Inter, Milan deliver a classic, Barca back to winning ways, Juventus suffering identity crisis
Missed any of the action around Europe this weekend? Have no fear: Gab Marcotti is here to catch you up with all the talking points in the latest Monday Musings.
Jump to: Milan derby a classic | Bayern vs. Leipzig lessons | Barca back to winning | What's wrong with Juve? | Praise for Everton | Zidane still tinkering at Real | Dortmund's awful defense | PSG survive Lyon's test | Lazio get lucky | Atletico's issues remain
Milan derby delivers a true classic
Derby day at the San Siro means "tifo" and choreography from the two sets of fans. It's a combination of trolling and wit, sometimes vulgar and sometimes clever, often historical.
Inter's Ultras displayed a massive banner of St. Ambrose, the patron saint of the city, driving out the devil (which happens to be Milan's nickname) with the Latin script "Vipereos mores non violabo." That's the family motto of the Visconti family, lords of Milan in the 13th and 14th centuries, and it means: "I will not violate the customs of the serpent." Inter, has long been associated with the serpent (technically, "Biscione" or "big snake"), and for a long time it was part of their crest.
I'm sure it was just historical trolling between two sets of fans in a tradition-steeped derby, but it was, in some way, fitting. Because Inter have been nothing like a serpent this season. They've won more than they've lost, sure, but when they've dropped points, they've been more like those big, bulky dogs that bark and growl aggressively, eventually exhausting themselves and whimpering away when challenged. It's been a running theme: play hard and play well for an hour or more and then fall apart late, leaving points along the way.
Sunday's derby was the opposite. They were serpentine. We saw Inter slithering and being stepped on in a pulsating first half that saw Milan stomp all over them. It was 2-0 at half-time and it could have been more. It wasn't just about the score, either: Daniele Padelli, filling in for Samir Handanovic between the posts, was at fault on both goals while Diego Godin, filling in for the suspended Alessandro Bastoni, was manhandled by Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the second goal. Another stand-in, Alexis Sanchez (he was on for the banned Lautaro Martinez) failed to provide any connection to Romelu Lukaku.
After the break, it was an entirely different story. Inter channeled their inner Berzerkers early in the second half, equalising first with a vicious Marcelo Brozovic strike and then with Matias Vecino after Sanchez just beat the offside line. Momentum whooshed the other way like an airplane toilet. Milan had no answers and 20 minutes from time, a spectacular diving header from the immense Stefan de Vrij gave Inter the lead.
Game over? Nope, because there was still time for Christian Eriksen to come off and send an otherworldly free kick off the woodwork, time for Ibrahimovic to rattle the woodwork and road-grade Milan Skriniar in the same play and, of course, time for Lukaku to add a fourth in garbage time for a 4-2 win.
It was a spectacle, it was breathtaking, it was showtime for the 75,000 at San Siro and the tens of millions watching around the world. And it left Inter level on points with Juve and with renewed vigor and belief.
Asked whether he thought Inter were a title-worthy side, Ibrahimovic was short and sweet. "No" he said, before walking off. But in some ways, the fact that he gave such a straight answer rather than hiding behind the usual platitudes and cliches suggests that, in this case, no means yes.
Ibrahimovic obviously didn't enjoy it and, probably, neither did Inter boss Antonio Conte. The guy who's all about consistency and intensity and relentlessness saw his side dominated for 45 minutes and nearly give up an equaliser at the death. In Conte world, you can't go to bed happy when that happens, even if you've won and know you'll wake up top of the table. He's not one for roller coasters or highs and lows, both emotional and technical. Heck, that's why he reportedly banned the club's long-time anthem "Pazza Inter" ("Crazy Inter"). Inconsistency isn't something to wear as a badge of pride, even though it's as much of a part of the club as their hashtag #NotforEveryone.
As for Milan, there are plenty of positive takeaways. Squandering a two goal lead in the derby hurts, but the first half was as good as any they've had this season. You can question some of Stefano Pioli's choices -- waiting too long to send on Rafael Leao, playing Simon Kjaer when your other centre-back is Alessio Romagnoli -- but what you can't question is they're on the right track.
Bayern, Leipzig title race will go to the wire
You know that sense of inevitability that sometimes pervades the Bundesliga? The one where no matter what happens early in the season, Bayern put their noses ahead in the spring and end up winning it?
You may want to put it on hold this year.
Sure, their scoreless home draw with Leipzig means they're still top. But Saturday's game also showed that despite laying siege to the visitors' goal for much of the game, they didn't create nearly as many chances as you'd expect. In fact, the two most dangerous of the match arguably fell to Leipzig and were wasted by Marcel Sabitzer and Timo Werner.
Meanwhile, Leipzig showed that despite being on a run of poor results (it's now five games without a win), there's still plenty of fight left in them. (Maybe Julian Nagelsmann was right with his dressing-down approach following the recent loss to Eintracht Frankfurt.) There's also more quality to come in the form of Dani Olmo. He didn't shine on Sunday -- it was his first Bundesliga start -- but he's the sort of player who can give you something entirely different and that's something Nagelsmann needed.
As for Bayern? Hindsight being 20/20, you wonder if maybe they wouldn't have been better off moving Joshua Kimmich back to the flank and getting Benjamin Pavard off the pitch. It's not that Pavard is a bad player -- heck, he's still a world champion -- it's just that he's fundamentally a centre-back playing right-back. And when he and Thomas Muller are on the same flank, there's going to be a very evident lack of technical ability.
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There's no reason to panic: Bayern were coming off eight straight wins and, at worst, all that happened is that they failed to go four points clear. But with the likes of Kingsley Coman and Lucas Hernandez on their way back to full fitness, it will be interesting to see how Hansi Flick freshens up the team. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise for the remainder of the season, because that sense of inevitability can be dangerous and boomerang against you.
Barca get back in the win column
After the sort of week Barcelona had, with the Lionel Messi Instagram post and the defeat to Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey, avoiding controversy and getting a result at Betis was critical.
They only half-succeeded. Because while they showed plenty of grit and fight in coming from behind as Quique Setien beat his old team, 3-2, it was far from comfortable. Defensively, they were poor: Gerard Pique's absence didn't help, but neither did Clement Lenglet getting himself sent off or Setien picking Junior Firpo ahead of Jordi Alba at left-back. The midfield was chaotic and most of the creativity came from Messi dropping deep and letting the lies of Frenkie de Jong and Arturo Vidal run past him into central striker positions. You can do that against some opponents, but most will figure that schtick out pretty quickly.
Chicken Little types will also fret about Messi not finding the net in three games despite taking a large number of shots in that spell (27 and counting). I'm not sure that's significant at all, frankly. He still set up all three of Barcelona's goals, and if three games without scoring is meant to indicate a crisis, it only tells you how high he's set the bar.
Are Juventus having an identity crisis?
Juve's trip to Verona was a classic trap game. Their opponents hadn't lost since early December and were a point out of sixth place. What's more, their high-energy, feast-or-famine style -- think Atalanta, only with less quality and chemistry -- is awkward to play against, unless you score first. Well, on this occasion, Juve scored first (for those keeping track at home, Cristiano Ronaldo has now found the net in 10 straight games) and hit the woodwork twice, but then failed to manage the lead, conceding twice late on and going down 2-1.
That inability to close out games is the sort of thing that would make past Juve bosses turn in their grave, but in fact it's chickens coming home to roost. Or, if you prefer, regression to the mean.
Saturday marked the third time in the past six games that Juventus have lost the xG battle (it also happened against Roma and Napoli). Moments of individual quality -- Juve have far more than anybody else in Serie A -- help to paper over cracks, but the reality is that at some point, you have to actually play well and do so consistently. Or you have that tough to define, bend-but-don't-break self-assuredness that allows you to soak up pressure, defend for ages and never give up decent chances. This Juve is somewhere in between.
It's no longer Max Allegri's side and it's certainly not Maurizio Sarri's side yet either. The midfield will get the blame (Miralem Pjanic and Rodrigo Bentancur were poor) but that's a bit simplistic. It runs deeper, and the failure to impose themselves and make their quality count (something they really haven't done, apart from the win over Roma in the Coppa Italia, in weeks) is disappointing. Sarri has been there six months now. You expect more.
High praise for Everton
The combination of bad weather and the Premier League's version of a winter break (games spread over two weekends) meant there were just three matches this weekend. Everton's 3-1 win over Crystal Palace saw them rise to seventh in the table, five points from the Champions League spots. They could be right back down to 10th after next weekend, so there's no point get carried away, but it's still quite a turnaround when you consider they were in the relegation zone in early December. Their only league defeat has been away to Manchester City.
It's the same group of players -- no January transfer saviour here -- so it's hard to look past the coaching staff. That means Carlo Ancelotti, of course, but also Duncan Ferguson, who oversaw the resurgence after Marco Silva was dispatched and who was kept around when the new manager arrived. The squad is what it is (mid-table, if we're honest) but having guys in charge who can push the right buttons sometimes makes all the difference.
Zidane still figuring out the best Real Madrid XI
Real Madrid bounced back from their wild Copa del Rey elimination at the hands of Real Sociedad with a 4-1 victory away to Osasuna. They went a goal down, they persevered, they let their quality -- and their inexperience -- shine through. Luka Modric turned in one of his better performances of the season (and that's important because while he's no longer an automatic choice, he can provide value down the stretch) and Isco showed just why folks swoon over his abilities.
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Gareth Bale started his first game in five weeks and contributed little, but it's significant that Zinedine Zidane still tries to keep him involved or, at least, as involved as he wants to be. There's still very little that's fixed in stone on this team; players come and players go and record signings (Eden Hazard) remain injured, but the wins keep coming in La Liga and, you imagine, Zidane is learning more and more about his players and his options. He evidently has less quality than in his first stint but, in return, he has a heck of a lot more quantity.
Dortmund's breakdown at Gladbach
I don't know who brainwashed the Lucien Favre we saw at Hertha and Borussia Moenchengladbach (well, the first year) and replaced him with this version. That version of Favre was able to put out sides that were balanced and could beat you in different ways. This one seems to be intent on leaving his defenders to their own devices, unprepared both tactically and mentally.
Dortmund's end-to-end 4-3 defeat at Bayer Leverkusen amounted to a defensive horror show. Not because Mats Hummels and Manuel Akanji are bad players -- not that long ago, we thought they were very good ones -- but because they look lost. Either that or Kevin Volland has some kind of voodoo hex over them and can turn them into zombies, which is what he did for both his goals. It got even worse for Leverkusen's equaliser to make it 3-3 and the winner, with Lars Bender out-jumping both Akanji and Hummels, is another to add to the horror movie highlight reel.
It goes without saying that you can't spot an opponent four goals and expect to win, no matter how brilliant you might be at the other end. (For the record, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Guerreiro were just that, Erling Haaland less so and, in fact, he didn't score for the first time since joining the club). At one point, after young U.S. starlet Gio Reyna (whose foul negated a Dortmund goal and was exactly the kind of venial sin borne of inexperience you imagine he'll rein in) came on, Haaland was the senior member of the front three. He's only 20 years old.
Emre Can, who scored an excellent goal on his debut, should help stabilise the midfield alongside Axel Witsel, once he gets match-fit, but the issue is as much one of mindset as it is of shape and tactics.
PSG survive their Lyon test
Paris Saint-Germain made it eight straight wins (and 15 of their last 16) in all competitions, but the 4-2 victory over Lyon was less comfortable than you might have imagined. After racing out to a 3-0 lead just after half-time -- the third one of the more remarkable own goals you're likely to see -- they got a bit sloppy and Lyon pegged them back to 3-2, before Edinson Cavani's 199th goal for PSG put the game away.
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Neymar didn't play (a legacy of his rib injury and wanting to make sure he's in tip-top shape for the Champions League) but in some ways Lyon were the ideal sparring partner ahead of their European challenge. Rudi Garcia dreamed up a high, intense press -- not dissimilar to what Borussia Dortmund might offer -- and PSG played their way through it.
As for Lyon's defending, well, that was definitely Dortmund-esque too.
Lazio ride their luck to victory
Lazio's title challenge risked unraveling away to Parma, who are pushing for a Europa League spot. They were coming off a midweek game against Verona (a draw) and lined up without five regulars.
Their 1-0 win, courtesy of a Felipe Caicedo goal, owes its part to some good fortune. How the referee (or VAR) didn't award a penalty for Francesco Acerbi's tug on Andreas Cornelius remains a mystery. But the thing about luck is that you have to be there to seize it when it turns up, often unexpectedly, and Simone Inzaghi's crew is doing just that.
Atletico win, but problems remain
Atletico Madrid's streak of five games without a win in all competitions came to an end with a 1-0 victory over Granada, courtesy of an early Angel Correa goal. Without a recognised centre-forward (Diego Costa and Alvaro Morata were both out) it was left to Correa and Vitolo to spark things up front and, predictably, with little production from midfield that's all they could muster... and all they needed on the day.
Talk afterwards was about how big the three points were and how this was all that mattered. It's not. Jan Oblak -- again -- kept them in the game (and in the top four). It's more of the same, and that's a worry for Diego Simeone.