Sarri has a €8 million ($9m) release clause in his contract and as you’d expect, he has plenty of suitors. De Laurentiis went on to say he’d be happy if he stayed but equally, if he wanted to leave, he’d let him go — as long as someone ponied up the money.
The San Paolo crowd left no doubt as to where they stood. Sarri was greeted with an ovation while there were murmurs against De Laurentiis. Given what the club have achieved this season, it only makes sense.
Mourinho goes in hard on his squad again
Jose Mourinho could have taken Friday night’s Brighton defeat on the chin, pointed to the league table (with Manchester United in second place) and the FA Cup final in two weeks’ time and simply told his critics that results proved him right. But instead, he went further.
“Media in general [should be disappointed] because for many months you are always asking me why this player doesn’t play, why that player doesn’t play, why this player is on the bench, why always Lukaku?” he said. “Probably I know my players best than you and probably you don’t know them so well to be always with these questions.”
Mourinho knew exactly how that answer would be read: an indictment of Marucs Rashford and Antony Martial. All season long, some have questioned why they didn’t get more playing time. Against Brighton, both played and both were poor.
We’ve said it before but it’s worth repeating: things rarely happen by accident with Mourinho and, if he’s going to be throw one of his guys under the bus, he has to be confident he’ll get the right reaction from him. Evidently he must think this is the best way to get a reaction out of Rashford and, to a lesser degree Martial, though at this stage, you wouldn’t be surprised if he had written him off completely).
Time will tell whether he got it right. Either way, it’s jarring to hear.
A moment of praise for a “football God”
Alexander Meier is the epitome of the provincial cult hero, evidence that great men, great footballers and great stories exist away from the uber-hyped big clubs.
The man they call “Fussball Gott” (“football God”) is in his 14th and likely final year at Eintracht Franfkurt, for whom he has scored 118 goals. That’s not a bad total for a 6-foot-5 attacking midfielder who was the Bundesliga’s top goalscorer three years ago.
Successive foot injuries and a bout of Lyme disease meant he hadn’t played since the German Cup final last May. He made his return on Saturday when Eintracht hosted Hamburg, coming on with four minutes to go and scoring to make it 3-0. His deal is up at the end of the season and it’s not clear whether we’ll see him again.
But many of us will remember him as a wonderfully unorthodox and inspirational player who did things men of his size don’t generally do. And we’ll be left to wonder: what cruel national team boss (yes, I’m looking at you, Jogi Loew) can’t even find a single cap for a legitimate “God?”
Spurs stumble yet again
Tottenham don’t like it when people joke about being “Spursy” as a euphemism for collapsing under pressure or make reference to Saint Totteringham’s Day — which, to be fair, Arsenal fans haven’t been able to celebrate in several years — but this is turning into a veritable late season free-fall.
The dramatic 1-0 defeat to West Brom means they’ve taken just four of a possible 12 points in their last four games. The gap over Chelsea, which stood as high as 11 points a month ago (albeit with an extra game played), is now down to just two points.
Harry Kane doesn’t look fully fit but more than that, they’re simply not playing well. Whether it’s exhaustion or rumors surrounding Mauricio Pochettino’s future (ones he fuels when he talks about somebody else being in charge of the “project” one day), it’s turning the end of Tottenham’s campaign into something far nervier than it ought to be.
VAR mess hampers A-League’s Grand Final
It’s no secret that of all the leagues that have adopted VAR, Australia’s A-League has had by far the worst experience. From what I can tell, a lot of it has to do with poor application (and poor referees) that only makes the natural price we pay for VAR — delays, loss of spontaneous celebrations, etc. — that much stiffer. But this past weekend, the A-League managed to stray into new VAR territory, and in the Grand Final no less: they somehow lost pictures, which meant they couldn’t go back to review Melbourne Victory’s opening goal. As it happened, the goal was offside.
I think VAR is worth pursuing myself and a technological blunder — the first one that I’m aware of in more than a thousand VAR games, anyway — shouldn’t change that. Still, it’s hugely disappointing that there was no contingency to deal with this. And it’s not something you can simply argue away by saying that without VAR, the goal would still have stood and we would have accepted the error. That’s because assistant referees are instructed to give the benefit of the doubt on close offside in these situations since an incorrect offside call can’t be called back, but a goal scored in an offside position can’t be disallowed.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.