There’s something incredibly satisfying when a mega sporting event lives up to the hype. Watch enough of this sport and you quickly become aware of how desperate the game is to sell itself as entertainment, which is fine, except we all know there are times when we watch a humdrum game, only for the folks doing the selling hammering home just how wonderful it is. \ Sunday night’s Clasico, won 4-3 by Barcelona was, by any metric, about as good a spectacle that two great teams can offer. And because there was something -- actually, a lot -- at stake, it made it that much more special. \ The biggest, most obvious, takeaway is that with three teams in the space of a single point, La Liga’s title race remains the tightest in Europe. Atletico Madrid sit atop the table and simply won’t go away, while Real Madrid and Barcelona will likely take them down to the wire. \ Madrid probably should have put the game at the Bernabeu away in the first half, despite going a goal down to Andres Iniesta’s wonder strike. Carlo Ancelotti won the early tactical battle with Tata Martino, whose decision to deploy Neymar high and wide on the right backfired; the Brazilian made little impact offensively and did little to help protect Dani Alves at right-back.
The basic but effective ploy of Cristiano Ronaldo shifting inside and the irrepressible Angel Di Maria racing into the left-wing position worked time and time again for the hosts and led to both of Karim Benzema’s goals and could (should?) have led to two more. \ The Di Maria-Benzema combination was the highlight of Madrid’s first half offensively. As an aside, it’s worth remembering that these are two guys who weren’t expected to contribute much this season. Di Maria, for example, spent most of the summer with a “for sale” sign around his neck.
Meanwhile, Benzema was the out-of-favor striker (“Sometimes, even though you’d rather go with a dog, you have to go hunting with a cat” as Ancelotti’s predecessor, Jose Mourinho, once mused) ready to make way for a major summer centre-forward signing.
But Ancelotti reinvented Di Maria as a marauding central midfielder and he has been the ideal foil for Luka Modric’s creativity. Meanwhile Benzema has been a reliable goal threat while holding his own as the central part of the BBC triptych. \ But then Lionel Messi did what Lionel Messi does. With Madrid 2-1 ahead, he punished Sergio Ramos’ hesitation, then manipulated time and space to find room to squeeze his finish past Diego Lopez.
Benzema had yet another chance at his first-half hat trick just before the break, this time with a header. \ You wonder whether Martino delivered some kind of rousing half-time speech or if he kept it simple. Maybe it was something like: “They outplayed us for a stretch, we weathered the storm, but we’re still even. They had their moment. Now let’s go and grab ours.” \ Instead, after 10 minutes, it looked as if the tide had turned, when referee Alberto Undiano Mallenco awarded Cristiano Ronaldo a penalty that he duly converted. Replays showed the contact with Dani Alves was clearly outside the box. \ It was a gift to Real Madrid; the kind of good fortune you walk into and which allows you to play your game your way. Now Barcelona had to really chase and Ancelotti could unleash the BBC on the break against the shaky Javier Mascherano. \ \ The window lasted another 10 minutes before Messi stepped up and conjured up the perfect ball, one that left Neymar cutting from right to left and staring down Diego Lopez, with Sergio Ramos panting at his heels.
Freeze the moment, because it’s what decided the game. \ Ramos would say later that he knew exactly what he was doing. He said he stopped because he knew it was better to let Neymar score (or, at least, let him try to beat Diego Lopez) and fix the score at 3-3, but 11 versus 11, than gamble and risk the red card.
Maybe so, but Neymar did what modern players do in this situation and waited long enough to ensure that Ramos, even as he pumped the brakes, caught him ever so slightly. \ A soft foul? Yes. But once Undiano Mallenco called it, he had little choice but to send off the defender. As bad calls go, this one had far wider-ranging consequences. \ Messi made it 3-3 from the spot, Ramos trudged off the pitch and Ancelotti replaced Benzema with Raphael Varane.
At this point, Ancelotti must have known it was a case of picking your poison. Do you retreat, thereby creating space for your fleet-footed attacking threats, Bale and Ronaldo, on the counterattack, so they might deal the knockout blow?
Or do you try to keep the ball in midfield, squeezing up and leaving it to Modric and Xabi Alonso to boss the midfield as they had done for long stretches of the first half? \ Both plans had their cons. The latter is near-impossible to do against an opponent lining up Iniesta, Xavi and Cesc Fabregas in the middle of the park. The former, which Real ultimately chose, left you vulnerable to Barca’s virtuosos running at your defenders. \ And that is what happened: Iniesta tried to squeeze between Xabi Alonso and Dani Carvajal and Undiano Mallenco pointed to the spot again. Another 50-50 decision? Maybe not.
Iniesta (who may be small, but isn’t THAT small) tried to force himself into a space that was rapidly closing because of Xabi Alonso’s arrival. In another area of the pitch, that’s a foul every time. In the box, some might have let it slide. Undiano Mallenco did not and Messi -- who else? -- made it 4-3. \ The lift for Barcelona is huge and not just because they’re now one point back. Martino, who has had critics and skeptics, has now done the seasonal Clasico double over Real Madrid. Plus, his team showed gumption and belief to come from behind twice. That matters. \ As for Real Madrid, Ancelotti -- wily campaigner that he is -- called for an “immediate reaction.” He’s right. Points are points. You can budget for a defeat like this, as long as you get the business done in the next two away games, against Sevilla and Real Sociedad. That’s where Real will, likely, win or lose La Liga.
Ancelotti avoided talking about the referee after the game. Instead, he said his team did everything could and what mattered was that they’re still fighting for the title. Some of his players, however, didn’t follow his lead. \ “We played against 12 men,” said Cristiano Ronaldo. “It bothers people when Madrid win. It’s always the same story. They wanted Barca to stay alive and they got their wish.” \ “Same old story” echoed Alvaro Arbeloa, via Twitter. And Sergio Ramos spoke of “pre-meditation” and how it would be a “good thing” if Undiano Mallenco didn’t officiate Real again. \ - Ronaldo hits out - Xavi rejects bias accusations
This is evidence that, perhaps, Jose Mourinho wasn’t entirely responsible for getting his players to complain about the referee. Either that, or he infected them irreversibly. \ You can break down Undiano Mallenco’s decisions from start to finish and come to whatever conclusion you like. You can consider the merits of the three penalties (from where I sit, Ronaldo’s should not have been given, the Neymar one was 50-50 and the Iniesta one looked legit).
You can throw in stuff that went unseen, like Gerard Pique’s challenge on Gareth Bale (which, again, looked soft to me) or Sergio Busquets appearing to step on Pepe (but you would have needed multiple referees to catch that.) \ Ultimately, the big decisions did decide this game. But they weren’t so critically one-sided that it’s worth crying conspiracy. The best thing for Real at this point is to do what Ancelotti suggested: Take the rage and disappointment and channel it into beating Seville, Real Sociedad and whatever else the fixture list throws in your path.
Marriner's incomprehensible error
OK, so Andre Marriner screwed up (he admitted so himself). He confused Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. You could -- maybe -- understand his error it if they weren’t wearing numbers on their jerseys and if they didn’t have different builds (one is slight, the other stocky), and if your job as a referee wasn’t to meticulously watch what happened on the pitch.
If you can see the guy who jumps with an outstretched arm to deflect the ball, you can make note of what the number on his shirt is. Still, this is not the sort of thing that happens often, and we all screw up once in a while; you can accept it. \ - Palmer: Three Things - Chelsea vs. Arsenal - Worrall: Chelsea focus on the title
But there are two things that are more difficult to swallow. \ The first is that his entire officiating crew either did not notice or did not have the courage to tell Marriner he was sending off the wrong guy. That includes both assistant referees and the fourth official. How closely do these people watch the game? \ The second is that Oxlade-Chamberlain clearly tells Marriner that he was the one who handled the ball.
There would have been no earthly reason for him to lie about it and, even if Arsenal would have gained some kind of mystical advantage by having him off the pitch instead of Gibbs, does Marriner -- or anyone? -- really believe that a player would lie directly to the referee’s face in these circumstances? \ We’re not talking about a player lying when appealing for a throw-in, or claiming that he didn’t touch an opponent, or that he got the ball. All of these “lies” are “grey area lies” and you always have the easy out -- when video evidence proves otherwise -- of claiming that you honestly thought you were telling the truth at the time. \ It seems incomprehensible that Oxlade-Chamberlain would have chosen to lie about this unless he is the kind of man who suddenly enjoys out-of-body experiences. The repercussions would have been massive. \ And that’s the worrying thing about the incident. It suggests that Marriner’s relationship with the players is so poor and his judgment of the way they think so out of whack that he obviously thought one would lie to his face.
Wenger's way will not change
“That’s why you quit while you’re ahead. Had he stopped at 500 or 600 we wouldn’t be here.” \ That’s the text I got from a former Arsenal player shortly after the club’s 6-0 hammering at Stamford Bridge. It was the pain of a fan talking. \ Arsene Wenger’s 1,000th game as Arsenal boss obviously wasn’t meant to end like this and, because we live in the here and now, the result will clearly take some of the gloss off the achievement.
- Delaney: Numb numbers for Arsenal - Mangan: Fragility exposed \ It’s almost as if we’re talking about two different things. On the one hand, we’re celebrating the achievements of a man who helped shape the modern Premier League while turning Arsenal into one of the pre-eminent global football brands, something he managed on a relative shoestring budget. \ On the other, we’re questioning the guy who has won nothing since 2005, who year after year can’t hang on to his best players, who leaves glaring holes whenever he builds his squads (another centre-forward and another centre-back are the two who spring to mind) and who sits on nearly a quarter of a billion dollars in cash because he “doesn’t see value in the transfer market.” \ I don’t buy this idea that there was a “Good Wenger” who made way for the “Current Wenger.” He’s the same guy. What has changed is that several outrageously wealthy individuals from Russia and Abu Dhabi have altered the landscape of the Premier League. \ You either buy into the “Wenger Way” and take the good -- and there is plenty -- with the not-so-good or you get yourself a different manager, one who builds teams the way Manuel Pellegrini, Jose Mourinho and countless others build teams: by spending as much as the club allows them to spend. \ It’s no secret that the “Wenger Way” suits Stan Kroenke, Arsenal’s majority shareholder. The club is a cash cow, at least for now. He calls the shots, and take it up with him if you have a problem with it, rather than with Wenger. \ But don’t expect Wenger to be something he’s not. Being himself is what made him as a manager.
Bayern punished by UEFA
Sector 124 of the Allianz Arena will be shut for Bayern’s next Champions League home game, on April 9 versus Manchester United. That’s UEFA’s punishment after a group of the club’s supporters displayed a homophobic banner during the match against Arsenal in the last round.
- Partial stadium ban for Bayern \ It’s the first season that UEFA have adopted this set of rules -- partial closures for comparatively minor first offences -- and thus far it’s working relatively well. It’s worth remembering that the objective isn’t to make people less homophobic. That’s beyond UEFA’s mandate and, frankly, beyond their capabilities. It is to ensure that homophobic or racist displays don’t turn up in stadiums. \ Bayern were fined $13,700, plus they’ll lose the revenue from Sector 124. It’s not an enormous amount (no amount is enormous for Bayern) but it’s enough for them to do their own investigation, figure out why stewards didn’t take down the offending banner immediately, identify who made it and tell them they’re not welcome at the Allianz Arena.
RvP not needed?
Two wins on the bounce for Manchester United may not sound like much but the last time it happened was back in January, so you’ll forgive David Moyes for taking joy from the simple things. \ Wayne Rooney’s long-range strike at West Ham was an instant classic, drawing comparisons to David Beckham’s 1996 goal versus Wimbledon. Rather than trying to decide which one was more impressive, the thing to do is celebrate the fact that Rooney clearly is unfazed by pressure and has the confidence to attempt stuff like that, which can only be a good thing.
Inevitably, the popular theory now is that United might be more balanced -- or even “better” -- without Robin van Persie, but I don’t buy it. First off, lest we forget, without the hat trick the Dutchman scored in their previous game, United would have been bounced out of the Champions League in the round of 16. \ Secondly, for better or worse, this is Moyes’ team. He’s the one who took the job last summer knowing that van Persie had another four years left on his contract. He’s the one who gave Rooney that huge contract extension and has played him centrally all season. He’s the one who smashed the club record to sign Juan Mata. \ It’s up to him to make it work with these three guys on the pitch (when van Persie returns). Presumably he has a plan to do that.
More issues for Milan
Paolo Maldini had harsh words for Milan last week, warning that his old club had “no long-term project” and that they were “destroying everything they had built.” He also had a pop at Adriano Galliani, suggesting that his tendency to deal with the same very limited group of agents meant he made multiple mistakes in the transfer market. \ This isn’t about whether you think Maldini is right or wrong (for what it’s worth, I think he’s right). It’s about what happened next. \ Within hours of Maldini’s interview, the work of Milan manager Clarence Seedorf -- who, I think it’s fair to say, is closer to Maldini than to Galliani -- was being dissected and pressure was being put on him from all sides.
Stories were leaked (like the one whereby he supposedly lambasted a chunk of his squad during a meeting with Milan’s ultras ... a version of events that was denied by the ultras themselves), rumors were amplified and questions were asked. \ Is it paranoid to see a link between the two things? Is it crazy to suggest that Seedorf was being scapegoated for what Maldini said? You be the judge. \ Seedorf’s appointment only makes sense if he is to be judged next season and if he has the support of the club; all of it. Undermining him because someone may be unsettled by the opinions of Maldini -- admittedly a club legend, but, right now, an outsider -- does Milan no good at all.