Mourinho gets it right, Conte gets it wrong; drama in Milan; Messi, Isco star
Jose Mourinho made it seem like it was no big deal. It was, he said, pretty much the same game plan that Manchester United used against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup last month, and had that quarterfinal tie remained 11 vs. 11 -- Ander Herrera was sent off in the first half -- he was "totally convinced" that it would also have resulted in victory, just as it did on Sunday when his side beat the Premier League leaders 2-0.
In fact, though, it was a big deal. Mourinho left out the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Michael Carrick, plus Antony Martial, who wasn't even on the bench. He played three center-backs, pushed his wing-backs higher than most had anticipated and deployed Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard up front. Plus, of course, he had Herrera man-marking Eden Hazard.
Mourinho said afterward that he simply picked the best lineup for the game and that he wasn't necessarily prioritising Thursday's Europa League quarterfinal second leg with Anderlecht. That may be true, but the fact that several of his big guns got a breather is an additional plus.
In any case, all of this contributed to breaking Chelsea's supply lines to their front men, while also ensuring United could get the ball forward quick enough for Rashford to find space and rattle the opposing back three.
Because there are very few shades of grey in the media (especially when it comes to Mourinho: it's either black or white), this was hailed as a "tactical masterclass." In terms of performance, it's hard to argue anything else. In terms of result, though, you can flip it any way you like.
Playing that way gets a whole heck of a lot easier when you go a goal up after seven minutes. Herrera's handball, just before his through ball to Rashford for the opener, was pretty evident to all, bar referee Bobby Madley. And the second goal, scored by Herrera, featured a considerable deflection.
None of which is to say United did not deserve to win: They certainly did. Rather, it's to remind ourselves that results and performance don't always go hand in hand. And those who have seen many of United's home draws this season will likely agree with that.
Mourinho's approach didn't just stop Chelsea from playing; it took the game to the opposition. It was also, frankly, a bit of a gamble. Send out a lineup like that and lose, and you'll get hammered for "snubbing the Premier League" and for disrespecting Manchester United's supposed age-old tradition of attacking football.
If, on top of that, you also man-mark -- something we rarely see in the modern game, particularly in England -- then, well, you'd better get it right. And even though Mourinho often cops the attitude that he doesn't care what the punditocracy says, he knows full well how it can affect a team and a fan base.
Some, encouraged by the performance, went so far as to suggest that maybe this is a blueprint for Untied to follow -- unleash Lingard and Rashford and let them open up opposing defences -- but I'm not sure we'll see that anytime soon.
This approach proved to be correct against a specific opponent, but against teams that park the proverbial bus or retain the ball better in midfield, it's far from ideal. Quality matters and there's a reason why Ibrahimovic on his own has scored more than a third of United's league goals this year and why Mkhitaryan cost close to $50 million.
But this was a huge victory. It not only showed United can win in a different way, but for guys like Rashford and Marcos Rojo, it was a massive confidence boost. Plus, it maintains two routes into the 2017-18 Champions League.
If Mourinho's men can overcome Anderlecht on Thursday, they'll be in the semifinals of the Europa League. And, in the Premier League, they control their own destiny when it comes to a top-four finish.
A bad day for Chelsea
Antonio Conte took responsibility for the defeat at Old Trafford, which is fair enough. Chelsea failed to record a single shot on target, failed to keep a clean sheet for the 10th consecutive league game -- their worst run in that department for 20 years -- and, if you're into expected goals, recorded a measly 0.2 xG.
Their manager knows better than to point to the non-call on Herrera's handball or the absences of Thibaut Courtois or Marcos Alonso. All might have affected the result, but they certainly did not affect the performance, which was dire.
And while it may be tempting to lump in this display with the defeat to Crystal Palace on April Fools' Day, there is a crucial difference: Chelsea dominated that match and actually played very well. On Sunday, by contrast, they were very poor.
Conte said he failed to transmit the "right concentration" and "right motivation" to his players, but I'm not sure he was being entirely truthful because it didn't look as if Chelsea lacked concentration or motivation. Rather, it looked as if they were out-thought early and then failed to react tactically. That's still on Conte, and you can only guess that he went for the concentration/motivation trope to avoid getting into a tactical discussion.
You do wonder if, perhaps, this is where he pays the price for rotating his players so little and sticking to the same crew all season. He gained in chemistry, sure, but it also might mean that his subs are just that -- reserves -- and his starters get a little too comfortable.
Conte was right in reminding everyone how far Chelsea have come from last season's 10th-place finish, but that won't change the hurt if they somehow miss out on winning the title.
Spurs raise the pressure
Tottenham are the best team in the Premier League right now, according to Conte, and it's hard to disagree. Spurs made it seven straight wins with a 4-0 hammering of Bournemouth, and that, coupled with Chelsea's loss, means they pull to within four points of the top, with six games to go.
Most impressive, perhaps, is the balance in Mauricio Pochettino's side. They have kept four clean sheets during the aforementioned run, while scoring an average of more than three goals a game. What's more, they showed the mental strength to overcome Harry Kane's injury, and when he returned, reintegrated him without missing a beat.
Inevitably you wonder whether Tottenham can pull off what would be an extraordinary comeback and win the title. If you're a glass-half empty type of person, you might point to their run and suggest they beat a bunch of teams with nothing to play for.
Stoke, Southampton, Burnley and Watford were all in that midtable "dead zone" between ninth and 13th, where nothing much happens this time of year: Too far away from both the Europa League places and the relegation zone to really get up for it. Bournemouth were 16th but, given the gap between them and the drop zone is seven points, they too are pretty safe.
The exceptions were Everton, against whom Spurs needed a wild finish and an injury-time goal to win 3-2, and Swansea, where having trailed for well over an hour, they somehow scored three times after the 88th minute.
Still, you can only beat what's in front of you, and the run-in will offer a much sterner test to Pochettino and Co., starting with three straight London derbies. On either side of Arsenal on April 30, Spurs meet Crystal Palace and West Ham. Both may be safe, but there is a genuine rivalry between the clubs.
Those games are followed by the visit of Manchester United, who presumably will still be chasing a top-four spot. Then there is a visit to Leicester before a final-day trip to Hull, who might need points to ward off relegation.
It's a nasty run-in, but all Tottenham can do is continue to turn the screws on Chelsea, while hoping that last season's collapse was a learning opportunity.
A Milan derby to savour
For a city that's been down and nearly out from a footballing perspective -- Milan's last Champions League appearance was four years ago; Inter's was way back in 2011 -- Saturday's derby was a glimpse of what might be.
There was a packed house of 78,000-plus at the San Siro, exciting young talent on display -- Roberto Gagliardini, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Mauro Icardi for Inter, Alessio Romagnoli, Gigio Donnarumma and Suso for Milan -- and 97 minutes of end-to-end action, intensity and passion.
Inter went 2-0 up through Antonio Candreva and Mauro Icardi, then failed to put the game away, suffered when Alessio Romagnoli made it 2-1 and took the ultimate gut-punch when Cristian Zapata equalised in injury time with a bit of help from goal-line technology.
It was a classic case where the spoils are shared, but sequence matters. To Inter, it felt like a defeat. To Milan, it wasn't quite a win, but it was a massive boost in morale.
The most significant fallout regarding Inter concerns coach Stefano Pioli. A month ago, they were fifth and hoping to make a run at the Champions League, six points away. Since then, they've taken two of a possible 12 points and even a Europa League spot feels unattainable.
It's one of the glaring inconsistencies of football that, had there been less injury time or had Gary Medel moved a split-second earlier in his attempts to hooking away Zapata's shot, then we'd be celebrating Pioli for Inter's reaction to the recent run of disappointing results.
Instead, by most accounts, the coach will be the scapegoat. Never mind the fact that his numbers are better than any Inter manager since Leonardo who, funnily enough, also got the boot. Or that he's done it with a horrendously-assembled squad -- and not by him -- of which he only took charge in November.
Logic would suggest giving Pioli a full season, if only to figure out what he can do and -- most of all -- what Inter's current group of players can do. Then, if you can lure over a heavyweight -- say, Diego Simeone -- by all means, make a change. But the fact of the matter is that sacking Pioli in the summer, particularly given the dearth of top candidates who would want a gig like Inter, with no European football, makes no sense at all.
As for Milan, we're set for the start of the Li Yonghong era, assuming the Italian FA approves the takeover deal, which is by no means a foregone conclusion. But even if he is approved, there remains plenty of uncertainty, starting with the fact that he reportedly financed some $320m of the $785m deal ($570m cash plus $215m to take over Milan's existing debt) with a high-interest loan.
According to Italian financial daily "Il Sole-24 Ore," at a likely interest rate of at least 10 percent, that's some $32m a year just to service the debt. Plus a one-off $17m fee to arrange the loan.
You might point out that what the Glazer family did when they acquired Manchester United in 2005 was somewhat similar, and they also have paid hundreds of millions in fees and interest over the years. That's true, but the key difference is that Manchester United were -- and still are -- a hugely profitable club. Milan recorded some $160m of losses between 2014 and 2015 and, when the 2016 numbers come in, they'll like show a short-fall of around $74m.
Li says he wants to double revenue by 2020, which would take Milan back into the Top 10 of the world's richest clubs. His three-point plan to achieve this is all rather frustratingly familiar, involving more sponsorship from Asia, qualification for the Champions League and building a new stadium.
You need to give folks a reason to sponsor you; there's plenty of competition to get into the Champions League -- it's also by no means certain Milan will meet Financial Fair Play requirements -- and a new stadium, which right now only exists in Li's head, will take a minimum of five years to plan and build.
You hope for Milan's sake that he has the business nous and resources to back everything up. And that there's a good reason for the high-interest financing and secrecy.
Messi makes up for Barcelona's shortcomings
Sometimes you're reminded that the simplest truism still holds. Like when you were choosing sides on the playground as a kid, and the team with the first pick tended to win because somebody was so much better than the rest.
Which brings us to Lionel Messi. There's not much to cheer about at the Camp Nou right now, and against Real Sociedad on Saturday, Barcelona looked downright mediocre -- apart from Messi, who scored twice in the 3-2 victory, set up Paco Alcacer for another and provided two more delightful potential assists that were squandered by Paco Alcacer and Jordi Alba.
The rest of Barca's attack -- admittedly, they were without Neymar, Rafinha and Javier Mascherano, while Andres Iniesta started on the bench -- did little of any use and ended up with just 49 percent possession; unconscionable by their standards, especially at home.
Meanwhile, Luis Enrique returned to a back four, but it was a veritable defensive mess, Gerard Pique apart: La Real scored twice and could easily have had twice as many.
Barca are still just about alive in the Liga race -- they visit Real Madrid next Sunday -- and a big chunk of credit goes to Messi, just as it does for their ongoing Champions League presence, for that matter.
But then, that's hardly news.
Isco inspires Real Madrid's narrow win
There's no question about priorities at Real Madrid. The first leg away win at Bayern in the Champions League quarterfinal may have given them a big edge, but nothing is being taken for granted.
That's presumably why Zinedine Zidane made nine changes -- he likely would have made more if not for the fact right now he has nobody to back up Nacho and Sergio Ramos -- for the trip to Sporting Gijon. With the visit of Bayern Tuesday and El Clasico Sunday, resting starters evidently made sense.
Madrid twice went behind, but eventually took all three points thanks to Isco's late winner. It was an uneven performance against an opponent fighting to avoid relegation, but when you overhaul your team, you will lose something in the chemistry department.
What the win probably did underscore is that Isco is one of the very best attacking midfielders around and would likely walk into almost any other team. He's 24 and has a contract that expires in June 2018. It's not surprising that half of Europe's big clubs are closely monitoring his extension talks.
Shameful scenes in Bastia
There's only so much that can be said about events in Bastia on Sunday, when the club's Ligue 1 game vs. Lyon was abandoned. The relationship between the two clubs and the respective sets of fans has been poisonous for some time, and further, Bastia have a history of trouble.
But you do wonder whether some club officials ought to know better when they speak out in public. After the two sides met in November -- Lyon won 21 -- Bastia's then-manager Francois Ciccolini talked about Lyon having to come to Bastia where they would "settle things like men, like Corsicans."
Ciccolini was sacked in February, but you wonder if he regrets his macho posturing. Bastia will now almost certainly have to play behind closed doors for the rest of this season and, perhaps, the beginning of next year, when they'll almost certainly be in Ligue 2. A points penalty is also a possibility.
Kompany's case of what might have been
You'd have to be an ogre not to be happy for Vincent Kompany. It's not just the injury hell he's been through; it's also the fact that he's an all-around class act -- I got to know him a little bit when he worked for ESPN during Euro 2016 -- as well as being a tremendous footballer.
Kompany scored the opening goal at Southampton to send Manchester City on their way to a 3-0 win on Saturday, and you could tell from his celebration just how much it meant to net for the first time since August 2015, while making only his fourth league start of the season.
Pep Guardiola might also be left to wonder how this season might have been different if he had had a fit Kompany throughout the campaign. We may never find out, but it would be fascinating to know whether Guardiola and City's doctors truly believed the defender would be available for most of the year or whether this was a huge miscalculation.
Bayern drop points ahead of Madrid return
Bayern Munich were held to a scoreless draw at Bayer Leverkusen, and with Leipzig thumping Freiburg 4-0 to close the gap to eight points, some suggest the Bundesliga race is on again.
Barring some kind of divine intervention, though, it is not. True, Leipzig do host Bayern on the second-to-last weekend of the season, but even assuming they win that, they'd need to make up five points in the other four remaining games, not to mention Bayern's enormous advantage in goal difference.
More telling, from a Bayern point of view, was the reaction following the disappointing loss to Real Madrid in the Champions League. Carlo Ancelotti tried David Alaba in central defence -- presumably he'll play there at the Bernabeu on Tuesday -- with Kingsley Coman and Douglas Costa out wide up front.
Bayern created plenty, both before and after Leverkusen went down to 10 men at the hour mark, but with Robert Lewandowski still out, they failed to turn the chances into goals. That's what happens when your mind is focused on an upcoming game instead of the task at hand.
Bas Dost scored once in Sporting Lisbon's 3-0 victory at Vitoria Setubal, which takes his season total to 30 and, crucially, his league total to 28. Dost is up to second in the European "Golden Shoe" ranking and his score of 56 -- the Portuguese league has a coefficient of 2.0 -- puts him two points behind Messi.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.