Ghana's No. 1

Juve close in, but Atalanta impress. PLUS: Mourinho masters Arteta, Barca look to UCL, Chelsea collapse

Published on: 13 July 2020

Juventus and Real Madrid closed on league titles, Barcelona and Manchester City are eyeing Europe, Tottenham earned bragging rights in North London and Chelsea's defence imploded. It's Monday, so Gab Marcotti reacts to the weekend's biggest moments.

Jump to: Juve close in, Atalanta impress | Mourinho masters Arteta | Barcelona's UCL focus | Man City have trophy hunger | Bale's strange situation | Liverpool and records | Gattuso boosting Napoli | Chelsea's defensive woes

Juve close on title, but Atalanta impress again

Barring some sort of miracle, Juventus will win their ninth consecutive Serie A title. And you can probably pinpoint the moment that made it certain. In minute 88 of Saturday's match against Atalanta, the ball caromed off Luis Muriel's arm and referee Piero Giacomelli awarded a penalty that Cristiano Ronaldo duly buried. Juventus, who had been dominated for long stretches of the game, grabbed a 2-2 draw that, because Lazio had earlier lost to Sassuolo, extended their lead at the top to nine points.

But Juventus moving a step closer to being champions is not the story here. Instead, once again, it is third-placed Atalanta. Theirs was an utter domination in this game, marked by a stretch of eight minutes and 11 seconds in which Juventus failed to get a touch in the opposition half. (A video -- since deleted - chronicled the sequence on fast-forward, set to Rossini's William Tell Overture.)

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It was cutting-edge stuff, using movement, possession, pressing and tactical nous to at once neuter an opponent and create goalscoring chances. Atalanta are not the first team to do this and will not be the last, but it was special and more so because it was done by a team with the 12th-highest wage bill in Serie A.

As I have pointed out before, this is not a team with budding superstars or unearthed gems. The closest you get is Alejandro "Papu" Gomez (who is 32 and has been around the block) or Josip Ilicic on his day (on Saturday he was merely good, not great) or Robin Gosens (who did not play).

This is a team greater than the sum of its parts, in which chemistry and creativity and courage come together under brilliant coaching. And, by the way, Gian Piero Gasperini is also a guy with the guts to replace his entire starting front three with the score at 1-1.

With a Champions League quarterfinal against Paris Saint-Germain on the horizon, Atalanta is the fairytale that will not end; if there was a judging panel for "team of the year" in Italy, as in gymnastic or figure skating, there would only be one winner.

As for Juventus, it was Ronaldo to the rescue with the two penalties -- he's up to 28 league goals this season, 11 of them from the spot, and is one back in the race to be top scorer -- but, other than Paulo Dybala, there was little to cheer on the attacking end.

The midfield really struggled -- Maurizio Sarri dropped Miralem Pjanic and Rodrigo Bentancur's performance as playmaker will raise questions for next season -- and the back line was under pressure the entire game. If they do not turn around a 1-0 deficit against Lyon in the Champions League Round of 16, the knives will be out again.

Only Cristiano Ronaldo's penalties denied Atalanta an deserved win at Juventus. Getty

On to the two handball penalties. The second, especially, felt like a kick to the stomach and entirely against the run of play. Juventus were the beneficiaries this time, but they have been on the receiving end plenty of times, which is why those who dredge up conspiracies and Calciopoli are wide of the mark.

There has been a huge uptick in penalties being awarded because some leagues -- notably Serie A and La Liga, which also has a record number this season -- interpret the handball law more strictly, leaving less room for discretion. The question of intent has, in practical terms, been removed, instead it is more an issue of negligence: If your arm is away from your body (or "silhouette"), it is your responsibility.

This was done to make referees' jobs easier because assessing intent in a split-second is, objectively, tough. And it also happened because, when handballs went unpunished, there was an onslaught of moaning from managers, players and club officials, magnified by the media.

Mostly it resulted in folks questioning the referees' competence, but sometimes it degenerated into questioning their impartiality. VAR only served to compound this because, while before there were a bunch of handballs that were literally unseen, now very little is missed.

At least it is largely consistent, but it also flies in the face of what, for lack of a better term, you might call "common sense." You can make the case that Atalanta's Marten De Roon should have continued to keep his hands behind his back for the first one, but it is harder to argue that Muriel should somehow have anticipated that Gonzalo Higuain might send the ball back outside the box.

I do not know what the solution is, beyond granting referees a level of discretion when a pass or shot clearly is not goalbound (like the Muriel one). That does not feel right, but then neither does the alternative, which is to put all of this back on the referee with many more on-field reviews to boot.

Mourinho gets his tactics right against Arteta

Tottenham's 2-1 win over Arsenal, in what turned out to be a low-stakes North London Derby, has an easy reading: Jose Mourinho figured out what Mikel Arteta was going to do and came up with the best possible counter to Arsenal's press.

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Rather than playing through it, the Spurs manager stuck Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane up front, with Lucas Moura and Moussa Sissoko also high up the pitch, and opted to by-pass Arsenal's pressure entirely. It might not have led to many chances, but it ensured Arteta's side won back the ball far enough that, each time, they had to restart from deep in their own half.

Mourinho showed again that he can adapt and set things up to mask his team's weaknesses and maximise its strengths. It is not a formula that will work against most teams and he still has a ton of work to do, but that did not matter on Sunday because Arsenal are not most teams.

There is plenty for Arteta to work on as well. Spurs' "hit-it-long-to-two-strikers-to-break-the-press" mantra is as old as the game itself (well, as old as pressing) and so, without defenders who can deal with it and recirculate possession quickly -- Arsenal's back three was made up of Shkodran Mustafi, David Luiz and Sead Kolasinac -- then you need to figure something else out, perhaps to do with winning second balls.

Both sides are works in progress that must remain on an upward arc.

Barcelona looking beyond La Ligaplay1:08Moreno: Barca's flaws exposed in win over Valladolid

Ale Moreno questions whether Barcelona have the ability to catch Real Madrid given their inconsistent play.

An early Arturo Vidal strike beat Valladolid to keep Barcelona's Liga hopes hanging by the thinnest of threads, but did nothing to allay the many concerns around the club. The Lionel Messi-dependency remains -- he didn't have his best game, but nevertheless made Vidal's goal with his 20th league assists of the season -- while Antoine Griezmann is hurt again, just as he appeared to finally be hitting stride, and Quique Setien's reshuffled line-up only worked for a half or so.

The manager may get criticism for tinkering that saw Luis Suarez dropped and Sergi Roberto moved into a back three, but you can see what Setien is trying to do.

Suarez is 33 and has started every game since the league resumed, so could probably use a breather. And finding a scheme that allows you to use Ricki Puig and gain width from your full-backs makes sense. At this stage, while he may not admit it, Barcelona are prepping for the return of the Champions League.

Man City focused on silverware

Manchester City's 5-0 pummeling of Brighton means they will qualify for next season's Champions League (no, they will not be banned; my thoughts on that are here). What strikes you about Pep Guardiola's side is not that they can outlast a side like Brighton that tries to play football; rather, it is the way they keep pushing when so little is at stake.

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City are still competing for two trophies: They face Arsenal in the FA Cup semifinals on Saturday (stream LIVE on ESPN+ in the U.S.) and then have a Champions League last-16 return leg against Real Madrid -- City lead the tie 2-1 -- early next month.

Since defeat at Chelsea on June 25, City have pretty much dominated the opposition (even in the loss to Southampton). You do not want to peak too early and, yes, they are in the nominally tougher half of the Champions League draw, but you would place them alongside Bayern Munich as favourites to win it.

Assessing Bale's situation at Real Madridplay1:26'Can't defend' Bale's actions on bench

Ale Moreno says Gareth Bale's display in response to Zinedine Zidane's substitutions was indefensible.

My first reaction to the picture of Gareth Bale apparently pretending to snooze while using his face mask as a sleep mask during Real Madrid's win over Alaves was that he was cracking a joke. Probably not the cleverest thing to do, but a joke nevertheless.

By now, you know the drill. Bale makes in excess of $30 million a year, has two seasons left on his contract and, since Zinedine Zidane's return to the club in March 2019, has scored four goals in 29 appearances. The lack of production is partly down to injuries, with a lot of it due to the coach's personal preference.

Bale refuses to take a pay cut and, as a result, cannot move to any other big European club, considering nobody is going to pay his salary and a transfer fee. That's his prerogative, just as its Zidane's not to play the Welsh international.

In some ways, it is a sad situation because we have all seen what he can do. In other ways, it is not. He is an adult and free to choose. The world moves on. The only thing that is truly unfortunate is how folks get bent out of shape over him pretending to be asleep, which leads to reaction from his supporters. They obviously care more than he does.

So what if Liverpool might miss records?

Liverpool's home draw with Burnley meant their record of consecutive home league wins ended at 25, dating back to January 2019. It also meant they need to win their last three matches -- Arsenal away, Chelsea at home, Newcastle away -- to break the Premier League points record of 100, held by Man City.

I have said before that I don't care about records, especially when the margins are this small, and I stand by it. Whether Jurgen Klopp's side finish on 102 or 100 or 99 points -- heck, even if they lose the last three games and end up on their current total of 93 -- it won't take anything away from what they've achieved this season. Especially when we are playing games in such bizarro conditions.

Gattuso getting things right at Napoli

Napoli and Milan shared the spoils in a 2-2 draw that keeps the Rossoneri's hopes of a Europa League finish alive, which is itself remarkable given they were 11th at the midway point of the season. They have not lost since the restart and, what's more, have looked sharp even when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was out or when, like Sunday, he did not play particularly well.

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Still, if you are Napoli, you will point out that the penalty won by Giacomo Bonaventura was dubious and be proud of the chances created, given Gennaro Gattuso's defensive reputation.

Plus, some of the best performers -- Kalidou Koulibaly, Jose Callejon and Dries Mertens above all -- were guys who, until recently, nobody expected to be around next season. Callejon will probably still go, Mertens will stay and Koulibaly is anyone's guess. But in terms of getting the best out of a group that was demoralized after Carlo Ancelotti's departure, Gattuso has done an exceptional job.

Defensive woes for Chelseaplay1:38Leboeuf rips Chelsea's tactics vs. Sheffield United

Frank Leboeuf doesn't hold back when asked who is responsible for Chelsea's 3-0 defeat vs. Sheffield United.

Chelsea have conceded five goals in the past 150 minutes of football, including the 3-2 win at Crystal Palace (with its chaotic white-knuckle ending) and the 3-0 pounding at the hands of Sheffield United. Inevitably the focus is on Frank Lampard's back four and the 49 goals conceded, which puts them in the bottom half of the table.

Lampard said he "learned from [Saturday's] defeat." The goals conceded were down to individual errors - especially Kurt Zouma for the second and Antonio Rudiger for the third -- but there are systemic issues that are more complex than some realize.

Chelsea are fourth best in non-penalty expected goals conceded (xGC) with 1.00, behind Wolves, Man City and Man United, while their 8.54 shots conceded is second best behind City. The problem is that, when they do concede shots, Chelsea concede quality chances.

To mitigate that, you need very good defenders (especially centrally) or an exceptionally consistent goalkeeper and they have neither. Only two teams -- Man City and West Ham -- have a worse xGC/shot ratio. The former gets away with it and are second in the table in part because they have an exceptional keeper, while the latter are close to the relegation zone.

Source: espn.co.uk

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