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Keep or dump: How will Real Madrid look next year?

Real Madrid

Why Mourinho criticizes his Man Utd stars, Ronaldo's form, super Salah

Manchester United's 2-0 win in the FA Cup quarterfinal against Brighton was overshadowed, again, by Jose Mourinho's postmatch comments, which saw him slam his team and call out some players (Luke Shaw, Antonio Valencia) by name while dropping big clues -- "defenders who need 10 or 12 passes to move the ball between the lines, attackers who hide" -- that he was displeased with others.

When Mourinho speaks -- and it's been this way throughout his career -- you're often left with a doubt: does he mean what he says or is he saying stuff because he wants some kind of desired effect?

In that sense, it's been a week of peak Mourinho.

We've seen him tell fans that losing at Old Trafford in a Champions League knockout was not some kind of unprecedented tragedy, while also reminding us that he beat Sir Alex Ferguson's United twice there as an opposing manager.

We heard him say that "many" Sevilla players would get into his United team. That's a fun parlour game you can play at home: try to make a Best XI out of the two sides.

We saw him inviting everyone to take off the rose-tinted spectacles when taking about United's "heritage" because it wasn't all swashbuckling attacking and oodles of trophies under Sir Alex and that the reality is the recent history and the doldrums of the Moyes-Van Gaal era (which is true too).

Oh, and he brushed off comparisons to Pep Guardiola because when Guardiola walked into Manchester City, guys like Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi, Fernandinho and David Silva were already there, whereas presumably (David De Gea aside) he inherited a bunch of Muppets. (This is also true, well, maybe not the Muppet part, although the funny thing is that in the same breath he praised Ed Woodward, the guy who signed all the players Mourinho doesn't seem to like during the Louis van Gaal-David Moyes era.)

That's a lot to unpack right there, and it's not surprising that Mourinho has attracted a ton of criticism as a result. Undoubtedly, he could have taken an easier route.

Mourinho may be taking a risk calling his players out so publicly, but he will be confident that it'll work.

After the Sevilla game, he could have said: "We're terribly disappointed, all of us, we vow to do better; the fans were magnificent, they deserve better and we'll give it to them."

And after the Brighton victory, he could have said: "We wanted to show a reaction and we did. Brighton are a tough side, but the boys dug deep in difficult circumstances because they wanted it more. Losing out on the Champions League hurt, but they showed desire and for all the negativity, we're still on track to win the FA Cup and finish second in the Premier League."

I know it's just words -- and maybe not entirely truthful ones -- but it's precisely the sort of spin that run-of-the-mill managers give you and that we in the media lap up. (It's a bit like saying winning the Europa League was great because "Manchester United had never won it before" -- they've never won the Championship or FA Vase either.)

Instead, he wandered off the reservation. Leave aside for a moment whether you agree with him or not and consider instead that when managers speak in public, it's for public consumption and there's usually a reason for it.

When you throw your players under the bus like he did, you have to be 100 percent certain that they will respond the way you want them to. Mourinho presumably knows his players better than most of us. Fifteen years at the highest level of football suggests to me that he gets the benefit of doubt: he spoke this way in public because he's confident that they'll respond positively. But only time will tell.

If you're a United fan, you'll be keeping your fingers crossed.

Ronaldo's form a priority for Zidane, Real

Cristiano Ronaldo stole the show against Girona (again) with Real Madrid rolling to a 6-3 victory in which he scored four goals. He now has 21 goals in his past 11 games in all competitions and 37 in 35 matches across all competitions. That's even with the slow start to the season that saw him score just one league goal through the end of November.

Ronaldo has now evolved very much into a center-forward in Zinedine Zidane's 4-4-2 system, playing alongside Karim Benzema with Lucas Vazquez and Marco Asensio on the wings. It's a system that works, although you wonder if it's a long-term solution, particularly with a view towards the Champions League.

This formation, with only two slots in midfield, means there's no room for one of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos or Casemiro. Switching back to a 4-3-3 means either putting Ronaldo back on the wing or making him lead the line on his own, which is not a natural fit.

You can expect that continuing to figure out how to get the best out of Ronaldo's streak will be one of Zinedine Zidane's priorities. That and defending crosses better, as evidenced by the two late goals they conceded.

Bayern lost!

Bayern fell 2-1 away to Leipzig, marking only their third Bundesliga defeat of the season (and their fourth overall), as well as their first since November. In the grand scheme of things, it means very little as their league lead is 17 points. But the manner, to some degree, is a good snapshot of how Jupp Heynckes seems to be taking the rest of the league.

With Kingsley Coman, Arjen Robben, Thiago Alcantara, Corentin Tolisso and (of course) Manuel Neuer sidelined, he decided to leave Franck Ribery, Javi Martinez, Robert Lewandowski and Jerome Boateng on the bench. That's the imbalance in the Bundesliga right now. That, and a sterling performance from Leipzig who pressed high and pressed aggressively led by an on-fire Naby Keita, is what prompted Bayern's defeat.

Salah just keeps scoring

Mohamed Salah was close to unplayable against Watford, notching four goals to take his league total to 28 (and 36 overall) and assisting on the other. That means he has scored one fewer goal for Liverpool in three-quarters of a season in the Premier League than he did in two successful campaigns in Serie A at Roma.

Two points to make here. The first is that comparing leagues is difficult and, in some ways, pointless. It doesn't mean that it's twice as difficult to score in Serie A but equally, maybe folks shouldn't be so quick to make it seem as if the Premier League is so far ahead of everybody else and that you're a soccer nobody unless you're "Premier League-proven."

The other is that Salah's scoring is a function of many factors. Among them, to varying degrees, randomness, personal improvement (that rare right-footed finish was something to behold), playing for a more attacking side -- not so much in terms of goals scored: Liverpool are on pace for 90, which is exactly what Roma scored last season, but in terms of chances created -- and perhaps most important, not having a big, prolific target man like Edin Dzeko up front.

Juve couldn't break SPAL down

Games like the one against relegation-threatened SPAL are why Max Allegri spent some $80 million over the summer on Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa. Pacy, creative wingers were supposedly the key to unpick tight defences. It didn't work out that way in Saturday's 0-0 draw, and not just because both were unavailable. The fact is: Juve haven't been able to be the proactive, creative side Allegri would like them to be, more often keeping it tight and waiting for something to happen at the other end.

The fact that nothing -- not an opposing mistake, not a moment of genius from Paulo Dybala or Gonzalo Higuain -- bailed them out was also down to a raucous home crowd and a brilliant, park-the-bus-with-intensity performance from SPAL, who managed just three shots on goal, with none of them on target and all of them from distance.

It's not a tragedy -- after all, Juve and won 12 in a row and were due a day like this -- but it does mean the gap is down to two points. That head-to-head clash with Napoli on April 22 is looming ever larger.

PSG show surprising spirit at Nice

Paris Saint-Germain's march to the title continued with a 2-1 victory away to Nice. It could have easily finished a draw -- Alphonse Areola had to make some big saves and Mario Balotelli hit the woodwork -- but what matters here is the way PSG reacted after going behind, because there were plenty of reasons for Unai Emery's stars to begin mailing it in.

PSG are out of the Champions League, they have a massive domestic lead, many of these guys will want to save themselves for the World Cup, Emery may or may not be back next year and Neymar is rehabbing back in Brazil. (Incidentally, doubts were cast over his future too.)

But there are two domestic trophies left to play for, starting with the Coupe de Ligue final against Monaco after the international break, and it's important that the crew don't go into World Cup prep mode just yet. Whatever doubts some may have over Emery, he hasn't allowed it to happen.

Eriksen is perfect for Tottenham

A while back I spoke to someone who worked with Christian Eriksen for a number of years in the Danish national team. He told me how Eriksen, while easily his country's most talented players since the Laudrup brothers Brian and Michael, regularly tested near the bottom in most athletic drills. He lacked strength, stamina and acceleration.

Watching him now, he told me, Eriksen looks like a different player. But if you look more closely, he added, he hasn't suddenly turned into a great athlete. He's simply smarter about the way he moves.

I thought about this while watching Tottenham's 3-0 win over Swansea. The way Eriksen covers ground and operates in Mauricio Pochettino's system is picture-perfect. There simply is no wasted energy, and he squeezes every last drop that he can out of his body. He has also quite clearly grown in terms of personality and mental toughness, although his tactical intelligence is what sets him apart. And that's a credit to Pochettino's staff.

Barcelona are good at hitting the woodwork

Barcelona only really played for 45 minutes against Athletic Bilbao but frankly, it's not their fault: that was all that was needed against Ernesto Valverde's old club. Goals from Lionel Messi and Paco Alcacer wrapped things up early, and they hit the woodwork three times.

Incidentally, Barcelona have now hit the post or crossbar a whopping 29 times in La Liga: that's more than seven different clubs have scored goals. Messi himself has hit the woodwork 16 times, which makes his 35 goals in 43 appearances all the more remarkable.

Napoli hold their nerve to close the gap

So much has been made about Napoli's mental strength (or fragility) especially vis-a-vis Juventus that when they took the pitch Sunday night at home to Genoa with a chance to cut the deficit to two points, many wondered whether they'd squander the opportunity.

Those concerns were misguided, at least in this game. Napoli were entirely unflappable and unfazed. They created chances, hit the woodwork and eventually got the three points thanks to a glancing header form Raul Albiol. Along with Jose Callejon, Albiol is one of the few Napoli players to have actually been part of a league-winning side (plus, of course, a World Cup and two European Championships). As we get down to the wire, having guys who have been there for may prove to be a decisive factor.

Rock-bottom Hamburg have it all but the results

Hamburg remain some sort of European conundrum or, perhaps, a byword for how not to run a football club. They have the history (they're one of only three German clubs to have been champions of Europe, and only three teams have won more German titles) and they have the fan base, averaging nearly 50,000, sixth-highest in the Bundesliga and 21st among Europe's Big Five Leagues). What they don't have, and haven't had for a long time, is results.

They've qualified twice for the Champions League in the past 20 years and have finished in the bottom half of the table in each of the past four seasons. And now, they're dead last in the Bundesliga.

Last week, Christian Titz became their third manager of the season. In an effort to fire up the side, he did what others have done in his situation: he dropped a bunch of regulars and played four youngsters who had hardly featured this season. Hamburg still lost (2-1 vs. Hertha Berlin) and it earned him a rebuke from one of his veterans, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who said "sometimes the best solution isn't always to try something new."

The defender is right. Then again the definition of insanity, some say, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Hamburg are the only German side to have featured in every single Bundesliga season. If Titz doesn't get things right real soon, that streak will come to an end this summer.

Icardi shakes Inter out of their slump

He's back in the most emphatic way, shaking Inter from their Luciano Spalletti-influenced torpor. Mauro Icardi bagged four goals (just like Mohamed Salah and Cristiano Ronaldo) as Inter won 5-0 away from home. Given the fact that Inter had not scored more than two goals in a single match since early December and hadn't looked convincing in weeks, it was a bolt out of the blue.

The victory lifts Inter back into the top four, ahead of Lazio, who were held by Bologna. Plus, Inter have a game in hand, too. But back to Icardi. He's up to 22 league goals now, which is pretty remarkable when you consider he missed roughly six weeks through injury. It's stating the painfully obvious, but given who his backups are (Eder, Yann Karamoh), it's hard to see them having any kind of shot at a place in next season's Champions League if Icardi is injured or misfiring.

Atletico slump to tired draw

That Barcelona victory over Athletic turned the screws for Atletico Madrid against Villarreal that Sunday afternoon. They took the lead early through an Antoine Griezmann penalty but then suffered late in the game as substitute Enes Unal scored twice for Villarreal.

It was a very "un-Simeone" performance from Atletico, particularly in the second half, and you're tempted to chalk it up to fatigue. Hindsight is always 20/20 but you wonder whether given they had won the first leg 3-0, Atleti might have paid the price for not resting more regulars away to Lokomotiv Moscow in the Europa League on Thursday.

They're now 11 points behind Barcelona with nine games to go, which is way too much ground to make up. Stlll, it's been a remarkable run after a shaky start of the season.

Mind the gap in Germany?

Bayern wouldn't have clinched the Bundesliga this weekend anyway because Schalke won away to Wolfsburg. The manner of the victory, though, underscores just how massive the gap is. Schalke struggled mightily against their relegation-threatened opponents, who have won just once in 2018. Ralf Fahrmann had to save a penalty, and the winner only came thanks to an own goal in the dying minutes.

Then again, maybe it's not that surprising. The gap between second and fourth-bottom in the Bundesliga is 24 points. Contrast this with England (Manchester United to West Ham: 35 points), Spain (Atletico Madrid to Las Palmas, 37 points) and Italy (Napoli to SPAL, 48 points).

And finally...

Bas Dost scored the second goal in Sporting's 2-0 victory over Rio Ave, which leaves them third in the Portuguese league, five points behind Porto. He now has 23 goals in 23 league matches, putting him on pace to score 29 league goals this season. Overall, he has in 29 in 37 games in all competitions.

This concludes the latest installment of #BasDostWatch.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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