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Man Utd-Liverpool reflections, Barca's blip, Bayern march on, Juve slip again

Apart from club allegiances, how you viewed Manchester United's 3-0 victory over Liverpool probably depends on your approach to watching football.

Are you a purist and an aesthete? The game was terrible, an ode to mis-hit passes and bad defending. As Alan Shearer put it on Match of the Day: "The standard of passing for both teams was just so poor..."

Are you a short-attention span type who enjoys goals, thrills and spills? If so, it wasn't so bad. There were plenty of chances and not all of them the result of individual -- or collective -- errors.

Are you of a tactical mind? Then you might actually have enjoyed two managers with the guts to go beyond the same old, same old. Brendan Rodgers' choice of a back three without a recognized striker was bold and interesting while Louis Van Gaal's interpretation of the game -- in this case sticking Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata in midfield and having Michael Carrick spearhead a back three -- is almost always creative.

And what if you're a Liverpool or Manchester United fan?

Well, then it depends if you're of a sunny, glass half-full disposition or if you're one of those grumps who always highlight the negatives. Because, ultimately, both teams had plenty to cheer and plenty to be concerned about. This was one game where, more than most, you want to find some kind of balance.

Liverpool were much more proactive and created at least half-a-dozen chances. They did it through passing and movement in the final third, precisely the qualities that had so often gone missing for them this season.

Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho -- and, when they came on -- Mario Balotelli and Lazar Markovic did what they're supposed to do. Contrary to what we've seen in the last few games, it showed that Liverpool can create chances even without Daniel Sturridge.

Should they have converted them? Obviously. But then again, when you face a goalkeeper who, in hockey parlance, "stands on his head", sometimes that doesn't happen.

David De Gea was credited with nine saves in Manchester United's 3-0 win vs. Liverpool.

David De Gea was exceptional. So much so that Ole Gunnar Solkskjaer, usually a company man, hailed it on TV as the best performance he had ever seen from a United keeper at Old Trafford ... and he played with two guys named Peter Schmeichel and Edwin Van der Sar.

If you're United, it's six league wins on the bounce. The last time that happened, there was a Scottish manager on the bench. And it wasn't David Moyes.

United are third, five points clear of fifth-placed Southampton and they're winning without four summer signings -- Daley Blind, Angel Di Maria, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw -- who cost nearly $200 million between them. (Actually, you could make it five and throw in Radamel Falcao, given that in the past 10 weeks he's played a paltry 47 minutes).

But heck, it's all about results, right?

Not to Van Gaal.

"We have to improve," he said, after stating the obvious that he was satisfied with the result. "We gave a lot of unnecessary balls away and [because of that] Liverpool had many, many chances to score. De Gea had to make so many big saves."

He's right. Sure, it's six wins in a row, but in three of those -- Arsenal and Southampton away, Liverpool at home -- United could just as easily have been defeated. Another two wins came by a single goal against Crystal Palace and Stoke. Only in a 3-0 win against Hull did United look really sharp.

It's not a knock on Van Gaal. There have been other games this season when United thoroughly outplayed the opposition but dropped points.

Injuries and absences are other major mitigating factors. United have an enormous squad -- they've used 31 players in the league this season, compared to 24 for Arsenal, 22 each for Liverpool and Manchester City and just 20 for Chelsea -- but it's not a well-assorted one.

Van Gaal felt forced to start Phil Jones, who hadn't played in nearly two months and had made just one appearance since August, and James Wilson, who may be uber-talented but is still a guy who just turned 19 earlier this month and was making his third career start.

But Van Gaal knows better than most that performances do matter.

Results can hinge on probability, happenstance and good fortune and the fact of the matter is that United needed a superhuman De Gea to keep a clean sheet on Sunday, because his defensive mechanisms weren't working.

Equally, each of his team's three goals can be tracked back directly to individual Liverpool errors. On the first by Wayne Rooney, Antonio Valencia roasted Joe Allen and then Philippe Coutinho did not track the scorer.

The second came because the assistant referee, Mike Mullarkey, did not notice that Robin van Persie got a touch on Ashley Young's cross and Juan Mata was clearly offside.

For the third, Dejan Lovren's weak clearance landed at Mata's feet and Brad Jones losing his GPS in his own six-yard box.

He may have celebrated the result, but you can bet Van Gaal was right back at work hours after the game, figuring out what went wrong and how he can fix it.

Rodgers, you'd imagine, knows what went wrong. Allen and Steven Gerrard had two of their worst ever outings in the middle of the park. Dropping Simon Mignolet was a huge decision and, if Sunday was typical of what Jones can offer, the wrong one.

Lovren and Skrtel were subpar (though not as bad as some made them out to be) so clearly there's still work to be done at the back as well. Yet there are other areas from which the Liverpool manager can draw encouragement.

And maybe that's what will be the measure of these two managers. For Van Gaal, an acknowledgement that his team is nowhere near its ceiling and the worst thing they could do is get complacent. He'll want to channel the enthusiasm of the winning streak into more and better work on the training ground.

For Rodgers, it's building on the positives and selling his squad on it. And maybe, to some degree, himself.

Another blip for Barcelona

So having pushed the tactical boundaries against Paris St. Germain with a formation described as everything from 3-2-4-1 to 3-2-3-2 to 3-3-1-3, normal service resumed for Luis Enrique's Barcelona away to Getafe.

Without Neymar and with Andres Iniesta, we saw the familiar 4-3-3 in a messy, rain-soaked game that Barca drew 0-0.

Luis Enrique said Barcelona controlled the game and could have won. That's true, but it's equally true that Getafe also fluffed a couple clear-cut opportunities and at least two fairly obvious handballs went unseen.

Lionel Messi was frustrated as Barcelona missed the chance to close the gap on La Liga leaders Real Madrid to one point.

The result leaves Barca four points behind Real Madrid, but, more concerning is the performance. The weather didn't help, but Barca's midfield was ponderous and devoid of ideas against an opponent that simply packed the box with bodies and tried to hit on the break (no surprise there).

There was so little decent service to Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi in the final third that they had to retreat way back to see the ball and that's rarely a good thing.

Without the tactical hocus pocus, it became all about execution. And that's where Barcelona came up short. Maybe we'll see that fancy PSG formation again -- or some exotic variant -- sooner than we can think.

Lampard's form means his future is uncertain

I have no idea if Frank Lampard is going to stick around at Manchester City -- as Manuel Pellegrini would love him to do -- or whether he'll join New York City FC when the 2015 Major League Soccer season begins in March or, indeed, if he'll be on a plane across the pond in January.

What is certain is that his contribution to City, both in terms of goals and dressing room influence, is pretty evident. As an added bonus, he also fills an association-trained slot on the club's roster.

City are supposedly working things out with New York which, obviously, is a case of negotiating with themselves, given the clubs' ownership situation. It's easy to be cynical here but it boils down to two things.

One is what's best for owner Sheikh Mansour and his master plan?

Is it having Lampard in MLS adding credibility to the fledgling franchise, pushing the envelope commercially, selling tickets and sponsorships and helping NYCFC get out of the gates quickly?

Or is it having him stay in Manchester, having one more run at the Champions League and the Premier League and providing valuable minutes, both in spot duty and off the bench?

With City missing several of their key men up front, Frank Lampard's savvy and composure was more important than ever against Leicester.
Frank Lampard scored Manchester City's winner at Leicester on Saturday.

The other thing is what Lampard himself wants. He has proven everything he needs to prove -- in fact, he did it years ago -- and it's important to remember that he has a say in all this as well.

It could well be that, at 36, he wants to get as much playing time as possible, because the clock is ticking and New York can offer that. Or it could be that he fancies one last run at the Champions League and Premier League.

Either way, one thing is obvious. This is not a case of City using their overseas franchises to circumvent Financial Fair Play. It's not as if New York bought a $20m asset and gifted him to the mothership so it wouldn't show up on City's balance sheet.

That may or may not be a bridge to cross in the future and UEFA rightly ought to be vigilant but Lampard is a wholly different case.

Brilliant Bayern march on

Anyone wishing that Augsburg's fairy-tale season might extend to delaying Bayern Munich's inevitable march to the "winter title" -- and probably to the Bundesliga crown -- held out hope for 45 minutes on Saturday.

And then Pep Guardiola's crew did what they do, scoring four times in the second half to thump the third-placed side in Germany 4-0 on the road. And it should have been more if Robert Lewandowski hadn't confirmed once again that he left his shooting boots in Dortmund. The Pole settled for one goal; had he had a hat-trick nobody could have complained.

Arjen Robben scored twice as Bayern moved nine points clear at thew top in Germany.

How does this season's Bundesliga compare to last at this stage?

Well, Bayern had two more points and two more goals, though the lead was just four points compared to this year's nine.

What stands out now is Bayern's defensive prowess. They've given up just three goals in the Bundesliga and the growth of Jerome Boateng and contribution of new arrivals Xabi Alonso and Medhi Benatia is obvious.

When you consider that Javi Martinez has been out since mid- August, it's quite a feat and the scary bit is that, at the other end of the pitch, they'll only get better once Lewandowski hits full stride.

The diving debate

It may be remembered as the "Swan Lake" weekend in the Premier League (© Steve Bruce). Willian, Diego Costa and West Brom's Sebastien Pocognoli were all booked for diving while Gary Cahill and Adam Johnson probably should have been.

Retroactive punishment is a nice idea but the problem is that you have to pretty much prove a player was intentionally trying to cheat. As we saw in 2009 when UEFA tried to do it with Arsenal's Eduardo, it's an extremely difficult thing to do.

You hope that simply naming and shaming will do the trick. That, because referees are asked to make split-second decisions, maybe next time it's a close-call reputation will come into it. Maybe, when they're not 100 percent certain, officials will give a bit more leeway to the guys who have sterling reputations and require a bit more convincing with those who have attempted to deceive them in the past.

It's not ideal, but, heck, they're only human. And if they did let previous conduct play a part in their decision, could you really blame them?

Drawn conclusions hinder Juve

What's stopping Juventus from going to the next level? Right now, it seems to be an inability to keep focus and intensity.

Sunday's 1-1 home draw with Sampdoria was their third straight. Had it not been for Andrea Pirlo's ridiculous buzzer-beater against Torino in the derby, it would have been four in a row.

Not all draws are the same, of course. The midweek one with Atletico Madrid was all about nailing qualification to the Champions League Round of 16. You can accept that. But against Samp, Juve were lackluster and needed Gigi Buffon to keep them in the game.

Nobody expects them to win every game -- though, under Antonio Conte, at least in Serie A -- they nearly did. But they can't afford to be complacent. It's almost too easy to throw out the old stereotype of Max Allegri being more laid-back than Conte (heck, who ISN'T more laid- back than Conte?).

But Roma, who won at Genoa 1-0, are only one point back and they don't look like they're going away anytime soon.

A bad week for PSG

Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Paris Saint-Germain supremo, may want to remember that when he goes to games, there are cameras trained on him. With a few minutes to go and his team down 1-0 at Guingamp, he got up and left his seat at the Stade du Roudourou.

Had he seen enough? Was he leaving in disgust? Was he ready to give Laurent Blanc his marching orders?

PSG were horrible on the day, primarily at the back (David Luiz was in the form he showed the day Brazil lost 7-1 to Germany) and up front, which is precisely where most of the Qatari money has gone.

PSG have won just one of their last four games in all competitions.

The damage would have been far greater if Marseille hadn't lost at Monaco a few hours later, but it's still a setback. For much of the year, PSG have ranged from poor to mediocre, but without losing games.

Now, they've lost back-to-back games (though, obviously, you can budget for a defeat to Barcelona) and there are no signs of performances improving.

The gap to the Ligue 1 leaders is still one point, it's more than manageable. But the rumormongers are already at work and Blanc needs to sort this out in double-quick time, otherwise, someone else will be given a shot.

Round of 16 draw reaction

There were no real surprises in the Champions League draw, which was to be expected. Six of the eight top seeds won their groups. Another, Arsenal, finished second, but got the group winner everybody wanted, Monaco.

Of the group winners, Chelsea (who got PSG), Barcelona (Manchester City) and Borussia Dortmund (Juventus) face the toughest tests.

Meanwhile, Porto (Basel), Bayern (Shakthar Donetsk) and Real Madrid (Schalke) can feel relatively confident and the final tie, between Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen should offer the most fascinating contrast in styles.

Toni turns back the clock

Luca Toni is an acquired taste. That's what happens when you're a target man and not of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic variety. He's also something of an underdog.

On Sunday, at age 37, he scored his 300th career goal (284 at club level, 16 for Italy). If you had told the 22-year-old Toni, the one who was playing for Treviso in the Italian third division, that he would one day win the World Cup (scoring twice in the quarterfinal), win the league and cup double with Bayern Munich and the European Golden Boot with Fiorentina, he would probably have laughed.

The best part? His goal on Sunday wasn't a trademark header or six-yard box bundle into the back of the net. It was a cool finish after a shimmy and dribble that wrong-footed his marker.

Lyon maintain Ligue 1 challenge

If the season began in September, Lyon would be top of Ligue 1, with a three-point lead over Marseille and PSG. Hubert Fournier's crew have taken 25 of a possible 30 points over their past 10 games and shot up the table to the point that we pretty much have a three-way dance in Le Championnat.

All eyes are on Alexandre Lacazette who is on an absolute tear. His two goals in the 3-0 win over Caen took his league total to 18, already two better than his mark from last year. He's the face of this young -- except for 34-year-old Steed Malbranque, who is merely young at heart -- exciting and largely home-grown (seven first-team regulars come from the club's academy) Lyon team.

He's also helping Lyon show that you can be competitive without a wealthy overseas backer or an exotic savant of a manager.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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