If Saturday night at the San Siro really did the decide the Serie A title — and it sure as heck looks that way — then neutrals could not have asked for much more in terms of drama, emotion, incident and controversy.
Juventus took the lead with a deflected Douglas Costa goal, and inside 20 minutes they had the man advantage too, with Matias Vecino’s stamp on Mario Mandzukic earning a VAR-assisted red card. Juve had another goal disallowed (with help from VAR) before Mauro Icardi’s header levelled matters shortly after the break. Just inside the hour mark came the call they’ll be talking about all week: Miralem Pjanic, already booked, collides with Rafinha and isn’t shown a second yellow.
A furious, undermanned Inter nevertheless took the lead as Andrea Barzagli turned Ivan Perisic’s cross into his own net. Inter were taking massive step towards the Champions League, and Napoli, who played the following day, could almost feel their third scudetto in club history.
Then came Luciano Spalletti’s changes, specifically sending on David Santon (a defender) for Mauro Icardi (a striker). And then came Juve’s wild comeback with two goals after the 87th minute. First came a Milan Skriniar own goal off Juan Cuadrado’s cross, and then Gonzalo Higuain, who had done close to nothing until that point other than squandering a sitter, popped up at the very end with the winner.
You get exhausted just writing the above.
Referee Daniele Orsato is obviously in the eye of the storm, and given Juve’s history with referees, even more than a decade after Calciopoli, there’s an ugly tinge to the criticism. As I see it, not showing Pjanic a second yellow for the sort of play a safety might make on a wide receiver over the middle was simply wrong. Orsato does have a reputation of being a guy who lets play run and doesn’t call niggling fouls or hand out cheap cards, but this was tough to swallow.
That said, before we get carried away with conspiracies, he was lenient in real time on Vecino before VAR (and the grisly post-match photos) confirmed it was a cast-iron red. A different official might have sent Barzagli off for going above the ankle on Icardi, but letting it slide in some ways is in keeping with Orsato’s approach, and ultimately what is asked of refs is consistency.
But there are also some basic takeaways that ought not be overshadowed by the Pjanic (non-)decision. Inter were heroic in fighting back with 10 men for some 70-plus minutes. Icardi, Rafinha and Marcelo Brozovic were outstanding: when they’re in this form, they are clearly Champions League knockout material.
Luciano Spalletti’s changes altered the game. He got hammered and rightly so for the Santon-Icardi substitution, not just because Santon was complicit on Juve’s equaliser (mistakes happen) but because football is also about emotion and momentum and removing your captain at that stage deflated the side. What’s more, his first substitution only came nine minutes from time. When you’ve spent most of the game with 10 men and your players are clearly exhausted, as many were, why not act earlier, just not with Icardi? It’s true that Inter don’t have a deep bench but neither do they have Real Madrid-calibre starters. Some fresh legs earlier on might have made a difference.
As for Juve, much praise is given for the nine lives they seem to have in terms of pulling out late winners. But the sterling performance at the Bernabeu seems far away. Allegri is backing in towards the title. For much of the game, they seemed to play with fear and insecurity, incapable of imposing themselves and making the extra man count. It’s true that he sent on Paulo Dybala and Federico Bernardeschi to change it, but that was in a moment when he had few alternatives.
Perhaps peak Allegri was reached after Higuain’s winner. Worried that his players were celebrating too much and wouldn’t be concentrated enough after the restart, he ran on to the pitch to shout at them — and got himself sent to the stands as a result. You can admire the attention to detail, but the confidence we’d seen in in him in past seasons simply wasn’t there.
Meanwhile … Napoli implode
Some 10,000 Napoli supporters gathered to give the team a send-off before Sunday’s match against Fiorentina. You can only imagine how deflated they must have been on Saturday night watching Juventus come from behind to beat Inter, restoring the four-point gap atop Serie A.
Did that carry over into their performance at Fiorentina? Who knows?
It’s more likely that the red card for Kalidou Koulibaly, Napoli’s hero the previous week, after just six minutes had a bigger impact. VAR played a key role. Originally, the referee had booked Koulibaly and awarded a penalty but replays showed the foul was outside the box. That meant no penalty, but a straight red and you’d imagine Napoli would have preferred it the other way around. Maurizio Sarri sacrificed a midfielder, Jorginho, to send on a defender and in one fell swoop, Napoli lost both their best center-back and their midfield playmaker.
Giovanni Simeone’s hat trick sent Napoli crashing to a 3-0 defeat. And while the game was closer than the scoreline suggests, it did feel as if the club ran out of steam. It’s not over yet, of course. But Napoli need to run the table while hoping that Juve drop points not just against Roma away (possible) but also either against Bologna or Verona at home. The likelihood of both outcomes happening appears decidedly remote.
Finally, Barcelona can celebrate their title
Barcelona locked up La Liga by defeating Deportivo La Coruna, who are desperately trying to avoid relegation, by going 2-0 up, getting pegged back to 2-2 and then winning 4-2. Along the way, Lionel Messi notched a hat trick, taking his seasonal total to 43 goals. Thirty-one of those came in La Liga, making it the seventh year that he passed the 30-goal mark in La Liga, which is simply absurd, like most of his career.
Plenty has been written about this Double-winning season. It’s worth reminding ourselves how it started: the traumatic departure of Neymar, calls for Jose Maria Bartomeu’s impeachment, Ousmane Dembele’s long-term injury, Philippe Coutinho only arriving in January — whichever way you spin it, Ernesto Valverde deserves massive credit in squeezing the most out of this team. The fact that he screwed up so royally against Roma (and, perhaps, was fortunate against Chelsea the round before) doesn’t change his body of work. Managers get things wrong; the clever ones, though, learn from their mistakes. The fact remains that this Barca side, starting at a very low ebb, won the Double and is undefeated thus far in the league.
Conventional wisdom has it that Valverde took Barca in a different direction, making them more solid and efficient. That may be true but they’re still on pace to finish with 96 points, which would be their third-highest total ever. That defensive solidity might also be a bit of a myth depending on your vantage point. They’re on pace to concede just 23 goals, which would be their third-lowest total in the past decade. But in terms of expected goals conceded, they’ve given up nearly one a game, which is marginally worse than the past two seasons and substantially worse than 2014-15.
Their priorities now seem pretty obvious. Lock up Samuel Umtiti to a long-term deal. Continue to figure out how to best integrate Dembele and Coutinho. Develop a succession plan for Sergio Busquets. Another striker and another central defender for depth wouldn’t be bad either.
Whichever way you put it though, few would have predicted this nine months ago…
Buvac situation comes at awful time for Liverpool
Liverpool were held to a scoreless draw by Stoke on Saturday morning, but the real news from Anfield this weekend came on Sunday, with news that Jurgen Klopp’s right-hand man, Zeljko Buvac, would not be involved with the club for the rest of the season. Buvac is a former teammate of the Liverpool boss and the pair have worked side-by-side for most of the past 17 years. Klopp himself said on several occasions that Buvac was the “brain” of the operation.
The club said Buvac was spending time away for “personal reasons” and dismissed reports of tension between him and Klopp.
It’s always tough from the outside to judge how important an assistant coach is to a team. What we do know is that Buvac wasn’t just the guy with long, jet-black hair who sat next to Klopp; he had a big role on the training pitch, often running sessions directly. We also don’t know the circumstances: “personal reasons” can mean just that or they can be PR-speak for something more serious and some media were speculating that he had grown distant from Klopp in recent weeks.
Whatever the case, we’re 72 hours away from Liverpool’s biggest European game in a decade, the return semifinal against Roma, and the club need this like they need a hole in the head right now.
Wenger’s final game at Old Trafford
With Manchester United having pretty much locked up second place (and thinking ahead to the FA Cup final) and Arsenal with little to play for (and thinking ahead to the Europa League semifinal), Sunday’s 2-1 home win at Old Trafford was almost as anticlimactic as any clash between these two that you can remember.
I say “almost” because it was Arsene Wenger’s last appearance at the home of United. Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, two guys with whom he’s had tons of acrimony in the past, greeted him warmly. I’m not a mind-reader; I don’t know what they really think of him. When you’re as fierce a competitor as those two, odds are the past sticks.
Cynics will be cynical, but I like to think those poses were genuine. Those three are in a very special club of men who have worked in football at the highest level in the most exposed jobs. They may not like each other, but there’s a common bond that remains unbreakable.
Real take it easy against Leganes
Real Madrid only have eyes for the Champions League at this stage, which is why we saw a team chock-full of reserves (with Casemiro at center-back no less) defeat Leganes on Saturday. It finished 2-1 with goals from Gareth Bale and Borja Mayoral.
The only real question is who will join Cristiano Ronaldo in the front three on Tuesday night, especially now that Karim Benzema doesn’t feel as indispensable as he once did. It’s anyone’s guess, but if Isco is fit (he returned to training Sunday), I’d imagine he’d go with Isco and Marco Asensio.
Where does Unai Emery go after PSG?
Last week, Unai Emery announced he will step down as Paris Saint-Germain boss at the end of the season. He will leave the club having won five of six major domestic trophies. (OK, technically he hasn’t won the French Cup yet. PSG are in the final against a third-tier side called Les Herbiers. I’m assuming they’ll win given that Les Herbiers actually beat just one team above them in the French pyramid on their run to the final. That and the fact that if he loses this game, he may as well retire).
You wonder what’s next for him and how the marketplace sees him. After all, he’s still the guy who won three straight Europa League titles at Sevilla, and while those Champions League exits hurt him (as does the title not won last season), it’s worth noting they came against Real Madrid and Barcelona, the latter with rather controversial officiating.
My guess is he’ll have to dial it down a notch with his next job, which may actually suit him just fine. Some people struggle working at the very top.
Can Chelsea get into the top four?
Antonio Conte picked Olivier Giroud ahead of Alvaro Morata (not for the first time) and Chelsea squeezed out a 1-0 victory over Swansea, their third straight away win in the Premier League.
The victory does keep alive their (flimsy) hopes for a top-four finish. They will obviously need to run the table: beating Liverpool and Huddersfield at home and Newcastle away. Tough, but not impossible. They’ll also need Liverpool to drop points against Brighton at home on the last day of the season, and that’s where things get interesting.
On paper, Brighton are relatively safe and might have nothing to play for, but given that their next two games are against Manchester City and Manchester United, they may need a point at Anfield. Equally, Liverpool may want to rest players ahead of the Champions League final.
Depay is the man in Lyon
Lyon are absolutely on fire in Ligue 1, driven by a Memphis Depay who is back to where he was ahead of the 2014 World Cup. The Dutch international has scored in each of the past six games, and Lyon have won seven in a row.
Too often we mistake bad performances for lack of talent. Talent was never Depay’s problem at Manchester United: it was consistency and decision-making. This is the player Louis Van Gaal bought and that United fans didn’t get to see.
Man City’s attack takes many forms
In some ways, it’s perhaps self-fulfilling. Manchester City scored more goals than everybody else in the Premier League so it stands to reason that there would be more City players near the top of the assist table.
But still, it’s pretty remarkable to see this list, with the top four spots all occupied by City players (Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane, David Silva and Raheem Sterling). It speaks to City’s scoring, sure, but also to the way they play and spread the chances.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.