Uff! This weekend was too much! Without further ado, let’s check what happened:
Note: every game’s header is a link to the highlights of that game.
A man with a plan: Harry Kane.
They’ve done it! After two defeats to Gunners last season and a disappointing draw in September, Spurs finally defeated their local rivals to climb above them in Premier League table. And, even more surprisingly, it was a victory far more convincing than the final result would suggest. Tottenham thoroughly dominated the first half of the game and Arsenal, employing the same tactics that yielded them away win at Manchester City, this time simply were not the team that could withstand the pressure. Hector Bellerin, the man who did not succumb to James Milner or David Silva, was helpless against Danny Rose’s forward runs and to Christian Eriksen’s technical mastery. His teammates were struggling just as much as he did: Ramsey, playing a vital role on both ends of the pitch was this time relentlessly harassed by ruthless Mousa Dembélé while Cazorla’s threat got shut down masterfully by Nabil Bentaleb, who did not look like a man that just returned from an exhausting run of game at Africa Cup of Nations. If it wasn’t for David Ospina, who was on a brink of suffering injury early in the game only to recover and parry many dangerous shots, the visitors would’ve left White Hart Lane with a big baggage of goals.
In the end, it was the killer duo of Eriksen and Harry Kane, who delivered the final blow – again. While Erik Lamela remained as useless as usual, the two lads that have carried the team in critical moments were too good and too quick for Bellerin and Koscielny to handle. After a disappointing first half, in which Spurs controlled the game in all areas but still were down 0-1, the Dutchman and the Wonderboy gained focus and turned it around. Kane was quickest to reach the loose ball from Lamela’s corner to make it level in 56th minute; exactly a half hour later, an inch-perfect, long ball from Bentaleb reached Arsenal’s penalty area where Kane, in a spirit of great Alan Shearer, headed it confidently in the back of the net. The only consolation for Arsène Wenger’s team was an early lead from Mesut Özil, who, first an foremost, scored from the offside, and secondly, he did not have any more real impact on the game other than this single moment of glory. Once Spurs came back from one-goal deficit, we’ve all seen it coming: the team gradually regressed and got hit again few inches away from a draw. Why wouldn’t they lose? It’s Tottenham, after all: the team that salvaged 17 points from losing positions last season and, after last Saturday, already have 15 such points in 2014-15 campaign.
Not everything can be attributed to the absence of Alexis Sánchez. Though it’s true that without the Chilean, Gunners did not really have a player to cut Tottenham’s backline open, much more was expected from Arsenal’s forward four. Aside from Danny Welbeck’s few pacey runs with the ball, there was very little up there to produce more than a one goal. Arsenal has fired a total tally of 7 shots compared to Spurs’ 23; their shooting was accurate only on three occasions. And even though Hugo Lloris had one or two difficult saves to make, the Frenchman is too good of a goalie not to deal with these. Add the underwhelming 69% pass accuracy into the mix (against City: 75%, against Villa: 82%) and you’ll get a recipe for a disaster. Ospina alone is not enough: both team veterans and newcomers like Bellerin and Coquelin must find some consistency because right now, their team looks less reliable to earn needed points than Manchester United, Southampton and the Spurs themselves. It’s not just a battle for the fourth place: it’s a battle to prove Wenger’s decisions right. Is his job really more untouchable than Sir Alex was, or…?
Yes Sami, it is going in: Saul finishing Siqueira’s cross.
If North London derby was a blast, this was surely a shocker. Atletico Madrid, the team I praised many times before for ingenious, combative, anti-Barca, anti-Real, defensive style of play went balls to the wall and destroyed Champions League titleholders in one of the most shockingly dominant Madrid derby to be ever played! Every little move, every pass, every tackle they made wasn’t just qualitatively better than those made by their opponents – as it happens usually anyway. No. With 51% of ball possession in the first half and 48% overall, Atletico, in one of the rare cases for this club, had both the technical quality and the statistical quantity on their side; and they just ran with it. Most of the running was done down their left flank, where Dani Carvajal, the first-choice right-back for Real, had one of the few nightmares in his career. With Koke, Griezmann and on-fire Guilherme Siqueira all invading his area, he could not really resist getting creamed. Second goal for Atletico came from Carvajal’s sector and the hell broke loose because, unlike many times before, Simeone’s boys weren’t just content to quietly cruise for a modest win: that day, they wanted blood.
On a normal day, Real has more than enough quality to win a punch-for-punch exchange with about any football team in the world. That, however, was not a normal day – and it’s not just about Atletico being exceptionally good. On Thursday, Cristiano Ronaldo, freshly unbanned from a red-card suspension, was celebrating his 30th birthday. His official party for this occasion was scheduled and thrown after Atletico derby; however, on that Saturday afternoon, CR7 looked as if he was already hungover. Isolated from the midfield support, he’s been completely anonymous out there, only getting into one, absurd argument with Juanfran and completing one diving attempt that was treated leniently by the referee. Jesé Rodríguez, the 21 years old, who admittedly looks like he’s going to be a decent player – he’s done much more in that game than the Golden Ball winner, despite being subbed on during the half-time. And because the unchanged RM policy was to give the ball to Ronaldo unconditionally, the likes of Bale or Benzema weren’t the players they used to be against Sevilla or Sociedad: players who’d double their efforts to prove that they can rule this team while the Portuguese star was sidelined.
Without their usual outlet upfront, Los Blancos were simply rolled by a never-ending string of tackles (29 from Atletico to 18 from Real) and shots (17 from Atletico to only 4 from Real). A great goalkeeper might’ve saved them; David De Gea, the man who’s been linked with a Madrid move, might’ve saved them; but, as it stands, it’s Iker Casillas who’s taking care of the goal at Santiago Bernabeu and this time, he channelled his World-Cup-2014-self, mishandling Tiago’s powerful long shot and allowing it to slowly roll into the net and open the scoreline. Once Saul, the unlikely hero, performed his fantastic overhead kick to finish Siqueira’s cross, it was pretty much over. At that point, the only Real player who could realistically turn this around – James Rodríguez – wasn’t fit to play. Without him being available, Ancelotti had to rely on Javier Hernández and Jesé, who simply are not having enough playtime to really make a difference in a big game like this. And while they weren’t contributing anything to the play, Antoine Griezmann, the French supertalent was having another storming performance. Maybe it’s him, whom Real should’ve brought last summer in the first place?
While Inter players partially redeemed themselves by beating Palermo 3-0, Milan lads, whom I panned for their performance against Lazio, were comfortably outplayed by the Italian champions. Fielding the thug-like midfield in form of Poli, Essien and Muntari, did not help; neither did new signing Paletta at the back or Keisuke Honda upfront. To really scratch Juve, rosso-neri needed all three of their strikers to perform and all four of their defenders to be very lucky – because frankly, their skill is insufficient to stop the damage Tevez, Pogba and Vidal can inflict. Neither of those requirements was met: Tevez opened the scoreline by bamboozling the backline that pushed way too far up to pressurize a completely innocent Morata’s move in the middle of the pitch. Soon after that, Antonelli, another emergency signing from Genoa, equalized with a nice header after Cerci’s corner. At that point, there was a light at the end of a tunnel for Milan. They were being outplayed, true, but Diego Lopez parried anything that went his way and people like Pogba or Vidal, who are there to run into the box from the deep and punish the lack of cover for opposition centre-backs – did not have the best game of their careers.
Yet, in the end, the light from the tunnel turned out to be a train anyway. That train was called “defending set pieces”. Already at 0-1, Milan almost conceded twice from the free kicks. With 1-1 result on the table, the fortune had enough and abandoned those who were unwilling to help it. Bonucci ended a festival of headers in visitors’ box by scoring from a close range and… almost breaking his leg after an awkward jump over a sideline banner. It ended the fight and pretty much everybody knew it. Unfazed by that, Diego Lopez kept saving shots and crosses over and over and over again, until he couldn’t do it anymore, punched the ball back into the middle of penalty area and Morata clarified the final result. Somewhere in the middle of this game, Pazzini had an excellent chance to make it 2-2 – but overall, Milan in this game remained the same failure of a team we know and cringe upon. All rosso-neri fans should be waiting for the summer because frankly, I don’t see anything good happening to Inzaghi’s team this season. Of course, apart from some Euros club owners saved by not appointing a top-notch manager and not brining the extra strength to the team the way their local rivals did…
Fellaini to Blind: calm down buddy, it’s just a draw…
It’s hard to talk about those two games separately. Both featured teams from Manchester: big, ambitious, willing to spend tons of money to get the standings they need. Both also featured them faced against teams that are simply speaking, not in their leagues. And, eventually, both games ended in 1-1 results – with Manchester teams snatching disappointing draws in a nick of time. How did that happen? Well, newsflash: both City and United have fairly unpredictable defensive lines that will make mistakes frequently but won’t fix them immediately with players providing cover to those who screw up once they screw up. Therefore, people like Meyler or Kouyaté had their moments of glory, as those are players who are not afraid to strike the ball once it’s cleared badly because they understand that for that moment, opposition’s defenders are simply confused. After all, when the chips were down, City’s centre-back, Demichelis, passed the ball back to Hull player only to stand there in a no-man’s land while Vincent Kompany, who should’ve been tracking Meyler and leaving the middle for Demichelis to sweep, dived into a tackle instead.
United had it even more difficult, and it’s understandable: playing away game at Upton Park can really be a burden. De Gea saved Red Devils twice before the actual disaster happened. Funnily enough, the Spaniard should’ve probably conceded a goal earlier because from the moment he did, van Gaal’s side started to take control over the game. Unfortunately, just like City without Yaya Touré, United without the invisible Ángel Di María are doomed to hoof the ball into the box and hope for the best. And the more desperate they were, the more hoofing commenced; the only difference being Fellaini joining the strikers on the recieving end of crosses as the time started running out. Van Persie and Falcao each had to waste one decent goalscoring chance before Blind’s strike from the distance saved one point for the visitors. They’re still #4. They’re still undefeated since January 11th. But Yaya Touré will soon return on Ettihad, while there’s no leading midfielder to return to Old Trafford. Can van Gaal rebuild Di María’s form? To me, the answer is: he doesn’t have a choice. He really doesn’t: because Wayne Rooney playing as a midfielder is not a solution to anything.
It was fun. GG Basques.