How about that for a boomerang? In the binary world of Spanish football, this was the sort of gaffe that does double damage. Right now, Barcelona should be sitting back and enjoying the fruits of a Double-winning campaign that saw them go undefeated in La Liga. Maybe send their old rival from the Bernabeu a few postcards ahead of Kiev, too, just to ratchet up the pressure.
Instead, they’re dealing with a PR disaster after the dramatic 5-4 defeat away to Levante (a team with nothing to play for) and, above all, the decision to “rest” Lionel Messi ahead of a friendly match in South Africa on Wednesday.
This is a situation where optics matter and from Barca’s perspective, they are frankly atrocious. To the world, it looks as if they threw away the chance to make history by agreeing to play a friendly match before the end of the season so that they could rake in some extra millions. But because it’s halfway around the globe, they rested a bunch of players to do it, including their star asset. And they paid a heavy price for their money-grubbing greed.
We may never know who exactly decided what and when, so let’s stick to what we do know. Messi was rested and Gerard Pique left on the bench (although he came on after half an hour). Those two factors signal the reality that Ernesto Valverde thought this game, or at least the draw, was going to be close to a gimme. As for the greed argument, it’s not as if Jose Maria Bartomeu is going to pocket whatever appearance fee (which, by the way, probably isn’t going to be enormous like a trip to the Gulf) Barca earns.
Friendlies like this one often do have stipulations about who makes the trip and who plays and, for the biggest stars, how many minutes they are on the pitch. So it’s entirely possible that this is what happened with Messi. On the other hand, Barca have one game left, at home to Real Sociedad. If he was rested, it’s rather hard to believe that it was Valverde’s idea — not unless he’s suddenly become Jorge Sampaoli’s assistant with Argentina and is looking ahead to the World Cup.
A more plausible explanation — and this is purely speculation — is that Messi asked to miss the trip and when Barca found that contractually it would not be possible, he was given Sunday off instead. Either way, it’s not a good look.
All that said, it doesn’t change the fact, as Valverde pointed out after the match, that Barcelona contrived to give up five goals. Or that they’ve kept one clean sheet in the past two months, giving up an average of nearly two goals a game after having, for much of the season, the best defence in La Liga.
Give Allegri serious credit for Juve’s latest title
Juventus’ 0-0 draw away to Roma means they’ve sealed their seventh consecutive Serie A title. Chief executive Beppe Marotta said it was the toughest of the streak, and he’s right. Napoli pushed them hard for much of the campaign, as evidenced by the fact that they too may yet break the 90-point barrier.
Staying hungry and motivated for so long is no minor feat either. As Rocky Balboa likes to say, “time is undefeated” and there were moments when it looked as if this old prizefighter was going to wobble and collapse.
We sometimes overstate the importance of managers, but in this case, a whole load of credit has to go to Max Allegri. He didn’t just win his fourth straight Serie A crown with Juve; he also won his fourth straight Coppa Italia, making it four Doubles in four years. And while it’s true that Serie A isn’t as deep and competitive as it was once upon a time — and the continued underperformance of the Milan clubs, who have the financial clout to challenge Juve, favours them — it’s equally true that his European performances speak for themselves. In four years, he reached two Champions League finals, and on another two occasions, he was twice knocked out with virtually the last kick of the game (against Bayern and Real Madrid). That makes it pretty clear that he and his team belong at the top table.
Juventus have the most resources in Serie A and the best squad, but it still takes a certain character to keep everything together. Allegri navigated the acrimonious loss of Leo Bonucci in the summer (again, now it doesn’t seem so important, although at the time everyone was going all Chicken Little), he had the courage to bench Paulo Dybala (who nevertheless scored 26 goals) when he deemed it necessary, he found the right balance in midfield, he coaxed performances from the old legs of Andrea Barzagli, Giorgio Chiellini, Sami Khedira, Mario Mandzukic and Gigi Buffon.
Cheering against Juventus is a national sport in Italy — it happens when you’re dominant, just ask Bayern or, back in the day, Manchester United — but this season he also had to contend with a Napoli side that were a genuine feel-good story, as well as some of his best performers from past years taking it down a notch or two (Stephan Lichtsteiner and Alex Sandro are exhibits A and B). And he did all this while being linked, again, with a move away from the club.
This being Italy, we’ll always wondered what would have happened if Miralem Pjanic had received that second yellow against Inter, and it’s fair to do that. But equally, take nothing away from what Juventus achieved this season.
Man City’s remarkable 100-point mark
Gabriel Jesus’ late, late goal at Southampton meant Manchester City became the first team to reach the 100-point mark in Premier League history. How rare is it for a team to reach triple figures in a 38-game season in one of Europe’s Big Five leagues?
Exceedingly so. If you account for the fact that the Bundesliga plays a 34-match campaign and include Bayern in 2012-13 (they had 91 in 34, which projects past 101), then it has only happened three times: Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona (2012-13), Antonio Conte’s last Juventus side (2013-14) and Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid (2011-12). But then you realize that all of this took place since 2011 and that the Ligue 1 record (96 points for Paris Saint-Germain in 2015-16) also happened in that time frame and you wonder what the proper context for it is.
This is by far the most polarized period in the history of the game, where the gap between the haves and have-nots is as great as it has ever been. It doesn’t diminish any of these achievements, but it’s simply a matter of fact and it doesn’t looks as if it’s going to change any time soon.
What does Mourinho, Faria split mean?
The thing about assistant coaches is that from the outside, it’s really tough to judge what they contribute or even how they contribute. If they’re attached to successful coaches, you assume they’re an important part of their success, especially if they’ve been around a long time. But equally, it’s very tough to draw conclusions about how they might handle a job on their own or how much of an impact their departure would have. (Sir Alex Ferguson famously cycled through assistants every few years and scarcely missed a beat.)
The fact that Rui Faria and Jose Mourinho are splitting up after 17 years together — and amicably, by all accounts — is tough to read and any predictions will, invariably, be guesses. What you can say quite confidently, having spoken to players and coaches who have worked with both of them, is that Faria was a key component of the “Mourinho package” and that his knowledge and understanding of the game, while not always completely aligned with his boss, runs deep.
Real’s big win creates Bale dilemma for Zidane
It was classic “end-of-season, school’s out” stuff when Real Madrid hosted Celta Vigo on Saturday, and the 6-0 home win was perhaps more about avoiding injury and helping Zinedine Zidane figure out how his pieces might fit together in Kiev.
Achraf Hakimi turned a fine performance at right-back and is a fair alternative to jack-of-all-trades Nacho should Dani Carvajal not recover. But it was Gareth Bale, who notched two goals and offered another reminder (after his strike in the Clasico) that he too can take it to another level. You wonder whether Zidane might not be tempted to ride form, and nostalgia, and go back to the “BBC” against Liverpool.
You wonder too how his future will pan out. Last season Bale missed half the campaign and Real Madrid were often better without him. This year he’s up to 18 goals in 37 appearances, which is a tidy total given who he plays with and that he rarely lasts 90 minutes. Conventional wisdom has it that, at 28 years old, and with Marco Asensio and Isco on board plus possibly another attacking superstar on his way in, the club should cash in on him.
On the flip side, he earns north of $17 million a season, is on the hook until 2022, and because of his style of play, any club he joins will likely have to adjust to him, more than the other way around.
Salah sets a Premier League record
Mohamed Salah scored the opening goal for Liverpool against Brighton thereby breaking the Premier League era record for most top-flight goals in a 38-game season, previously held jointly by Luis Suarez, Alan Shearer and Cristiano Ronaldo. (The overall Premier League record is 34, held by Shearer and Andy Cole, and that was in a 42-game season.)
Regular readers will know that I don’t like the concept of Premier League records since football didn’t begin in 1992, so let’s get this out of the way: Dixie Dean scored sixty (yes, sixty) in 42 games in 1927-28. But in the past 50 years, only four men have scored more than Salah in a single English top-flight season, whether it be 42 or 38 games: Francis Lee, Clive Allen, Shearer and Cole. And that on its own is remarkable before you even get to the fact that Salah is not a traditional center-forward.
Hamburg finally suffer relegation
You draw more than 50,000 fans a game. You’re from the second biggest city in Europe’s biggest economy. No German club (other than Bayern Munich) have been in more finals than you have. You’re one of only three Bundesliga clubs to have been European champion. In terms of revenue (despite not benefitting from European football, because you haven’t had that in ages) you’re in the top half of the table. And you’re middle of the pack in wages.
You really should not be getting relegated. Instead Hamburg, who went down on Saturday, have found themselves in relegation dogfights almost every season of late. This is more than mere underachievement; this is failure on a grand scale. And it’s likely systemic because they’ve had 13 different managers (excluding caretakers and counting Bruno Labbadia’s two stints separately) since February 2007.
The club’s hyper-democratic statutes probably don’t help — nobody is allowed to own as much as a quarter of the club — but the issues go well beyond that. If you make foolish choices time after time eventually you get punished.
Time for Balotelli to get Italy recall?
Mario Balotelli continues to divide opinion. The pro-Mario faction in Italy suggest that it’s time for the Azzurri to welcome him back into the fold (he hasn’t played since that defeat against Uruguay in 2014) and they cite his 18 Ligue 1 goals this season and how it’s “just one less than Neymar”.
Well, yes. But if you take penalties out of it, it’s actually three less than Neymar. And Neymar appeared in seven fewer Ligue 1 games. So maybe let’s leave the Brazilian out of this, shall we?
A more compelling argument is that Balotelli’s behaviour has been far more consistent, both on the pitch and off it. He has 26 goals in 37 appearances in all competitions, which is a pretty good total and the highest of his career by some distance. Throw in the fact that the likely new Italy boss, Roberto Mancini, knows him very well and that the Azzurri front line isn’t exactly packed with talent, and yes, at the very least it’s worth giving him a shot.
After all, Italy don’t have much else going on this summer.
Neymar exit saga begins early at PSG
Neymar won the Ligue 1 Player of the Year award in the week that PSG stumbled to a 2-0 home defeat to Rennes in one of those classic end-of-season games in which the team that needs the points gets the points. You can scoff at the French league all you like, but when you’re third in goals and top in assists and have only played 20 league matches — well, that tells its own story.
PSG chairman Nasser Al-Khelaifi says that the Brazil star will “2,000 percent” be with PSG next season, and Neymar himself, although stopping short of committing, said the transfer speculation is annoying. That may be the case, but there are plenty of elephants in the room, and that’s why he continues to be linked in the media with the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United. Not to mention the fact that everybody remembers that this time last year he would have called speculation about a move away from Barca “annoying” as well.
The other sticking point is financial fair play. In the next few weeks, PSG will find out if they’ve breached FFP requirements in signing Neymar and Kylian Mbappe and whether they’ll be sanctioned for it. The range of punishments goes right up to exclusion from the Champions League, fines, squad restrictions and a freeze on transfers. It’s unlikely they’ll be kicked out — although if guilty, they would be two-time offenders — but the fact remains that until that is sorted, nobody can definitively say what will happen.
This might explain why Neymar simply calls the speculation “annoying” rather than joining his boss in throwing out mathematical impossibilities.
Conflict of interest for De Vrij?
By all indications, Lazio’s Dutch center-back Stefan de Vrij, whose contract is running down, has signed to play for Inter next season. It puts him in a rather curious position since Lazio and Inter are competing for Serie A’s final Champions League spot and face each other next weekend: Inter need to win to qualify.
Talk about conflict of interest. Take all ethical considerations out of it and look at it purely from a rational Ayn Randian perspective and de Vrij should intentionally underperform against his new club. Doing otherwise might cost him a chance to play Champions League football (and with it, money and glory) while also costing Inter tens of millions of dollars.
Of course, thankfully, we live in a world of principle as well. De Vrij showed what he’s made of Saturday by turning in a monster performance for Lazio against Crotone, including a goal-line save. It will be curious to see whether Lazio boss Simone Inzaghi (there have been conflicting reports) trusts him against Inter next week.
Either way, the obvious conclusion is that no player should even find himself in this position, and yet it happens time and again, particularly in Germany and Italy.
Bas Dost scored for Sporting in their 2-1 defeat away to Maritimo. The loss means they finish the season in third place, 10 points behind the champions, Porto. He finishes the league season with 27 goals in 30 league matches. Overall, he has in 33 in 46 games in all competitions.
This concludes this instalment of #BasDostWatch.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.