Arsenal flop at Man United, Madrid's issues, PSG lose but Barca win again
Arsenal haven't been knocked out of the Premier League title race. Making up five points in the remaining 11 games is not insurmountable.
That's the good news. The bad news is that Sunday at Old Trafford left the Gunners, Arsene Wenger and everyone -- like me -- who thought they had exorcised their demons with a dozen eggs on our collective faces.
It was a shockingly bad Arsenal performance and it came on the heels of a home defeat to Barcelona, which all but knocked them out of the Champions League.
It's weird because ahead of Sunday's game, Wenger said and did what you would have wanted him to. He pointed out that the three times Arsenal won the Premier League under his command, they got a big result at Old Trafford on the home stretch, a statement that showed self-belief and confidence.
He had close to a full squad to choose from and his choice of Theo Walcott's quick legs against a central defensive pairing of Daley Blind and 34-year-old Michael Carrick -- neither of whom will be mistaken for a sprinter anytime soon -- was logical.
Yet logic and planning only gets you so far if you don't perform on the day. With expectations low, Louis van Gaal's Manchester United seemed relaxed and carefree from the start, perhaps as a result of their many absentees, who included, among others, Chris Smalling, Matteo Darmian, Antony Martial, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Wayne Rooney.
Marcus Rashford, who made his second professional start and scored two goals for the second time, gave the home team a 2-0 lead in the first half, and you felt Arsenal wobble. Walcott was running into blind alleys, Gabriel seemed frozen, Alexis Sanchez seemed AWOL.
Arsenal pulled one back through Danny Welbeck but then stumbled again when Ander Herrera's shot took a big deflection off Laurent Koscielny and ended up beyond Petr Cech. Mesut Ozil cut the margin again, but it was too little, too late.
Rashford and perhaps Memphis Depay aside, United didn't show too much that was new or head-turning, but it was more than enough to unravel an awful Arsenal, who seemed to live up to all the tired stereotypes some of us thought they had outgrown: soft touch, bad defending, lightweight, etc.
It's up to Wenger now to get a full and clear diagnosis of where his crew is, mentally and physically, and to figure out which buttons to push. Because it would be a shame to flush another season down the drain.
Give Rashford time
Speaking of Rashford, the last thing he needs is excessive hype, though that is what he'll inevitably get.
Two games is a tiny sample size but perhaps enough to show -- in addition to the technique and athleticism you'd expect (and which are often a dime a dozen with kids on their debut) -- that he strikes the ball very well and is quite intelligent at reading the play and being in the right place at the right time.
Beyond that, it's good to pump the brakes. Rashford doesn't even turn 19 until Halloween. Let's give him time to grow of his own accord.
Madrid's issues laid bare
Zinedine Zidane suffered his first defeat as Real Madrid manager on Saturday in what was probably his biggest test thus far: the Madrid derby.
Never mind that the game was at the Bernabeu, the fact of the matter is that Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone has some kind of spell over Real, having won the last six Liga encounters. It only finished 1-0, but then Atleti aren't ones for gaudy scorelines.
Buoyed by the return of Augusto Fernandez, they slammed the midfield gates shut, limiting Madrid to a single shot on goal in the first half and forcing Keylor Navas to make two big saves just before the break. With Gareth Bale unavailable and a clearly unfit Karim Benzema lasting just 45 minutes, Zidane chucked on an 18-year-old, Borja Mayoral, who previously had just four minutes of top-flight experience.
That meant Cristiano Ronaldo had to shoulder the burden, which is fine when he's on form, less so when he's not. He missed two opportunities, Antoine Griezmann struck at the other end and it was lights out.
At the final whistle, the home fans' anger was obvious, even as the stadium loudspeaker was blaring out the club anthem at full volume in an obvious attempt to drown out the supporters' dissent.
The anger, obviously, was directed at Madrid president Florentino Perez -- the architect of this lopsided, Panini-sticker squad -- more than it was at Zidane or the players.
The fact that he had to call upon Mayoral, who he coached on the B-side, is down to the fact that Florentino truly believed it would be a good idea for Real to play the entire season with a single, genuine center-forward -- Benzema -- on the first-team books.
You can't blame Zidane for that. Nor can you hold him responsible for the revolving-door midfield or the fact that this team is evidently less than the sum of its parts or that he can't get guys like Isco or James Rodriguez or Raphael Varane to suddenly turn it on.
After all, until last month, he was just a former legend with 18 months' experience coaching youngsters. Now he's expected to be tactical savant, Galactico-whisperer and Mr. Motivator all rolled into one.
Ronaldo speaks out
It's generally not a good idea to talk about yourself in the third person and it's less of a good idea to criticise your teammates. Which is what Cristiano Ronaldo appeared to do on Saturday after Madrid's derby defeat.
"I don't want to knock anyone, no teammate, but when the best are missing ... I like to play with Bale and Benzema," said Ronaldo. "I don't want to say that Jese, Lucas [Vazquez] or [Mateo] Kovacic are not good players, they are very good, but ... to win a competition you need to have your best players."
Cue assorted freakouts about Ronaldo being arrogant and disrespectful and about how, sure, Jese may not be as good as him, but then he's not 10 times worse either and yet he makes less than a tenth of what Ronaldo earns.
So much so that the Portuguese forward had to issue a clarification.
"When I said that, I meant the physical level, not the game," Ronaldo explained. "I am not better than any of my teammates."
The backtracking, of course, is nonsense. Unless, of course, you believe Ronaldo when he says he's "no better" than Lucas Vazquez. But if he really believed that, he'd be a fool, and he's no fool.
The fact of the matter is that what he said originally was the truth. He prefers playing with Bale and Benzema because they're better -- far better -- than the guys who replace them when they're out.
Of course, coming out and saying it makes you appear bigheaded and, frankly, a not very nice person. And that's why it's frowned upon.
In Ronaldo's case, though, I'm not sure his words have caused permanent damage to the psyche of Jese, Lucas Vazquez and Kovacic. They've been around him long enough -- a few months, but that's plenty -- to know that this is just part of his personality. And they're not going to judge him, for better or worse, based on a throwaway line to the media in a postmatch setting.
Over the years, I've spoken to maybe a dozen guys who have played with Ronaldo for Portugal, Real Madrid and Manchester United. Not one of them was annoyed by his prima donna antics and every single one was grateful to have had him as a teammate.
Pellegrini's faith pays off
Unless you're a Liverpool fan, this is a feel-good story with a happy ending. When Willy Caballero arrived at Manchester City, Manuel Pellegrini was quite clear with him: Joe Hart was the first-choice keeper and Caballero would play in the domestic cups.
Many thought that Pellegrini would make an exception on Sunday. After all, this was a final, this was Wembley and this was Liverpool. Surely you'd want to go with your best keeper?
Nope. Not Pellegrini. Asked about it after the game, he said he'd prefer to lose a final than go back on his word.
I know. It's easy to be cynical about these things. Pellegrini is a lame-duck manager; why would he care either way? And would he turn it into a moral issue if City had lost?
But the fact is none of that happened. City battered Liverpool for much of the 90 minutes, took the lead, should have added to it (and would have if not for a bad penalty call, Raheem Sterling's finishing and some nifty saves from Simon Mignolet) and then eventually won on penalty kicks, with Caballero, who saved three, the hero of the day.
The perfect ending for Pellegrini, who, by the way, picks up his third trophy in three years at City.
As for Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp ought to walk around with a hard hat while his assistants hold "men at work" signs. This team have a long, long way to go.
Napoli were no doubt hoping Inter could slow down Juventus on Sunday night, just as Bologna had done a week earlier.
Wishful thinking, as the nerazzurri turned in arguably their worst performance of the season. Don't let the 2-0 scoreline fool you: Juve could have scored three times as many, whereas Inter did not manage a shot on target until the dying minutes of the game.
Roberto Mancini, apparently suffering from some kind of laryngitis, did not address the media after the game. Which is a shame, because at the very least he needs to provide the ownership with some answers.
This has been a season in which the club spent heavily and got him a whole gaggle of players he wanted. A campaign without any pesky European football to blame. And, of course, he had six months last year to get acclimated to the job (not that he should have needed that much, given that he spent five seasons at Inter a few years back).
What he has served up is a team without an identity, one where formations -- yesterday it was 3-5-2, this year we've also seen 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2, 3-4-3 and the diamond -- and personnel -- of Inter's attacking players, only Mauro Icardi has started more than two-thirds of the league games -- cycle in and out.
The worrying thing is that it really doesn't feel as if Mancini is building towards anything. Players come in, underperform and then disappear.
There's a short-termism to everything, of which Felipe Melo is the epitome. He turns 33 in June, Mancini pushed hard to get him in the summer and he's, well, Felipe Melo. And yet he seems to be the one fixture in a maelstrom of a midfield. Why?
These are answers Mancini needs to provide. When you can't figure out what a manager is working toward, that's when you worry. It's one thing to have a plan and fail to execute but quite another to change your plan seemingly every week.
PSG's unbeaten run ends ...
How about that? After 24 games unbeaten in all competitions and a whopping 36 without defeat in Ligue 1, Paris St. Germain fell at Lyon on Sunday. Don't let the scoreline -- 2-1 -- fool you: Laurent Blanc's men were spanked and, if anything, the gap could have been greater.
When you're PSG and playing in Ligue 1, you can't very well complain about absentees -- unless it's Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- but without Marco Verratti, who was injured, and Blaise Matuidi, only a substitute, the middle of the park was overrun. Thiago Motta was also lucky not to have been sent off for whacking Jordan Ferri in the face.
Defensively, Gregory van der Wiel was awful and even Thiago Silva was beaten by a fantastic piece of skill from Sergi Darder, in the buildup to his goal.
As for Lyon, the win sees them rise to third and into the Champions League places, a slot they haven't occupied in more than three months. It's a reminder of what might have been for OL, who started the season with big hopes, both domestically and in Europe. Still, there's enough youth and talent and they'll get their shot next season.
... But Barcelona's goes on
When you build up a big lead, as Barcelona have in La Liga, squad rotation becomes your reward. Especially when you have a fairly soft schedule for the next three weeks: Rayo Vallecano and Eibar away, Getafe at home and the return leg against Arsenal with Barca leading 2-0.
Despite all that, it was still surprising to see to what degree Luis Enrique rang the changes against Sevilla, a side lying fifth going into the game and who had beaten Barcelona in the reverse fixture.
Ivan Rakitic, Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano and Andres Iniesta were all on the bench and their absence was certainly felt in the first half. Sevilla took the lead, before Lionel Messi took over.
A stunning free kick leveled matters and the Argentine's assist for Gerard Pique gave Barca the win. In doing so, they extended their streak to 34 unbeaten, equalling the Spanish record set by Real Madrid in 1988-89.
It wasn't a poor performance, just a very different one. Without Rakitic and Iniesta on the pitch, the midfield failed to show the usual control and it became more of an end-to-end affair.
That isn't a problem because Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez are going to pose more of a threat than Kevin Gameiro and Michael Krohn-Dehli, so eventually you'll come out ahead.
But it does suggest that, in terms of fitting in with the habitual game plan, Arda Turan and Aleix Vidal, both of whom started on Sunday, have a ways to go.
Leicester find a way
The funny thing about Leicester this season is that, while the focus has been on Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante, different guys have popped up at different times and been difference-makers.
On Saturday, against a Norwich side desperately fighting to avoid relegation, it was no different. For 89 minutes the Canaries battled Leicester to a standstill but then Leo Ulloa popped up at the far post to turn in Marc Albrighton's cross and give Leicester a huge three points.
That's right, Ulloa. El Ciclon. The guy who arrived with much fanfare in the summer of 2014, contributed double figures in goals his first season and is now Shinji Okazaki's backup.
No matter. Claudio Ranieri kept him on board and kept him motivated and feeling important, even though he hasn't actually started a league game since mid-December. And, on Saturday, he rewarded his manager with a critical late strike that keeps Leicester two points clear of Tottenham.
Olympiakos' success leads to questions
Olympiakos won their sixth consecutive Greek title with six games to spare by beating Veria 3-0 on Sunday. They've actually won 18 of the last 20; no team is in the same galaxy when it comes to domestic domination.
Olympiakos obviously deserve praise, especially this year when they've dominated. They've had a tremendous number of hurdles to overcome, both in the football sphere and in the real world. And, in the past year, a match-fixing scandal has done little to bolster confidence in the domestic game.
But on a wider scale, this hegemony is a sign of weakness for the Greek league as a whole. And Olympiakos themselves would be better off if the rest of the league caught up.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.