Manchester City suffered their second top-flight defeat of the season at West Ham as Eliaquim Mangala's struggles continued. Will Demichelis return for the Manchester derby?
Tim Stannard looks at six storylines that could unfold in Saturday's clash between Real Madrid and Barcelona. Will Messi break Zarra's La Liga record?
Gabriele Marcotti writes for, among others, The Times, Sports Illustrated, La Stampa, Corriere dello Sport and The Wall Street Journal, and also works for ESPN...
The Premier League is obviously very competitive this season - do you think it's more important for a league to be competitive or of 'high quality'? Or do those things not have to be mutually exclusive?
They're certainly not mutually exclusive. It's not that the quality of the league has gone down - in fact, I don't like talking about leagues as a whole - it's just that the top sides aren't as good as they have been in recent years. And I don't think it's just because competing sides have improved, just that they're markedly worse.
However, I don't think you should use the top teams as a benchmark for the quality of the league. There are mid-table sides that have played some good football - obviously Norwich and Swansea get a lot of plaudits, but I also think the likes of Fulham, Everton, Sunderland since O'Neill has come in, Stoke even though I'm not a huge fan of their style of play. So I don't necessarily think the quality of the league as a whole has gone down, just the teams at the top.
You mention the plaudits that teams like Swansea and Norwich have been getting, but in England certainly there isn't a huge history of managers of clubs like that getting any of the really 'big' jobs, whereas in Italy that happens quite a lot - the most obvious recent example being Max Allegri. Can you see someone like Brendan Rodgers or Paul Lambert getting one of those jobs?
It's not just Italy - I would argue that it happens everywhere. Who did Guardiola manage before taking over Barcelona? Unai Emery was in charge of Almeria before he got the Valencia gig, and in Germany too. I just think it's a bit of an English peculiarity - nobody looks further down.
Since David Moyes took the job at Everton ten years ago, there have only been - unless I'm forgetting anybody - two other managers appointed by Premier League clubs from the lower leagues - Paul Ince at Blackburn and Roberto Martinez at Wigan. That's absolutely extraordinary. What you're basically saying there is 'You guys in the Championship all have fun, but in reality you're all rubbish and the only way you'll get a job in the top flight is to get (your current club) promoted.' I think that shows a total lack of foresight and imagination on the part of Premier League clubs. It shows a total lack of appreciation for what goes on at lower league clubs. I don't follow lower league football that closely, but I'm pretty sure they can't all be rubbish and they can't all be narks playing long balls - in fact, we know they're not.
Brendan Rodgers got to the Premier League via the playoffs, right? Ask yourself this; had Swansea lost that game, would Brendan Rodgers be a worse manager than he is today? No, he'd be exactly the same. He'd be better than half the managers in the Premier League, but nobody in the Premier League would give him a chance. Why? Because he's the guy from the lower leagues, and to me that's a very bizarre way of looking at things. Especially since - I'm told - a lot of teams in the lower leagues play good football, and there are people trying interesting things. There's a whole pool of talent being ignored.
Part of it might be appointing a 'big name' - Chelsea will try for Pep Guardiola, City will try for Mourinho...
The thing about the big names is that many people fall prey to that, but while they are big names at big clubs with big budgets, but it doesn't apply to someone like Wolves. It shows a lack of imagination and maybe more importantly a lack of proper scouting. If I was Jez Moxey and I'm having second thoughts about Mick McCarthy, I would get two or three trusted people who know the game to go an analyse half a dozen guys in the Championship who we might be able to get, look at how they work and how they play, and do all the scouting you would do with a player and go for one of them. But I guarantee you none of that goes on - it's all personal relationships, it's like a big boys' club, and I'm not sure they even know who the guys in the Championship are.
Part of the reason might be that speaking to another manager is sometimes considered 'underhand'...
Yes, but we expect clubs to have scouts looking at players - that's not considered underhand, you're not doing that behind your current players' backs. But you should have a knowledge and an idea of who the managers are. It's basic recruitment. You shouldn't disrespect your manager by going behind his back, but let's be honest - if your manager does well, unless you're anyone but the top three somebody is going to nick him anyway. If Mick McCarthy had got Wolves competing for Europe, there's a good chance a big team would go for him.
As an outsider, do English attitudes to other things - like the England captaincy - baffle you?
The whole captaincy issue is very alien to most other major footballing cultures. I also think it's something The Daily Mail or 'non-football' chief-sports writer-types who do rugby one week, cricket the next then think 'Hey, I'll stick the boot into John Terry this week' care about. Having spoken to fans and players, it's really not that much of an issue to them anymore, compared to past generations. They generally accept that a piece of cloth around your bicep doesn't make you a leader if you're not a leader.
And I'd go even further, and they also accept that, for someone like Terry for whom it's incredibly important, there's almost an attitude of 'If it's so important to him, then let him be captain, who gives a sh*t.' I can think of two different England players that I've spoken to, and that's how they feel.
It's one of those issues that certain parts of the media think people care about, but they don't really...
In some ways it's the effect that the media have - if they tell you 'This is an important issue' a lot of people think 'It must be important.'
Speaking of the media in this country, they're obviously fascinated with Mario Balotelli at the moment - is it the same in Italy, or is he just another player?
No, he's not just another player. People are very interested in him, partly because it's a very compelling story - he's Italy's first black superstar and in many ways it represents the way the country is changing, in that we used to be a nation of emigrants and now we're a nation of immigrants, so now second-generation guys like Mario are fully Italian.
And there's also that, no matter what certain people think, he's an outrageously talented person, and thirdly he's a pretty nutty guy who does outrageous things. And with that, there's the outrageous things he does that people write about, but also the outrageous things he doesn't do that people write about because they want to believe it. If I told you Alan Shearer stuck his head into an aquarium and ate a goldfish you wouldn't believe me, but if I told you Mario Balotelli did it you'd be like 'Yeah, I could see that.' He's a bit like Joey Barton. He puts himself in that situation.
It's funny, if you Google 'Mario Balotelli body language' then do 'David Beckham body language'...despite being the most quoted footballer on the planet, nobody cares about Beckham's or Leo Messi's body language, but of course with Mario it's a huge issue that we have to be interested in. He doesn't help himself, but the media everywhere takes it to the extreme.
You ghosted Paolo di Canio's book - obviously he's doing very well at the moment, but do you think elements of his personality or his politics would dissuade a bigger club from giving him a chance?
I think in some ways it's his personality rather than his politics that have put people off. It certainly put people off before, which is why he's at Swindon in the first place. Without naming names - but you can guess who - there are people in very high-profile jobs in England and Italy who hold more extreme and dare I say offensive political views than Paolo's, and people in the game know who these guys are.
Obviously with Paolo there's a whole extra layer there, because when asked about his views, he won't shy away. But I think it's more because he's so blunt and forthright, people see him as unpredictable and not malleable, and that he does his own thing, and that frightens people off. It's a very delicate thing - it's your football club, do you want someone in charge who isn't going to toe the party line? It's fine when Mourinho does it, but he's won a couple of Champions League titles.
Finally, in terms of football coverage, where do you see it going - what with newspapers struggling and the difficulties of monetising websites - in the next ten, 15 years?
First of all, in terms of the advertising supported v subscriber supported models - and this is not just in football, but in terms of things that really matter like civil liberties and so on - what I find ironic is that some papers have embraced this idea of 'Let's all be free and support ourselves through advertising', but very few people have looked at it from a civil liberties standpoint.
Ask yourself if you want to get your news from a company supported by 200,000 like-minded citizens who dip into their pockets and pay x amount a day, or whether your civil interests are better served by a company that relies on advertisers and inevitably big corporations - that's what makes me really uncomfortable. If the subscriber model is defeated once and for all and we're left in the hands of advertisers, we could see a day where advertisers get into a position where they kill a story. That's what scares me.
That said, there's a proliferation of really interesting blogs and the like on the web, and I think in those terms the cream rises to the top. There's a guy called Michael Cox (of Zonal Marking) who, as far as I can tell, in April 2010 was a guy with a laptop and a television, and then he starts doing his little reports and his little graphics and whatever else, and you discover that people love reading this stuff. I've been told a million times that 'Oh, English audiences don't want to read about tactics because they find it boring', but he proved a lot of people wrong.
He's not the only example, but the Michael Cox of 20 years ago would have been an anorak who was photocopying his newsletter to send to three of his friends. Now, this sort of thing is possible.