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FC 100 is about team, not just stars

FC 100
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Arsenal make progress vs. Chelsea, Barca win again, Neymar vs. Cavani

Steve Nicol says Arsenal would be opting for mediocrity if Arsene Wenger considers dropping Mesut Ozil.

Arsenal went to Stamford Bridge in a fairly binary situation. A poor performance would simply ratchet up the pressure ahead of the club's annual general meeting (with Stan Kroenke on his way across the pond) and cancel the baby steps that were made against Bournemouth. (Given Bournemouth's performance, they really were teeny, tiny baby steps). A result, especially if accompanied by a decent performance, would buy Arsene Wenger time, rekindle a bit of faith in a clearly dejected group and maybe even offer a blueprint for how to play going forward.

The nil-nil draw with Chelsea satisfies the first two points. Wenger can turn to the critics who lob the usual cliches at Arsenal -- "too pretty, too soft, too undisciplined, too dogmatic in the search for the perfect pass" -- and tell them to stick it. And if you witnessed the intensity and spirit mustered by Arsenal, you'd conclude that rumours of a divided, disjointed team may well be exaggerated.

As for the third point, Arsenal discovered they can line up conservatively with five defenders (protected by Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey), play with discipline, patience and tactical nous and still carve out enough chances to win away from home against another big club. Whether it works as well against smaller teams or in different situations remains to be seen. Just as it's not clear whether it works with Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil in the starting lineup, and you'd imagine Wenger hasn't ditched the pair just yet: Sanchez was on the bench and came on in the second half, Ozil was injured.

Wenger's shuffle against Chelsea was not only successful, but something he can build upon if he wishes.

This is still a fragile side, both technically and emotionally, and it wouldn't take much for things to go south again. Playing a Tony Pulis side next (West Brom visit the Emirates on Monday) suggests there's plenty of margin for another mini-meltdown as early as next weekend. But it's nevertheless a step forward, possibly even an important one if Wenger can build on it.

As for Chelsea, there was further confirmation that against opponents who defend well, either Cesc Fabregas or Eden Hazard (or, as Antonio Conte tried in the second half, both) need to be on the pitch. Fabregas started but other than a few moments, like the pass that set up Pedro, was largely bottled up. Hazard came on and was dangerous, but by that point it was all uphill.

Conte said it was a good game and a good point. In the grand scheme, he's probably right. The top of the table is three points away and there's a lot of the season left to play. However, he may want to have a word with David Luiz, rather than simply saying it was "strange" that Chelsea have ended their past three games against Arsenal with 10 men. What is "strange" is a thirty-something veteran with some 500 professional matches under his belt thinking it's a good idea to tackle an opponent like that next to the touchline in midfield. His imminent suspension means he'll miss the Manchester City game, which makes it a rather boneheaded decision.

Wins are all that matter for Barca

Craig Burley reacts to claims that Arsenal should operate without Sanchez and Ozil, saying one of the two is expendable.

Which is the real Barcelona? The one that manhandled Juventus in the second half of their Champions League clash in midweek? Or the one that found itself on the back foot for much of the game against Getafe before eventually winning 2-1?

The difference between the two in some ways might be Lionel Messi, who was thoroughly pedestrian on Saturday. Throw in Luis Suarez's off-night (not his first this season) and Ousmane Dembele's injury (he was off injured after half an hour and won't be back until 2018) and Barca lacked a cutting edge up front. Credit to Getafe, who took the lead through a Gaku Shibasaki wonder goal, but credit Ernesto Valverde too for throwing in first Denis Suarez and then Paulinho. It was the subs who turned the game late on.

Still, it's another three points. Right now, until we see the real Luis Suarez and until Valverde finds the right balance in this team, it's all that matters.

Neymar vs. Cavani could be a big problem for PSG

ESPN FC's Jonathan Johnson breaks down PSG's 2-0 victory over Lyon and the penalty drama between Neymar and Edinson Cavani.

Paris Saint-Germain faced Olympique Lyonnais in what was probably their toughest league test of the season. They won 2-0, sure, but only after their opponents rattled Alphonse Areola's crossbar and with the help of two own goals. Credit Lyon -- the old diktat whereby we must not forget that the opposition are also paid and also trying to win applies -- but the game also served as a reminder that turning Julian Draxler into a central midfielder may take longer than some think.

Yet all of this was overshadowed by the shenanigans involving Edinson Cavani and Neymar, with a cameo by Dani Alves. It happened on this free kick when the two Brazilians briefly turned to some playground tricks to keep the ball away from the Uruguay international. And it happened again when PSG were awarded a penalty. Cavani eventually took it and missed it, but not before another round of back and forth with Neymar.

There are several points to make here. The first is that according to ESPN stats guru Frank Cipriano, Cavani actually has a better record than Neymar, dating back to 2013. He has converted 16 of 19 (including Sunday's miss) while Neymar has made 12 of 18. So perhaps Neymar might want to take this into account before appointing himself as PSG's "penalty god."

Another is that it doesn't take a genius to figure out that arguing with a teammate before he takes a penalty is unlikely to settle his nerves or increase the chances of making it. Maybe Neymar thinks Ligue 1 is such a cakewalk that it doesn't really matter, since PSG will stomp all over everybody regardless. If so, he may want to watch a highlight reel from the 2016-17 season.

There's an image issue too. There are enough people around the world who bear ill will towards PSG and Qatar for a whole range of reasons. If part of your master plan is to capitalize and monetize the PSG brand, having your star player be likable -- and not act like something out of a John Hughes movie, where the "cool kids" form a clique to bully the class dork -- is pretty key.

Most worrying are the words of Unai Emery, the guy who (in theory) is in charge of the team. Talk about passing the buck. Suddenly, they're both PSG's penalty-takers and they'll "sort it out between themselves."

Sure, why not? Maybe they can sort out the starting XI, too. And the substitutions. It's one thing to be a player's coach and, by the way, Cavani is a PSG player too; it's quite another to not have the spine to deal with this issue. This is one area where Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the club chairman, really ought to intervene.

The very least you can expect from a manager is that he exercise authority over the team. If he won't do what is a basic part of his job, then maybe PSG should find someone who will.

Man City might be the best in Europe right now

Ale Moreno says Man City's abundance of talent and squad depth is why they're such heavy favourites to win the league.

Last year, Manchester City traveled to Watford and won 5-0. At least this season couldn't possibly be any worse, some Watford fans opined on social media. They were wrong.

City won 6-0 on Saturday, and if anything, even that result doesn't fully underscore just how comprehensive their victory was. Guardiola reverted to the back four, paired Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Aguero up front and unleashed Raheem Sterling, Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva behind his front two. It was dizzying to watch, even just on television. Watford looked as if they had legitimate claims for offside on two of the goals, and Nathaniel Chalobah might have had a penalty. But take those incidents out of the mix, and City were absolutely devastating. Shades of early last year, in fact.

There are still potential weaknesses in this team, and managing so much talent -- especially when there is so much of it on the bench, too, pining for playing time -- will be a challenge. But right now, if you're a City fan, you ought to enjoy it. Arguably, nobody is playing better football in Europe.

Mayoral, Theo repay Zidane's faith for Real

After their unbeaten start to the 2017/18 Premier League season, Stewart Robson explains why Manchester United are favourites for the title.

This was a classic "trap" game. Real Madrid traveled to San Sebastian to face high-flying Real Sociedad without Marcelo, Toni Kroos, Karim Benzema, Mateo Kovacic and Cristiano Ronaldo. Spotting your opponents four starters and your most reliable reserve midfielder is not fun. Many expected Zinedine Zidane to conjure up some formation with Gareth Bale or Marco Asensio playing through the middle; instead, he put his faith in a 20-year-old, Borja Mayoral, who had seen just 14 minutes on the pitch before Saturday.

But Mayoral is something the others aren't: he's a genuine center-forward who makes a center-forward's movements on the pitch. And while comparisons to Alvaro Morata may be premature, he had a Morata-type game. He opened the scoring and then, after Kevin Rodrigues' stunning equalizer, forced the own goal that gave Madrid the lead before a brilliant Bale run made it 3-1.

It was a bold show of faith from Zidane, and one that was vindicated -- just as his trust in Theo Hernandez as an understudy to Marcelo has been amply rewarded. The teenage left-back's running battle with the outstanding Alvaro Odriozola was one of the game's more intriguing subtexts. The usual suspects -- Luka Modric, Isco and Asensio -- were their usual selves in what was a pulsating game against a quality side, brilliantly coached by Eusebio. The fact that Bale, after being booed last week, turned in a high-energy performance that took him all over the pitch is an added bonus.

Barca are still four points clear, but Madrid are lying in wait. That game, incidentally, marked the 73rd match in a row in which they've scored at least a goal, matching a world record set by Pele's Santos in the early 1960s. (Nope, I had no idea such a record existed either...)

And, perhaps best of all, the cavalry is on its way: Ronaldo's suspension is over.

Man United's late, late, late show continues

Steve Nicol can't believe Cologne are seeking a rematch against Dortmund after a questionable VAR ruling in their 5-0 loss.

For all of City's hype, Manchester United are right there alongside them in the table, and they have the same goal difference to boot. On Sunday, they hosted Everton. It wasn't just Wayne Rooney's return (and he put in a really good shift despite his off-the-pitch issues, the least of which is the two-year ban for driving under the influence he received on Monday) it was also United's sternest test since the European Super Cup against Real Madrid.

Without Paul Pogba, Jose Mourinho went for the oversize tandem of Marouane Fellaini and Nemanja Matic in the middle of the park. It worked -- to a point. Antonio Valencia's early pile-driver gifted them an early lead, although for much of the game Everton looked dangerous. Then, in what has been a regular theme this season -- nine of their 16 league goals this year have come in the final 10 minutes -- they opened the floodgates at the end on their way to a 4-0 win.

It may be a quirk. It may be a coincidence. But there is little question that Mourinho would much rather wrap up games earlier rather than later.

So what if Bayern aren't as dominant as last year?

Maybe the sky is really falling over Bayern and Carlo Ancelotti, as my colleague (and World Cup housemate) Raphael Honigstein often points out. But it didn't happen against Mainz on Saturday, as Bayern rolled to a 4-0 win that could just as easily have been twice as big: they also hit the woodwork twice.

Critics say he's too lax, that his training sessions aren't intense enough and that he relies too much on individual expression rather than the repetitive patterns of play popularised by Pep Guardiola and Louis Van Gaal. Maybe so. But it worked pretty well at his previous clubs, and it may have helped avoid the industrial quantities of injuries racked up by his predecessors. They're one point off the pace and have yet to be outplayed this season. Time to chill a little?

Dybala bounces back in style for Juventus

One thing we can say about Paulo Dybala is that if he does feel disappointed at his performances -- and he probably should have been mighty dejected after that second half against Barcelona in the Champions League -- he's not somebody who lets it affect him the next time he steps on the pitch.

Dybala was exceptional in Sunday's 3-1 stomping of Sassuolo, scoring a hat trick. Critics may say that it's all well and good, but the fact is he fluffed his past two appearances on the really big stage, in Cardiff against Real Madrid and last week at the Camp Nou. That may be true, but at this stage of his career, having the confidence to bounce back is often just as important.

Is this a bold new era for Atletico?

An Antoine Griezmann goal gave Atletico Madrid a 1-0 win over Malaga on Saturday, but the story was the new stadium, Wanda Metropolitano. It looked stunning on television; it must have been even better to those who were there in person.

It's a huge step forward for a club hoping to permanently break the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly. Goodness knows that in the Diego Simeone era, they've managed to do it on more than one occasion. What you're not sure about is if the Wanda Metropolitano comes towards the end of a cycle -- Griezmann's release clause went back down to $110 million, three-quarters of the starting defence is in its 30s and while perennial midfield stalwart Gabi is 34 -- rather than with the club on the rise. But even if it's the former, having a ground like this (once the teething problems, like vehicular access, are sorted) is bound to be a boost financially.

It had better be. The club took out a bridge loan from Mexican financier Carlos Slim and remains heavily in debt. Atleti are rolling the dice, and not for the first time. Though with Simeone on the bench -- and, hopefully, sticking around -- this club feels as if nothing is impossible.

Don't criticise Dzeko for being honest

Roma beat Verona 3-0 in a universal downpour Saturday, and Edin Dzeko bagged two goals. It was their first victory since opening day, but an incident involving Dzeko highlights just how sometimes we in the media make mountains out of molehills and stoke controversy where there really is none.

After the scoreless draw against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, Dzeko was asked what was different about Roma this season under their new manager, Eusebio Di Francesco. Dzeko (an intelligent grown-up) gave an intelligent grown-up answer: he talked about how in the new system the wingers stayed further wide and that he missed Mohamed Salah, who would often come inside.

Look! It's a footballer actually talking about football and tactics! We can't have that! The media in Italy saw it as an attack on Di Francesco, a questioning of his scheme, but it was nothing of the sort. It was a guy answering a question and speaking the truth. Di Francesco's system isn't necessarily better or worse; it's a different, and Dzeko told us why, from his vantage point.

Sometimes we in the media need to act a little more responsibly and not see a "dig" when there is none. Either that, or we'll get the same boring, anodyne and cliche-ridden answer that have become the staple of post-game interviews.

Cologne's call for a replay is embarrassing

I don't quite know what to make of the fact that Cologne want their game against Borussia Dortmund replayed, because the video assistant referee (VAR) protocol was incorrectly applied. Sokratis Papastathopoulos had scored for Dortmund, but the referee had disallowed it for a supposed foul on Cologne keeper Timo Horn.

The call was reviewed and overturned -- Horn had simply spilled the ball, without being fouled -- and the goal stood. Except, Cologne argued, it should not have stood because the referee had whistled for the foul a second before the ball crossed the goal line and as such, it was not a reviewable call under the VAR protocol.

All of this may be true, but coming out and saying you want a 5-0 defeat replayed on these grounds is simply preposterous. And embarrassing.

Yes, the referee applied VAR incorrectly, just as he could have made dozens of other calls that were incorrect during the game. You learn from it and move on. You don't replay a game. Particularly not one where your team concede five goals (OK, four, if you want to be pedantic) while scoring none.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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