On Messi’s off day, Xavi rescues Barcelona

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After being battered all day, Granada had a chance to steal three points from the Nou Camp. They had only seen the ball for one our of every four minutes, but after 83 minutes, the score hadn’t chanced. Barcelona had been held scoreless at home by the 18th-placed them in La Liga.

Tito Vilanova, going for full points, went from four defenders to three, trusting a back line of (left-to-right) Javier Mascherano, Alex Song, and Dani Alves to keep Granada off the board. But in the 84th minute, Mascherano was lax recovering on a counter. Granada attacker Youssef El-Arabi found teammate Fabián Orellana streaking to the middle of Barça’s area. Victor Valdes had to make a point blank stop to keep Barcelona even.

With Barcelona so close to going one down, Real Madrid came to mind. Last week, Los Blancos gave up an early goal in Seville. It was one of Sevilla’s few threats, but it held up. Real lost 1-0, leaving them eight points behind Barcelona. This week, Barça could have suffered a much more embarrassing defeat. Given how slack their defending became, Barcelona was ripe for the upset. But it never came. Barcelona won, 2-0. After five rounds, the Catalans stay perfect thanks to a performance worth three points more than Real Madrid’s effort in Seville.

That’s the cynical way to look at Saturday’s match – focusing on the final minutes. To that point, Barcelona had been dominant, with Granada goalkeeper Toño making more big saves than his team had a right to expect. The most memorable ones came late: getting back to cover an empty goal against Xavi in the 79th minute; later denying Messi as Barcelona countered after Orellana’s chance.

Ultimately, Xavi broke through with something unstoppable, a goal that would be this weekend’s best were it not for Jackson Martínez:

Xavi began the match on the bench, playing only the final 36 minutes after starting mid-week in Champions League. Barcelona had nine shots and no goals before he came on, 11 shots and two goals after. Much of that may have been the teams’ tactics, but Xavi’s numbers are still telling. He completed 60 of 61 attempted passes, a rate of 150 successful passes per 90 minutes (Dani Alves’s 84 was the game-high).

Hernández turns 32 in January, and having racked up a lot of miles as the driving force for both Barcelona and Spain, he may have been pushed into the final phase of his career. His workload needs to be monitored. An heir needs to be identified. But with Andrés Iniesta injured (expected back next week), Barcelona has nobody else that can push them in circumstances like today’s.

By the second half, Granada playing their highest man at the edge of their defensive third. Barcelona needed somebody who could quickly work the ball around, kneading the opposition, knowing when to switch a ball to take advantage of a stretched defense. None of Thiago Alcantera, Sergio Busquets, or Cesc Fábregas were providing that.

The whole situation had Lionel Messi in a bad mood. After scoring two key goals on Wednesday, Messi was shut out on Saturday. In the first half, he had trouble syncing up with his midfield and fellow attacker David Villa, verbally showing his displeasure with each. Messi also got into multiple altercations with Granada defenders. He came close to a goal numerous times (and played the ball that forced a second, own goal), but Messi was just as likely to hold the ball too long amongst multiple defenders as he tried to force action in the second half.

Both in performance and personality, this wasn’t Lionel Messi. The sharpness with which he attacked both teammates and opponents hints something may be changing. Two, three years ago, we wouldn’t have seen those outbursts, and while they were mild compared to some of the game’s worst personalities, Messi’s words were sharp enough to create confrontations with Villa and Granada defender Iñigo López.

Perhaps Barcelona’s success has raised his expectations. Perhaps that same success has created frustration with how he’s typically defended. Regardless, Messi’s attitude ran counter to our perceptions. Now 25 years old, perhaps Messi’s developed into more than a soft-spoken superstar.

Mourinho doesn’t have attacking options, but he does have ‘family’

Mourinho on Spurs win
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In this “whole new Jose Mourinho” world, the key word is family.

Mourinho said it six times in his post-match presser after Tottenham Hotspur scrapped to a 2-1 defeat of Norwich City on Wednesday in London.

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Spurs had an early lead disappear when Ryan Sessegnon gave away a penalty to Max Aarons, and Teemu Pukki converted it for a 70th-minute deadlock.

Heung-Min Son scored nine minutes later. It was a win that is good for the whole family.

From Football.London:

“It was fantastic what happened after the 1-1, which happens in a difficult moment for us where I look to the bench and I don’t have attacking players to change the game the team is a little bit fatigued, especially Lucas, Son and of course Lamela. I took him off because he was in trouble and he is a player who is coming from very important and long injury, so very difficult.

“How can we change the game? With the family spirit, the family character and desire.”

Mourinho also praised Giovani Lo Celso‘s work on the wing for attack-short Spurs as “a good experience for the family,” and Paulo Gazzaniga‘s support for returned goalkeeper Hugo Lloris as “a good member of the family and he is such a special friend of Hugo.”

I mean, I’m getting the warm and fuzzies.

Clearly, Mourinho is stressing unity and there’s a bit of bunker mentality involved, as the manager mentioned some dicey calls not going their way against Watford, Liverpool, and now Norwich.

Solskjaer: Manchester United ‘looked mentally tired’ versus Burnley

Solskjaer reacts to Manchester United loss
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OIe Gunnar Solskjaer doesn’t have the answers to what ails Manchester United without Marcus Rashford and Paul Pogba, and he can’t even fake it.

The United boss could only hang his side’s 2-0 loss to Burnley on sharpness, as the Red Devils out-attempted the visitors by a 24-5 margin.

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United also had 72 percent of the ball, but Burnley’s whole philosophy is cool with you having the ball if you don’t have the lead.

The Red Devils never looked quite ready to grab that, either, from the moment an early Aaron Wan-Bissaka cross sailed through the six absent receiver. From the BBC:

“The boys looked mentally tired towards the end, we didn’t find that creativity,” Solskjaer said. “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves. When you are at Man United you are privileged because you are playing for the best club in the world.

“Sometimes you go through periods like that and it is a test I am sure they are going to come through.”

It’s all formulaic from the Norwegian manager. “The we’re United and it’s a special place” struck all the right chords when he first took the reins at Old Trafford, but the club hasn’t bought much quality since then and it’s ringing hollow as the depth fails to bail them out.

Spoiler alert: He did.

You can accept that Solskjaer is going nowhere and also accept that the whole thing is not going to improve any time soon. United should absolutely be in the Top Four given the failings of Chelsea, but cannot stop tripping over its own feet.

Man Utd shocked by advantageous Burnley

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Manchester United never showed up at Old Trafford, and Burnley reaped all the benefits.

Chris Wood and Jay Rodriguez scored as the Clarets stunned the Red Devils 2-0 on Wednesday.

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United fails to take advantage of Chelsea’s draw with Arsenal, and sits six points back of the Top Four.

Burnley climbs seven points clear of the drop zone, level with five teams on 30 points.

Three things we learned

1. Wood shines up top: It was a 10th goal to go with his first assist of the season for the New Zealand international, who used a half-yard of space from Harry Maguire to put Burnley in front. Burnley’s philosophy is to find their forwards at all cost, and when Wood is delivering that ethos looks genius.

2. United’s absent wings cost it dear (and jeer): Juan Mata and Anthony Martial were lively, but both Daniel James and Andreas Pereira did little to inspire hope of a goal for the home side. The Red Devils were the focus of crowd derision on the day, as they again wasted a chance to improve their Top Four credentials. Most teams will suffer without their top two attackers, but this is Manchester United. Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford missing or not, Wednesday was iugly stuff.

3. Jay Rodriguez’s new nickname is “Bangers Only”: Joking aside, it’s difficult to remember Rodriguez goals that don’t get you out of your seat. His insurance goal absolutely buried United, and gives him seven across all competitions. It also gives Sean Dyche plenty of competition in training, with Ashley Barnes on the periphery.

Man of the Match: Wood

United’s Aaron Wan-Bissaka cut a promising 15th minute cross through the 18, but no teammate could get a foot to it.

Fred continued his lively play when he hit a low drive to Nick Pope in the 23rd, good endeavor without the required sharpness.

Daniel James forced Pope into a leaping save in the 32nd, and Martial couldn’t get his feet right when Nemanja Matic rolled him to the doorstep in the 34th.

Burnley took the lead out of absolute nothing, Wood taking advantage of Harry Maguire when Ben Mee flicked a long free kick to the Kiwi.

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Rodriguez went bar down with a beauty in the 57th minute to make it 2-0, and real trouble arrived at Old Trafford.

Dele drives Spurs past Norwich City

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A win is a win, even if Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-1 home defeat of Norwich City was anything but convincing in London.

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Dele Alli and Heung-Min Son scored as Spurs climbed sixth in the table with 34 points.

Teemu Pukki scored for the spot for the Canaries, who remain dead last and six points off the safe spaces.

Three things we learned

1. Spurs can score in 2020: The Premier League had not been kind to Jose Mourinho’s men since a they twice came back in a 2-2 draw with these same Canaries at Carrow Road. In fact, Spurs went 315 Premier League minutes without a goal before Dele got his first half marker on Wednesday. Losses to Saints and Liverpool were joined by a weekend draw at Watford, so this win was vital (Spurs thrice scored over two FA Cup matches versus Middlesbrough).

2. Bounces go the way of Spurs: Norwich can forgive itself for feeling a bit snakebit considering how poor Spurs looked for most of the day. Dele’s shot or cross was deflected high toward the back post, where Heung-min Son was able to nod it over the line from extreme close-up range.

3. Serge Aurier shines: Bad Serge Aurier shows up quite a bit, but the full back had a great day on Wednesday. Aurier had an assist to go with two interceptions and three tackles. He was a menace and stuck into 50-50 battles, earning plaudits on the day.

Erik Lamela was lively early for Spurs, seeing a free kick deflected out for a corner and another chance saved by Tim Krul.

Dele put Spurs ahead when he lunged past Christoph Zimmermann to poke a Serge Aurier cross past Krul. Heung-min Son set up the play with a lay-off to the Ivorian.

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VAR was kind to Todd Cantwell early in the second half, as the sliding midfielder put his studs into Lamela and it was worth only a yellow card.

Spurs youngster Ryan Sessegnon fouled Max Aarons in the 68th to give Norwich a chance from the spot, and a long review did not lead to a reprieve. Pukki beat Lloris low and to the right for 1-1.

But Dele’s cross floated to Son for a back post winner and blushes were spared for Mourinho.