Arsenal just not good enough to match Chelsea, praise for Juve and Cameroon
From about the 10th minute onward, Chelsea's 3-1 win over Arsenal on Saturday was a far more substantial beatdown than the score line indicates. A week ago, Antonio Conte's crew felt that a combined two or more points from the trip to Anfield and the visit of the Gunners would be a decent outcome because at worst it would leave Chelsea six points clear. Instead, they're now nine clear at the top, with the lead over Arsenal stretched to 12 points.
Arsene Wenger felt that Marcos Alonso fouled Hector Bellerin on the opening goal ("100 percent," he said), but he was in a distinct minority. Eden Hazard's run for the second was simply a breathtaking cocktail of speed (both of mind and of foot), strength and technique. The third, by Cesc Fabregas -- he didn't celebrate, and you don't blame him -- preyed on a Petr Cech mistake.
What struck you most was the contrast. Chelsea appear fresh as daisies -- a function of no European football and, evidently, the work done on the fitness front -- and hungry as alley cats. Arsenal look at once soft and labored, as if everything requires extra effort.
I'm not a fan of turning to the metaphysical ("bottle," "confidence," "desire"), but in this case, it's hard not to. Although before you get into the intangibles, there's also a very practical explanation to explain Arsenal's performance.
Against a team like Chelsea, with three center-backs, two wing-backs and two defensive midfielders, it helps to have a creative, playmaking midfield. Instead, without Santi Cazorla and Aaron Ramsey (injured), Granit Xhaka (suspended) and Mohamed Elneny (on international duty), Wenger was down to the bare bones of Francis Coquelin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
It's a coin flip as to who was more disappointing. The way Coquelin bounced off Hazard was painful to watch. Oxlade-Chamberlain is a gifted footballer, but he's a runner and probably best from out wide. Not what Arsenal needed at Stamford Bridge.
That's not an excuse. It's an alibi. When Chelsea play like this, you need to be at full strength and playing well to stop them. Arsenal were neither.
A word on Alonso, too. His signing was treated as a last-ditch stopgap, and many in England, perhaps unimpressed by his stint at Sunderland, wrote him off. It never ceases to amaze how some people think a player can't progress between the ages of 23 and 26, and that whatever he is (or whatever they think he is, as Alonso was actually very effective on loan at the Stadium of Light), that's what he remains.
In fact, Alonso brings size, crossing ability and a dual threat on set pieces (both taking them and as a target in the box) to Chelsea's flank. And while he's not a speedster, he can hold his own defending one-on-one, particularly when there's an extra full-back behind. In short, while he may not have been Conte's first choice, it's hard to imagine a better fit.
Juve's "five-star" attack does it again
The first 45 minutes of Inter's trip to face Juventus were about as wide-open as you're likely to see, with both teams furiously trying to outscore the other rather than outdefend them. So much for those stale Serie A stereotypes.
Juventus hit the woodwork twice, and Inter came close, too. Max Allegri's decision to stick with the "five-star" attack (Miralem Pjanic, Juan Cuadrado, Mario Mandzukic, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain all on the pitch at once) was made possible defensively by a magisterial Sami Khedira in midfield. But Stefano Pioli, ever the tactical savant, unveiled a 3-4-2-1 that kept Juve off-balance enough to generate plenty of chances at the other end.
Cuadrado's howitzer late in the first half was the obvious difference between the two teams, but not the only one. Inter seemed to slide physically in the second half, perhaps fatigued from trying to keep up with Juve. And the visitors also had two strong penalty claims, when Danilo D'Ambrosio tangled with Stephan Lichtsteiner and when Mandzukic took out Mauro Icardi (though on the latter, it came down to the goal assistant, not the referee).
The 1-0 win was Juve's 28th consecutive home victory in Serie A, and at some point, the friendly confines become self-fulfilling prophecies. Allegri says the "five-star" system is necessary primarily in Europe, where you need individual quality and creativity to impose yourself on the opposition as you get deeper into the Champions League. My guess is that we won't see too much of it domestically after the current dry run, but it's an interesting (if daring) tactic to turn to in those latter European stages.
As for Inter, Pioli was furious after the game, but he can also take pride in what they showed: the ability to go to toe-to-toe with Juventus and to attack effectively. The Frank De Boer era (not to mention the Roberto Mancini era) both seem so far away.
Cameroon's inspiring AFCON win
It may not have been Leicester City 2015-16 or Greece 2004, but Cameroon's triumph in the 2017 African Nations Cup isn't far off when it comes to underdog performances and the power of a cohesive group to achieve the hugely improbable.
Ahead of the tournament, the bookmakers gave half a dozen teams a better chance of winning than the Indomitable Lions. Coach Hugo Broos was unpopular in some quarters, under fire in others. Seven senior players declined call-ups to the preliminary squad, throwing more turmoil into the mix. Others, like Nicolas N'Koulou and Clinton N'Jie, didn't start a game after the group stage.
Cameroon were underdogs in all but one of the six games they played in the tournament. They upset heavily favoured Senegal on penalties in the quarterfinals and Avram Grant's Ghana in the semifinal. In Sunday's final against Egypt, they featured just one player who plies his trade in the top flight of a major European league: Benjamin Moukandjo. (He plays for Lorient, who are dead last in France.) And again, when Mohamed Elneny beat Joseph Ondoa, they went a goal down against Egypt, the seven-time African champions, who hadn't lost an AFCON game since 2004.
Then came the changes that changed the game. N'Koulou replaced Adolphe Teikeu at the half-hour mark; Vincent Aboubakar came on for Robert Ndip Tambe at the half. The former notched the equalizer, while the latter -- who was a bundle of muscle, energy and desire -- beat 44-year-old Essam El Hadary with minutes to go.
If you can't draw inspiration from what Broos and his truly Indomitable Lions achieved, there may be something wrong with you. It was Cameroon's fifth African title but likely the most satisfying.
Gabriel Jesus' impact on Aguero
For the neutral fan, seeing how Gabriel Jesus continues to develop in the Premier League will be fun, almost as much as seeing what setup Pep Guardiola is going to pull out of his hat game after game. The latest version, with Fernandinho reinvented as a right-back, nearly threw two points away vs. Swansea before Jesus' late goal (his second of the match) secured the victory.
The young Brazilian is not a genuine center-forward, or at least he wasn't used that way in Brazil. You can see how he's at his best picking up the ball in space and making things happen, but the way he assumed his striking responsibilities -- roaming, yes, but ensuring he was in the box at the right time -- makes you think he's a piece of clay who can develop into anything he wants to be.
The elephant in the room, of course, is Sergio Aguero. Guardiola dropped him, not for the first time this season, turning to him late on after Swansea's equalizer. Cue speculation of a move elsewhere in the summer.
"I'll have three months to do my best and try to help the team, and we'll see what happens with my future," he said. "When the season is over, we'll see what the club wants to do with me."
Those words are media fodder, of course, but they're also hugely honest. He'll give his all, but ultimately, if Guardiola doesn't see him as a striker, there's no reason for him to stay. Nor would the club presumably be happy to commit to having his wages on the bench.
Conventional wisdom (and Guardiola's own words after the game) suggest that we'll see him with Gabriel Jesus real soon, and it's not an either/or situation. Then again, so many Pep-related assumptions have been proved wrong (starting with the goalkeeping situation) that the reality is that you just don't know. And one of the top-five strikers in the world could well end up on the market this summer.
Monaco's title hopes aren't far-fetched
It was a clash between two of the finer and perhaps underappreciated tactical minds in Europe: Monaco's Leonardo Jardim and Nice's Lucien Favre. And for 45 minutes, Nice's game plan held up as best it could given that Mario Balotelli was having one of those days (and not in a good way, either).
But the thing about Jardim's scheme is that it's deceiving. It's a 4-4-2; when it works, it manages to be at once solid and fluid, if you pardon the contradiction. The way Bernardo Silva cuts inside, clearing space for the full-back; the way Thomas Lemar shifts positions with his darting runs; the way Radamel Falcao creates space that wasn't previously there: Favre needed all his strategic nous to keep them at bay.
In the second half, he ran out of lives. Monaco scored twice with Falcao and once with Valere Germain to win 3-0 and extend their lead at the top to three points. Jardim showed the best of his team's shape-shifting qualities, particularly in possession, and talk of a first league title since 2000 doesn't quite seem so fanciful now.
But you obviously can't count out Paris Saint-Germain, who finally woke up late in the game to beat Dijon 3-1. They're now second on goal difference. Then again, Monaco have already played Nice and PSG, whereas the two have yet to square off. And when they do, it will be on the Cote d'Azur. So at the very least Monaco control their destiny, and the way they've been playing, you don't feel like betting against them.
Mourinho making Man United more attacking?
You get the impression that relative to other seasons, Premier League managers are more willing to rejigger their teams both in terms of scheme and personnel. Both Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho did just that on Sunday, albeit with contrasting fortunes.
Mourinho tried out a 4-4-2 with Marcus Rashford joining Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front, perhaps because Michael Carrick (who clearly can't play every game) was on the bench. When it didn't yield dividends, he moved Rashford wide and slotted Henrikh Mkhitaryan into the middle. That's good reading of the game and good management. Mkhitaryan turned in one of his finest performances in a United shirt, and they went on to win 3-0.
The interesting thing is that this may be one of the most attack-oriented Mourinho sides in a long time, perhaps because of the top-heavy way in which it was assembled. And United are sixth in the table. It's a fact that isn't lost on him.
"For many, many years in my career, especially in this country, when my teams were ruthless, phenomenal defensively and very good on the counterattack, I listened week after week that it was not good enough despite winning the title three times," he said. "It looks like this season, to be phenomenal defensively and good on the counterattack is an art. It is a big chance in England."
He then added that playing more attacking football is what United expect from him given the club's history, and he respected that, though he "didn't want to be the [manager] of the team who plays very well, creates a lot of chances but doesn't win matches."
It's a point about balance, sure, and perhaps also a dig at Chelsea. He's correct about the fact that the top two sides in the Premier League also happen to be arguably the most defensively solid. And those further back -- the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and United -- look better going forward than sitting deep.
Leipzig visit draws nasty reaction
There's a reason -- several, actually -- why RB Leipzig aren't popular with many German football fans. It's a foreign, alien culture coming into their game after violating the spirit (arguably, the letter, too) of the law to gain entry and has come to epitomise a certain type of "overcommercialization," if not commodification, of the game. In other European countries (England, Italy, possibly Spain), they might have had an easier ride. But Germany is different.
That said, it was shocking and disconcerting to see the behaviour of some Borussia Dortmund ultras ahead of their team's clash with Leipzig on Saturday. There are degrees of wrong, and in this case, they spanned from blockading the team bus to fighting with police to, according to a statement from law enforcement, directing their anger toward "any recognisable Leipzig supporter ... regardless of whether they were children, women or families."
Needless to say, the moral high ground here was lost a long time ago. Borussia Dortmund did everything they could to distance themselves from the perpetrators, and it's a credit to them that stadium bans await.
On the pitch, Thomas Tuchel's men dominated far more than the 1-0 score line suggests. Tuchel said it was "4-0 in disguise," and he's right. For a team that had not won at home in two months and had won just one in six before Saturday -- despite its abundant young talent -- it's a massive boost.
As for Leipzig, we learned what we already knew. They can't play without four starters (Diego Demme, Emil Forsberg, Marcel Sabitzer and Timo Werner) and expect to get a result against a team like Dortmund. Especially not when it's those four starters, who have scored 21 of Leipzig's 36 league goals among them this season.
Are Liverpool just tired, or something more?
Forget the twin nonsense we call the FA Cup and the League Cup, where Jurgen Klopp often fielded shadow sides. Focus instead on the fact that in the Premier League, Liverpool have taken a possible three of 15 points in 2017. That includes Saturday's 2-0 defeat at Hull City.
Don't be fooled, either, by the fact that Hull's goals came thanks to a craven defensive mistake from Simon Mignolet and a long ball over the top that led to an improbable Oumar Niasse finish. In between, Liverpool weren't up to much.
So where did the impressive "heavy metal football" of Liverpool in 2016 go?
The obvious answer is fatigue brought on by Klopp's style, but even that's not fully satisfying given that they've played reserve teams in the domestic cups and have had no European football. Yet guys like Adam Lallana and Roberto Firmino, who were operating at a million miles an hour two months ago, now look as if they're running in clown shoes.
To me, something's gone awry in the physical preparation. Injuries, a lack of quality in key positions and the fact that clubs have figured out it's better to attack Liverpool high than sit off them have only compounded it.
The summer promises to be fascinating. Liverpool have been thrifty in recent years, funding part of their spending with a big-name sale: Luis Suarez in 2014, Raheem Sterling in 2015 and Christian Benteke last year. If they need to repeat the trick in the summer, you hope the designated asset to sacrifice will be Daniel Sturridge, who appears to be a foreign object in Klopp's plans (but given the dynamics of the English domestic market would still fetch a bundle), rather than a guy like Philippe Coutinho.
Barca's rotation is working, but only just
For all the stick that Luis Enrique has received of late, a look at the numbers suggests some of those reactions may be just a bit over the top. The plan this season was to go with a deeper squad and to rotate relatively liberally in La Liga, the idea being that a smattering of second-stringers won't substantially weaken the side, and that late in the season, the starters will be fresh.
Jordi Alba, Javier Mascherano, Luis Suarez, Ivan Rakitic and Sergi Roberto were all on the bench against Athletic Bilbao, and Barcelona still won 3-0 despite a decidedly bumpy first half. The gap between them and leaders Real Madrid is down to one point. Sure, Real (who already had a game in hand) now have another after their match away to Celta Vigo was postponed; incidentally, rescheduling that game is going to be a nightmare, not least because Celta are still in the Copa del Rey, but all Barca can do is rack up the wins right now.
Enrique's rotation may or may not be vindicated come the end of the season. But let's recognize that it at least exists before we freak out over yet another poor performance. And let's judge Barca on their best XI, because it's pretty obvious that this team isn't the same when Arda Turan is in the middle of the park impersonating Andres Iniesta and Jeremy Mathieu tries to pretend he's Alba at left-back.
Should we worry about Bayern's stumble?
Nope, Bayern aren't quite there yet. Leipzig's defeat in Dortmund means they stretch their lead to four points, so the 1-1 draw at home to Schalke is by no means a disaster. And you can also point to the idea that after eight straight wins in all competitions, you could budget for a draw.
But equally, while Schalke played well -- surprisingly well for a team that has won just once since November -- it's fair to expect much better performances from Carlo Ancelotti's crew. Don't be fooled by the highlights, either. Bayern created more chances, and Manuel Neuer made an uncharacteristic mistake on Naldo's equalizer. It's what happened in between those episodes, though, that isn't at the level you'd expect.
Napoli are a force to be reckoned with
On Sunday, Napoli reaffirmed their status as one of the most interesting and enjoyable sides in Europe. It's not just the gaudy 7-1 away win at Bologna, punctuated by hat tricks for Marek Hamsik and Dries Mertens, who notched his 20th goal of the season. It's also the way they pass and move and break with the effortlessness of a kid playing FIFA.
It's as breathtaking as some of the goals on display in Bologna. They haven't lost since October, they've won seven of their past eight (and dominated the one they did not, the home draw with Palermo) and have failed to score just three times in 31 games this season (the last occasion was back in November).
Maurizio Sarri's crew are walking on air right now. If it's all about peaking at the right time, the Champions League clash with Real Madrid can't come soon enough.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.