Chelsea encouraged, Neymar stars, Ramos sees red, Arsenal's bad day
The simple conclusion to draw from Sunday's clash between Tottenham and Chelsea is that, when you strip away the grumblings over transfers, the text messages to unwanted strikers and perhaps the garish blue training kit (in a sport marked by superstition, his return to the suit did not go unnoticed), Antonio Conte is a darn fine tactician and motivator, who can set up with the best of them.
After taking it on the chin at home against Burnley on opening day, he traveled to Wembley to face Mauricio Pochettino and high-flying Spurs, winners of 13 of their last 14 Premier League games, going back to last season.
Conte did it with rumours over his relationship with the club rumbling in the background. He did it without his two most -- some might say "only" -- creative players, Cesc Fabregas (suspended) and Eden Hazard (injured), and was also missing his captain, the suspended Gary Cahill. Conte's preferred attacking option off the bench, Pedro, was returning from injury and wearing one of those Zorro masks.
On top of all that, as he's said on many occasions, Conte's team is incomplete. And yet he found a way to make it work at Wembley. Just as he did at the Euros, with the least-talented Italy side in recent memory. Once again, he took his lemons and made lemonade.
Andreas Christensen was plugged into center-back, with David Luiz moving into central midfield alongside N'Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko. Willian was left as the tip of the hypothetical diamond with Alvaro Morata, making his first Chelsea start, as the lone front man.
And it worked. Morata missed a sitter early, before Marcos Alonso opened the scoring with an exquisite free kick. Both teams hit the woodwork -- first Harry Kane for Spurs, then Willian -- before two blunders cancelled each other out.
Michyi Batshuayi, a few seconds after coming on for Morata, inexplicably headed the ball into his own net off a Cristian Eriksen free kick. Six minutes later Alonso -- him again! -- slipped the ball under a far-from-blameless Hugo Lloris after some fine work from David Luiz.
Chelsea went for it, scored, weathered the Tottenham onslaught and eventually emerged as victors. They kept their cool even after two contentious refereeing decisions did not go their way -- Jan Vertonghen and Eric Dier could have been sent off -- and even after the shock of Batshuayi's blunder.
If you're a Chelsea fan, this is encouraging stuff. It shows that, while Conte is never chilled out and happy when it comes to wanting "stuff," from players to commitment and quality, when it comes to preparing for games, he'll buckle down and do it right.
Meanwhile, the performance of Christensen, as well as his manager's subsequent praise, showed that, contrary to what some suggest, Conte is not averse to pushing homegrown youngsters either, if he thinks they're ready.
None of which changes the fact that he's correct when he says they could use a few more bodies, such as a proven alternative in defensive midfield and, perhaps, another striker. Now, it's up to the club to deliver and he'll make their job easier if he keeps his head down, at least until the transfer window closes on Aug. 31.
As for Tottenham, let's get this right: They played well. Kieran Trippier and Ben Davies aren't Dani Alves and Marcelo and that's nobody's fault. They were unable to provide the requisite width, Dele Alli was contained and sometimes you need to hand it to your opponent. Ultimately, the difference between these two sides was a moment of individual brilliance -- Alonso's free kick -- and that's something for which no manager can legislate.
Mauricio Pochettino is also right in saying he doesn't want to hear Wembley-related excuses. Yes, the pitch is a bit bigger and it's not "their" stadium, but it's going to be home for the next year or so. And however unfamiliar Spurs might be with it, whoever they're up against is bound to be even less familiar with playing there.
Neymar stars as PSG roll
Talk about nabbing all the headlines before, during and after a game. Paris Saint-Germain pounded Toulouse 6-2 and Neymar performed pretty much as advertised.
Obviously there's some pretty dubious defending going on there and you'd like to imagine Neymar wouldn't be taking such liberties against a somewhat more stout defence, if only because someone would poleaxe him. Then again, it was deep in injury time and Toulouse were three goals down; you can sort of get why they, in their own way, played along.
After the match, Neymar had harsh words for the board at his old club, Barcelona. It wasn't about him -- he said he was happy throughout his time there -- but, rather, it was about their stewardship of the club. It certainly has left a lot to be desired over the past year, from the confusion over Lionel Messi's contract, to the way the Neymar sitaution seemed to catch them by surprise, to the bumbling over transfer targets Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele.
It's hard to disagree with Neymar, at least on that point: The board has been disappointing and Barcelona fans deserve better.
Bartomeu under pressure in Barcelona
Meanwhile, earlier on Sunday at the Camp Nou, Barcelona were pummelling Real Betis 2-0. Without Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Luis Suarez and -- obviously -- Neymar, Barca showed they still have plenty to overcome most opponents with relative ease. Gerard Deulofeu, for example, showed signs of progress and contributed to both goals, while Messi didn't score but did hit the woodwork three times.
The focus, though, is firmly off the pitch. Agusti Bendito, a former presidential candidate, has reportedly collected enough signatures for a vote of no confidence in current incumbent Josep Maria Bartomeu. And Joan Laporta, a former president, said that if they want Messi to stay, they need to axe Bartomeu straight away.
Valid sentiments all and the Messi fiasco -- Bartomeu announced the player had extended his contract, only for us to find out six weeks later that, while it had been agreed, it was never actually signed and he becomes a free agent in June -- is a pretty egregious screw-up. Supporters will put up with a lot but, for most, feeling as if they've been lied to is beyond the pale.
One French media outlet even went so far as to report that Manchester City were ready to meet Messi's buy-out clause of around $350m, perhaps in a case of Gulf one-upmanship between Abu Dhabi and Qatar, following PSG's capture of Neymar.
That seems highly improbable, not least because if they wait until Jan. 1, City can lock Messi in for next season without paying a penny. And if there's one club stocked with guys who have long-standing relationships with him and, if they so choose, could easily back-channel, it's City.
I don't think Messi will move but, then again, I didn't expect Neymar to move to PSG either. But it's obvious that the unsigned extension gives him a lot of clout. Not just over his situation, but over that of the club. Don't be surprised if he begins to exercise it behind the scenes, either to back Bartomeu or, more plausibly, to help bring about a change.
Another big win for Man United
Two wins, six points, eight goals scored, none conceded: You can't really get much better than that. And while Manchester United have thus far faced a West Ham side that played poorly and a Swansea team that simply aren't particularly good, you can only overcome what's in front of you.
Jose Mourinho knows there is room for improvement but, equally, you have to give this group time. The 4-2-3-1 formation, designed to accommodate Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, is new. Meanwhile, Marcus Rashford is still a teenager, Romelu Lukaku has just arrived and the Paul Pogba-Nemanja Matic partnership is still finding its feet.
It will get tougher and, indeed, both games were uncomfortably closer than Mourinho would have liked until the floodgates opened late on. That said, if this formation proves viable against better sides, the creativity afforded by having Pogba, Mata and Mkhitaryan on the pitch at the same time gives United a dimension they rarely had last year.
Moreover, while Lukaku might not be as gifted as the man he replaced -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic -- he is perhaps better suited than the big Swede at making the sort of runs that maximise the creativity of those behind him.
Ramos sees red... again
Sometimes, you just have to throw your hand up and admit that you simply don't get it. Sergio Ramos is one of the best and most successful central defenders in the world and yet, on Sunday, he was sent off for the 23rd time in his career.
Official records are sketchy when it comes to red cards but, apparently, he's just a few away from matching the European mark set by French hard man Cyril Rool, who accumulated 27. The "world record" -- if it is even a record -- does seem to be beyond his reach: Colombian tough guy Gerardo Bedoya was apparently sent off 46 times.
The extraordinary thing about Ramos is that, unlike Rool and Bedoya, he played most of his career for Real Madrid, a team which has the ball most of the game and which, historically, hasn't exactly been given a rough ride from match officials.
There's probably a compilation of them on YouTube but, anecdotally, it feels as if many of them were wholly avoidable, much like that of Sunday, when he contrived to get a second yellow deep into second-half injury time, with Madrid 3-0 up against Deportivo La Coruna.
Ramos is unique and you have to take the good with the bad. Fortunately, there's plenty more of the former than the latter and it's not just his footballing ability, it's also his leadership in the dressing room.
As for Madrid, the way they're playing now, they don't miss the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo one bit. In fact, if his ongoing ban helps his preparation and fitness for the season ahead, it may even pay dividends later in the campaign.
Bad day for Arsenal
It's an open secret that there is little love lost between Stoke and Arsenal. It goes back to the Tony Pulis days and, evidently, also involves local law enforcement.
Stoke are different under Mark Hughes whereas Arsenal, when viewed through the lens of their most glass-half-empty supporters, are not. Defeat at the bet365 Stadium, as well as three goals conceded on opening day against Leicester, three key players who become free agents next June mean that air of insecurity and instability is still there.
Maybe so, but Arsene Wenger can trot out a whole range of mitigating circumstances. Saed Kolasinac and Nacho Monreal are not center-backs. Santi Cazorla is still out -- some of Arsenal's best football in recent years came with him pulling strings in midfield -- while Alexis Sanchez is, apparently, still injured. Mesut Ozil was at his ethereal worst and refereeing decisions for Alexandre Lacazette's disallowed goal and Hector Bellerin's denied penalty appeal didn't help either.
"I believe it is the kind of night where you are angry," Wenger said after the game.
He's right. Angry and frustrated. And not for the first time.
Promising signs for Milan
Milan capped their summer spending spree by all but sealing a deal for Fiorentina striker Nikola Kalinic that is worth around €25 million, or close to $28m.
A center-forward was the missing piece to Vincenzo Montella's puzzle and, while Kalinic won't be mistaken for Marco Van Basten any time soon, he's still a guy who scored 33 goals in the past two seasons and seems the right offensive terminus for the rossoneri's many creative types.
That said, watching Milan's 3-0 thumping of Crotone on Sunday left you wondering if maybe they didn't have the solution in-house. Nineteen-year-old Patrick Cutrone, a homegrown kid who joined the club at age 8, turned in a top-drawer performance up front, scoring one goal, setting up another and leading the line with aplomb.
Milan's spending is around the quarter billion dollars this summer, with a net spend approaching $200m. But it is exciting to see the way they're pushing kids -- Cutrone was one of three homegrown teenagers in the lineup -- to go with the big signings.
Coutinho conundrum for Liverpool?
I have no idea if Fenway Sports Group are serious when they say that Philippe Coutinho is not for sale. Logic suggests that there is a price at which not selling him amounts to self-harm and Barcelona's latest offer -- reportedly $105 million plus $45m in performance-related bonuses (some of them, admittedly, unrealistic) -- seems like a decent chunk of change to me.
But it only makes sense if you can use those funds to improve your team in the here and now. For Liverpool, that could mean adding a Virgil Van Dijk to the mix and maybe taking another run at Naby Keita (yes, Leipzig are also saying he's not for sale, but, hey, it's football).
Against Crystal Palace on Saturday, Liverpool dominated but, not for the first time, had to rely on individual brilliance in the form of Sadio Mane to break the deadlock. Much has been made of Coutinho's creativity and how important it is to the side. But there are different ways to win games and Jurgen Klopp's bread-and-butter -- a stifling high press coupled with swift direct runners like Mane and Mohamed Salah -- will win you plenty if the right pieces are in place.
If you're a Liverpool fan, you hope that they are working on a contingency plan, just in case. Because the fact of the matter is that nobody is irreplaceable. But a situation like this -- a deep-pocketed European heavyweight desperate for one of your players and willing to pay through the nose -- doesn't come along every summer. Play it right and you can come out ahead.
Schalke get the better of Leipzig
Plenty wondered what voodoo and outside-the-box thinking Ralf Rangnick would come up with to help RB Leipzig improve on last season's second-place finish.
They bought big again, ending up with the Bundesliga's third-highest net spend, though perhaps their biggest statement came in hanging on to Naby Keita (for now, at least). The likes of Jean-Kevin Augustin -- still just 20 and a product of PSG's youth academy -- and Bruma -- 22 and coming off a solid season at Galatasaray -- may not set pulses racing, but that's rarely Leipzig's style.
They opened the season against Schalke, who are managed by 31-year-old Domenico Tedesco, the Bundesliga's bright young managerial thing. He never played professionally and has a degree in business engineering and a master's in innovation management.
Maybe that's why he wasn't bamboozled by Leipzig's pressing schtick and instead opted for balls over the top, stout defending and a fair degree of organization. It was enough to break the press and sail to a 2-0 win thanks to goals from new signings Nabil Bentaleb and Yehven Konplyanka.
It's too early to tell whether opponents have figured out how to play Leipzig after a season in the top flight, but it's becoming clear that teams aren't going to be intimidated by the Rangnick Way.
Juve make a winning start
Whatever hangover Juventus might have had from their defeat to Lazio in the Italian Super Cup did not last long. In their Serie A opener, they rolled over Cagliari 3-0 but, more than the result, what matters is they looked solid and played well.
While he still has plenty to give at center-back, the less we see of Andrea Barzagli at right-back, the better. And Daniele Rugani showed that if he gets playing time, he won't let you down. Further up the pitch, Paulo Dybala and Mario Mandzukic were back to last season's form.
As I wrote last week, this is still a work in progress. But the win alleviates some pressure and allows Max Allegri to get to work.
Bartra's emotional tribute
Borussia Dortmund began their campaign with a 3-0 thumping of Wolfsburg on the road. Marc Bartra scored the visitors' second goal and it was a stunner, but his reaction afterward was even more emotional: Bartra kissed the black armband he was wearing to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks in his native Catalunya.
The real world intruding on football often makes us uncomfortable and we can only imagine how Bartra felt, taking the pitch less than 48 hours after the awful scenes. And especially since he himself was the victim of a terrorist attack last year.
Bas Dost scored twice in Sporting Lisbon's 5-0 drubbing of Vitoria Guimaraes. He now has three goals in three league games, which means he's on pace to score 34 this season, just like he did last year. Indeed, he has 19 goals in his last 13 league matches.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.