Barca no longer control their Liga fate;
Mourinho's siege mentality; Parma woe
And just like that, the gap is back to four points. Malaga's 1-0 win at the Camp Nou halts Barcelona's 11-game win streak and, more importantly, serves as a reminder that youth and ideas can trump the biggest of budgets.
Javi Gracia lined up a front six with an average age of 21 and a half, and they executed his game plan brilliantly. They took an early lead with a lot of help from Dani Alves' errant pass and then clogged the space; they moved intelligently on the counter; they hurt Barca every time they broke.
When faced with situations like this, bigger clubs have one of two options. They either execute better or they adjust. Luis Enrique chose the former but it simply wasn't working on the day. Between Weligton's goal-line clearance in the eighth minute and Pedro's run in the dying minutes, there was little in the way of clear-cut chances.
Andres Iniesta wasn't incisive, Neymar was quiet and Lionel Messi found a pack of opponents to fight through each time he made his trademark cuts from the flank. Business picked up a little when Luis Enrique called on the substitutes midway through the second half, but Malaga held on.
No need to panic, necessarily. Malaga were exceptional as much as Barcelona were below par. And maybe they did (knowingly or not) underestimate the opposition, perhaps with their minds wandering to Tuesday night at the Etihad and Manchester City. But there are warning signs to heed and, in particular, the fact that for the fifth time in six games they failed to keep a clean sheet. In fact, they've given up eight goals in those last six outings; that's as many as they had conceded in the 19 before that.
It's also a blow psychologically, given Madrid's win the following day. It means that if both clubs run the table, they won't leapfrog their rivals even with a win in the clasico on Mar. 22. In other words, they no longer control their destiny.
Mourinho's siege mentality continues
You can debate whether Ashley Barnes should have been booked for the whack on Branislav Ivanovic (I think it was at least a yellow), and you can argue about the two penalty claims -- again, with the benefit of hindsight and replays, they looked stonewall to me. But it's extremely tough to understand what Atkinson saw when Barnes tackled Nemanja Matic in that way. Had Matic's foot been planted, that could have been a career-ender. And no, it doesn't matter one iota whether Barnes got the ball.
Officials make mistakes, just like players and managers. It just so happens that in this game Atkinson made four contentious calls that went against Chelsea. And the most communicative manager in the Premier League happens to sit on the Chelsea bench.
That "30, 33, 43, 69" business was media gold. If Mourinho tires of football, he can always get a gig as a political spin doctor, because he certainly knows how to get a point across in a way that's both memorable and resonating. He also knows that the two dropped points could end up costing Chelsea the title. And he knows it's open and shut: you'd have to be in really bad faith to suggest Atkinson's calls were correct. It was the perfect platform from which to make his point.
Just in case anybody missed the point, within hours of the game he was booking himself on to "Goals on Sunday" a brunch-time talk show on British TV. (It also meant James Beattie got bumped. But don't worry, you can always follow him on Twitter. Whether this will lead to a Kimmel/Damon/Silverman/Affleck spate of revenge videos remains to be seen.)
Mourinho didn't use the words "campaign" -- a close relative of conspiracy -- which got him a $40,000 fine last month. Instead, he opted for "story."
"If this story that started a couple of months ago finished today, then with 12 matches to play and [a lead] of five points, I tell you [we will be] champions," he said. "But I don't know if the story ends here or if you have more waiting for us."
As coded language goes, it's pretty obvious. And effective.
It fosters a siege mentality among his squad. And it puts pressure on match officials. To do what? To be fair? Sure. But it also makes them (and their bosses) aware that the next time they make a mistake that hurts Chelsea, he'll raise a fuss. And when there are gray areas and things aren't clear-cut, it might prompt some of the weaker officials to err on the side of caution and give Chelsea the benefit of the doubt.
Squeaky wheel gets the grease, right?
Lewandowski shines as Bayern make another statement
Saturday saw more flexing of muscle from Bayern, who were away to Paderborn on Saturday. Their 6-0 win came after the humdrum scoreless draw at Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League, and the easy read here is that Pep Guardiola was looking for a statement, just as he did the week before, with the 8-0 pounding of Hamburg that followed three below-par outings.
But there are more encouraging takeaways to be had here, particularly with regard to Robert Lewandowski.
In some ways, he's been the elephant in the room. Before this weekend, he had scored 11 goals in all competitions; not a bad return for an average striker, but hardly an impressive return six months in for a guy who is anything but average and who notched 28 last season. Particularly when he's playing up front for one of the most creative and free-scoring sides in Europe.
Against Paderborn, Lewandowski operated more as a traditional central striker rather than as an adjunct attacking midfielder, someone who would drop deep to play one-twos or gallop wide to open space as has been the norm for much of the season. He responded with two goals and looked more comfortable attacking the space behind the back four.
Guardiola isn't going to rejigger the team to suit his needs, but it's comforting to know that if you use Lewandowski in that way -- and against some opponents, it will be necessary to do just that -- he won't let you down.
Koeman keeps his cool where Mourinho did not
Managers do what fits their personalities. In that sense, Ronald Koeman's behaviour after Southampton's 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool was in stark contrast to Mourinho's.
Kevin Friend had almost as bad a day at St Mary's as Atkinson did at Stamford Bridge, and again, many of his mistakes hurt the home team. Three of the incidents were debatable. You can argue that Filip Djuricic went down way too easily under the "weight" of Emre Can's arm. Or that Simon Mignolet's handball outside the box should not have been sanctioned because the ball ricocheted off his chest before striking his arm. And maybe you could find that Dejan Lovren's handball (if he'd been booked, he would have been off) was unintentional.
But Joe Allen's tackle on Djuricic was as obvious as they come. That's how Koeman saw it: "[Allen's foul on Djuricic], I don't understand [why it wasn't sanctioned]. There is no question. But humans make mistakes. On the others you can have a discussion, but that one was obvious."
Managers are paid to do what's best for their team. Koeman evidently thinks that speaking like this serves Southampton better than pulling a Mourinho. To each his own.
What's next for Parma?
The prospect of Parma folding in midseason is the umpteenth insult to supporters and anyone with a modicum of dignity. But that's one of the options on the table after a local tribunal began bankruptcy proceedings against the Serie A club.
How bad is the situation? Well, players haven't been paid since July; suppliers for probably longer than that. Heat and hot water to the training ground has been shut off. Four club vehicles were repossessed, and Sunday's game with Udinese had to be called off since the club didn't have the liquidity to pay for stewards and security officials.
The numbers are staggering. In 2007 when Tommaso Ghirardi bought the club, Parma had gross debts of around $17 million. Today they stand at around $224 million -- and this is despite the club earning some $250 million in TV revenues, plus income from sponsorships and gate receipts in what is one of the wealthiest cities in Europe.
How did we get here?
The fans are furious with Ghirardi, and you can see why. Parma were supposed to play in the Europa League this year but UEFA wouldn't issue them a license because of an unpaid tax debt of just over $300,000. That's when the alarm bells should have gone off.
Since then, it's been a spiral of embarrassment. Some players, like Antonio Cassano, obtained a release from their contracts after threatening legal action. The club have a laundry list of lawsuits against them from agents, players and suppliers. Ghirardi sold the club for 1 euro to an Albanian businessman, Rezart Taci. Six weeks later, Taci sold it (again, for 1 euro) to a man named Giampiero Manenti who, after promising to rustle up $30 million, threw in the towel.
What's next? The best option is for the court to appoint an administrator and the league to chip in the $6 million or so it takes to run the club between now and the end of the season. Then, in the summer, work out some kind of restructuring. The worst solution, and what will happen if nobody can agree, is that Parma simply shuts up shop in midseason.
It's an awful situation. You can only hope for two things. That the league takes another look at its rules on oversight and transparency so that situations like this are never allowed to happen again. And that, as the Italian FA is asking, the courts do their job thoroughly in investigating the various owners and, if guilt is proved, seizing every last asset until the bills are paid.
Ronaldo, Isco lead Real to yet another win
Cristiano Ronaldo isn't quite back to his levels. Against Elche, he looked irritable and tightly wound. He missed two straightforward chances in the first half as Real Madrid were frustrated by a physical, intense opponent. Yet by the end of the game, he had hit the post, scored a gorgeous header and driven in the cross that led to Karim Benzema's opener in a 2-0 win. That's the thing; his so-so days are several notches above those of mere mortals.
Beyond that, Madrid turned in a solid all-around performance and avoided the obvious false step of not taking advantage of Barcelona's win. Isco was exceptional in the middle of the park (this is probably his best spell since leaving Malaga) and Lucas Silva navigated his first start with aplomb, though the real test will come against a different type of opponent.
Not a bad way for Ancelotti to celebrate his 100th game in charge.
Wheels coming off for Bielsa in Marseille
As intoxicating and romantic as the Marcelo Bielsa tale had been, many predicted that the wheels would come off Marseille at some point. What most expected though is that the team would simply pay a physical price for the breakneck pace and intensity displayed in the first half of the season. Instead, we're reportedly seeing a different type of breakdown.
The French newspaper L'Equipe and others reported of a bust-up between Bielsa and senior players in midweek, with most of them missing training on Friday. Bielsa himself reminded everyone that he had a break-clause in his contract at the end of the season.
It was against this tense background that Marseille traveled to Saint-Etienne. To their credit, they didn't play badly and, in fact, came from behind in the second half to take a 2-1 lead, before Mevlut Erding snatched a late equalizer.
Marseille are still just four points behind Olympique Lyonnais and two behind Paris Saint-Germain, but there's no question about which way they're trending. Bielsa in Marseille was always a fairy tale. Except fairy tales aren't supposed to end like this.
Van Gaal still explaining away defeat
How about some deja vu?
Manchester United travel to Swansea and get beaten 2-1. Louis van Gaal's reaction? "It is always frustrating to lose when you have been the dominating team and our disappointment is much bigger because of that," he said.
"In the first half, it was an equal game. In the second half, there was a big difference. Swansea had a chance in the first minute and after that we dominated the game. Then, one counter, a shot deviated, [Bafetimbi] Gomis may have been offside and they get a goal. We created a chance every two minutes, even with ten men when Robin van Persie was injured and could not run any more. So we are not happy and we are not lucky."
You can see where Van Gaal is coming from. Manchester United did not play badly and in the second half looked good. But to say they dominated the game, let alone "created a chance every two minutes" when they managed just three shots on target is a stretch. Everybody does it his way I guess, but sometimes a modicum of measure would serve Van Gaal well.
Milan win but big questions remain
Local media had depicted Sunday's home clash with Cesena as Pippo Inzaghi's last-chance saloon. Milan emerged with a 2-0 win against the second-bottom team in the table, scoring early with Giacomo Bonaventura and late with a Giampaolo Pazzini penalty.
In between, we saw a labored game, brightened up by Bonaventura who (at long last) was given the No. 10 role in a 4-3-1-2 set-up behind Mattia Destro and Jeremy Menez. It's a new scheme and it worked intermittently (long enough to dispatch Cesena, anyway) but if this is the long-term plan, it raises more questions than it answers.
Like, where do the likes of Stephan El Shaarawy, Alessio Cerci and Keisuke Honda fit in this formation? Have you forgotten them? Or will you just rip up the blueprint, chuck them back in and deal with a fresh, knee-jerk reaction the next time you don't get a result?
Bas Dost continues to amaze
Bas Dost's exploits forced me to write about him last week. Now I need to do it again. He scored both goals as Wolfsburg overcame Hertha 2-1 to stay within eight points of Bayern at the top of the Bundesliga.
The man's startling turnaround remains a mystery. He now has 11 goals from six games in 2015; that's more than he had in 2013 and 2014 ... combined. While we wait for him to regress to the mean, let's marvel at the fact that he's currently on pace to score more than 100 goals in this calendar year.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.