Man City can build on Spurs draw, Real lose margin for error, Rooney's record
Pep Guardiola says that he draws more satisfaction from performance than results. That being the case, there was a lot to cheer against Tottenham on Saturday.
Their previous three Premier League outings had seen Manchester City defeated by Liverpool and Everton, with a victory over Burnley (albeit after a disastrous first half) sandwiched in between. The risk that Spurs, who had comprehensively defeated them (in terms of results and performance) when they played back in October, could upend them again was very real.
Instead, Guardiola went for the jugular by putting Yaya Toure on his own in front of the back four, dropping John Stones, and putting Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling wide, thereby neutralising Mauricio Pochettino's game plan. It's not that Spurs were poor necessarily, though Harry Kane did call it their "worst performance of the season" -- it was just that they struggled to keep up with City as Mauricio Pochettino's plan backfired badly.
City's two goals may have come as a result of uncharacteristic blunders from the usually uber-reliable Hugo Lloris, but don't let that fool you: They were fully deserving. Contrast this with Tottenham, whose two goals came off their only two shots on target. This was in keeping with a theme from City's match the week before, when Everton also hit the target four times and came away with maximum results.
Still, while chance and probability weren't going Guardiola's way, what really infuriated him was the officiating. When Sterling was through on goal, he was clearly pushed by Kyle Walker. He stumbled but stayed on his feet, though his tame finish was obviously affected. Referee Andre Marriner did nothing.
"Raheem is too honest," said Toure afterwards, implying that the penalty would have been given had he gone to ground. This, of course, opens up a whole other can of worms. Years ago, Jose Mourinho told me he called it "helping the referee to make a decision."
Players should not have to go down to get calls; it's as simple as that. Nor should they be encouraged to do so. Simply put, referees ought to do a better job. Even if you weren't sure about the force of Walker's push, if you saw it and you saw Sterling stumble, that's it: You give the penalty. There is no provision in the laws of the game for a defender to extend his arm out and push an opponent.
Yes, City deserved more and paid the price for a bad decision, but the risk for Guardiola now is to move into another simplistic narrative like we had before. First, it was "what is tackling?" Now, it's "what are the rules?"
Guardiola met with Mike Riley, the head of the PGMOL (the body that supplies Premier League match officials) less than two weeks ago. And now, according to The Times, he's seeking another meeting. I don't think it's good practice to allow private meetings between referees (or their bosses) and managers. Indeed, in many countries it's forbidden. If you need clarification, you do it via public channels, or via meetings with referees where representatives from each club are in attendance.
All this does is sow suspicion and paranoia. If Pep gets more bad calls, he'll grow even angrier and maybe request more meetings. If the officiating improves (from City's perspective), then others will credit the meeting with Riley.
Still, there are many more positives to take away here, including the debut of Gabriel Jesus. Fourth place is two points away; they're also just four points from second place. There is plenty to play for, and Saturday ought to offer plenty of encouragement.
Real Madrid lose their margin for error
There were boos again at the Bernabeu on Saturday, where Real Madrid overcame Malaga 2-1. It wasn't a sparkling performance against a mediocre opponent who sent out an injury-riddled lineup, though Zinedine Zidane's crew did hit the woodwork twice. More importantly, it was their first victory in four games. And it came without Dani Carvajal, Pepe and Gareth Bale in a match which saw them also lose Marcelo and Luka Modric through injury.
You'd imagine most home crowds would chalk up the performance to the moment and at least applaud the resilience of their players. Not the Bernabeu, a stadium unlike any other and (probably) not reflective of Madridismo as a whole.
So Madrid hang on to top spot, but the squad is now definitely stretched even further. Marcelo will be out for a month, which means Zidane has both starting full-backs missing. Their theoretical backups, Fabio Coentrao and Danilo, are about as popular as ringworm around these parts -- so much so that rather than playing them, Zidane finished the match with Nacho (a center-back) and Lucas Vazquez (a winger) in those positions.
The schedule is relatively soft between now and the Champions League clash with Napoli in mid-February. But in terms of personnel, the margin for error has all but vanished.
A word about Rooney's record
Manchester United shared the spoils at Stoke on Saturday, 1-1, and we'd probably be talking more about how they were actually rather unlucky and how this result affects their hopes of a top-four finish (they're four points out, but crucially, they'll need to leapfrog two teams to do it) if not for the fact that Wayne Rooney stole the show. His late free kick didn't just level the score, it was the 250th goal of his United career, eclipsing Bobby Charlton's mark of 249.
It's odd, because most of us don't think of Rooney as a traditional goal scorer, yet at 31, he's now the leading scorer for both the England national team and England's best-supported club. If 20 goals in a season across all competitions is some kind of minimum for a "recognized striker," it's worth noting he reached that mark only four times in 14 professional seasons.
Then again, Charlton also only achieved that mark on four occasions. Like Charlton, he operated in various roles throughout his career, and like Charlton, he owes his mark to longevity rather than being a goal-a-game type.
As uncertainty surrounds his future -- Jose Mourinho said he wouldn't stand in his way if Rooney opted to move to China, and his playing time has definitely diminished this year -- it's worth remembering that Rooney's primary contribution was never that of a goal scorer. Goals didn't define him, even though he scored many -- and some really good ones. At his peak, he was a rare combination of energy, work rate and technique.
Rooney ranks 32nd on the list of English football's all-time goal scorers. Take out the guys whose career began before World War II, when it really was a different game, and he's still only 13th.
This isn't to diminish his achievements. Rather, it's to serve as a reminder that unlike some of the guys above him on the list, his contribution went way beyond goals.
Allegri, Juve get back on track in style
Max Allegri said it came to him Wednesday morning over breakfast. It's been a bumpy period for the Juventus boss, who has appeared nervy and irritable, and he was coming off a poor defeat at Fiorentina the week earlier. Conventional wisdom is that in those circumstances, you hunker down, keep it tight and wait for results to improve -- which, when it's a given that you are more talented than others, is extremely likely.
Except Allegri didn't do that. He chose instead to follow his midweek intuition against Lazio Sunday and conjured up a 4-2-3-1 system that saw him cram Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain, Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado and Mario Mandzukic into the same lineup. That's three strikers, an attacking midfielder and a winger for those keeping track at home. It's also the fourth different system he has used this season.
The result was a 2-0 victory that was far more one-sided than the result suggests. And Allegri now has another very attacking option, one that saw him get the best out of Dybala and Pjanic, two guys who haven't always been firing on all cylinders this season.
I'm not sure it's a long-term solution -- when Claudio Marchisio returns, you'll need to find room for him -- but it's definitely a useful, progressive alternative.
Costa slots back in seamlessly
Diego Costa is evidently cut from a different cloth. He's dropped from the Chelsea squad amid China talk -- apologies, he's "not selected" because of a sudden "backache" -- goes away for a week and comes back without missing a beat, leading the line in Chelsea's 2-0 win over Hull. Some guys are just wired that way.
Still, if you're Chelsea, you don't take for granted that the Costa situation is in any way resolved. There's still the matter of an unsigned contract extension and a £50,000 a week difference between the two parties. What you do know is that he doesn't carry contract anxiety with him on the pitch. And that's a big plus.
The win extended Chelsea's lead to eight points just as they enter a tricky back-to-back sequence (Liverpool away and Arsenal at home). Avoid defeat in those two games and the worst thing that happens is they'll still be five points clear, which is quite a luxury.
Napoli are still too inconsistent
You wonder what Maurizio Sarri's Napoli could achieve if they could just bottle it for a full 90 minutes. For much of the first half of their Saturday night outing at Milan, they discombobulated the opposition with an intense midfield press and befuddled them with the front trio of Dries Mertens, Jose Callejon and Lorenzo Insigne taking a 2-0 lead inside 10 minutes.
It was high-end, showbiz stuff, and even after Milan pulled one back late in the first half, you felt they could go on to exact more damage. Except they didn't. The second half saw Milan storm back and enjoy the upper hand, as Napoli suddenly turned passive.
The fact that Maurizio Sarri's crew hung on for dear life to win can be read two ways. It's either a sign that they have the grit and resilience to hold on even when things are no longer going their way, or it shows that they still lack consistency. I tend to lean towards the former while also crediting Milan, who were lifted after the break and are no slouches at home.
Wenger should have known better
When you're 67 and have been managing for more than three decades, you really ought to know better. And to his credit, Arsene Wenger, sent to the stands late in Arsenal's dramatic 2-1 win over Burnley, does know better. If he didn't, he wouldn't have apologized for his behaviour, which he did after the match.
Wenger was sent from the dugout by referee Jon Moss after he awarded a penalty to Burnley. "I was sent out," he said. "I don't know if I was sent to the stands, but I was sent out. I thought I could watch it from [the tunnel]." That's when the fourth official Antony Taylor told Wenger he couldn't stay there. A scuffle erupted involving Taylor, Wenger and Arsenal stewards, who appeared to try to shield Wenger from the fourth official.
It's a credit to Wenger that he said he was sorry, and he admitted to shoving Taylor. Sure, managers get heated; they lose their cool; they do stupid things. We all do it. But an aggravating factor here is that Wenger was also being disingenuous when he said he didn't know if he'd been sent to the stands. He's been sent off enough times to know that when the referee tells you to leave, he doesn't just want you stand a few paces away at the entrance to the tunnel.
His instant apology mitigates matters but it won't change the fact that he now faces a hefty punishment having been charged by the FA on Monday morning.
Leipzig aren't leaving the title race
RB Leipzig returned to Bundesliga action after the winter break showing no signs of a hangover from their defeat to Bayern (who beat Freiburg 2-1 on Friday night) the past time out.
Sure, it helps tremendously when the opposing goalkeeper gets himself sent off after just two minutes, as happened in their 3-0 spanking of Eintracht Frankfurt. But the scary thing is that it appears as if Ralf Rangnick simply plugged his troops into some gigantic charger over the break. And they look as hungry and as charged up as they did early in the season.
They're still three points behind Bayern, but like a bad rash, they show no signs of going away.
Praise for unbeaten Hoffenheim
Meanwhile, Julian Nagelsmann's Hoffenheim remain the only undefeated side in Europe's big five leagues after their 2-0 win away to Augsburg. Their only seasonal defeat has come in the German Cup.
They're not exactly a juggernaut, and it's not always pretty (they've drawn six of their past eight games), but there's a big fat goose egg in the "L" column through 17 matches, and right now they sit in third place. Not too shabby for Nagelsmann, a manager who has all of 33 top-flight games under his belt and can still call himself a twenty-something...
Barca win big, but can they keep it up?
The calendar year began under a bit of a cloud for Barcelona. Lionel Messi's contract (still unresolved), Luis Enrique's rotation, defeat at Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey, that acrimonious draw at Villarreal...
Sunday's trip to Eibar was what you'd call a "trap game." The mega-minnows from Ipurua had already taken points off Real Madrid this year and in their teeny-tiny stadium had conceded a measly eight goals, just one more than Atletico Madrid and Barcelona.
To make matters worse, Luis Enrique lost Sergio Busquets (he'll be out for a couple weeks) after 10 minutes. This forced him to line up with Ivan Rakitic in a central role, with Arda Turan and Denis Suarez either side (yup, Javier Mascherano, Andres Iniesta and Rafinha were all unavailable too). Hardly confidence-inspiring.
Yet Barca seemed galvanized by the difficulty (on paper), and after Denis Suarez put them ahead, the "MSN" took over in the second half to make it 4-0. OK, so the gap is still two points, which become five if Real Madrid win their game in hand. And the next Clasico is at the Bernabeu. But stranger things have happened.
Now they just need to make the Messi contract issue go away. Logic tells you it will, not least because he has a lot less leverage than you'd expect: He's 30 in the summer, his wages are already huge, he'd require a serious bump to leave and the China faucet seems to be closing. Then again, while it's hard to see him leaving, you could also see how -- from his perspective -- he'd be in no hurry to renew either. It certainly didn't affect him on Sunday, and Barca will hope things remain that way for the rest of the season.
Liverpool are where they should be
Jurgen Klopp said it "wasn't fair" that Swansea beat Liverpool 3-2 on Saturday, and yet it was "deserved." You may think there's no difference, but I can see where he's coming from.
Liverpool created more chances and for long stretches outplayed Swansea. Yet it was Paul Clement's crew who took their chances, and therefore they deserved their 3-2 win. That's his point.
You can agree or disagree, but what's obvious is that not for the first time this season, Liverpool paid a price for some really poor defending. The decision not to start Joel Matip, declared eligible by FIFA the day before, was a poor one -- almost as poor as Ragnar Klavan's defending. Klopp said the mistakes were "really difficult to accept."
They shouldn't be hard to accept. They're simply a function of either not being as well-prepared as necessary defensively or of having too many players who make too many mistakes.
After their win over Manchester City on New Year's Eve, it looked as if Liverpool might even challenge Chelsea for the title. Three games later, a top-four finish is in question. That's the fragility Klopp must battle against.
Right now, Liverpool are a side who play some of the best football in the Premier League when everyone is fit and available. The problem is Philippe Coutinho isn't fit and Sadio Mane isn't available. Without them, Klopp's team goes back to being hit-or-miss.
It's "not fair" that Liverpool are fourth because key men aren't there. And yet, somehow, it's deserved.
Woe for Gabon but credit to Cameroon
Gabon were the first high-profile casualty at the Africa Cup of Nations, finishing the group stage winless with three draws. When the host nation goes out early, it can put a real damper on the competition, particularly when it also features one of the best center-forwards in the world, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
Then again, maybe it was in the cards.
Gabon's last victory in a competitive match was way back in 2015, when they beat Mozambique in the second round of CAF World Cup qualifying. Despite a gifted group which includes the likes of Mario Lemina, Didier N'Dong and Aubameyang, under coach Jose Camacho, they added up to less than the sum of their parts.
Credit Cameroon as well, though. They survived a number of Gabonese chances (Aubameyang wasted an early sitter; Denis Bouanga hit the post late on) to make it to the group stage. When you consider the experienced stars who stayed away -- from Joel Matip to Aurelien Chedjou, from Allan Nyom to Henri Bedimo -- and the lack of confidence surrounding coach Hugo Broos, it's quite a turnaround.
There he is again. Another 2-2 draw for Sporting and another goal for Bas Dost, bringing his seasonal total up to 17 in all competitions and 14 in the Portuguese League. He has more league goals this season than Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero, Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Carlos Bacca and Thomas Mueller.
This concludes the latest installment of #basdostwatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.