Man City prove they're a class apart, Real and Barca ready for Clasico
It looked as if Manchester City's title was going to be derailed -- if it was going to be derailed -- on consecutive December weekends. Manchester United away and Tottenham at home, if it was going to happen, this was it.
Nope. Neither Jose Mourinho's barricades, nor Mauricio Pochettino's front four (Heung-Min Son drafted in to join Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane), did the trick. In fact, this Tottenham game could have resulted in a far bigger defeat when you consider Gabriel Jesus' missed penalty and the fact that Alli (and possibly Kane) might well have seen red.
What struck you about Saturday's 4-1 win wasn't just how comprehensive a victory it was, but how quickly it wrapped up. It was 1-0 at half-time, and in theory, Spurs kicked it up a notch early in the second half, but it was hard to believe that City were going to be rattled or that Tottenham were somehow getting back into the game.
What's more, just when you think you've figured City out, they find new weapons. Ederson's whipped, long-range passing out of the back -- and those are most definitely passes, not big boots that hang in the air -- and Ilkay Gundogan, stepping in for David Silva, simply add another dimension to the arsenal at Pep Guardiola's disposal.
It's tough to put a limit on this side, and it's worth remembering that they took on Spurs without three cast-iron starters in Silva, Benjamin Mendy and John Stones. Yes, they have untold riches and have spent enormous amounts (although they're not the only ones). But if you had been told back in August that they'd obliterate Spurs while playing with Fabian Delph and Eliaquim Mangala in the back four, you might have well raised an eyebrow.
At this stage, Man City have beaten every single team in the Premier League except for Everton (with whom they drew in the second game of the season) and Newcastle, whom they first face on Dec. 27.
My colleague Mark Ogden reminds us that Jose Mourinho's 2005-06 Chelsea side were nearly as dominant at this stage of the campaign and that perhaps we should wait for them to actually deliver some silverware before crowning them the greatest English side ever. He's right, of course: those teams did achieve more, and if City suddenly collapse, it won't mean much.
But as I see it, that doesn't mean we can't compare this run through 26 games in all competitions against any other team's 26-game run to start the season. And based on what we've seen so far, they've been more dominant than anyone. There's no prize for it, and it can all crumble if they limp, rather than race, across the finish line. But your eyes aren't deceiving you. What Man City have done on the pitch since the start of the season is a class apart.
As for Tottenham, one thing that's obvious is how much they miss Toby Alderweireld. Eric Dier in the back four is not a viable option against this level of opposition, and there was further confirmation of that. Pochettino's front foot approach didn't work, but at least it was different and in keeping with his philosophy, certainly more so than hunkering down and raising the barricades. It was also as much a question of execution -- Son and Kane were poor as was Alli, who is having an awful season -- as it was planning.
Pochettino always has the alibi of resources relative to the competition, and that will mitigate any damage done to his reputation by the fact that they may not finish in the top four this year. But it's a reminder that while it's great to push youth and have a small tight-knit squad, the reality is that when your big guns aren't firing, there is no viable Plan B.
Another trophy for Real
Real Madrid are world champions -- again. Mock and joke all you like but the fact is that the Club World Cup is another trophy, and it's still the champions of Europe overcoming the champions of every other confederation. Yes: there's a huge imbalance of power and resources. It wasn't always that way, and it won't be that way forever, but it still matters that they play and take it seriously.
And make no mistake about it: Real Madrid took it as seriously as any other final. You only need to look at the starting lineup: despite the clasico being only a week away, Zinedine Zidane's XI was about as good as it can get. That said, the gap in class between them and Gremio was enormous, far more than the 1-0 scoreline suggests.
In fact, Gremio were disappointing. Other than defending in numbers, they looked largely devoid of ideas going forward. Even coach Renato Gaucho's trolling of Cristiano Ronaldo -- he compared himself to him, although what he actually told ESPN Brasil was a little less extreme than some of the headlines -- was to no avail. The only goal came on a Ronaldo free kick, the 34th of his career.
Roll on Saturday's clash with Barcelona.
Focus on Lukaku after Man United win
Manchester United won 2-1 away to West Brom to keep pace with City, albeit 11 points behind. It wasn't necessarily a dominant performance, and they could have avoided the late scare when the Baggies pulled one back, but it keeps United in touch and ahead of the rest of the chasing pack.
One thing that stood out was the speculation over Romelu Lukaku's lack of a celebration. Sometimes we in the media really need to stop looking for stories based on "body language." I don't see the significance of him not doing cartwheels.
Instead of trying to read his mind, how about we simply focus on his performance, good or bad that it might be?
Bayern win the weekend in Germany -- again
"We are not so superior in terms of performances. We're just a bit more consistent." That was Mats Hummels' verdict on Bayern's evolution since the start of the season. It seems like an extraordinary thing to say when you consider that they were five points back in early October and are now a whopping 11 points clear heading into the winter break, but he's right.
Bayern have racked up a bunch of victories without ever really hitting full throttle, and at times things have broken their way. It happened on Saturday against Stuttgart, when they struggled against Hannes Wolf's high press, only scored with 10 minutes to go and had secured the three points thanks to Sven Ulreich's dramatic injury time penalty save against his old club.
Reinforcements are on the way in the shape of Sandro Wagner, offering Robert Lewandowski something he hasn't had in a long time: a legitimate back-up. Wagner isn't a superstar, but he is a German international who can take some of the strain off the Poland striker. What's more, Wagner's signing weakens a rival (Hoffenheim) and gets even more folks convinced that Julian Nagelsmann, the current Hoffenheim boss, will be taking over at the Allianz Arena next year.
The fact that the latter hasn't caused much controversy is one of those peculiarly German things that sets the Bundesliga apart. Imagine if Guardiola had announced he was leaving in June, and City were heavily linked with Pochettino as his replacement. Now imagine them signing Harry Kane in January. As an analogy it may be a stretch, but it's not entirely pie-in-the-sky either. Bayern's hegemony looks set to continue, regardless who is in charge.
Liverpool are back on track (for now)
Liverpool wrapped things up early against Bournemouth, winning 4-0, and we were treated to the spectacle of Philippe Coutinho and Mohamed Salah in full flow. It was a reminder of how, particularly for teams like Liverpool, momentum can come and go. They had dropped four of six points in their past two games, ones they felt they should have won, and they had an away trip to Arsenal next.
Failure to win at Bournemouth could have had serious knock-on effects. Instead, they'll face the Gunners on Friday night with a spring in their step. Often, management is about raising performance at the right time. Not all games are created equal.
Do Juventus have a Dybala dilemma?
It's probably not ideal for Paulo Dybala that Juventus turned in arguably their best performance of the season in a game where he, again, came off the bench. The young striker has been criticized of late, and there have been doubts over his fitness. And truth be told, if Max Allegri sticks with the 4-3-3 that trounced Bologna 3-0, there is no natural place for him.
Yet you can't escape the fact that Dybala is Juve's most gifted player. They don't need him in order to win the title, but they do need him to challenge in Europe. If you're a Juventus fan, all you can do is hope that Allegri and the club are reading this situation correctly and pushing the right buttons.
Barcelona are ready to face Real Madrid
If the Clasico really is Barcelona's last genuine hurdle on their way to La Liga, then Ernesto Valverde has planned things perfectly. Yes, Thomas Vermaelen will likely still be there at the back (not so good), but otherwise they're hitting stride at just the right time as they showed in their 4-0 demolition of Deportivo La Coruna on Sunday.
Luis Suarez scored twice, evidence that the early season funk is behind him. Andres Iniesta rolled back the years with a majestic performance and Paulinho, whose signing was met with giggles and guffaws, is now up to eight league goals for the season. The Brazil midfielder already has more La Liga goals in less than half a campaign than any Barcelona midfielder in an entire year since Cesc Fabregas five years ago.
Inter's inconsistency continues
If all you saw was Inter's result, you'd probably conclude that "normal service has resumed." Italy's (or maybe even Europe's) most inconsistent side are back to their boom and bust. In fact, it's not quite that simple. Inter showed the same limits in the 3-1 home defeat to Udinese that they displayed for much of the season: too dependent on Mauro Icardi in attack. Too predictable on the ball if Ivan Perisic is having an off-day. Too few legitimate alternatives off the bench.
And so, against an opponent who sits deep and hits on the break, you soon realized the only way Inter were going to win was if they scored first and then hit again on the counter. Instead it was Udinese who drew first blood and after Inter's equalizer, scored again. And that was that.
Luciano Spalletti is getting what he can out of this squad. Maybe he can squeeze a little more with a bit more faith in the kids (might be nice to find out if Yann Karamoh and Andrea Pinamonti can play). But there's only so much he can do. And the fact is that this group isn't just behind Juventus: they're well behind Napoli and Roma too.
Neymar, PSG are running away with Ligue 1
Whatever Neymar did during his ban on his travels to Brazil, it certainly did not seem to affect on his return to Ligue 1. The Brazil international scored twice and set up Paris Saint-Germain's two other goals as they rolled to a 4-1 away win against Rennes.
What's pretty obvious is that if PSG score early, it's pretty much lights-out, at least against most Ligue 1 opponents. Within 20 minutes, they were 2-0 up, and that was that. The way they're going, they could have this thing wrapped up by late March if Monaco falter.
From bad to worse for Milan
Then, UEFA turned down Milan's request for a "Voluntary Agreement" on Financial Fair Play (not a surprise) while citing concerns over the club's ownership and the size of their loan, which they'll need to repay by October 2018 (certainly unusual for UEFA to mention it so explicitly in an official statement). In practical terms, it means Milan will likely endure more severe spending restrictions than anticipated.
And then on Sunday, they suffered a 3-0 thumping at the hands of relegation-threatened Verona.
Rino Gattuso, in typical Gattuso fashion, says the buck stops with him and that the side is very "fragile" right now. He's right. They weren't three goals worse than the opposition, but the fact is they were made to pay for their mistakes. And when it rains, it pours.
Bas Dost scored once in Sporting's 2-0 victory over Portimonense, which leaves them level at the top of the table with Porto. He now has 13 goals in 15 league matches, putting him on pace to score 29 league goals this season. Overall, he has in 17 in 24 games in all competitions.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.