European football talking points: Old Chelsea spirit haunts Manchester City; Lionel Messi shows sublime skills to silence Pele

The unpredictability of modern day football was fully visible in the weekend as Chelsea recovered from a horrible performance in the midweek against Wolverhampton Wanderers to end Manchester City’s winning streak. Barring the result, it was pretty much as expected elsewhere in Europe as big guns, including high-flying Borussia Dortmund and Juventus, secured victories.

Inter offer resistance but Juventus still too dominant

If Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo symbolise the free-flowing Juventus, then Mario Mandzukic defines another side of the club. AFP

If Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo symbolise the free-flowing Juventus, then Mario Mandzukic defines another side of the club. AFP

Gameweek’s first big clash, Juventus vs Inter Milan on Friday night, was supposed to be the last chance to stop the Old Lady of Turin from running away with the Scudetto. Inter failed at stopping Juventus, which means Massimiliano Allegri’s men have a whopping eight-point lead over second-placed Napoli after 15 matches, but the Nerazzurri can take pride from a performance that should have instilled some fear into their competition for the remaining Champions League spots.

Inter played with courage, with the trio of Matteo Politano, Mauro Icardi and Roberto Gagliardini impressing with their forays forward. Gagliardini was in fact quite unlucky to not open the scoring after hitting the inside of the post in the first half.

Inter’s three-man midfield comprising of Gagliardini, Marcelo Brozovic, and Joao Mario has impressed of late, with all three midfielders capable of attacking and defending. The trio gave a hard time to the Juventus attackers, but eventually, like all great teams, Juve found a way past the hard-working Inter side.

For Juventus, the match was more the case of getting the job done. They didn’t play to their best yet won against a very good side. If Paulo Dybala and Cristiano Ronaldo symbolise the free-flowing Juventus, then Mario Mandzukic defines another side of Juventus, the one that is willing to dig deep and put in a shift even when things aren’t going their way. The Croatian scored the winner, through a typical header in the far post, but Juventus will also have to thank their defence, captained by the returning Leonardo Bonucci, who has slotted back into the defensive set-up with so much ease after a stint with AC Milan, for their effort in keeping a clean-sheet. Juventus are unbeaten in 15 games, having won 14 of them, and have equaled the best start ever in any of Europe’s top five leagues.

Sarri’s Plan B is revoking the good, old Chelsea

“They have been together more than three years, they play really, really well, they have great players ... so we were set to suffer. We had a lot of humility, and then we tried to take our chance to score. So I think we did well, our plan, and I think it was a great game.”

No, Antonio Conte did not say this. David Luiz did. Yet, in the 2-0 victory Manchester City, it was the grand, old Chelsea spirit, that doggedness and refusal to give up cultivated by the likes of former managers Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, that came to the forefront, as manager Maurizio Sarri’s possession-based, free-flowing football remained in the background.

City, as expected from a team that is regarded as one of Europe’s best, dominated the possession and had Chelsea on the backfoot right from the beginning, but as the match progressed one could sense this was exactly what Chelsea had been set-up for. Playing without an established centre-forward and using Eden Hazard in the false-nine role, it was clear that Sarriball had been kept on hold for a counter-attacking structure.

While Hazard made vital contributions through two assists, it was Chelsea’s defensive players that made a huge difference. Cesar Azpilicueta, fresh from signing a new contract that will see him at Chelsea till 2022, was at his beastly best while David Luiz had one of those days when he transforms himself into a Franz Beckenbauer – the player turning defence into quick counter attacks.

For Sarri, the result would have come as a huge relief after a few uncharacteristic performances that saw Chelsea drop their foot off the pedal in what is looking like the strongest title race in recent years. An unbeaten Liverpool now tops the table, with Mohamed Salah back in red-hot form, but they face Manchester United next and we all know how Jose Mourinho loves big matches against Liverpool. Remember THAT slip, Gerrard? Messi proves his worth as Barca opens lead Teams in La Liga will be hoping people keep quiet about Lionel Messi. Espanyol were at the receiving end of a Lionel Messi masterclass as the Argentine forward converted two free-kicks into goals and controlled the game from the onset.

How can you make a comparison between a guy who heads the ball well, shoots with the left, shoots with the right and another who only shoots with one leg, only has one skill and doesn't head the ball well – Pele.

Stung by Pele’s criticism, Messi was at the end of everything positive for Barcelona, who eventually won the match 4-0 thanks to goals from Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele. Sevilla could only manage a draw against Valencia which means Barcelona now have a three-point lead at the top over Sevilla and Atletico Madrid. Real Madrid managed a 1-0 away win against Huesca but the Gameweek was all about the Messi, who once again showed he is a cut above the rest in La Liga. World’s fifth-best footballer huh?

Clockwork Dortmund

Borussia Dortmund’s winning run and late goals aren’t news anymore. Against Schalke, they were again their ruthless best, showing the spirit to fight back and score a winner, after Schalke had found an equalizer in the 61st minute.

What is surprising if how very less reliant Dortmund have become on Cristian Pulisic for these victories. Pulisic, last season’s stand-out star, isn’t even in the starting line-up these days after impressive performances from Jadon Sancho, who scored the winner against Schalke, and Marco Reus, who has been enjoying an injury-free run.

Coach Lucien Favre has built a team, that believes in the system more than the individual. His team is centered around the outstanding midfield partnership of Thomas Delaney and Alex Witsel, who frees all the attackers from defensive duties in the team’s half.

The presence of four attackers in the opposition half on a consistent basis either opens up space for Dortmund to attack or reduces the attacking prowess of the opposition, who leave too many defenders in their own half, vary of a counter-attack. There is still more than half a season remaining, but Dortmund have a seven-point lead over Borussia Monchengladbach and looks set to run away with the Bundesliga title.

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2018 16:22:32 IST

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