Cristiano Ronaldo shows he’s human; Matic key for Man Utd; Neymar’s start – ESPN FC (blog)

Posted: August 15, 2017 at 11:41 am

The FC crew talk the length of suspension that would be suitable for Cristiano Ronaldo's actions in the Spanish Super Cup.

It was all set up so nicely. Other than an eight-minute cameo against Manchester United in the European Super Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo hadn't played at all since June. Against Barcelona, in the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup on Sunday, he came in just before the hour mark with his team one-nil up. After Lionel Messi converted a dubious penalty, Ronaldo scored an absolutely stunning long-range goal to put Madrid ahead.

So far, so good. He then decided to take off his shirt (OK, he has the body to do it) and take the booking as a result. And he held up the jersey to the Camp Nou, mimicking Messi's celebration at the Bernabeu last season. (Fine. A healthy rivalry; nothing wrong with that.)

Except the booking meant that when he collided with Samuel Umtiti a few minutes later and referee Ricardo Bengoechea concluded it was a dive, Ronaldo was shown a second yellow and sent off. And, as if that wasn't enough, his instinctive shove of Bengoechea after the decision meant he is now facing a five-gamesuspension.

Bengoechea was way behind the play and got the decision wrong. It should have been a non-call: There's no rule that says that you have to give a penalty or a yellow for diving. Had it not been for the goal celebration, Ronaldo would not have been sent off. And obviously, the shove (while understandable) is inexcusable. With his experience -- and with the number of bad calls he has had in his career -- you don't expect that. It just shows he's human too.

The incident overshadowed a stellar performance from Real Madrid, who took a while to take the lead but already looked in midseason form. And that was without Ronaldo but also without Luka Modric, for whom Mateo Kovacic was a more than capable deputy. Marco Asensio's own gorgeous strike to make it 3-1 was simply a cherry on top.

Again, you have to give Zinedine Zidane credit here. Sometimes coaching Real Madrid is about managing the egos and letting the XI get on with it. And sometimes it's about finding the right balance. That's what he did on Sunday.

As for Barcelona, Gerard Pique had a nightmare and Gerard Deulofeu got a rough ride, which is what you'd expect when you're trying to fill Neymar's shoes. There's a ton of work for Ernesto Valverde to do. He'll likely get help from the transfer market, but perhaps the bigger issue is whoever comes in can't be expected to do what Neymar did. The synchronicity of movement in the "MSN" isn't going to be easily replicated, not in a short time.

Maybe the best thing for Valverde isn't to try and mimic the past, but rather work out his own scheme for how to do things.

You can only beat what's in front of you, and on a day when West Ham were awful, Manchester United were devastating. Some have called it the most exhilarating United performance since the Sir Alex Ferguson era. That may be overstating it a little, but it sure as heck was fun to watch.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the 4-0 win was the 4-2-3-1 formation. Last year, conventional wisdom had it that Paul Pogba wouldn't perform at his best in a two-man midfield. That's why United eventually switched to a three-man midfield. He was certainly outstanding alongside Nemanja Matic on Sunday. Maybe the point was that he wouldn't perform his best in a two-man midfield when the other midfielder is Ander Herrera, Michael Carrick or Marouane Fellaini.

Then again, when Matic plays like this, just about anyone would thrive alongside him. Compare this performance with his stint in the FA Cup final and it seems like they are two different players. We're only a game in and judgments are inevitably premature, but if Jose Mourinho can get this level production from him, then it's a game-changer. It allows Mourinho to play a 4-2-3-1 formation that in turn allows him squeeze three attacking midfielders on to the pitch, plus Pogba driving from deep. And all of this comes without United losing their defensive shape.

With so much creativity behind him, Romelu Lukaku -- willing, eager and intelligent on Sunday -- can't help but score goals. It's early yet and United still have a lot to prove. But if this is the Matic who shows up to work this year, midfield and attack won't be a problem.

Kylian Mbappe stayed rooted to the bench during Monaco's 4-1 win away to Dijon, which only further prompted speculation that he's one step away from leaving, whether for Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain. Whatever the destination, we'll be talking about a fee in the Neymar range for a guy who, lest we forget, has started all of 20 top-flight league matches in his career.

We'll cross the bridge of where Mbappe fits at PSG (or how they'll pay for him) another day. In the meantime, Neymar made his debut away to Guingamp in a straightforward victory, even though all the goals came in the second half.

Guingamp aren't a terrible side -- indeed, they're managed by Antoine Kombouare, the first PSG boss in the Qatari era and finished midtable last year -- but in some ways are typical of what Neymar face in Ligue 1: a substantially less-talented opponent who will congest their own half and look to hit on set-pieces or the counterattack.

Neymar was given (or took?) licence to roam and find his own space wherever he wanted; even on TV, you could see the likes of Angel Di Maria and Adrien Rabiot deferring to him. Will this continue or will Unai Emery try to fit him in a more traditional scheme? My guess is the latter, partly because Emery is, above all, a tactical manager; partly because Neymar is more than capable of fitting in an orthodox scheme; and partly because the "free role" schtick won't work quite as well when they face better teams.

Anybody who flipped on the TV to see Chelsea 3-0 down at half-time at home to Burnley would have been shocked. Immediately, comparisons to what happened in Chelsea's last post-title campaign (under Mourinho) sprang up. Throw in Antonio Conte's grumbles about the summer transfer campaign and Diego Costa sniping his club from deepest Brazil, and it was a weekend to forget.

Chelsea were pretty dire in the first half, but it's also worth reminding ourselves of the circumstances. Eden Hazard, Pedro, Victor Moses and Tiemoue Bakayoko were all sidelined. Alvaro Morata started on the bench. Somebody named Jeremie Boga, who couldn't hold down a starting place at a team that finished bottom of La Liga last season, was starting up front.

You can't blame Boga, though, because he only lasted 17 minutes until Gary Cahill got himself sent off. Playing 73 minutes in August down a man is obviously going to be tough, especially when you then go two men down in the second half following Cesc Fabregas' second yellow.

Two things are pretty obvious. One is that Chelsea are unlikely to go through the sort of injury-free campaign they had last year, and the other is that, with Champions League football, they need to find more depth. The question is whether that depth comes from the transfer market or whether Chelsea can find it in-house.

Boga, Charly Musonda, Andreas Christensen, Fikayo Tomori and Jake Clarke-Salter are exactly the kind of Academy products that Chelsea get criticized for not playing regularly. Yet at the same time, the folks who chastise the club for not giving their youngsters "a chance" (how many other clubs in Europe's top 10 or 15 are stacked with academy products?) are the same ones who say Conte needs to spend money.

The guess here is that Chelsea will bring in somebody else to add some depth, but at the same time, the club will do what they can to ensure that Conte actually gives his kids a shot. If he does, he might actually be pleasantly surprised.

Serie A hasn't even started yet and some are already raking Max Allegri -- he of the three titles and two Champions League finals in three season -- over hot coals. Some Juventus fans are so used to winning that they can't stomach what happened on Sunday, when a dramatic injury-time winner from substitute Alessandro Murgia gave Lazio a 3-2 victory over the bianconeri in the Italian Super Cup.

Juventus did look disjointed, especially in the first half. And if you're going to play Andrea Barzagli at right-back, then you really need at least one ball-playing centre-half, something Juve don't have now that Leo Bonucci is gone. Meanwhile, Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira were swallowed whole by the immense Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Gonzalo Higuain was seeing little of the ball; when that happens, he's little more than a passenger.

Is there reason for Juventus fans to panic? I don't think so. The fact is, this will be a different team to last season. The additions of Federico Bernardeschi and Douglas Costa pretty much mandate this. Bonucci's long-term replacement -- whether it be Daniele Rugani or Medhi Benatia -- will be adequate (maybe more), but again, whoever it is won't play the game the way he does. My impression is that Juve will start slowly and won't really come together until winter ... which is a little bit like what happened last season.

Consider also that Lazio played exceptionally well. Ciro Immobile continues on his free-scoring tear -- he has 19 goals in the last 24 games -- and Lazio were well-organised and aggressive. You get the sense that some folks are underestimating Simone Inzaghi ... again. If they play like this, they have a legitimate shot at a top-four finish.

Christian Eriksen was in fine form as Tottenham (with a man advantage, thanks to Jonjo Shelvey's silly red card) broke through in the second half to win away to Newcastle. Danny Rose didn't play; in fact, he hasn't played since January. Still, he thought it would be a good day to grant an interview with a tabloid newspaper in which he said he felt he was underpaid (like many of his teammates) and wished the club signed guys he "didn't have to Google."

Mauricio Pochettino laughed off the latter, joking that Rose probably had to Google him when he was appointed. The club evidently found the former less funny: Despite his apology, they fined Rose two weeks wages or 130,000.

We live in a free market. There's nothing wrong with a guy thinking he's underpaid and looking for a better deal. The problem with Rose is there's a clever way to do it and a foolish one; he did not choose the clever option.

Rose signed a contract, the one that gave him a raise to his current wages, which apparently are now inadequate, back in September 2016. He got injured four months later, so it's really pretty simple: Either he improved so sharply in those 132 days that the contract he willingly signed earlier in that same season is now an insult to his supreme footballing ability, or he was a fool to put pen to paper last year.

Indeed, had he not extended his deal, he'd be entering the final two seasons of his contract just about now and would enjoy plenty of leverage to get a move elsewhere -- much like his former teammate Kyle Walker, in fact.

This is a case of bad judgment (extending his contract) made worse by bad choices (giving that interview). Rose chose to go for the security of a $20m-plus contract rather than betting on himself to outperform his salary.

Whatever sympathy there is in this tale goes entirely to Tottenham for having to deal with a guy acting like a child.

It's been one headache after another for Borussia Dortmund.

Last week, Ousmane Dembele, who is strongly linked with a move to Barcelona, skipped training and was later suspended "indefinitely." On Saturday, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored a hat trick in the first round of the German Cup and then followed it up with an Instagram live stream in which he answered a question about a return to Milan by saying, "I want to go back, but they are sleeping. ... What am I supposed to do?" He even did a little impression of the stadium announcer at the San Siro, giving himself the No. 7 shirt.

It's not just the fact that between them, Dembele and Aubameyang scored more than half of Dortmund's league goals last season. It's that it's happening at this stage of the season. Both players have been linked with moves all summer long. Stuff like that happens. But the mark of a well-run club isn't so much hanging on to them; it's having a Plan B if you get an offer you can't refuse.

We may soon learn whether Dortmund and Michael Zorc are prepared.

Liverpool's 3-3 draw at Watford was in some ways a rerun of last season: electrifying attacks, highly dubious defending. The latter prompts the age-old issue: Is it personnel or is it Jurgen Klopp's approach?

Former Liverpool stars Jamie Redknapp and Jamie Carragher argued this very point. Personally, I think it's system rather than personnel. You can get better center-backs than Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip, but if they're exposed, they'll still struggle.

The odd thing is that I don't remember Klopp's Borussia Dortmund struggling like this on the defensive end. And while that was a good back four -- Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic in the middle, Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer at full-back -- it wasn't exactly Baresi and Maldini either.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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Cristiano Ronaldo shows he's human; Matic key for Man Utd; Neymar's start - ESPN FC (blog)

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