Never-say-die Napoli stun Juve; Iniesta inspires; Mourinho, Conte rewarded
The last title race in a major European league is alive and well and owes a huge debt of gratitude to a 6-foot-5 Franco-Senegalese tower of power (who also has plenty of timing, grit and brains) named Kalidou Koulibaly.
On Sunday night, during stoppage time at the end of Juventus vs. Napoli, the center-back rose into the Turin sky to power a header past Gigi Buffon, breaking a scoreless deadlock and giving his team a huge victory that cuts Juventus' lead at the top of the table to a single point.
Napoli had spent much of the previous 89 minutes attacking, as you'd expect from a side for whom a draw was, realistically, no good. Juventus, the Serie A leaders by four points, spent most of the game defending, deep and in numbers. You sensed a familiar verdict, had it not been for that last-ditch goal.
The visitors would have been patronized for their willingness to go for it, despite lacking the quality to win away to the six-time defending champions. And the hosts would have been praised for knowing how to win ugly and grind out results. Instead, a single moment changed everything and ought to serve a warning to be less obsessed with results and, instead, pay more attention to what happens on the pitch.
Napoli played the way they always do, albeit with less pace of thought and execution and less of a cutting edge in the final third, which may have been down to nerves or to Juve's deep defending. But Juve, simply put, got too many things wrong and needlessly so. And all the praise they would have received if they had hung on would not have changed that.
Max Allegri lost Giorgio Chiellini to injury after 11 minutes and reacted by shifting Benedikt Howedes -- making only his third start of the season -- into central defence and introducing Stephan Lichtsteiner at right-back.
It didn't help, but it can't be an alibi for what we saw: a Juve side whose center of gravity was well in their own half. To make matters worse, Paulo Dybala had a horrendous first half, while Douglas Costa's runs disappeared into blue-shirted cul-de-sacs, meaning Gonzalo Higuain was left alone up front, which goes some way towards explaining why Juve did not manage a single shot on target.
This wasn't a case of organized, counterattacking football. It was poor execution, and it's tough to believe that this same group beat Real Madrid 3-1 at the Bernabeu earlier this month. Whether Allegri set them up to play like this -- he said he didn't -- or whether they just found themselves pushed back, it was a hugely disappointing night.
Allegri has spent most of the past two years talking about instilling an attacking identity in this team and taking the game to the opposition as the only way of going to the next level. The fact that Juve still cannot do it consistently, even as they could yet win their seventh Serie A title, ought to be a concern.
The good news if you're a Juventus fan is that Allegri excels in calming the ship and managing his personalities. Momentum may have shifted, and they may have the tougher run-in -- with trips to Inter and Roma -- but they still control their own destiny. If experience and that "winning mentality" matters for anything, now is the time to show it.
As for Napoli, the victory and doggedness shown cannot mask the fact that they have lost a step compared to earlier in the season, possibly because of the lack of depth and the minutes played by key men. Maurizio Sarri isn't going to change his philosophy but you wonder if, perhaps in certain situations, the more direct approach with Arkadiusz Milik -- even at the cost of sacrificing one of the front three -- might not serve them better.
Napoli's season must be considered successful
We had a bit of a disagreement -- unusual, I know! -- on ESPN FC TV last week: I said that whatever happens in the title race, Napoli's season has been an unqualified success, while the boys in the studio suggested it wouldn't mean much if they didn't become champions. I get why folks talk about trophies and silverware, but on three different counts, Napoli have already won, even if they fall short of the scudetto.
First, they have played some of the best football in Serie A, if not Europe. Doing that consistently in Italy, while also getting results, is hugely difficult and it's one of the reasons Serie A has fallen behind other leagues: To be successful on a European level -- as Allegri has pointed out -- you need to attack and create in the opposition half as a matter of course.
Second, Napoli are on pace to finish with more than 90 points which in most years would be more than enough to win the title, and wherever they finish will be one of the highest points totals in history. That shows the style of play wasn't just entertaining, it works. If Juventus finish with more, well done to them, but it doesn't change the fact that, statistically, Napoli have delivered one of the most successful seasons ever.
Third, the "winning-is-everything" metric might make sense when the playing field is level, but in Serie A, like in most of Europe, it's not. Napoli have the fifth-highest wage bill, and it is less than half that of Juventus.
Finishing second in those circumstances and with one of the five-highest points totals of all time is a success. Period. Don't be surprised, then, that more than 10,000 Napoli fans showed up at the airport just before 2 a.m. to greet the team charter from Turin. They have plenty to celebrate, even if they do not go on to win the title.
Mourinho, Man United find a way to win
The big guns fired Manchester United into the FA Cup final, with Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba each turning in one of their better performances since coming to Old Trafford. But the second-half display by Jose Mourinho's men was as much about his foot soldiers, including the center-back pairing of Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, plus Ander Herrera and others.
Football folk -- and sportsmen in general -- often talk about "killer instinct," "winning mentality" and getting a team "over the line." It's not something you can rationalize or define, and the sample size, in any case, is small, so you're tempted to dismiss it. However, having seen the reaction in this game after a first half that saw them outplayed by Tottenham -- and in the recent Manchester derby -- you're tempted to think there's something in it.
Mourinho has played 14 cup finals and won 12, with his only two defeats coming in extra time. I'll leave it to others to determine whether that's down to coincidence, natural variance or something else, but what is evident is that his teams tend to stay in the game. And when you keep it close and have difference makers to step up, sometimes that's all it takes.
Assessing Pochettino's post-match comments
When, in the aftermath of Tottenham's defeat, Mauricio Pochettino spoke of the club in the third person -- "they" rather than "we" -- and about how the club "need more time with me or with another" manager, what he said was bound to draw scrutiny.
Some saw a coded message to the owners suggesting more investment was needed: After all, the club's net spend over the past two seasons has been just over £40 million, which is rather paltry if you buy their line about wanting to compete.
I honestly don't know what was behind it, but if that's what Pochettino wants to get across, there are more effective ways of doing it. I tend to think it was just because of the disappointment at yet another in-game collapse and, perhaps, a shred of self-doubt and second-guessing.
Iniesta rolls back the years
It wasn't his final game for Barcelona, nor was it his final big game for Barcelona -- there's a Clasico vs. Real Madrid in less than two weeks -- and nor was it his last game with silverware at stake -- the Liga title isn't mathematically sewn up -- but Saturday's Copa del Rey final did come amid talk that Andres Iniesta would be moving on.
He walked away with a trophy: No. 31 of his Barcelona career, to go with two European Championships and the World Cup he won with Spain. Not only that, Iniesta turned back the clock in the 5-0 pounding of Sevilla, from the goal he scored from an nonexistent angle to the array of touches, intuition and movement he put together.
And the fact that it's all packaged with his trademark melancholy gait and balding-accountant demeanour makes it all the more memorable. Whatever happens in the next few games -- don't rule out one last masterclass -- we can always remember Iniesta like this, with all his essential, understated magnificence.
As for the match itself, Sevilla got everything wrong early, and Barca punished them. It was 3-0 at half-time and could have been twice that. From Jordi Alba to Luis Suarez to Philippe Coutinho -- what a difference an extra playmaker makes against an opposition's' press -- pretty much the whole Barca side came to play.
Giroud display vindicates Conte
For a long time, Olivier Giroud was probably the most henpecked man at Arsenal not named Arsene Wenger. There's something about big center-forwards that invites criticism -- Romelu Lukaku and Sandro Wagner are others that come to mind -- and Giroud is no different.
Given that, you'd have to be pretty hardhearted not to feel pleased for the French international, first at being selected ahead of Alvaro Morata and then when he opened the scoring in Chelsea's 2-0 win over Southampton in the FA Cup semifinal. Especially given the twinkletoes nature of his goal, something few would have thought Giroud had in his locker.
Antonio Conte's selection decision was vindicated, and if the manager does leave in June, as still appears probable, he'll do it having won a league title and reached two FA Cup finals in two years. Which is not a bad return, given he inherited a traumatised side that finished 10th the previous season.
Milan's problems resurface
And suddenly, the bottom has fallen out. Gennaro Gattuso's remarkable run since taking over as Milan manager has hit a tailspin: They haven't won in a month and have gone from being five points away from the Champions League places to 13 back after Saturday's home defeat to Benevento.
Given the club's ownership situation, the imminent threat of financial fair play sanctions and the fact that, in less than six months, a $350 million loan to Elliott Management needs to be repaid or refinanced, they're not in a good place.
That said, there's no reason to go "Chicken Little" all of a sudden. The truth is that, while the run stoked optimism and showed that there are some very good players at the club, it wasn't going to move the needle vis-à-vis Milan's balance sheet. That situation remains critical and won't change unless owner Li Yonghong suddenly finds the money or they extinguish the Elliott loan with some longer-term financing.
A word on Benevento, too. You struggle to praise a relegated team because you don't want to sound patronizing, but what they've done is remarkable. Having been promoted, they lost their first 14 games before picking up 17 points from their next 20 matches. All the while playing brave, attack-minded football. If you're going to try and upset the big boys despite scant resources, that's the way to do it.
Heynckes prioritises Europe ...
Bayern Munich warmed up for their Champions League semifinal first leg vs. Real Madrid by beating up Hannover away, 3-0. With the Bundesliga title already in the bag and a place in the German cup final secure, Jupp Heynckes did some tinkering and rotating.
A debut was given to 18-year-old Lars Lukas Mai at center-back, while Niklas Sule pushed further forward. With bigger games ahead, the likes of like Mats Hummels, Robert Lewandowski, Javi Martinez, Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Muller were left out of the starting lineup.
... as does Simeone
Atletico Madrid's home draw with Betis effectively confirmed what we already know: The title is going to the Camp Nou. What's interesting is that Diego Simeone didn't even put up much of a fight, resting the likes of Diego Godin, Antoine Griezmann and Koke with an eye towards Thursday's Europa League semifinal first leg with Arsenal.
It was the rational decision: Live to fight another day. An Atleti win would still have left Barca nine points clear with a game in hand. Kudos must go to Betis, though, and manager Quique Setien -- not so much for Sunday, but for what they've done in the second half of the season, in which they have risen 13th to fifth and taken 29 points from 13 games, while playing some of the best attacking football in La Liga.
Bas Dost scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Boavista, which leaves Sporting third in the Portuguese league, three points behind leaders Benfica. Dost has 26 goals in 27 league matches, putting him on pace to score 28 this season. Overall, he has in 32 in 43 games in all competitions.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.