It was, perhaps, the last realistic chance to begin to derail the Pep Guardiola Express. But Manchester City’s 2-1 win at Old Trafford means their lead is up to 11 points, more than the league leaders in any of Europe’s top leagues. The fact that the chasing pack, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal, all dropped points is significant too.
The big question was how Jose Mourinho would approach Sunday’s match. Truth be told, with his best defender (Eric Bailly) and best player (Paul Pogba) unavailable, it wasn’t that big a mystery: United would sit and absorb pressure. The only real question was whether to counterattack quickly with long balls to Romelu Lukaku or try to play out from the back. They opted for the former, and, again, it was logical. You’re not going to thread the needle and play out against Manchester City’s press with the personnel available to Mourinho. Besides: a front man like Lukaku with two pacy guys like Antony Martial and Marcus Rashford on either side of him could, in theory, hurt you on the counter.
It didn’t work out that way. Lukaku had a poor game, and in any case, he was too isolated. City were dominant and even though they didn’t turn that possession into the volume of chances we’d become accustomed to in previous games, they easily created more. The fact that both their goals came from set pieces — with a little help from defensive mishaps — doesn’t change the fact they had the upper hand.
Indeed, other than Ederson’s double save from Romelu Lukaku and Juan Mata late on, United created very little. Sure: had Lukaku kicked the ball somewhere other than Ederson’s face, United might have had a point, but it would still be an eight-point gap.
What was needed here was a statement from United. What we got was confirmation that right now there’s simply a gulf between these two sides.
As he often does, Mourinho laid out an alternate narrative after the match. It was one where Ander Herrera should have had a penalty for the incident with Nicolas Otamendi and where City are “lucky” to be “protected” by the “football gods.” Whatever. City may have been fortunate in some respects, but that doesn’t mean they were undeserving. And the Herrera incident looked to most as if it was the Spain midfielder diving forward expecting to find Otamendi’s leg, and little more.
Sometimes you just have to accept that your rival is on another plane this season, whether it’s the “football gods,” or, more simply, hard work, better signings and a lack of major injuries. The fact is United are on pace to finish with 83 points this season, which is 29 more than last year and a whopping 34 more than the second Louis Van Gaal campaign. It’s also just three fewer than Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2012-13 side, the last United side to win the title.
There is evident progress here, despite Lukaku’s inconsistency, Pogba’s injury, Henrikh Mkhitaryan being completely lost and the fact that most of their Premier League rivals have stepped it up a notch.
As for Manchester City, we were at “peak Pep” when, with the score tied 1-1, he removed a central defender (Vincent Kompany) for a midfielder (Ilkay Gundogan). They may have slowed down over the past few weeks, but they are still cruising along quicker than everybody else.
Aftermath of Man United, Man City bust-up
As has happened before when these two meet, the postmatch witnessed all sorts of shenanigans in the tunnel. The Football Association will open an enquiry and the police say they could be involved as well.
But before we apportion blame (and at the risk of revealing secrets), bear in mind that the accounts you read come from the two club’s media officers, whose job it is to quickly establish the facts (possibly without having directly witnessed them) and to put out their version of events.
So whether Mourinho went over to politely ask Manchester City to turn down the volume on the Oasis songs they were playing in their dressing room (on the speakers they had helpfully brought along) before being confronted by Ederson, or the United manager bursting into City’s inner sanctum to berate City’s goalkeeper and spoil their party remains to be seen. And no, the truth isn’t always in the middle. Sometimes people flat-out lie.
What we do know is that those involved say it was worse than the now famous “Pizzagate” incident involving Sir Alex Ferguson and cheesy projectiles. Multiple reports noted that City coach Mikel Arteta sustained a cut to his face, but let’s wait for the powers that be to establish the facts. Equally, let’s remember that if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
Mourinho has a history of mind games, of ratcheting up pressure, of rubbing people’s noses in it. Maybe this was his way to make a statement, refocus his team and show that he was willing to take the fight to the opposition in a way that his players weren’t. Or maybe he just lost his cool. (Or maybe, as in one version of events, he was an innocent bystander.) Whatever the case, history and perception matter in how people react to you.
Juve underwhelm again in Inter draw
Inter’s visit to Juventus on Saturday was as much a test of their status as league leaders as it was the final panel in a triptych that, had it gone awry, could have badly derailed the bianconeri‘s season. If you like spin, the 0-0 draw could be portrayed as a moderate success for both.
Inter remain (along with Manchester City) the only undefeated side in all competitions in Europe’s Big Five leagues. (It comes with a huge asterisk: they don’t play European football and the stat only works if you count Barcelona’s Spanish Super Cup defeats, but it’s still something on which to hang your hat). They didn’t produce much offensively, but a point away to Juve, no matter the circumstances, is a good result. And they showed they are neither cowed nor intimidated.
As for Juve, if you look at it purely from a results perspective and in the context of the two previous games, the wins away to Napoli and Olympiacos that kept Juve in the title race and ensured qualification to the Champions League knockout, following up with a draw isn’t bad. What it means is that there is still time to turn it around, although at some point, the performances need to follow.
Max Allegri said he was “pleased” and that all they were missing was “a goal,” but this can’t be the sort of Juve he wants to see. Not after committing close to $100 million on Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa over the summer, both of whom remained rooted to the bench on Saturday. Not when Paulo Dybala, supposedly not fully fit, only comes on in the final minute. Not when Alex Sandro, so devastating last year, can’t even get a game.
Dortmund right to fire Bosz, but why hire Stoger?
Regular readers will know I’m not a big fan of Peter Bosz. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that I don’t think he’s particularly good at what he does. And the fact that he’s been let go as manager of Borussia Dortmund after their 2-1 home defeat against Werder Bremen suggests I’m not the only one.
When you’re the second biggest team in Germany, have the second or third biggest budget and haven’t won a game since September in the league or Champions League, collecting just four of a possible 36 points along the way, you’re likely to get the boot. Particularly when it’s December and your team still defends as if you took four random reality show contestants who had never met before and were given no particular instructions other than standing as far as away from Roman Burki as possible.
What’s curious is the choice to replace him: Peter Stoger. You may recall that Stoger was himself fired by Cologne the week before, with his team last in the Bundesliga and without a win. Not just that, but Cologne had somehow contrived to score six goals in 14 league games.
Now, it’s true that Stoger was still popular among fans and reportedly enjoyed the support of the dressing room having achieved a minor miracle in taking the club to ninth and then fifth place in previous seasons. But it’s still a remarkable appointment, the sort of thing you feel could only happen in Germany, where thinking outside the box is de rigeur.
Stoger has a deal through the end of the season and then, presumably, Dortmund will reassess. At some point though, you hope that sporting director Michael Zorc and CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke will also assess themselves. They appointed Thomas Tuchel and then ran him out of town. Then they went for Bosz. Now comes Stoger, who leaving aside the highs and lows of his Cologne experience, has never managed a club of this magnitude.
Klopp furious after derby draw
Jurgen Klopp wasn’t happy with the penalty Craig Pawson awarded in the Merseyside derby and you can hear his thoughts in this remarkable interview.
He has a point that Liverpool utterly dominated Everton and on the balance of play were unlucky to get a 1-1 draw. Personally, I agree with him that it was not a penalty, but equally, when you defend as poorly as Dejan Lovren did, you put yourself at risk. And his seeming refusal to acknowledge this is a bit befuddling.
Klopp is right that criticising him for the six changes he made, including leaving out Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho, is wide of the mark. Liverpool did more than enough to win with those two coming off the bench; plus he has to rotate and budget his squad’s minutes because it’s the grown-up thing to do.
As for Sam Allardyce, he was brought in to do a job and he’s doing it. No argument there, although the amount of chances Everton conceded against an under-strength Liverpool side can’t have made him happy.
“There is no such thing as a soft penalty,” said Allardyce afterwards, complaining that Klopp can “moan all he likes.” What’s rather funny is that it wasn’t that long ago that Allardyce thought rather differently about “soft penalties.”
Injuries haven’t derailed Barcelona
Barcelona continue on their way, notching results while being several orders of magnitude beneath where we’re used to seeing them. Barca are hampered by absences (Samuel Umtiti, Andres Iniesta, Ousmane Dembele) but then so were Villarreal (Bruno, Pablo Fornals, Carlos Bacca). Guess who has the deeper bench.
Even then, it was an ugly win that really only materialised after the opposition were reduced to 10 men at the hour mark. Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi found the net, avoiding Barcelona’s third straight game without a win. There’s obviously work to do, but Barca are further along in terms of results than anyone could have expected. And if they can just navigate their way past the Clasico on Dec. 23, they should be fine.
PSG are back on track
The key thing was not to make it three in a row after the setbacks against Strasbourg last week and Bayern in the Champions League. Paris Saint-Germain did just that against Lille on Saturday, winning 3-1, and they did it without the suspended Neymar.
Lille aren’t particularly good — Marcelo Bielsa is gone, finances are reportedly shaky and they’re stuck in the relegation zone — but right now, the forward progress is what’s important. As is the fact that the goal scorers were Javier Pastore and Angel Di Maria, two guys who were once the toast of the town but now have their bags half-packed. Keeping them happy and involved has to continue to be a priority for Unai Emery.
Bayern get it done again
We’re nearing the stage of the season where Bayern can go into cruise control. The 1-0 win away to Eintracht Frankfurt saw them leave out David Alaba, Mats Hummels and Robert Lewandowski and while it wasn’t a sterling performance, it was the maximum result with minimum effort. With a midweek tie against Cologne coming up, Jupp Heynckes got to rotate his squad without missing a beat. Situations like these, coupled with the German winter break, may end up being critical come the spring and the sharp end of the Champions’ League.
One change he didn’t want to make was between the sticks. But with Manuel Neuer injured and Sven Ulreich picking up a knock, 36-year-old Tom Starke, who had actually retired back in May, returned for 90 minutes and got the job done.
Conte must do better with Chelsea
Antonio Conte appeared to concede the title after his team’s 1-0 defeat to West Ham on Saturday, saying that “it is impossible to think that you are in the title race.” And that was before Manchester City’s win at Old Trafford.
He’s being honest; instead of criticising him for capitulating, we ought to welcome his forthrightness. That, however, doesn’t mean he’s blameless. Far from it. Chelsea looked laboured, less sharp than usual and failed to convert the chances they created — although there weren’t that many in the first place.
The feeling is that they’re over-reliant on Eden Hazard, and sure, big teams rely on big players. But there are enough resources there to do better, and, above all, be better prepared for games like this one.
Napoli’s slump not a concern
Conventional wisdom is that Napoli are running out of steam. In their past three Serie A games, they scored two goals and gained just four points, including Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Fiorentina. Maurizio Sarri is adamant that it’s a case of mental fatigue, not physical.
He may well have a case, although if there’s a slowdown, it’s more on the attacking end than defensively. Napoli have conceded the fewest goals in Serie A, alongside Inter and Roma, except Roma have played one fewer match. And based on expected goals (xG), Roma and Inter should have conceded substantially more, while Napoli have given up more than anticipated.
For all the plaudits they’ve received for their style of play, Napoli’s title run is based on outstanding defending. Even looking at the past three games, that hasn’t changed.
Ronaldo’s best performance of the year
Maybe it was the elation of collecting his fifth Ballon d’Or, but Cristiano Ronaldo turned in arguably his best performance in La Liga this season, and, not coincidentally, so did Real Madrid. This wasn’t just any 5-0 thumping, either: it came against a Sevilla side who were actually level with them in the table. And it came with three quarters of the starting defence unavailable along with Casemiro, the defensive stopper in midfield.
As for Ronaldo, his seasonal tally is up to 14 goals in 22 games. It’s still on the sparse side by his standards, but pretty darn good for mere mortals. At least he won’t have to field questions about not scoring in La Liga for some time.
Another goal for Balotelli
OK, there have been enough false dawns that nobody wants to get carried away, but Mario Balotelli’s goal in Nice’s 2-0 win at Nantes means he’s now up to 14 goals in 19 games in all competitions this season. And he’s only been sent off once this year.
That’s enough. Don’t want to jinx him…
Bas Dost scored twice in Sporting’s 3-1 victory over Belenenses, which leaves them level at the top of the table with Porto. He now has 12 goals in 14 league matches, putting him on pace to score 29 league goals this season. Overall, he has in 16 in 23 games in all competitions.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.