Man City shouldn’t worry about gap in Premier League title race. PLUS: Inter will regret Nainggolan deal

Blog, Blog - Marcotti's Musings, Blog Post, Clubs, English Premier League, Manchester City

I’m not sure that Roy Hodgson reinvented the wheel in leading Crystal Palace past Manchester City Saturday. Rather, the defeat reminds us that there’s a fairly basic blueprint you can use when facing Pep Guardiola and if things break your way and you execute well, you can be successful.

Stay tight, deep and dense at the back and fill your team with the sort of speedsters who are built for the break, like Jeff Schlupp, Max Meyer, Andros Townsend and, of course, Wilfried Zaha. Then, if Kyle Walker dares Schlupp to shoot and Ederson reacts in slow-motion, if Townsend scores a goal-of-the-seson contender from a neighbouring zip code and if Walker mistimes his tackle on Meyer (and Luka Milivojevic converts from the spot), you’ve got your three goals.

I’m only half-joking here. The story isn’t so much Palace’s three goals — they took five shots, with three of them going in and another hitting the woodwork — it’s the way they defended and how City couldn’t break them down the way they do with most teams. Guardiola’s side took 19 shots on goal; the vast majority of them were bad, either because they shot from far away or because there were bodies in the way.

Is there cause for concern? The obvious thing to say is that they lined up without David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne (who came on and scored) and Fernandinho: in other words, their first-choice midfield trio. Much of the focus is on Fernandinho’s absence because there is no replacement of comparable quality: John Stones, for all his ball-playing ability, is still a converted center-back. But a bit more verve and creativity than what Bernardo Silva and Ilkay Gundogan offered on the day might have unlocked the Palace defence.

The gap between Man City and league leaders Liverpool now stands at four points yet the bookmakers still have City as favorites. You assume it’s because they simply have a deeper, more talented squad, coupled with the fact that Jurgen Klopp’s team continue blowing hot and cold (while getting results).

Guardiola and Man City shouldn't have too much cause for concern after losing to Crystal Palace. There's still a lot of season left.
Guardiola and Man City shouldn’t have too much cause for concern after losing to Crystal Palace. There’s still a lot of season left.

My impression is that two factors will have a big say over this title race. The first, obviously, is Liverpool’s visit to the Etihad on January 3. Given the way this season is going, meaning the gap between the haves and have-nots, head-to-head contests loom as large as they ever have.

The other is the Champions League, where Liverpool face Bayern and Manchester City have a somewhat simpler task in Schalke. They won’t admit it but the distinct impression is that City are prioritising the Champions League while Liverpool, if they had to choose, would go for the Premier League. Whichever one stumbles out of Europe first will get a big boost in the league.

Club World Cup gives Real something to celebrate

The FIFA Club World Cup isn’t what it should (or could) be for many different reasons, but the reaction on the faces of Real Madrid’s players tells you just how much they enjoyed winning it. Even if it’s just a brief respite from the ups and downs of La Liga, the challenge for Santiago Solari is to take some of that positivity back to Spain.

There’s only so much to read into the victory over Al-Ain, who are several categories below on the food chain. But Sergio Ramos did it again at both ends of the pitch and Marcos Llorente scored a beauty (he’s got good genes). The midfielder has filled in well for the injured Casemiro and is one of the bright spots in a season that, so far at least, has offered very little.

Man United get an expected boost vs. Cardiff

We like simple explanations for big events and the stock reason given for Manchester United’s 5-1 drubbing of Cardiff away is that the “handbrake is off” and the players performed with freedom and a sense of fun now that Jose Mourinho is gone. Mourinho loyalists might respond that actually, Cardiff and the upcoming fixtures (Huddersfield and Bournemouth at home, Newcastle away) are exactly the sort you’d expect them to win regardless of who is in charge.

Wherever you stand, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer felt like a throwback to the Fergie Era on Saturday (or, at least, how many United fans remember the Fergie Era). The pacy front three (Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard) that became even more effective after the early goal, Paul Pogba finding space from which to dispense assists, Ander Herrera crunching guys in midfield, Antonio Valencia and Luke Shaw bombing forward… even Phil Jones felt right.

The real tests will come later but the Solksjaer effect is already evident: Mourinho’s departure was addition by subtraction.

Exhausted Bayern grab a win before winter break

The winter break can’t come soon enough for Bayern. They are so battered by injuries right now that Niko Kovac could only name five substitutes for the crunch clash with his old club, Eintracht Frankfurt, on Saturday, and he only got to five because two of them were teenagers Meritan Shabani and Lars Mai, who had yet to play this season.

Kovac had to do some mighty reshuffling simply due to the lack of bodies. Joshua Kimmich went back into midfield, Thiago Alcantara found himself in the hole and Thomas Muller shifted back to the wing. But the key was Franck Ribery, all 35 years of him, who bagged two goals after a difficult start and helped Bayern to a 3-0 win.

There are still plenty of issues for this club to work through, but at least the gap with Borussia Dortmund is still six points and there’s nearly a whole month to clear their collective heads and nurse the walking wounded back to health.

Juventus in control vs. Roma

Juventus’ apparent procession to the Serie A title continued on Saturday night against Roma and, once again, their victory was an ode to minimalism.

Mario Mandzukic scored the only goal, rising at the far post to meet Mattia De Sciglio’s deep cross. There was a sense of deja vu about it, not least because it was very similar to Mandzukic’s goals against Inter, Milan and Napoli: each time, he out-jumped a smaller full-back. Just why Roma fell into the trap again — he was marked by Davide Santon, who is half his size (almost) — having seen him do it countless times is hard to understand.

Beyond that, it was the usual Max Allegri fare with Juve controlling the tempo, not running up the score and not expending any more energy than they needed: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” might as well be his motto. As for Roma, they’re in a tailspin right now and while they’ve arguably played better than their results, this is a fragile construct. Once the negativity sets in, it’s hard to escape.

Messi, Dembele lift Barca to another win

No, Barcelona are not where they want to be and not just because they have eight fewer points than at the same stage last season. (Oh, and their lead, which was nine points a year ago, is just three this year.) But they do have Lionel Messi, who is pretty darn good, and they do seem to be hitting stride with their fourth straight Liga win.

Messi had a hand in both goals as Barca dispatched Celta, 2-0, but the best news, perhaps, is that defensively they look to be growing. Equally, Ousmane Dembele is pulling his weight to the point that it might be very difficult for Ernesto Valverde to get Philippe Coutinho back in the lineup, since he seems uncomfortable playing both together.

Mbappe the magic man for PSG

The “yellow vest” protests in France have wreaked havoc on the fixture list (and more) meaning Paris Saint-Germain had not played a league game in two-and-a-half weeks before Saturday’s visit of Nantes. It was tougher than anticipated against an opponent in the bottom half of the table but with Neymar already back in Brazil, the difference-maker was — who else? — Kylian Mbappe.

The young striker, who turned 20 just last week, is now up to 16 goals in all competitions. At the rate he’s going, you can expect him to eclipse last year’s total (21) by the beginning of February.

Tottenham deserve some praise for six-goal effort

Can Tottenham really make it a three-horse race? That’s the question raised when you see Mauricio Pochettino’s crew — without Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier, lest we forget — march into Goodison and put six past Everton without really breaking a sweat.

The bookies don’t think so (Spurs are 16-1 for the title) and with good reason: six points is a sizeable gap and there’s Manchester City in the mix as well. But it doesn’t change the fact that for all the talk of Pochettino’s future and the contractual situations of Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen, this time has the singular ability to focus on its job — playing football — without falling prey to off-the-pitch distraction. It’s a credit to the manager and to the team he has built.

Inter will regret Nainggolan transfer

Inter were held 1-1 at Chievo, which isn’t a tragedy given that Milan and Roma also dropped points over the weekend. What is concerning, however, is that Radja Nainggolan has been suspended by the club.

The Belgian midfielder’s boozing, smoking and general partying had made him a cult figure as much as his driving runs from midfield and all-around “Ninja” exploits. Because he was always productive, clubs looked the other way. It didn’t matter what he did as long as he was ready to kick butt on the weekend: he was the Alpha male with the “winning mentality.”

Inter bought into this thinking and paid nearly $30 million plus Santon and Nicolo Zaniolo, a package of around $45m. Zaniolo alone is now easily worth substantially more than Nainggolan, meaning you can add it to the long catalogue of Inter’s boneheaded moves.

Spending that much on a guy the wrong side of 30 (and giving him a fat four-year contract to boot) is simply giving in to a manager’s romantic notion (in this case, Luciano Spalletti). It’s also the sort of thing that comes back to bite you.

Atletico keep winning the Simeone Way

Atletico Madrid aren’t going away when it comes to the title race in Spain and, as ever, they’re doing things the Diego Simeone way. It would be the hard way for any other club except for them, it seems to be the only way. The clash with Espanyol was a grinding turf battle marked by Jan Oblak’s saves and the penalty won by Koke and converted by Antoine Griezmann.

Simeone has been hit hard by injuries and the possible loss of Lucas Hernandez (strongly linked to Bayern Munich) won’t help matters. Then again, it’s the story of Atleti in the Simeone Era: nothing is easy, but all of it is worth it.

Emery, Arsenal dazzle vs. Burnley

We’re not going to see the real Arsenal until Unai Emery has real, live able-bodied center-backs at his disposal. That means somebody other than Nacho Monreal or Granti Xhaka playing out of position. Until that time comes, all you can do is pass the time and try to get wins out of your belt, which Emery is doing.

In Saturday’s 3-1 win over Burnley, we got to see Mesut Ozil make his first league start in six weeks playing in the hole behind Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang with both full-backs, Sead Kolasinac and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, way up the up pitch as auxiliary wingers. It’s one of many blueprints Emery can pull out of his managerial tool-kit and for now, he needs all of them.

Milan’s form on the pitch should be put in context

Milan’s home defeat to Stefano Pioli’s young Fiorentina side was bad enough: they haven’t won in three weeks and in the interim, they got knocked out of the Europa League too. Gonzalo Higuain isn’t scoring and folks are sharpening their knives when it comes to manager Rino Gattuso.

So let the news that emerged over the weekend serve as a reminder of just how bad things were this time last year. Not only were they stuck with a “snake oil salesman” of an owner, who later defaulted on his loans after burning through several hundred million euros, but they also had a chief executive (Marco Fassone) who hired private investigators to spy on journalists and employees.

That tidbit came out because Fassone has taken legal action against the club’s new owners after he was sacked following the take over. It’s not much of a consolation but the fact that Fassone, David Han, Li Yonghong and the rest of the crew are no longer around is a step forward.

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