It wasn’t hard to predict that Cristiano Ronaldo was likely to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or.
Even if you did not think he was number one in terms of FIFA’s criteria -- “on-field performance and behavior on and off the pitch” -- even marginal knowledge of Ballon d’Or voters and their habits -- one journalist per FIFA member nation, plus the captain and coach of the national team -- would tell you that he was going to win. And, at least in my opinion, deservedly so.
What was genuinely touching was seeing him with tears streaming down his face. Spend enough time covering the upper echelons of the game and it’s easy to be cynical.
There are plenty of back-stabbers, scumbags and leeches, plenty of guys who could care less about the game and are motivated primarily by money, sportscars and sex, plenty who treat fans like dairy cows, sponsors like marks, opponents like enemies and the sport like something to be gamed, rather than played.
But then you see Ronaldo’s eyes watering and you realize that this was a totally unscripted moment. Beneath the superstar facade, there’s a guy who desperately wanted this and could not help but break down and show emotions that he could not control, when his dream came true.
We can debate whether it’s normal or healthy for Ronaldo to be so obsessed with winning this award. We can discuss how much it really matters given that the voting deadline had to be extended because half of those eligible hadn’t even bothered to return ballots. We can point out all of his other flaws, as we’ve done time and again and we can even make a cogent argument that Lionel Messi or Franck Ribery should have won the Ballon d’Or.
But what we can’t do is question the guy’s sincerity in reacting the way he did. Amidst the plastic pre-packaging, the predictable pre-scripted interviews, the incessant commercialism, the strutting and posturing to maintain an image that sells, here was a moment of genuine humanity.
You can’t help but be touched by it.
As you were for Spain's top two
It was a stalemate. But not through a lack of initiative or endeavour or -- as often happens -- a fear of losing.
Barcelona and Atletico Madrid failed to break the 0-0 deadlock on Saturday because two radically opposed styles can end up canceling each other out if you don't get the blessing -- from a neutral's perspective -- of a happenstance goal or moment of sublime inspiration.
Atletico played with the ferocity that Diego Simeone loves. Diego Costa and David Villa ran themselves silly defensively, as did Koke, so it's somewhat less surprising that when they did regain possession, they were less lucid than usual. It's a game plan that works for Atletico because most of their opponents don't enjoy 65 percent possession, which means they get multiple cracks at the cherry.
It might have worked on Saturday night too, if those Atletico players who did get room to operate -- Arda Turan on the right, Filipe Luis on the left -- had been that little bit more incisive and, possibly, a bit luckier.
But Barca, of course, are different even when Tata Martino -- who may not admit this -- clearly focuses more than usual on defending, with Javier Mascherano and especially Gerard Pique responding with sterling performances and Sergio Busquets patrolling in front. Clearly the idea was to deny Diego Costa his deadly counterattacks, and it worked, not least because they got help from an unusually cautious Dani Alves and Jordi Alba.
What was left was the visitors seeing a lot of the ball. With a fully fit Xavi and Andres Iniesta lasting 90 minutes, it may have been a different story, but on Saturday Atletico's space was so congested and the defensive switches so crisp that there was nothing for Barcelona to unlock.
Martino showed character in not shoehorning a not-yet-fit Lionel Messi or a stomach-bug-recovering Neymar into the starting lineup. Asked about it after the game, he shrugged and said any other manager would have done the same; the two weren't ready.
He's being charitable. A lot of coaches would have caved in -- not least because you can bet Messi was dying to start -- and the side might have suffered as a result.
Going forward, the sense is that Barcelona have several more levels to go to but Atletico do not. There is only so long a team can play this well, with this much intensity and energy, without players getting hurt or dropping off. And Simeone doesn't have a large squad; on the contrary, he's been fortunate that his crew has stayed injury-free.
- Hunter: Spanish title race tightens
- Ledwith: Defensive excellence trumps guile
- FC TV: Who will win La Liga?
- Hislop: Calderon chess match
As for Barcelona, the Messi-less spell has been beneficial. Without him, they lost a largely irrelevant Champions League clash in Amsterdam and away to Athletic Bilbao, winning every other match. Alexis Sanchez grew in confidence, Pedro confirmed his eye for goal, and Neymar continued his growth. But with Messi (and Neymar) in full flight, they can take off for bigger and better things. If Martino finds the right balance in terms of directness, defensive stability and, perhaps, getting more minutes for Sergi Roberto in midfield, the Catalans should pull away.
We've been saying this for a while now. Yet Atletico is still right there, refusing to go away, breathlessly huffing and puffing alongside Barcelona. It's a three-way race -- Real Madrid, who won at Espanyol, also control their own destiny -- so sit back and enjoy. Simeone hasn't run out of miracles just yet.
Refs take center stage -- again
Both managers were grumpy after Manchester City's 2-0 win at Newcastle that saw Manuel Pellegrini's men move to the top of the table, at least until Arsenal's game at Aston Villa on Monday night.
Pellegrini was furious at Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa's poleaxing of Samir Nasri. It was ugly and unnecessary, and we'll know on Monday whether the Frenchman faces a long spell on the sideline. Yanga-Mbiwa has had a rough time since coming to England and looks nothing like the player admired at Montpellier -- in part because he keeps getting played at right-back -- but there are no mitigating factors for basically kicking Nasri's leg out from under him.
Meanwhile, Alan Pardew was angry at referee Mike Jones for disallowing Cheick Tiote's long-range strike. There were at least two Newcastle players in an offside position when Tiote uncorked his pile driver, but it was hard to see how they were interfering, whether with play or with an opponent. None of them were in Joe Hart's line of sight, none of them moved toward the ball (or made any kind of gesture to deceive), and none of them touched the ball.
What may -- and we stress the "may" as we don't have the benefit of Jones' explanation -- have swayed the referee into not granting the goal was the position of Yoan Gouffran. He was closest to the goal line, to the left of Hart, and as the ball came in, he moved out of its path. It's also possible that Jones felt this evasive move by Gouffran was enough to make him active and interfering with play.
Jones was roundly criticized for disallowing Tiote's goal. And he should have granted it. But some of the reasons given are simply wrong. The International Football Association Board tweaked the directives governing these situations a year ago. It's no longer merely a matter of whether a player is in the goalkeeper's line of sight; it's more complex and subjective. The referee is asked to determine whether -- in his opinion -- the player in an offside position does something to interfere.
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- Mooney: Costly win for City?
- Ryder: Magpies impress despite result
- Read: Why was Tiote's goal disallowed?
And in this case, Gouffran clearly did -- in Jones' opinion. It's an important distinction because what was once a fairly objective rule has now become, in the name of supposed "common sense," far more subjective. The referee has a lot more discretion than he once did. There are now gray areas that previously did not exist, for better or worse.
Jones got it wrong, not because he failed to spot something or because he applied the Laws of the Game incorrectly. Rather, it was his judgment and interpretation of what had just happened that was incorrect. When you give more powers of discretion to match officials, that sort of thing will happen.
Milan's 4-3 defeat at Sassuolo on Sunday cost Massimiliano Allegri his job. The loss leaves the rossoneri 11th in Serie A, 21 points away from a Champions' League slot and just six away from the relegation zone.
Allegri may not be a managerial genius, but he has worked under extremely difficult circumstances since taking over three and a half years ago. He has sat by as his best players were sold from under him and often replaced by duds, journeymen and has-beens. He's had to endure sniping from above and sudden, irrational changes of strategy. And he delivered three consecutive top-three finishes -- as well as a Serie A title.
More to the point, you wonder what purpose is served by sacking him now as opposed to the end of the season. Do they really think he's going to screw up the team further, perhaps driving them toward relegation?
Now, Mauro Tassotti steps in -- not for the first time -- but the club will reportedly appoint a permanent boss by the weekend, and many have tipped Clarence Seedorf to take over. He is the preferred choice of at least one-half of the two-headed creature at the helm of the club (general manager Barbara Berlusconi, as opposed to CEO Adriano Galliani). Seedorf is one of the brightest guys in football, but he's still a player with a contract tying him to Botafogo until June. And, of course, he has zero managerial experience.
The thinking seems to be to bring him on board in the next few days and let him bed in to the job in the second half of this season. There is some logic to it.
- Paul: Assessing Allegri's legacy
- Report: Allegri sacked as Milan coach
However, it also means rushing to free him from his Botafogo deal while basically chucking him in at the deep end with Allegri's squad. There's the very real risk that, if Milan's slide continues under Seedorf -- and it's not as if you'd blame him if it did -- the ownership might not be so excited about investing in the squad in the summer. Not to mention the fact that if he doesn't improve results instantly and substantially, a big ask indeed, you'll be going into next season with a manager shrouded in skepticism.
Unfair, I know, but that's how the game works.
Good times rolling at PSG
Compared to this stage last season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored three fewer goals but has five more assists. Oh, and Paris Saint-Germain have eight more points while looking like a far better team.
At Ajaccio on Saturday, PSG showed plenty of character. In a hostile stadium and against a physical opponent that raised the barricades, they went a goal down, kept their cool and rode out the storm, winning 2-1 thanks to two Ibrahimovic assists. (The first one, in particular, a layoff to Ezequiel Lavezzi, was distinctly un-Ibra like. Last year's version probably would never have considered not finishing himself.)
- Johnson: Ibra pulls strings in triumph
It's a credit to Laurent Blanc, who continues to confound the critics and is doing a far better job than many -- including me -- thought he would do. PSG look like a team, egos are confined to the background, and they keep churning out points.
Since, in the interim, Monaco and Lille, their closest challengers, both contrived to drop points (the former drawing at Montpellier, the latter losing at home to Reims), PSG extended their lead to five points. It's a good time to be Parisian.
Moyes, Man United making moves?
With the job done on Saturday -- a 2-0 win over Swansea that prevented Manchester United from losing four games in a row for the first time in a half century -- David Moyes was in Sardinia on Sunday, watching Cagliari lose at home to Juventus 4-1.
The word is that he was watching Cagliari centre back Davide Astori and Juve's Claudio Marchisio.
Marchisio is one of a gaggle of central midfielders linked to United. He is having a rough campaign, having lost his starting spot to Paul Pogba. Marchisio played only the final 25 minutes on Sunday, though he did score. But he is a quality player who would improve United's midfield. Of course, given the state of the middle of the park, there are plenty others who would represent an upgrade and who are younger and cheaper to boot.
Astori would be interesting because it would suggest he's looking at a centre-back. And that is the strongest sign yet that Manchester United are ready to play hardball with Nemanja Vidic, who is out of contract in June.
Vidic is 32, and while he was slowed by injuries last season and in 2011-12, this year he's been largely fit. Logic might suggest that whatever funds you're going to get from the Glazers be used to strengthen other areas of the pitch while giving Vidic the deal he wants, even if it's three years, rather than shelling out the $12 million to $15 million it would take to get Astori, who, while a nice player, isn't exactly the second coming of Thiago Silva.
- Mitten: Kagawa flirts with best form
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- Jolly: United fail to convince
- Report: Marchisio 'going nowhere'
With Rooney's contract -- and the inevitable circus surrounding it -- looming on the horizon, you would think the last thing United need is to risk losing Vidic for nothing (right on cue, Galatasaray and others have been linked).
Still, after the two-week spell Moyes has had, he's entitled to a brief respite. United weren't particularly impressive, but disaster was averted, they get a bit of breathing room -- fourth place is just five points away -- and Shinji Kagawa showed what we already know: that if you play him centrally behind a striker he's far more effective.
Food for thought for Moyes: Maybe sacrificing Rooney is worth it if Kagawa can be your in-house replacement.
Take a bow, Berardi
Scoring four goals in one game when you're 19 years old and in your first Serie A season would normally be called a freak occurrence. Then again, when you’ve already scored a hat trick this season and have racked up 11 goals in 14 games, perhaps it's not such an outlier.
Sassuolo's Domenico Berardi doesn't turn 20 until Aug. 1. What's truly remarkable is how he ended up there. No club academy showed any genuine interest in him until he was 15, and that was only because, while visiting his older brother at university, he decided to join in a kick-about and was spotted by Sassuolo's youth scouts.
Now there's talk of him being a shock addition to Cesare Prandelli's World Cup squad. It's not entirely out of the blue -- Juventus acquired his co-ownership rights in the summer in a deal valuing him at $11.5 million, so we knew he was highly rated -- but it's unusual to see a guy that age play at this level with such confidence and self-assurance.
In case you were waiting around to see whether the Football Association would punish Nicolas Anelka for his "quenelle" celebration and were worried that you may have missed it, they helpfully issued a statement saying that they had appointed "an expert" to look into his gesture.
Because the "expert" presumably likes to take his or her time, they won’t even decide whether Anelka deserves being charged -- let alone punished -- until Jan. 20. The argument is that it's "important that they get it right."
That's fine, though I'm not sure how much more important it is that they get this one right relative to the Luis Suarez or John Terry cases. No matter. All they need to do is establish whether Anelka was making a gesture that could reasonably be viewed as political, whether or not it's anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, pro-Zionist or pro-Captain Crunch cereal.
If it is political, then he deserves to be banned. The rules are very clear on this.
Benfica's win short-lived
Goals from Rodrigo and Ezequiel Garay helped Benfica to a 2-0 win against Porto in the SuperLiga's top-of-the-table clash Sunday, an emotional night that saw the home team wear the late Eusebio's name on the back of its shirts.
Yet whatever jubilation there may have been may not last long. According to Portuguese media reports, both goal scorers -- and midfielder Nemanja Matic -- could be sold by the end of the week. Rodrigo and Garay are close to joining Zenit St. Petersburg while Matic is supposedly making a return to Chelsea. If the deals go through, they would net the club close to $100 million.
- Brassell: Benfica's win honors Eusebio
- Blog: Matic to Chelsea confirmed?
Good business, but thoroughly depressing when a club like Benfica -- halfway through a season and fresh off beating their uber-rivals to extend their lead at the top -- have to sell their star central defender, midfield rock and best young striker. You wonder to what degree third-party ownership and agent interest may have to do with this.
In times like these, you realize the game needs more oversight and clearer regulations. A lot more.