Is Arsenal's win vs. Leicester decisive? Plus: Messi's penalty, Spurs are for real
It was a fairy-tale finish, just not the one many neutral observers expected. Unless you caught the half he played for Arsenal's under-21s, you have not seen Danny Welbeck play competitive football since April 26, 2015. That is, you hadn't, until he trotted on at the Emirates with eight minutes to go, assigned to provide an extra body in the box for what felt like an improbable and increasingly frustrating hunt for a game winner.
Welbeck then materialized unmarked at the near post to steer Mesut Ozil's free kick past Kasper Schmeichel who, for much of the afternoon, had been successfully channeling his dad, Peter, in making a string of crucial saves.
If Arsenal go on to win the Premier League -- and that's a huge "if" -- that may well be the defining moment, or one of them. But if that happens and you're Leicester, you'll point to two poor decisions that cost you.
One was the fact that the free kick was awarded in the first place. Referee Martin Atkinson had asked for four minutes of injury time and they were just about gone when Marcin Wasilewski challenged Nacho Monreal some 30 yards away from his goal by needlessly running into him, like a defensive end delivering a late hit on a quarterback.
This was Monreal -- not Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain -- in an area where the most damage he could do was a hit-and-hope. You would have expected a 35-year-old veteran like Wasilewski to be aware of where he was, who he was and when it was and, instead of lunging, simply put his big body in the way and wait for the whistle. Instead, Atkinson gave the foul, allowing Arsenal one last crack -- and the Gunners took it.
The other big call came when Atkinson sent off Leicester right-back Danny Simpson for two yellows in the space of five minutes. Claudio Ranieri was annoyed, pointing out that Atkinson might have been influenced by the crowd's reaction more than the severity of the fouls, which were in keeping with the flow of the game. That may be the case, and the first booking was soft, but Simpson -- who is not a kid but a 29-year-old veteran -- should have known better than to pull down Olivier Giroud the way he did when he knew he was on a booking.
That incident was as clear a turning point as you'll see. Ranieri looked to his bench and had few options. He could ask a midfielder like Andy King to reinvent himself as an emergency right-back. He could turn to 19-year-old left-back Ben Chilwell for his Premier League debut on the opposite flank. Or he could turn to Wasilewski, a man-mountain more suited to center-back than to chase the fleet-footed Gunners but who would at least provide aerial cover and experience. It wasn't much of a choice, and Leicester paid a price for their lack of options as Arsenal repeatedly delivered menacing service to Olivier Giroud & Co. from Wasilewski's flank.
Of course, when it came to poor decisions, it wasn't just Wasilewski and Simpson at fault. Leicester had taken the lead earlier when Jamie Vardy clattered into Monreal's outstretched leg and Atkinson handed out a penalty. The decision, just before half-time, left the crowd incensed. Whichever way you stand on the penalty, there is little question that Monreal should not have defended like that -- not against Vardy and not in that position. It was inviting danger. If Atkinson had had a different angle on the play, he might not have given the penalty. But there was no reason to give him the opportunity to do so, either.
The defeat may sting Leicester, who were excellent for the first hour, but the volume of chances created by Arsenal with the man advantage leaves little doubt that they deserved the three points. If they're not now the title favorites, they're pretty darn close to it.
As for Leicester, once the anger wore off, Ranieri took the loss in stride, giving his players a whole week off. Giving guys who are not used to being in this position (and, this season, not used to losing) some time to clear their heads is not a bad idea. When they come back, they'll still be top of the league with a two-point margin and a schedule that does not look too intimidating.
Zaza puts Juve in charge of Serie A title race
Just when it looked as though these two teams would live to fight another day, Simone Zaza stepped up and powered Juventus to their 15th consecutive Serie A win against Napoli. It's a result that lets the Bianconeri push ahead of Maurizio Sarri's crew into first place by a single point.
That's the nature of the game. Margins are slim, and so it can happen that a fourth-choice striker with three seasonal starts, a guy who lasted 90 minutes just once all season and who was last seen recklessly pole-axing an opponent in injury time before being sent off, ends up being the difference-maker. Or, rather, one of the difference-makers: the slight deflection that Zaza's thunderbolt took off Raul Albiol's leg is ultimately what took the shot past Pepe Reina and gave Juve the win with two minutes to go.
When their run began three and a half months ago, Juventus were in twelfth place, 11 points off the top. Now they're back to where they've been for much of the past four and a half seasons.
It's a credit to Massimiliano Allegri that this has happened after a summer in which he lost three key players: Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Carlos Tevez. But it also speaks to the solidity of a team capable of withstanding the absence of defensive stopper Giorgio Chiellini and, for nearly half the game, the yin to his yang, Leonardo Bonucci, who picked up a knock in a collision with teammate Sami Khedira.
The team is stacked with talent -- especially young talent, like Paul Pogba and Paulo Dybala -- and yet few clubs are as good at donning the hard hat and turning into blue-collar grinders when they need to.
Sarri's schematic nous turned this game into a tactical clash in the first half, but once Bonucci had to be replaced by Daniele Rugani, the second half became more of a siege, with Napoli pressing forward but Juventus denying them the space, always cool, always unflustered.
Given the circumstances, even if Zaza's strike had been less sweet or if Albiol's leg had sent the ball elsewhere, a 0-0 draw would not have felt like a lost opportunity to Allegri. Without the heart of their defence, they withstood Napoli's onslaught and emerged unscathed. The goal -- and the two added points -- were a bonus.
The danger now is that Napoli fall into a funk, thinking there's a certain inevitability to Juve's title. But, frankly, it's less of a risk than some think. This is a mature, confident side and one where the fan base is on board and less prone to getting carried away than in years past, a fact evidenced by the reaction of the 3000 Napoli fans who greeted the side at the airport with cheers and support.
This engrossing Serie A saga is bound to have more twists and turns between now and May.
Sunday's win proves Spurs are for real
Yes, Tottenham are for real. Just why Mauricio Pochettino's crew got so little love from the commentariat for so long is a bit of a mystery, but maybe they'll take notice now that they've won their seventh in a row in all competitions, emerging with three points from the Etihad on Sunday.
Make no mistake, Manchester City did not lie down in this game. They came in off the back of a poor performance against Sunderland (which nonetheless yielded three points) and a home defeat to Leicester, and yet, in the first half, perhaps buoyed psychologically by the return of one Vincent Kompany, they were the better team.
Then came the blown call. Mark Clattenburg awarded a penalty when Danny Rose's cross struck Raheem Sterling in the back. Insert your own disclaimers about how difficult it is to referee and how we shouldn't pick on the officials and all that, but the fact remains: he saw something that did not happen. Don't take my word for it; ask former referee Graham Poll.
I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that Clattenburg guessed or was influenced by the reaction of the players; I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he saw it wrong. He made a mistake. Stuff happens. What was interesting was City's reaction.
The home side were angry, but they were focused. They showed fight when they might otherwise have fallen apart. Yaya Toure hit the crossbar, then sub Kelechi Iheanacho grabbed the equalizer. Just as it began to look like Manchester City might right the ship, Erik Lamela came on, conjured up the type of brilliant run his huge talent is capable of (but doesn't often deliver) and threaded the ball through Nicolas Otamendi's legs to Christian Eriksen, who notched the winner.
Lucky Spurs? Maybe, but when you go on a run like this -- they made up nine points in two months -- you're entitled to a spot of good fortune. The way they win even when their big guns aren't firing as well as they should, and the way guys like Mousa Dembele (who seemed somewhat forgotten by Mauricio Pochettino last year) and Kevin Wimmer (who is making people forget that Jan Vertonghen is injured) have stepped up when required is impressive and a credit to the manager.
Messi's 'penalty' takes the headlines
It ended up overshadowing not just the 6-1 win over Celta Vigo but also the fact that Barcelona -- and particularly the MSN front three of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar -- produced some of the best, most entertaining, edge-of-your-seat spells of attacking football seen in recent history. And in some ways that's a shame, because to those who love the game in its purest, most free-flowing form when technique, creativity and athleticism come together, parts of that game are what made us fall in love with the sport.
Still, the story is that of the world's best player forsaking a chance to score his 300th Liga goal. It wouldn't have been a record -- he's held that record since early last season, when he eclipsed Telmo Zarra -- but it would have been a nice round number. Instead, Messi opted to revive the "two-man" penalty, laying the ball off for Luis Suarez to pound home.
Unless you live off the grid, you've probably seen it by now. It's something we don't see often, and with good reason. If the keeper and defenders are alert, it actually gives you a far worse chance of scoring, which is why it ultimately relies on the element of surprise.
Robert Pires and Thierry Henry memorably made a hash of it a decade ago. A guy named Rik Coppens was probably the first to do it for Belgium in a World Cup qualifier against Iceland in 1957. (Click here if you like hearing guys talking Flemish or enjoy old-time videos ... if you don't, jump ahead to 2:35.)
But the most famous successful two-man penalty was pulled off by Johan Cruyff in 1982 playing for Ajax against Helmond Sport. Curiously both were give-and-go penalties, whereas Messi's wasn't.
At first some people complained that Messi was being disrespectful. You can view it that way, or you can view it as a tribute to Cruyff, the man who helped mold the modern Barcelona and who is currently unwell.
I know which interpretation I choose.
Man United's latest defeat
It was probably overshadowed by Sunday's title deciders, or maybe it just isn't big news anymore. Either way, Manchester United fell to their ninth defeat of the season -- their seventh in the Premier League -- when they lost 2-1 at Sunderland, who are currently second from the bottom in the table.
"[Finishing] top-four will be very difficult now," Louis van Gaal said afterward. "You cannot close your eyes to that. Everybody's very sad. We couldn't cope with Sunderland's aggression and set pieces. We didn't deliver, and we feel disappointed and we feel sad. You cannot close your eyes from the top four being a minimum requirement."
Some will criticize Van Gaal for being defeatist, but it's probably better to applaud the fact that he is (finally) taking ownership of reality. United aren't good, and he might not be in his job much longer.
Many wonder just why he's still there when you have Jose Mourinho's camp telling anyone who will listen that he's ready to move into Old Trafford. Indeed, his people let it be known over the weekend that there was a "danger" that United might lose Mourinho if they did not act quickly.
I'm not sure that's going to happen, but an intriguing theory has been doing the rounds that might explain just why Mourinho hasn't yet landed the job. The rumor is that the ownership is evaluating Ed Woodward's role in transfers and considering the appointment of someone with specific knowledge and experience in the transfer market. That person could act as a counterweight to Mourinho and his agent, Jorge Mendes, who has helped Woodward orchestrate a fair chunk of United's transfer business over the past few transfer windows.
This would also explain why United did not look to strengthen the squad in January even though fourth place is just a few points away.
Real Madrid win comes with a downside
Glass half-full, glass half-empty for Real Madrid in the 4-2 win over Athletic Bilbao. The good news is Cristiano Ronaldo. Yeah, he's been scoring goals all season (he has 32 in 30 games), but on Saturday he also looked sharp and dynamic -- witness the shimmy and cut-on-a-dime dribble for the opener.
If you exclude his Champions League stomping of Malmo FF and Shakhtar Donetsk, this marks the first time all season that he actually scored against a team involved in European competition. With Gareth Bale still sidelined, James Rodriguez also looked sharp: Having your big guns hitting the stride during the spring Champions League stretch run is critical.
The flip side is that Madrid showed serious flaws at the back. Raphael Varane had one of his worst games in a Real shirt, while Danilo again displayed all his limitations. In the former's case, anyone can have a bad game. In the case of Danilo, it has long been a pattern.
Laurent Blanc's Aurier dilemma
What does a team do when their first-choice right-back thinks it's a good idea to open Periscope and start ranting and making homophobic comments about his manager, the team's star player and his other teammates?
That's the decision Paris St. Germain faced when Serge Aurier did just that -- and on the eve of a huge Champions League clash, no less.
After initially suggesting that the video was a fake and the voice heard viewers heard wasn't his, Aurier came clean and asked for forgiveness Sunday night. Which is all fine and good, but Laurent Blanc, who called Aurier "pathetic," now has a big call to make -- not for the Chelsea clash (Aurier has been suspended) but for the games beyond.
Aurier is one of the best attacking right-backs in Europe, yet when he behaves like this at age 23, it makes you wonder about his future. Particularly since he isn't a first-time offender: last season he was banned for three games after filming himself insulting UEFA referee Bjorn Kuipers.
Finally, Gary Neville gets his win
They had to huff. And they had to puff. But eventually they blew Espanyol's house down, and Gary Neville's Valencia finally won their first game since his installment as manager back in early December. Neville himself said it was more about the result and the performance than the standings. Now we can stop talking about whether there was some supernatural curse over the Mestalla.
The club's decision to hire Pako Ayestaran to work alongside Neville is a welcome one. While some in Spain read it as a sign that Valencia want to hire Rafa Benitez (Ayesteran was his assistant in the early years at Anfield), I'd imagine that's rather unlikely: the pair eventually fell out and do not necessarily see eye-to-eye. More importantly, Ayestaran has been a number one in his last three jobs -- he won the league title in Israel last season -- and it's one thing to work with a young, inexperienced manager like Neville, but quite another to go back to being Rafa's sidekick.
Ayestaran's appointment is a positive for the club. It's also an indicator that whatever other flaws he may have, Neville isn't too proud to ask for help. And that's a sign of intelligence.
Young Nagelsmann takes over at Hoffenheim
Saturday saw Julian Nagelsmann make his debut as manager of Hoffenheim, who traveled to Werder Bremen and drew 1-1. It's noteworthy not just because he never played professionally or because he had zero experience managing a first team, but because he's 28 years old.
That's right. Some of his starters, guys like Kevin Kuranyi and Eugen Polanski, are actually older than he is, which of course opens up a whole other raft of issues. Nagelsmann had been groomed for management for several years and was due to take over next season, but the ill health of his predecessor, Huub Stevens, meant the club pulled the trigger early.
We'll know soon enough if he's a prodigy, a publicity stunt or somewhere on that spectrum. In the meantime, Hoffenheim are stuck in the relegation zone: keeping them up wouldn't be a bad first entry on his managerial résumé.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.