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Football Reporting


Haaland keeps Dortmund in Bundesliga race, Barcelona’s revival, ref admits he got Pickford call wrong

It was a big weekend for soccer, once again. Erling Haaland’s heroics gave Borussia Dortmund a significant win over RB Leipzig to keep the Bundesliga race interesting, Barcelona and Juventus kept their win streaks going (though both teams still have some glaring issues) and Milan’s form in Serie A continued even as Zlatan Ibrahimovic works his way back to full match fitness.

Elsewhere, there were talking points galore for Manchester City, Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal following their FA Cup wins, Bayern Munich look vulnerable and Schalke avoided setting a new low.

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It’s Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past week.

Jump to: Super Haaland | Barca revival | Ref admits error | Juve still a mess | Bernardo key for Man City? | Leao leads Milan | Hazard, Real stumble | Chelsea lessons | Work ahead for Inter | Arsenal’s VAR vindication | Bayern’s weak defense | Man United reserves | Atalanta, Papu problems | Schalke avoid record | And finally…

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Haaland’s second-half magic keeps Dortmund in Bundesliga race

With Bayern losing 3-2 on Friday night to Borussia Moenchengladbach, Leipzig’s clash with Borussia Dortmund on Saturday was an opportunity for Julian Nagelsmann’s crew to seize top spot. It was also an opportunity for the neutral fan to watch two of the most exciting sides in Europe (on paper), though the first 45 minutes were an uncharacteristically drab affair. Dortmund had their big guns out there albeit playing conservatively, as if they were terrified of what another defeat might do to them. Leipzig, for all their running, looked sloppy and disjointed.

– Breaking down Haaland’s remarkable first year at Dortmund

Then came the break and a different Dortmund and, above all, a different Erling Haaland. The Norwegian wunderkind helped set up Jadon Sancho’s goal, scored a rare header, rattled the crossbar and then notched the third in the 3-1 win. He now has 19 goals in 16 appearances this season overall and yes folks, he doesn’t turn 21 until July. You struggle to find a weakness: pace, technical ability, power, finishing, awareness, decision-making… he has it all. You can throw in character, too.

For much of the first half, Dayot Upameacano handled him with relative comfort, but that did nothing to dent Haaland’s confidence. And the one mini-knock on him — that for a man-child so big and so strong, he should score more headed goals — might be passe real soon if the header that saw him outmuscle Marcel Halstenberg is a sign of things to come.

Haaland gets the headlines, but Sancho and Marco Reus were bright too and, together with Gio Reyna, form a more rational trio than anything involving Julian Brandt. Edin Terzic probably got the approach wrong — you presume his plan wasn’t to stink for 45 minutes, lull Leipzig into a sense of security and then strike after half-time — but the fact that he remedied it after the break is important. However, in the longer-term, the injury to Axel Witsel (torn Achilles tendon) is a blow. Emre Can, of course, can plug the hole in the middle of the park, but you’re going to be rather thin after that.

As for Leipzig? Let’s remind ourselves that this is a team that took the pitch without Konrad Laimer, Ibrahima Konate, Christopher Nkunku, Kevin Kampl and their brand-new signing, Dominik Szoboszlai. Yes, they’re deep and talented and Nagelsmann likes to mix things up anyway, but it still robs him of options. Don’t count them out for the title; not yet, anyway.

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And heck, don’t ignore Dortmund either. The gap is five points with 19 games to play, but given Bayern’s ups and downs and the number of head-to-heads left, this race is far from over.

Barca’s revival down to talent, not plan, but it still matters

Whisper it, but Barcelona have three wins on the trot after the 4-0 away victory against Granada. Lionel Messi scored his first free-kick after 70-odd attempts (though his other goal was more impressive) and moved back to the top of the Liga scoring charts. Antoine Griezmann also scored two for the first time since 2019 and, more importantly, looked lively and confident. Pedri was his usual precocious self and Ousmane Dembele confirmed that when he’s fit, he’s one of the better wingers out there.

– Barca ratings: Messi, Griezmann 9/10 in win

Crisis over? No, and it won’t be over until we have presidential elections (set for Jan. 24), a clear sense of where this club is going, some financial sanity and a decision on Messi’s future. And this is a team that will continue to have huge question marks defensively. Samuel Umtiti made his first start of the season — and lasted 90 minutes! — but it’s going to be a while before anybody declares him fit and productive. Oscar Mingueza has yet to show he’s anything other than a viable stand-in at this level.

Koeman’s 4-2-chaos formation still isn’t convincing as a long-term solution, but the freedom it affords Messi and Griezmann in particular puts them in situations where they can make their individual talent shine. And if Messi is switched on and having the sort of day he had Saturday, everything looks brighter.

Make no mistake about it, Koeman is still fighting fires. It’s by no means clear he’s the solution on the sidelines, either. But Barca are now third in the table and Messi is playing like Messi. These things matter in a delicate time such as this.

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Oliver’s refreshing admission: Why can we have more of this?

Over the weekend, Premier League referee Michael Oliver admitted he should have sent off Jordan Pickford for his challenge on Virgil Van Dijk in the Merseyside derby back in September. He said the complex nature of the incident — having to judge whether Van Dijk was offside, whether it was a penalty and, of course, whether Pickford deserved further punishment — merited a further look.

– Darke: Unsung heroes for all 20 PL teams

“We have all, myself included, not thought about the challenge as much as we should have done,” he said. “We got sucked too much into going step-by-step as opposed to thinking of the bigger process, which was considering the challenge and not just the fact that it can’t be a penalty.”

Oliver also admitted that the lack of reaction from players on the pitch might have swayed his decision. He was being honest, but he did himself no favours with that: it’s an open invitation for players to try and influence the match official.

It’s refreshing to hear a referee own up to mistakes in public. They’re human; they do the best they can. Some are better than others, just as some players are better than others. There’s nothing wrong with admitting mistakes. I assume the reason we don’t see this more often is because fans and media can’t be grown-ups about it.

Problems mount for Juve despite three-game win streak

The good news is that Juventus have won three straight Serie A games for the first time since Andrea Pirlo took over. And if they win their game in hand with Napoli — far from a foregone conclusion, but still… — they’ll be up to third in the table. But the 3-1 win over Sassuolo highlighted the many issues they’re still grappling with, starting with a midfield that moves the ball too slowly and unimaginatively for a possession game to work. Throw in a horrendous night from Leo Bonucci (he risked getting sent off early and was caught out of position too many times), and injuries to Weston McKennie and Paulo Dybala, and the road ahead continues to look bumpy.

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The fact that Juve were unable to impose themselves despite a man advantage in the second half tells you how far they are from where they want to be. Other than the gilt-edged chance Cristiano Ronaldo missed, they created little. Even the two second-half goals — one a long-range “worldie” from Danilo, the other an individual effort in garbage time — weren’t the result of playing better, but simply having better players.

Make no mistake about it: this is still a construction site.

Bernardo Silva could be Man City’s key down the stretch

Bernardo Silva scored twice in Manchester City’s pedestrian 3-0 FA Cup win over Birmingham City this weekend. His first was a thing of technical beauty, twisting and bending his body to produce as clean a strike as you’re likely to see.

Panic Index: Should we be worried about Man City hitting form?

Others City players have understandably taken most of the headlines in recent seasons, from Kevin De Bruyne to Raheem Sterling to Sergio Aguero to the since departed “other” Silva, David. And while the Portuguese midfielder started this season slowly, he could turn out to be critical to City’s title challenge simply because of his versatility. He’s not the only player who can fill in at virtually any midfield position (except for Rodri’s) or out wide, but he does it with a tactical awareness and a work rate that some of his teammates lack.

Despite not being the most gifted athletically on this team, Silva’s intelligence allows him to interpret the role in different ways, effectively allowing Pep Guardiola to tweak his system without changing formation.

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Leao a leader up front for Milan

Milan bounced back from their defeat to Juventus with a comfortable 2-0 win over Torino that saw the return, late in the second half, of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. With Inter drawing 2-2 against Roma on Sunday, the Rossoneri’s lead in Serie A is now three points.

It also saw a sterling performance from Rafael Leao playing up front. Public opinion among Serie A watchers is that while Leao played very well, he’s “not a centerforward.” Me? I hate labels. He’s not a centerforward if your prototype is Ibrahimovic. Fine. Few are. But football is football, and he has the skills to play up front as effectively as out wide. In fact, for a team that plans to press high as much as Milan do, Leao could be an even better fit than Ibra. (Not a better player; a better fit).

Imagine defenders bludgeoned by Ibrahimovic for an hour or so suddenly having to deal with Leao’s trickery and quickness. Not fun.

There’s not much to learn from Real Madrid’s scoreless draw away to Osasuna other than the fact that if you combine icy conditions with a skating rink of a pitch, you probably won’t see great football. Zinedine Zidane said afterwards that the match should never have been played — the heavy snow that hit that part of Spain meant the team only arrived well after midnight on the day of the match, after a four-hour wait on the runway in Madrid — and in a non-pandemic year, without fixture congestion, he might be right.

– Lowe: Will Sergio Ramos remain at Real?

As it happened, conditions were identically bad for both teams, so it’s not much of an excuse. Eden Hazard made his first start since November and, with hindsight, this obviously wasn’t the game for him. (He also shouldn’t have stayed on the pitch until 15 minutes from time.) Against an opponent that understandably sat deep and defended, it was always going to be hard to create chances, but other than an opportunity for Marco Asensio, Madrid created very little.

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The gap at the top of La Liga is down to one point, but with Atletico Madrid’s game being called off, Diego Simeone’s crew now have three games in hand, meaning that theoretically, it could be as big as 10 points.

Did we learn much about Werner, Havertz, Chelsea in FA Cup?

Chelsea dispatched fourth-tier Morecambe with ease in the FA Cup third round, so the 4-0 win was spun as an exercise in helping Timo Werner and Kai Havertz regain some of their mojo. Werner hadn’t scored for Chelsea in any competition since Nov. 7 — a run of nearly 800 minutes — while Havertz, the club’s record signing, had started just once since mid-December. Neither had played well of late.

Both scored on Sunday and sure, it may help their confidence. But it’s not clear what exactly we learned from the exercise, and not just because of the quality (or lack thereof) of the Blues’ League Two opposition. Werner played up front and if there’s one thing that should be obvious right now, Chelsea are better — and more rational — with a real center-forward like Tammy Abraham or Olivier Giroud leading the line.

Also, Havertz played in a midfield three with Mason Mount. That’s fine against Morecambe when Chelsea have most of the ball, is it something you want to experiment with when there’s more defending and positional play? I’m not so sure.

Inter avoid disaster, but time for Conte to work

Inter’s 2-2 draw with Roma isn’t the disaster some make it out to be. Sure, it leaves them three points off the pace and yes, they conceded a late equalizer. But they were playing Roma, who are third in the table, not the Muppet Babies. Paulo Fonseca is, arguably, the best game day manager in Serie A and it showed. With his side 2-1 down, he kept forcing Inter back, making them defend far deeper than they wanted (as Antonio Conte himself acknowledged after the game).

Most of all, two defeats on the spin at a tinderbox of a club like Inter — particularly during the transfer window — are a recipe for disaster. Antonio Conte stayed on message, acknowledging that they played well (which they did in spurts), underscoring that they should have defended higher up the pitch towards the end, but fell prey to the usual anxiety and fear of failure.

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Ridding Inter of that anxiety, by the way, is exactly what he’s been trying to do for the past 18 months (and is why he’s the highest paid manager in Serie A by some distance). That’s one thing he needs to work on. Furthermore, this still feels like a team that beats you thanks to individuals (usually Romelu Lukaku, sometimes Lautaro Martinez or Achraf Hakimi, who scored a great goal) rather than the collective. Now that he has no European “distractions,” Conte should have plenty of time to work on the latter.

Smith Rowe, Arsenal can thank VAR (and so should you)

Arsenal beat Newcastle United 2-0 after extra-time in their FA Cup third-round clash, but it might never have happened without VAR.

– Olley: Smith Rowe justifies Arteta’s trust in young stars

Deep into injury time, Emile Smith Rowe was shown a red card by referee Chris Kavanagh for a lunge at Sean Longstaff. Maybe it was Longstaff shrieking like a kid who finds a spider on their pillow, or maybe it was the way he rolled around clutching his leg that prompted the immediate reaction. Either way, it was incorrect. VAR Andre Marriner urged Kavanagh to have another look and the the referee duly downgraded it to a yellow. Smith-Rowe went on to score the decisive goal in extra time before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang added another at the end.

Might Arsenal still have won with 10 men? Sure, but Smith-Rowe would not have scored, and the game may well have taken an entirely different — and wholly unfair — turn.

Whatever VAR’s critics — and I can respect those who are philosophically opposed — it’s pretty evident that the number of grossly incorrect decisions has declined since its introduction.

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Bayern Munich’s defense not what it was

Bayern didn’t lose on Friday night against Gladbach because they played worse than usual, or because the opponents were necessarily much better. In fact, as often happens with the Bavarians — even when they’re poor — they carve out plenty of chances and, because they have better players, usually finish them.

The key word there, without taking anything away from Marco Rose’s men, is “usually.” When Bayern play at this level — which, by their standards, is not a good level — they will sometimes drop points. And that, in a nutshell, is why the Bundesliga race remains wide open and why those who assume Bayern have some mystical hold on the title are mistaken.

One statistic stands out for me. Bayern have kept one clean sheet in their last 15 games in all competitions. It’s partly about individuals — Manuel Neuer hasn’t been himself, Benjamin Pavard has been poor, Alphonso Davies doesn’t appear fully recovered, David Alaba’s contract impasse weighs heavily — and partly about the system: neither the high press nor the midfield (injuries haven’t helped) have been as effective.

It’s something Hansi Flick needs to fix. There are only so many times you can spot the opposition goals and get away with it.

Man United’s reserves don’t take their chance to impress

Manchester United’s clash with Watford at Old Trafford in the FA Cup was an opportunity to take a look at some of the second-stringers. It’s pretty obvious that this competition is not a priority for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer just as it’s not for Watford boss Xisco, who made eight changes of his own. (Indeed, four of his starting XI hadn’t started a single league game this season.)

– Dawson: Van de Beek makes his case for Man United

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Scott McTominay, captaining United for the first time, scored early and from that point, the main interest was in seeing who might stake a claim in Solskjaer’s rotation. Could Brandon Williams, a natural right-footer so often deployed on the left, provide a valid attacking alternative to Aaron Wan-Bissaka? Could Axel Tuanzebe or Eric Bailly challenge Victor Lindelof and Harry Maguire? What about Donny Van de Beek? Are Jesse Lingard or Daniel James ever going to come in from the cold?

None of the above really showed that Solskjaer is missing a beat in treating his reserves as, well, reserves. It may have been the circumstances of the game — though given many of Watford’s players were in the same boat, you would have hoped for a more competitive encounter — or it may just be that the gap with the current 13- or 14-man core is too great. Either way, don’t expect many of these guys (with the obvious exception of McTominay, Mason Greenwood and one or two other regulars) to crack the first-choice XI any time soon.

“Papu” Gomez hits back as Atalanta take flight without him

Josip Ilicic stole the show as Atalanta hammered Bevenvento, 4-1 to keep their place in Serie A’s top four. They’ve scored 18 goals in their last five games, suggesting they’ve lost none of their attacking verve from last year. What they have lost, however, is “Papu” Gomez, arguably their outstanding player the last two seasons.

Gomez fell out badly with Atalanta coach Gian Piero Gasperini and hasn’t played since mid-December. The club will try to shift him in this month’s transfer window and Gasperini reiterated that Gomez is not longer “a fit” tactically, to which Gomez replied with a series of Instagram posts showing his work off the ball.

Either way, it’s a sad ending after dispensing plenty of heroics in his six-and-a-half seasons at the club. Atalanta say they don’t want to let him go to a Serie A club. At 32, he may not have a long career ahead of him, but there are plenty of teams around Europe where he would make an instant impact.

Schalke avoid historic record… but the worst is yet to come

By now, you’ve probably heard of Schalke’s winless streak and how they were threatening the 31-game run set by Tasmania Berlin back in 1966. Well, Saturday’s 4-0 win over Hoffenheim means they stop one short, at 30, and they can thank both the opposition’s inability to defend the counter and a hat-trick from a teenage American Matthew Hoppe, in only his third top-division start.

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It’s a respite for Schalke, who also move off the bottom, one point above Mainz. The relegation playoff spot (currently occupied by Cologne) is four points away, so relegation is by no means a certainty, not least because player for player, their squad is no worse than many of the teams around them. But financially, the club was in bad shape before the pandemic and the past 10 months have only made it worse. Relegation — and a restart, with lower costs — might not be such a terrible thing.

And finally…

Bas Dost scored on his debut for Club Brugge in their 2-1 away win at SintTruiden. He now has one goal in one Belgian league appearance and is on pace to score 15 in the league. Counting his time at Eintracht Frankfurt, he has six goals in 15 games overall.

This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.

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