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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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May 5, 2014

La Liga heats up, sad scenes in Italy and Spain, more

FC's Shaka Hislop and Alejandro Moreno discuss whether or not rivalries will get in the way of the race in La Liga.

Ladies and gentlemen, La Liga just got a whole lot tighter. Going into the weekend, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid had, among them, won 78 of 94 games against the other 17 teams in La Liga, or 83 percent of matches. But this past matchday, they went 0-for-3. Barcelona and Real Madrid were held at home by Getafe and Valencia respectively, while Atletico Madrid fell at Levante. Talk about twists and potential scenarios. When Barca walked off the pitch after conceding that late equalizer in a 2-2 draw on Saturday, you could just about hear the knives sharpening, ready to put Tata Martino to the sword. It looked to all as if the club's first trophy-less season in five years beckoned. (Unless you count the Spanish Super Cup, but if you do, bear in mind that Barca won it without actually beating anyone.) It was already a melancholy afternoon, what with the farewells to Tito Vilanova. After the game and Angel Lafita's injury-time goal, the mood darkened further. "Our performance wasn't up to the standard you'd expect from professionals competing for a title," said Sergio Busquets. Xavi said it was time for self-criticism, but Martino went even further: "I am most responsible for what happened this season. Blaming what happened off the pitch would be just an excuse." Luis Enrique, the man tapped by many to take over next season, was already being talked about openly. Then came Sunday. Atletico Madrid away to Levante, a ground where they had struggled in recent years. But still, this was Levante -- mid-table and nothing to play for. Surely it would be straightforward? Hardly. Things began badly with Filipe Luis' own goal and got worse as Keylor Navas did his best garage-door impression between the sticks. Nerves grew frayed, fatigue set in, Momo Sissoko and Diego Costa traded blows off the ball, Levante got another goal and won 2-0. The postgame featured talk of "maletas" -- the Spanish euphemism for win bonuses or incentives paid by third parties -- which are now illegal. Diego Simeone will want to hit the reset button and get his crew to refocus, reminding them just how close they are to making history. The funny thing is from Barcelona's perspective, Atletico losing was probably seen as a bad thing. It meant that Real Madrid -- a far more credible and longstanding rival -- now held the fate of La Liga in their hands. And they were at home. Against Valencia. A team 37 points back. One that had played a Europa League semifinal just 72 hours earlier and whose morale looked shattered given the manner of their elimination, which featured a rousing comeback and a late, late heartbreaker. Juan Antonio Pizzi's team went for the jugular at the Bernabeu. If anything, you'd think this would only play further into Real Madrid's hands and open up the visitors to the counterattacks of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. But no. Madrid twice went behind and twice scrambled an equalizer, first through Sergio Ramos and then through an outrageous flying back-heel by Cristiano Ronaldo in injury time. Disaster averted -- and a home defeat at this stage would have been disastrous -- but two points left on the pitch. Diego Alves, a guy who on his day is one of the best shot-stoppers in the world, saved everything in sight. Barca alumnus Seydou Keita ran the midfield, doing his best to help his old club. And Dani Parejo, ironically a Real Madrid youth product and hardcore fan, scored one and set up another. Ancelotti talked about fatigue after the Champions League. It's not really an excuse that has legs -- Madrid had two extra days to prepare compared to Valencia. And besides, how exhausting can a Champions League second leg be when you're 3-0 up on aggregate inside of 20 minutes? Nope; Real Madrid lost on nerve, and because Valencia played out of their skin. And possibly because this team is far more dependent on Luka Modric (suspended) and Angel Di Maria (initially rested, he came on at half-time) than some realize. So where does all this leave us? Four points from their final two games -- home to Malaga and away to Barcelona -- guarantee the title for Atletico Madrid. If they can do that, they'll finish ahead of Barca and level on points with Real but still take the title because of the better head-to-head record. If Barca win their last two -- Elche away and Atletico at home -- they'll leapfrog Simeone's crew but risk handing the title to Real Madrid. because Carlo Ancelotti's side has three games remaining, not two. All of this against the backdrop of needing to prepare for the Champions League final on May 24. Ancelotti has already said he will give Iker Casillas some games in goal because he doesn't want him starting in Lisbon without having played for nearly a month. Simeone has to contend with a squad on which exhaustion -- both mental and physical -- could finally be creeping in. As for Martino, he may yet have the last laugh. Winning La Liga (and keeping his job) looked impossible on Saturday afternoon. Now, maybe ... just maybe ... with a bit of luck ... who knows? Man City close in Manchester City's win at Everton represents a huge step towards the Premier League title. This was, on paper, the "trap game" against an Everton side unshackled and with little to play for but pride. \ Manuel Pellegrini's crew held their nerve. Even after going a goal down. Even after Sergio Aguero limped off following the equalizer. Even after Romelu Lukaku's strike reduced the margin to one and Yaya Toure came off injured immediately after. \ If big managers are paid big bucks to make big decisions, then Pellegrini got a huge one right when he replaced Aguero. Rather than going like-for-like by sending on Alvaro Negredo or Stevan Jovetic, he opted for Fernandinho. The Brazilian gave City more balance in midfield while allowing Toure to push on further. Aston Villa and West Ham, two clubs whose seasons are now over and whose players may well be planning their summer holidays, are next at the Etihad. Two soft ties and you'd expect City to wrap up the title thanks to the goal-difference advantage they have, which is currently nine goals. \ There's always room for a twist, of course, but they're just about there. The tough part is over; the key now is not screwing up the easy part. Coppa Italia controversy Plenty of pontificating over events in Rome at the Coppa Italia final. So let's try to establish some facts. The shooting could not have been avoided any more than any tragic event when a deranged gunman opens fire on a crowd can be avoided. Daniele De Santis may have been a former leader of one of Roma's Ultras groups, but this was not Ultras behavior. Whether you subscribe to the romanticized Ultras vision of "fair fights" or whether you think of them as cowardly thugs who only strike when they know they have a clear getaway path, this doesn't fit either narrative. No normal person -- no matter how evil or hell-bent on chaos -- taunts, provokes and stares down hundreds of Napoli Ultras on his own. And nobody in their right mind would think that, having raised their ire, it would be a good idea to pull out a gun and fire into a crowd. De Santis is a man with a long rap sheet; he'd had numerous banning orders in the past and, over the years, faced charges of assaulting a police officer, threatening former Roma owner Franco Sensi and playing a key role in halting the 2004 Rome derby by coming on to the pitch and telling Francesco Totti to walk off because a police van had run over a child (which turned out to be untrue). But on Saturday, his actions moved him from former Ultra (police said he hadn't been active for seven or eight years) into entirely different territory. If you're in law enforcement, you can't legislate for such crazed actions. And no, you can't simply lock guys like him up before they commit crimes. The real world isn't like "Minority Report," and in any case, De Santis hadn't been to a game in years. The shooting led directly to what we saw inside the stadium itself. Napoli fans agitated, asking that the game not go ahead out of respect for the dead (at that point the rumor mill -- fueled by social media -- suggested at least two, one of them a young boy, had been killed). The authorities, at the suggestion of Napoli, sent club captain Marek Hamsik over to speak to the Ultras. They stress there was no negotiation, no "asking for permission to play," though many interpreted it that way. They say Hamsik simply told them that the shooter had been arrested, that nobody had died (though three were wounded and hospitalized) and that the game would go ahead. That's the official version anyway. What's indisputable though is that certain links between clubs and certain groups of supporters are simply bad for the game. The man Hamsik was talking to? His nickname is "Genny the Thug," he's been under investigation for drug-dealing and his father is a reputed mobster, Ciro De Tommaso. And he's one of the leaders of the Mastiffs, one of Napoli's main Ultras groups. Poke around on the web and you'll find photos of him celebrating with the Coppa Italia when Napoli last won it, in 2012. Not all Ultras groups are violent. Not all are made up of thugs but too many are, and the least you can ask of clubs is to be more careful of the company they keep. Otherwise when you get freak incidents like Saturday, the Italian game will once again get hit hard in terms of image, and that will undo all the good -- yep, there's been plenty, with incidents of violence falling sharply and the fight against racist abuse stepping up -- that's been done in the past five years. Another incident of racism in Spain Speaking of racist abuse, Levante's Papakouli Diop was on the receiving end during his team's 2-0 win over Atletico Madrid on Sunday. Those are Atletico fans making monkey gestures. One version of events says that Diop, who is black, was being abused because he ran over to the corner flag to taunt the visiting supporters. He maintains that he was going to take a corner kick and heard monkey chants, at which point he started dancing "to defuse the situation." Atletico players thought he was mocking them, which led to an angry confrontation, but that's another story. \ The basic and obvious point is that if you're an Atletico fan (or any fan) and you feel Diop is somehow taunting you, you respond by giving him hell. There are plenty of names in the book you can call him without referring to the color of his skin. That's the line you cross when you racially abuse somebody. Case closed. \ It shouldn't be too difficult to identify the supporters acting like monkeys from the video above. This is Atletico's chance to make a strong statement, just like Villarreal did last week in banning the fan who threw the banana at Dani Alves. \ In fact, you wonder whether Diop would have reacted the way he did had it not been for the Alves incident and the ensuing viral campaign. It has had its critics, but if it means raising awareness and creating the kind of climate where this won't be tolerated, then it can only be a good thing. \ This tweet by a Spanish journalist sums up the situation rather well, in my opinion:

New La Liga racist incident: 2 improve we need the wish to change (getting there),strong laws (we have them) and strong authorities (not so)

— Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague) May 4, 2014
\ The laws are in place and the public backing is materializing; all it takes is for those in power to show some intestinal fortitude. Mourinho's Hazard haranguing Jose Mourinho may be many things to many people. But even his harshest critics, I think, would concede he's not a fool. \ So I'm inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when he calls out one of his own players -- Eden Hazard -- by effectively saying that he doesn't like to "sacrifice himself" for his teammates. \ There are two circumstances in which you could explain such a statement, particularly from Mourinho, who has a history of going to bat for his guys. \ The first is that he's ready to cut the Belgian loose and feels he has the authority and power to do just that. We've seen it before with Andriy Shevchenko, Iker Casillas and, in a somewhat different way, Juan Mata. You pick a fight you're pretty sure you can win and then you let rip. And "winning" here is pretty clearly defined: it means Hazard gets sold in the summer for a large enough sum to allow Mourinho to replace him with players he prefers. \ How viable is this scenario? Anything is possible, but you do wonder what number Chelsea would expect for Hazard. He's 23, he's their leading goal scorer and assist-maker, he's durable (only three Chelsea players have played more league minutes) and is popular. Unless there's some absurdly huge deal in the works -- and, in an age of financial fair play, certain types of offers just won't be as forthcoming as they once were -- he won't be easy to replace. \ But there's another circumstance that would explain Mourinho's stance. He knows that calling out Hazard will get the right reaction. It will poke his pride and he'll want to prove his manager wrong by working that much harder. Yes, it's cliched storybook stuff, and it only works if Hazard is the kind of player who'll take it that way. But maybe he is. Mourinho, after all, knows him better than you or I do. Mixed emotions for Juventus? \ Roma's 4-1 defeat at Catania meant that Juventus were crowned Serie A champions for the third straight year on Sunday afternoon. The players were on their pregame retreat when the news arrived and celebrated by whooping it up on a hotel balcony. How Antonio Conte felt isn't quite clear. Winning the title, of course, was only a matter of time, and you wonder if whatever elation he felt was tempered by Juve's shortcomings in Europe, first in the Champions League and then in the Europa League, most recently Thursday's semifinal second leg against Benfica. \ Conte was furious afterwards, saying Juve deserved to advance to the final while questioning the officiating -- the usual stuff you get from someone who can't stomach defeat. \ There comes a time, though, when if you're going to take a long view, you need to look past results and consider performance. Juve did play well enough to advance to the knockout phase of the Champions League and, over the two legs, they probably did do enough to eliminate Benfica. The fact that they did not has to do with happenstance, some misfortune and perhaps a lack of ruthlessness. \ There's talk of revamping the team, moving to a 4-3-3 and major comings and goings. If Juve feel they need to do that, so be it. But be warned, the risk is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as the old-timers used to say. \ The fact is they have had a great season, possibly a record-breaking one, and they ought to be celebrating that first and foremost. After that comes the time to figure out how to tweak -- rather than overhaul -- the side for next season. Guingamp's silver lining All hail En Avant Guingamp. When a club from a market town of just over 7,000 souls goes out and wins the French Cup for the second time in five years, beating out 7,239 other teams in the process, it's certainly worth celebrating. \ Last time, they did it as a second-division side. This time they're in the top flight and fighting to avoid relegation, which only makes the feat all the more remarkable. Along the way, they knocked out none other than billionaire-bankrolled Monaco before dropping Rennes 2-0 in Saturday's final. Too early to tell with Giggs You learned far more about Sunderland at Old Trafford on Saturday than you did about Manchester United. Namely that Gus Poyet's squad are almost certain to stay up, which is an achievement unto itself given that when he took over they had one point from seven games. \ As for United, the game told you nothing about Ryan Giggs and whether he is suited to be manager one day, apart from the fact that he's perhaps a little too honest (admitting you "don’t know" why your team was "so flat" is probably not a good idea -- ever). He's been in charge for 10 days or so. He didn't build this team, he didn't coach this team (apart from a couple of sessions), he didn't have the benefit of a preseason and he never had a chance to even prepare himself for the job. \ In other words, don't judge him on this set of results. That means not hailing him as "a natural" because United beat up Norwich, as they did last week, or questioning his credentials because they contrive to lose at home to Sunderland. \ Zanetti denied a derby farewell Walter Mazzarri got the Inter job supposedly because he was a hardworking, uncompromising, no-nonsense manager who was "all about results." Yeah, we saw that on Sunday night in the Milan derby. \ He was so much "about results" that he evidently thought a 0-0 draw would be a good outcome in his attempt to preserve fifth place. So he fielded a side content with stuffing the middle and keeping a clean sheet. And when Inter went a goal down to Nigel de Jong's bullet header, he made his substitutions to chase the game. In vain, of course, because Milan hung on to win 1-0. \ The only lasting legacy of Sunday night is that Javier Zanetti didn't get to play in his final derby match. After 19 seasons and 856 games for the club, you'd think he might get at least a few minutes on the pitch. \ Mazzarri will say that he was chasing the game and had no choice. A worthwhile question is: chasing the game for what? To get an extra point that ultimately won't affect a mediocre season? \ Inter fans booed when Zanetti didn't get to come on, and rightly so. They understand that it's about more than mere results. Unlike Mazzarri.

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