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Referee distracts from Barca's awful performance, Klopp's honesty, more

Gab Marcotti responds to your comments from his weekly 'Marcotti's Musings."

In some ways, the fact that referee Alejandro Hernandez Hernandez (who took charge of Real Betis vs. Barcelona) had the officiating day from hell on Sunday, becoming the butt of all criticism and silly jokes of the "so-bad-they-named-him-twice" variety is a boon to the defending Liga champions. Why? Because it distracts from the fact that this was one of their worst performances of the season.

By the way, even worse than the "ghost goal," the official match report compiled by the referee was even more disconcerting. The original version, later corrected, had Betis lining up with just 10 players including Fran Merida, who doesn't actually play for them.

You can break it down into individual episodes if you like, and perhaps you'll count as many chances and bad calls -- above all, of course, the ghost goal -- to conclude that Barca deserved points from this game. But football doesn't work that way. And it was Luis Enrique, being remarkably honest, who left no room for doubt.

"We did not play well; we made lots of errors in the first half, and in the second half they were completely superior to us," he said.

Perhaps what we're seeing is that while Luis Enrique's plans for ample rotation so as to arrive fresh at the finish in the spring are a logical idea, the execution is wanting. Because right now, when Barca choose to play without Javier Mascherano, Jordi Alba, Sergi Roberto and Samuel Umtiti at the back and are forced to be without Andres Iniesta, Rafinha and Sergio Busquets in midfield, they aren't just a little worse. They're a lot worse. And that's even without Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar starting up front.

When even the MSN can't paper over your cracks, something isn't working. Taken as individuals, Barca's replacements are fine players, and some, like Denis Suarez, are worth investment and perseverance. Taken as a group, you lose chemistry and cohesion. And if, as happened against Betis, Messi is having an off day and can't work overtime as a midfield playmaker (not effectively, anyway), then you really run into problems.

As for the referee, his error launched the perennial question of why La Liga is the only one of Europe's big five leagues that doesn't use goal-line technology. The official reason -- "it's too expensive" -- doesn't really fly when weighed against the negative publicity each one of these (admittedly rare) episodes arises.

It's also worth remembering that goal line technology isn't infallible. Just because a machine tells us if a ball has crossed the line doesn't mean it's right. There's a margin of error there and it's inevitable since the measurements are taken by cameras. It's a slim one, granted (plus or minus 1.5 centimeters), but it exists.

The point on Saturday, though, was that it surely didn't require additional technology to get that decision right. There are basic standards to which we're entitled to hold our match officials, especially when they're FIFA referees and have presided over Clasicos, like Hernandez Hernandez did last April.

Is Klopp confident in his Liverpool squad?

Jose Mourinho begrudgingly reports Ashley Young as Manchester United's likeliest candidate to move in the transfer window.

A club official once told me that the "magic" of the FA Cup -- for any Premier League team bar those stuck in mid-table -- was all about how managers pretend to care. That may have been harsh, but when scanning the weakened sides and lackluster performances, there's little question that most have their priorities elsewhere. What's more, they see it as a trade-off and a risk often not worth taking if it means picking up injuries or fatigue.

Those words came to mind after hearing Jurgen Klopp say that he too would have walked out early during Liverpool's 2-1 Anfield defeat to Wolves on Saturday. "It was a bad game," he said. "[I do not believe] that people have to stay and accept everything. It was not good enough."

That's a refreshing and grown-up take. The fact is that in seven FA Cup games between last year and this year, he's used 38 different players. That's hard to do without digging deep into your kids and that's exactly what he did, which is why the list includes folks like Ovie Ejaria, Harry Wilson, Joao Teixeira, Pedro Chirivella, Ryan Kent and Joe Maguire.

There is one critical difference between last year and this. By the end of January 2016, Klopp's team had played 37 matches compared to 31 this season. That's an additional six weeks without midweek football -- no Europa League, unlike last year -- with everything that implies in terms of injuries, recuperation and time on the training pitch.

You get the fact that there's a huge Premier League clash coming up on Tuesday with the visit of Chelsea and that Liverpool desperately want to finish in the top four. And, of course, when Klopp looks in his rearview mirror he sees Manchester City, two points back, and Manchester United, four behind, both with just as pressing a need for Champions League football next year.

It only goes to show how little faith he seemingly has in his own squad's ability to compete on multiple fronts. And if they do get into Europe next season, how much he'll want to add in terms of depth.

Monaco, Jardim are the real deal

Whatever happens to Monaco's title ambitions (or, indeed, their Champions League pursuit), there's little doubt that Leonardo Jardim will be a hot managerial commodity this summer. It's easy to write him off as the umpteenth Jorge Mendes creation, aided by rafts of prior investment and the availability of Gestifute talent. But there is far more at work here.

Sunday night's clash at the Parc des Princes against Paris Saint-Germain was the ultimate test. Don't be fooled by the fact that Monaco only grabbed their equalizer deep in injury time. The way they frustrated PSG for much of the game, capitulating only on a somewhat controversial penalty, spoke volumes about Jardim's tactical ability and Monaco's mental toughness. This is a side with seven outfield players aged 24 or under, most of whom have little experience at the top end of the game. What's more, they hung in there on a day when the front pair of Valere Germain and Radamel Falcao had a poor outing.

Jardim's Monaco have shown the ability to be both prolific and free-flowing -- they're averaging more than three goals a game, more than any team in Europe's big five leagues -- as well as cagey and disciplined. In other words, they're doing what PSG have not been able to do under Unai Emery.

This was the time to perform and step up and no, the absence of Marco Verratti is not enough of an excuse. Instead, the midfield failed to impose themselves, Julian Draxler only showed flashes and once again, they were too dependent on Edinson Cavani. You can get away with being one-dimensional and riding the coattails of your big center forward when his name is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But Cavani is not Zlatan.

Nice's win earlier on Sunday means they join Monaco at the top of the table, with PSG three points back in what continues to be the tightest title race in a major European league.

Leipzig continue to confound the critics

They're sort of making us forget all about those footballing truisms we took for granted. Like the fact that top-flight experience matters. Or that if you press too much for too long, either the opposition figures you out or you run out of gas. Or, indeed, that when faced with a combination of adversity and a well-organized rival, they would end up beating themselves.

Not quite: RB Leipzig are confounding all of this conventional wisdom. They did again on Saturday against Hoffenheim, the last undefeated side across one of Europe's top five leagues. They came out of the game quickly, went a goal down, equalized through the ubiquitous Timo Werner and then, after much huffing and puffing, nailed a late winner through Marcel Sabitzer.

As I've written in the past, there are plenty reasons to dislike Leipzig and what they stand for. But it's hard not to respect their energy, bloody-mindedness and stick-to-it-ness.

How the Ashley Young era comes to an end

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti examines Juve's new formation, Roma's collapse at Sampdoria and Inter's impressive run of form.

Jose Mourinho made nine changes against Wigan in the FA Cup and suffered no ill consequence, winning 4-0. Of course, it helps that eight of the nine guys you bring in are internationals for such countries as England, Spain, Germany, Argentina, France, Belgium and Armenia (hardly minnows, except perhaps for the last) and that they have 522 caps between them.

Mourinho announced that Bastian Schweinsteiger will not be leaving -- he's apparently "an option" to fill the slot vacated by Morgan Schneiderlin -- whereas Ashley Young could be on his way. There's little argument to be had there. Manchester United have found success with an older passer in front of the back four (Michael Carrick) and in certain games, perhaps the German can do the job. Young, on the other hand, has started two Premier League games all season and has half a dozen guys ahead of him in the pecking order.

Speaking of Young (and no, I don't want to pick on him) it's remarkable that in five-and-a-half seasons at Old Trafford, he's started just over 40 percent of league games and yet has shown no desire to leave -- until now, given that Mourinho is showing him the door.

You wonder if at some point he'll regret the fact that he spent the time between the ages of 25 and 31 as a fringe player at a big club rather than a superstar on a mid-tier side. It's a choice people are free to make, of course, and there are pros and cons. Given how short a footballer's career is, it's interesting to note that some accept the role of perpetual understudy just to be in the big pond, whereas others desperately want to play.

Is Juve's new formation going to keep Dybala happy?

There's a perception that Juventus coach Max Allegri has found his secret formula with his "five-star" 4-2-3-1 formation, the one that sees Paulo Dybala line up behind Gonzalo Higuain, with Mario Mandzukic and Jose Cuadrado wide and Miralem Pjanic doing the playmaking. It certainly yielded dividends in recent games -- three straight wins, including Sunday's 2-0 victory at Sassuolo -- and it's attacking and fun to watch.

The flip-side, though, is that it leaves you wondering where Claudio Marchisio will fit in when he returns. And whether Dybala (who, lest we forget, is Juve's future) is entirely comfortable in the setup. He seemed angry at seemingly always being the one of the five who gets substituted in the second half despite not playing poorly.

It's amazing how being in contract negotiations -- Dybala is set for a big raise that will bring him in the $8m a season range -- can make you nervy on the pitch.

Bayern's nervy finish shows the work ahead

It should have been a stroll. Arjen Robben and David Alaba (on the stroke of half-time, no less) had given Bayern a comfortable 2-0 lead away to Werder Bremen. A two-goal lead on the road should make things easy when you're top of the league. Instead, after an Alaba error allowed Bremen to pull one back, things got very uncomfortable for Bayern.

"After they scored, we got a little bit scared and sort of lost our way," said Carlo Ancelotti after the game.

Indeed, it's games like these that remind you this is still a work in progress. Against most opponents, sheer talent and experience will see Bayern through. But that can't be allowed to paper over the fact that this side are not yet where Ancelotti wants to be and where Bayern need to be if they're going to keep Leipzig (just three points back) at bay, let alone compete for the Champions League crown.

Everything goes Zidane's way this weekend

Real Madrid walked into the Bernabeu Sunday night with just one win in five games in all competitions and a full-blown injury crisis (Gareth Bale, Luka Modric, Marcelo, Dani Carvajal, Pepe, James Rodriguez). They were facing a Real Sociedad side on the cusp of the Champions League places, the vultures were circling overhead and the crowd were ready to boo.

And boo they did -- not just Danilo and Karim Benzema either, but even Cristiano Roanldo, at least early on. Were Real rattled? Nope. Ronaldo stepped up to set up Mateo Kovacic for the opener, Kovacic returned the favor after the break to make it 2-0 and Alvaro Morata rounded it out with a late powerful header.

Zidane could not have asked for more. He stretches his side's lead at the top of the table, suffers no injuries, enjoys Ronaldo's best performance in some time and benefits from a Kovacic who, if he keeps playing like that, will be hard to shunt out of the lineup when Modric returns.

Roma aren't ready to win titles yet

In football, there are things you can't control and there are those you can control. To succeed, you often need to maximize your chances with the latter so that the former have as little influence as possible. Roma's game against Sampdoria on Sunday was Exhibit A of all this. And it showed why for all the talent and the intermittent brilliance of Luciano Spalletti's side, they don't feel ready to be title-winners.

Roma twice took the lead and yet contrived to lose 3-2. View the game through the lens of individual episodes, and you can blame the officiating: Sampdoria's winner came after an incorrectly awarded free kick and Edin Dzeko should have won a penalty late on.

But the other things that stands out are the individual errors, in particular the performance of one Thomas Vermaelen, who was used and abused at will by Luis Muriel. And the fact that the perpetually semi-fit former Barcelona and Arsenal defender should not have even been playing is what's really frustrating.

Vermaelen was in the starting lineup because Spalletti chose to rest Kostas Manolas, who was one booking away from a suspension, and he wanted him available for Roma's next Serie A game. Manolas isn't immune from mistakes, of course, but he's a lot better than Vermaelen. And that's what the game is about: giving yourself the best possible chance.

As for Vermaelen, you feel for the guy and the injuries he's suffered. But when you make 18 league starts in three-and-a-half years, that should be a massive warning light telling you he's either never fit or not very good.

Ghana tipped to win African Nations Cup?

The semifinal lineup for the African Nations Cup offers a neat contrast in styles and circumstances. It wasn't unthinkable that Burkina Faso might get this far, but few would have expected them to do it without Jonathan Pitroipa and Jonathan Zongo, both of whom went off injured in their second group game.

Cameroon's upsetting of a Senegal side packed with familiar names (Kalidou Koulibaly, Cheikhou Kouyate, Sadio Mane, Idrissa Gueye) is also remarkable when you consider the mass defections that coach Hugo Broos had to deal with. Indeed, given the situation, you forgive them for parking the bus and playing for penalties.

As for Egypt, they're quite a story too. They win it three consecutive times between 2006 and 2010, then fail to qualify for three straight occasions and are in the final four with a 44-year-old goalkeeper, Essam El-Hadary.

The favorites, on paper at least, are Avram Grant's Ghana. There's no denying the fact that they sleep-walked through the group stages and had to work hard to overcome DR Congo in the quarterfinal. But the combination of talent, experience and maybe Grant's age-old knack for being in the right place at the right time means they're in pole position.

And finally: Bas Dost

Bas Dost scored twice for Sporting Lisbon in their 4-2 win over Pacos de Ferreira, which saw them leapfrog Braga into third place, at least until Monday evening. Dost has scored in each of his past five Liga games, taking his season total up to 19.

His sixteen league goals this season are as many as Luis Suarez and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and more than Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain, Diego Costa, Alexis Sanchez, Robert Lewandowski, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo.

This concludes this week's installment of #basdostwatch.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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