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Messi inspires Barca; Arsenal miss a chance; Ronaldo deal; Chelsea superb

The good news, if you're Luis Enrique, is that Barcelona won't have too many back-to-back away experiences like this past week: Pep Guardiola and Manchester City on Tuesday, Jorge Sampaoli and Sevilla on Sunday.

That is to say that Barca won't face consecutive opponents so willing to run themselves into the ground and press the bejesus out of them without a trace of fear or worry about the consequences.

The better news is that Barcelona have Lionel Messi. In Sunday's 2-1 win, for the umpteenth time, he showed the many ways in which he can change games. When his side were having trouble simply getting out of their own half against Sampaoli's press, it was Messi who dropped into midfield to help out. And it was on the back of one of those sorties that Barca were able to get forward and notch the equalizer just before half-time.

In the second half, understandably, Sevilla took their foot off the gas. It's the price you pay when you field a lineup with one worker bee and five attacking guys in your front six: You can get the latter to run and run, but only for so long. Still, Sevilla hung on in a furious second half, even after Barcelona took the lead through Luis Suarez.

Sampaoli's side came away with no points and a fair amount to recriminate. Ivan Rakitic could well have been interfering in an offside position for Messi's equaliser and, in the final minutes, the home side had a very strong penalty appeal.

But nevertheless the underlying indicators were exceptional, and it is on those that Sampaoli must build. Sevilla went toe-to-toe -- without important veterans Gabriel Mercado and Nicolas Pareja -- with Barca and could easily have won. And they did it in a match in which Messi, Suarez and Neymar played very well.

The three points are huge for Luis Enrique. A draw would have seen Barca go into the international break four points behind Real Madrid, and that's a big deal psychologically, particularly coming off the defeat to Man City.

Messi's performance -- other than being stellar -- was interesting for the way he moved around and seemed to put himself at the service of his teammates in more ways than simply scoring and creating in the final third. You wonder if it's something he's going to evolve toward as he gets older: fewer sprints into space, more collecting the ball and creating from deep.

At the very least it gives Luis Enrique a valuable alternative against teams who come to press the life out of Barcelona and dominate the midfield. Having Messi in the mix can help combat that. Plus, with Suarez and Neymar lurking further up the pitch, you still have the option of the ball over the top.

Arsenal's missed opportunity?

I came away from the 1-1 North London derby draw thinking that games like these might end up costing Arsenal the title.

Arsenal were at home and had a chance to deal a knockout blow to Tottenham, who had not won in six games and were without their best defender (Toby Alderweireld), their big summer signing (Moussa Sissoko), arguably their best two-way midfielder (Dele Alli) and another bona fide starter in Erik Lamela.

True, Mousa Dembele and Harry Kane were returning, but both were doubtful ahead of kickoff. Meanwhile, other than Santi Cazorla, Arsenal were pretty much at full-strength.

It had the makings of a statement game, but it was Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino who made it. Whatever negativity surrounded the fact that his side had not won since Oct. 2 was either put to one side or channelled emotionally. Spurs' switch to 3-5-2 appeared to catch Arsene Wenger off guard at both ends of the pitch. Plus, it took guts.

That's because it takes courage to start Kevin Wimmer when he hasn't played a minute of Premier League or Champions League football this season. And it takes courage to try Kane and Son Heung-Min in a two-man forward line when they haven't done it since last year. Pochettino pointed out that he had used the three-man defence before -- yeah, once last season -- but it was still a major leap. And he was duly rewarded.

It's not that Arsenal did not create enough to win; they did. It's that this felt like another wasted opportunity, a bit like when the teams met in March and, by drawing, effectively said goodbye to the Premier League title.

As for Spurs, they live to fight another day. Crazy as it sounds, despite four league games without a victory, the deficit between them and the top of the table only stands at five points. They're still in the race.

Ronaldo deal continues Madrid contract policy

Real Madrid beat up Leganes at the Bernabeu, 3-0, propelled by two goals from the excellent Gareth Bale, but the front page news came on the contract front

Last week, it was Bale, and Monday saw the big one -- in terms of money, perhaps more than contribution right now: Cristiano Ronaldo. He has been locked up through 2021 and it's quite a remarkable situation for Madrid to find themselves in.

Of the 22 senior professionals on the club's books, all but four have contracts that expire in 2020 or later. Those who do not? Pepe, whose deal is up next June and turns 34 in February. Expiring in 2019, when both will be 31, are Fabio Coentrao and Karim Benzema, while Isco's deal is up in 2018.

As contracts go, it's a curious strategy, not least because it means the club have committed a huge amount of money to a huge number of players. And, because they earn so much, Madrid players are generally hard to shift, unless you subsidise their wages elsewhere or take a big loss.

The FIFA transfer ban -- assuming the Court of Arbitration for Sport upholds it -- may well play a part in this policy, but the upshot is that this group is unlikely to change much for the foreseeable future. At the least, it means that should Florentino Perez step aside, whoever replaces him will have very little flexibility.

Mourinho's carefully-placed verbal jabs

So if you assume that Jose Mourinho says things for a reason and doesn't just spout out the first thing that comes into his head, you can't help but speculate about his comments before and after Manchester United's 3-1 win at Swansea.

Before the match, Mourinho explained that neither Luke Shaw or Chris Smalling would be featuring: "Smalling doesn't feel that he can play 100 percent with his pain. Shaw told me this morning that he was not able to play."

After the game, when he could simply have basked in United's excellent performance, he chose to go back to the topic.

"For the team, you have to do anything," Mourinho said. "There is a difference between the brave, who want to play at any cost and the ones for whom a little pain can make a difference. If I were to speak with the many great football people of this team, they will say they played many time without being 100 percent."

This isn't the media starting trouble. This is Mourinho serving it up on a plate for public consumption.

You assume that, as with others before, he's playing some kind of psychological game and pushing buttons. And that he's confident the players concerned will react in the right way to, basically, being called soft by their own boss.

Jose Mourinho
With Jose Mourinho serving a touchline ban, Manchester United ran out comfortable winners at Swansea.

Man United ease past struggling Swansea

That Mourinho's words dominated the back pages on Monday is a shame, because United were absolutely devastating.

Paul Pogba scored an outrageous goal, Zlatan Ibrahimovic bagged two and Michael Carrick -- hitherto limited to just 13 minutes of Premier League action this season -- showed that he might be the answer in midfield. (Maybe not every game, given he's 35 and not the quickest, but at least in certain games.)

United's lineup was, to put it mildly, unorthodox. In fact, the front six of Carrick, Pogba, Marouane Fellaini, Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Ibrahimovic may be the slowest on record; when Rooney is the second-quickest guy in your midfield and attack, you've either traveled back to 2006 or you've fielded a rather ponderous, if skillful, XI.

Of course, all this must be tempered by the performance of Swansea, whose first 45 minutes were as bad as any we've seen in recent memory. Indeed, Mourinho's lineup was downright conventional relative to that of Bob Bradley.

The Swansea manager played two target men -- Borja Baston and Fernando Llorente -- plus Gylfi Sigurdsson on the wing. Now the Icelander is a skillful, creative player, but he's not exactly fleet of foot and putting him out wide, with that set-up, seemed counterintuitive. Bradley did change things at half-time by sending on speedsters Modou Barrow and Jefferson Montero and going one up front but, by that stage, the hosts were 3-0 down.

And if there's one thing of which we can be sure, it is that Mourinho is more likely to get a Pep Guardiola tattoo than he is to relinquish a three-goal half-time lead. Bradley is facing enough skepticism due to his accent and background as it is. Sunday was the last thing he needed.

Another new era set to begin at Inter

It's Monday and Inter still don't have a coach, though the smart money seems to be on Stefano Pioli. As appointments go, it's more than adequate. He's one of those guys who gets continuous praise from folks in the game and, having previously managed Lazio from 2014-16, is at the stage where he deserves another crack at a big club (ideally, one without Claudio Lotito at the helm).

What's pretty obvious, though, is that the Inter fans aren't going to be happy with just a new coach. During Sunday's 3-0 home win against bottom-of-the league Crotone, a succession of banners were displayed, most of them attacking the players for lack of effort and the club for lack of direction and nous.

(Incidentally, former manager Frank De Boer was mercifully spared: "Thank you Frank De Boer, you're paying for mistakes made by others.")

The fans are right: What happened in the summer is nothing short of grotesque. It's hard to understand how a team already under a Financial Fair Play settlement regime could have a net spend of some $135 million and still be this poor.

All Pioli can do is limit damage. If the players help out, Inter still have a shot at qualifying for the Europa League, though whether they'd be allowed to compete next year, given their FFP situation, remains to be seen. Most importantly, they can assess a bloated, underachieving squad.

The supporters evidently understand this and will back the new man in charge. What they will demand, though, is that the people running the club -- Erick Thohir's crew and the new folks from Suning -- to step up and hold folks to account, as well as to be accountable themselves.

Aubameyang's eventful week ends with Dortmund finding league form

Thomas Tuchel, left, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, right, were all smiles on Saturday.

Last Monday, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang traveled from Dortmund to the northern Italian countryside to celebrate his sister-in-law's birthday. On Wednesday he was left out of BVB's 1-0 win over Sporting in the Champions League as punishment for the unauthorised trip. And on Saturday he returned to the starting lineup with a bang, scoring four in Dortmund's 5-2 away hammering of Hamburg.

Maybe it's the wake-up Borussia need. That was their first Bundesliga win since September and some were wondering whether Thomas Tuchel's honeymoon was over. Not quite, but now might be as good a time as any to realise that, with Bayern Munich taking their foot off the gas, Dortmund are six points off the pace. And there is a lot to play for.

Manchester City drop more points

Pep Guardiola wasn't concerned after his side were held 1-1 at home by Middlesbrough. He pointed out that his team dominated, created tons of chances and conceded almost nothing until late in injury time, when Marten De Roon beat Claudio Bravo with a header from George Friend's cross.

Guardiola is right, in that creating chances and not allowing your opponent their own opportunities is the essence of performance. And while results come and go, in the long run performance matters more.

That said, City have drawn their last three league games at home and, in two of those -- against Middlesbrough on Saturday and Everton on Oct. 15 -- they dominated but left four points on the table. That's the difference between being two points clear at the top or two points back, as City are now.

Nope, these things do not always even themselves out over the course of a season.

Bayern Munich also held at home

If Carlo Ancelotti was a Premier League manager then no doubt some ex-pro would mumble something about him "not knowing his best lineup" at present. It's actually rather silly because, when you think about it, your "best lineup" might change from week to week, depending on opponents, on your players' physical condition and, simply, on who's looking good in training and who is not.

As it happened, Ancelotti's rotation continued when Bayern hosted Hoffenheim on Saturday, with Thomas Muller, Josh Kimmich, Philipp Lahm and David Alaba replaced by Rafinha, Juan Bernat, Thiago Alcantara and Douglas Costa. Bayern went a goal down thanks to Kerem Demirbay's wonder strike, equalised through an own goal and then spent the second half laying siege.

Ancelotti likes it when his sides can vary the intensity and style of attack. Maybe so, but now RB Leipzig have drawn level at the top of the table. Unless the newly-promoted side let up, Bayern can afford very few more games like this one.

Five-star Chelsea

Chelsea have won five consecutive league games -- with 16 goals scored and none conceded -- since Antonio Conte switched to a 3-4-3 formation. The latest, Saturday's 5-0 hammering of Everton, might have been the most emphatic performance yet, with beaten manager Ronald Koeman commenting afterwards that he "had never seen a team so strong playing this system."

Chelsea were helped tremendously by the absence of the suspended Idrissa Gueye -- basically, Everton have no midfield when he's not there -- but there is little question Conte's men have turned a corner. Most important of all, perhaps, is the renaissance of Eden Hazard back to his 2014-15, player-of-the-year-winning levels. In this form, he can carry Chelsea through the tough times, should they come. And they will come.

RB Leipzig's run continues

RB Leipzig have dropped just six points in the Bundesliga so far this season and remain unbeaten.

After claiming their fifth win in a row with a 3-1 victory vs. Mainz, RB Leipzig now trail leaders Bayern on goal difference. While anyone who has followed their rise knows theirs is not quite a romantic fairy tale, they certainly pack a punch on the pitch.

The question will be at what point do teams start to figure out manager Ralph Hasenhuttl's -- or should that be sporting director Ralf Rangnick's? -- game plan? Packing the middle, pressing high and powering the ball into the box are all hugely energy-sapping.

You'd expect opponents to find the right countermeasures. After all, crazy as it sounds, Leipzig have seven more points than they did at this stage last season -- in the second division. Surely there's a mean to which they'll regress, no?

Gap closes in France

We're closer to a three-horse race in Ligue 1 after Nice lost 1-0 at Caen. Margins are always fine -- Mario Balotelli hit the woodwork -- but the upshot is that their lead is now down to three points, thanks to Paris Saint-Germain's impressive 4-0 win over Rennes and Monaco's 6-0 pounding of Nancy.

If all three teams stay involved, you wonder how things will shape up come January. The obvious difference is that both PSG and Monaco -- owner Dmitry Rybolovlev has reduced spending in recent years, but if they're through to the Champions League knockout round and have a shot at the title, he may dig into his pocket -- can ratchet it up several notches with a winter spree, whereas Nice likely cannot.

#BasDostWatch is back!

The big man had not scored since Sep. 27 and his drought was 467 minutes when he netted in the ninth minute of Sporting's 3-0 home win against Arouca. Dost later added a second, which brings his seasonal total in all competitions to eight goals.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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