Antonio Conte vindicated vs. Man Utd, Bayern seize on Dortmund's flaws
Big coaches make big decisions in big moments. Sometimes they get it wrong, sure, but you don't get to this level without having the guts to make bold moves of the kind that can boomerang badly. Antonio Conte did just that on Saturday when he dropped David Luiz -- and not just from the starting XI, but from the bench as well -- and he didn't hide behind excuses either, inventing "political injuries."
"It's a technical decision," he said. His words after the match, about how the Brazilian might return only if he worked hard, left little doubt: this was a punishment and a statement.
In the end, Conte was vindicated. Andreas Christensen did a fine job in the back three, the return of N'Golo Kante (perhaps Chelsea's single most important player) settled the midfield and offered a platform for the attack while Alvaro Morata's picture-perfect header gave Chelsea a 1-0 win over Manchester United. Sunday's victory doesn't solve all their issues, but it rolls back some of the gloom-and-doom after the smacking they took in Rome last Wednesday.
After a back-and-forth opening in which both teams had chances to score, Chelsea took over and never really looked back. Kante allowed Cesc Fabregas to take his time in the playmaker role while Tiemoue Bakayoko was free to break from midfield. Morata, meanwhile, was at his best, at times locking up all three United center-backs.
Jose Mourinho says he doesn't "cry" about injuries, but he was justified in bringing up the absentees after the match. The fact of the matter is that he knows a midfield duo of Nemanja Matic and Ander Herrera can't compete against a top team without a back three behind them. Paul Pogba's absence weighs heavily too: it's not a coincidence that Henrikh Mkhitaryan did his best work with Pogba and Juan Mata in the side. Romelu Lukaku was roundly criticized -- and the fact that he didn't get a single touch in the box was widely noted -- but it's also true that he was playing in a front two alongside Marcus Rashford, and it's pretty evident that neither is accustomed to it, as shown by the total lack of chemistry.
Many were expecting United to park the proverbial bus; in fact, they attempted to surprise Chelsea by being quite open and pushing the wing-backs up. But once Chelsea adjusted, there was little Plan B other than bringing on Anthony Martial and a semi-fit Marouane Fellaini. That wasn't going to be enough on a day like this.
The impression is that United have regressed -- more so in terms of performance than results -- since Pogba's injury. The fact that they're in second place without him means the damage has been limited. But they can't play like this and expect to truly challenge.
Expect an overhaul when Pogba (not to mention Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo) return.
Was Conte right to snub Mourinho?
With Mourinho, you're often left wondering whether the prematch mind games are just an exercise in getting an edge or whether he genuinely thinks and believes what he says. There's a long dossier there, with everyone from Arsene Wenger to Pep Guardiola, from Rafa Benitez to Claudio Ranieri, so it's not surprising that he would cross swords -- again -- with Antonio Conte, who of course wasn't about to ignore the goading.
It was an added ingredient to Sunday's game at Stamford Bridge between Chelsea and Man United, but ultimately it mattered little, other than the fact that Conte refused Mourinho's offer of a postmatch handshake.
"It's not important ... I've [shook hands with him] twice before, that's enough," he said. "What is important is respect on the pitch, not outside the pitch."
Part of me thinks Conte is wrong. You're in England, and that's the custom here: go along with it. It's part of a ritual. But then part of me (perhaps the professional wrestling fan in me) says "well done." If you don't like the guy and if you don't respect him, why should you go along with the hypocritical exercise? Especially if the next time you face off, you'll spend weeks sniping at each other anyway.
Going back to the wrestling analogy, this was clearly a "shoot," not a "work." So be it.
Bayern seize on Dortmund's ongoing flaws
It sort of felt like those announcements you might hear on train platforms: "Normal service has resumed."
After Bayern's 3-1 pounding of Borussia Dortmund away from home, the Bavarians are now four points clear of Leipzig at the top of the Bundesliga; three-and-a-half weeks ago, after Jupp Heynckes came on board, they were five points down. That swing is not all down to the venerable Jupp, of course: it also coincides with a yellow-and-black implosion. They haven't won since September in the league and Champions League and have been held by (no disrespect) APOEL on two occasions, results that suggest they'll be watching the round of 16 on television.
But we'll get to Dortmund's futility (and Peter Bosz) in a moment. This was as much about Bayern looking sharp and committed, possibly more so than at any time since their 3-0 hammering of Leipzig under Carlo Ancelotti last season. Some saw Heynckes as a classic "safe pair of hands" who would simply sit back and let the veterans run themselves. It wasn't a far-fetched conclusion: to be fair, he did announce his retirement four years ago.
Yet it's evident Heynckes isn't just there for the ride. He stuck James Rodriguez in the hole (Thomas Muller was out) and designed the side around him, while dropping Jerome Boateng to the bench (along with Arturo Vidal) and giving Niklas Sule the nod at the back. These are not the actions of someone preoccupied with preserving the status quo and keeping the big egos happy: this is what a serious manager does when he wants to send out what he thinks is the best possible side.
Heynckes was careful not to get carried away after the game and rightly so. In part, it's because Sven Ulreich had to make some big saves while Andriy Yarmolenko missed a couple of big chances and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was AWOL again: he's gone five games now without a goal. And, in part, it's because this is a Bosz team with all the peculiarities that implies, like the afterthought defending.
You saw it on Arjen Robben's opening goal (fine effort as it was) and more so on Robert Lewandowski's second. The way Omer Toprak seemed to not realize that there was a large Poland international playing for the opposing team steps away from him was just galling. Again: it was a great finish and a deflection, too, but in normal circumstances, a defender's job is to stop the ball from actually getting to the striker.
The fact that the game was played at a breakneck pace actually helped Dortmund, and certainly Christian Pulisic thrived, turning in one of his best performances this season. But again, Pulisic is one guy, and when the biggest threat comes from his individual runs, it's a sign that there isn't much of a Plan B.
Bosz says he plans to tighten things up. Not chopping and changing your lineup would be a good start: just three outfield players have played more than two-thirds of Dortmund's league minutes this season. Actually practicing defensive movements and not leaving your central defenders exposed time and again would be good too.
Wenger deflects as Man City roll on
Arsene Wenger called referee Michael Oliver's performance "unacceptable" on Sunday, adding that if City keep "getting decisions like that," they will be "unstoppable." Maybe he was having a bad day after the 3-1 defeat, but his reaction was way over the top.
Yes, the assistant referee (not Oliver) should have flagged for City's third goal as David Silva was quite clearly offside. And sure, maybe Raheem Sterling did allow himself to fall for Sergio Aguero's penalty, but this was far from a clear-cut mistake. Indeed, it's the classic case where when the shoe is on the other foot, you don't hear a peep.
Perhaps it was a way to avoid talking about his obsession with playing a back three even when he doesn't have three central defenders. (Francis Coquelin was drafted in and was awful: Arsenal looked much better when they switched to a back four.) Or maybe it was an attempt to deflect from the fact that his record signing and top goal scorer, Alexandre Lacazette, was left on the bench and has started just nine of Arsenal's 16 games this season. (The France international duly came on and scored.)
Or perhaps he wanted us to ignore the fact that, despite flurries of better play from Arsenal, this was still a hugely one-sided game, as the 1.83 to 0.31 expected goals count shows.
As for City, it's another box ticked in what has been a procession thus far. They've collected 31 of a possible 33 points in the league, have four wins from four games in the Champions League and boast a freakish goal difference. Last year, they started well and then collapsed. It could happen this season too, although the run has gone on longer than last season's.
You sort of feel that the season could be decided in the space of six days next month: the Manchester derby at Old Trafford, Swansea away and then Tottenham at home. Get through that unscathed and it will be hard to see this title going anywhere but the Etihad.
Juventus win again as Benevento hit a record low
Benevento have made history, although not in the way they wanted. On Sunday, they lost their 12th consecutive game since the start of the season, equalling the record (among "Big Five" leagues) set by Manchester United in 1930-31. The irony is that this was probably their toughest game thus far and could have gone in a wholly different direction.
Cult hero Amato Ciciretti actually gave them the lead away to Juventus and the "miracle" lasted just over an hour, until goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Juan Cuadrado restored normality and took us back out of the Twilight Zone. I know it sounds patronizing, but part of the reason Benevento are in this situation is that rather than hunkering down, they actually try to play. When you do that and you have substantially worse players than the opposition, you can get blown away. But at least you go down swinging.
As for Juventus, they got the job done despite a lacklustre and wasteful performance, especially in the first half. In terms of how they line up, the same thing I've written most weeks this season (and most weeks in the first half of last season) applies: they remain a work in progress. Still, they're one point off the top, which means they're ideally poised to strike when they do hit their stride.
Credit Valverde for his work at Barcelona
Ernesto Valverde may have tiptoed his way into the Barcelona job while we were distracted with 101 bigger stories, from Neymar to Josep Maria Bartomeu to the underwhelming transfers to Luis Suarez's funk, but if they do end up winning something important this season, he's owed a fair chunk of credit for steering the ship through stormy waters.
Saturday's win over Sevilla was a fine example. With a portion of fans more preoccupied with protesting the fallout from the Catalan declaration of independence (and taking their seats 10 minutes later), Suarez struggling and Lionel Messi only appearing intermittently, he had no choice but to put his fate into Paco Alcacer, who scored both of Barca's goals in a 2-1 win.
More impressive than that was the way Barcelona defended at the back and in the middle of the park against a side that may be hugely inconsistent but has plenty of firepower, especially when they feel they have nothing to lose. It wasn't a sparkling performance, but it was a building block, and that's how you construct league titles.
Overdue praise for Edinson Cavani
Paris Saint-Germain scored early and often away to Angers in a 5-0 win without Neymar, but this was really all about Edinson Cavani. His two goals took him past the 100-goal mark in Ligue 1, and having notched 112 in Serie A for Palermo and Napoli, he becomes only the third player in the past 20 years to have achieved the feat in two separate "Big Five" leagues, after Gonzalo Higuain (who did it last week) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (who did it two years ago).
It's not a stat that tells you much about the greatness of a player, per se: very good goal scorers tend to stay at their clubs, which means few get a realistic chance to set records like this. (For example, it's probably safe to say that had Cristiano Ronaldo stayed another season at Manchester United, he'd be in the club, too.) But it's still a rare feat, so much so that other than the legendary John Charles, who hit the marks with Leeds United and Juventus half a century ago, I can't think of anyone else who has done it.
(Before Liverpool fans jump all over me: yes, Kenny Dalglish did it for Liverpool and Celtic. And you can make a case that Scotland was a "Big Five" league at the time.)
Benzema booed as Real battle past Las Palmas
You can't accuse Zinedine Zidane of not trying out new solutions to get Real Madrid out of their funk. Against Las Palmas we saw a de facto 4-4-2, with Luka Modric given a day off (ahead of Croatia's World Cup playoff Thursday), a two-man midfield, Jesus Vallejo making his Liga debut at center-back and Isco and Marco Asensio starting out wide.
It's a bit hard to draw conclusions, in part because Las Palmas are terrible right now (seven straight Liga defeats and counting) and the match hung in the balance for a while before Madrid rolled to a 3-0 win in the second half. We did get to see (and hear) Karim Benzema being booed, often mercilessly, by a big chunk of his own fans, and here you get a sense of how the Bernabeu support is different from perhaps every other big club in the world.
While it's a rare occurrence, especially during the game, booing your own players does happen, and I don't have a problem with it. But it's usually reserved for guys who have snubbed the fans or have been seen to have disrespected the club in some way. And it's usually players who haven't been there very long.
Benzema is in his ninth season at the club. He's Real Madrid's seventh all-time goal scorer, he has played more than 350 games and has contributed to three Champions League titles (most recently six months ago). Just further proof that Madrid and the Bernabeu are unlike anything else in the game.
Just a thought for Jurgen Klopp...
It's just a thought, and it probably won't happen. But when you see Mohammed Salah and Sadio Mane blistering down the pitch on the counter like they did in Liverpool's 4-1 win away to West Ham, you can't help but wonder about it. What if -- only in certain games, only at certain times -- Jurgen Klopp ditched the high press and sat deep, getting his midfielders to add density (and cover) to his defensive set-up and looking instead for Philippe Coutinho to cue up the counter?
It's not progressive, it's not Klopp-ian and it's academic: he won't do it, perhaps rightly staying true to his philosophy. But as a Plan B in the right situations, it could be absolutely devastating.
Statement game for Roma's Gerson?
For the first two-plus years of his Roma career, it looked as if Gerson would end up as a punch line or the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question. He was signed for $20 million -- a hefty sum for a guy his age -- in the summer of 2015, just a few months after his 18th birthday, and made headlines for reportedly inquiring after the No.10 jersey (which, of course, is sacrilege at Roma because there can only ever be one No.10, and it's not him).
He was loaned back to Fluminense and then moved back to Roma in the summer of 2016. He made zero impression last season, other than when he got a surprise start against Juventus in December and was very poor, and this year he looked to be little more than Europa League fodder. But on Sunday, he scored two goals as Roma rolled to a big 4-2 win away to Fiorentina. What's more, he looked sharp. and the talent so many had drooled over three years ago appeared, albeit in glimpses.
If Gerson does live up to his ability, it will be an unexpected bonus for the giallorossi who, lest we forget, will be two points off the top of Serie A if they win their game in hand.
Fekir's ill-advised goal celebration
Memo to Nabil Fekir. It's great that you want to emulate Messi, but please remember: context matters. The Olympique Lyonnais forward whipped off his shirt and held it up to the opposing fans after scoring to make it 5-0 away against St Etienne. This prompted a pitch invasion -- it is, after all, a fiercely contested derby -- that held up the game for some 20 minutes.
It was similar to Messi's gesture in the Clasico last season, except that came after a late winner and in front of a wholly different set of fans. That was a celebration. This, coming after a fifth goal against 10 men in a fixture with a history of crowd trouble, was rubbing it in. It's not a coincidence that his own manager, Bruno Genesio, criticised Fekir after the match.
Bas Dost scored in Sporting's 2-2 draw with Braga, which leaves them second in the table. He now has nine goals in 11 league matches, putting him on pace to score 28 league goals this season. Overall, he has in 10 in 17 games in all competitions.
This concludes the latest installment of #BasDostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.