Happy New Year! Only the Premier League and LaLiga were in action of the major European leagues, but the leaner schedule still gave us plenty to discuss. Chelsea and Liverpool played to an entertaining draw that helped neither side keep pace at the top of the table, while Manchester City got a dramatic late win over Arsenal to remain farther ahead -- just don't blame the referee for how the game played out. In Spain, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both won to open 2022, but Real Madrid slipped to a surprising defeat. (They're still miles ahead of their rivals atop the table, though.)
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
The obvious headline data point is that Manchester City won on Saturday and won again on Sunday, when Chelsea and Liverpool shared the spoils 2-2. Even assuming Liverpool win their game in hand -- which is a big assumption -- the gap is eight points over the Reds and 10 points over the Blues. Both head-to-head games are at the Etihad, and both Chelsea (Edouard Mendy) and Liverpool (Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah) are about to lose key players to the Africa Cup of Nations.
It doesn't mean the title race is over, but it does mean it's accelerating in the same direction it went last season.
As for the game itself, let it be a reminder that in this team sport, with all its painstaking planning and emphasis on the collective, individual moments carry outsize influence. There's no legislating for Salah's genius -- the shimmy to free Marcos Alonso, the eyes to befuddle Mendy -- for Liverpool's second goal. There's even less when it comes to Mateo Kovacic's ballistic masterpiece, which was even more of a technical marvel than this one against Lazio years ago. Nor can you account for individual blunders, whether Trevoh Chalobah's botched clearance that led to Liverpool's opener or, frankly, Anthony Taylor's decision not to send off Sadio Mane for the elbow on Cesar Azpilicueta in the first minute.
Those were four moments that changed the outcome, and flow, of the game. Chelsea were, understandably, most incensed by the Mane decision, and it's not hard to see why. It's a pretty obvious red card, and there's no point getting into the mental gymnastics over where Mane is looking -- guess what? Most people can throw an elbow without looking in that direction -- whether he catches him with his forearm or with his elbow -- yes, Mane's elbow to Azpilicueta's face would probably exact more damage, but that's generally irrelevant -- and whether it was an honest attempt to go for the ball (neither player is getting to it). There's a duty of care to your opponent, and Mane deserved to be sent off.
Referee Anthony Taylor, presumably, knows this too, at least after seeing replays. You just hope his decision to show a yellow was an honest, real-time assessment and not some fear of showing a red card inside of 15 seconds and, therefore, "spoiling the game."
Let's be honest about this: In the real world, many times referees officiate differently in different circumstances and points in the game. (Not saying they should; it's just what they do.) But with an incident like this, there is no reason not to apply the Laws of the Game, regardless of when it occurs.
Why, then, did the VAR not invite Taylor to have another look? You hope it's because Taylor said he had a clear view and the VAR, while possibly disagreeing with Taylor's verdict, did not consider it an obvious error. You fear, however, that it might have to do with this ridiculous notion that when a VAR calls a match official to the pitch-side monitor, he's putting him under unbearable pressure to change his decision. It should never be this way: an on-field review of a major incident should simply be about giving the referee more information to make his decision. Taylor is one of the top referees in the Premier League; he won't get everything right, but he has the personality to make up his own mind.
This was one of those games where it felt as if Chelsea had the upper hand throughout and deserved more ... until you watch the highlights and realize that Liverpool had just as many opportunities and Mendy made as many, if not more, big saves as Caoimhin Kelleher. The fact that the xG battle was essentially even (1.31 to 1.34) rather bears this out.
With Romelu Lukaku, Reece James and Ben Chilwell unavailable -- the former by choice, of course, see below -- Thomas Tuchel necessarily needed to make adjustments, and he got a standout performance in the middle of the park from Kovacic and N'Golo Kante. The pair outplayed and outworked Liverpool's midfield, who, of course, had a man advantage. Fabinho and, especially, Jordan Henderson, had very average games by their standards, but the weak link was James Milner.
I've been talking about how Georginio Wijnaldum left without being replaced all season long, and this game was an example. Maybe Liverpool had no choice in letting him go and maybe they felt that, rather than picking up another body, it was better to put your faith in the rest of the midfield corps and hope for the best in terms of development and avoiding injury: Milner, Harvey Elliott, Curtis Jones, Thiago Alcantara, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita.
The problem? Of that half-dozen, five have missed substantial stretches through injury and four (all but Jones and Thiago, as I see it) are a serious downgrade. And when Liverpool's midfield doesn't function as it should, it puts an additional strain on the back four, while offering only intermittent service -- long balls excepted -- to Salah, Mane and Diogo Jota.
Some thoughts on the Lukaku affair
Nicol: Real loss to Getafe an awful day for Hazard
Steve Nicol struggles to see where Eden Hazard's future is after the forward put in another poor performance in Real Madrid's loss to Getafe.
Lukaku and Tuchel were due to meet on Monday. Hopefully, we'll have some clarity afterwards. Whatever you think about his words and the decision to leave him out, two things are pretty clear, in my opinion.
First and foremost, actions speak louder than words, and Tuchel's decision to drop him is a statement unto itself. Chelsea could easily have dismissed it. They could have said it was an out-of-date interview (it was taped three weeks earlier, when Lukaku wasn't starting) and that the situation had changed, and they could have hid behind the statements often wheeled out in these situations: "Of course he's not happy that he's not playing! No manager wants a guy who is content with sitting on the bench and collects a paycheck!" Or: "Of course he wants to go back to Inter one day! He loves the club, just like he came back to Chelsea!"
Tuchel chose not to, and there's likely a reason for that.
Second, there is only so much of a hard line Chelsea can take here. Lukaku is the only genuine center-forward they have, if they want to use a big man. Yes, they can go with some combination of Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Christian Pulisic up front and opt for a more lightweight approach, but of those options, only Werner has any sort of significant experience playing as a center-forward (and his skill set is entirely different to Lukaku's). He's also been injured for a big chunk of the season, like Havertz and Pulisic. Plus, the reality of Chelsea's season is that despite Lukaku starting just eight league games, he has scored five goals, all of them from open play. That's just two fewer than the other four -- who have started 34 games between them -- combined.
Third, if this was some sort of attempt by Lukaku to endear himself to his former fans at Inter or try to engineer a return, he did it in the clumsiest way possible. Leaving aside the obvious -- Inter's finances are a mess, which is why he was sold in the first place -- and the fact that Inter's Ultras made it very clear that they don't want him back (check their banner, which says "those who run away when it rains don't matter ... those who matter stay during the storm ... bye Romelu") telling fans you would have stayed if only you'd been offered a new contract (read: more money) when you had a full three years left isn't exactly a way to win friends and influence people.
Finally, telling folks that he thought he was going to join Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich last summer, when Inter put him up for sale to balance the books, didn't make him seem too clever either. Bayern and Real Madrid had Ballon d'Or candidate center-forwards in Robert Lewandowski and Karim Benzema, while Barcelona's financial meltdown was obvious to all.
Ter Stegen and the 'other' De Jong lead the way for Barcelona
Between the coronavirus, injuries and the transfer window not quite open in Spain (theirs opens Jan. 3), Xavi's Barcelona traveled to Mallorca without a dozen or so first-team players and a bunch of unfamiliar faces to anyone who doesn't follow the adventures of Barca B. That they emerged as 1-0 winners, leapfrogging into fifth place, is down to three things; a tremendous show of personality against a prickly opponent, Marc-Andre ter Stegen's late wonder-save and the performance of Luuk de Jong.
Ter Stegen has had a difficult 2021, but he literally earned Barca two points with his late save. Still, there's no doubting his skills, and he'll remain a Barca mainstay for some time -- unlike De Jong who, presumably, started packing as soon as Ronald Koeman was shown the door in October. Yet De Jong, with teenagers either side of him on the wings (Ilias Akhomach and Ferran Jutgla) came up big. He hit the woodwork twice (one was after a highlight reel overhead kick, no less) and scored the game's only goal with a towering header.
The assumption is that De Jong is on his way out so Barca can save a little on his wages, and he can make way for Ferran Torres and Memphis Depay when they're ready to play. But the latter is not a genuine center-forward and doesn't play like one, while the former hasn't played since October and it's anyone's guess whether Barcelona will be able to register him.
Is there really no role for De Jong, the only real central striker Xavi has, at the Camp Nou? Especially if he's determined to play with wide wingers? Be careful what you wish for ...
Man City lucky to get three points at Arsenal, but cool it with the ref bashing
Regular readers will know that I have absolutely no problem holding referees to account. Heck, I'd go further: I'd have them come out to explain decisions, and I'd make public the match reports their assessors file after each game. I struggle, however, with some of the bile directed at the match officials and VAR in Manchester City's 2-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday.
This was a game Arsenal deserved to win or at least draw. Heck, even Pep Guardiola thought so. Whether you want to go with the eye test, clear-cut chances (from Nathan Ake's goal-line clearances to the various Gabriel Martinelli finishes that went awry) or expected goals (non-penalty xG was 0.97 to 0.44 in Arsenal's favor when Gabriel was sent off), Arsenal looked bright and incisive, whereas City looked listless and worn out.
But refereeing decisions change games. Arsenal fans were miffed that the incident involving Ederson on Martin Odegaard wasn't reviewed by referee Stuart Attwell, whereas Granit Xhaka's tackle on Bernardo Silva was turned into a penalty. From the replay angles I saw, I thought Odegaard should have had a penalty, but I can fully understand why the VAR, who is instructed only to intervene if the ref has missed something or if he makes an evident error, did not ask him to take another look. It's simply not that clear-cut.
As for Xhaka on Silva: Sure, he dives after contact, but there is plenty of contact. We ought to be asking why Attwell missed the original contact entirely. He evidently missed the shirt-pull too, which is why VAR was able to ask him to take another look. I don't see how Bernardo Silva's incident could not have been a penalty, unless you're willing to engage in some serious what-abouttery.
Regarding the Gabriel red, there can't be much doubt about the second yellow. The first one? Well, that depends on whether you believe Attwell misheard, or just pretended that Gabriel said something inappropriate. But in the real world, it doesn't really matter. If the referee books you, however unfair or unjustified you think it may be, it's your responsibility not to give him a reason to book you again (which means do not body-check Gabriel Jesus in the middle of the pitch).
Arsenal had so many positives come out of this game that they may want to focus on those, rather than on the referee and VAR. Because this was a tremendous performance at 11 vs. 11. As for City, this mediocre (by their standards) performance comes after another ho-hum outing against Brentford and a game against Leicester when they conceded three at home. Still, they took nine points, which is why they're likely to be champions.
Militao's blunder costs Real Madrid dearly at Getafe
The nice thing about having a massive lead at the top of the table is that you can weather days like these. Days when your center-back (Eder Militao), who has otherwise been outstanding, gifts the opposition an early goal, allowing Quique Sanchez Flores to shut up shop and forcing you to lay siege on the opposition goal.
To come back in those circumstances, you need to be on top of your game (Real Madrid were not), you need your opponent to make a mistake (Getafe did not) and you need a bit of luck (Luka Modric's shot hit the woodwork; an inch or two the other way and everything changes). Real Madrid were also missing Vinicius Junior, whose scything north-south runs and directness may have opened things up a little.
Ancelotti's attempt to stir things up by replacing his entire left side at the half -- Eden Hazard and Marcelo coming on for Marco Asensio and Ferland Mendy -- was interesting and possibly something we'll see again, despite not bearing fruit. Marcelo gets criticized and he's evidently not a starter anymore, but against opponents who sit deep, he still has the quality to do something (certainly more than Mendy, who is far more of a defensive fullback). Hazard still has the creativity and acceleration in there somewhere; he needs minutes on the pitch to tease it out. It's a long journey back if he's ever going to regain his mojo, and maybe this game was a small step in that direction.
Beyond that, Ancelotti can chalk it up to a bad day at the office. This Madrid side are imperfect, but that doesn't mean they're not going to win LaLiga.
Atletico switch it up to beat Rayo, end four-game losing streak
Both Atletico Madrid and Rayo Vallecano were hit hard by absences on Sunday. Maybe that's why Diego Simeone took the opportunity to do something he rarely does. He switched to a back four, defended far higher up the pitch and pressed Rayo's build-up play from the start. They were humble and blue-collar -- which isn't new -- but they were like that in the other half of the pitch, which is (relatively) new.
Angel Correa, who seems the ideal blue-collar guy for this sort of approach, bagged both goals in the 2-0 win. The question is whether we'll see this version Atleti again when some of the unavailable guys (Koke, Antoine Griezmann, Joao Felix, Marcos Llorente, etc) return, or whether we'll go back to the insecure, chop-and-change Atleti we've seen much of the campaign.
Spurs still working on creativity, but three points will do for now
Tottenham under Antonio Conte aren't exactly easy on the eyes right now, especially against opponents who sit tight and shut up shop, like Watford did on Saturday. (It's a slightly different story against opponents who defend higher up the pitch, because then they have room in which to play). Until they get their patterns of play right -- and perhaps some new personnel in certain roles -- that likely won't change. So, in the meantime, take the points any way you can and keep building confidence.
In Spurs' case, they handily won the xG battle (2.08 to 0.27), they took many more shots and eventually broke through with Davinson Sanchez's header and Watford's collective late switch-off. That's now 18 points from eight games since Conte took over, which is easily a Champions League pace.