El Clasico: Barcelona beat Real Madrid 3-1 in a title race six-pointer. Instead of Real being six points clear with the potential to make it nine, they are tied with Barcelona and a chance to make it three. They still must play the Catalans in the Camp Nou. Instead of sealed, the title race is now wide open.
Barca’s win was deserved, but the score, as it often can be in soccer, was deceptive. Moments of fortune – an errant back pass, a mishit header, a deflection from a defender’s leg – settled what was a trifling margin between the two sides. It was close, though, the Catalans emerged victorious for two overarching reasons.
First, they’re great. A front six of Messi, Sanchez, Iniesta, Xavi, Alves and Fabregas is virtually impossible to defend. That’s arguably six of the world’s best ten players. Each of those players is disciplined, instinctively in sync and supremely gifted technically. They move fluidly both vertically and horizontally. The presence of each affords the others the space they need to thrive. The only attribute they lack is height. That’s irrelevant when the ball seldom leaves their feet on the carpet.
Second, Jose Mourinho’s tactical gamble backfired. The Portuguese manager defied expectations, starting with their standard attacking 4-2-3-1 with Ozil instead of the anticipated more robust 4-3-3 with Khedira. Mourinho’s genius is motivating great players to perform mundane tasks with ruthless efficiency. His plan hinged on Ronaldo, Ozil and Di Maria pressing Barcelona in advanced positions before they could build attacks. The effort was earnest, but it rendered them mostly ineffectual when they did have the ball. This blunted the advantage of Ozil on the pitch while an undermanned defense struggled with the space left by not having a third defensive midfielder.
Mourinho may be the world’s best manager, but he could be facing an impossible task in the Spanish capital. No matter what he accomplishes at Real Madrid, it’s irrelevant if he doesn’t best Barcelona, and doing that presently may not be possible. He could have an all-star team of the world’s best players not playing at Barcelona. Heck, he has an all-star team of the world’s best players not playing at Barcelona. The problem is even if you can match the talent, there’s no way to replicate their cohesiveness. Barcelona’s core has gone through the system and played with each other at club and international level since their early teens.
Anniversary Win: Arsenal celebrated their 125th anniversary this weekend, unveiling this awesome statue of Thierry Henry. There was no more fitting way to encapsulate the club’s history than a patented “1-0 to the Arsenal” win over Everton, punctuated by a brilliant goal by Robin Van Persie who is thriving in his lone cock in the hen house role.
The frail Dutchman has scored 15 of Arsenal’s 31 goals this season (no one else for Arsenal has more than three). He has 33 goals and 11 assists in 40 league appearances the past two seasons. He’s playing better than anyone in the world, except for Ronaldo and Messi. The worrisome part for Arsenal fans? RVP has already made 14 starts this season. He has started 20 matches in a league season once since 2001, when he started 24 in 2008-09. Though seeing success, Arsenal remains a clipped ankle a way from disaster.
Match-Fixing: FIFA suspects every match involving Cuba and Grenada in last summer’s Gold Cup to have been tainted by match-fixing. The teams were outscored by a combined margin of 31-2. In-game betting patterns were “five to 10 times what you would typically see,” and a gambling industry insider told Grant Wahl there was a “99 percent chance” the results weren’t earnest. Had one of them been in Group C, Bob Bradley might never have been fired.
Needy: Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas is not Jose Mourinho. Here’s one of the biggest signs. He asked, as a show of team unity, that players celebrating a goal acknowledge and involve the coaching staff in goal celebrations. Today, it’s goal celebrations. Tomorrow, he’ll want to hit the clubs with Ashley Cole. Next week, he’ll want John Terry to sleep with his wife.
Ronaldinho… Let’s just say it’s a good thing Joe Buck doesn’t cover Brazilian soccer…
[Photo via Getty]