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2:00 AM UTC Mar 24, 2018
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The Moyes blame game, imperious Juventus and Eusebio memories

The first casualty of war, they say, is truth. \ The first casualty of a new manager underachieving at a big club is balance. \ Following Manchester United’s home defeat to Swansea in the FA Cup -- the fifth of the season at Old Trafford -- many have gathered at the extremes. \ Either David Moyes is hopelessly overmatched in his job, lacking the personality, tactical nous, experience and support to lead the club. \ Or he’s stuck with a horrid squad, a ramshackle group of players made worse by the fact that United have also been hit with an injury crisis, and frankly, he’s doing about as well as can be expected. \ (As former QPR boss Neil Warnock, speaking on British television, put it: “You can’t tell me anybody else -- Jose Mourinho or whatever -- would do any better than Moyes with those players.”) \ Reality lies somewhere along that spectrum. It’s unclear how and whether the football his Everton sides were able to display will translate at Old Trafford, with a different squad profile and different expectations.

We simply don’t know, and it makes sense to give him time for several reasons, starting with the six-year contract he signed last summer and the enormous payoff it would require.

Plus, United -- even with the Glazers and their fees and interest payments -- remain a cash cow. They can weather a year or two without the Champions League, should the worst-case scenario materialize. \ That said, some of the arguments of those who are backing him to the hilt border on the absurd, starting with Warnock’s. In effect, what he’s saying is that managers don’t matter, it’s all down to the players. If that’s true, it begs the question of why some managers are handed those fat multiyear deals. \ It’s true that last season’s United side won’t be remembered as Sir Alex Ferguson's greatest, but they did win the Premier League title by 11 points. Plus, it’s not as if their star players left en masse during the summer.

It’s the same group of guys, plus Wilfried Zaha, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj, and minus Paul Scholes. Lest we forget -- despite his undoubted talent, Scholes was 38 at the end of last season and made just eight Premier League starts. \ The injury crisis that supposedly descended on Old Trafford, starting with Robin van Persie? Sure, the Dutchman is missed, but when assessing the impact of his absence, it’s also worth noting that with him, United gathered 20 points in 11 games. Project that rate over the whole season, and they would have 36 points, two more than they have currently. \ Michael Carrick? OK, that’s another blow, but apply the same metric. With him, they got 23 points in 13 matches. At that rate, they’d have 35 points right now. \ You can extend it out to others, too. Nemanja Vidic has started only 13 Premier League games. Then again, he only made 18 league starts last season. \ Furthermore, much of this is offset by other factors. Wayne Rooney is playing more -- and more productively -- than last season. Januzaj is a weapon Sir Alex didn’t have. \ Talent is not what this squad lacks, certainly not in the final third. Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but not their own facts.

It’s a fact that Nani is a very skillful player, just as it’s a fact that there have been doubts over his motivation and discipline in the past. But then, it’s also a fact that Moyes gave him a five-year contract extension in September, so if that was a mistake, it’s on Moyes. \ United didn’t break the bank in the summer, it’s true. They spent their money largely on Fellaini (who was a bust before getting injured). But that was also by design. \ Those who accuse Sir Alex of leaving Moyes a pile of nobodies are ignoring the fact that he assembled a core of young players who are all still there: David De Gea, Fabio, Rafael, Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley, Shinji Kagawa, Zaha, Januzaj and Danny Welbeck are all 24 or younger.

Rather than jettisoning most of them in the summer and replacing them with newcomers (which would have been expensive), the club decided to stick with them and continue to help them develop. Presumably, Moyes was on board with this idea. And why shouldn’t he have been? Some of these guys made a significant contribution to the Premier League title last season, while others showed enough promise that they are internationals. \ So please, let’s dispense with this myth that Moyes inherited a sub-standard squad, destined for mid-table. Or the other, equally silly myth that everybody else in the Premier League has improved. Sure, they have -- they have more points, after all. But that’s a tautology and not enough to explain these performances from United. \ Moyes was charged with developing the young players he inherited while giving the side a clear identity and playing good football. (Note that “good football” doesn’t necessarily mean pretty tiki-taka football. It simply means executing well, something his Everton side did and this United side does not.) \ He has come up short and we can debate why that is. But the answer isn’t going to be at either extreme of the Moyes debate. \ Oh, and to answer Warnock’s question about who could do better than the job Moyes has done with this group of players? \ That’s easy. There is a range of people, but I’ll give you one name: David Moyes. \ There’s a difference between a bad manager and a manager who makes mistakes and performs badly. Moyes’ tenure at Old Trafford has thus far been an example of the latter. He can do better. And I think he will.

Juve's domestic dominance leads to European regret

An eight-point lead with a little more than half a season left is a major statement. And that’s exactly where Juventus are after their 3-0 win against Roma. Some hoped it would be the game that reopened the title race. More likely, it was the one that shut the door. \ Antonio Conte played it perfectly. He absorbed Roma’s early pressure and pounced when the Giallorossi appeared to flag toward the end of the first half, adding a second on a set piece just after the break, and a third from the spot after Leandro Castan’s desperation handball.

Juve denied Roma width, forcing Gervinho and Adem Ljajic inside, where they ran into the Bianconeri’s monsters of the midway, Arturo Vidal and Paul Pogba. That left Roma little choice but to rely on individuals, but few teams congest the space as well as Juventus. On top of that, Rudi Garcia’s difference-makers were having indifferent days: Francesco Totti fizzled after a decent start, Daniele De Rossi got himself sent off, Miralem Pjanic was injured. \ Garcia said afterward that while the defeat hurt, the seasonal objective was to qualify for the Champions League, and Roma remain on track to do just that. There was no way they could keep up the early-season pace, and in some ways, getting the monkey of the first defeat of the season off their back might actually help them regroup and bounce back. \ Seeing Juventus play at this level turns their Champions League group-stage exit into an even greater regret. Folks have churned out all sorts of theories, so here is one more. Juve’s problem is not a lack of quality. They showed it by going toe-to-toe with Real Madrid and arguably deserving to get the better of them.

The issue is what they do against mid-tier teams. In Serie A, they can simply overwhelm them physically and athletically, whereas in the Champions League that formula doesn’t work as reliably. Throw in the obvious individual errors in the two Galatasaray games and that’s why Juve are now playing on Thursday nights.

Remembering one of the game's greats

Before Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo came along to muddy the conversation, the age-old debate about the three greatest players in history was pretty simple. Pele, Diego Maradona (in whichever order you prefer) plus a third guy, depending on where you were from.

It might be Johan Cruyff or Alfredo Di Stefano or George Best or Garrincha. Or, for many, Eusebio. And that alone tells you what sort of a player he was. \ The Portuguese legend passed away this weekend. I never saw him play and indeed, I still wonder about how we rank guys we’ve never seen play except in highlight reels, or how you even rank folks from different eras.\ \ However, what is obvious is that Eusebio is right up there alongside the very best. He was a fearsome goal scorer who racked up more than a goal a game throughout his career, and was one of the first to combine athleticism and technique, with one having a multiplier effect on the other.

He’s one of the few players from the past whom you could easily imagine being dropped into the modern game and being just as effective, without having to radically adjust his game.

He won plenty of silverware as well -- 11 league titles with Benfica, five Portuguese Cups, and the 1961-62 European Cup. \ And he could have won more. When I met him, he had two great regrets. The first was the 1966 World Cup, where he ended up as the top goal scorer with nine.

Portugal were due to face the host nation, England, in the semifinal at Goodison Park in Liverpool, where they had been based throughout the tournament, only for the match to be switched to Wembley Stadium, in London, which meant the team had to take a train down the day before the game. \ FIFA had switched the venue to favour England, Eusebio insisted. Fatigued from the trip and disoriented by the Wembley crowd, Portugal were defeated.

“Had we played in Liverpool, like we were supposed to, we would have won that game and reached the final," he said. "There is no question about it. \ “But we were poor and small. England was rich and powerful and the host nation.” \ The other regret had to do with the fact that he remained at Benfica until he was 33, when he moved to the Boston Minutemen of the old North American Soccer League. Eusebio bled Benfica’s colours and there was no bitterness about playing for the club he loved. What he resented was a lack of choice and opportunity. \ At the time, Portugal was run by the military dictatorship of Antonio Salazar. Eusebio -- who was born in Mozambique -- was turned into the poster boy of a multi-ethnic colonial power, something that brought him immense popularity but also stopped him from trying his luck abroad. \ “Juventus came for me when I was 19,” he said. “After the World Cup, in 1966, Inter made a big offer, one which would have made me the highest-paid player in the world. And yet I was not allowed to move. Why?

“Salazar was not my father and he certainly was not my mother. What gave him the right? The truth was that he was my slavemaster, just as he was the slavemaster of the entire country.” \ It’s worth remembering how much the game has changed. Would a young Eusebio today have gone the way of Ronaldo or Messi, joining an established superpower at a young age? Possibly. \ Is that a good thing? For the player, sure. It’s a matter of personal freedom. But there is also something sad in knowing that a club outside the dozen or so giants of the game simply can’t hang on to their best players today and, by extension, cannot compete consistently. \ It’s ironic because, on that very occasion, he told me that a Portuguese side would never again win the European Cup because smaller leagues simply could not stack up with the European elites anymore. Five months later, Jose Mourinho’s Porto won the Champions League.

Did that invalidate his argument? I don’t think so. Within a year of winning the trophy, Mourinho had left, along with six starters. If anything, it showed what an outlier that performance was.\ \ Walcott is not central to Wenger's thinking

Theo Walcott’s excellent performance at centre forward for Arsenal in their 2-0 win over Spurs has prompted more discussion about whether Arsene Wenger really needs to sign another striker or whether he can get by with Olivier Giroud and, when necessary, one out of Lukas Podolski, Nicklas Bendtner or Walcott. \ I’m pretty sure Wenger doesn’t buy that argument, and he’s right. Every time Walcott plays up front, the debate turns on how much the opposition must fear his pace. Sure, Walcott is very fast, but there’s more to playing up front than that.

Against teams who sit deep and raise the barricades -- i.e., not Tottenham on Saturday -- it’s a lot less of a factor. Wenger has worked with Walcott for eight years now. If he saw him as a centre forward, he likely would have converted him into one a long time ago. \ That’s not to mention the other obvious fact about Walcott. Move him into the middle and you lose his change of pace on the wing. For a team that isn’t blessed with enormous speed in wide positions (Walcott and Serge Gnabry aside) you’d lose a valuable option on the wing.

What Lewandowski's move says about the Bundesliga

So Robert Lewandowski has finally done what we all expected him to do: signed for Bayern Munich as a free agent, meaning this final half-season with Borussia Dortmund will be his last. \ There really is no good way to run down your contract, so you leave for no fee and then join your team’s archrival. But the way he’s done it is better than most. \ He has played hard all season, despite the injuries that have riddled Jurgen Klopp’s squad. And he faced the music head-on with this message on Dortmund’s website in which he said was “going to give everything” until the end of the season, while pleading for continued support. \ It doesn’t change the fact that the move is absolutely gutting for Dortmund fans, though the fact that it’s been a long time coming may dull the pain somewhat. Still, relative to the Mario Goetze transfer, this one likely hurts a bit less, given that it didn’t come on the eve of a Champions League final and the Polish striker wasn’t a homegrown player. \ That said, sooner or later the Bundesliga will have to face its serious imbalance issues. You can’t really build a dynasty to challenge Bayern if you lose your best players to them year after year.

Crowds show cup romance is declining

The third round of the FA Cup was held this past weekend and sadly, these days it means second-string sides as much as giant-killings. Traditionalists love what they call “the greatest domestic cup competition in the world” and revel in the pomp and pageantry of the event. \ The problem is, in its current format, too many managers feel they can’t give it their full attention. Paul Lambert of Aston Villa (who would be beaten by Sheffield United) was pilloried for saying many would rather do without it, but he was only being honest. \ Fans -- not the casual ones who watch on TV and live in the past, but rather the ones who actually attend matches -- are making their feelings clear. At most of the fixtures this past weekend, attendances were lower than whatever the average attendance of the home side is this season in the league. \ In some cases, it was way down: Newcastle, down 38.2 percent; Southampton, 49.8 percent; Wigan, 55 percent; Aston Villa, 35.1 percent. That’s not good for what is supposed to be a showpiece competition.

Time for a Costa rethink in Brazil?

Diego Costa again made the difference for Atletico Madrid in their huge away win at Malaga on Saturday. Late in the game, he worked his way into the box, drew three players to him and set into motion the events that led to Koke’s winner. \ The World Cup starts in six months and a few days. Costa has told the Brazilian FA he wants to play for Spain, and Luiz Felipe Scolari responded in turn, but as of right now, he’s technically still eligible for Brazil.

Look at the Selecao’s options up front. Fred has been injured since August, and Pato has scored once from open play since the middle of September, Leandro Damiao twice, Jo and Luis Fabiano three times. \ In that time frame, Costa has scored more than all of them on his own. You wonder if this is a bridge that is definitely and irredeemably burned.

Rossi relief

When Giuseppe Rossi collapsed to the ground in Fiorentina’s 1-0 win against Livorno Sunday, you feared the worst.

Players are often first to know when they’re seriously hurt and the fear was that he had injured his anterior cruciate ligament for the third time in three years. That would have been beyond cruel for Serie A’s top goal scorer, who left the pitch in tears. \ A scan Monday morning led to a massive, collective sigh of relief: Rossi has a sprained medial collateral ligament. He is a doubt for the World Cup and it’s a nasty injury, but it is nothing like another ACL. It means a full recovery isn’t just possible, but probable, and it won’t take a year.