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Real’s big win buys Zidane time, Martial’s future, PSG rocked by Lyon
- Updated: January 23, 2018
It was only Deportivo La Coruna, a team in the relegation zone that had collected one point in the past four matches. But it still mattered. Real Madrid's 7-1 victory Sunday doesn't make all their problems disappear but it stops the situation getting worse after two consecutive home defeats. And it offers some clues about what Zinedine Zidane's fixes might be.
The obvious change from the previous week's defeat against Villarreal was the return to a 4-3-3 formation. Playing Isco behind Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo, as Zidane had done previously, was a nice idea and a way to shoe-horn your best players into the lineup. But it also meant losing any kind of work off the ball in the opposition's final third and not having a willing forward reference point.
With Karim Benzema not yet fully fit, Zidane opted for Borja Mayoral and while he won't be mistaken for a superstar any time soon, he was a willing runner and a hard worker who made Ronaldo's and Bale's jobs so much easier. Benzema himself came on for the last half-hour, meaning the 'BBC' was reunited for the first time in 273 days. Either way, there's no escaping the fact that this team — at least when Ronaldo and Bale are on the flanks — plays a lot better when there's a workhorse (even a pedestrian one) leading the line.
Equally encouraging is the fact that Real did not become despondent after Depor took the lead against the run of play. They simply carried on and waited for the chances to come. And like last week, opportunities cropped up; the difference is that this time they were converted.
Other encouraging signs came from the fact that Bale is playing his best football in a long time: the first goal, in particular, was a peach. And that Modric too is bouncing back nicely after a tough spell.
Then there's Ronaldo. He didn't celebrate his first goal — his first in the league since November — leading to the predictable speculation that he was somehow annoyed at suggestions in midweek that it was time for him to move on. But then came the second goal, a twisting corkscrew of a header that saw him take a boot to the head for his troubles. Whatever his critics say, I doubt anyone can doubt his bravery when it comes to putting his body on the line for a goal. His face was a bloody mess as he walked off the pitch. Fortunately, there's no long-term damage but it was nevertheless a scary moment.
There's still plenty of work to do, obviously, but stopping things from getting worse is often the best step towards making them better.
Man United's Martial conundrum
Anthony Martial scored the lone goal as Manchester United overcame Burnley on Saturday. It was a sweetly taken strike and it again raises the debate about what exactly United have in the France international. Some see him as someone who, along with Paul Pogba and David De Gea, deserves to have a team built around him. Others would rather see Marcus Rashford starting down the left.
At some point soon, United will need to make a decision on his future. His current deal expires in 2019 though there's an option through 2020. And they'll also want to figure out whether his future is up front — either alongside or as a change-of-pace from Romelu Lukaku — or out wide. His goals are up this year and he's doing what's being asked of him, though perhaps without becoming the superstar his fee suggested he'd become.
At 22, that day may yet come but only if he continues to get regular minutes. Deciding whether it's worth persevering with him is going to be a big call.
Goretzka gets his move
The news everybody expected came last week when Leon Goretzka, who is out of contract in the summer, announced he was joining Bayern as a free agent. (Though to be fair, in this picture he doesn't seem to be particularly delighted…)
Despite his appeal to Schalke fans — 'I know that I will disappoint you all and you will have little understanding of it… I want to ask you for one thing; you do not have to agree with my decision, but don't make it hard for us because we have targets that we want to achieve' — they did not take it well.
'Neither money, nor titles are worth more than our club,' read one banner when Schalke played Hannover. Another read 'a thousand friends let down in favour of empty titles and shallow twits.'
Goretzka is 22. He has every right to pursue his career at the highest possible level and earn as much as he can. That said, announcing the move in January is a slap in the face to a fanbase that have been slapped around a fair bit in the past, Manuel Neuer being Exhibit A.
You get his point. Goretzka will give his all — which, by the way, is what he gets paid to do — between now and the end of the season, but there really was no need to issue a statement. And he only has himself to blame for the rough ride he's going to get.
Bayern nearly pay for messing around
Meanwhile, such is Bayern's current stranglehold on the Bundesliga that they can afford wacky experiments and defensive errors but still win while putting four past the opposition. Jupp Heynckes sent out a side with two attacking full-backs (Juan Bernat and Josh Kimmich), two attacking midfielders (James Rodriguez and Thomas Mueller), two wingers (Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben) and Robert Lewandowski up front.
You may get away with formations like that if you have certain uber-fit, high-stamina, possession-oriented players whom you have drilled tactically for months. But even against a poor team like Bremen, the limits of this set-up were evident. And you can't help but feel that rather than some grand experiment, this was simply an effort to cram as many big names into the lineup as possible at the expense of the odd Sebastian Rudy or Corentin Tolisso.
As it happened, Bayern fell behind and after going ahead, were pegged back to 2-2. The Bavarians duly took the lead only for Bremen to fluff the chance to equalize before Mueller made it 4-2 and they rode out the game. It really should not have been this complicated against a side who are third-bottom.
PSG should learn from Lyon defeat
Who'd have thunk it, eh? Other than Serie A, the closest race in Europe's Big Five leagues is in Ligue 1. OK, it's still eight points, which is a lot, and only because two absolute world-class goals — go on, take a brief break and find the highlights, I'll still be here when you get back — from Nabil Fekir and Memphis Depay gave Olympique Lyonnais a dramatic, last-ditch 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain. But it should raise some alarms in Unai Emery's camp: don't take Le Championnat for granted. Not yet anyway.
You can also flip this around the other way and suggest that PSG got very few breaks on the night. It's not just the two Hail Mary goals they conceded, it's the fact that Neymar was unavailable, Kylian Mbappe had to come off after just half an hour, Lyon scored almost straight away or that Dani Alves was sent off. Some of those are mistakes you can control, some of those are bouts of bad luck that hopefully won't happen more regularly.
Still, PSG's reaction left a lot to be desired. They had plenty of possession but not much cutting edge. And they were nervy all night, as evidenced by Dani Alves' red card and Edinson Cavani's hissy fit. When you're not tested often, it's easier to get rattled but if the goal is the Champions League, it's something Emery needs to fix.
As for OL, things are coming together nicely. Mariano Diaz was greeted with some skepticism when he arrived in the summer but has chipped in with 13 league goals this season. Depay still blows hot and cold but when he's on, he's devastating. And Fekir may well be Ligue 1's MVP this season: he's third in assists and second in goals scored ahead of both Neymar and Mbappe, for what that's worth.
Inter, Roma share the spoils
When Inter hosted Roma Sunday night, it was billed as a Champions League playoff, a clash for a place in the top four. In the case of these two clubs, it takes on greater significance given that (at least until the summer) both are subject to a UEFA Financial Fair Play Settlement, meaning they have hit certain more stringent financial targets.
It finished 1-1 and while it's probably is a case of two points dropped for both, it hurts Inter more because they were at home and Roma still have a game in hand. Both teams showed their limits. Roma had the upper hand early, took the lead through Stephan El Shaarawy (classic route one stuff, straight from an Alisson goal kick and with the complicity of David Santon) and then muddle through an excruciating finale during which they nearly gave it all away.
Inter sleepwalked through much of the game, only coming to life at the end. Only some tremendous saves from Alisson –who must have enjoyed it given that it was Luciano Spalletti, now the Inter boss, last year in charge of Roma, who kept him on the bench all of last season — denied them the win. But the real issue is why it took them so long to get going and that's something Inter have yet to figure out.
Spalletti, by the way, is well aware of this. Asked about the arrival of Rafinha from Barcelona, he quipped 'the guy hasn't played in 18 months… you can't ask him to solve all our problems.'
He's right, too. It's up to Spalletti to get under the hood and sort things out before it's too late.
About Jack Wilshere…
OK, so I don't want to tempt faith because it's frankly a toss-up in terms of who has had more false dawns: Jack Wilshere or Mario Balotelli. But Wilshere has started Arsenal's last eight games after being banished to the Europa League/EFL Cup naughty step earlier in the season. And he seems to be going from strength to strength.
Dare I say it without jinxing him?
All right, I will. 'He's like a new signing.'
Barcelona eventually break Betis down
It took Barcelona nearly an hour to break down Betis on Sunday but once Ivan Rakitic broke the ice, there was no looking back. It finished 5-0, with Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi both bagging two each. Suarez has now scored in eight consecutive Liga games, while Messi's seasonal total is up to 25: at this stage last year, he had 28.
With Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele out, Ernesto Valverde stuck with the 4-4-2 though obviously, when you have Andre Gomes and Sergi Roberto on the flanks instead, it's not quite the same thing. Still, even as Valverde tries new solutions, the focus is on finding the right mix and getting the injured guys back (Samuel Umtiti made his return Sunday) ahead of the Champions League knockout phase.
Willian hitting form for Chelsea
Chelsea rolled to a comfortable 4-0 away win at Brighton, as Eden Hazard scored twice. Willian also got on the scoresheet and turned in a solid performance as Chelsea went back to the 3-4-3 formation. Many have focused on the club's recent obsession with getting another striker — seemingly of any description, given the reported links to Andy Carroll, Peter Crouch and Ashley Barnes — but Conte's shift, especially in big games, away from 3-4-3 and to a system with Cesc Fabregas playmaking and Hazard alongside Alvaro Morata has been just as notable.
Willian has started just half of Chelsea's league games this season, a theme that began last year when he often alternated with Pedro. He's been slowed by injuries at times and hasn't been exactly a model of consistency. But his combination of strength, athleticism and technique when he's on form can be a game-changer. And he seems to be hitting his stride right about now.
Keep an eye on Milinkovic-Savic
Lazio hammered Chievo 5-1 and not for the first time, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic stole the show, scoring two goals. It was bittersweet because Ciro Immobile, whose 20 league goals this season see him second only to Harry Kane in the European Golden Shoe rankings, went down early through injury, but it showed how Simone Inzaghi's side just keep on ticking and are fully deserving of their third place in Serie A.
Milinkovic-Savic has plenty of top clubs salivating and he's certainly a special player. The one caveat might be his skill set. He's big, strong and prolific — technically gifted, too — but he's unorthodox as an attacking midfielder. If he does move at some point, and you hope it won't be for a while, it will need to be to the right sort of club with the right players around him.
Nagelsmann distraction hurting Hoffenheim?
There's a school of thought whereby Julian Nagelsmann is a managerial prodigy who will waltz into Bayern next year and fit like a glove. The Hoffenheim boss is 30 years old and took them to a top-four finish last season, his first full season in charge. This year, after a decent start, his team are nose-diving down the Bundesliga.
They were second in September and are now ninth. Hoffenheim have won four of their past 19 games in all competitions. They are maddeningly inconsistent, too: stellar against Leipzig a month ago but putrid at home against Bayer Leverkusen this past weekend as Leon Bailey stole the show.
There are obviously various reasons for the skid but you wonder how much the endless Nagelsmann speculation is hurting them. Knowing your boss is looking around for better options — and at least one rival club seems to take it for granted that he'll come running if they call — is going to be dispiriting for anyone.