Liverpool will rue Man City draw, Vinicius must calm down, more

Happy Monday! This weekend in European soccer was full of entertainment, high drama and storylines galore. We had Liverpool (minus an array of stars) force Man City to bunker down and protect the 1-1 draw in Sunday’s top-of-the-table clash, while Arsenal‘s late win over Brentford ensures we have a three-team Premier League title race. (Buckle up!) Elsewhere, Real Madrid got a big win, though Vinicius again lashed out at an opponent and was fortunate to escape serious censure.

In Germany, Harry Kane scored four goals as Bayern Munich thrashed Mainz and kept the English forward on pace to break the Bundesliga single-season scoring record just three years after Robert Lewandowski did it. Plus Man United’s Erik ten Hag made a clumsy analytics argument for their lackluster 2-0 win over Everton.

Look beyond results to the performances, and the top-of-the-table draw between Liverpool and Manchester City had an evident moral victor: the home team.

Not just because of the expected goals (2.50 to 1.37), not just because of that late penalty claim (Jérémy Doku on Alexis Mac Allister), and not just because Erling Haaland was largely silenced. Rather, it’s because in the second half, against a nearly full-strength Manchester City side who were by no means playing poorly, they had so much momentum that Pep Guardiola chose to play the percentages, replacing Kevin De Bruyne for the more defensive Mateo Kovacic in a bid to preserve the 1-1 draw.

It was the sort of conservative move that pragmatic managers take because it makes sense, and it worked. In the end, Sunday’s result leaves City a point off the top; a defeat would have left them four back and moved the needle squarely towards Anfield. But it’s also not something we associate with Guardiola, and the fact that he felt the need to explain it at length to De Bruyne — going so far as to leaving the bench to sit next to him in the stands and continue their discussion — underscores just what a departure it was.

It was Liverpool’s second-half performance that forced Guardiola into choosing to live to fight another day and for this, Liverpool should be proud. Under-strength — there are still a half-dozen first-choice players not in the starting XI, including Mohamed Salah, Alisson, Ibrahima Konaté, Diogo Jota and Trent Alexander-Arnold — and pitted against a City side that looked sharp and ready for them for much of the game, they managed to knock them off their stride in a riveting and entertaining match.

But in some ways, this should leave them fuming at the missed opportunity.

The penalty decision for Éderson‘s foul on Darwin Núñez — I’m not sure how there is any debate on this, and it’s pretty evident that if referee Michael Oliver had given the penalty, VAR would not have overturned — the opportunities missed by Nunez and Luis Díaz — and Dominik Szoboszlai in the first half — and still they have to share the spoils. That’s probably a sign of just how good City are too. Ultimately, despite being outplayed after the break, they only conceded following a brain fart from Ederson and Nathan Aké, and still hit the woodwork late with Doku.

Mondays normally bring a slew of second-guessing, but it’s tough to pick holes in anything Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp did Sunday. The pressing performance from Liverpool was as good as you’re going to see this season even though Diaz and Nunez, understandably, did run out of gas at the end. John Stones‘ goal may have come from a set-piece gimmick, but that makes it no less a stroke of genius. And City, even when they were on the back foot, didn’t look flustered.

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Marcotti calls Liverpool’s injury time penalty claim ‘stonewall’

Gab Marcotti reacts to a controversial end to Liverpool vs. Manchester City, as the hosts are denied a chance to win it from the penalty spot.

Where does this leave us? Well, in a very tight three-team race, for which we’re blessed, that’s for sure. The bookmakers have City as the favourites from here, and they’re probably right. Experience and staying healthy matter: Arsenal have a lot less of the former, while Liverpool have had more difficulty with the latter. But whichever way you slice it, it’s very close and could yet change, week on week. Just enjoy.

Real Madrid bounce back convincingly, but Vinicius is playing a dangerous game

Manager Carlo Ancelotti needed a solid performance from his Madrid side after three straight draws (and, let’s face it, a genuine stinker in the Champions League, against RB Leipzig in midweek that could have had grave consequences). With Jude Bellingham suspended, Ancelotti benched Toni Kroos, Aurélien Tchouaméni and Dani Carvajal, but their replacements starred in an impressive 4-0 win — never mind the fact that it was still just 1-0 with 15 minutes to go.

That’s the encouraging news. Less encouraging is that, for the second straight game, Vinicius could have got himself sent off. He reacted to Óscar Mingueza pulling his shirt by turning and shoving him to the ground after the foul was called — and this was a few days after his visible shove on Leipzig defender Willi Orbán in the Champions League. Maybe his short-term memory isn’t great, but he needs to stop reacting — especially when he gets the call. There was nothing malicious or dangerous in Mingueza’s pull-back: it’s the sort of (admittedly annoying) tactical foul we see every week. Put your hands on an opponent and you’re flirting with a booking or worse. It’s as simple as that.

Vinicius turns 24 this summer; he’s not a kid anymore. His game has grown in so many ways, but this aspect is letting him down. As a human being, you can maybe understand a violent reaction to the sort of racist abuse to which he’s been subjected or, indeed, hard fouls that put his physical integrity at risk. But not this. It doesn’t help him and it doesn’t help his team. The sooner he outgrows it, the better.

Havertz shushes his doubters, powering Arsenal into first place

Can I gloat a teeny tiny bit? Please?

Regular readers will know I hate labels on footballers (He’s an 8! He’s 6! He’s a 3.14!), and I especially hate the labels attached to Kai Havertz. So when he plays center-forward and does well, I get warm and fuzzy inside. He did that against Brentford, providing his usual off-the-ball pressing shift, offering quality in transition and, crucially, popping up with his fourth goal in the past five games, all from open play, as Arsenal won 2-1.

Brentford are an awkward and unpleasant side to face, whether at home or away. And when a blunder from your reserve keeper — because that’s what Aaron Ramsdale is right now, assuming Mikel Arteta has dropped the pretence — just before the half leaves you looking like you’re headed for dropped points, you want somewhere in the right place at the right time, like Havertz.

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Is this Arsenal’s time to win the Premier League?

Shaka Hislop discusses why he thinks Arsenal have the right mentality to win the Premier League this season.

Yeah, you can give credit to Martin Odegaard, who played some of his best football of the season, Declan Rice (who is especially devastating when he leaves the deep playmaking to someone else, like Jorginho) or Ben White, who did his Cafu impersonation. But given the stick Havertz got since his big money move, I choose to celebrate him. (Except for the dive, of course: Brentford are right to be angry, and he should know better. You’re not going to get those with VAR.)

With Porto and the Champions League last-16 up next in midweek (Porto hold a 1-0 aggregate lead from the first leg), Arsenal could have had a rough few days. Instead, they’re right in the thick of a three-team race for the title.

Kane’s hat trick in Bayern’s 8-1 demolition of Mainz puts Lewandowski’s record in his sights

Folks assumed that Gerd Muller’s record of 40 Bundesliga goals in a season would never be broken. They were correct — for 49 years, at least — until Robert Lewandowski notched 41 for Bayern in 2020-21. Less than three years later, it’s in serious danger of being broken again.

With Saturday’s hat trick in the 8-1 demolition of Mainz, Harry Kane is up to 30 goals in 25 league matches. That puts him on pace for 41, and if he nets 12 in his last nine matches, he will break Lewandowski’s mark. It would be a remarkable feat for many reasons; not only would Kane being doing it in his first season at the club, but he’d be doing it during what’s been a turbulent campaign: witness Bayern not competing for the title, coach Thomas Tuchel set to leave in the summer, etc.

Saturday’s drubbing of Mainz — who had won once since early November — felt like a team unleashing their frustrations on an inferior opponent having secured their spot in the Champions League quarterfinals last week. There’s not much to read into it other than seeing it as a reminder that Bayern have far better players than most of the teams they face.

Ten Hag would be well served to stay away from data

It’s simple, really. If you’re Erik Ten Hag and your Man United side wins a game, you should celebrate the three points, say that you still believe you can qualify for the Champions League and remind folks that you’re without a bunch of regulars. (Against Everton, he was missing Lisandro Martínez, Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia at the back, Mason Mount — don’t laugh, they paid £55 million for him — in midfield and Rasmus Hojlund and Anthony Martial up front).

That’s it. Do not get into statistical discussions, because you won’t come out looking well.

Of course, Ten Hag did the opposite. When someone highlighted the fact that they conceded 23 shots on goal to Everton at home — nearly double the amount the Toffees usually manage away from Goodison — he fired back that United’s “expected goals” was “far higher” than Everton’s. It was (2.64 to 1.77), but there’s a reason why analytics types look at non-penalty xG as a better benchmark (though Alejandro Garnacho‘s ability to force defenders into foolish challenges is a skill too).

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Marcotti hits back at Ten Hag defending Man United for giving up 23 shots

Gab Marcotti says Erik ten Hag should think carefully when talking about Manchester United’s numbers to avoid opening up a can of worms.

Without the two penalties, it was 1.08 to 1.77, which isn’t great — just like many of United’s data points this season, like shots (7th in the Premier League), shots conceded (17th), xG goal difference (12th), non-penalty xG (12th) and non-penalty xG conceded (16th).

Analytics are just one vantage point from which to view the game, and it’s not a flattering one for Manchester United right now. (Neither is the eye test, for what that’s worth, though he does have mitigating circumstances.) Just stick to the points total, which is what matters in terms of having something for which to play.

Bit of good fortune makes Bayer Leverkusen unstoppable

Bayer Leverkusen are undefeated this season and have a 10-point lead atop the Bundesliga, so you know they’re pretty good. But when an opponent gifts them a red card inside of half an hour, they become nearly unstoppable. It happened a week ago against Koln, and it happened against on Sunday against Wolfsburg, with Moritz Jenz collecting a second yellow in the 28th minute. It’s hard enough to play Leverkusen 11-on-11, but down one, it’s nearly impossible, as goals from Nathan Tella and Florian Wirtz (who had previously hit the post) sent Leverkusen on their way.

Now, the countdown begins. Any combination of 16 Leverkusen points and/or Bayern dropped points will deliver the title.

The irony: Juventus start dropping points just as they start playing well

It happened against Napoli a week ago, it happened again against Atalanta in Sunday’s 2-2 draw. After getting points (but not performances) for most of the season, things finally began clicking for Max Allegri in the past few weeks … and they dropped five points out of six.

Needless to say, the worst thing that can happen is for Allegri to overreact again and return to his safety-first ways. After being criticised left, right and center (and by me, too) for the way his team played, he got them playing attacking football and also got a tune out of his better players (Federico Chiesa is Exhibit A). A home draw against Atalanta — a game they would have won but for Teun Koopmeiners‘ heroics — isn’t the end of the world, especially when you’re missing Adrien Rabiot and Dusan Vlahovic.

At this stage, it doesn’t make a jot of difference if Juve finish second or third. It makes all the difference in the world — especially with a view towards next season — that they develop an identity and a way of playing that isn’t out of the dark ages. They’re doing that.

Emery’s plans backfire as Spurs romp at Villa to close in on top four

We know Unai Emery is unafraid to mix things up if it means his teams gain a tactical edge. Usually it works, but sometimes it blows up in his face. Sunday was the latter, and it hurts, because Tottenham are a direct rival for a top-four spot.

Their 4-0 loss wasn’t just a function of Emery redrawing Aston Villa with a three-man defence and a game plan of hitting on the counter — not to mention the fact that his hand was a bit forced by the absence of Boubacar Kamara. In fact, the plan to absorb pressure and release speedy frontmen Ollie Watkins and Leon Bailey one-on-one with Spurs’ central defenders was solid, and it nearly yielded dividends in a scoreless first half.

But when you have one fewer passer in your team, it’s that much tougher to break a high pressing side, and Spurs were hungry and ready to press. Their first two goals both came in transition and coupled with John McGinn‘s foolish red card — you expect more from one of your leaders — it pretty much ended the game, though they did concede another two in garbage time.

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Burley: Fans buying tickets to see Tottenham should be entertained

Craig Burley talks the turnaround Tottenham has had this season compared to last year.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but you wonder if a more considered approach might have resulted in a draw, one that would have kept Spurs five points behind them; as it stands, they’re just two points back and have a game in hand. Not to mention, Spurs have plenty of momentum.

Inter rotate team for trip to Bologna, but still notch 13th win in a row

With a massive lead in Serie A and a huge Champions League clash coming up in midweek, Inter boss Simone Inzaghi went into full “load management” mode. And he still got the three points away to surprise package Bologna, thanks to Yann Bisseck‘s diving header.

There’s an eerie efficiency to this Inter side. With key men like Lautaro Martínez and Fede Dimarco rested, they still played on the front foot and came close to scoring with Alexis Sánchez and Nicolo’ Barella, before getting the goal from Bisseck. That was in the 37th minute, and Inzaghi then did what you’d expect him to do: he took off his other regulars and spent the rest of the game letting Bologna play and looking for the counter. You almost felt he wouldn’t have been to bothered if they had conceded an equalizer.

That’s the luxury of being 16 points clear atop Serie A with just 10 games to go.

Memo to Atletico Madrid: This season’s not just about the Champions League quarterfinals

You could understand to some degree if Atletico got caught looking past Saturday’s opponent, Cadiz, and to the Champions League second leg with Inter (they’re 1-0 down from the first game). You’d understand, but you wouldn’t agree: they haven’t locked up a top-four spot yet in LaLiga (aka Champions League football next season) and their defeat at Cadiz, coupled with Athletic Bilbao’s win, means they’re just two points ahead of fifth place.

What you can’t understand is performances like the one in the weekend’s 2-0 defeat against a side that had not won a single game since Sept. 1. Atleti were limp in every area of the pitch, and we saw some absurd defending — especially on Juanmi‘s second goal. If they’re going to play like this, Diego Simeone is better off rotating his team and hoping that his second string want to impress.

Pulisic fires Milan into second place … does that mean the pressure is off?

Christian Pulisic scored the only goal as Milan downed Empoli to leapfrog Juventus into second place. They could have scored more, they made a bunch of changes having played on Thursday night in the Europa League and instantly, the reaction among some is that this will help coach Stefano Pioli “save his job.”

There’s a portion of the fan base who simply dislike Pioli and want him out. And fuel was added to the fire when owner Gerry Cardinale, in his Christmas message to fans, said he was “not happy” (and, ominously, his new adviser Zlatan Ibrahimovic was “not happy”) with Milan’s position. Way to unnecessarily ratchet up the pressure.

Pioli took it in stride, saying they’d evaluate things at the end of the campaign. From my perspective, given the injuries, given the seven new signings, given the tough Champions League draw, given the change in mentality the club is trying to effect … well, I don’t think this season is as bad as some make it out to be (and that applies even if they finish third, possibly even fourth).

Milan have had frustrating outings, and Pioli hasn’t gotten the best out of some of his guys. But let’s all remember where they were not that long ago …

PSG held by Reims as Mbappe is benched

Paris Saint-Germain were 13 points clear at the top of Ligue 1 on Feb. 18. After three consecutive draws (the most recent a 2-2 effort vs. Reims), their lead remains a healthy 10 points with nine games to go.

You assume this is the reason manager Luis Enrique wasn’t too worried and felt free to leave Kylian Mbappé (and Ousmane Dembélé) out of his starting lineup. There’s a French Cup quarterfinal coming up in midweek against Nice, there will be a Champions League quarterfinal coming up in early April, and there’s no need for Mbappe to play more than the 18 minutes he played.

It feels weird that one of the top players in the world seems to be in demo mode (except for the Champions League). But with his contract expiring in June (barring another change of heart), he won’t be back next year.

Luis Enrique seems to be planning for the future and evidently, Mbappe is OK with it. Stay fresh for the games that matter (and for France at the Euros and Olympics this summer). And if it makes you the highest paid part-time player in the history of the world, so be it.

Sancho powers Dortmund to huge win they could easily have thrown away … again

Forty-five minutes into Saturday’s away game at Werder Bremen, and everything was going swimmingly for Borussia Dortmund. They were 2-0 up — the second a turn-back-the-clock piece of magic from Jadon Sancho — they were bossing possession on the road and looked as if they were getting the necessary confidence to get past PSV Eindhoven and into the quarterfinals of the Champions League this week (the first leg, in Eindhoven, finished 1-1).

But this being Dortmund, you probably know what happened next: they nearly threw it all away. Marcel Sabitzer, who really should know better, got himself needlessly sent off in first-half injury time. Edin Terzic went into his prevent defense by removing Donyell Malen and sending on another central defender in Mats Hummels.

Bremen pulled one back, but the line held. Except playing 45 minutes on the back foot — and the last 25 with a 5-3-1 formation — isn’t exactly how you want to prepare for that PSV game.