Smart United, Barca move on, Dortmund's injury bug, more
As part of the new regime at Manchester United -- or maybe just to differentiate themselves from Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill -- David Moyes and Ed Woodward have been extremely forthcoming and open with the media. It's generally a clever thing to do and, obviously, from a journalist's perspective, it's fantastic.
And so two things have come to light in the wake of the Juan Mata transfer. The first is that, according to a number of newspaper reports, United did not meet Chelsea face to face during the negotiations. Instead, they relied on written communication to the point that when Chelsea tried to speak directly to Woodward, he found a way to make himself scarce.
Why this approach? Supposedly to stop Chelsea from making inquiries for Wayne Rooney, whether to try to make him part of the deal or to destabilize him in his contract negotiations. This way United were able to keep the conversation focused on Mata and his price -- apparently, this was already fixed as Roman Abramovich had given him a verbal promise to release him at $61.3 million.
It obviously worked -- Mata is now a United player and Rooney won't be joining Chelsea -- but you do wonder whether it sends the right message. It's hard to imagine Sir Alex relying on written communication because he's worried that his counterpart will bring up something (Rooney) that makes him uncomfortable or that he’d rather not discuss. It may be a new way of doing business and, if so, the old school had better get used to it. The other "news" to filter out of Old Trafford is that they are confident they can extend Rooney's contract. Some are reporting they could go as high as $25 million a year (though my understanding is that $20 million with some bonuses is more likely), but crucially, they're also reportedly ready to offer him the captain's armband and have openly discussed transfer strategy with him.
Some in England have reacted to this with amazement. How progressive! How risky! How unlike Sir Alex! (That last consideration is based on the fact that the former United boss wrote in his autobiography that when Rooney urged him to sign Mesut Ozil in 2010, Sir Alex told him transfers were "none of his business.")
In fact, what Moyes and Woodward are doing is just common sense. It's Management 101: keep your top and best-remunerated employees happy. The current captains, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra, become free agents this summer. Apart from Ryan Giggs and Darren Fletcher -- neither of whom is a week-in, week-out player, and in any case, the Welshman could be retiring -- Rooney is the longest-serving player at the club. Why wouldn't he be at least in the running to captain the club at some point?\
As for discussing transfer strategy with him, it's just a good idea. Why would you not reassure him? Why would you treat him like a child? Most top clubs already consult with senior players -- not to let them decide, but just to keep them in the loop and see how they may or may not react.
But what of Sir Alex and his "none of your business" stance?
First of all, we don't know it happened. We just know Sir Alex said it did. Second, Rooney was 24 at the time. He's now 28. Third, back then there was a posse of veterans -- Vidic, Evra, Edwin Van der Sar, Giggs and Paul Scholes -- who were more senior than him and integral to the team.
Fourth -- and this should be obvious -- Sir Alex was Sir Alex. Just because he did things a certain way and they usually worked out for him doesn't mean that those lacking his personality, status and charisma should try to copy him. Barca rebound but questions remain: The best way Barcelona could respond to a stormy week, one in which club president Sandro Rosell resigned and a judge decided there were grounds to investigate the possible misappropriation of funds in the Neymar transfer, was a resounding victory on the pitch.
Tata Martino's men delivered just that. It finished 3-0 against Malaga but could easily have been double that: Alexis Sanchez and Gerard Pique hit the post and Willy Caballero turned into some combination of Godzilla and a garage door in the Malaga goal. Just as important, it was as well as Barcelona have played in a while. There are plenty of unanswered questions in the Neymar affair, and it looks as if the court will try to answer them. For their part, Barcelona revealed just how there was a discrepancy between the 57.1 million euros ($78 million) they maintained and the 95 million euros ($129.8 million) reported elsewhere. In a truly admirable show of transparency (if only all clubs did this!) they put all the numbers online, leading you to the conclusion (depending on how you assess the line items) that the final cost was somewhere in between: 86.2 million euros ($117.8 million).
- Ledwith: Focus on pitch as Barca romp
While we wait for the investigation to run its course, there are two things that are tough to swallow, even though there may be a crystal clear explanation.
The first is that -- once you add up all his fees -- Neymar's dad, who is also his agent, walked away with some $67 million, some of it for things as ethereal as "future scouting." Now, he's unlikely to keep the whole amount -- presumably some of it will go to third-party owners -- but this case only serves to highlight how poorly this transfer was conducted. Given that third-party owners were involved, the simplest thing to do was simply to pay the entire amount to Santos and then let the Brazilian club distribute it to whichever investors held a stake in Neymar's "economic rights."
Oh, and by the way, Article 18bis of FIFA's Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players says this:
“No club shall enter into a contract which enables any other party to that contract or any third party to acquire the ability to influence in employment and transfer-related matters its independence, its policies or the performance of its teams."
Translated from FIFA-speak it means that third-party ownership is allowed -- except where otherwise prohibited, as in the Premier League -- but third-party influence is not. So you can hold an economic stake in a player, but you can't also influence the player's future or the actions to the club to which he's contracted.
If Neymar Sr. isn't just Neymar Jr.'s dad and agent, but also his third-party owner (why else would he have received 40 million euros, or $54.6 million, of the transfer fee?) you wonder to what degree this is all kosher. After all, you'd think a guy who is both dad and agent might have some influence on a player's transfer decisions.
The other mystery in all this is why Rosell agreed to be bound by a confidentiality clause at Neymar Sr.'s request. Barcelona's accounts are audited. They have nearly 200,000 socios (club members) around the world who provide crowd-sourced oversight. How could he not have known that sooner or later these figures would have come to light?
Good week for Falcao-less Monaco: You probably could not have scripted a better weekend for Monaco.
(Unrealistically, yes, you could have: Guingamp would have defeated PSG, Radamel Falcao would have jumped out of bed and the French League would have somehow concluded that it owed Monaco $68.3 million and not the other way around.)
First, the French League (LFP) settled its dispute over Monaco's tax-free status, accepting a one-off payment of $68.3 million in exchange for dropping all legal action. Because most foreigners pay no income tax in the Principality, many felt Monaco has been enjoying an unfair advantage for years and the resentment is growing now that Dmitry Rybolovlev is banrkolling the club to the tune of hundreds of millions. In response, the LFP passed regulations that all French clubs had to be based in France, which would have effectively wiped out Monaco's tax advantage. It looked as if we were headed toward a major legal wrangle, but now it's all settled. And frankly, Monaco made out like bandits. They will more than make up the $68.3 million in a couple of seasons of tax savings. You can understand the LFP wanting a settlement, but surely they totally undervalued what this is worth to Monaco.
Then it emerged that Falcao's ACL injury was not as catastrophic as it appeared. Yes, he's unlikely to play again for Monaco this season, but the doctors say there's a 50-50 chance he'll play in Colombia's World Cup opener.
On Saturday, despite dominating Guingamp on the pitch, Paris St. Germain were held to a 1-1 draw. And the following day, Monaco defeated Marseille 2-0 to move within three points of the top of the Ligue 1 table. Oh, and the fact that the two goal scorers -- Emmanuel Riviere and Valere Germain -- are both young French players (Germain is actually home-grown as well) was a nice PR boost as well. \ Juventus stumble again: Gigi Buffon was the scapegoat after Juventus dropped two points on Saturday night, drawing 1-1 with Lazio. The veteran keeper dragged down Miroslav Klose and was sent off. Antonio Candreva converted the penalty that followed and Juve had to claw and scratch Antonio Conte-style to get back into it, though in the end it was a prodigious Fernando Llorente header that clinched the draw.
Blame Buffon, sure, but also a Giorgio Chiellini-less defense that looked somewhat flat-footed. And credit Lazio too, who clogged the right areas of the pitch at the right times.
- Rzouki: Winning run ends for Juve
With Roma turning over Verona 3-1 the following day, Juve's lead is now just six points. Too early to say we have a title race on our hands, though the head-to-head, tellingly, is at the Stadio Olimpico while Juve also face road trips to Milan and Naples.
What is more likely is that the seasonal grind will cause both teams to drop points at a faster rate as we progress. Roma are on track for 90 points -- enough to win the scudetto in the past six seasons -- while Juve are heading toward an outrageous 101. Don't expect either team to keep this up. If the title does go to the wire, it will likely come down to who best handles the inevitable rough patch.
Another man down for Dortmund: Jakub Blaszczykowski's cruciate ligament injury will sideline him for the rest of the season. The winger went down in Borussia Dortmund's 2-2 home draw against Augsburg on Saturday, and the injury crisis that has hit Jurgen Klopp's team this season is frightening.
- Buczko: BvB disappoint again
Ilkay Gundogan, Mats Hummels, Lukasz Piszczek, Neven Subotic, Marcel Schmelzer and now Blaszczykowski will all miss substantial chunks of the 2013-14 campaign. No club can spot the opposition that many starters and get away with it. You see this in the club's tailspin. Dortmund have won just once since Nov. 1. The Bundesliga crown is obviously gone -- they are 14 points back and Bayern have a game in hand -- so now the concern has to be qualifying for the Champions League. They're currently joint-third with Borussia Moenchengladbach, but Schalke (fifth) and Wolsfburg (sixth) are two and three points back, respectively.
The good news is that the remaining head-to-heads against the other Champions League contenders -- Gladbach, Schalke and Wolfsburg -- are all at home. The bad news is that they've taken just one point from their past four home Bundesliga games. \ Man City's lack of depth: One of the challenges of a big squad is doling out enough playing time to keep everyone happy and on their toes, while maintaining cohesion and chemistry. And when you have marginal players returning from injury, everything gets trickier.
Watford are a better team than their league standing -- midtable in the Championship -- indicates. (Yes, the table does lie, and saying it doesn't is a myth.) Yet few would have predicted that they would race out to the 2-0 halftime lead they enjoyed against mighty Manchester City in the FA Cup.
Magic of the cup? Not quite, because City stormed back to win 4-2. But there's a warning here for Manuel Pellegrini, who played just four men -- Yaya Toure, Aleksandar Kolarov, Jesus Navas and Sergio Aguero -- who you might consider part of his best 11. (And even then, Navas and Kolarov are somewhat marginal as you could take Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy ahead of them and nobody would bat an eye-lid.)
Micah Richards and Jack Rodwell had a torrid first half and so on came the cavalry in the form of Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany. Pellegrini evidently knew that City had the firepower to score; the issue was whether they would get caught on the break, so shoring things up defensively made sense.
- Mooney: City recover from early sting
Pellegrini later said that Richards and Rodwell weren't "punished," but rather, were on their way back from injuries and that’s why they were substituted. Maybe so, but if there is a soft spot in City's armor going forward, it's at the back.
The rule of thumb for centre-backs is that you need to be able to cope with two guys out. City have Kompany and Matija Nastasic who are reliable. Martin Demichelis arrived amid skepticism but has done a decent job as a stand-in -- though at 33 years old, you wonder how durable he is. Joleon Lescott has had a rough time and City have opted not to renew his contract, which expires in June. Dedryck Boyata is 23 now, has been there for five and a half years and is also on the verge of being released at the end of the season. Sure, Javi Garcia, though not exactly a giant, can recycle himself as a centre-back -- so too, theoretically, could Rodwell or even Richards. But these are all makeshift solutions.
You wonder if maybe -- possibly even in this transfer window -- City might not be tempted to address the issue. Also because Nastasic, lest we forget, is still just 20. And Kompany himself has missed more than a third of City's league starts since the beginning of the 2012-13 season.
Mandzukic on the outs? So Mario Mandzukic was dropped for Bayern's 2-0 win away to Borussia Moenchengladbach, a victory that was far more emphatic than the pedestrian score line suggests. The Croatian center-forward reportedly had a run-in with Pep Guardiola last week and did not even make the bench.
"I heard he didn't train particularly well," said club president Uli Hoeness. "I hope things improve, because we need Mario this season, we have some big games ahead. It would be very foolish for us to give up on him."
- Schaaf: Bayern win yet again
You can sort of see how Mandzukic might be just a little bit on edge. He moves to Bayern last year, works his butt off, scores 22 goals in 39 games (including one in the Champions League final) and plays a big part in the club's historic Treble. This year, he already has 13 goals in all competitions, despite starting just 19 games.
And yet, he sees Mario Goetze getting more time as a "false nine" striker. He knows that Robert Lewandowski is on his way. He knows what's coming.
But Hoeness is right. Bayern need Mandzukic. For all their dominance, Goetze is 21 and is still learning the role. Playing Thomas Mueller up front will always be a Plan B. The challenge for Guardiola is keeping him motivated and happy, even as he knows he's not a long-term option.