The European football weekend gave us everything, as it always does: The Carabao Cup final was truly a game to remember despite it technically finishing 0-0 between Chelsea and Liverpool, while Barcelona and Napoli picked up big wins. There was also cause for concern at Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich after difficult games.
It's Monday, and Gab Marcotti reacts to the biggest moments in the world of football.
Jump to: Chelsea, Liverpool entertain | Barca click for Xavi | Napoli top of Serie A | PSG turn on the style | Bayern's midfield issues | Everton's handball woe | Real Madrid get lucky | Man United perform | Juve revival continues | Spurs win should calm Conte | Deja due doom for Dortmund
Only thing a superb cup final lacked was finishing ... until the penalties
I'm not a fan of the League Cup (known as the Carabao Cup) and would love to see it scrapped. That said, when two teams serve up the sort of spectacle Chelsea and Liverpool offered Sunday in the final, you can only tip your hat to the players and the coaching staff. This game had everything bar goals, and that was down to a combination of tremendous goalkeeping from Caoimhin Kelleher and Edouard Mendy and some poor finishing from Christian Pulisic, Sadio Mane and Mason Mount.
It was curious to see how Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel -- two coaches who go way, way back -- would set up. Tuchel omitted Romelu Lukaku and went for a more mobile front three of Kai Havertz, Mount and Pulisic, perhaps looking to forgo some possession and rely instead on transition. Klopp lost Thiago Alcantara to a muscle pull in the warm-ups, and it was a significant blow. Against Chelsea's well-marshaled defense, he would have come in more than handy. The former Bayern man is irreplaceable (nobody else in Klopp's squad has his skill set) without being indispensable: Liverpool can beat you in other ways, too.
Liverpool had the upper hand early, Chelsea came back, both sides had opportunities and both had goals disallowed. Virgil Van Dijk's tussle with Reece James that led to Joel Matip's goal being struck off felt a lot like the Harry Maguire incident a few weeks ago. Equally, you assume VAR was correct in ruling Lukaku offside when he scored, but from the pictures on TV, I found it very had to tell.
What I enjoyed most -- and this is maybe why League Cup finals (unlike the rest of the tournament) work -- is that both teams wanted to win more than they wanted to avoid defeat. It's a nice trophy to win, but it won't move the needle on your season if you're Liverpool or Chelsea. And losing leaves no fallout because, ultimately, it's the League Cup, a distant fourth in seasonal priorities.
The penalties at the end offered their own drama, beginning with Tuchel's decision to send on Kepa Arrizabalaga for Mendy ahead of the shootout. In fact, we saw the difference between the two man-management styles before kickoff. Klopp stuck with Kelleher, who had started in all but two games in this competition. Tuchel opted to drop Kepa for Mendy, who had yet to play in the League Cup. As with most man-management decisions, as long as you are clear and straight, there's no right or wrong answer other than performance on the day and both starting keepers were exceptional.
As for Kepa, it's easy to mock the fact that he faced no fewer than 11 penalties and saved none, not to mention the fact that he blasted his own penalty over the bar. For a guy who supposedly has a reputation (and the supporting stats) as a penalty shootout expert, it's not a great look. Then again, there's a lot of truth in the old adage that 99% the time, if a penalty isn't scored, it's down to the penalty-taker, not the guy in goal. And both teams were hugely impressive from the spot. (My favorite bit of mind games/trolling? Kepa trying to psych out Van Dijk by lining up close to his right post, only for Van Dijk to smash it past him on that very post.)
Both Klopp and Tuchel can walk away from this with a lot of positives, and you imagine that's what they're dwelling on more than the joy/pain of winning/losing the League Cup. But for neutrals, Sunday was a whole heck of a lot of fun.
Everything clicks for Xavi's Barcelona
What a week for Barcelona and Xavi. Three wins -- against Valencia and, most recently, Athletic Bilbao in LaLiga, against Napoli in the Europa League -- 12 goals scored, plenty of chances created and a glimpse of what could be. Pedri returned to what he was pre-injury (and, given his age, will be for some time), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang showed he hasn't forgotten how to finish and even Ousmane Dembele -- initially greeted by boos due to his contract situation -- was applauded by the Camp Nou faithful. (Enough to keep him around at a price they can afford? Maybe...)
The worst thing the club could do now is rest on their laurels. There are still plenty of structural flaws in the way this team was built, there are still budget restrictions, and they're still level on points with Atletico Madrid. But this week showed there is light at the end of the tunnel. Because there's enough talent there (and we're not even counting Ansu Fati) and because Xavi isn't afraid to put that talent to work in the right way.
Late drama sends Napoli top of Serie A, shows they have plenty of fortitude
The knock on Napoli in recent years echoed the knock on Luciano Spalletti: when the going gets tough, they crumble and he goes all loopy. It was all set up for that on Sunday night at Rome's Stadio Olimpico. Still bearing the scars of the home humiliation against Barcelona on Thursday in the Europa League, they were outplayed for most of the first half by Lazio. They took the lead at the hour mark, but were pegged back by Pedro's wonder-strike in minute 88. Disappointment was palpable. With Milan and Inter both dropping points on Friday, this felt like another imminent missed opportunity.
But just as you expected Napoli heads to hang, they struck back, Lorenzo Insigne setting up Fabian Ruiz in the fourth and final minute of injury time. Talk about confounding expectations and getting the sort of emotional boost you can dine out on for a long time.
Insigne is off to Toronto in June. Ruiz is also out of contract. The clock is ticking on Dries Mertens. Kalidou Koulibaly, Victor Osimhen and Piotr Zieliński are bound to get plenty of transfer offers. And yet this group feel like they have the mental strength and stick-to-it-ness required to stay in the Scudetto hunt until the very end and, perhaps, even win it. That's what victories like this give you.
Napoli are level with Milan and two points ahead of Inter, who still have a game in hand. They owe it to themselves to take this down to the wire.
PSG turn on the style, but why do they always need to concede first?
Paris Saint-Germain sometimes remind you of those video games where one guy has a ton of power-ups and extra weapons but initially gets pummeled, either because he's distracted or because he doesn't care, and then unleashes his fury on the opponents. Against Saint-Etienne we saw the vaunted front three together again, with Neymar and Lionel Messi lining up either side of Kylian Mbappe, and still they went a goal down at home.
They turned it around, of course, and they did it in style (Messi had some delicious moments, but Mbappe stole the show). You can't help but feel that this team only comes together when it's motivated, and they struggle to find the motivation most of the time. Maybe having the three of them together up front and playing some Champions League knockout rounds will allow them to find it on a more regular basis.
Bayern stretched by Eintracht Frankfurt, but issue is midfield more than back three
February hasn't been an impressive month for Bayern, and this weekend's 1-0 win over Eintracht, thanks to substitute Leroy Sane, seems to continue that theme. But look closer and unlike previous outings -- the first half against Greuther Furth, the 1-1 draw with FC Salzburg, the 4-2 defeat against Bochum -- Bayern created more than enough while conceding relatively little.
The reason some folks' glasses are half-empty is that the back three doesn't look convincing -- Julian Nagelsmann appears committed to it -- and the midfield doesn't look in control. I have faith in Nagelsmann here. Play Dayot Upamecano centrally (something you can do once Niklas Sule leaves this summer), get real wingbacks (which means wait for Alphonso Davies tor return and find somebody on the right) and let Nagelsmann coach his way to success. Benjamin Pavard and Lucas Hernandez should suit a back three just fine if you work on it enough.
More of a concern, as I see it, is the middle of the park. Joshua Kimmich was joined by Marcel Sabitzer, and the pair did not look as in control as you would have liked against Eintracht's press. Sabitzer is just more of a "vertical" player than a possession guy, and Leon Goretzka's enforced absence weighs heavily. With Corentin Tolisso not exactly pulling up trees either, that's a ton of pressure on Kimmich, and I'm not sure how you fix it.
Manchester City's 1-0 win over Everton was deserved based on the run of play. After a ho-hum first half, Pep Guardiola's crew showed they metabolized the fallout from the midweek defeat to Spurs and did enough to win. But that doesn't mean Everton didn't get cheated by the Rodri handball in the dying stages.
The Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) -- as they like to do -- anonymously let it be known that the Video Assistant Referee, Chris Kavanagh, felt there wasn't enough conclusive evidence that the ball struck Rodri in the arm as opposed to the shoulder. It seemed pretty obvious to me, but hey-ho, that's fine. How about letting the referee, Paul Tierney, make that decision? Maybe he would have found conclusive evidence that Rodri intentionally handled the ball, not least because he extends towards it and this red area/green area business is meant as guidance, with plenty of discretion left to the referee?
Everton have reportedly written to the Premier League to complain. Their boss, Frank Lampard, said his 3-year-old could have seen it. At the very least, with a decision this critical (and, frankly, subjective) let the referee decide, evaluating the entire dynamic of the incident.
Decisions have consequences. A converted penalty would have meant that Everton might not be in the relegation zone come Thursday morning, and it would have meant that City's lead over Liverpool would have been down to four points, with Klopp's team having a game in hand and a head-to-head at the Etihad coming up on April 10.
Maybe Tierney would not have given a penalty either. Who knows? But at least it would be the senior match official making the decision and taking responsibility. And, for Everton, it would feel like less of a screw job.
Zidane nearly ruins Real Madrid's afternoon
That would be Luca Zidane, of course, not his somewhat more famous dad who played for and managed Real Madrid. The young keeper spent 16 years at Real Madrid but came up with a number of big saves for Rayo Vallecano to keep them out, before capitulating late to the familiar Karim Benzema-Vinicius combination.
Carlo Ancelotti once again didn't rotate -- he played his best XI, with the exception of Nacho in for David Alaba -- but that's perhaps understandable. There's no midweek fixture coming up and still plenty to work on in terms of chemistry. Because while Real Madrid created chances, they also allowed more than they would have liked, with Thibaut Courtois again coming up big.
Results obviously matter most, and Ancelotti said he didn't see much wrong with his side. But as I see it, sticking with the Best XI right now is mostly about building the chemistry to get them where they want to be: in a position to get past Paris Saint-Germain and beyond.
Man United lament missed opportunities, but the performance was there
United manager Ralf Rangnick pointed out that the only thing that let United down in the 0-0 home draw with Watford was finishing. He's right. They hit the woodwork, recorded 22 shots on goal (and an xG of 2.95) and looked firmly in control throughout. For those of us who value performance more than results as an indicator of a team's health, they passed this test with flying colors.
The problem is, too many don't see it that way. It's still a scoreless home draw against the team that's second-bottom of the Premier League, a side that's won just one game since November. And a look at the table will confirm that West Ham haven't fallen away, while Tottenham and Arsenal have games in hand. Rangnick's challenge here is to build on the positives and ensure that belief doesn't ebb away.
Given United's recent run -- two wins in their past seven -- that's a tall order.
Juventus revival, powered by Vlahovic, continues in fits and starts
Juventus have lost just once in all competitions since November -- that was the Super Cup, which some might say doesn't really count anyway -- and there's an argument to be made of the "tortoise and hare" variety. They're up to fourth in Serie A following the 3-2 win away to Empoli and if you take away the first four games of the season, they'd actually be in first place. Dusan Vlahovic has given them a new dimension, and some are even wondering whether they can get back into the title race.
But maybe it's worth pumping those brakes because this isn't a vertical rise; it's more of a zigzag. Manager Massimiliano Allegri still has plenty of injuries to deal with (starting with Federico Chiesa) and truth be told, they're not exactly playing opponents off the park. Even against Empoli, at 3-1 up, they allowed the opposition to pull one back. This isn't quite the Juve of old who could shut up shop, but neither is it anywhere near the finished article. The best you can hope for this season is progress in small increments, even if that sometimes means two steps forward and one step back.
Next year, with Chiesa back and Allegri bedded in, will hopefully be a different story.
Tottenham win, but sometimes it's best not to pay attention to Conte's words
It was a solid win made easier by scoring early against a Marcelo Bielsa side in free-fall and afterwards, Conte reaffirmed how the victory could be a springboard to future Spurs success. This was after he spent the previous day backtracking from the post-Burnley comments, reassuring folks that he wasn't about to resign, that he was simply being honest, that defeats make him suffer personally, that that is who he is.
You obviously don't want a manager who doesn't care or, worse, a masochist who enjoys getting beat. Equally though, the hypercompetitive, can't-deal-with-losing, feels very "1950s high school football." Losing is part of this sport. If you're smart, you learn from defeats to make you better, while accepting that you can be better -- or even very good -- and still lose. So maybe the best thing to do for Spurs is take the many good bits that Conte does -- the way he prepares his teams, the results he gets, the relationships he builds with players -- and pay no attention to the post-defeat tantrums, whether they be of the "doom-and-gloom" variety or the "we-need-more-investment" variety.
Renan Lodi bags two as Atletico Madrid go old-school against Celta Vigo
So this wasn't pretty and it wasn't "Cholismo 2.0," but the upshot was Atletico Madrid getting back-to-back league wins for the first time since November and staying in the top-four race. At home against Celta, Atleti managed just 36% possession with full-backs at wing-back, three central midfielders and the lightweight tandem of Joao Felix and Angel Correa up front, but it got the job done. Never mind that both goals were the result of basic balls over the top: Lodi still did well to get there (though he squeezed the ball between the post and the keeper for the first one still feels like sorcery).
Diego Simeone was upbeat and talking about renewed spirit and a turning point. That may be taking things a bit too far, but his continued willingness to try different things -- like unleashing Lodi down the left or giving Joao Felix a run of games -- speaks to his pragmatism. And given where they are, that may be the best path into the top four.
Deja vu all over again as Dortmund blow it one more time
Nope, this isn't a rerun: it only feels like one. Borussia Dortmund go away to relegation-threatened Augsburg, take the lead in the first half through a great Thorgan Hazard goal, freeze up in the second and eventually concede an equalizer on another defensive blunder, dropping two points in the silliest possible way.
Sure, Erling Haaland was unavailable, but that alibi only goes so far. They have other players, expensive players, talented players, guys with reputations. And yet there is an insidious insecurity running up and down this team. Marco Rose bears plenty responsibility here -- the players do, too -- but the rot runs deeper. And finishing second, like they are likely to do, won't be much consolation.