Sevilla stun Real Madrid; positives for Mourinho, Klopp; Chelsea's Costa issue
Sometimes it's worth reminding yourself that, between the highest level of footballers and those who are merely "good," there's an entire population of gifted players, who bounce regularly between clubs, trapped in a feedback loop of sizeable contracts and transfer mechanisms that owe more to accountants than to logic.
One of those guys is Stevan Jovetic. On Sunday, his long-range effort (and a bit of help from Keylor Navas' positioning) saw Sevilla end Real Madrid's 40-game unbeaten streak in all competitions and planted a big ol' boot in the Liga door, ensuring it stayed open.
Jovetic is 27 and at his fourth club in four years. It's fair to say that, while he has a Premier League winners' medal to show for it, his career has stalled since he left Fiorentina in 2013. That late strike against Real Madrid was his first league goal in some nine months. It could prove to be one of the more important ones of his career.
Sevilla's victory came at the end of 93 delicious minutes of football, filled with drama and subplots. The fact that both teams had faced each other twice in the previous 10 days meant managers Zinedine Zidane and Jorge Sampaoli were keen to offer up new looks. Zidane introduced Nacho and opted for a 3-5-2 for the first time in his Real Madrid career, while Sampaoli produced a de facto 4-2-4.
The results were in many ways predictable, with Sevilla doing what Sampaoli teams do: Furiously attacking and pressing as if stuck them on fast forward. The extra center-back and a huge Casemiro performance allowed Real Madrid to more than weather their opponents' fury, although they also limited service to Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema up front.
It took a Ronaldo penalty in the second half -- after Sergio Rico fouled Dani Carvajal -- to put Madrid ahead. You could hear the first nails going into the Liga coffin, particularly because Sevilla began to flag after clocking all those miles in the first hour or so.
But then Sergio Ramos' headed a cross past his own goalkeeper, Keylor Navas. Talk about drama. This was Ramos, who last scored for Sevila 12 years ago -- when he was actually playing for them. Seville born, bred and buttered, he had endured 48 hours of abuse before the game after clashing with his former supporters following the Copa del Rey encounter.
The Sanchez Pizjuan went into frenzy and it felt as if it was the crowd that willed on the home team for Jovetic's winner. Marcelo, speaking after the game, said Madrid "relaxed" a little after taking the lead. Maybe they did or, maybe, it just felt that way as Sevilla kicked it up several notches, past a point you thought was possible.
The defeat was Madrid's first in 41 games and, while Zidane may get criticized for the back three, he really shouldn't. Given the circumstances, it wasn't a bad call; having a Plan B is never a bad thing and, for much of the game, it worked.
La Liga isn't quite wide open -- Real Madrid have a one-point lead, a game in hand and the luxury of home games against the likes of Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Sevilla between now and the end of the season -- but it's far from closed. And that can only be good for the neutral.
Positives for Mourinho and Klopp
Ahead of Sunday's kickoff against Manchester United, many, including yours truly, thought it would be a long afternoon for Liverpool.
With Joel Matip caught up in red tape, Nathaniel Clyne injured, Saido Mane on African Nations Cup duty, Jordan Henderson returning from injury after a three-week layoff and Philippe Coutinho only fit enough for the bench, theirs was an undermanned lineup and one which, you felt, would struggle to implement Jurgen Klopp's habitual, high-energy press. Particularly against a Man United side near full-strength and fresh off nine straight wins in all competitions.
Instead, Klopp played it brilliantly. He sent Adam Lallana to act as a spoiler on Michael Carrick in the deep playmaker position, he got clockwork movement from Georgino Wijnaldum and Emre Can and Roberto Firmino was his usual hyperactive self. It took a set-piece blunder from Paul Pogba, who had a poor game, to give Liverpool the lead -- a handball leading to a James Milner penalty -- but Liverpool were not undeserving by any stretch.
In the end, the difference between the two sides was probably qualitative as much as anything else. Jose Mourinho had better players available to him and more options as well, as the late aerial attack and Zlatan Ibrahimovic's subtle finish for the equaliser showed. But if you're a Liverpool fan, you can't help but be encouraged by the performance against a difficult opponent.
Weirdly. though, this was a game from which both managers can take positives. Mourinho recognised the Carrick issue and changed it around, sending on Wayne Rooney. United's manager said his side had enough chances to win, which is true, though you could say the same about Liverpool.
In fact, if you're the sort who only judges results, you'd concede this could have gone either way. There's no denying the progress United have made in the past two months and the fact that the win streak is over doesn't change that.
Unlike the sides' October meeting, neither manager set out looking for a draw. But neither seemed too displeased at having to share the spoils either. Both live to fight another day.
Fiorentina have too much for Juventus
There is no love lost between Fiorentina and Juventus, but the cauldron-like atmosphere at the Artemio Franchi on Sunday is only a small part of the reason the Serie A champions fell 2-1, suffering their fourth league defeat of the season.
Paulo Sousa's 3-4-2-1 formation befuddled the visitors with a vicious -- if intermittent -- press made possible by the energy of guys like Federico Chiesa, who is just 19 years of age and was making only his fourth Serie A start.
The son of Enrico, a former Italian international and scorer of 138 Serie A goals, Federico has the right bloodlines and the right attitude. With another Federico - Bernardeschi -- on the opposite flank, they stifled Juve's wing-backs, compressing Max Allegri's team far more than they're used to.
Allegri was angry after the game and, indeed, he been out-thought and out-fought. The Gonzalo Higuain-Paulo Dybala partnership simply doesn't work, at least in a 3-5-2 without another playmaker -- Miralem Pjanic was on the bench -- in midfield.
Higuain did score to pull one back and might even have equalized at the end, but that wouldn't have changed what was a poor performance. Thanks to Fiorentina's pressing, Dybala got little service when he was up front and then was isolated when Juve shifted systems and he moved wide.
Juve might win Serie A on superior talent alone, without needing to outplay the opposition. But if they want to change the "might" into a "will," Allegri needs to find the right balance, because they have a fight on their hands.
The lead is now down to a single point, though Juve do have a game in hand. Roma are in second place with Napoli, four back, in third.
Squad shortcomings hurt Guardiola and Man City
Pep Guardiola suffered the heaviest league defeat of his career as Manchester City were thrashed 4-0 at Everton.
I spoke to someone who knows Guardiola well. He said this game probably hurt less because unlike, say, the 3-0 defeat to Barcelona with Bayern two years ago, he didn't feel City were outplayed, since they created chances, dominated possession and Everton scored with each of their four shots on goal.
It feels like deja vu -- I apologize for this -- but performances do matter more than results in the long run. Maybe if City had been awarded a penalty for an early foul on Raheem Sterling or if they converted some of their first-half chances, then Everton would have had to come out their shell and would not have scored four times on the counter.
That's fine; I get it. There's chance and randomness, and a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a tidal wave. But the whole point is to limit the probability of things going wrong. When you see City defend in the way they did -- not just three of the back four (Bacary Sagna did OK) but also Pablo Zabaleta and Yaya Toure in midfield -- they're asking for trouble.
Which brings us back to a familiar theme: squad building. Sure, Fernandinho, Fernando and Ilkay Gundogan were all absent at Goodison Park, which is why Guardiola turned to Zabaleta and Toure (evidently, he really, really doesn't trust Fabian Delph).
But City knew when they signed him in the summer that Gundogan has a history of injuries, that Fernando isn't particularly good, that Zabaleta in midfield is a Band-Aid at best and that Toure could not be relied upon (and really hasn't been a defensive midfielder for years).
And that's before we get into the full-backs, or that the third-choice center-back is either Vincent Kompany, who has missed 45 of City's last 56 league starts, or Aleksandar Kolarov, who is neither quick nor a center-back.
The root of City's issues lie in squad-building and the poor choices made last summer. They spent a fortune on Gabriel Jesus and Leroy Sane, who between them have started four league games, instead of addressing needs elsewhere.
Those two are hugely gifted and may well be the future. But neglecting the present because you're looking down the road can be extremely dangerous, as we're discovering.
Messi's long-term Barcelona future remains unresolved
Barcelona pounded Las Palmas to a pulp 5-0, with Neymar and Andres Iniesta on the bench and Aleix Vidal on the pitch. That's the good news and it matters, even though it came against opponents who, despite their mid-table position, were all over the place on the pitch.
But the storm cloud over the Camp Nou remains, and it has to do with Lionel Messi's contract. Despite the threat of a mega-money move to China, few can really wrap their heads around the possibility of his departure after 17 years at the club.
And with good reason. Messi has just 18 months left on his deal but, even if he broke off contract talks, that would only do so much to depress his transfer value. Throw in the sort of salary he would command elsewhere, plus a five-year deal, and we'd be looking at someone committing a sum approaching half a billion dollars to a guy who turns 30 in June.
It's hard to see anybody in Europe doing that, while China seems a remote option as well. So Barcelona president Jose Maria Bartomeu is right when he says that they want Messi to stay and he also wants to stay, and that's probably what will happen.
Still, only once it gets done will the club truly breathe a sigh of relief.
Costa is worth having, but only at a certain price
Diego Costa's absence didn't derail Chelsea at Leicester, nor did any hangover from the defeat at Tottenham. If the ability to regroup and deal with adversity is the mark of champions, you can put a check next to Antonio Conte's crew following the 3-0 win against the (depleted) title holders.
The question now is: What happens next with Costa? The transfer window in China is open until Feb. 28. The worst-case scenario for Chelsea is, obviously, some kind of total breakdown in the relationship followed by a move after the Premier League window shuts.
Conte dealt with the issue as best he could following the Leicester game, but it's obvious that it needs to be resolved quickly. Chelsea were already hoping to bring in another back-up striker this month; being forced to secure two would be no fun at all.
Right now, it's a tough situation to call. Perhaps the best solution -- other than Costa agreeing a new deal and deciding he'd rather be in London than Tianjin -- might be agreeing to a sale now, with the proviso that the striker stays on loan at Stamford Bridge until the summer. That way he gets paid, Tianjin lock in their superstar and Chelsea have time to plan.
If, on the other hand, this is all a gigantic ploy for Costa to get a better long-term deal from his current club, Chelsea may want to think twice and call his bluff. As devastating as he can be, he's not the only center-forward out there, particularly for a guy like Conte, who is comfortable with multiple systems.
Inter show more promising signs
Inter won their fifth straight Serie A game, coming from behind to beat Chievo 3-1 on Saturday, but the bigger significance was in the performance. This was a team that was exciting and fun to watch in a way no nerazzurri side has been for a long, long time. Arguably, in fact, since the early part of Roberto Mancini's first stint in charge more than a decade ago.
Seeing Roberto Gagliardini, on his debut and with only eight Serie A starts under his belt, boss the midfield with quality, athleticism and personality was a treat after the years of drudgery post-Jose Mourinho.
Nobody wants to get carried away but, in Gagliardini (22), Mauro Icardi (23), Jeison Murillo (24), Marcelo Brozovic (24) and Geoffrey Kondogbia (23), Inter have a core of players who might be on their way up, rather than a gaggle of pricey veteran fixes on their way down.
Dembele could dictate Tottenham's challenge
Tottenham thumped West Bromwich Albion 4-0 to shoot up into second place in the Premier League. Predictably, the headlines belonged to Harry Kane, who scored a hat trick to bring his seasonal total to 15 goals in 19 games in all competitions. Meanwhile, Dele Alli dispensed his usual rare combination of magic and toughness.
But in many ways, whether or not Tottenham turn the 2016-17 Premier League into a legitimate title race will depend on Mousa Dembele as much as the front two, or Toby Alderweireld and Hugo Lloris at the back or Kyle Walker and Danny Rose out wide.
Dembele has an unusual package of intelligence, elusiveness, size and quality, coupled with the maturity of a midfield general. Others get the limelight, but it's Dembele who keeps this group together on the pitch.
Title race tightens in France
Julian Draxler scored an absolute peach of a goal on his Ligue 1 debut for Paris Saint-Germain, who won 1-0 at Rennes.
Unai Emery used the German international wide in the front three alongside Edinson Cavani and Lucas Moura, leaving out Angel Di Maria. You wonder if, long-term, that's how Emery sees Draxler and whether it means that Di Maria will continue to be the odd one out.
The win, coupled with Nice's home draw with Metz and Monaco's demolition of Marseille, leaves PSG three points off the top two. In other words, given their superiority in terms of squad depth and quality, they remain within striking distance. Which means Emery can yet salvage his campaign.
Monaco continue their free-scoring ways
Speaking of Monaco, they've scored 60 goals in 20 league games this season, an average of three per match. That's way ahead of the other most prolific sides in Europe's top five leagues: Liverpool (2.33), Real Madrid (2.71), Bayern (2.38) and Napoli (2.25).
It's particularly remarkable when you consider two factors. First, Ligue 1 is traditionally -- and by some margin -- the lowest-scoring of Europe's top leagues. Second, last season Monaco averaged exactly half as many goals per game (1.5).
It's nearly twilight zone stuff, especially when you consider they have the same manager, Leonardo Jardim, in charge.
Bas is back with a bang
Bas Dost bagged two goals in Sporting's 2-2 draw with Deportivo Chaves, bringing his seasonal total to 16 goals in all competitions. In the league, he's averaging a goal every 90 minutes and all of them have come from open play. At the rate he's going, it's safe to say there will be plenty more #basdostwatch on the horizon.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.