Strange to hear Johan Cruyff full of praise for Real Madrid, concern for Barcelona

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Johan Cruyff is as Barcelona as anybody born outside Cataluyna could be. He played and coached the club, saw his son come up through their system, and even coached the Catalan national team. His family has lived in Barcelona off-and-on for the last 40 years. The man’s had his oranje blood replaced with blaugrana.

So it must take a special set of circumstances for the Dutch icon to speak kindly about Real Madrid and against Barcelona within the span of a couple of days. Perhaps, with the legend’s tendency toward contrarian opinions, it’s not as rare as I’m implying, but it’s still noteworthy when a Barça icon’s willing to heap so much praise on the club’s arch rivals.

The praise starts with the acquisition of Carlo Ancelotti, a coach for whom Cruyff clearly has a high regard:

“Ancelotti will be a breath of fresh air. Real Madrid has great players, they just need to play like a team. Ancelotti will make that happen. He has played and coached at the very top, so he knows full well what goes on in the dressing room”.

There’s a bit of a back-hand in there. The “play like a team” comment can be read as ‘Barcelona play the right way, which is as a team, so Real Madrid need to play more like us.’ Then again, with Real Madrid fans so disillusioned about their play in the wake of José Mourinho, Cruyff might not get an argument from the capital.

But style and coaching were not the only areas where Cruyff had praise. While Cruyff shares concerns about Isco’s potential fit at Real Madrid, he’s full of plaudits for the player:

“I already had a very high opinion of Isco from his performances at Málaga and what he did at the Under-21 Euros only added to that. He has ability, but he’ll face stiff competition at Real Madrid because there are a lot of other players in his position”

Contrast that with what Cruyff’s said about Barcelona in the wake of the Neymar addition, comments which may hint at a bit of a generational issue in how he sees world soccer:

With Neymar on board, I would have planned for the possibility of selling Messi, and some would agree with that, others not. You are talking about a team, its players, the things around it… There are too may things at stake. That’s why it’s so difficult to manage such a top class squad.

Cruyff’s logic seems pretty clear, thoughts which lean on a type of Alpha Dog philosophy. Messi’s and alpha. Neymar’s assumed to be an alpha. They can’t work together, the thinking goes.

Given the way the modern game’s going, clubs can’t abide by that philosophy. Whether you like it or not (most don’t), all the alphas are congregating onto a handful of teams – the eight or 10 clubs that can afford to pay top dollar in both transfer fees and wages. And while the Alpha Dog philosophy is strong, financial incentives are stronger, as are competitive desires. With those eight to 10 team monopolizing titles in the biggest competitions, a lot of players are going to Alexei Sanchez/Luka Modric it, moving into a crowded setup for chance to win big things.

If you’re a club like Barcelona, you just can’t be turning down one Alpha because of the presence of another. These days, you either make it work or fall by the wayside, and given there’s very little about Neymar and Messi’s games that conflict, odds are they’ll make it work.

La Liga: Real Madrid win wild one, now just 17 points behind Barca

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A roundup of all of Sunday’s action in Spain’s top flight…

[ MORE: Barcelona ties club-record 31-game unbeaten run ]

Real Betis 3-5 Real Madrid

So long as they manage to hold off Sevilla for fourth place (Champions League qualification), Real Madrid will quickly move on from their disastrous 2017-18 season, spend a half-billion dollars in the summer and pretend like the 12 preceding months never even happened.

For a brief period on Saturday — nearly 30 minutes including the halftime intermission — that plan appeared fatally flawed and at risk. After going 1-0 up away to Real Betis courtesy of Marco Asensio’s 11th-minute opener, Los Blancos found themselves in big trouble after Aissa Mandi leveled things up in the 33rd minute, followed by a Nacho own goal four minutes later.

Five minutes into the second half, Sergio Ramos drew the visitors level, followed by another from Asensio in the 59th minute. Cristiano Ronaldo made it 4-2 six minutes later, at which point Madrid appeared home free.

Sergio Leon pulled Betis to within one in the 85th minute, but Karim Benzema restored the two-goal lead in the 91st, less than two minutes after replacing Ronaldo.

Atletico Madrid 2-0 Athletic Bilbao

With Barcelona still unbeaten on the La Liga season, the title is all but decided with more than three months still to play. That hasn’t stopped Atleti, though, as Diego Simeone’s side, which has lost just once in the league, continues to pursue Lionel Messi and Co. Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Athletic Bilbao moved Los Rojiblancos back to within seven points of Barca with a dozen games, and one head-to-head matchup, still to play.

Kevin Gameiro scored what turned out to be the winner in the 67th minute, followed not long after by Diego Costa‘s second league goal of the season (fourth in all competitions) to make it 2-0.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Real Sociedad 3-0 Levante
Espanyol 1-1 Villarreal

VAR provider apologizes for wrong image of offside Man Utd goal

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Whether or not you’re in favor of the use of video-assistant refereeing the world over — and, more specifically, English soccer — one thing on which we can all agree has become abundantly clear: VAR’s maiden voyage has been a chaotic, poorly conducted mess.

[ MORE: Jose Mourinho demands VAR calls be “perfect” ]

Any change to the game’s century-old rules and practices — especially of VAR’s monumental proportions — must be implemented and executed without a hitch. Any issues that had arisen prior to this weekend were minor in significance and import, but that all changed on Saturday, when Manchester United’s Juan Mata had a goal wiped away by VAR (WATCH HERE).

Mata appeared to have timed his run perfectly and been onside before slotting home to put Man United 2-0 ahead of Huddersfield Town in the FA Cup fifth round. After consulting the off-site video assistant, the goal was taken off the board. While the slightest bit of Mata’s knee appeared to have been in an offside position, the issue lies in the fact that the images provided to television broadcasters, by VAR provider Hawkeye, displayed a clearly crooked line of demarcation.

[ MORE: Man Utd draw Brighton in FA Cup QF; Chelsea get Leicester ]

Hawkeye issued a statement on Sunday, acknowledging and apologizing for the faulty image provided to broadcasters, but insisted that a correct version of the image was seen by the refereed:

“A technical error led to an incorrect graphic being provided by Hawkeye to BT Sport on Saturday. To confirm, the VAR saw the correct image with the correct lines to make the decision. This was a case of the wrong image being provided to the broadcaster and we apologize.”

In the end, by the most stringent interpretation of the law, VAR got the call correct. But that won’t matter one iota in the court of public opinion, as one mistake as simple as a crooked line gives the impression that the entire operation is haphazard and not fit for practice.

Juventus suffers blow with apparent Higuain injury

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The back-and-forth battle at the top of Serie A continued on Sunday as Juventus topped Torino at the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino, however, the visitors suffered a big injury scare in the process.

[ MORE: Man United draws Brighton, Chelsea gets Leicester in FA Cup ]

Alex Sandro‘s winner came in the 33rd minute, but the focus of the match will leave all eyes on Gonzalo Higuain — who exited after just a quarter of an hour.

The Argentine international was looking to latch onto a through ball from Miralem Pjanic in the fifth minute, before jumping over an oncoming Salvatore Sirigu — goalkeeper for Torino.

Higuain appeared to land awkwardly on his ankle, though, and while he attempted to continue on in the match he was substituted off for Federico Bernardeschi 10 minutes later.

The extent of Higuain’s injury is unknown to this point, however, it comes at a very bad time for Juventus.

The Italian giants are heavily involved in the Serie A title race, holding a two-point lead over Napoli at the top of the table.

Additionally, Juve has important fixtures coming up in both the Coppa Italia and Champions League against Atalanta and Tottenham, respectively. Higuain and Co. are level at 2-2 with Spurs heading into their UCL second leg in early March, and Juve will surely need the striker’s presence to have a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham: Davies stuns Spurs late

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A valiant effort from a League One side has rewarded the minnows with a replay set to be played at Wembley Stadium.

Tottenham Hotspur looked on its way towards the FA Cup sixth round on Sunday, but a late finish by Steven Davies gave Rochdale a 2-2 draw with the Premier League club at the Spotland Stadium.

[ MORE: Willian stars as Chelsea routs Hull in FA Cup ]

Harry Kane — who scored his 34th goal on the season in all competitions — converted from the penalty spot in the 88th minute, however, Davies had the final say deep into stoppage time to send the two sides towards a replay.

Ian Henderson’s finish in the 45th minute gave Rochdale a gift at the conclusion of the first stanza, after the hosts capitalized on a Spurs giveaway near midfield.

Meanwhile, Tottenham managed to level the match at 1-1 on the hour mark when Lucas Moura calmly slotted his close-range shot past goalkeeper Josh Lillis after a timely through ball from Moussa Sissoko picked out the former PSG man.

The visitors began pressing on in the second half, with Mauricio Pochettino‘s side having trailed at the halftime break.

The two sides will now meet on either Feb. 27 or 28 in the reverse fixture to decide which team advances. The winner will either meet Sheffield Wednesday or Swansea City in the quarterfinals.