Lionel Messi's Clasico for the ages, Arsenal surprise us, Inter in trouble
Sometimes they live up to the hype. Sometimes they surpass it.
From the neutral's perspective, Sunday night's Clasico took it to another level. No matchup in the world has as much talent on the pitch even with Neymar missing and Gareth Bale succumbing to injury after just more than half an hour, and few have had as much drama, individual displays of talent, handbrake turns in the narrative and end-to-end excitement as what we witnessed.
And, as far as Lionel Messi is concerned, we've had the umpteenth confirmation that we are living in privileged times, able to see one of the greatest of all time doing it over and over again in the most dramatic fashion, including a virtual buzzer-beater.
But start with the fallout.
Barcelona's 3-2 win at the Bernabeu doesn't quite reopen the Liga race, but it does mean Real Madrid are one slip-up away from a potential neck-and-neck finish. Both are level on points, with Barca enjoying the edge in the tie-breaker, but Real Madrid have a game in hand: May 17 away to Celta Vigo. By that point, both Celta and Madrid could be in European finals: Eduardo Berizzo's crew face Manchester United in the Europa League, and Real, of course, have the Madrid derby.
Should Barca hold out hope? Sure. Celta have already beaten Madrid once this season in the Copa del Rey. You presume that the semifinal derby will stretch Real both in terms of mental and physical resources. Only a fool would rule out the possibility of this going down to the wire at this stage.
The game itself offered positives and negatives for both sides. Zinedine Zidane made a big call by starting Gareth Bale, who had limped off injured against Bayern 11 days earlier. There's no point in medical second-guessing, but the gamble clearly didn't work, as the Welshman hobbled off after 38 minutes with the score at 1-1.
Here, Zidane made the first of his three big substitution decisions. The draw would have likely handed the title to Madrid. But rather than looking to preserve the result, he went for the jugular. He could have sent on Isco, which might have shifted Madrid to a virtual 4-4-2, allowing them to control the midfield and, therefore, the game. Instead, he opted for Marco Asensio -- a more direct, attacking player -- which had the side effect of opening the game up further.
Another was taking off Casemiro. The holding midfielder had opened the scoring, but he'd also been engaging in a game of "whack-a-Messi," which had cost him a booking and could have cost him a sending off. Sending on Mateo Kovacic in his place was a fairly textbook decision.
The third, nine minutes from time, involved withdrawing Karim Benzema for James Rodriguez. This was far from textbook. With Real Madrid chasing the game, conventional wisdom would have suggested a like-for-like change (Alvaro Morata) or maybe a guy like Isco. Instead, he opted for Rodriguez, trusting the Colombian's long-range shooting and ability to improvise. He was quickly vindicated as Rodriguez lost Jordi Alba, cut across the box and was there to turn a cross from the brilliant Marcelo past Marc-Andre ter Stegen to make it 2-2.
As for Barcelona, they put together three goals, each of them a peach in its own right. Lionel Messi's opener featured a delicious swerve to befuddle Dani Carvajal and came after an 18-touch buildup involving eight different players. That was vintage Barca, as if the clock was being rolled back to circa 2009.
The second was an Ivan Rakitic thunderbolt with an equally sweet buildup: He squared up to shoot with one foot and then cut across to his other and beat Keylor Navas. The third was the most dramatic: a long gallop from Sergi Roberto, a timely overlap from Alba and a deadeye finish from Messi deep in injury time. It was his 500th goal for Barcelona and his 47th of the season. It also marked the sixth time in his career that he passed the 30-goal mark in La Liga.
More than that, it capped a performance that any fan of any team sport can relate to: one superstar taking over a game lock, stock and barrel. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it stands out.
Messi had been whacked multiple times earlier by Casemiro, took an elbow to the head (inadvertent, perhaps, but still painful) from Marcelo and was on the receiving edge of an X-rated lunge from Sergio Ramos that saw the Madrid defender sent off for the 22nd time of his career.
Messi's usual supporting cast wasn't getting it done. Neymar was suspended, and his replacement, Paco Alcacer, was ethereal. Andres Iniesta seemed to disappear as the game went on. Luis Suarez was ineffective, so it was up to Messi. And he delivered.
Barca may end up well behind Real in the league; they may lose the Copa del Rey final to Alaves and end the season empty-handed. But Messi's performance on the day will endure for a very long time.
As for Madrid, they've been reminded it will be a long slog between now and the end of the season. They remain (in my opinion, anyway) the best team in the world. And the way they came back to equalize with 10 men showed a degree of guts, self-belief and personality that few can match, and that you rarely see on teams with this much talent. That, as much their talent, will determine whether they win their 33rd Liga title, let alone their 12th European Cup.
Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola surprise us all
Just when you thought you'd figured somebody out, they go and do something unexpected.
Take Arsene Wenger. He's the guy we've been criticising for years for being too stubborn, too one-dimensional, too wedded to an idea of football that's now passe, too soft, too unwilling to win ugly. So what does he do? He plays a 3-4-2-1 in an FA Cup semifinal at Wembley featuring two holding midfielders and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Nacho Monreal out wide. And rather than trying to pass his way around Manchester City, he happily concedes possession, relying instead on a front three of Olivier Giroud, Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil.
Or take Pep Guardiola. He's the guy who always wants to attack, who doesn't know how to defend and who hates being pragmatic. What does he do when, nine minutes into extra-time and with the score deadlocked, he realizes that his center-forward can't go on? He sends on two defensive midfielders like Fernando and Fabian Delph for Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero.
What this should tell us, at the very least, is that it's risky -- and often inaccurate -- to stereotype managers. At some point, they react to situations like the rest of us.
Sunday's 2-1 win for Arsenal was a game marked by mistakes, with both teams evidently showing signs of wear and tear after a long season. Each had a fairly decent penalty shout, but the episodes went against Manchester City, who hit the woodwork twice and had a goal disallowed when the linesman erroneously judged a cross to have gone out of play.
Yet that doesn't mean the victory wasn't important, or deserved, for Arsenal. The reaction and the grit shown by the players rather contradicted the popular narrative whereby they're all aching for a change and want to drive Arsene Wenger out the door.
It also laid out a rather intriguing scenario. If, as some contend, Wenger would only consider leaving on a high, would an FA Cup win and maybe a strong finale in the Premier League -- perhaps not a top-four finish, as that ship seems to have sailed, but some big wins against the likes of Tottenham and Manchester United -- constitute enough of a high?
As for City, Guardiola said what you expected him to say: City created more and better chances than the opposition; they could easily have won; he's happy with the performance. And as often happens with Pep, you tend to believe him. You also tend to believe he couldn't care less that this will be his first season in eight top-flight campaigns that he'll finish without a trophy.
Bayern struggle after UCL exit
Talk about a Champions League hangover. Bayern took the pitch three days after the controversial extra-time defeat to Real Madrid and turned in one of their worst performances of the season against lowly Mainz. Indeed, you wonder if instead of making just four changes, Carlo Ancelotti would have been better off with a whole new XI.
It felt as if Bayern's heads were still at the Bernabeu. Twice they went behind on silly defensive mistakes by Arturo Vidal and Joshua Kimmich, and twice they scrambled to pull even for the 2-2 draw. They were poor at the back (and David Alaba's injury won't help) and while going forward, they looked slow and predictable, displaying the worst kind of sterile possession.
Bayern need to snap out of it quickly. Borussia Dortmund beckons next in the German Cup semifinal this week, and the Bundesliga is not yet wrapped up.
Was Chelsea's win genius or good luck?
Was leaving Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on the bench for 60 minutes a tactical masterstroke by Antonio Conte? Or maybe just the realization that, while the FA Cup is nice and all, playing it safe and giving yourself the best possible chance to win the Premier League at your first attempt is a whole heck of a lot nicer?
We may never know, and if you ask Conte himself, he'll say something along the lines of choosing the best team to win this game and other platitudes. He's getting a ton of praise for the impact that Hazard and Costa had off the bench in Chelsea's 4-2 semifinal win over Tottenham. In many ways, it's justified. Chelsea bounced back after the disheartening defeat to Manchester United with a victory against the team whom Conte himself had described as playing the best football in England.
Yet you can also break down the game to its component parts and reach a different conclusion. Chelsea scored one goal on a free kick, another on a penalty gifted to them by a stupid tackle, a third with a clinical strike that snaked through penalty box traffic and a fourth with a long-range howitzer from a guy who hadn't scored in nearly a year. For much of the game, it was Tottenham who had the upper hand, scoring two lovely goals with help from an inspired Christian Eriksen.
But that's football. These were two very good managers who were unafraid to take risks and make bold decisions, and the outcome ultimately favoured Conte. That doesn't mean however that Mauricio Pochettino is a dud (as was suggested on the FC TV show last night) or that Tottenham will throw away the rest of the campaign like they did last season.
Hindsight being 20/20, deploying Son Heung-Min as a wing-back, or even going with a back three, was not the right choice. But Tottenham did their part and could well have gotten more out of this.
Monaco, PSG pick up big wins
Edinson Cavani and Angel Di Maria scored as Paris Saint-Germain rolled to a 2-0 win over Montpellier on Saturday. Twenty-four hours later, Monaco did their bit as Radamel Falcao and Kylian Mbappe guided them to a huge 2-1 away win over Lyon. OL were fatigued from their Europa League exertions but still: this was one of the games where if you were a PSG fan, you most hoped for Monaco to drop points. As it stands, the two are level, but Monaco still have that game in hand.
A word on Cavani, too. When Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored 51 goals in all competitions last season, it felt like the performance of a lifetime. Cavani is on 44 (in 43 appearances) and has another five matches -- possibly six, if they reach the French Cup final -- matches to go. Just to put things into a little bit of context.
Inter are in real trouble
When you're 2-1 up nine minutes into the second half and then find yourself 5-2 down (despite your opponent missing a penalty) with 12 minutes to go, something is seriously wrong with you. That's exactly what happened to Inter away to Fiorentina on Saturday night, and the fact that they scored two late goals to eventually lose 5-4 does nothing to minimize the hurt.
Inter have taken two points from their past five games, and it looks as if Stefano Pioli's run is over. I'll admit it: I am a Pioli fan, and given the paucity of credible alternatives, I thought sticking with him next season might not be such a bad thing. Now, I'm not so sure.
The question is how you get out of this mess. Inter can't spend their way out. They're already under a Financial Fair Play settlement regime with UEFA, which is far stricter than folks seem to realize (at least the guys who mindlessly talk about Inter spending hundreds of millions next summer). In other words, they're in a financial straitjacket, which makes it that much harder to lure a big-name manager.
Inter's owner, Suning, thinks it has the answer, having renewed director of football Piero Ausilio's deal through 2020. This is the same Ausilio who has had the gig since 2014 and has seen Inter finish eight, fourth and wherever they end up this year (sixth or seventh). In that time, Inter have a negative net spend of some €120 million ($135 million).
The thinking seems to be "you [and a cast of thousands] got us into this mess, you get us out of it."
Stop speculating about Zlatan!
I pray that we haven't seen the last of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who suffered ligament damage to his knee in the Europa League against Anderlecht on Thursday. But I also hope we won't get more idle speculation about whether he will or won't return. Such injuries are difficult to evaluate to begin with, and in his case, his age and body type make him all the more tough to call.
Let's just chill out a minute and let time do its thing. There are only two decisions that matter here: One will be made by Manchester United by June 30 on whether or not to pick up the option on his deal for another season. The other will be made by Ibrahimovic himself at some point in the next six months, based on what his body tells him.
Trying to guess now whether he'll come back and when is pointless. It's even a bit disrespectful to one of the better strikers of his generation.
Leipzig fail to close the gap
Leipzig spurned the chance to turn the Bundesliga into a legitimate race when they were held to a 1-1 draw away at Schalke. Timo Werner gave them an early lead but veteran striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar stunned them with an equaliser at the start of the second half, and from there they simply ran out of steam.
In some ways, it rather mirrors their season. In their first 15 games, they gained a whopping 36 points. In their past 15, they managed just 26. Blame a combination of opponents figuring them out since promotion and, perhaps, a certain physical drop. That won't get any easier next season.
The gap remains at at eight points. One more slip-up and Bayern could have this in the bag by the time these teams meet on May 13.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.