Superb Madrid derby, Yaya leads City, hope for Milan, more
Now this is what you call a derby. After years of playing second banana to the blue bloods from the Bernabeu, Atletico Madrid took to the pitch with the kind of determination that their manager, Diego Simeone, oozed from every pore in his playing days. (Yeah, I know it’s a cliche, but if there's one relationship that epitomizes this, it's the one between "El Cholo" and his crew.)
We got 94 minutes of entertainment and drama: Real Madrid taking the lead because Karim Benzema got his timing right; Atletico responding with red and white fury, pushing the visitors back, back, back. Atletico snatched the equalizer when the bearded genius Arda Turan played his Jedi mind trick to befuddle Fabio Coentrao and then set up Koke, who smashed it past Diego Lopez.
Galvanized, they pushed on and took the lead just before halftime with the unlikeliest goal scorer: Gabi, who had found the net just once in the previous 18 months. He shot from distance, the ball hissing past a knot of players and eluding the unsighted (but probably slow-reacting) Lopez.
Atletico knew what was coming after the break. Carlo Ancelotti would change his fullbacks (and he did), replacing the more defensive Alvaro Arbeloa and Coentrao for marauders Dani Carvajal and Marcelo. The question would be whether Atletico could maintain the intensity and furious pace of the first 45 minutes that had kept the visitors tentative.
To a point. Atletico have six players who had already played 3,000 minutes of competitive football this season; Real just one. As the second half wore on, the home team wore down. And Ancelotti's men grew, creating chances and forcing Thibaut Courtois to show just why he's the best keeper in La Liga. Eventually, Cristiano Ronaldo -- who else? -- sealed the 2-2 draw.
Recriminations? Atletico will have a few. Like when Sergio Ramos tackled Diego Costa and the referee waved play on. Or when Costa, again, skipped past Arbeloa, went down and was booked for diving. There probably was contact, though to be fair there were a couple of other occasions when Costa probably merited a caution for simulation. Either way, given the nervy nature of this game, the pounding rain, the overheated Calderon -- well, if you're ever likely to give a referee a pass, this was it. "We’re still alive," Simeone said after the game. He's right. The Colchoneros are three points behind Real, two behind Barcelona. A draw when these two meet in the Bernabeu in a couple of weeks, a slip-up somewhere, and Atletico are right back in it.
Still, it was Ancelotti who could consider himself the happier. This was a "trap game" in tough conditions. The two points Atletico left behind are, in this context, as important as the one point Real gained. Their undefeated streak is now up to 28 games and there were no significant injuries. And perhaps most importantly, they know they can do better.
Yaya steps up for Man City
One side effect of Manchester City winning the League Cup is that we won't have to keep hearing how the Chilean has "never won a trophy in Europe." (Or worse, when folks ignorantly say he didn't win anything at all, as if he picked up those titles with San Lorenzo and River Plate on eBay.)
It's not to be underestimated. Winning your first piece of silverware with a new club can lift a psychological block, the very same block which -- coupled with Sunderland's tremendous first-half performance -- seemed to stunt City's progress at Wembley on Sunday.
Fabio Borini had shown enough muscle to withstand Vincent Kompany's challenge and give Sunderland the lead. City had shown few ideas and even less initiative for the first 55 minutes. And then, to shoo away the fear, came that most classic of sporting tropes: the superstar stepping up.
Yaya Toure seized the ball, exchanged passes with Pablo Zabaleta and then, with a seemingly effortless strike, stroked it beyond Vito Mannone's reach and into the Sunderland net. It was a gorgeous goal, made all the more special by its importance -- it entirely changed the City vibe -- and the sheer genius of Toure's shot. It was the kind of goal that he makes look easy, but which anyone who has kicked a ball knows is a rare blend of technique, creativity and endless hours of training. In fact, you almost wonder that if Toure wasn't a giant, oversized central midfielder, we'd be waxing even more lyrical. He looks like (and is) a 6-foot-2 powerhouse, so too many simply don't associate delicate skills with his game.
Less than two minutes later, Samir Nasri made it 2-1. Sunderland battled on, but you sensed they were only going to get one more legitimate chance. When it came, it fell to Steven Fletcher, albeit on his wrong foot. What should have been a simple side-foot finish turned into an uncoordinated half-cross that was easily dealt with. City went back up the pitch and put it out of reach at 3-1.
Jordan's day at Wembley
One thing struck me about this image of Jordan Henderson, a Sunderland fan who came through the ranks on Wearside, going to Wembley to cheer on his boyhood club at the League Cup final: He's in the cheap seats. (Metaphorically speaking, that is: None of those seats are cheap.)
Henderson is a multimillionaire. He may not be a top-shelf superstar at Liverpool, but you can bet he drives a nice car and lives in a nice house and gets stopped regularly by autograph-seekers. It's a safe bet he could well have afforded to hide away in a luxury box, waving down on the common folk below.
Instead, he chose to be among the Sunderland fans. Because whatever his day job happens to be, he is one of them.
FFP trouble on the horizon?
On Friday, UEFA revealed that 76 clubs are being investigated for possible breaches of Financial Fair Play.
Sky is falling? Not quite. All it means is that those 76 clubs exceeded the basic FFP "break-even" requirement in 2012 (meaning they had losses of more than $6.9 million). This means UEFA will be looking at their 2013 numbers to determine who is compliant and who is not.
Among those clubs are some whose 2013 figures will make up for the 2012 losses. Then there are others who will still fall short, but remember -- if the losses are between $13.8 million and $62 million for the two-year "monitoring period," clubs can still meet the requirement if shareholders make up the difference with an equity injection.
That will leave a handful of clubs, maybe between 15 and 20, who will find themselves going through the next step of the process, where UEFA's investigatory chamber will get involved and go through the numbers. Some will be able to argue their case persuasively and some will be offered a "settlement," a bit like pleading guilty to a lesser charge to avoid going to trial. Those left over (or who turn down the settlement) will end up in the adjudicatory chamber, who will make the final call and, where appropriate, dole out the punishment. And that can involve fines, capping of wages on Champions League and Europa League rosters or, ultimately, exclusion.
Clubs then will get one last appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, and that will be that.
So how many will make it to the end of the process and face punishment?
My guess is not that many, maybe half a dozen. UEFA's priority in the first monitoring period is to assist clubs in moving toward balanced books. For some, it may take years, and as long as there is a general trend in the right direction and there is a genuine plan there, they won't throw the book at anyone.
If, however, there are some who deliberately ignore the guidelines (don't forget that UEFA's wonks have been talking to clubs for the past two seasons) or try to be clever with tactics such as bogus sponsorship deals, UEFA won't look kindly on it.
It's easy to be cynical at this stage. But until we see how things unfold, there's no point passing judgment.
Again, Milan look good in defeat
We know AC Milan manager Clarence Seedorf had (and still has) a long road ahead of him. And on paper, a home defeat isn't anything to celebrate. But together with the first half of the Atletico game in the Champions League, this might have been the best performance of the nascent Seedorf era. Yes, the scoreline shows that they fell at home to Juventus 2-0, but for much of the game, Milan had the upper hand, and it was clear what Seedorf was trying to do. The front four weren't as static as in previous outings, the ball zipped around quickly, chances were created (but, alas, not converted: That may change when Mario Balotelli returns).
Most of all, the attackers helped out and worked off the ball. They didn't simply leave Nigel De Jong and the back four staring at an advancing army of counterattackers.
The defeat no doubt hurts. It always does. But there are plenty of positives to take from this -- first and foremost, the sense that the players are starting to buy into what Seedorf is trying to do.
Unfancied Schuerrle makes his case
Andre Schuerrle wasn't Jose Mourinho’s pick. His deal was sealed well before the Special One's return to Stamford Bridge. That may help explain why Mourinho felt the need to go out and sign Willian when he already had, lest we forget, Eden Hazard, Oscar, the since-departed Juan Mata, Victor Moses and Kevin de Bruyne at his disposal at Chelsea.
To be fair, the German attacking midfielder didn't do much in limited action to change Mourinho's mind, either. His first 45 minutes against Fulham were much like his 2013-14 campaign thus far. He looked out of place, his runs willing but mistimed, his touch sharp but heavy. Then came that second-half hat trick.
- Read: Team of the Weekend - Worrall: Chelsea maintain title charge - Delaney: Three Things from CFC's win - Report: Blues win, maintain league lead - Goals: Chelsea def. Fulham 3-1 (video U.S. only)
Three goals in 16 minutes won't make Schuerrle an automatic choice. But they can give a player confidence, and seeing him beaming after the match may well persuade Mourinho that he has turned some kind of psychological corner. Schuerrle has size, strength and pace to go with first-rate technique. He could be a key contributor deputizing for any one of the three behind the striker in Chelsea's stretch run.
De Rossi needs to grow up
When Italy coach Cesare Prandelli introduced his "ethical code" -- misbehave, in Prandelli's opinion, and you won't play in the next Italy game -- shortly after his appointment, many scoffed. Surely he wouldn't cut off his nose to spite his face and exclude guys he actually needed simply because of something they did at club level or away from the pitch?
Well, Prandelli has thus far been true to his word. And arguably, he has paid a price for it. In October, when Italy faced Denmark in a World Cup qualifier, Balotelli -- who had thrown a tantrum in a Milan game and gotten himself sent off -- was left out. The game finished 2-2 and, coupled with results elsewhere, ended up costing the Azzurri a top seed at the World Cup. We obviously can't say that with Balotelli up front, things would have turned out differently, but clearly, you'd rather have him than not. Now it's Daniele De Rossi's turn to be suspended from the Italy squad for Wednesday's friendly against Spain. On Saturday, he appeared to punch Mauro Icardi during Roma's scoreless draw with Inter. On several other occasions, he seemed to get a couple of unwarranted licks in on opponents.
De Rossi plays on the edge, with that Roy Keane red mist often seemingly just moments away. As the cliche goes, it's what makes him a great player, but occasionally it's also his undoing. Maybe watching the match against the world champions on TV will help him get rid of the one aspect of his game that can make him a liability. After all, he's now 30 years old. Time to act like it.
Pardew goes too far
Speaking of red mist, Alan Pardew is old enough to be De Rossi's dad. His confrontation with David Meyler during Newcastle's 4-1 win over Hull wasn't quite as dramatic as some make out -- to me, a head-butt is something different -- but obviously it was stupid, uncalled for, and frankly, worrying, because Pardew has a long history of pitch-side confrontations. (Bizarrely, it's usually with guys who are older than him, like Martin O’Neill, Arsene Wenger or Manuel Pellegrini.)
Newcastle fined him $165,000, a hefty amount. He apologized after the game (Meyler accepted) and admitted that he needs to take a look at himself, because he's had several of these.
The FA will be looking at him, too, and you can expect a ban. If there is something to come out of this, it's the way he was universally condemned. After all, there are some lines a coach must never cross.
Undershirt ban for the wrong reasons?
So FIFA's International Board (IFAB), the body charged with preserving and (when necessary) modifying the laws of the game, decided at its annual meeting to ban players from displaying messages on the T-shirts they wear under their jerseys and which some gleefully lift as part of their goal celebrations.
They say it was getting too difficult to distinguish between harmless stuff (shoutouts to hometowns or to mom, jokes and eulogies of friends and teammates who have passed) and slogans that are political, offensive or could provoke violence among supporters.
"The simplest rule for the image of the game is to start from the basis that slogans will not be allowed," said Alex Horne, secretary of England's FA, who introduced the rule change. So out goes one more form of footballer self-expression. (Remember, these are the folks who already banned "excessive celebrations" and removing one's shirt after a goal . . . sorry, Brandi Chastain.) All because they don't trust local FAs to decide what is offensive or political or inflammatory and what is not. Like Kaka showing his "I belong to Jesus" shirt, or former Doncaster forward Billy Sharp, whose T-shirt read "That's for you, son," two days after his infant child passed away.
It wouldn't be a huge deal if not for one thing. You get the sense that they're doing this because a player displaying a message on an undergarment after scoring a goal gets on TV and on YouTube and his photograph is all over the papers and the Web. And if the homemade T-shirt gets that kind of exposure, it means the official kit -- with the official sponsor -- doesn't. And folks pay good money to have their corporation's name on the front of those shirts.
Ligue 1 becomes a one-horse race
Paris St. Germain fans could not have scripted a better weekend. Second-place Monaco lost on Saturday (2-0 at St. Etienne), Edinson Cavani scored after five weeks out, and best of all, the team they beat up is none other than archrival Marseille.
- Johnson: Classique win opens big lead
The 2-0 win simply underscored what we already know: that there's an abyss between these two sides, and that soon Ligue 1 will be a string of training sessions in between Champions League games.
Positive message in Ukraine
Dynamo Kyiv and Shakthar Donetsk were supposed to face off in a mouthwatering clash this past weekend, but unrest in Ukraine meant the game was suspended. So the hardcore fans from the two bitter rivals (who also happen to represent opposite ends of the country) opted to get together and play each other instead.
Here's a video. There's obviously a kaleidoscope of views about what's happening -- and what should happen -- in Ukraine, and the two sets of supporters are probably equally as varied in their opinions.
But for 90 minutes, they put all of that aside, along with the rivalry separating their clubs, and simply played a game in the name of unity. Don't underestimate the importance of that.