Another big soccer weekend has come and gone, with most attention paid to the one game that did NOT take place as scheduled, when hundreds of Man United fans protesting the Glazer family led to Sunday's home game vs. Liverpool to be postponed. Elsewhere, Sergio Aguero turned on the style to help Man City to another victory ahead of his exit in June, Juventus remained somewhat in the race for a top four finish in Italy, and La Liga's title race continues to buzz as Atletico Madrid, Real Madrid and Barcelona all won to remain locked in battle.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football from the past weekend of internationals in Europe.
Jump to: Can protests bring change? | Inter's Serie A glory | Militao mighty for Real | Aguero's swansong | Messi, Busquets power Barca | Dortmund's Reyna in form | Bale shows his stuff | Milan's Donnarumma dilemma | Best role for Havertz? | Ronaldo rescues Juve | PSG worry about Mbappe | Llorente hero and villain for Atletico | Yilmaz superstar | And finally...
The zeitgeist has changed in England, but will fan protests be enough to bring change?
Similar events in different times and different circumstances can yield different results. It's easy to forget this as we reflect on Sunday's events in Manchester, which forced the postponement of Liverpool's visit to Manchester United. Roughly 200 fans blocked United's team bus from leaving their pre-match retreat at the Lowry Hotel, while more than 1,000 people protested outside Old Trafford and, eventually, entered the ground, with some vandalising the pitch and hospitality suites and clashing with law enforcement.
Two police officers were injured in a protest that began peacefully, only to degenerate later.
United supporters were taking direct action against the Glazer family, who have owned a majority stake in the club since 2005. They've been about as popular as bedbugs among supporters (we'll get to "why" in a minute), and there have been protests against them in the past -- most notably in 2010, when none other than David Beckham donned a green-and-gold scarf, the symbol of the anti-Glazer campaign at Old Trafford -- but to no avail. When it comes to popular sentiment, the Glazers seem to be about as responsive as a rusty horseshoe, though Joel Glazer did apologise for his role in trying to bring about the Super League two weeks ago, an apology many have rejected.
The temptation now is to go through the usual routine: plenty of sympathy for United fans, no love for the Glazers, condemnation of the violence and resignation that nothing will change because, well, that's just the way things are. The Glazers own United, they've weathered criticism for 16 years and they haven't changed a lick. Business as usual.
I'm not sure it has to be that way, though, because maybe times have changed.
"This could be an important moment to change football for the better," said Andy Burnham, the mayor of Manchester. "We should all condemn violence of any kind and keep the focus on the behaviour of those at the top of the game."
When you get the mayor of a city -- and lest we forget, it was Burnham's police who were out there confronting the protesters -- inviting you to keep the "focus" on the "behaviour" of those at the "top of the game," maybe it's not business as usual.
Maybe it's worth reminding ourselves what the Glazers have done and continue do -- all of it, by the way, perfectly legal. In simple terms, they borrowed an enormous amount of money to buy Manchester United. Once they acquired control, they shifted that debt on to the club, a club that had been debt-free since 1931. That alone, in a properly regulated industry (which football is not) should have set off alarm bells. Not all debt is equally problematic, of course, and United are perennially profitable which means it's not difficult for the club to service the debt.
But when you consider that the debt came about not to strengthen the squad, refurbish the stadium or as a result of a crisis like the pandemic, but simply for the privilege of being owned by the Glazers? Well, that part rankles. And you wonder whether we should allow somebody to take a risk of this magnitude with one of the healthiest, most profitable clubs in the world.
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It doesn't end there, of course. That debt -- which was incurred solely to allow the Glazers to acquire the club -- needs to be serviced, which means you need to pay interest on it. It's something United can do, because they've been profitable, but it also means that vast sums go on interest payments for a debt that doesn't need to be there. In fact, between debt-servicing, fees and dividends, well in excess of a billion dollars have flowed out of the club. Why? Again, for no reason other than the privilege of being owned by the Glazers.
Some might stomach all this if that ownership had yielded stellar results on the pitch, but in the eight years since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, all they have to show is two domestic cups and a Europa League. It's true that their revenues nearly tripled between 2005-06 and 2018-19, but so did those of most big European clubs.
The Super League fiasco may have been the catalyst to rekindle the seething rage against the Glazers, but it never went away. Fans can accept owners profiting from what to them is lifelong passion and not just entertainment, but only in certain circumstances: when they add value through their wisdom and leadership or when they sell up and cash in on the capital appreciation. Not when they simply bleed money out of the club, year after year.
Now, you can't have violence and vandalism, not under any circumstances. But if we learned anything from last summer's protests, direct action -- whether it's boycotts or sit-ins or simply people on the streets -- is different. Sometimes it does get results, especially if it is peaceful and there is popular sentiment behind it.
I'm not naive enough to suggest the Glazers can be persuaded to sell, as former United fan Gary Neville hopes. But nor am I cynical enough to think that, especially in the current climate, things can't improve for the better in terms of fan representation and institutional oversight.
Like most clubs, Manchester United is not merely an entertainment brand. They weren't created in 1974 because a league wanted to expand its territory. They're not known as the "Red Devils" because somebody won a "name-the-team" contest. Their popularity -- and value -- today is based on a history that dates to the 19th century and which saw them be successful -- and profitable -- for many years before the Glazers arrived.
That legacy is what is at stake here and what is worth protecting. From the Glazers and from the Super League.
Inter Milan are champions again after 11-year wait
Neither the fact that they knew it was coming, nor the fact that they clinched on Sunday watching Atalanta draw away to Sassuolo on TV makes Inter's first Serie A title in 11 seasons any less sweet. This is, historically, Serie A's second or third biggest club, yet they'd won no major trophy since the 2011 Coppa Italia. (Off the top of my head, I can't think of a bigger club that have gone longer.) This is also the club that was averaging close to 60,000 fans pre-lockdown: in fact, despite the repeated failures, they'd boasted the highest attendance in Italy for eight of the past 10 years.
That's what it means right now, which is why those who point to asterisks due to COVID-19, or the fact they finished bottom of their Champions League group, or their style of play over the past few months are missing the point. Sometimes, all that matters is lifting the trophy.
Right now, it's about celebrating Antonio Conte's ability to improve players, whether individually or simply by working out tactical systems that get the best out of them. Romelu Lukaku is Exhibit A, of course, but there are also guys like Ivan Perisic and Christian Eriksen -- unwanted and unloved at first, but then brought back into the fold and being decisive down the stretch -- or guys like Nicolo Barella, Lautaro Martinez and Alessandro Bastoni, youngsters of the sort Conte supposedly couldn't effectively nurture. It's a credit to him and to his players: when he's given control, he usually gets buy in and results.
That's right now, but what happens next?
First and foremost, there's a Conte issue, both on the pitch and off. What we saw in the past few months from Inter isn't the type of football that works in Europe, and it's not what he wants to play. Conte can do the "pound, defend and counter" better than most. But he knows that only gets you so far, which is why, until they got knocked out of the Champions League, he tried (with mixed results) playing a different, more attacking and possession-oriented style, before reverting to a more conservative approach to see out the domestic title.
The modern game, however, calls for a more proactive approach and he'll have to deliver it effectively next season if Inter are to do anything in Europe.
Off the pitch, the issue is his contract, which has one year to run but that Inter obviously want to extend. To do that, he'll want reassurances and, right now, the club's financial situation is far from stable. Suning, the majority shareholder, has pledged to focus on their core business -- retail, not football -- and they're looking both for investors and new financing for their bond issue, which expires next year. Juxtapose this with the impact of COVID-19, a bloated squad filled with veterans on huge contracts that are tough to shift and Inter are in a tough spot.
As things stand, it's hard to see Inter delivering the sort of reassurances Conte would normally demand. Which means he either downgrades his expectations and makes do with what he has or it's going to be a turbulent summer at San Siro. But that's a discussion for another day. Today, rightly, Inter and their fans just want to celebrate after a decade in the wilderness.
Militao keeps Real Madrid in La Liga title race
Eder Militao looked like an expensive mistake in his first season at Real Madrid. Against Osasuna this weekend, with Sergio Ramos unavailable and Raphael Varane forced off at half-time, he turned not just into a match-winner, but also a guy capable of marshalling a back four that included both Marcelo and Alvaro Odriozola to a clean sheet, something many felt was scientifically impossible.
With the usual raft of injuries and Chelsea coming up on Tuesday, Zinedine Zidane rested Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, gave Eden Hazard a run out and finished the game with three youngsters (Miguel, Sergio Arribas and Antonio Blanco) on the pitch. All that mattered was the three points and, while the goals came late, they duly arrived.
This is a team running on fumes right now, but with enough match-winners to stay in the hunt until the very end, even when playing poorly. What they didn't expect was that Militao would be one of them.
Improbable as it may sound, the Double is still a possibility.
Aguero turns back the clock, but it's time to move on
Had the game at Old Trafford gone ahead and had Manchester United lost, Manchester City would be celebrating their third Premier League title in four years. The party is likely just postponed a week, but there was something poetic in the fact that it was Sergio Aguero who broke the ice in the 2-0 win away to Crystal Palace.
The goal was vintage Aguero: sniffing out the space, killing the ball with his first touch and rifling it home with his second. It was a reminder of what he did regularly in his decade at the club, and it prompted some to wonder whether it makes sense to let him leave as a free agent in June.
Wonder no more. At the risk of being unromantic, Aguero is leaving because he's on an enormous salary and, over the past 12 months, has scored twice from open play in 16 appearances in all competitions. Pep Guardiola has decided he's often better served by playing with Gabriel Jesus as center-forward, or with no center-forward at all. He's the boss, it's his call and as long as he's producing -- which he undoubtedly is -- it's silly to question him.
Extending Aguero's stay at Man City, even for just a season, means depriving him of playing time. Nobody wants to see that. Best to move on and let him see if he can produce the magic he served up on Saturday on a different stage.
Veterans Busquets and Messi point the way forward for Barcelona
It was a case of celebrating Barcelona's senior players in the second half against Valencia. With the side a goal down, Lionel Messi's spot kick was saved only for Sergio Busquets, of all people, to react quicker than anyone and keep the ball in play: after another save, it sat up for Messi, who buried it for the equalizer. And then, after Antoine Griezmann -- who is coming together nicely down the stretch, with seven goals in his last nine games -- made it 2-1, up stepped Messi with a perfect free kick to put the game out of reach.
It wasn't a stellar performance from Barca, but it was what they needed against a tricky opponent and I'm not sure you can put a price on the example set by the veterans, Messi and Busquets. The latter, never the quickest, isn't particularly mobile these days, though his mind is lightning quick as ever and that, coupled with Frenkie De Jong's energizer bunny routine, papers over a lot of cracks. The former, well, is Messi. Enough said.
La Liga is going down to the wire and Atletico Madrid are next up in what is bound to be a six-pointer.
Reyna back on song as Dortmund reach DFB-Pokal final
Two goals from Gio Reyna helped Borussia Dortmund advance to the German Cup final with a 5-0 pasting of Holstein Kiel, the second division side that conquered Bayern Munich earlier in the competition. There, they'll face RB Leipzig, who downed Werder Bremen with a last-ditch winner in extra-time on Friday.
With Erling Haaland sidelined, it was up to others to step up and, in particular, we saw Reyna, Jadon Sancho and Marco Reus do just that. Edin Terzic didn't try to get anybody to impersonate Haaland in stretching the opposing defence, but instead Dortmund's attacking quartet took turns running into space. Reyna's performance is significant too, because he suffered a clear dip in form over the winter months. Nothing to be overly concerned about -- the managerial chaos didn't help, neither did the revolving door lineup and, heck, he's just 18 -- but to see him take over like that is encouraging and bodes well for a potential Sancho-less future.
As for Terzic, he's had his ups and downs since taking over from Lucien Favre and, obviously, will make way for Marco Rose at the end of the season. But the way he's handled the situation at just 38 years of age and the way Dortmund have gotten back on track for a top four finish and a cup final has only burnished his reputation. Expect to see him in charge somewhere sooner rather than later.
Bale hat-trick elevates Tottenham, depresses neutral fans (this one, anyway...)
Spurs thumped long-relegated Sheffield United, 4-0, just as expected. Less expected was seeing Gareth Bale score a hat-trick and display the sort of skills and enthusiasm we've rarely seen from him over the past few seasons. It was also slightly depressing, because it serves as a reminder of what might have been for Bale if not for injuries and frayed relationships, both at Real Madrid and at Spurs.
Bale in full flow is breathtaking. Without apportioning blame -- and hey, the injuries could be nobody's fault -- it's still fundamentally sad that we've only seen brief, teasing spurts of him at his best. It's just a loss to football.
In the here and now, he can play his part and maybe even push Tottenham into the Champions League places (though that would involve their rivals dropping points) before jetting off to whatever destination his millstone of a salary (reportedly £600,000 per week) sends him next. That, and moments like Sunday, would at least give some meaning to what feels like another wasted campaign.
Milan win overshadowed by Donnarumma situation
After two consecutive defeats, Milan took three points against Benevento in what was pretty much a must-win game in the hunt for a Champions League place, particularly with big head-to-head clashes against Juventus next week and Atalanta on the final day of the season. But there's another thorny issue for them to deal with, too.
Goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, who is out of contract in June and has yet to sign the extension offered by the club, was visited by a group of the club's Ultras. They told him that since he hasn't committed to the club beyond this year and since he's been linked to a move to Juventus, it would be best if he sat out Milan's game next weekend against the Bianconeri.
It's a textbook case of mistrust and incentives. The two clubs are level on points in a tight race to finish in the top four and qualify for the Champions League, which would bring anywhere from an additional $60m to $150m in revenue next season. Whoever wins this game will be ideally placed to have Donnarumma in goal next year, both in terms of offering a better financial deal as well as Champions League football.
It's not so much that the Ultras fear Donnarumma will throw the game to get himself a move (and more money). It's just that this is how some will interpret if he does make a mistake, and if that happens, it could unsettle him for the remaining games.
You can see their point, though, and an economist would have a field day with the conflicting incentives thrown up by the system in this situation. Equally, it's unacceptable for a player to be put under such pressure and the club were right to announce that all contract negotiations would be frozen until the end of the campaign. It's a ton of weight on the shoulders of a kid who only turned 22 in January.
Havertz scores twice for Chelsea and shows there's nothing false about him as a No. 9
I was skeptical about Chelsea's massive outlay to sign Kai Havertz last summer, not because of his skill set -- which is truly special -- but simply because he was so raw and it felt as if nobody agreed whether he was a midfielder, a winger, a striker or a guy to play in the hole.
Watching him operate in a front three with Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner against Fulham on Saturday, however, is increasingly persuading me that he has found his role and it's up front. And not as a "false nine," but simply as a "nine." Just because you can also play in attacking midfield doesn't mean you automatically become a "false nine" when you play up front.
Havertz has size, technical ability and tremendous movement and football instincts. He worked selflessly to open up space and scored his two goals because he got himself in the right place at the right time, which is what you want from a center-forward. It may well be that Thomas Tuchel is ready to commit to him in that role, too.
Ronaldo saves Juventus (maybe Pirlo, too) with a little help from De Paul
With less than 10 minutes to go, Juventus were a goal down against Udinese and playing turgid football. At that moment, they were out of the Champions League places, with the real risk of slipping to sixth if Lazio won their game in hand. Then, with seven minutes to go, came the free kick that Cristiano Ronaldo took and was sending well wide when Rodrigo De Paul -- who had been outstanding to that point -- somehow allowed his elbow to widen perpendicular to his body. The ball struck it, the referee rightly gave a penalty and Ronaldo slotted it home, before materialising at the far post to score the winner in the final minute.
Sometimes, an entire season feel as if they hinge on moments like this. After so much bad luck, Andrea Pirlo (who is far from blameless, no matter how many mitigating circumstances you care to cite) finally got a big slice of good fortune and Juve made it count. Ronaldo, again, papered over the cracks, but without De Paul's gaffe, even that wouldn't have mattered much.
Marquinhos, Neymar keep PSG ticking over as they worry about Mbappe
PSG boss Mauricio Pochettino left Marco Verratti and Angel Di Maria on the bench for their weekend game vs. Lens, but his biggest change was forced: Kylian Mbappe, who is in a race to be fit for the return leg against Manchester City. Against a tough out like Lens, it was Neymar's goal and a trademark Marquinhos header that delivered the 2-1 victory.
This was by no means a gimme -- Lens had beaten PSG in the reverse fixture -- but what's pretty evident is that this PSG version are better at keeping their focus than some of the ones we've seen in the past, possibly because the domestic title race is still wide open.
Llorente powers Atletico Madrid... and nearly undoes it all
Marcos Llorente's evolution from defensive midfielder to wingback, to attacking midfielder, to second striker, to whatever it is he's asked to do provides a compelling argument for versatility and against pigeonholing players. He's Atletico Madrid's second-leading scorer this year after Luis Suarez and it was he, with another of his perfectly-timed runs (and with a huge deflection), who gave Atletico a deserved lead against Elche this weekend.
However, it was also Llorente who conceded a bonehead penalty late in the game (one that rivalled the aforementioned Rodrigo De Paul play in its absurdity). It didn't matter, because Fidel failed to convert and Atletico came through with a 1-0 win (and a fine performance overall) that keeps them in the Liga driver's seat. But it serves a reminder of how tense and spent these players after the season. Expect more errors, mental and otherwise.
Burak Yilmaz is one of the stories of the season
Turkish center-forward Burak Yilmaz appeared as little more than a short-term rental when he joined Lille in the summer. Sure, he had scored lots of goals, but he was 35 and, other than a two-year stint in China, had never played abroad.
On Saturday he made his experience count, opening the scoring against Nice (his 15th of the campaign in all competitions) and generally being the big, strong, blue-collar nuisance up front he has always been. On a team stacked with promising youngsters who are overachieving, his goals and his know-how are making all the difference in keeping Lille top of the table.
And finally, #BASDOSTWATCH
Bas Dost scored for Bruges in their 2-2 home draw against Anderlecht. He now has nine goals in 14 Belgian league appearances and is on pace to score 11 in the league. Counting his time at Eintracht Frankfurt, he has 15 goals in 30 games overall this season.
This concludes the latest instalment of #BasDostWatch.