Chelsea and Man City accept draw, Barcelona and Real Madrid impress
Top of the table clashes can be dull. And when there are three outcomes -- one disastrous, one great, one so-so -- they usually channel toward the so-so, which is a share of the spoils. Classic prisoner's dilemma. This was true on Saturday, when Chelsea drew 1-1 against Manchester City.
Chelsea's lead in the Premier League table was five points and it remains five points. Both teams have fairly credible alibis. Jose Mourinho was without Diego Costa, Filipe Luis and Cesc Fabregas. Plus, Mohamed Salah and Andre Schurrle had their bags packed and didn't make their match-day squad, while Juan Cuadrado's deal had yet to be finalized.
In those circumstances, there's only so much you can do. Loic Remy isn't Diego Costa and Ramires sure as heck ain't Cesc. The way you play inevitably changes; you retreat and look to pick your spots.
Mourinho has been criticized for parking the bus in the past, but here he had little choice, and in any case, it was the correct decision.
Without Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure and Wilfried Bony, Manchester City weren't at full strength, either. The creative onus to break down the Chelsea lines fell to David Silva, but -- apart from his goal -- he wasn't up to his own high standards, not least because Nemanja Matic's long limbs cut off the supply effectively.
Chelsea defender Kurt Zouma, meanwhile, matched up well with a not-yet fully fit Sergio Aguero, and that was that. You ended up with a war of attrition and two goals -- each one to some degree a function of an individual error.
Nobody from Chelsea would talk after the game, a legacy of Diego Costa's suspension, but you'd imagine deep down Mourinho isn't displeased. The fact that, apart from Gary Cahill and Didier Drogba, the most experienced outfield player on his bench was Nathan Ake (19 years old with four Premier League appearances to his name) says it all. An injury, a red card, a moment of magic . . . things could have turned very quickly in this game, and the next thing you know, City are two points back.
Manuel Pellegrini can be a bit more laid-back about matters. There's a huge difference between making up eight points in 15 games and closing a gap of five points. The fixture list isn't easy -- City have road trips to Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham coming up -- but they've closed bigger deficits in the past.
It's not as if they didn't try to win; it's just that the more you think about it, the more the draw made sense. For both sides.
Suarez's unselfish play key to Barcelona's attack
Two themes emerged from Barcelona's rip-roaring 3-2 victory over Villarreal. One is that for all the criticism and animosity toward Barca manager Luis Enrique, the players -- for better or worse -- are more than capable of reacting when things go wrong. Twice they came from behind to equalize before going ahead. In fact, they were so self-assured that despite the quality of the opposition and the two goals conceded, they always looked as if they could straighten things out.
The other is that we're finally getting an answer to how the front trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez is going to balance out. The sense is that it's Suarez who is sacrificing himself for the other two. He's the guy going through the middle, albeit in a supporting role: tying up central defenders, clearing space for Neymar and Messi, getting kicked and often being the first to press when possession changes. This may be why his finishing has been less than clinical. Suarez missed two great chances again Sunday, yet Barcelona as a side are performing better.
Meanwhile, Neymar is on a bumper run. He's now up to 15 goals in 17 Liga appearances, 22 overall. It's a turnaround from last season, when he was hugging the touchline and deferring to Messi at every opportunity. Crucially, he and Suarez appear to be on the same wavelength, particularly when it comes to their attacking movement in the final third.
It may not end up this way. Suarez may go on a scoring streak and finish with 40 goals, for all we know. But one thing is clear. There are only so many chances to go around and when you cram Suarez, Messi and Neymar into the same front line, somebody has to don the blue-collar shirt and pull on the hard hat.
Can you name Arsenal's best starting XI?
If everybody were fit for Arsenal, who would the "automatic choices" be? It's a hypothetical question, of course, but it's a germane one.
You can make your own list, but from where I sit, the only ones 100 percent guaranteed to start when everyone's available are Laurent Koscielny, Alexis Sanchez and Santi Cazorla (certainly in light of recent performances).
Everywhere else, there's healthy competition, from front (Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck) to back (Wojciech Szczesny and David Ospina) and just about everywhere in between. Francis Coquelin has been exceptional, but Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini are in the mix. There's Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, plus Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey. And Mesut Ozil and Tomas Rosicky, with young guns Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem.
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Manager Arsene Wenger hasn't had to deal with having too many players available because of Arsenal's enduring injury crisis. And, obviously, you'd rather have this "problem" than deal with a full infirmary.
But assuming the injured players return and stay healthy, it's a bridge he'll have to cross at some point. It's not just that Arsenal have plenty of quality; there's no obvious hierarchy, either, apart from the few automatic choices we've mentioned. Given the number of guys who are still young and/or tied into pricey long-term contracts, Wenger will need to be very clever about how he handles this.
Mancini faces uphill battle with Inter
Roberto Mancini asked for patience. He pointed out that the performances had improved and that sooner or later, the results would, too. Sunday was a step back on both counts for his Inter side.
They fell at Sassuolo 3-1, which means they've won one out of five matches in Serie A in 2015. There's no question that the new arrivals (Lukas Podolski, Xherdan Shaqiri, Marcelo Brozovic and Davide Santon) add quality and depth. The problem is getting them to come together quickly and fitting them in the right positions.
Podolski at centre-forward was a dud against Sassuolo. Mateo Kovacic and Fredy Guarin couldn't find space against a hard-working, but frankly limited, midfield. At the back, the horror show continues. With Juan Jesus, Yuto Nagatomo and Danilo D'Ambrosio sidelined, Nemanja Vidic and Isaac Donkor looked way out of their depth.
When Mancini arrived at the club in 2014, Inter's high command began to plan for a top-three finish even if they never explicitly said so. Third place was five points away; it seemed doable. Mancini was promised reinforcements in January and he got them. Now the gap is 13 points and, more worryingly, there are no fewer than nine teams to overtake.
Sassuolo aside, Mancini looked to be on the right track in terms of performances. But if he falls short, the (legitimate) fear is that he'll have to pare down his team, not add to it, in the summer to keep the club with the parameters of financial fair play.
No Ronaldo, no problem for Real Madrid
It was the classic "trap" game. Real Madrid had basically played 1½ games (out of six) of decent football in 2015. In six attempts, manager Carlo Ancelotti had never beaten David Moyes. Real Sociedad had put four past Madrid back at the start of the season. Oh, and that Cristiano Ronaldo guy was suspended.
When somebody name Aritz Elustondo, making just his third Liga appearance, headed La Real into the lead inside of a minute, Ancelotti's mood got even gloomier. But it's times like these when players stand up to be counted.
James Rodriguez equalized almost immediately, Sergio Ramos made it 2-1 and then Karim Benzema, who was given a standing ovation, added two more, including a viciously gorgeous screamer for the fourth. The gap would have been greater if not for goalkeeper Geronimo Rulli's heroics.
Real, obviously, are a better team with Ronaldo. Any side would be. But they confirmed on Saturday that they're not Ronaldo-dependent, either, and that's important. There's no shortage of guys willing to take responsibility. In fact, the 4-4-2 offered a nice balance, with Isco and James cutting in from wide, Asier Illarramendi shielding the defence and Gareth Bale and Benzema popping up all over the offensive front.
Madrid needed a reaction and they got it. Ronaldo might just be returning to a lineup that's better off than the one he left.
Ghana and Ivory Coast hitting peak form at the African Nations Cup
Form and star power suggests we're heading for a Ghana vs. Ivory Coast final at the African Cup of Nations. It took both the Black Stars and the Elephants a little while to get going but good teams tend to hit their stride at the right time and both did just that: Ghana beat Guinea 3-0, while the Ivorians overcame Algeria in a hard-fought 3-1 victory.
Stumbling blocks in the semifinals? DR Congo's comeback against Congo was impressive, but pound-for-pound they don't match up well with Ivory Coast, who can both outmuscle and outplay them. As for Ghana, on paper it's no contest against Equatorial Guinea, though there are two obvious caveats: home-field advantage, of course, and the officiating.
Tunisia were livid after their 2-1 quarterfinal loss to Equatorial Guinea, and frankly, you would be, too, if you gave up an imaginary penalty in the third minute of injury time to take the game into extra time. Javier Balboa's winning free kick was a beauty, but you sort of felt every call went one way after the Tunisians got the lead.
Given the way the African Cup of Nations ended up in Equatorial Guinea and the political situation there, the last thing this tournament needs is more controversial officiating.
Throw the book at Hull's Elmohamady
Applying retroactive punishment for diving (simulation) is tricky, as we've seen. It's hard to definitively establish, even with the help of replay, that a player was trying to cheat and con the referee. That's why, after a short-lived experiment (dating back to Arsenal's Eduardo vs. Celtic in the Champions League a decade ago) most FAs have abandoned the plan.
But if diving is problematic and to some degree subjective (I think the most egregious cases should result in punishment) there are no shades of gray with what Hull City's Ahmed Elmohamady did against Newcastle on Saturday. He reached up and deflected the ball into the back of the net with his hand. Then he ran off to celebrate. When the referee booked him -- his only option, according to the rules -- he had the audacity to recriminate and complain.
Now, unless Elmohamady has some rare dysfunction in his nervous system -- one in which the nerve endings in his hand touch something and send a message to his brain suggesting that it was in fact his head -- it would appear he knew perfectly well what he was doing. If that's the case, a mere caution simply isn't enough. This is flat-out, caught red-handed, no mitigating factors-style cheating. They should throw the book at him.
Australia rewarded for their grit
What's that old cliché? It's not about getting knocked down, it's about getting back up again?
Australia went into Saturday's Asian Cup final as favorites. They were the home side and, unlike their opponents, seemed to be getting stronger as the tournament progressed. Meanwhile, South Korea, already plagued by some key injuries, had gone into the tournament with lowered expectations. While they had beaten the Socceroos in the group stage, it was largely against the run of play.
At the end of a predictably intense first half that saw South Korea come very close on two occasions, the Socceroos took the lead through a gorgeous long-range effort from Massimo Luongo, who earlier had made a key goal-line clearance (not surprisingly, Luongo would be named player of the tournament).
South Korea played the second half as they often do: on fast-forward. Australia largely matched them and, with every passing minute, you felt like they were increasingly home-free. South Korea's superior individual quality (on paper at least) was being denied by the Aussies' grit and growing confidence.
Then came the body blow. Deep in injury time, Bayer Leverkusen's Son Heung-min snatched the equalizer, and with it, the momentum shifted 180 degrees. Or so you thought. Because Australia got right back and went toe-to-toe, unafraid. Their courage was rewarded when James Troisi fired home the winner in extra time.
Much has been made about the impressive crowds and the possibility of "converting" Australia into a football nation. But for those who love the Socceroos, it already is. And on Saturday they were entertained and ultimately rewarded.
Turning point for bottom-of-table Dortmund?
It's not often you go away from home to take on the third-place team in the table, escape with a draw and your first road clean sheet of the season, then wake up the next day dead last in the table. But then Borussia Dortmund's campaign has been anything but ordinary.
Despite finding themselves in the cellar, there are plenty of positives for manager Jurgen Klopp to take away from the BayArena. Marco Reus is back, as is Henrikh Mkhitaryan off the bench. Kevin Kampl, a $14 million signing, looked reasonable in midfield and ought to fit into Klopp's high-energy system. And while Dortmund were wasteful at the offensive end, at least they created chances. It's only one point and slipping into the cellar hurts morale, but we may well remember this game as a turning point -- for the better.
Van Gaal changes things up -- again
Manchester United's 3-1 romp over Leicester saw Louis van Gaal shuffle the deck yet another time. I've seen the formation listed variously as 4-4-2, 4-1-3-2 and 4-3-3. On TV it was hard to tell, but it looked as if you had a back four, Daley Blind shielding it and a phalanx of Adnan Januzaj, Angel Di Maria, Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Radamel Falcao pushing up the other end.
Januzaj looked good and that's encouraging. The last thing United need is to "lose" -- mentally more than physically -- a guy of his talent, and it's key that Van Gaal keeps him involved. What's hard to figure out, though, is what Van Gaal is building toward.
Falcao-Van Persie are not a natural partnership and they're certainly not one for the midrange future. Midfield remains a less than ideal home for Rooney. What's more, it doesn't look like a formation you'd necessarily use again, certainly not against tougher opponents, because it leaves you severely undermanned in the middle of the park.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.