Manchester derby lacks entertainment, Atletico's slip, Gigi Buffon's record
Maybe it was the injuries. Add Luke Shaw, Phil Jones and Wayne Rooney to Manchester United, do the same with a dollop of Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and Nicolas Otamendi on the other side and perhaps it would have been different.
Maybe it was the lame duck managers. Manuel Pellegrini will be gone in two months. Louis Van Gaal may or may not be, but it's fair to say the United fans who would be happy for him to stay probably could all fit on a bus.
Maybe it's just the fact that these are two underachieving teams in a weird Premier League season that has seen many clubs punch below their weight. Manchester City have 10 fewer points than they did at the same stage last year, while United have nine less.
Whatever the case, the Manchester derby was low on both entertainment and good football. Morgan Schneiderlin's back-heel, a couple of Marcus Rashford runs (one of them culminating in the goal), a bit of Sergio Aguero -- that's about all there was to celebrate for the neutral. Unless, of course, you're some kind of sadist who enjoyed watching Martin Demichelis' self-destruction: beaten on the goal, lucky to escape without conceding a penalty on Rashford, responsible for a suicidal back pass and substituted early in the second half.
Sunday's game served as confirmation that United really are no further forward. It's great that Louis Van Gaal pushes the youngsters and maybe that will be his legacy, but the style of play is no further defined. And if you're still messing around with players and formations 20 months into your tenure, like playing Jesse Lingard in the hole, it suggests this team is still far away from whatever he had in mind.
As for City, they can recriminate over the fact that Chris Smalling didn't get his second yellow but equally, there was the Demichelis-on-Rashford incident, so maybe it's best not to blame the officiating. There is also only so much they could attribute to the injuries. Hindsight being 20/20, it's fair to question the wisdom of going with the erratic Eliaquim Mangala and the 35-year-old Demichelis as your third and fourth center-back options, particularly when you know Vincent Kompany has persistent physical ailments.
That may have been beyond Pellegrini's control but he's still the guy who opted to put his faith in the Argentine rather than thinking up a different solution against the speedy legs of Rashford and Anthony Martial. Like, perhaps, deploying Bacary Sagna centrally and going with Pablo Zabaleta at right-back, or finding some kid in City's supposedly all-conquering U-21 squad.
The danger now is losing out on fourth place and the Champions League. It's not as if Pep Guardiola is going to turn up his nose and say "Right, that's it, I'm not coming!" but it's clearly going to affect his work and the type of players City can bring in.
Simply put, if City get this wrong, Guardiola will face a far more uphill task. And they need to get this right while balancing their current Champions League run as well: Paris St. Germain are tough but not insurmountable. Most of all though, surely Pellegrini does not want his tenure at the Etihad to end with a whimper.
Atletico Madrid caught off-guard by Gijon
Atletico Madrid were about as un-Atleti as they could be on Saturday in the second half against cellar-dwelling Sporting Gijon. They went into the break nursing a 1-0 lead, which meant you expected them to calmly shepherd the game to an away win. But that's not what happened.
For the first time in 248 Liga matches, Diego Simeone went into the break with a lead and ended up on the losing side. Atleti were caught off balance by two 20-year-olds, Carlos Castro and Arnaldo Sanabria, who equalized with 11 minutes to go and then grabbed the winner. On top of that, Jose Gimenez (for my money, one of the best young center-backs around) went down injured. He'd never admit it, of course, but it did feel as if Simeone maybe underestimated the opposition, who had not won a game since January.
Despite what some folks keep saying, small clubs don't lie down for big ones in La Liga and the decision to leave the likes of Gabi, Augusto Fernandez and Juanfran on the bench proved to be a costly one. Particularly since, on the eve of an international break, it's not as if they needed to rest.
Barcelona let lead slip at Villarreal
That Atletico result meant that Barcelona could have gone 11 points clear with a win away to Villarreal. It says a lot about how La Liga is perceived, and how Barca are perceived, that we'd even contemplate it as a given. After all, Villarreal are fourth in the table and had already beaten Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid, Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Valencia, Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen at the Madrigal this season.
There was no real reason to think this would be a walk-over and, indeed, Villarreal created chances early with Denis Suarez and Cedric Bakambu. The officiating was all over the place: Gerard Pique was incorrectly booked for a handball and then didn't get a booking when he did handle the ball. Barcelona took the lead through Ivan Rakitic, then were gifted a penalty (Sergio Asenjo on Neymar). It looked as if Barca could engage the cruise control up 2-0, but Villarreal came back after the break with Bakambu and an awful own goal from Jeremy Mathieu.
It's no reason for Luis Enrique to sound the alarm and, in any case, the gap over Atletico still grew by a point. It does suggest however a certain nonchalance at protecting a lead. You also wonder if maybe they aren't a bit short-handed in the middle of the park. Arda Turan once again wasn't convincing in a box-to-box role. At this stage, he really should be the third option to complete the midfeld trio after Andres Iniesta and Sergi Roberto.
Will Leicester benefit from unmotivated opponents?
There was no change at the top of the Premier League, with Leicester City winning 1-0 at Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur pounding Bournemouth 3-0 the following day. The gap remains five points with seven games to go; that's what separates the Foxes from one of the most improbable feats in the history of sport.
Claudio Ranieri had his own spin on things, typically joking that he was happy because they had mathematically qualified for the Europa League. More telling was when he talked about how Leicester feels cheered on by neutrals in every corner of the globe.
Indeed, everybody loves an underdog story and it's no exaggeration that apart from Tottenham fans (and maybe the minority of Arsenal supporters who believe they can somehow close the gap), most of the known universe is cheering on the Foxes. There are likely two implications to this: One is how you capture and channel this wave of support and stop it from turning into pressure to deliver. This is, above all, a test of the man-management, not just of Ranieri, but of his senior players and leaders, from Danny Drinkwater to Wes Morgan. It's a tricky balance to strike.
Their past two outings, against Newcastle at home and Saturday at Selhurst Park, saw Leicester encounter a different type of opponent, one who denied space and played on the counter. That made things a lot trickier and they created fewer chances than usual, which brings us to the other implication. Newcastle desperately needed points to stay up while Palace had not won a league game since Dec. 19. Both were hugely motivated, but how will Leicester's other opponents down the stretch respond?
Three of their last four games are against Swansea, Everton and Chelsea who (odds are) will have nothing to play for at that stage and whose fans (especially at Stamford Bridge on the final day of the season) may even be supporting Leicester. It will be a strange vibe all around.
There's a part of you that sort of feels sorry for Tottenham here. This is their big season, the first time in ages they're challenging for the title. They're doing it on resources that dwarf Leicester's but which are still dwarfed by the likes of Arsenal, the Manchester clubs, Chelsea and even Liverpool. And yet, they are cast in the role of the villain trying to spoil the fairy tale.
Gotze's future limited at Bayern Munich?
Not much changed in the Bundesliga over the weekend. Bayern's lead remained five points as Robert Lewandowski's goal gave them a 1-0 win over Cologne, while Borussia Dortmund kept pace the following day with a 3-1 comeback victory over Augsburg.
Not much changed for Mario Gotze either. Since returning from injury a month ago, he has featured just once in eight games. In part, it's understandable. Pep Guardiola may be an attack-minded coach, but there are only so many forwards you can incorporate in your team. Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Douglas Costa and Arjen Robben (when fit) are going to be pretty much automatic choices. Franck Ribery is fit again, while Kingsley Coman is ahead of Goetze as well.
Reports in Germany suggest his time at Bayern may be coming to an end and that he'll leave in the summer. If it happens, it would be ironic, given the circumstances of his arrival and the fact that he seemed tailor-made for Guardiola's football. Indeed, I remember someone who knows Pep well telling me how excited he was to work with Gotze, suggesting he could in his own way contribute some of the qualities that Lionel Messi brought to the table.
There's a huge call to be made here as Gotze enters the final year of his contract in June. You need to decide whether to lock him up with a long-term deal, which won't come cheap, or whether to find a buyer in the summer.
On the one hand, Carlo Ancelotti is on his way and he may well find more minutes for him, especially if he returns to full fitness. With Ribery and Robben both turning 33 next year, there will also be a natural attrition that should afford more opportunities. On the other hand, Ancelotti isn't Pep and his appetite to play four attackers the way Guardiola did is far from certain. And even if he does, there would still be four guys (Coman, Ribery, Robben and Gotze) effectively competing for a single spot.
It's a safe bet Gotze didn't imagine things unfolding this way when he scored the winner in the World Cup final back in 2014.
Why are Inter, Mancini still tweaking the team?
Calling Inter Jekyll and Hyde this season would not be accurate, strictly speaking, because Jekyll is good and Hyde is bad. The nerazzurri have had plenty of Hyde but when he's not around, rather than Jekyll, we got his tidy, well-drilled but ultimately limited brother. That was the case on Saturday night in the 1-1 draw with Roma.
Roberto Mancini rewrote the script, conjuring up a newfangled 4-2-3-1 that managed to limit Roma for much of the game and offered the illusion of a win before Radja Nainggolan's late equalizer. They were baby steps that yielded a decent result, given the absentees (Mauro Icardi, Rodrigo Palacio, Stevan Jovetic, Geoffrey Kondogbia, etc.), but not much in the way of building towards anything.
There is no getting around it. It's mid-March. This is not the stage where Inter ought to be eking out results through hard work and organization. It's the stage when the difference-makers ought to be coming together and the side ought to have a way of playing that doesn't change every week.
Premier League's relegation battle heats up
The battle to avoid relegation always offers a fun subplot to the neutral (believe me, it's a lot less fun when your team is involved). This year, barring some kind of cataclysm, it's a three-way dance between Newcastle, Sunderland and Norwich, with the winner getting to stay up and the other two joining Aston Villa in the Championship. Norwich have 28 points to Sunderland's 26 and Newcastle's 25, but the Canaries have played an extra game.
The neat thing is that Norwich's next two home games are against Sunderland and Newcastle; that's the epitome of the "relegation six-pointer." As if that wasn't enough to spice things up, there are the personalities involved: Big Sam Allardyce, Rafa Benitez and Alex Neil, who is young enough to be their son and was still playing until 15 months ago.
My hunch is that Sunderland will stay up at the expense of the other two, but, really, it's very much a toss-up.
Buffon's record is a team achievement
When the fourth minute of the Turin derby came and went, Gigi Buffon acknowledged it with a wave of the hand and immediately moved on. The Juve keeper had set a new Serie A record for consecutive minutes without conceding, one that would eventually end at 974 minutes right up until Andrea Belotti's penalty at the start of the second half.
There is no doubting the fact that Buffon is one of the greatest keepers in history or that this season, at 38, he's as close to his best form as he has been in a while. That said, records like this are to be taken with a pinch of salt. It's not as if he's been enveloped by some mystical powers these past two months: If he had, he would not have conceded four goals over 210 minutes to Bayern Munich. In situations like this, making distinctions between competitions doesn't make too much sense.
Less sense still (and Buffon was the first to admit this) is putting the focus all on the keeper. It goes without saying this is a team game. He was able to achieve this because he has some outstanding defenders and midfielders ahead of him, because Juve are extremely well organized and because he happens to play for a very good team and good teams concede less than average or bad ones.
So, by all means, celebrate the record. Just remember that it's very much a team achievement.
Casemiro becoming the key for Real Madrid
Sevilla haven't won on the road in La Liga since last season so there was little reason to believe they'd get their first away win at, of all places, the Bernabeu. Burned early by Karim Benzema's opener, once Keylor Navas (yes, him again: Madrid's Player of the Year right now) saved Kevin Gameiro's penalty and once his second-half goal was (incorrectly) struck off for offside it became obvious this wasn't going to be their day.
Beyond that, it was standard fare from Real Madrid, who can be devastating when they line up the "BBC" and take an early lead. Cristiano Ronaldo missed a penalty (but later bagged a goal of his own), Gareth Bale scored his 15th of the season (thereby eclipsing Gary Lineker as the most prolific Briton ever in Spanish football) and Jese made it 4-0. Madrid were in full flow and could have scored more.
Perhaps more telling is the fact that for the fifth consecutive game in all competitions, Zinedine Zidane started Casemiro as the holding midfielder. He has come to the same conclusion that Rafa Benitez and Carlo Ancelotti reached before him. This team is so poorly assembled that you need an ugly duckling in the middle of the park to do the defensive work, rather than trying to shoe-horn another attacking threat like James or Isco into the starting lineup.
De Boer's Ajax move closer to another title
Ajax leapfrogged PSV Eindhoven at the top of the Dutch league, winning 2-0 at the Philips Stadion, giving theme a two-point lead with six games to go.
Given the difficulties and political in-fighting at the club this season, if Frank De Boer delivers the title (it would be his fifth in six seasons), it could be his greatest achievement yet. He turns 46 in May; should he decide to leave home and try his luck elsewhere, I think you can expect a bunch of clubs to come knocking for his services.