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Marcotti: A tournament to remember

World Cup Jul 14, 2014
Read
Mar 10, 2014

Man City's rot, Barca's slump, Bayern's record push, more

ESPN FC's Gabriele Marcotti gives his reaction from Man City's shocking 2-1 loss to Wigan in The FA Cup.

Give all the credit in the world to Wigan Athletic, Emmerson Boyce, Uwe Rosler, Dave Whelan and whomever else you like. They defeated Manchester City 2-1 Sunday in the FA Cup quarterfinals, making history twice in two years against the Blues, the richest team in the English game, the kind of lore that will be passed on through generations. But, equally, if you're Man City owner Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed, you might want to take a moment to reflect. Yes, it's critical to rest players -- especially after an international break, which sent players trekking off to the ends of the earth. And, sure, you want to keep something in reserve for Wednesday's trip to the Camp Nou and the difficult task of overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit.

- Jolly: History repeats for Wigan - Mooney: Last-chance saloon for City - Report: Man City 1-2 Wigan - Story: Pellegrini laments exit - FC TV: Can Arsenal win the Cup?

Yet at the same time, you're there to win trophies. There's no point in manager Manuel Pellegrini talking about going for the quadruple if, in a quarterfinal -- against the side that beat City last year, no less -- he sends out a team like this one. And it's not even a question of personnel as much as attitude. Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott and Martin Demichelis aren't awful players -- though there’s a reason why they aren't first-choice -- but, on the day, they made the kind of mental errors that awful players make. You can only conclude they weren't prepared or in the right frame of mind.

Some have suggested that, at least with Richards and Lescott, it's a case of two guys who know they are surplus to requirements and, if not for their huge contracts, would have been shipped elsewhere a long time ago. Maybe so. But as long as they're in your squad, it's in your best interest to motivate them, make them feel involved, and prepare them. On Sunday, for whatever reason, they were not. If that's on Pellegrini, though, there's a broader issue, too. When you are Manchester City, you have the luxury of an enormous transfer budget. There is no excuse for assembling a squad this thin in central defence, not when at the same time you blow nearly $40 million on Stevan Jovetic to be your fourth striker.

They have a director of football, Txiki Begiristain, whose job is to address these matters. And, evidently, in January he realized the need for another centre-back, which is why he chased Eliaquim Mangala. Fine, so that didn't come off. But surely there must have been alternatives, a useful body to bring in, even on a short-term basis? A Demichelis type, only better?

This is about poor planning and/or poor player evaluation, and given their reputations, it's more than fair to question the choices made by Begiristain and Pellegrini.

Barca in a slump?

There was only one goal between Valladolid and Barcelona, but the Catalans' 1-0 loss Saturday was arguably their worst performance in a long time. You can talk all you want about Juan Ignacio Martinez (or "JIM" as the Spanish media like to call him) and his brilliant tactical scheme that neutered Lionel Messi's crew. But the fact remains that Barcelona lost to a club in the relegation zone that had won just once since mid-December. More worryingly, Barca created just two chances, one well-saved by Diego Marino (off Messi) and one squandered by Neymar, who was simply horrid on the day. There are no excuses: Apart from Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba, this was pretty much Barcelona's first-choice XI. (And even those two were replaced by Cesc Fabregas and Adriano, hardly two end-of-the-bench scrubs.) The endless possession stats (75 percent plus for Barca, once the dust had settled) are meaningless without penetration. And you get that only when your front three move around, when your full-backs (Dani Alves also had a rough game) stretch the opposing defence, and when the midfield shows some creativity.

- Tomas: Barca must focus - Ledwith: Alarm bells sounding at Camp Nou - Martino: Barca will still fight - FC TV: Where was Neymar? - FC TV: Martino under pressure? - FC TV: Barca falling behind

"We lacked ideas and we lacked directness," manager Tata Martino said after the final whistle. It's hard to disagree. But it's worrying how his players seemingly took a day off with the Liga crown still very much in play. So much so that Victor Valdes declined to speak to the media but, instead, made this video to apologize personally to the supporters. (Why he did it from a toilet -- listen for the flush at 0:26 -- remains a mystery.)

Bayern going for the record

It lasted nine minutes, but Bayern did fall behind to Wolfsburg on Saturday, until Xherdan Shaqiri restored the natural order of things. Then, in the second half, all they did was score five -- away from home, no less -- to cruise to a 6-1 victory.

Pep Guardiola's experiments -- a way of keeping everyone on their toes, if nothing else -- continued. Thomas Mueller started at centre-forward (and bagged two goals, albeit once Mario Mandzukic came on and Mueller retreated to attacking midfield), Shaqiri was in the hole, and Franck Ribery was back out wide after more than a month out.

Mandzukic, who has already surpassed last season's goal total, is averaging a goal every 95 minutes and is Bayern's top scorer in the Bundesliga. I'm not sure he could be making a stronger case for keeping his job, even on a part-time basis, even after Robert Lewandowski comes on board in the summer.

- Schaaf: Bayern tie Invincibles - Report: Wolfsburg 1-6 Bayern

The win extended Bayern's undefeated streak in the league to 49, meaning they've matched the total racked up by Arsene Wenger's "Invincibles" at Arsenal. Milan's record -- among the big five leagues -- stands at 58: if Bayern keep going, they’ll break it on the last day of the Bundesliga season.

Real keep rolling

Forget the 3-0 score line Sunday. Without Keylor Navas between the sticks for Levante, Real Madrid might have scored seven or eight. The Costa Rican keeper saved almost everything in sight and was beaten only by Cristiano Ronaldo's freakish leap, Marcelo's right-footed sharpshooting (yes, right-footed!) and an own goal. Beyond that, it was all one way.

- Rigg: Real hammer home advantage - Report: Real 3-0 Levante

Luka Modric stood out (not for the first time) running the show, especially in transition. But Marcelo and Dani Carvajal both look to be getting stronger just as we get into the stretch run. And Gareth Bale continues to look increasingly comfortable.

Sherwood loses battle of wits

Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho may look back and feel that he gave Spurs a little too much respect in choosing his starting XI on Saturday. Switching to a 4-3-3 -- with Frank Lampard, Ramires and Nemanja Matic filling the middle -- may have been designed to absorb pressure and set up the counter. But once Fernando Torres got injured in the warm-up and the manager was forced to turn to Samuel Eto'o, and once Mourinho saw Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood's unusual lineup -- Aaron Lennon through the middle, Kyle Walker on the wing, Gylfi Sigurdsson making his first start since January, Younes Kaboul his second since November -- "The Special One" realized such caution wasn't just unnecessary but was counterproductive. He inserted Oscar at halftime, Chelsea moved their center of gravity up the pitch, and Spurs had no answers -- particularly once Eto'o broke the ice -- as Chelsea won 4-0. This was the case of managers trying to outwit each other. One of them, Mourinho, made the right changes; the other, Sherwood, appeared to try to be too clever with his experimental lineup. If you're going to go out on a limb and leave out Roberto Soldado, Andros Townsend, Nacer Chadli and Paulinho -- all of whom began on the bench -- you had better get it right.

Sherwood said Spurs did "all right" in the first half, and it was the sending off of Kaboul in the 59th minute that changed the game. But, in fact, Spurs being "all right" had more to do with the way Chelsea lined up.

- Worrall: Chelsea pursue glory - Report: Chelsea 4-0 Spurs - Crace: Time for Tottenham to face facts

Sherwood's decision to then question his players' "guts" is an interesting one. His predecessor, Andre Villas-Boas, was accused of blaming his players rather than taking responsibility for far less. And the way Sherwood appeared to call out his boss, Daniel Levy, in public ("The silence is deafening") also came across as a guy losing his cool.

Good weekend for goal celebrations

It was nice to see goal celebrations that were both funny and meaningful. Eto'o's old man impression was a response to the brouhaha over his age. And David Meyler -- who head-butted the corner flag -- gave a nod to last week's events, when Newcastle coach Alan Pardew did the same to him.

If you're going to defuse a potentially nasty situation and take the sting out of it, this is how to do it. With humor. Of course, it also helps when you've just scored a goal.

Napoli secure their CL spot

Palpable relief Sunday at the San Paolo. Napoli take on Roma, get battered for most of the game (Gervinho's finishing and Pepe Reina's goalkeeping are the reason it was nil-nil for so long) and then Jose Callejon pops up to give Napoli the game's only goal and the three points.

Coupled with Fiorentina's 1-0 defeat at Juventus, it means Napoli extend their lead and virtually wrap up a Champions League place for next season. Manager Rafa Benitez may have made mistakes this season, but he deserves credit for the win. Despite his team being second-best for most of the game, he remained positive with his substitutions (Lorenzo Insigne for Marek Hamsik springs to mind) when another manager would have concluded that it wasn't his day and looked to preserve the draw.

The logic behind Moyes' letter

Manager David Moyes' letter to Manchester United season-ticket holders -- in which he thanked them for their support and admitted that this "difficult season" is not something he envisaged and that he is desperate to "compensate for that" -- is an interesting gambit that can be read several ways.

Is it a sign of weakness? Pleading for support at Old Trafford because he knows their next three home fixtures are against Liverpool, Olympiacos and Manchester City?

Or is it a sign of strength? Feeling confident enough to admit the problems, recognizing that he didn't expect them, but still being sure they'll be able to navigate the tough waters ahead?

- Okwonga: Fellaini finds timely form - Story: Moyes reaches out to Utd fans - Goals: West Brom 0-3 Man United (U.S. only)

Maybe it was just a case of an honest man like Moyes feeling embarrassed by what has gone on and wanting to thank the supporters who have stayed loyal. Because while the club get crucified in social media and on forums, at least the supporters at Old Trafford have done their bit, backing the team until the final whistle.

Juve, Asamoah closer to another title

After Juventus' 1-0 win over Fiorentina on Sunday, manager Antonio Conte said the Scudetto was "50 percent" in the bag. That was before Roma's defeat on Sunday night. Where he puts the number now is anyone's guess (likely not much higher, since Conte often likes to see his glass as half empty). Still, beating the only team to defeat the Bianconeri in Serie A this season, withstanding a late charge, and seeing your (theoretical) title rivals lose all add up to a nice weekend. Conte may want to share some of it with Kwadwo Asamoah, who has been one of Juve's most consistent performers. It's easy to forget just what the Ghanaian has achieved. He was a midfield playmaker until less than two years ago. And now, without much fanfare, he has reinvented himself as a wing-back, that most specialist of positions. It's remarkable because playing wide involves a wholly different type of running and thinking than the midfield general role he was deployed in before. Not many would so willingly adapt to a new role the way Asamoah has.

- Rzouki: Juve do just enough to win

Against Fiorentina, he was rewarded with a peach of a goal. The finish was nice, though the deflection takes some of the gloss off. But the footwork and magic to create enough space for the shot were special. And a reminder of what Asamoah can -- but rarely gets to -- do.

Honesty best policy for Hunt

All credit to midfielder Aaron Hunt. He appears to win a penalty for Werder Bremen at Nurnberg, then turns around and tells the referee that he stumbled and wasn't touched. It's not the first time that we've seen this (Miroslav Klose did something similar at Lazio), yet it remains wonderfully refreshing.

- FC TV: Right call by Hunt?

The cynics, no doubt, will wonder whether Hunt would have been so straight-up honest if Bremen had not been up 2-0 (which ended up as the final score). Maybe he wouldn't have been. But this isn't about Hunt. It's about having one more fair-play example to chuck against the tide of diving, cheating and play-acting. The moment we consider Hunt's behaviour "normal" will be the moment we know we’ve won the war against the con men.\

Teamwork the key for PSG

With a 3-0 win Saturday at Bastia, Paris St. Germain has 102 goals this season in all competitions, by my tally. Which is already one more than they scored last season ... and we're still in the first half of March.

- Johnson: Zlatan, Lavezzi star for PSG

As a team, PSG may be heavily reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who, by the way, already has 11 assists in the league, versus seven all last season) and may have been largely assembled in less than two seasons thanks to Qatari natural gas (of the 14 most-used players, just one -- Blaise Matuidi -- arrived before Qatar Sports Investments came and pulled out the chequebook).

But, make no mistake about it, the key term is in the third word of the previous sentence: team. That's what manager Laurent Blanc has built. And that's why PSG are competing on all fronts.