Monday August 24th, 2015

The domestic seasons in Italy and Spain got underway this weekend, completing the starts for the major leagues across Europe and kicking off with concerns for the new coaches at Real Madrid and AC Milan. Over in France, Marseille’s new manager got off to a better start, while Bayern Munich is not the one atop the table in Germany (for now, anyway).

Each Monday we'll have a weekly European recap of the stories and results that caught our eye from the weekend while also tipping our cap to the best players and goals of the week across the world's top leagues.

For our first edition, we'll start in Serie A, where Juventus embarked on yet another title defense in surprising fashion:

Juventus slips in rare home loss

Was it a blip, or a sign of things to come? That’s the question for Juventus fans, and sporting director Beppe Marotta, after the four-time Serie A champion ended round one losing 1-0 at home to Udinese. The doom-mongers cited the record-books: Juve’s first opening-day home loss in 87 years, first opening-day failure to score, first home defeat for 47 matches, first time not top of the table for 21 months and the first time a champion has started its title defense with a loss in 24 years.

Coach Max Allegri had warned his team that it would be tough after selling Arturo Vidal, Andrea Pirlo and Carlos Tevez this summer. After the game, he calmly said that the title race is a marathon and not a sprint. From that point, he doesn't have too much to worry about. Juventus was not out-classed–in fact, it had been knocking on the door for most of the match, before Cyril Thereau’s late goal against the run of play proved the match-winner. Mario Mandzukic, Simone Padoin and Roberto Pererya all had chances to score before the visitors’ breakaway goal.

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Serie A Preview: Juventus remains favorite for a fifth league title

Yet the result left Italian daily Tuttosport asking on its front page, ‘Is Cuadrado enough?’ referring to the likely loan deal Juventus will seal Tuesday for Chelsea’s out-of-favor winger. On Monday, Juventus also unveiled left-back Alex Sandro. The result may also expedite talks between the club and Julian Draxler, who scored for Schalke at the weekend and has been touted as a possible replacement for Vidal (he is excellent but fitness issues last season have added to his risk factor).

The mood at Juventus may yet turn, but only if the last week of the transfer window sees more outs than ins. Bayern Munich reportedly wants Kingsley Coman, the French playmaker who started against Udinese, while there are still suggestions that a late window mega-bid might come in for Paul Pogba. If Marotta can hold firm on those two players, Juventus should have nothing to worry about as the season progresses. As we know, when the window reaches its close, money talks. And even the richest club in Italy has its price.

Another bad day for Terry

Chelsea is hardly Real Madrid when it comes to its transfer methods. It does not make a habit of making public its interest in a player, destabilizing him until he is either dropped (like David de Gea) or hands in a transfer request. But with one week of the transfer window to run, Chelsea looks certain to increase its bid for Everton center back John Stones, who significantly has shown no signs of being affected by the £30 million offer Chelsea placed for him last week.

Chelsea’s need for defensive reinforcement has escalated after it squeezed past West Brom 3-2 despite a second-half red card shown to captain John Terry. Last week Terry was subbed off after a torrid opening 45 minutes against Manchester City; Sunday, he lasted 54 minutes before an infringement on Salomon Rondon, whom he allowed to get in front of, earned a yellow card.

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Mourinho's Chelsea physio outburst suggests more third-season drama

This is the issue for Chelsea. The defense, so often the bedrock of successful Mourinho teams (all teams, yes, but especially Mourinho teams) is fragile. In the first two games, wingers Jefferson Montero and Raheem Sterling gave fullback Branislav Ivanovic a torrid time. This time it was Callum McManaman. Last week, Sergio Aguero turned John Terry’s legs to jelly. This time it was Rondon, a Premier League debutant.

Mourinho can criticize the transfer window all he likes–he called it the “opportunity window” last week–but he needs it as much as anyone. Will Chelsea try and buy Pogba this week? And who will Stones be playing for when Terry is next available, on Sept. 12, for Chelsea’s match against Everton?

Marseille will be fun again

In three games in Ligue 1, Marseille is on its third coach, after Marcelo Bielsa’s resignation and Franck Passi’s one-game caretaker stint. Spanish boss Michel picked an attacking 4-3-3 and even he was surprised at the result: Marseille scored its first goals of the season and picked up its first points in a 6-0 win over Troyes. The Spaniard’s attacking instructions were all too clear, as L’OM’s pressing game overran an opponent that was missing two key defenders, Rincon (groin injury) and Chris Mavinga (suspended).

There were three debutants in the home lineup, including Lassana Diarra, the France international midfielder who, despite being 30, was making his first appearance in Ligue 1. Diarra played in front of the back four and marked his first game for five months with a 25-yard goal. Michel also gave debuts to Remy Cabella and Javier Manquillo, while Brazilian defender Doria, signed against Bielsa’s wishes 14 months ago and still yet to play for Marseille, was left on the bench.

“That went like a dream,” beamed Michel after the game. “The atmosphere in the stadium was great, it felt like we had one million fans with us!”

He might not find it quite so easy every week–Lyon and PSG are opponents in the next six weeks–but it looks like Marseille’s choice of coach to replace the eccentric but much-loved Bielsa might just pay off.

Benitez needs time with Real Madrid

The Spanish press is infamous when it comes to coaches under pressure. Marca, the pro-Real Madrid paper, pointed out that the club has failed to score in five of Benitez’s nine games as coach–eight of which were pre-season matches! There was no shortage of effort in Madrid’s opener at Sporting Gijon, as Benitez shuffled the pack without the injured Karim Benzema. He started with Gareth Bale just behind Jese, with James Rodriguez on the bench.

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La Liga preview: Can Real Madrid or Athletic Bilbao overtake Barcelona?

He later moved the Welshman up top alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, and ended with him playing left of a front three with Ronaldo central. Three formations, 27 shots, eight on target, but no goals; the game finished 0-0.

“We lacked precision in the final pass and accuracy on goal,” said Benitez after the game.

Madrid’s next three away games–at Espanyol, Athletic and Atletico–could see more dropped points.

The good news, for Benitez at least, is that Barcelona’s transfer ban has left its team looking stretched; with Gerard Pique suspended and Neymar ill, Dani Alves and Sergio Busquets going off injured mid-match, Barcelona was relieved to beat Athletic 1-0 (after Messi missed a penalty). Any players Barcelona wants to bring in this summer, like Aleix Vidal and Arda Turan, cannot play until January. It might not be the cakewalk for the big two in La Liga that we have seen in recent seasons.

Will Wolfsburg sell De Bruyne?

The last touch for Kevin de Bruyne in a Wolfsburg shirt might not be one he wants to remember. He was clean through on goal late on against FC Cologne but somehow squandered the chance. It was not the finish of a player valued at €70 million, but perhaps one whose future is on his mind.

Planet Futbol
Record fourth straight Bundesliga title all but a given for Bayern Munich

Time is running out if Manchester City or, as was reported in Monday’s Bild newspaper, Bayern Munich wants to complete the transfer of the player (Bayern reportedly wants De Bruyne for next summer, but the story may just be one to hurry City along). Wolfsburg is under no obligation to sell, but with City reportedly offering a €20 million annual package (if all bonus clauses are met), his head has been turned.

His agent Patrick de Koster told Sport/Foot last week that City ticks all the boxes: “You get the total package: a great league with a strong reputation, the guarantee of fighting for trophies, both in the league and in Europe, and the financial aspect.”

With the days ticking till the window closes, it may be that the most expensive deal of the summer has not yet happened.

Top three players of the week

1. Blaise Matuidi, Paris Saint-Germain

Who is the most important player at PSG? In recent seasons, it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Not so much any more. PSG’s Ibra-dependence dropped off last season, which partly explained the transfer rumors surrounding the Swede as he enters his contract’s final year in Paris. The French champion has won three out of three this season, the only team in Ligue 1 to do so, and on Friday was helped by Blaise Matuidi’s super goal and, again, dynamic midfield performance.

It is a surprise that for all the haggling over Pogba this summer, Matuidi’s name has not been more involved in the summer market: he has developed into a fantastic all-round midfielder and, given he is French, could be a talisman for PSG this season.

2. Gorka Iraizoz, Athletic Bilbao

If familiarity breeds contempt, the Athletic goalkeeper did a good job of hiding it. This was his third game against Barcelona in nine days, with the first two ending in a famous 5-2 aggregate win in the Spanish SuperCup for the underdog. Iraizoz might have expected to be busier in this La Liga opener, but when called upon did well to keep out Luis Suarez from close range and then stop Lionel Messi’s penalty, diving to his right side.

Iraizoz has now joined a small club, with Diego Alves, of keepers to save spot-kicks from both Messi and Ronaldo. He could not stop Luis Suarez scoring Barcelona’s winner but after three encounters against the European champion, he will look forward to facing Eibar and Getafe next.

3. Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Borussia Dortmund

It’s now five wins out of five for Dortmund under new coach Thomas Tuchel, and a second straight 4-0 win in the Bundesliga, this time over Ingolstadt, puts the club top of the Bundesliga table and the only team not to have conceded in its first two games. One of the biggest beneficiaries of Tuche’s arrival appears to be Mkhitaryan, who set up right back Mathias Ginter for the first goal, and continued his excellent form so far this season.

“I am in my best shape and I hope to continue in this way,” he said.

For Tuchel, it has been a sensational start to life at Dortmund. 

Top three goals of the week

1. Lucas Ocampos, Marseille vs. Troyes

It’s easy to forget Ocampos is still only 21, as the Argentine winger has only given flashes of his undoubted talent since moving from River Plate to Monaco three years ago. He joined Marseille on loan in January, the move was permanent this summer and he could become an important player under Michel this season. He scored France’s goal of the round with a smart "bicyclette," overhead kick, in L’OM’s drubbing of Troyes.

2. Samir Nasri, Manchester City vs. Everton

The finish from City substitute Nasri was a smart one, but it was the assist that stood out in this lovely goal. Yaya Toure, outstanding for City so far this season, was looking the other way when his flicked through-ball split the defense and allowed Nasri to beat Tim Howard.

3. Roberto Soldado, Villarreal vs. Real Betis

It wasn’t so much the goal itself, but more what it represented. Soldado was on debut for Villarreal after a miserable two years at Tottenham. His last league goal was against Everton last November, 17 appearances ago. He needed only 32 minutes to open his account at new club Villarreal and already looks more confident than in his darker days in north London, where he never stopped trying. Maybe even the Spurs fan who had ‘Goaldado’ put on the back of his shirt will be pleased if the Spaniard gets back to scoring ways. 

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