Man United miles behind City, Real Madrid-Valencia drama, more

It’s been another action-packed weekend in European soccer, so let’s review. Sunday brought the Manchester derby and with it, a fresh reminder as to how far back Man United are from Pep Guardiola and Man City. Real Madrid returned to Valencia, where Vinicius was racially abused last season, and the 2-2 draw came with plenty of controversy on and off the pitch.

Premier League leaders Liverpool got a late, late goal to beat Nottingham Forest and remain top of the table — also controversial — and Bayer Leverkusen extended their lead in the German Bundesliga with a victory over Koln. Beyond that, there were talking points galore for Borussia Dortmund, Barcelona, Chelsea, Tottenham, Juventus, Atletico Madrid and more.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga & more (U.S.)

It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.

Manchester derby confirms what we already know: There’s a chasm between them, and Man United are no further forward

I don’t blame Erik ten Hag for donning the rose-tinted spectacles once again when asked if Manchester United‘s 3-1 loss underscored the gap between them and Manchester City. “I don’t think so, absolutely not,” he said. “You can see we have may problems with injuries and still we had an opportunity. We could have scored the second goal … when we have everyone on board, we can be competitive.

“But City is, at this moment, the best team in the world. Don’t forget that.”

There’s doubtless a sporting multiverse where Kyle Walker gets sent off for the push on Marcus Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho wins a penalty from Éderson, or where Sofyan Amrabat doesn’t give the ball away cheaply and Phil Foden doesn’t score worldies. So yeah, United could have won this game, but they didn’t and even if they had, based on what we saw, there’s a veritable abyss between these two sides.

You want numbers? City had 74% possession, outshot United 27-8 (and 8-1 in shots on target) and recorded 2.79 expected goals to United’s 0.21. United managed a single shot on goal after the 23rd minute — it came deep in injury time — and their goal came after a combination of a bad defensive error from City and Marcus Rashford belting the ball with precision and power from a zillion yards away.

Positivity and optimism are reasonable managerial techniques, but there’s a fine line between that and delusion. Ten Hag has tried so many different things to turn the tide. On Sunday, he served up a system with Rashford and Alejandro Garnacho out wide and Bruno Fernandes floating behind them. It was ugly and defensive, but hey: you’re playing Man City away. You can’t blame him for trying, especially because his options were again limited.

We remarked in the past on the absurdity of Man United going into the season with two strikers (the injury-prone Antony Martial and Rasmus Hojlund, who’s just 21 years of age) and with both unavailable, it was either stick Rashford central, where he’s ineffective, or put him wide and try this newfangled striker-less system. He opted for the latter and it didn’t work, but there’s no evidence that the former would have worked either.

Sure, he’s dealing with injuries. Would Luke Shaw, Lisandro Martínez, Harry Maguire and Hojlund have substantially moved the needle? I’d suggest no — not with Ten Hag, anyway, and not in these circumstances.



Will Liverpool vs. Man City decide the Premier League title winner?

Gab & Juls discuss the Premier League title race ahead of Liverpool’s clash with Man City in the Premier League.

As for City, Pep Guardiola was unflappable. They started playing their game and continued even as they went a goal down and kept missing chances — the Erling Haaland one right before half-time was a “miss of the season” contender. He gets it. He knows that as long as you’re creating opportunities, there’s no need to tinker or flip out: at some point they’ll go in, especially when the opposition serves up nothing.

If we’re going to nitpick City — and you can be sure that’s what Guardiola is doing right now — it will perhaps be some of the defensive wobbles: Rúben Dias‘s positioning ahead of the Rashford goal, United escaping on the counter a couple of times. But these are details, and when you have Rodri (immense, again) and Foden on this kind of form, it’s scarcely going to matter.

LaLiga wanted no drama and no racism in Vinicius’ return to Valencia … and it got neither

Given what happened last time Real Madrid and Vinicius travelled to face Valencia away, and given the poisonous environment surrounding referees in LaLiga this season, you imagine Liga boss Javier Tebas had his fingers crossed for two things: no racist abuse towards Vinicius and no refereeing controversy.

It didn’t work out that way. Vinicius got plenty of stick from the crowd — none of it was audibly racist to those watching on TV, but sadly, there were monkey insults directed at him in the stands, as reported by our ESPN Brasil colleague Gustavo Hofman. The fact that it’s a child calling him a name and that supporters threatened the young lady who recorded it on her phone only makes this more depressing.



Nicol blasts referees after chaotic ending to Real Madrid vs. Valencia

Stevie Nicol explains why the referees are to blame after a wild finish to Real Madrid vs. Valencia.

LaLiga have already opened an investigation. Valencia can’t preemptively control what their supporters do, but when they are caught on camera after the fact, they ought to know what the right thing to do is: ban them.

Highlights: Vinicius rescues Real Madrid (U.S. only)

As for the officiating, the controversy is all about referee Jesus Gil Manzano’s decision not to allow what would have been Jude Bellingham‘s headed winner. Until that point, there were no evident flash points, even after VAR correctly overturned a penalty he had awarded Valencia — it was, objectively, tough to see Fran García‘s touch before Hugo Duro‘s whiff). We were well over the seven minutes of injury time when Real Madrid were awarded a corner kick. Valencia cleared it, but only as far as Brahim Díaz at the edge of the box. He found space on the wing, crossed it and Bellingham headed home … except Gil Manzano whistled for the end of the game as Brahim hit the ball.

A melee ensued, with a furious Bellingham getting sent off for shouting “It’s a f—ing goal!” Carlo Ancelotti said he’d never seen anything like it.

Cue the conspiracy theorists.

Should Gil Manzano have waited for the ball to go out of play or, at least, Valencia to get possession? Possibly, but then we were already past the end of injury time (which, of course, is just a minimum) and he had told the players he would end the game after the corner kick. So what defines the “end of a phase of play,” and does he even need to wait for the end of the phase of play? Had he blown his whistle the moment Valencia keeper Giorgi Mamardashvili had punched the ball away, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

The truth is that there’s no hard and fast rule here, just common sense. Maybe there should be a rule, especially since just such a call famously cost Brazil a World Cup final back in 1978. (Actually, that one was far more extreme.)

As for the game itself, Real Madrid looked very sluggish in the first half, with Valencia pouncing on individual errors to race to a 2-0 lead before Vinicius pulled one back just before the break. Vinicius then equalised after some sterling work from Luka Modric and Brahim in the second half, doing a great job of insulating himself from the treatment he was getting from the crowd.

It wasn’t a great performance from Ancelotti’s crew, with Bellingham looking especially subdued (and possibly carrying an injury, too). But with Barcelona and Girona both dropping points, there’s no real damage done as long as Bellingham’s red card is rescinded, which it should be.

Liverpool running on fumes and with more drama, controversy in late win at Forest

Nothing is straightforward or simple for Liverpool these days. Blame lists: the fixture one, which is irremediably congested and the injury one, which may be thinning but is still significant.

After snatching the League Cup a week ago with a gaggle of debutants and then watching that same group of youngsters (augmented by others) beat Southampton in the FA Cup in midweek, we saw a hybrid team — in the sense that there were some grown-ups, like Alexis Mac Allister, Andy Robertson and the center-backs, in the mix — Liverpool found a Darwin Núñez winner in the ninth minute of injury time away to Nottingham Forest.

It wasn’t without controversy, so let’s get that out of the way first.



Nicol: Titles are won with late winners like Liverpool’s

Steve Nicol reacts to Liverpool’s last-minute win over Nottingham Forest in the Premier League.

Referee Paul Tierney stopped play for a suspected head injury (though he might have done it for a VAR check, too) and restarted with an uncontested dropped ball. Law 8, paragraph 2 of the “Laws of the Game” seems pretty clear: unless the ball is in the penalty area (or the last touch was in the penalty area) you give the uncontested dropped ball to the team which last touched the ball wherever it was last touched. In this case, it’s pretty obvious that play is stopped when the ball is with Forest’s Callum Hudson-Odoi in a left-wing position. Tierney, however, restarted with a dropped ball for Liverpool keeper Caoimhín Kelleher. Two minutes later, Mac Allister teed up Nunez for the winner.

Players make mistakes, referees make mistakes, media make mistakes, we all make mistakes: I get it. But when it’s a technical error involving the freaking “Laws of the Game,” we’re in a wholly different category. This is the same category as the Luis Díaz disallowed goal against Tottenham.

This isn’t a matter of not observing something or interpreting something incorrectly. This is ignoring one of the Laws of the Game. It’s like a priest not knowing the third commandment, or an Elvis impersonator not knowing “Suspicious Minds.” It can’t happen. Forest were furious, as you’d expect, and we’ll never know to what degree it impacted Nunez’s winner.

As for Liverpool, they created plenty of chances — especially in a frenzied second half — but simply put, they don’t look like Liverpool and, given the absentees, especially in midfield, it’s understandable. All Jurgen Klopp can do right now is hold things together and get results, one way or another, while he waits for the cavalry.

The good news is that Nunez and Dominik Szoboszlai were fit enough to come off the bench. Both are desperately needed from the start, while the return of Curtis Jones, Mohamed Salah and Ryan Gravenberch isn’t far off either. Until then, Klopp will need his weekly mini-miracles.

Maybe it doesn’t pay for Juventus to play well as they fall to Napoli, whose Champions League dreams are back on

There’s a certain irony in the fact that Juventus delivered arguably their best performance of the season in the 2-1 loss to Napoli on Sunday night. The worst thing that can happen is manager Max Allegri convincing himself that they’re better off being slow and defensive and waiting for some improbable, against-the-run-of-play late goal, which is how they won a bunch of their games this season.

Nope, the blueprint is what we saw, especially in the first half: intensity, cutting edge and creativity. And the fact that they did it with a starting XI missing two thirds of the starting defence, and without Weston McKennie and Adrien Rabiot, shows it can be done.

Had Dusan Vlahovic not squandered a couple of big chances, this game would have taken a very different turn. (Blame Vlahovic if you like, but recognize that getting into position to finish, for a striker like him, is half the battle and he’s a much better finisher than what he showed.) If you can bottle this version of Federico Chiesa (big ask, I know) and play the same way, Juve won’t just finish second — they’ll finish a strong second, and some may even find renewed faith in Allegri.

As for Napoli, the “Cicco Calzona effect” is evident. Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and Mattia Politano look like their old selves, and the midfield is reminiscent of the Luciano Spalletti days. Victor Osimhen (not just because of the missed penalty) had a quiet game, but it didn’t matter because the rest of the side more than picked up the slack.

It’s amazing what you can do when you simply build on what worked for you before and give the players that little bit of belief. Game by game, the return of Walter Mazzarri feels increasingly like a bad dream from which you’ve woken up.

Big win for Dortmund, but this looks like a team of individuals as Adeyemi returns

Borussia Dortmund’s 2-0 victory away to Union Berlin delivered three important points that allow them to keep their noses ahead of Leipzig in the race for top four. That’s the good news. The flip-side is that the win is a function of individuals popping up to make a difference, not any kind of coherent game plan or control.

Three individuals stood out, and each in some ways is a good snapshot of just why this team is so uneven.

One was the keeper Alexander Meyer, who made some huge saves (let’s be charitable to Kevin Volland here) standing in for Gregor Kobel. Except, of course, he’s a backup. Another is Ian Maatsen, who stole the ball in injury time and scored to put the game to bed. The problem with him is that he’s on loan from Chelsea, and it remains to be seen whether Dortmund can find the €35 million to keep him around.

Then there’s Karim Adeyemi, who scored a belting goal. Wonderful, except it’s his first league goal in nearly 10 months: between injury and poor performance he’s been MIA.

A dull draw for Barcelona, though the real damage is losing Pedri, De Jong



How Pedri has become stuck in a ‘vicious circle of doom’ with injuries

Luis Garcia speaks after Pedri was forced off in Barcelona’s draw vs. Athletic Club in LaLiga.

Barcelona traveled to Athletic Bilbao hoping to perhaps leapfrog Girona into second place. And why not? Bilbao had played on Thursday, and manager Ernesto Valverde made seven changes. Plus Girona had lost (at Mallorca) and Real Madrid had drawn vs. Valencia, meaning this was a chance to leapfrog their neighbours into second place, move within six points of first place and keep the positive momentum heading into the Champions League round of 16, second leg, against Napoli on March 12.

Barca were undefeated in seven games and there was every reason to believe. By half-time, it all came crashing down with injuries to Pedri and Frenkie de Jong and, if anything, Xavi was happy to escape with a point.

It was a dull game from both sides, but you can’t really criticise a team in situations like this. This was a really bad break, and the sight of Pedri crying on the bench was heart-wrenching. With Gavi already sidelined, losing those two for an extended period is a body blow. It puts a tremendous onus on Ilkay Gündogan (who blows hot and cold) and Fermín López who, lest we forget, has started just six top-flight games and is only 20 years old.

Werner — both good and bad — cues Tottenham’s much-needed comeback



Why do Tottenham need to fall behind to start performing?

Steve Nicol reacts to Tottenham’s victory over Crystal Palace, which saw them recover from a goal down to win 3-1.

An Eberechi Eze gem of a free kick was pretty much all that Crystal Palace managed on the attacking front away to Tottenham Hotspur. It would have been fine, because Palace defended reasonably well until Eze’s strike just before the hour mark. But the thing about football is that you can try the same thing again and again and again and at some point, it might just work.

Take Timo Werner. He was having a Werner-esque game: Busy in pressing, always available, streaking down the sideline and yeah, missing open chances. Eventually though, it was he who grabbed the equalizer and by the end of the game, he had played a huge part in Tottenham’s 3-1 win.

Werner is just not a guy you can judge by his goals, simply because there is so much more he gives you. As long as he keeps doing that, you can live with his often wayward aim.

More broadly, the three points showed, again, Spurs’ ability to react to adverse situation. It would have been “Spursy” to wilt after that goal; instead, they stuck to the game plan and were rewarded.

Morata gets it done for Atletico Madrid … eventually

I’m an Álvaro Morata guy — always have been — and I freely recognize he blows hot and cold. On Sunday against Betis, he took the pitch having gone nine games without scoring. And when he missed a penalty that would have made it 2-0 — chasing that by missing no fewer than four successive chances to stick the ball away — I began to wonder if, again, he’d been cursed. Nope: Morata popped up to make it 2-0 (by the way, even with his goal drought, he has already equalled his best season) and it looked as if Atleti were in control.

Only … far from it.

These days, Atleti seem to like nothing more than making life difficult for themselves. A long-range William Carvalho strike made it 2-1 with half an hour to go, and the match ended with Diego Simeone replacing both forwards with central defenders and a Jan Oblak miracle deflection onto the post.

This was only their second win in their past eight. Atleti aren’t playing well, though Antoine Griezmann‘s absence isn’t the only reason.

Bayer Leverkusen bandwagon rolls on as they go 10 points clear in Bundesliga



Have Leverkusen found the blueprint to win the Bundesliga?

Archie Rhind-Tutt assess Bayer Leverkusen’s title hopes after they move ten points clear of Bayern Munich.

When you’re undefeated all season in all competitions — heck, when you’ve won 43 of 47 games — and on top of that you get a bit of good fortune, the opposition really doesn’t stand a chance. That’s what happened to Bayer Leverkusen on Sunday, when Koln winger Jan Thielmann needlessly got himself sent off inside 15 minutes.

Leverkusen were already road favorites against their opponents, who are battling not to go down, though with a man advantage, they were out of sight. (That said, there was one nervy moment when the post denied Koln the equaliser after Jeremy Frimpong had put Xabi Alonso’s crew ahead). Alex Grimaldo — how many teams have a defender as their second-leading scorer? — made it 2-0 and that was that.

Highlights: Koln 0-2 Leverkusen (U.S. only)

Their league lead over defending champs Bayern Munich is now 10 points with 10 games remaining. My rule of thumb is that you can put the champagne on ice when your lead exceeds the number of games remaining. And that could happen as early as next weekend.

Pochettino tinkers in search of answers as Chelsea draw and Boehly receives abuse



Nicol: Chelsea’s season just about the FA Cup now

Steve Nicol says a 2-2 draw at Brentford proves Chelsea have nothing left to play for in the Premier League this season.

It’s never a good sign when a manager changes up the formation three-quarters into a season. Mauricio Pochettino did it twice in the space of five days — first wheeling out a set-up with Mykhaylo Mudryk in the No. 10 hole in the 3-2 FA Cup victory over Leeds in midweek and then, on Saturday, switching to a back three in the 2-2 draw away to Brentford.

At least the Leeds set-up was sort of forced by injuries, though asking Mudryk to play a role he’s never played before seemed a stretch. The 3-5-2 formation against Brentford is harder to wrap your head around given that one of the back three, Trevoh Chalobah, was making his first Premier League start in more than nine months.

Up front, Nico Jackson looked painfully raw again, capable of missing a sitter and then giving Chelsea the lead. And then the bottom fell out, with Brentford turning it around to go 2-1 up and Chelsea showing the usual defensive foibles, as well as an inability to create much of substance. Axel Disasi did bag a late equaliser to bag a point, but even that came after a gift from Brentford keeper Mark Flekken, whose slippery hands conceded a corner.

Throughout the game, Pochettino got plenty of abuse, though co-owner Todd Boehly got even more. Was it justified? For better or worse, they’re the face of the club right now, and it’s a club that’s doing little to show that this is anything but a wasted season.

Girona bubble looks to have burst as they lose at Mallorca

Am I being harsh? Well, when you get four points of a possible 15 in your past five games, it’s hard to draw any other conclusion. What struck you about their 1-0 defeat away to Mallorca is how flat they looked in the first half and how impotent they looked, particularly on set pieces.

Business picked up a little after the break, but by that point they were a goal down and, as often happens, stuff that seemed so effortless earlier in the campaign suddenly seemed labored. Their manager, Míchel, has wrung as much as he can out of this team, and the fact that they’re second in the table — and could well be there come the end of the campaign — can’t be ignored. They’ve already made history.

First appeared on

Leave a Comment