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: Lazio are in title race | Liverpool win again | Massive result for Barca | Juve look slow in victory | Arteta works wonders with Arsenal | Real's defense falters vs. Celta Vigo | Don't worry about PSG | Give Mourinho some credit | Schick shines for Leipzig | Lessons from Bayern's win | Why wasn't Marega protected?
Lazio are firmly in Serie A's title race
Yup, the eagle is flying. Contrary to what many had predicted -- including yours truly, as I seem to point out every single week -- Lazio's rise continues unabated and the 2-1 victory over Inter on Sunday night showcased most of the qualities of title-winning teams.
- Horncastle: Inzaghi brothers working wonders at Lazio, Benevento
Both teams' lineups (effectively a 3-5-1-1) mirrored each other, which is why for most of the first half the game turned into one of those tactical battles that purists love and casual viewers (especially on TV) find dull. That was the tactical side of Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi: above all, don't get beat, we'll take the stalemate if we have to but at the same time, allow the outstanding individuals in our team to improvise when they see an opening. Exhibit A was Sergej Milinkovic-Savic's thunderbolt that rattled the frame of Inter's goal.
Then, after going a goal down just before half-time, Lazio ratcheted up the intensity in the second half. We're talking flurries of pressure, accurate balls into space, screws slowly tightening. That approach was at the heart of Lazio's two goals. Daniele Padelli, standing in for the injured Samir Handanovic, failed to claim a ball into the box and on the botched clearance, Lazio were awarded a penalty, which Ciro Immobile converted. (Make that 26 Serie A goals and counting for Immobile this season.) The second was different in that MIlinkovic-Savic's prodigious control and snap-shot fooled the culpable Padelli, but it was the same in that it came after sustained pressure.
Lazio help fan propose during warm-ups
A Lazio fan gets an assist from the club in proposing to his girlfriend before their match vs. Inter.
If football were gymnastics and games were awarded by judges on points, there's little question that Lazio would be best placed to win Serie A. It's not, of course: you need to win games and points on the pitch. The fact that they'll have a whole week to prepare for every game as they have no longer have European football commitments, unlike Inter and Juventus, no doubt helps them. (Remember Leicester's march to the Premier League in 2015-16? They also had no extra fixtures to get in the way.) What will help them more is Inzaghi's tactical nous and defensive solidity, as well as the quality of their individual match-winners. Luis Alberto has carried them in midfield for much of the season and now Milinkovic-Savic is coming on strong. It doesn't matter who it is from week to week as long as there's somebody to step up.
As for Inter, you can use Handanovic's absence as a crutch if you like. Odds are with him between the sticks, they don't lose this game because he commands his area much better than Padelli, but that can't be an excuse for some of Conte's choices on the day. Dropping Lautaro Martinez deeper to hound Lucas Leiva -- the Brazilian is great player defensively but hardly a deep-lying playmaker on the ball -- is hard to understand. After all, it robbed Romelu Lukaku of his natural partner and took him out of the game. Defensively, Milan Skriniar has regressed this season and opting for Diego Godin's experience ahead of Alessandro Bastoni's athleticism boomeranged badly. But most of the attention is reserved to the use, or limited use, of Christian Eriksen.
Inter got themselves into a protracted transfer negotiation before signing Eriksen and giving him a hefty long-term contract. When you do that, it's usually because you think a player is important. Yet Eriksen has started one game of the five in which he's been involved. Simply put, when neither Eriksen nor Stefano Sensi are on the pitch, there's no creativity this team apart from Marcelo Brozovic, who sits much deeper and has a different role.
Asked about it after the match, Conte's rationale was a head-scratcher. He said it was a question of "balance," which feels like code for "Eriksen doesn't work hard enough" to be in a midfield three, a surprise to anyone who watched him play for Tottenham last year. He added that "we got this far without him" and "one man doesn't make a difference."
Eriksen does make a difference when his skill set is different to the guys you have out there. And you obviously think so too, otherwise you wouldn't bring him on late in every game when you need something to happen. But if Eriksen doesn't make a difference, why move heaven and earth to get him?
Liverpool's tackling stands out amid title charge
Hislop: Barcelona 'still have nervousness' in defence
Shaka Hislop says Barcelona's back line will leave fans on the "edge of their seat" even with a lead.
Liverpool's 1-0 win at Norwich on Saturday means they've taken 76 points out of 78 available this season and it leaves you rooting around for something new to say. The time off probably did give them a boost, though we'll likely only see it down the road when it matters most. Not to the league obviously, but to their pursuit of the Treble.
An old colleague of mine, James Gheerbrant, provided statistical back-up to something I'd noticed, but hadn't fully appreciated. Remember when Jurgen Klopp first arrived and it was about "heavy metal football" and "Bring Da Noise?" In his first season in charge, only once did they make fewer than 16 tackles a game. This season, they're averaging 15.2 and yet, they are gaining possession in the opponent's final third of the pitch 6.62 times a game, the highest average since Opta began recording this statistic. That's up from 4.89 last season.
What this suggests is that Klopp has fine-tuned the side, making them above all more effective and focused off the ball. The intensity may be the same, but there is less wasted energy. That's coaching, folks, and it's a joy to watch.
A massive result for Barcelona
Would Juve prefer Champions League or Serie A success?
Gab Marcotti and Craig Burley explain why Juventus clearly prefers one competition over the other.
It was all set up for more Barcelona misery when Getafe visited the Camp Nou on Saturday. Standing across from Quique Setien was his nemesis, Jose Bordalas: not only are the two polar opposites in terms of style and approach, but they genuinely don't like each other, as evidenced by the way they didn't even acknowledge each other's existence pre- or post-game. More to the point, Getafe had won four games on the bounce and crept into third place, whereas Barca had lost two of their last five and received confirmation that Ousmane Dembele would not be playing again this season.
Instead, Barca came away with the three points with a 2-1 win and, just as important, looked much better -- especially in the middle of the park, where Arthur started only his second game since Dec. 1. They moved the ball quickly and creatively against a tough, prickly opponent and could have scored more.
On the flip-side, Jordi Alba picked up an injury, we saw the usual defensive wobbles (once again, the result came down to Marc-Andre ter Stegen's late heroics) and, some would say, the Lionel Messi drought continues. I wouldn't. Yes, he's gone 362 minutes without a goal, his longest scoreless streak in two years, but he's also set up six of Barca's last seven goals from open play. This team has enough issues: Messi isn't one of them right now.
Juventus still don't look as good as they should
How Arteta's gotten Arsenal back on track
Shaka Hislop likes the direction Arsenal are headed in since Mikel Arteta took over as manager.
Juventus rested Cristiano Ronaldo for the visit of Brescia as part of some pre-planned physical recharge (he'll get a nine-day break between matches at a minimum, which he'll no doubt use wisely) and they beat Brescia at home, 2-0. Brescia aren't particularly good to begin with and even less so when they go a man down (Florian Aye was sent off after 37 minutes), so the result was par for the course. Juve's performance, on the other hand, continues to be a concern.
- Horncastle: Coppa Italia shows Juve's regression
Without Ronaldo, the hope was that we'd see more of the collective press and passing game that Maurizio Sarri was brought in for. Instead, Juve's build-up play was painfully slow and devoid of creativity, and not for the first time. You don't want this team to build up a Ronaldo Dependency, but that's where they're heading. And while Miralem Pjanic, who also got injured for his troubles, will be scapegoated for his poor game, it goes well beyond him.
Arteta rings the changes and Arsenal respond with big win
Bayern's 'old confidence' showing in recent form
Gab Marcotti feels Bayern are regaining their sense of dominance heading down the stretch of the season.
Like many, I raised an eyebrow when I saw Mikel Arteta's starting XI for the visit of Newcastle United on Sunday. Dani Ceballos, who is on loan and hadn't started since early November, was in midfield, with Lucas Torreira on the bench and Matteo Guendozui in the stands. (It was a "technical decision," said Arteta.) Alexandre Lacazette was also on the bench, as was the young buck Gabriel Martinelli: instead, up front we got Eddie Nketiah, just back from a loan spell at Leeds, where he scored three goals in 17 Championship appearances, all but two of them from the bench.
Arsenal hadn't had a game in two weeks, so presumably it wasn't a case of knocks or fatigue either. It felt like an audition, like some kind of Arteta trial-and-error. And indeed, they were humdrum in the first half, before scoring four after the break.
Does this attitude mean that Arteta has written off the season and is now working towards the future, assessing what he has and what he wants to do? Maybe. What's encouraging is that he feels he has the freedom to put out lineups like this. After all, there's no point hiring a guy like Arteta if he's not going to be feeling entirely empowered.
Real's defense lets them down for a change
Eden Hazard returned to Real Madrid's starting lineup (alongside Gareth Bale, no less) on Sunday but Zinedine Zidane's side were held to a 2-2 draw by Celta Vigo, which sees their lead at the top of La Liga cut to a single point. It's only the fifth time this season that Zidane has been able to play the two of them with Karim Benzema and while they showed some ring rust -- understandable, as Hazard hadn't played since November -- it's not the reason they dropped two points.
- Real Madrid ratings: Hazard 8/10 in first game back
Nope, the reason comes from the unlikeliest quarter: central defence. Sergio Ramos and Raphael Varane were culpable on both of Celta's goals. I'm not going to apportion blame -- there was obviously a mix up that led to Varane being caught flat-footed and Ramos to react late -- but it's not something you expect from two guys who have been playing alongside each other for the past seven years. In both cases it was a very good pass (take a bow, Iago Aspas and Denis Suarez) but with the kind of chemistry Ramos and Varane have, you expect better.
It's not a concern as I see it. When mistakes like these come out of the blue from unlikely sources, best to take it on the chin and move in. You rationally don't expect it to happen again.
PSG's draw no big deal with Champions League ahead
FC pundits condemn alleged racial abuse in Portuguese Liga
The FC crew react to the alleged racial abuse directed at Porto's Moussa Marega vs. Guimaraes.
I wouldn't read too much into Paris Saint-Germain's 4-4 draw away to Amiens. Jarring as it was to see them 3-0 down against a team that's second-from-bottom in Ligue 1, Thomas Tuchel left a host of players -- Marco Verratti, Marquinhos, Kylian Mbappe, Neymar -- out of his starting XI and played two teenagers (left-back Mitchel Bakker, center-back Nianzou Kouassi) at the back, with Ander Herrera as a makeshift right-back.
With a massive 10-point lead over Marseille at the top of the table, all the eggs are, understandably, in the Champions League basket right now. And that's fine. The only disappointment is that Edinson Cavani missed a sitter that would have been his 200th goal in a PSG shirt. You hope he gets there before he leaves in the summer.
Give Mourinho some credit for Tottenham's turnaround
Whatever you think about Jose Mourinho -- and I certainly have been critical when I felt it was warranted -- there's no denying that he took over Spurs in 14th place and they are now fifth, one point from the Champions League spots (though Chelsea in fourth have a game in hand). There is still plenty wrong with his Tottenham side: they concede plenty of goals, they have to ride their luck, they live off opposition errors. But they're right where they want to be in the table and he's getting buy-in from players, which is critical if his style of football is to work.
Throw out what you thought you knew about Mourinho's past, too. His career has been largely about physical number nines: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Benni McCarthy, Didier Drogba, Diego Costa, Romelu Lukaku. He had one of those in Harry Kane but now that he's hurt, he's had to rely on roadrunners like Heung-Min Son and Lucas Moura. He's out of his comfort zone and he's still delivering results. Some didn't think he had it in him.
Schick shines as Leipzig thrash Werder
Werder Bremen, just one point above the drop and with seven defeats in their last eight games, were unlikely to offer much resistance against Leipzig and the 3-0 result was pretty much routine. It keeps Leipzig a point behind Bayern and all they can do right now is wait for a slip.
On the pitch, Christopher Nkunku was rested and we saw Patrik Schick up front. The Czech is one of those eternal enigmas, a player with size and unusual gifts who often adds up to less than the sum of his parts. But he set up one goal and scored another at the weekend. If Nagelsmann starts getting the best out of him, like he's done with Konrad Laimer, he's another added value for the club.
Bayern have no use for Coutinho
There was light and shadow to be found in Bayern's 4-1 away win to Cologne. On the one hand, this was a trip away to a team that had won five of their last six and Bayern were 3-0 up after 12 minutes. Thomas Muller is playing his best football in years, Sergne Gnabry had a monster game, Kingsley Coman scored in his first start since mid-December and Manuel Neuer made some outstanding saves. (Maybe the latter is the Alexander Nubel effect, knowing that the Schalke goalkeeper is joining Bayern in the summer.) And, of course, they remained top of the table.
On the other hand, it has become pretty clear that Philippe Coutinho (who stayed rooted to the bench) isn't a part of Hansi Flick's plans. That's fine, of course, but it does feel like a collective failure. At the back, Benjamin Pavard, Jerome Boateng and Lucas Hernandez all showed their individual limitations. Indeed, you dread to think where they'd be without Alphonso Davies' excellent run at left-back, a shift that allows Flick to play David Alaba centrally.
Questions must be answered about racism protocols in Portugal
Porto striker Moussa Marega was subjected to vicious abuse when his team visited Vitoria Guimaraes on Sunday. The abuse included both monkey chants and plastic seats thrown in his general direction. Marega, who played for Vitoria three years ago, was singled out for abuse at the start of the game and after scoring what turned out to be the winning goal just after the hour mark. He angrily asked to be substituted after being booked by the match official for remonstrating.
The images are hugely disturbing. My gut reaction is that his teammates should have followed him off. It would have been a powerful message: where racist abuse exists, there can be no football, so we walk off.
Equally, the message would have been more powerful if the referee had taken charge and applied FIFA's 3-step protocol -- stop the match (first warning), suspend the match (second warning) and abandon the match (third and final warning) -- straight away. (Independent observers at Kick It Out voiced their frustration at the referee's lack of action according to the video footage that went viral.) The protocol often gets derided, mostly by those who don't understand what it is, but the show of support from match officials stopping the game and saying "we as a whole recognise that this is unacceptable and this match is suspended" is far more powerful. It also removes the onus from the victim of abuse to determine what happens in that moment.
Marega's manager at Porto, Sergio Conceicao was "completely indignant" about the incident, saying "we are a family regardless of nationality, skin colour, hair colour. We are human, we deserve respect. What happened here is unfortunate." The league's ruling body, Liga Portugal, also issued a statement: "Liga Portugal does not agree and never will with acts of racism, xenophobia or intolerance that jeopardize the dignity of footballers or any human beings," said a statement on the organisation's website. "Liga Portugal will do everything to ensure that this episode and all other racist incidents do not go unpunished."
Personally, I'd apply Carlo Ancelotti's response as laid out when he was Napoli manager after Kalidou Koulibaly was subjected to monkey chants in a 1-0 defeat to Inter in which the protocols were also ignored by match officials: "If my player is racially abused and no immediate action is taken by the match officials, I'm taking my team off the pitch."