English football

Racist abuse at Spurs vs. Chelsea should cause a protocol review. PLUS: Liverpool’s Club World Cup win – ENGLISH FOOTBALL

by: Adam Smith

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Missed any of the action around Europe this weekend? Have no fear: Gab Marcotti is here to catch you up with all the talking points in the latest Monday Musings.

Jump to: Should teams walk off? | Lampard outsmarts Mourinho | Liverpool win Club World Cup | Juve get it wrong vs. Lazio | Barca still aren’t clicking | Crunch time for Man United | Bayern are limping | Man City too good for Leicester | Real not worried about 0-0 | Icardi answering critics at PSG | Another great weekend for Lukaku | Leipzig rule the Bundeliga | Milan’s latest rock bottom?

Is walking off the answer to racist abuse?

Outrage is good. Outrage is necessary. Outrage moves mountains. But outrage works best when it is channeled into something that lasts, and that works for everyone, not just those in the moment.

On Sunday, during Chelsea’s 2-0 win at Tottenham Hotspur, Antonio Rudiger notified the referee — via his captain, Cesar Azpilicueta — that he was racially abused by one or more Spurs fans. The knee-jerk reaction from some is that players have to walk off in the presence of racist abuse because the authorities aren’t treating this seriously. Judging from the confused (and confusing) way it was handled — and the fact that it’s the second incident in two weeks after Fred was abused during the Manchester derby — it’s fairly evident that neither the FA nor the Premier League are treating this in a way that is clear-headed, serious or effective.

More on this later. Focus for now on the calls for players to unilaterally walk off the pitch if they are racially abused and the implications. There’s a moral argument against it. Why should a player have to take it upon himself to simply walk away when somebody racially abuses him? Why should the onus be on an individual who, lest we forget, is at work and concentrated on doing his job to make a stand? You have a right not to be subjected to racist abuse, and it’s a right that ought to be taken for granted: when it isn’t afforded to you by the institutions, that’s when you raise hell.

If you want to talk about a mass walk-out as a one-off symbolic gesture, fine. It would, no doubt, be effective, but it can’t be a week-in, week-out solution. And remember: not everyone who is racially abused has the same personality to speak up or to take a stand. What about the player who doesn’t notice the abuse? What about the player who is too young or not confident enough or who fears repercussions from his club or his teammates? What about the player in the lower divisions, who doesn’t have the benefit of 36 high-definition cameras trained on him (plus hundreds more trained on the fans) and who genuinely doesn’t know if they will find to find evidence back up his complaint?

– Report: Tottenham 0, Chelsea 2
Chelsea ratings: Willian 9/10 for match-winning goals
Tottenham ratings: Son, Gazzaniga 4/10 in awful display

That’s before you get into the practicalities. A couple of people out of 60,000-plus in attendance racially abuse a footballer. Very few even notice it’s going on: Azpilicueta, who was positioned next to Rudiger for most of the game didn’t notice, for example. Suddenly, a team decides unilaterally they’re not going to continue playing and 60,000 angry fans pour into the streets.

Is it a price worth paying to ensure that nobody is subjected to racist abuse? Sure. But is there a better way? Yes. But it has to be implemented and there has to be a will to follow through. The three-step protocol isn’t perfect and it becomes meaningless if it’s not accompanied by real-time action from stewards and law enforcement, along with subsequent actions from clubs, their league and, where applicable, courts. But at least it’s a policy that can work at all levels and doesn’t place the onus solely on the victims. (On Monday afternoon, Tottenham issued a statement explaining their investigation and the lengths they are going to find those responsible.)

Racist abuse at Spurs vs. Chelsea should cause a protocol review. PLUS: Liverpool's Club World Cup win - ENGLISH FOOTBALL 1
Antonio Rudiger, left, was subject to racist abuse during Chelsea’s win at Spurs.

Let’s be clear: what you saw at Tottenham’s stadium wasn’t the 3-step protocol. If it had been, the announcement after Rudiger’s complaint would have noted that there was racist behavior and, if it again occurred, the game would be suspended. (And if it occurred a third time, the match would be abandoned.) Instead, we heard the following over the loudspeaker: “Racist behavior among spectators is interfering with the game.” No mention of suspension. No mention of abandonment. The fact that it was repeated two other times — not because it happened two more times apparently, but simply because Spurs opted to repeat it — added more confusion.

Fans and media were left wondering whether this was the protocol in action — in which case, the match ought to have been suspended — or whether the announcer was simply doing his own thing. We later found it was the latter.

The Premier League claims the protocol is in place. Well, this isn’t it and yes, it does matter.

What the protocol does it takes immediate action. It prompts fans to identify racist abusers in real time and it ensures that it stops, otherwise the game stops or even ends. Furthermore, when it does end, it’s not just one team or both teams downing tools. It’s the institutions doing it alongside them. It sends the simple but clear message: “Racism and football can’t co-exist in the same place.”

It does not Mean you get “three chances to be racist” as long as it is followed up by action. It’s not as if the 3-step protocol is the only measure. Along with it (and equally important, if not more so) is the identification, expulsion, banning and, where applicable, prosecution of the racist abusers. In some grounds, that’s difficult. In England, at least in the Premier League, clubs have generally been proactive in that regard and Tottenham themselves have vowed to ban those responsible. But the above procedure has to be in place and it has to be clear to all concerned. And there has to be a willingness on the part of the league to walk off. That’s where the outrage ought to be focused (as well as on the racists themselves, obviously).

There has to be a demand for clear procedures and a willingness to enforce them. In this, the Professional Footballers Association obviously needs to do more than call for government enquiries into racism.

If it doesn’t happen? If there is a racist abuse and all you get is the milquetoast announcement about “racist behavior” that is “interfering with the game?” Well, that’s when you walk out.

Lampard outdoes Mourinho

As for the match itself, Chelsea’s 2-0 win was the result of Frank Lampard outreaching Jose Mourinho on the day. Mourinho called Chelsea’s decision to switch to a 3-4-2-1 something out of the “Antonio Conte era” but in fact, Lampard had used it before this season. It took the sting out of Spurs’ front four while putting Mason Mount and Willian in the best positions to do serious damage.

Tottenham adjusted late and had it been 1-0 rather than 2-0 at half-time, we would probably have seen something else than the Christian Eriksen-for-Eric Dier switch that smacked of mild desperation at that stage in the game. But Paulo Gazzaniga’s demented kung fu kick, when he could have simply collected the ball in his hands, on Marcos Alonso left VAR no choice. That said, it’s a bit concerning that Taylor, ordinarily one of the better Premier League referees, initially awarded a free-kick to Spurs.

The sending off Son Heung-Min felt harsh but then again, if you kick out, that’s what you get. He really ought to know better and once he was gone, it was pretty much game over. As for Chelsea, Lampard’s ability to not just prepare them tactically but also psychologically, halting a slide that saw them take just seven of a possible 21 points in their previous seven games, shows that when it comes to managing, he’s got the “right stuff.”

Liverpool win entertaining Club World Cup

If there’s a message to retain about the Club World Cup, it’s that the final was a real game between two really good teams and that maybe some folks should be a bit less dismissive of the rest of the world. And, in fact, this thinking stretches to the semifinal, as Liverpool (minus half-a-dozen starters) got a real scare against Monterrey, and Brazil’s all-conquering champions, Flamengo, had to come from behind against Al Hilal.

Yeah, I get it: small sample size. But it’s a reminder that while the eight or 10 clubs at the top of the European pile enjoy a hugely disproportionate (and historically unprecedented) edge in terms of resources, not just over their brethren but over the rest of the world, you still need to play the games. And so it can happen, as we saw on Saturday, that a well-drilled, tactically disciplined side with veterans in key roles and massive support in the stands can tie the European champions and runaway Premier League leaders into knots.

Ogden: Liverpool aren’t finished winning
– Vickery: Loss shouldn’t diminishFlamengo’s golden season
Liverpool ratings: Firmino 8/10 in clutch display

It’s true that the officiating left a lot to be desired and yes, on another day, Liverpool take their early chances and it’s all downhill on the way to a big victory. And yes, Flamengo are themselves a super club, vastly outpacing most South American teams in terms of budget. But it was a thrilling and entertaining game that could have gone either way, especially if Alisson hadn’t come up (as he so often does) with key saves in key moments. Flamengo showed what a wily coach like Jorge Jesus can do when he gets buy-in from his players.

You only had to listen to Klopp after the game and see Liverpool’s celebrations following the 1-0 win after extra time to know that it certainly felt like a real game to them. Despite Gianni Infantino’s intentions, we may or may not see a proper Club World Cup that lives up to its name in our lifetime. But if it means more games like this, then I’m all for it.

Juve, Sarri get it badly wrong vs. Lazio

It wasn’t rocket science. We did say that while Maurizio Sarri’s decision to play Paulo Dybala, Gonzalo Higuain and Cristiano Ronaldo together up front for Juventus was a brave and necessary evolution, but not one you could get away with every week — not when Ronaldo is 34 and Higuain is 32. So what did Sarri do in the Super Cup? After not playing that combination all season, he played all three together in three straight games in eight days, including Sunday’s showpiece vs. Lazio, which was played halfway around the world in Saudi Arabia.

– Report: Lazio win Italian Supercoppa

After Lazio downed Juventus, 3-1, Sarri came out and said Juve looked “tired” and “drained.” Well yeah: that’s what will happen in those situations. Let’s be clear. It’s not the reason — or rather, not the only reason — they lost. Lazio were again magnificent, squeezing out the midfield and starving service to Juve’s attack while exploiting every transition. Credit to them, though Sarri certainly didn’t help himself here.

Speaking of Lazio, this is their ninth consecutive win if you exclude the Europa League and if they win their game in hand, they’ll be just three points off the top of the table. Oh, and in that run, they’ve beaten Juventus twice. It may not last, but it’s obvious that many — including yours truly — underestimated Simone Inzaghi.

Barcelona still aren’t as good as they should be

Barcelona bounced back from the lacklustre 0-0 Clasico performance, won 4-1 against Alaves and it’s tempting to say there’s no such thing as Lionel Messi-dependency since he scored just once. But look closer: Barca dominated the first half, took a two-nil lead and all was going great. Then Alaves pulled one back early in the second half and the old fragility returned, lasting until Messi scored his umpteenth wonder goal and then gifted Suarez the penalty that fixed the final score.

Report: Barcelona 4, Alaves 1
Barca ratings: Messi to the rescue again, Griezmann 7/10

Real Madrid’s home draw with Athletic Club mean Barca end 2019 at the top of La Liga with a two-point lead. They haven’t lost at home in 13 months, and they have Messi to paper over the cracks. But this still feels like a side that’s not firing on all cylinders.

Crunch time for Solskjaer as Pogba returns for Man United

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said it best when he said Manchester United played the first half at Watford as if it was a “testimonial” — subdued, no tempo, no urgency. And that was the help in which they did not concede two goals.

Reporter: Watford 2, Man United 0
Williams: Man United far too generous to lowly Watford
– Man United ratings: De Gea, Wan-Bissaka 4/10

Business picked up a bit when Paul Pogba came on at the end, his first appearance since suffering an injury at the start of the season, but by that point, David De Gea and Aaron Wan-Bissaka had made their howlers. Solskjaer’s future — and United’s campaign — may well depend on this stage on how he reintegrates Pogba into this team and what he can contribute the rest of the way. The counterattacking schtick is fine against clubs who attack you, but it simply won’t work against those who sit and lie in wait.

Bayern are within reach but need to get better

Joshua Zirkzee may one day become one of the greatest players in Europe. For now, he’s the answer to a trivia question, having played a total of nine minutes (plus injury time) and scored two goals. You don’t need to be a math whiz to work out that it projects to 20 goals every 90 minutes. More importantly, the 18-year-old Dutchman has been a critical super-sub in Bayern’s last two wins, in midweek against Freiburg and on Saturday against Wolfsburg.

Report: Bayern 2, Wolfsburg 0

Glass half-full: they’re points that keep the Bavarians third in the Bundesliga. Glass half-empty: on Saturday in particular, Bayern created very little and relied on last-ditch heroics against an opponent that defended well.

Hansi Flick will be in charge until the summer, maybe more if he gets a handle on this team. By that point, Alexander Nubel will be on board to challenge Manuel Neuer between the posts. Bayern are clearly looking ahead but they need to think about the present too, especially with Javi Martinez going down injured and Niklas Sule out for the season.

Man City simply too good for Leicester

The battle between second and third in the Premier League rather reinforced what we already knew: Leicester City are having a tremendous campaign and Brendan Rodgers is a candidate for manager of the year, but when Pep Guardiola’s crew is firing on all cylinders, there’s no stopping them.

– Report: Man City 3, Leicester City 1
Dawson: Man City end tough week with convincing win

There’s just too much quality in Man City’s squad and, especially with Kevin De Bruyne in this rich vein of form, too much creativity. With Sergio Aguero making his return off the bench in the final minutes of Saturday’s 3-1 home win, you sense normal service is about to resume.

Real not worried about 0-0 result

It’s three draws on the bounce for Real Madrid but if you’re Zinedine Zidane, you shouldn’t be overly concerned about the 0-0 against Athletic Bilbao. Real Madrid dominated without Eden Hazard, Raphael Varane and Casemiro in the XI, hitting the woodwork three times, while Unai Simon turned in a masterclass in the Bilbao goal.

You worry when you don’t create chances and concede too many. This was a blip for an under-strength team coming a few days after a very strong performance in the Clasico.

Icardi proving critics wrong at PSG

Paris Saint-Germain’s 4-1 victory against Amiens marked the fourth straight game that Kylian Mbappe, Neymar and Mauro Icardi got on the scoresheet. It’s notable, since two of those three are supposedly arch-individidualists who are all “me, me, me” and have no concept of team. (At least according to their critics.)

On the contrary, what we’re seeing is that when you have a competent coach (Thomas Tuchel) who isn’t under pressure and the players are fit, they can work together. Even Icardi, demonized as some kind of eternal problem child back at Inter, can play a part. For those keeping score back at San Siro, Icardi’s up to 15 goals this season, all from open play.

Lukaku’s act of kindness stands out in another big inter win

Inter’s 4-0 victory over Genoa wasn’t a surprise, but there was a neat twist to it. Romelu Lukaku allowed his strike partner, 17-year-old Sebastiano Esposito, to take a late penalty. Such little acts of selflessness like that speak volumes about the environment Antonio Conte has created in the dressing room.

Lukaku has 14 goals this season and it would have been more: he has handed four penalties to teammates so far. The tone of a team is set by the manager and the leaders in the dressing room. He’s, no doubt, one of them.

Cheers to RB Leipzig!

They’re winter champions and deservedly so. RB Leipzig came from behind to beat Augsburg 3-1 which, coupled with Borussia Moenchengladbach’s draw, leaves them alone at the top of the Bundesliga. Since their last defeat, 2-1 at Freiburg on Oct. 26, they’ve scored 43 goals in 12 games across all competitions and won their Champions League group. (Their reward for the latter: a last-16 clash with Jose Mourinho and Tottenham.)

Going into the January window, they’ve been linked to a move for Salzburg phenom Erling Haaland, though goals really aren’t the issue with this side, especially now that Patrik Schick is off the mark as well.

Milan’s latest rock-bottom moment

Milan’s 5-0 humiliation away to Atalanta brought the strongest possible condemnation from Zvonimir Boban, the club’s chief football officer. “It was a disaster,” he said. “It was embarrassing. Even apologising after that would be pathetic. Saying sorry to our fans would be offensive to them.”

Strong words and yes, Milan were awful. But what’s equally important now is that they look at the previous six games where they played reasonably well and figure out what was different about Atalanta. Otherwise, they risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater.