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Marcotti: A tournament to remember

World Cup Jul 14, 2014
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Marcotti: Deschamps manages expectations

France Jun 25, 2014
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Feb 24, 2014

Martino's mistake, Chelsea's reward and Bundesliga imbalance

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti explains the La Liga title picture after this weekends fixtures.

I appreciate that in the modern game you have to rotate your team to keep everyone fresh. I get it. But it’s tough to fathom what “Tata” Martino was thinking ahead of Barcelona's trip to Real Sociedad, which ended in a 3-1 defeat.

This was a place where the Blaugrana hadn’t won in their previous five visits. It was a game against a team pushing for a Champions’ League slot, not Hospitalet at the Camp Nou in the Copa del Rey. \ And yet Dani Alves, Xavi, Javier Mascherano, Cesc Fabregas and Alexis Sanchez were all on the bench -- being rested, presumably. \ Rested for what? Barcelona’s next game isn’t until March 2. And it’s at home against Almeria.

- Tomas: Barcelona must recover \ The guy who probably could have used a rest, Gerard Pique -- who has played every single minute of every Liga and Champions League game since mid-November -- did start and promptly got hurt. He’ll be out for two weeks. \ What’s more, when you rotate, you usually try to keep your shape. Instead, Sergio Busquets lined up alongside Alex Song, and whatever the intention was, they ended up as a kind of two-headed holding midfielder, turning Barca’s possession into an ode to sterility. \ Martino evidently wanted to show faith in the likes of Marc Bartra and Martin Montoya and that’s fine. They are, after all, the future.

However, there is a time and a place for it, ideally behind a first-choice midfield who can play like Barcelona. Furthermore, most importantly, there’s a Liga title to win.

Atleti’s depth issues

Diego Simeone also mixed it up for Atletico Madrid’s trip to Osasuna, leaving out the likes of Miranda, Koke and Arda Turan.

However, in his case, you can understand it a little bit more. Atleti have a small squad, all three were one yellow card away from a suspension and next weekend’s derby with Real Madrid could go a long way toward determining the Liga champion. \ Still the 3-0 setback was a blow. Simeone took it on the chin: “They were much better than we were.” \ Fair enough. The worrying thing for Simeone may be the realization that without his best XI, everything changes.

Diego, whose return from Wolfsburg was supposed to offer a valuable alternative, offering a different way of playing, was so poor in the hole that we might not see him again, except as a (potentially) game-changing sub off the bench. \ Advantage Real Madrid

Setbacks for Barca and Atleti capped a very nice weekend for Real Madrid, who now lead Liga by three points and are right where Carlo Ancelotti wants them.

The first of the title challengers to play at the weekend, Madrid's objective vs. Elche was clear: get the three points in the bag, avoid injury and prepare for the twin challenges of a Champions League tie away to Schalke and the derby at Atletico next weekend.

The 3-0 win wasn’t a great performance, but then, Real were without Sergio Ramos, Marcelo, Luka Modric and the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo.

- Corrigan: Three Things: Real Madrid vs. Elche - Rigg: Bale silences his critics

Jese wasn’t his usual self, but Gareth Bale uncorked a vicious long-range effort for Madrid’s second. It means that at least for now, the “bench-Bale-for-Jese-when-Cristiano-returns” brigade can take a week off. \ Chelsea get their reward

Come the end of the season, if Chelsea win the Premier League, it will be thanks to days like Saturday against Everton. Jose Mourinho's crew had an early flurry and then suffered for much of the rest of the game.

In fact, it may have been one of the worst Chelsea performances this season. Oscar looked spent, Willian chaotic, and Samuel Eto'o showed his age.

And then came that late, late goal. A Frank Lampard free kick, John Terry stretching a big boot in front of Tim Howard, the ball striking the Everton keeper and trickling in.

Lucky?

- Delaney: Three Things: Chelsea vs. Everton - Lythell: Last-gasp Terry

Yes, in the sense that the ball could have ended up in an entirely different place and the game could have ended 0-0. No, in the sense that this is prototypical "making your own luck."

Pushing forward with determination, not settling for a point and getting your big veteran guns to do the business in the dying seconds. It's trademark Mourinho. And come the end of the season, it could be absolutely huge.

It's not just the additional two points, though they could determine the Premier League winner. It's the self-belief that endings like these foster, particularly in the hands of a guy like Mourinho, who may have other faults but is pretty close to the gold standard in terms of building unity and getting his players to buy in to his game plan.

Manchester City have a game in hand, and given that it's home against Sunderland, you can probably budget for a win. That would leave us with a nicely poised three-way race, with City and Chelsea on 60 points and Arsenal one behind.

The two remaining head-to-head clashes also appear to give Chelsea the edge. They host Arsenal next month while City have to travel to the Emirates. That means two tough games for Arsenal (one home, one away), one for City (away) and one for Chelsea (home).

It is a wafer-thin edge, but an advantage nonetheless, particularly when coupled with the two points grabbed out of thin air on Saturday.

Torino’s missed opportunity

Torino coach Giampiero Ventura was seething after Sunday’s 1-0 derby defeat at the hands of Juventus.

He was angry that Andrea Pirlo’s trip on Omar El Kaddouri didn’t result in a penalty. Watch the replay and it’s hard to argue. Even Juve boss Antonio Conte agreed with him after the match. \ That said, Ventura sold himself -- and his team -- short in the way he approached the game. Even after Carlos Tevez gave the Bianconeri the lead, Torino seemed content with sitting deep and leaving their two star strikers -- Ciro Immobile and Alessio Cerci -- isolated up the pitch, doing their own thing.

- Rzouki: Juve's controversial derby win

Only in the last 20 minutes did Torino go for it and when they did, they actually created chances and had Juve on the back foot. \ You can’t really criticize a guy for going defensive when taking on the league leaders, but this was a derby.

Plus, Torino were in sixth place going into the game and it’s not as if they would get relegated if they dropped points. If there was a situation where they could afford to gamble a little and take the game to the opposition (like they’ve done for much of the season against lesser opponents), this was it.

Plus, if they’d done that, then maybe they wouldn’t have needed to rely on a refereeing decision that never came to get a result.

Bundesliga imbalance

With the Bundesliga season nearly two-thirds over, Bayern look set to pulverize all of those records they set last season. They’re on pace for what would be a record 96 points, five more than they had last season.

Bayern are currently 22 points ahead of second-place Leverkusen, and their projected lead over the league's runner-up is 30, also five more than at the end of last season. \ Sunday’s 4-0 pounding of Hannover was Bayern’s 14th straight Bundesliga win, which equals a record they set in 2012-13. They’re also on pace to set marks for fewest goals conceded, fewest losses and a host of others I won’t bore you with.

- Macintosh: Has Guardiola made Bayern better? - Schaaf: Sunday stroll \ Bayern haven’t actually lost in the Bundesliga since October 28, 2012, a run of 47 games. Extend it to all competitions, and since that defeat to Bayer Leverkusen 16 months ago, they’ve lost three times: once to Arsenal in last year’s Champions League, once to Borussia Dortmund in the preseason German SuperCup, and once to Manchester City, when they had already qualified for the CL knockout rounds. \ Is this something wonderful to be celebrated, or should we worry about the chronic imbalance in the Bundesliga? \ Bayern are on top because they are better-run than many clubs, and have a great manager and outstanding players.

But this is also a function of hailing from a city that is bigger and wealthier than most, and having more supporters than most -- which, in turn, allows them to enjoy more commercial and sponsorship revenue than most (heck, considerably more than even Manchester United). \ You don’t want to punish excellence, and Bayern have, in so many ways, been the gold standard. However, at some point, you also need a competitive league for them to play in (you may have heard, one Robert Lewandowski is on his way from Borussia Dortmund). \ It’s a conversation the DFL and Bayern will have to have at some point.

Rooney hand-wringing

When it comes to player salaries, every country has its own traditions and peculiarities.

For example, France quotes wages on a monthly gross basis while England -- a legacy of when players were paid like, well, normal working folk in factory jobs -- does it weekly, pre-tax. Spain and Italy, meanwhile, opt for the annual after-tax amount. \ Wayne Rooney’s reported wage of “up to 300,000” pounds a week is impressive. It may be the highest in the Premier League.

Or it may not, because different folks say different things about what the “up to” means. I’ve been told it’s not substantially more than his current deal, but he can get much more in incentives and bonuses.

What those bonuses are, we know not. The appearance-related stuff is straightforward, but if there are clauses related to winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or or the Champions League, the Glazers may not be parting with their cash.

- Okwonga: Rooney keeps dark forces at bay \ Throw in the many ill-advised comparisons with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, whose commonly cited wages are, I repeat, unlike Rooney’s net, which means they earn a heck of a lot more than he does, and he’s been making headlines all weekend (among them have been far too many of the “what-is-this-world-coming-to” variety). \ The simple fact is that Rooney will earn what Manchester United are willing to pay him. It’s a big deal, but it’s not a mind-blowing one. \ The only thing open to debate is whether they could have persuaded him to sign for less than they did, or whether they would have been better off letting him go in the summer (at a cut-rate price because he would have had a year left on his contract) and bringing in somebody else. \ Rebuilding needed at Dortmund?

It’s bad enough for last season’s Champions League finalists to lose to a club in free fall, coming off eight straight defeats. It’s worse to do so 3-0 and it’s even worse to discover that your midfield dynamo, Sven Bender, will now be out for 2 1/2 months.

- Buczko: Dortmund embarrass themselves \ He joins Neven Subotic, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Ilkay Gundogan on Borussia Dortmund’s injury list, while Mats Hummels and Lewandowski are doubtful for Tuesday’s clash with Zenit St. Petersburg.

Amid the chaos of Dortmund’s annus horribilis -- and, yes, failure to qualify for next season’s Champions League is a distinct possibility -- there was a spot of good news: General manager Michael Zorc extended his contract and will stick around until 2019.

Having built one successful team, he and Jurgen Klopp may well have to go out and build another one.

Rodgers on the defensive

Sunday neatly encapsulated Liverpool’s season. They were devastating going forward but error-prone at the back as they ultimately emerged 4-3 winners over Swansea.

Amid the defensive mistakes, it’s important to note that they have 17 more points at this stage of the season compared to last.

- Jolly: Three Things: Liverpool vs. Swansea - Usher: Liverpool thrill again - Kelly: Reds stay hot as temperature rises

Thus, clearly, Brendan Rodgers is on the right track, but the question remains: Why is the defending so poor? \ To some degree, obviously, when you have an attack-minded side, you’ll be more vulnerable at the back, yet that alone doesn’t explain it. Rodgers was asked about it, and he pointed to individual errors rather than anything related to coaching or systems. \ “The problem is that it’s not coaching,” he said. “Some of things we conceded goals in, you can’t coach that. There’s a feel when you’re in the game of how to defend and you have to use that experience to be able to defend properly.” \ The implication is that either Liverpool have had a rotten run of defensive luck or some of these guys aren’t up to Rodgers’ standard.

Yet we’re talking about Daniel Agger (who, lest we forget, was on Barcelona’s radar not long ago) and Martin Skrtel, who were pretty water-tight under previous managers, plus Kolo Toure and Mamadou Sakho, who were brought in this past summer, presumably with the manager’s blessing. \ When Rodgers suggests that you can’t coach these guys into better performances or conjure up a system that leaves them less exposed (and therefore less prone to howlers) he’s putting down his own ability as a manager, as well as that of his players.

It simply isn’t true, especially for a tactically oriented coach like Rodgers.

He is Zlatan

Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s hat trick for Paris St. Germain against Toulouse in a 4-2 win Sunday made it 22 goals in 25 games in Ligue 1 and 37 goals in 36 matches across all competitions in 2013-14, which means the big man has already eclipsed his personal seasonal mark, and we’re still only in February. \ Anybody who thought that the addition of Edinson Cavani in the summer would somehow curtail Ibrahimovic’s scoring or even limit his influence on the side was clearly wrong. This is still a team that lives and dies by Ibrahimovic.

- Johnson: Ibra covers for PSG deficiencies \ It’s not a knock on Laurent Blanc, who has done an exceptional job, proving many skeptics (including yours truly) wrong.

It’s not as if he hasn’t tried to make the team less dependent on Ibrahimovic; it’s just that they are better when he’s the focal point, much as with most teams he has played for in his career (with the notable exception of Barcelona).

That said, Blanc’s skill has been getting the supporting cast to work for Ibrahimovic -- Cavani, a man with evidently zero personal ego, is the epitome of this -- and making the side more efficient than they were under Ancelotti.

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