Real Madrid inched closer to the title in Spain, Man United turned on the style vs. Bournemouth and Serie A's three-team title race might be down to just one team. (Yep, it's Juventus.) It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the sport of football from the past week.
Jump to: Barca cry foul over Real's VAR win | Man United's superb attack | Inter choke in Serie A race | Man City have work to do | Ronaldo's confidence boost? | Barca fix Griezmann issue? | Don't read into Liverpool's form | Bayern's perfect week | Chelsea are thriving | Lazio's title hopes end in Italy? | Arsenal's turnaround continues
Did VAR help Real Madrid in title race? Barcelona seem to think so
When you're under fire, you play to your base, whether it's politics or sports. And that's what Barcelona president Jose Maria Bartomeu did on Sunday with his criticism of VAR.
"I saw the game in Bilbao, another win for Madrid," he said. "Our message, which I will repeat: I feel bad, but VAR is not at the level that we hoped for the best league in the world. Since the league restarted, it's not been very fair and that's having an effect on results. And it seems it always favours the same [team].
"There have been many games when VAR has favoured the same [team] ... and many teams have been disadvantaged as a result."
Bartomeu was talking about Real Madrid's hard-fought 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao. VAR flagged up Dani Garcia's foul on Marcelo, inviting referee Jose Gonzalez Gonzalez to take another look. He did just that and correctly awarded Real Madrid a penalty, which Sergio Ramos converted. When Ramos stepped on Raul Garcia later on, however, there was no on-field review. (He was also referring, indirectly, to a number of VAR-influenced decisions that have gone Madrid's way.)
Let's get this out of the way. I don't buy Ramos' explanation that he stumbled, I think he knew exactly what he was doing -- and so did Garcia, two guys cut from the same cloth when it comes to winning at all costs -- and it could very easily have been a penalty. And yes, as I've written before, when referees aren't sure and there are gray areas, they will sometimes tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the bigger team. It's called "psychological subjection" and it's usually an unconscious process.
But Bartomeu's generic attack on VAR is a cop-out here. What exactly is he saying? If VAR is bad, or "not at the level ... of the best league in the world," then mistakes should be random and even themselves out. If it "always favours the same team," then it's not a question of VAR being bad, but a question of VAR being biased, and that's a far deeper issue. It's also a far more serious accusation of the sort that will get you in trouble, which may explain why he stopped just short.
What's evident here is that the Spanish FA could help themselves tremendously by shedding light on the process that led to Sunday's decisions. In the Raul Garcia case, did VAR alert the referee? If so, what did they say? Was it a case of the referee feeling he had a clear enough look that he did not need an on-field review?
We don't know all these answers, of course, and that's why suspicions get fueled, ultimately allowing Bartomeu to say stuff like this. At a minimum, this should have been a situation that the referee reviews pitch-side. But he's only going to do that if the VAR encourages him. Unless, of course, there really is a vast pro-Real Madrid conspiracy. That said, if that's the case, it's a pretty recent one, given they've won just two Liga titles in the past 11 seasons.
As for the game itself, Zinedine Zidane made some big calls. He gave Marco Asensio his first start in nearly 14 months, pairing him with Rodrygo on the wing. It continues his trend of rotating players as the fixtures come thick and fast, and it may offer a non-VAR alternative reading of why Real Madrid are coping with the post-lockdown fixture congestion -- they've won seven of seven -- better than Barca. They simply have a deeper squad with more interchangeable players. When you have Toni Kroos, Gareth Bale, Lucas Vazquez, Luka Jovic, Isco, Ferland Mendy and Vinicius Junior on the bench, that's a wealth of talent to choose from.
Contrast this with Barca's bench against Villarreal, whose most notable names are Ivan Rakitic, Arthur, Martin Braithwaite, Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati. And, of those, consider that Arthur's bags are packed, Braithwaite spent the first half of the season at Leganes, who are second-bottom, Puig has two Barca starts to his name and Fati turned 17 on Halloween.
Man United's attack gives fans plenty to get excited about
If you're the sort who doesn't easily get excited, Manchester United's resurgence isn't a surprise. Their two most gifted players, Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, are fit again and they spent a fortune on Bruno Fernandes, so it's not a big deal that a side who were eighth at the halfway point should now be fifth and coming off four straight wins.
But in fact, there's plenty to be excited about, starting with Mason Greenwood. Although his two goals were impressive, the numbers here matter less than the eye test. His canny movement is not what you expect from an 18-year-old. The ease and power with which he got his shot off -- regardless of whether you think Aaron Ramsdale should have done better -- for the first goal was special. The close control, balance and confidence with which he finished his second goal were even better (with his weaker foot, no less).
My colleague Mark Ogden reckons Greenwood is channeling his inner Robin Van Persie and is better than Rashford was at the same age. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said he was the best finisher he has worked with. You don't want to get carried away, but the front three of Greenwood, Rashford and Anthony Martial (who also scored a peach of a goal) have an average ageof 21, and the former two in particular are nowhere near their ceiling. The question is what the right pieces are to put behind them, in midfield and defence, and whether this is the right coaching setup to maximise their continued development.
Have Inter blown their shot at Serie A title?
Inter's capacity for self-harm is seemingly limitless. You're at home, you're winning 1-0 and you're dominating. The opposition -- who are stuck in mid-table and have nothing to play for but pride -- go down to 10 men and, shortly thereafter, you're awarded a penalty.
And you throw it all away. Lautaro Martinez sees his shot saved from the spot, Roberto Gagliardini misses the rebound/sitter, an 18-year-old Musa Juwara scores his first senior goal to equalize, Alessandro Bastoni gets himself sent off and, 10 minutes from time, Musa Barrow scores the winner for Bologna. And suddenly, whatever slim hopes for the scudetto you may have harboured vanish.
I have no idea where Antonio Conte began his postmatch inquest: Suffice to say, he was an hour late for his news conference. I hope it wasn't with the decision taken by Romelu Lukaku (Inter's designated penalty-taker) to let his teammate Martinez take the spot-kick in order to boost his confidence. Some Italian media criticized Lukaku for being too generous, saying that it's a choice you make at 3-0, not 1-0, but frankly, that's nonsense. And it's certainly not what cost Inter the game.
They lost because they didn't take their chances (including Martinez sure, but it's not as if he's a mannequin ... he's a 100m-rated pro who already converted two penalties this season), because Christian Eriksen had another bad game and because they made bad decisions at the back.
Oh, and because two guys from the Gambia both named Musa seized the day. Barrow is no surprise; he's only 21 but has been unstoppable since the restart. Juwara came out of nowhere and has a remarkable backstory. Orphaned as a child, he arrived in Italy by boat, traveling alone and was later adopted by his coach. It's a heartwarming story, but also a reminder that while football may be one of the most accessible sports around, the path is by no means straightforward for many.
Inter's loss is as much about what those two were able to do as it is about their own deficiencies. And while Conte is right to bemoan the defeat, it's also worth celebrating what these two young men from the one of Africa's smallest countries (population of less than 2.2 million) achieved.
Man City have a lot of work to do this offseason
Pep Guardiola said that Manchester City's 1-0 defeat at Southampton on Sunday reflected their season. They dominated, they took 26 shots on goal and recorded an xG well above 3, but lost following an error in midfield and a 40-yard lob from a striker (Che Adams) who had failed to score in his past 35 appearances.
I get where Guardiola is coming from. City are on pace to finish the season with 76 points, which would be their second-lowest points total in the past decade. And for a team that averaged 99 points the past two seasons, it's an abysmal drop-off. That's not who they are, that's not what they are, and they've been unlucky, too.
Equally though, there's a risk in telling yourself that. It can lull you into thinking the best option is to simply stay the course and wait for things to straighten themselves out. Besides, of the 12 games they failed to win this year, not all of them followed the Southampton script. There is still plenty on which to work.
Ronaldo gains "confidence" in Juve's latest win
If you hadn't heard him say it pitchside postgame, you would have thought he was misquoted.
"I needed that free kick goal to get some confidence back." Yes, that was Cristiano Ronaldo talking about how scoring a free kick in the 4-1 win over Torino Saturday -- something he hadn't done in a league game since 2016-17 -- gave him "confidence."
It's remarkable, because nothing in his appearance or body language over the past few seasons suggested he was lacking confidence. Sure, Father Time passes for him like it does for everybody else (albeit perhaps more slowly), but this is still the guy who scored 57 goals in 81 appearances for Juventus, and 44 in 44 for Real Madrid in his final season there. He may have struggled at times through injury or because everybody has a bad day, but nobody had ever suggested confidence (or lack thereof) was an issue.
Maybe it was a throwaway line and not worth dwelling on. Maybe he was talking specifically about his confidence on free kicks. Or maybe that's how his mind works, vacuuming up every little shred he can to gain an edge. Whatever the case, "insecure" Ronaldo is coming off a run of 20 goals in his past 16 Serie A games. Now that he's suddenly confident, well... Juve look set for a barnstorming finish that, to be fair, they were getting to even before that free kick.
Paulo Dybala and Rodrigo Bentancur stood out, the back line was solid again (Mathijs De Ligt's umpteenth handball penalty excepted) and they seem to be peaking just as they hit the run of tough fixtures: Milan, Atalanta and Lazio are three of their next four games and Juve have a seven-point lead with eight matches remaining.
Have Barca solved their Griezmann problem?
Could it be as simple as a tactical change? Barcelona traveled to take on an "en fuego" Villarreal (winners of five of six since the restart) and bossed the game, winning 4-1. Antoine Griezmann, who hadn't scored since the restart and had played 11 minutes in the previous two outings, notched a peach of a goal. So did Luis Suarez.
Quique Setien switched things up, playing Suarez and Griezmann up front, giving Lionel Messi a free role behind them and pushing his full-backs up the pitch for width. It worked a charm and though it may be premature to draw conclusions, it looks like a far more rational lineup when it comes to getting the best out of the star-crossed Frenchman.
Barca were able to do it and keep their shape because Sergi Roberto and Arturo Vidal were either side of the diamond. It worked in this game, but there will be situations when you want more creative playmaking from midfield, without necessarily making Messi pick up the ball in front of his back four. So we'll need to revisit this with Riqui Puig or Frenkie de Jong (when he returns to fitness) in those roles.
But for now, it's something Barca were crying out for, and it yielded instant results.
Don't read too deeply into Liverpool's form
I'm not sure it makes much sense to draw any conclusions when it comes to Liverpool right now. The physical and psychological exertion of winning the title after 30 years were so great that finding motivation and energy to pursue a Premier League points record (which, the way things are going, may soon be broken anyway) might not be so straightforward.
It took them a long time to break down a disciplined Aston Villa side (although if Mohamed Salah had been awarded that penalty, it might have been a different story) and they looked a bit off the pace.
The 2-0 win over Aston Villa reminded you, though, of an area where they can improve against deep-lying opponents. Apart from Trent Alexander-Arnold (and, on his day, Naby Keita) this team isn't deep in the creative passer department, guys who can invent out of nothing. Maybe that's why Bayern's Thiago Alcantara is being linked in the media, although because he is 29, it might be best to freshen things up.
We're nitpicking here, obviously, but it's an extra dimension that comes in handy in games like this one.
Bayern Munich round out a perfect week
It was quite the week for Bayern. The German Cup wasn't a foregone conclusion -- hey, Leverkusen did beat them way back in November -- but it quickly became one. Peter Bosz set up his team his sit and try to play through the press (not the first time he's outsmarted himself), although by the hour mark, Bayern were 3-0 up. Ignore the last half-hour, when Leverkusen finally mixed things up after Kevin Volland came on and scored two in garbage time. The game was over by then and 4-2, if anything, is generous.
Given he had a year left on his contract, his injury history (Sane's played 24 minutes of football in the past 12 months), the pandemic's likely depressive effect on the market and Sane's determination to move, I felt Bayern could have driven a harder bargain and possibly acquired him for even less (or something even more performance-related) than the €49m, rising to €60m, that was reported.
But heck, it's all gravy at this point. And if you factor in that signing Sane means they have the option of not spending €20m to make Ivan Perisic's deal permanent (or try to get a discount from Inter), it kinda pays for itself. They still need to figure out what to do with Thiago Alcantara and David Alaba -- both of whom are out of contract next summer -- but whatever they do will be from a position of strength. Neither is indispensable or irreplaceable.
If it were up to me, I'd extend Alaba and, for the right price, consider letting Thiago go if you get the price you want. And if it's a reasonable amount, maybe you even take those funds and take a run at Kai Havertz as well.
Whichever you look at it, Bayern's future is so bright, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge's got to wear shades ...
Chelsea are doing just fine
One of the sillier things I heard last week was folks "tut-tutting" about the number of games Chelsea lost this season, 10, as if defeats are "a thing" like, say, points. Well, they're not. Leaving aside the fact that this was a team that had a transfer embargo in the past two windows and that your measuring stick for a transition season is development rather than points (and, certainly not "defeats"), they're fourth in the table, one point behind Leicester City, two clear of Manchester United and five ahead of Wolves. If it stays that way come the end of the campaign, it will be a success.
What strikes you about Frank Lampard's first season in charge isn't just that he has put his faith in youngsters, but that he has worked out when to stick with them and when to drop them, which is far from straightforward. The two players who masterminded the 3-0 win over Watford on Saturday -- Christian Pulisic and Mason Mount -- have had their ups and downs this year and neither will be an automatic choice next season. But both were critical to this weekend's win, as was Olivier Giroud, a guy whose bags were packed in January.
That's what you call man-management.
End of Lazio's title hopes in Italy?
I'm not going to go so far as to say Lazio waved farewell to the Serie A title on Saturday, but it's safe to say it's hanging by a thread after a 3-0 defeat to Milan.
It's easy to point to the fact that both their options up front (Ciro Immobile and Felipe Caicedo) were out, but it's worth remembering that since the break they threw away a 2-0 lead to lose to Atalanta and then had to come from behind to win in two other matches. Simply put, shorelines apart, this is not a side playing well. They have a relatively favourable run-in and a head-to-head clash with Juve coming up, so there is still a ray of hope. But they need to step up in double-quick time.
As for Milan, a Europa League place is now within their grasp. And while Zlatan Ibrahimovic, making his first start since the lockdown, will get the headlines, they were strong at the back and, most encouragingly perhaps, the Franck Kessie-Ismael Bennacer partnership continues to grow.
Promising signs of recovery for Arsenal
Arsenal have won four games on the bounce and their 2-0 win over Wolves is a huge result. Bukayo Saka confirmed his status as one of the most exciting 18-year-olds in the Premier League, and, just as important, Mikel Arteta's side outplayed Wolves for long stretches, which is not something to take for granted.
My colleague (and Gab and Juls show co-host) Julien Laurens is reporting that talks with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are going well, and he's looking for a three-year deal at around €14m a season, which works out to £250,000 a week. I'd be in no rush at those numbers, unless you can sell Alexandre Lacazette for a reasonable fee. Not because Aubameyang isn't a tremendous player -- he obviously is -- but because of the impact such a long-term commitment in wages would have. With the likes of Nicolas Pepe, Saka and Gabriel Martinelli (possibly Eddie Nketiah too), I'm not sure you need two veteran strikers on huge money.
Arsenal know first-hand the impact of massive long-term contracts (Exhibit A: Ozil, Mesut). There's a point at which you're better off cashing in as best you can and committing to rebuild.