Is Pep Guardiola leaving Bayern, Real let La Liga slip, Gareth Bale criticism
It's been a tumultuous few weeks for Pep Guardiola, from the acrimonious departure of Hans-Wilhelm Mueller-Wohlfahrt, Bayern's club doctor, to the fact that he's lost three games on the spin; four, if you count getting knocked out on penalties by Borussia Dortmund in the German Cup semifinal.
Managers go through rocky patches and when it happens, it's good to separate what matters from what does not. With the Bundesliga already in the bag, the league defeats are less important, though psychologically, falling at home 1-0 to Augsburg on Saturday is a blow, not least because Bayern put out a relatively strong side. (You'll likely see seven of the 11 starters on Tuesday night against Barcelona.) Going down to 10 men after 15 minutes, following Pepe Reina's red card didn't help either, but Guardiola's men still bossed possession and had plenty of shots.
The Camp Nou defeat is obviously huge, both for the manner and the result (a 3-0 defeat). Guardiola got a lot of criticism but again, you need to sift through what's relevant and what's not.
The hammering Bayern took in the first 15 minutes is a legitimate cause for concern, though they emerged unscathed. Lionel Messi's two goals were a function of individual brilliance and the kind of stuff you can't really account for. The third is classic game theory. It came on the counter, with Bayern pushing on to get that away goal. Had the German side managed one, we might even speak of Bayern being favorite, given that a 2-1 away leg deficit is nearly irrelevant. Because it did not, and they conceded a third, they have a whole mountain range to negotiate.
Conventional wisdom and playing the percentages would have suggested that at 2-0 down, taking it on the chin, shutting up shop and living to fight another day was the right move, especially with the self-belief that you're good enough to beat Barca by two goals at home. But Pep often doesn't do conventional wisdom; it's what got him this far and he stuck to his guns.
Then came Saturday and the story that clearly rattled Bayern. BeIN Sport Arabic reported that Pep had reached a "tentative agreement" to join Manchester City next season. The tale got large amounts of play, in part because former Bayern and City midfielder Dietmar Hamann went on German television and confirmed it, saying he had received a text from an excellent source.
Bayern and City vehemently denied the story; so too did Guardiola's entourage. Evidently that was not enough as Guardiola himself denied it again on Monday, saying: "I've already said 200 million times, I'll be here next season. That's it."
Transfer tales are often more complex than they appear and contrary to popular belief, reputable media outlets do not make things up. Yet at the same time, there are sources who plant stories that may be exaggerated or untrue and sometimes the media don't verify things as closely as they could.
At the same time, clubs mask the truth as well. Especially in this case, since it would be embarrassing (and possibly a breach of contract) if Pep really was talking to other clubs when he has a year left on his deal. They generally hide behind the old "Pep has a contract" or "we don't comment on speculation." Not in this case. The denials were vehement. The only conclusion you could reach is that the story was 100 percent wrong, yet those who reported it are sticking by their guns. And that raises the question of "Why?"
Here is where we enter pure speculation, not facts. If you don't like speculation, move on. But just as financial reporters are taught to "follow the money," transfer reporters are wise to ask themselves, "Who has an interest in this story coming out?"
If the story was accurate, neither City, who still had to lock up a top three finish to avoid the Champions League preliminary round and don't want to destabilize Manuel Pellegrini any further, nor Bayern, who don't need this on the eve of a crucial Champions' League semifinal, would have an interest in this coming out. Neither would Guardiola, for obvious reasons.
Given the very tight relationship between Pep and City's top brass (chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football, Txitxi Begiristain were with him at Barcelona), you'd imagine that they could easily work out a "verbal agreement" without needing to involve too many people of the kind who would leak it. Not to mention the fact that if Pep really wanted to join City, he wouldn't need to negotiate a deal now. He could easily do it in a month's time at season's end; it's not as if City would say they no longer want him come June.
That suggests to me the story comes from elsewhere. Perhaps someone who might have approached Pep to take him to another club and was rebuffed. Or somebody, maybe within Bayern, who would like to see him gone. It's pure speculation, but it's a necessary exercise. And you can bet that at Bayern's Sabenerstrasse HQ they're asking the very same questions.
Somebody planted this. But who?
Chelsea fans give Gerrard an honest farewell
Liverpool gave Chelsea a "guard of honor" at Stamford Bridge, after Jose Mourinho's men wrapped up the Premier League title last weekend. It's a recent practice that incensed Steve Nicol on the show last night.
I can see his point, frankly. As with most things of this sort, if they're mandated and have no choice in the matter, they become somewhat less significant. More telling is applause that is spontaneous and not forced. Like the standing ovation Chelsea supporters gave Steven Gerrard, who they'll likely never see again at Stamford Bridge. They didn't have to do that.
Gerrard didn't seem to quite get it when he said: "I was more happy with the ovation from the Liverpool fans. Chelsea fans have had respect for a couple of seconds today, but have slaughtered me all game."
In fact, they slaughtered him for the past 15 years; that's what supporters do. If Gerrard had been a random schlub and not one of the greatest players of the Premier League era and the captain and symbol of a club they see as a rival, he wouldn't have been abused.
Mourinho summed it up best when he said the songs about Gerrard are "respect for an old, dear enemy." He's right. There are some opponents you boo and some you boo and respect. For Chelsea fans, Gerrard is in the latter category.
Champions League is Real's only prize now
Carlo Ancelotti put on a brave face Saturday night and trotted out the usual theme after Real Madrid's 2-2 home draw with Valencia. "We played well, if we play like this against Juventus, everything will be fine."
Except this time, you tend not to believe him. Saturday's result with Valencia effectively hands the title to Barcelona: The gap is now up to four points with two rounds to go. You could have imagined a scenario where Atletico Madrid play the scrubs in the penultimate game of the season and somehow hold Barca to a point. And with Real Madrid winning the final two games, it would have been enough for the title. But it's hard to see Atleti beating Barcelona at home and then Barca being held at the Camp Nou on the final day of the season, particularly since Atletico have pretty much locked up third place.
Valencia started better before Madrid settled down and hit the woodwork. Then Paco Alcacer and Javi Fuego put the visitors two-nil up against the run of play. The Bernabeu started to boo Iker Casillas (he was less than perfect between the sticks) and to make matters worse, Toni Kroos had limped off the pitch. That left a gaping abyss in the heart of Real's midfield and worse, it looked as if that same hole would be there Wednesday against Juventus. But reports from Madrid indicate it won't be the case. It was just a knock, not a muscular injury.
Ancelotti is not overly superstitious, but you would have forgiven him for thinking an he had inadvertently slept under a ladder the night before. Especially since Javier Hernandez hit the post and then after Gareth Bale won a penalty, Cristiano Ronaldo saw his effort saved by Diego Alves, whose record, lest we forget, is better than one in two.
What about a half-time team talk? What was there to say, other than "This is it, this is La Liga, right here?" Pepe pulled one back, before Isco conjured up the equalizer late on. That led to a pulsating finale which saw Alvaro Negredo fluff his chance and Madrid lay siege to Alves' goal.
A bit like last year, it's Champions' League or bust.
Harsh criticism of Gareth Bale continues
Speaking of Bale, his performance against Juventus was roundly criticized. So much so that an English newspaper found some stats suggesting that the Welshman was getting excessive stick.
The numbers do show that Bale ran more than Ronaldo -- he covered an average of 113 meters per minute, compared to 101 for his Portuguese teammate -- yet managed only 32 touches of the ball. This prompted Bale's agent, Jonathan Barnett, to speak out. "Real have to work with Gareth and pass the ball to him more... He's going to be the best player at Real Madrid when his teammates work with him and help him."
You can't blame Barnett for doing his job and sticking up for his client, but talk about using stats improperly. Nobody is accusing Bale of not running and, in any case, football isn't athletics. Are 32 touches a lot or a little? It depends where they are and what he does with them. I'm all for using the numbers, but they can't be decontextualized and forced to back up whatever argument you wish to make.
The fact of the matter is that Bale was poor against Juve, though he wasn't the only one. More important is the way he bounced back on Saturday. Sure, he's taken some stick and some of it is unfair. But there are two guys who cost absurd amounts of money in Madrid's frontline this season. And one of them is seen to be a better player (and a more productive one) than the other. Which is why he gets criticized.
It's true that Bale isn't playing to the level of his fee. And while it may not be his fault his fee was so high, that's what folks look at.
Crucial summer for Man United, Louis Van Gaal
Minimum objective reached for Manchester United with Saturday's 2-1 victory at Crystal Palace. It's a top four finish, which means that they'll be in the Champions League next season -- or, at least, the preliminary round -- and it was one of the goals Louis Van Gaal had laid out for himself.
The other is turning United into a rational team with a clear and successful philosophy. It has taken a long time but we're getting there. Or, rather, the framework is in place, but some of the cogs in the machine are yet to come. That's what makes this summer so important. United talk of making another three or four big signings, in addition to Memphis Depay. You'd imagine a midfield general, at least one defender and probably a striker will be among them.
What will be interesting to note is how many of the six pricey arrivals last summer will play a significant role next season. And at what point, if at all, the Glazers -- who celebrated their 10th anniversary as owners -- will turn the screws.
Barcelona on course for a treble?
The last time Barcelona faced Real Sociedad, Luis Enrique rested Neymar and Lionel Messi. It led to defeat, the "stomachache" and the drama and the rumors which (quickly) evaporated. This time, with the return leg against Bayern looming, there was plenty of rotation, just not up front.
Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets, Ivan Rakitic and Andres Iniesta were all left out of the starting XI (as was Marc-Andre ter Stegen, though that's normal in La Liga), but the usual trio were up front. Barca created half a dozen chances in the first half but they had to wait until the second half to break the ice, when Neymar notched his 35th goal of the season in all competitions. Pedro rounded out the 2-0 victory late in the game.
Strike-permitting, it does look as if Luis Enrique is heading for a Treble, something few would have bet on that back in the first week of January.
Milan win but can't enjoy it
It's a moveable feast at AC Milan. On the pitch, they beat Roma 2-1, arguably their best performance in four months, though given how the giallorossi season fell apart, you need to take it with a bucket of salt.
Meanwhile, owner Silvio Berlusconi has changed his mind -- again! -- about selling the club and to whom. First he said he was going to keep a minority stake. Then he said he would sell but would want to keep outright control. Then he appeared to criticize one of the potential buyers for "publicity-seeking" and on Saturday, after noting the "tens of millions of Chinese fans," he talked about how there were three different ownership groups from China bidding for the club.
Maybe it's all part of the process. But if you're a Milan fan, you can't wait for this to end.
Lyon's season likely over, so what's next?
It can be a real cruel game. Real cruel. Lyon would likely have lost the Ligue 1 title anyway, but to fall like this has got to hurt.
The weekend began on Friday night, with Paris St. Germain three points clear but Lyon having an edge in terms of goal difference (+41 to +39). PSG hosted Guingamp and predictably, it was a 6-0 mauling.
Less predictable was Lyon's trip to relegation-threatened Caen. Lyon had plenty of early chances but were denied by Remi Vercoutre, of all people: He spent 11 seasons at the club mostly as a back-up keeper before moving to Caen to finally get some playing time. Nicolas Benezet bagged two just before half-time and in the second half, with OL punch-drunk, Sloan Privat made it 3-0.
Technically, the title race is not over but it might as well be. PSG would have to lose their final two outings, Lyon win theirs and somehow conjure up a seven-goal swing in goal difference. The question is whether the club can build on this magnificent season. How many of their stars (Alexandre Lacazette, Nabil Fekir, Clement Grenier) can they hang on to? And how do you begin to strengthen this team?
The good news is that they'll have plenty of time -- and opportunity -- to bounce back.
And finally, Bas Dost!
Who's up for another Bas Dost Watch? Now that the goal drought is over, the goal machine is back. Dost bagged two as Wolfsburg won away at Paderborn, 3-1. That makes it three goals in two games, 19 for the season in all competitions.
Imagine how good he'd be if it weren't for those long, pesky goal-less spells...
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.