Juve-Roma flawed but brilliant, Arsenal and Chelsea battle, Dortmund's woe
Juventus' clash with Roma was always going to be a tense, high-wire affair. That's what you get when you have two clubs that genuinely don't like each other and that have a poisonous history dating back decades.
We find comfort in clichés and stereotypes, so it's easy to read Juve's 3-2 win Sunday through that old and familiar lens, possibly because there is more of a grain of historical truth in it. The bianconeri thus are bullies who intimidate and manipulate referees, while the giallorossi are whingers with victim mentalities who blame others for their own shortcomings and crumble under pressure.
As I said, there is a backstory to explain why these clubs are often depicted with these broad strokes. But that doesn't mean things have to be that way forever. Or, indeed, that they are that way now.
Roma have grown up. They are a big-boy team now; in the Champions League against Manchester City and in Turin on Sunday, they showed grit and mental toughness, coming back after conceding an early goal on the road against top opposition. Sure, they did play the victim after the game. Roma captain Francesco Totti especially sounded as if he'd regressed 10 years to 2004, when he said: "Juve ought to be playing in a separate league by themselves, because by hook or by crook, they always win."
But when you pour so much emotion and intensity into 90 minutes -- and it was a riveting, end-to-end affair -- and concede three goals, each a function of a debatable decision, you're bound to say things you shouldn't.
Because, frankly, that's the flip side. Calciopoli happened; you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube. It will forever divide opinion between those who saw a corrupt system that delivered titles to Turin, and that segment of the Juve faithful who felt that if anything, they were the victims, they were acting in self-defence, everybody else was doing the same and, yes, the count stands at 32 scudetti.
So what to make of the officiating?
Referee Gianluca Rocchi had a horrible game. I'm not talking about the big decisions -- we'll get to those in a moment. I'm talking about keeping control. From the first tackle, players were surrounding him and getting in his face. Good referees on good days don't let this happen. They exert their authority, not necessarily by waving cards -- though sometimes it's necessary -- but in their mannerisms and body language. What they say, to who and when. Rocchi was not having a good day by any stretch.
- James Horncastle: Bitterness overshadows the beautiful game
As for the decisions that so incensed Roma? The worst, in my opinion, was the Maicon handball that led to the opening goal if only because Rocchi got two things wrong. Maicon was standing in the wall, his arm is up to protect himself, and the ball hit his elbow.
There are directives -- and, yes, it's not just about the Laws of the Game, but the directives issued to officials in how to interpret situations -- stating that a handball can be deemed intentional when a player increases his "volume" by unnaturally extending his arms. But that's not what happened here. If the ball doesn't hit Maicon's elbow, it hits his face.
The other error concerns where it occurred. Initially, Rocchi appeared to deem it was outside the box (and it was). But then Juve players pointed to the line of vanishing spray he had traced on the ground to mark out the distance. And that was in the box. What happened is that Maicon jumped forward and the impact occurred outside the area. It would never have got to this if Rocchi's original call had been correct, but the bad spot compounded the problem for Roma.
The other two decisions that led to Roma goals were far less clear-cut. Miralem Pjanic did catch Paul Pogba and, frankly, it's really tough to tell whether it was outside the box or on the line (which is considered part of the penalty area).
Also, Arturo Vidal was clearly standing in an offside position when Leo Bonucci unleashed his game-winning volley. Was he "interfering with an opponent"? The explanation in the Laws of the Game say the call must be made based on whether he is obstructing the keeper's line of vision.
In real time, I figured this was definitely the case. After countless replays -- and still frames taken from behind the goal -- I'm not so sure. In fact, it does appear that Lukasz Skorupski got a clean look as Bonucci struck the ball.
From a Roma perspective, you can see how this would smack of three big decisions going against them. But while one was a definitive error, the other two are far more fuzzy. What they do reek of is something that happens in every league and that referees constantly fight against. Bigger clubs, especially if they're at home, get the benefit of the doubt. It's an unconscious thing and it affects most officials. When they're certain, it's not an issue. When they're not and they have to make a split-second decision, they tend to err in what you might consider the less painful direction.
But this is no reason to evoke Calciopoli. That was something else entirely. As Roma manager Rudi Garcia said Monday: "There were lots of incidents which went against us out there ... but if we lost it's partly our own fault, too: We had two great chances to score and ended up being beaten by three set pieces."
The challenge now for both clubs is to move on. You're a Roma player and you're angry, you're frustrated -- let it all out. But once it's gone from your system, focus on something else. No need to keep talking about this all through the international break. The degree to which Roma can do this will help determine the degree to which Serie A has moved on.
Wenger, Mourinho as much to blame for ugly game
When it comes to the athletes-as-role-models trope, I'm with Charles Barkley: I just don't buy it. And I especially don't buy it when we're not even talking about athletes but two middle-aged men dressed in suits -- namely, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho.
I can, to some degree, imagine impressionable 12-year olds trying to emulate Cesc Fabregas or Alexis Sanchez. But a middle-schooler walking around trying to imitate Wenger or Mourinho? Call for help. Now.
So when I saw Wenger and Mourinho step to each other -- not once, but twice -- and the Arsenal boss plant a two-handed shove on the Special One, there was a part of me that reacted with glee. Bring it on. It's part of the show. These guys don't like each other and they're letting the world know. (Maybe the reaction was a function of formative years spent watching WWE wrestling and later graduating to ECW.)
But then I thought about it and what followed: a game increasingly marked by a succession of fouls ranging from the nasty to the irritating. Mourinho and Wenger themselves seemed in agreement that no fewer than three players should have been sent off. (Though, obviously, they disagreed on which three: Wenger had Chelsea's Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill and Oscar, while Mourinho opted for Arsenal's Danny Welbeck, Calum Chambers and Laurent Koscielny.)
I wonder whether we'd all be chuckling at the set-to between the managers if Welbeck's flying kamikaze tackle on Cesc Fabregas had resulted in the Spanish midfielder shattering his kneecap and missing the rest of the season. And, in the interest of fairness, whether Cahill's lunge had done the same to Alexis Sanchez.
Managers set the tone for games like this. It's one thing to go out there and show a bit of steel or occasionally cross the line. It's quite another to serve up tackles that can end someone's career. I'm not picking on Welbeck and Cahill; they're not particularly dirty players. But in that climate, taking their cue from their managers, they served up tackles that were both dirty and dangerous.
To me, that's reason enough to sanction Wenger and Mourinho. They should know better. When they behave like this, they help foster a climate where people get hurt -- and, yes, I realize it was Wenger who came to Mourinho and shoved him, but it's not too much to ask of a manager paid millions to simply step back and ask the fourth official to remove his opposite number from his technical area.
As for the game itself, Chelsea's 2-0 win served to reaffirm the fact that they are well ahead of Arsenal and the rest of the Premier League. Oscar did yeoman's work defensively, allowing Fabregas more reason to create, and Eden Hazard showed that when he turns on the afterburners, it will only ever end in a foul or a clean pair of heels.
Yet Arsenal didn't play badly, either. They weren't pushed around and they held their own for long stretches. In fact, it's the kind of losing performance from which you could take positives, both in terms of mentality and execution.
Dortmund are in real trouble
Now, it's a free fall. One point from four Bundesliga games. And three of them against opponents in the bottom half of the table: Schalke, Stuttgart and, on Saturday, Hamburg.
Dortmund boss Jurgen Klopp said prior to the game that "those who question our attitude have Alzheimer's." It was a comment in bad taste, of course, but also one that appeared distinctly off base to anyone who watched the game. Dortmund looked flat, sluggish and vulnerable against an opponent that, until that point, had scored just once this season.
Klopp's crew epitomize sterile possession. When you have a lot of the ball, you generally score either by being creative or by moving it quickly and executing well. It's an old truism. Right now, Dortmund have little creativity -- things improved a bit after Milos Jojic came on (but not much). Shinji Kagawa had an off day, and the movement of the front four looks disjointed and predictable.
Help will come when the likes of Ilkay Gundogan, Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan return from injuries. The question is how far back Dortmund will be when the cavalry comes.
Man United win, but Van Gaal still isn't happy
Another week, another win for Manchester United ... and another chance for manager Louis Van Gaal to point out flaws rather than celebrate strengths.
"I am always honest when I analyze the game, and it is now our second game that we are not good in the second half," he said. "We have to play for 90 minutes. I am responsible for the team and I have tried to improve [the organization], but I couldn't do that [today]."
The 2-1 win over Everton was marked by an excellent first half and a forgettable final half-hour that United spent mainly on the back foot, with David De Gea making at least two crucial saves -- the kind of saves no manager can account for, just as no manager can account for what happened last week against West Ham, when a goal by Hammers midfielder Kevin Nolan was disallowed in United's 2-1 win. Yes, it was the correct call, but it's not as if the defense allowed him to score because they knew the linesman would raise the flag.
Meanwhile, at the other end, things are unraveling for United to a comparable degree late in games. As John Brewin pointed out on Twitter, in eight matches under Van Gaal, United have failed to score after the 63rd minute.
Van Gaal blames his defensive organization, but it's also a question of personnel. If you're going to use Daley Blind as your lone holding midfielder, chances are he's going to tire because the Premier League isn't the Eredivisie and he's not exactly a stud athlete in terms of speed and stamina. When things get ragged at the back, you can paper over cracks if you have top-drawer centre-backs. If you have a 19-year-old making only his second-ever start alongside Marcos Rojo at centre-half, well, that's a different story. That isn't a knock on Paddy McNair, but nobody -- not even Bobby Moore or Franco Baresi -- was flawless in his second-ever start.
The fact is, we're nearing crunch time. Van Gaal pointed out that United are fourth in the Premier League despite not playing well, which implies they'll be even higher when they do play well.
Or you could say that last year at this time they were ninth, but had just one fewer point than they have now. And you could point out that in the next five games they face Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal (the latter two on the road). Remember how Van Gaal said his teams always start slowly and we ought to judge after three months? Well, by that stage, three months will have passed. To be ahead of where previous United manager David Moyes was, Van Gaal will need to collect more than 21 points by that stage, which means 11 or more from the next five. That seems like a tall order.
Cerci the fool as Atletico suffer Valencia's sting
Speed kills -- especially when your opponent stepped off the pitch just 65 hours earlier and the Lords of La Liga scheduled your game at 4 p.m. under a blazing sun. And when you've had all week long to prepare because you don't have any European commitments.
The result at the Mestalla was a three-goal Valencia blitz that left Atletico Madrid reeling, 3-0 down inside 15 minutes. It was a feather in the cap for the home team and coach Nuno Espirito Santo -- his critics had previously scoffed that his main credential for the job was his friendship with superagent Jorge Mendes. Javi Fuego's ability to find the roadrunners, Rodrigo and Paco Alcacer, was uncanny, and Atletico had no answer.
But the game could have taken a very different turn. Atleti's Mario Mandzukic pulled one back and Valencia keeper Diego Alves saved Guilherme Siqueira's penalty just before halftime, reaffirming his reputation as one of the goalkeepers you'd most like to have between the sticks in a shootout. Manager Diego Simeone's Atleti team were lively and focused in the second half, suggesting that once they got the wake-up call, they were more than up for it. That's why Simeone was right not to be overly concerned despite the result.
If he is concerned, however, it's about Alessio Cerci's uber-boneheaded play. The former Torino winger came on and immediately got himself booked for a nasty challenge. Then came the clincher in injury time. He used his arm to control a ball into the penalty area and slipped a neat finish past Alves before wheeling away to celebrate. Too bad that his handling was so blatant that the match official spotted it and booked him, which made it two yellows and marching orders.
Call him a cheat, fine. But you could also call him a fool. Even if he had somehow gotten away with it and scored, what would have happened? Atletico would still have been 3-2 down in injury time. They would (likely) still have lost the game, and he would have been humiliated in the media and become a marked man for referees.
Wanting to impress is great. Pushing the envelope of legality? Well, it depends on your point of view. Doing it when he did it -- and in the way he did it -- is downright stupid.
Ronaldo keeps scoring, Real keep winning
It's Oct. 6 and Cristiano Ronaldo has already scored 17 goals in all competitions this season. That's 17 in 11 matches, which works out to 1.55 per game. On Sunday, against Athletic Bilbao -- who may have had a bad start to the season but are nevertheless a Champions League side -- he scored three goals in a 5-0 win. It was the 22nd hat trick of his La Liga career, equaling the record held by the legendary Telmo Zarra and Alfredo Di Stefano.
Real Madrid leapfrogged Atletico in the table, moving up to fourth place. That's six wins in a row in all competitions -- and six games in which they averaged 4.5 goals per match.
Does it mean the early-season blip is over? Not so fast. We'll get a better sense in a couple of weeks, in a four-game spell that sees them face Liverpool home and away and, of course, Barcelona in the Clasico at the Bernabeu. But, yeah, right now it's looking promising.
PSG's problems run deeper than we thought
Paris St. Germain manager Laurent Blanc had hoped that PSG's 3-2 Champions League win over Barcelona last week would be a seminal point in his side's season -- a victory that coalesced the squad, banishing all the reports of grumblings and infighting.
PSG's 1-1 result versus Monaco on Sunday at the Parc des Princes suggests there's still a ways to go; PSG once again threw away a lead in the most absurd fashion, with David Luiz's botched clearance allowing Anthony Martial to beat Salvatore Sirigu.
Marseille are now seven points clear after making it seven straight wins thanks to a last-gasp winner from cult hero Andre-Pierre Gignac. Sure, PSG's results might improve when Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva return. But, frankly, if you need those two guys to get results in Ligue 1, maybe your problems run deeper.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.