This weekend had a lot of potential on paper with the battle for the Scudetto, the FA Cup semis, the final in the Copa Del Rey, and a big one in Germany between Dortmund and Leverkusen. For the most part the weekend delivered so let’s take a look back.
1. Scudetto race is on
For the past month or so it looked like Juventus was going to run away from Napoli despite how good Napoli was for 3/4 of the season but when Juventus goes 20 unbeaten it’s hard to stay with them.
It seems like they do this every year they play okay for the first half of the season let a team or two think they may have a chance but when the calendar year turns Juventus finds it’s form and takes off. In the process they rip out hearts in the process.
So, before the huge meeting on Sunday in Turin it seemed like it would be a lot of the same. Juventus would leave with one hand on the title and be well on the their way to winning their 7th straight title.
I mean this was at home and all and they have only lost at home once this season.
But something funny happened on the way to the coronation when in the 90th minute Kalidou Koulibaly scored the winner off of a Jose Callejon corner to give Napoli a shocking 1-0 win at Juventus to close the gap for the Scudetto to one point with 4 games left for each team.
We have real title race my friends, one of the best ones we have had in a few years in one of the big 4 leagues.
The biggest thing to me about this game was how Max Allegri set his team up for this one.
He basically came out with a 3-5-2 which played more like a 3-6-1 with Douglas Costa and Kwadwo Asamoah as wings backs. He was trying to match their 3 in the midfield while cutting their width off with Asamoah and Costa. It was a very defensive and pragmatic approach but it’s what you expect from Juventus. A draw for them would be fine so it was obvious that Allegri was going with the safe approach rather than the kill shot.
Things changed for Allegri when Girogio Chiellini left the game in the 11th minute with an injury so at that point he brought in Stephan Lichsteiner for Chiellini and went to a 4-4-2 but was really a 4-5-1.
Then at halftime he realized that Paulo Dybala was worthless in this set up so he removed him for Juan Cuadrado which effectively had them set up as a 6-3-1. They had 9/10 guys behind the ball at all times. They hardly looked to counter especially after the first 30 minutes and it was all about getting a 0-0 draw first and if they somehow found a goal it would be a bonus.
For the most part it worked and would have worked if not for the corner the one thing this type of setup can’t defend against.
Napoli tried like hell to get things going, they had 60% possession in the first half and 61% possession in the second half. They had 6 shots each half for a total of 12 if you can’t do math. Juve on the otherhand had 3 shots in the first half and just 1 in the second half for a total for a total of 4, as defensive and pragmatic it was in the first half they at least showed a semblance of looking for a counter. In the second half they didn’t even try.
It was effective. Napoli is an attacking machine, but like any other attacking force they rely heavily on having space and Juve took the space away from them. Sure they had 12 shots on the game but at no time did I actually think they were threatening until Koulibaly’s header found the back of the net.
Had it worked Allegri would have been praised for being smart, pragmatic and knowing what it takes to win the title. It’s the difference between him and Sarri. Sarri is stubborn and won’t adjust from his attacking style to do what it takes to win the title.
You know what? I’m so glad those words haven’t been written. I am glad the guy who is stubborn and wants to win by attacking won. Because maybe in the future more teams will actually try to win this way than the way Juve has.
Look I have nothing but respect for what Juve has done. Any team that has won 6 titles in a row in a league like Serie A is doing something right and they have made 2 out of 3 Champions League finals knocking off Barcelona last year and Real Madrid in 2015 to get to the final. Ironically they lost the final to Barcelona in 2015 and Real Madrid in 2017. But as a fan of attacking football I despised their approach to the game yesterday.
I get why he did it. A draw pretty much locked it up for them and this is the best way to stop Napoli. Even a team as talented as Juventus tries to go toe for toe attacking with Napoli is asking for trouble. But we did see what Juve can do on the attack in the second leg against Real Madrid.
But having this backfire is a a little fun. The game wasn’t boring it was tactically interesting watching Juventus try to keep Napoli from getting any space, it worked for the most part. Mertens was not effective at all and was yanked from the game in the 61st minute but to see that header hit the back of the night had me cheering and I was so happy for Napoli. Maybe for once the good guys won.
One mistake I thought Allegir did make was to pull Douglas Costa for Mario Mandzukic. Costa was Juventus most effective player going forward and is better defensively than Mandzukic. I thought maybe this would be a sign of trying to counter giving them a target man besides Higuain and this would be a sign of opening things up late to steal a winner like they have so many times but this was not the reality. Mandzukic didn’t do much at all.
But none of that mattered really it all came down to one corner and it was the perfect ball from Callejon and it was a bullet header from Koulibaly which sent the entire city of Napoli into a frenzie and has their fans believing that for the first time since the 1987 Maradona led team they will win the Scudetto. The 87 team won the double but shockingly is the only time Napoli won the title so this would be beyond huge.
So with each team having 4 games left this thing is on Juve has to travel to Inter this weekend and then Bolonga at home before the Copa Italia final midweek against Milan, then they have to travel to Roma before finishing up at home against Hellas Verona who will likely be relegated by then.
Napoli on the other hand has to go to Fioretina this weekend which won’t be easy, then Torino at home, then a trip to Sampdoria which will be very difficult as Sampdoria is 4th in the league with points at home then they finish with Crotone at home.
It’s far from over and will still be very difficult but at least it gives Napoli’s fans a chance to dream that they can do this.
2. Manchester United/Tottenham
United advanced to the FA Cup final with a 2-1 win over Spurs. The winner was an Ander Herrera winner in the 62nd minute.
This was a fabulous game. Spurs were out on the front foot early looking dominant and looking like they could run away with this. They got an 11th minute goal by Deli Alli, they were all over United until the equalizer in the 24th minute. At this point Mourinho made some key adjustments to stifle the United attack and United turned in a Mourinho masterpiece to advance to the final. Looking for their 2 FA Cup title in 3 years.
Early on Spurs were running through the United midfield of Pogba, Matic, and Herrera but Jose made some little adjustment tightened things up in the midfield Herrera and Pogba bossed the midfield, Sanchez and Lingard dropped off and Spurs were having a difficult time getting through midfield.
Pogba then picked Dembele’s pocket which was shocking considering Dembele is usually a rock with the ball and as good as anyone at his position and has owned Pogba in the past but Pogba got his revenge.
Pogba, Sanchez and Herrera were all terrific. I would have given Herrera man of the match even if he didn’t score the winnrer, Sanchez probably played his best game for United and Pogba should quiet some doubters with his performance.
This was brilliant from United. The season has no doubt been up and down but they deserve a lot of credit for this and my whole are they an underachiever or overacheiver debate from my preview blog still confuses me a bit but I am starting to lean that they have over acheived because Mourinho was forced to play this way or they would have been exposed defensively. I think this game showed both sides of it. Early on this game was wild, it was very open but this was when Spurs looked like the better team and United looked exposed in the back, but when Jose made his adjustments and tightened things up United was the better team so this is where I rest my case on what they are.
The narrative after this was of course about Spurs and not winning big games or winning trophies. While those things are facts and there is no doubt the losing big game things but under Pochettino look at those big games it was a league cup title loss to Chelsea in 2015 when Chelsea won the league, a semi final loss to Chelsea last season when Chelsea won the league, the loss to Juve in the Champions League, and then this loss to United. Sure it doesn’t look good for them, but it still doesn’t change the progress that has been made. No doubt the next step is to win these types of games and yes they have to do this soon or they will be looked at as a good team who couldn’t win anything that mattered but at this point I’m still willing to give them a chance and think there progress outweighs their failures.
The one thing I would be concerned about is will they be able to keep the people they need to keep and will they spend the money they need to spend.
Spending the money shouldn’t be a problem moving into their new palace next season, they should have all kinds of revenue streams they have never had before. So, they should he able to pay their own guys in order to keep them and also spend money in the transfer market to become a true contender and win these games that they keep losing.
There is already concern that they lose Tony Alderwiereld, he’s basically been benched because of this. I know they would have been a better team with him at Center Back over Davison Sanchez.
But then there are Harry Kane, Dele Alli, and Christian Eriksen.
You hear things from Kane or his camp that they need to win things and show more ambition for him to commit long term. Where as I understand this from a player of this caliber I also think it’s kind of interesting when he was awful on Saturday. He was only effective early in the game when he dropped off to receive the ball, but United recognized this, took this away from him and he was invisible after that. He’s been far from the same since his ankle injury. He probably shouldn’t be playing right now. He was averaging just under 6 shots per 90 minutes before his ankle injury but since he’s only averaging 2.5 shots per 90, it’s a significant dropoff which gives him a bit of an excuse but you hate to hear a player throw his team under the bus and take the blame away from himself when he didn’t help much. Same with Alli even though he scored their goal and was overall good on Saturday so was Eriksen. I have never heard anything about Erikesen leaving but I have heard it about Kane and Alli.
When you hear them both say that they need to win things to ensure they say is a little irratating cause if they were better they would probably win those things. At least you don’t hear those things from Eriksen who to be honest has been their most consistent player this season.
But keeping these 3 is everything to their future if they lose them they will be back to where they were when they sold Bale.
Chelsea beat Southampton 2-0 to advance to play United in the other semi. It’s a funny final because out of the big clubs this looks like it’s a battle from the two biggest disappointment’s this season and this is a chance at glory for one or the other.
This one will probably be remembered for two things. Olivier Giroud’s Messi like goal or the goal that Southampton scored but wasn’t given.
It was a more interesting game than I thought it would he. Chelsea absolutely dominated the first half but only walked away with 1 goal.
I am not sure what Southampton’s actual plan was but it looked like they basically wanted to keep Chelsea in front of them and keep the score as close as they could and maybe open things up late, but after the half things changed it ended up being an open end to end affair for a while. Southampton missed some good chances. Shane Long probably scores if he has a better touch, they hit the post, and had a couple other glorious chances, but it appeared they scored the equalizer when Charlie Austin and Chelsea goalie Willy Caballero both went up for the same ball. Cabellero ended up with the ball but looked to be clearly across the line with the ball but instead a foul was called on Austin. It was one of those situations that a foul was called because an attacking player was in the same hemisphere as the goalie. I will stick up for the ref in the fact that this is always called but at the same time it wasn’t a foul and should have been a goal. I hope at some point in the future the powers to be in football address this better so when a foul isn’t committed it isn’t called.
Chelsea held them off and got a second when Alvaro Morata came in for Giroud. It was immediately after he came on. He took an Azpilicueta cross, found himself wide open and finish with an easy header.
This was the Morata from old the guy that fooled people with his ridiculous numbers as a super sub but was exposed when he had to be a full time starter.
All in all the right team won but it would have been interesting to see if what would have happened if Southampton would have been given the equalizer.
Barcelona flew by Sevilla 5-0 in what felt more like an Andres Iniesta testimonial more than a cup final.
This was a great send off for the Barcelona legend. It looks like he is moving on from Barcelona at the end of the season and will be most likely heading to China to get paid a lot of money to play out the rest of his career or retire. Those plans haven’t been quite determined yet.
We saw Barca at it’s worst when lost the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinals to Roma 3-0 but we saw them at their best in this final.
Messi was at his absolute best scoring once and assisting on 2 others, Suarez scored twice, and Coutinho continued his fine form with Barca.
Iniesta was the story, Messi was the star and Coutinho continued to open my eyes wide open with his tremendous play of late.
He wasn’t great when he first arrived, it took him a while to get used to not being the man all the time, but since he’s gotten comfortable he’s been brilliant and has shown Barca fans what they have in the future. I would guarantee if he wasn’t cap tied they beat Roma.
A dark cloud will hang over them for this season for the way the Champions League went but at the same time this has been an incredible season as they will win the league for the 7th time in 10 years, they have won the Copa Del Rey for the 4th straight time and 6th time in 10 years. It’s the 5th time in 10 years they have done the domestic double. Anytime you do a domestic double your season has been a success but this is Barca so anytime they don’t do a treble their season will be a bit of a disappointment but if you can’t call the season they just had a success because of one fluke result on the road then there is something wrong with you.
The only thing they have left to do is finish the season unbeaten. Something that has never been done ever in La Liga. If that happens there is no way that this season can’t be remembered for anything other than special.
5. Premier League
It was a short slate of games in the league this week due to the FA Cup.
- Man City ran easily through Swansea as they celebrated their league title at home in front of their fans with a 5-0 win. It was City at their best and they closed in a some of the million records they’re trying to beat before the end of the season.
- Burley and Stoke drew 1-1 in a game that Burnely actually had the better of play for once but ended up with a draw. Seriously this is the most confusing team in the history of the sport. Stoke probably needed more out of this game right now they’re 4 points behind Swansea has a game in hand. Stoke pretty much has to beat Liverpool at Anfield if they want to save themselves at this point. Good luck but maybe they catch a break that they met them in the middle of the Champions League semis.
- Arsenal beat Southampton 3-1. It was a nice performance from them as they get ready for their Europa League semis against Atletico Madrid on Thursday which is their one way they can really give Wenger a true send off.
- Lastly Crystal Palace drew 0-0 with Watford in a wild game. Zaha was probably on the pitch more than he wasn’t even though when he got a yellow card for diving it should have been a penalty. They were dominated in the first half but somehow survived and then they had chances in the second half hitting the post twice, but it ultimately ended scoreless. It was a good point for Palace and now with a 6 point gap in 14th they should be okay.
Dortmund hammered Leverkusen on Saturday 4-0 to put themselves into third with 54 points and a 5 point gap on 5th place Hoffenheim. So, Dortmund is good at this point.
This game may be remembered for the coming out party of British teenager Jadon Sanchez who scored and had 2 assists on the game and was clearly the man of the match. It was his first of many goals for Dortmund. It’s amazing how many superstar teenagers this team ends up with. Say what you will about their season but someone is doing something right there to keep getting these teenagers.
Leverkusen now finds themselves in a battle with Hoffenheim for the last Champions League spot. As I concerned that may happen Leverkusen was out of gas after their hard schedule of late. This was their 4th big game in 13 days. They just don’t have the depth to play that type of schedule and with the importance of every single one of those games they didn’t rotate much and you saw the results of that on Saturday. This team didn’t have anything, but the good thing they control their own destiny.
Hoffenheim crushed Leipzig at Leipzig 5-2 to put themselves back in position for a Champions League spot as they find themselves only 2 points behind Leverkusen.
This one to me was all about Leipzig. This pretty much ensures they will be in the Europa League at best next season, but it a must win game it was pathetic how poor they were defensively and with Naby Keita coming to Liverpool and who knows what the future may hold for Timo Werner it will be interesting what happens to them in the future.
Well that’s all I got. Champions League this week, let’s goooooooooooo.