Monday August 31st, 2015

Juventus fell yet again, the pressure continued to build on Chelsea, and Pep Guardiola made yet another tactical tweak in Bayern Munich's latest win, marking another weekend of talking points across Europe's major leagues.

As the continent braces itself for transfer deadline day, here are the stories making the headlines and the best players and goals from across England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France after another exciting round of domestic league action:

Transfer strategy tells in England

Two mid-table Premier League clubs did their transfer business early this summer. Swansea beat competition from Champions League clubs to sign Andre Ayew from Marseille on a free transfer, while Crystal Palace spent big on Yohan Cabaye–a statement signing, said coach Alan Pardew–and snapped up Bakary Sako on a free from Championship (second-tier) side Wolves. Both won 2-1 this weekend: Swansea over Manchester United and Palace over Chelsea. Both deserved to win, and both results will be used as EPL marketing tools that “there are no easy games in the best league in the world™.

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The post-mortems will have been long and ugly at Manchester United and Chelsea, who have less than 48 hours to repair any issues in their squads. And there are plenty. United ended last season needing a center back, a center forward, and possibly a new goalkeeper (with David de Gea/Real Madrid links going back months).

Three months and £230 million spent later, the same holds true.

Sergio Romero may be Argentina's No. 1, but the fact he has spent the last two years as a reserve at Monaco and Sampdoria tells its own story.

Midfielder Daley Blind is now playing at center back, while Wayne Rooney could this week become England’s all-time record goalscorer but does not look like the 30-goal-a-season center forward that United needs. Reports Monday suggest Monaco’s Anthony Martial (11 goals in 42 Ligue 1 games) could be the €50 million target.

One hardly knows where to start with that…

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The problems are slightly different at Chelsea, because at least it has the players to top the league. The issue for Jose Mourinho, who needs a center back and possibly a holding midfielder by Tuesday's deadline, is that they are playing terribly: it’s one thing for John Terry to have dropped his level, but what about Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic, Cesc Fabregas, and Eden Hazard? These guys were key performers last season, and it’s his job to get his players back to form.

Maybe an international break will do them all a favor. Chelsea is eight points behind City and there are another 102 to play for. All is not lost just yet.

As for Swansea and Palace, these two sides could feasibly finish in the top seven. They should also be held up as models for getting transfer business done early. Maybe United and Chelsea could take that lesson on board.

A new innovation from Guardiola

It was a case of no center backs, no problem for Bayern Munich as coach Pep Guardiola pushed the tactical boundaries once again in the German champion’s latest win, an impressive 3-0 triumph over Bayer Leverkusen. Guardiola was missing Jerome Boateng (suspended), Mehdi Benatia and Javi Martinez (injured) and had Dante as his only available center back (that is, until he was shipped to Wolfsburg after submitting a transfer request). Not only that, but Bayern was up against Bayer Leverkusen, who finished third last season, when it beat Bayern 2-0 last May, and took it to penalties in the German Cup quarterfinals.

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None of that seemed to bother Guardiola, who selected a 3-4-3 formation and left Dante on the bench: he played Philipp Lahm, David Alaba and Juan Bernat in the back line, with Xabi Alonso as the deepest in a midfield diamond and occasionally dropping back to help.

As SI.com’s Liviu Bird put it: “He’s played with a false nine, false fullback, false six and now false center backs.”

Bayern won on two goals from Thomas Muller and a late penalty from Arjen Robben, and this was the easiest Guardiola has ever had it against Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt. The Spaniard does not only use his players’ technique to get results, but their intelligence. It was no wonder that Shakhtar Donetsk coach Mircea Lucescu, who was beaten by Bayern in last season’s Champions League round of 16, has compared the German champion to the Netherlands' Total Football side of the 1970s.

At the International Footballl Arena conference in Zurich, Chelsea’s academy director Neil Bath addressed this point when he talked about the player of the future.

“He will have to be more versatile, more unorthodox and more adaptable,” said Bath. “At the moment I would say there is an 80-20 split between players in set positions and those who are adaptable. In time, we could see that shift the other way round.”

Guardiola, the innovator, is already ahead of the curve.

Roma narrows gap on Juve

Roma earned a deserved 2-1 win over four-time reigning Serie A champion Juventus at the Stadio Olimpico Sunday. New signing Edin Dzeko scored the winning goal, a leaping header off an up-and-under cross that would have left Juventus coach Max Allegri seething. Roma’s Wojciech Szczesny made a late save from close range to keep out Leonardo Bonucci and secure the points. 

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The result leaves Juventus point-less and with its worst season start since 1912; sporting director Beppe Marotta decided against signing Julian Draxler, who joined Wolfsburg to replace Kevin de Bruyne, and has instead turned his attention to Inter’s Hernanes. Kingsley Coman, a starter last week, has also left to join Bayern

As for Roma, its start to the season couldn't go more according to plan.

“This is the Roma I want,” said coach Rudi Garcia, and if this is the one he gets all season, then Roma will give Juventus a title challenge. The front three of Falque, Dzeko and Mohamed Salah all pressed hard while Lucas Digne slotted in impressively on his debut at left back (Digne played under Garcia at Lille). In 2013-14, Garcia’s first season in charge, Roma won its first 10 games and still ended up 17 points behind Juventus. Last year the gap was the same.

This season, with a four-point head start, it will surely be closer.

A good start for Di Maria

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Which Angel di Maria did PSG sign for €63 million this summer? Was it the Real Madrid star, or the Manchester United flop? If his first 25 minutes in a PSG shirt are anything to go by, it would be the former. His first touch as a second-half substitute set up Edinson Cavani for a chance (he missed it, but did score two goals in PSG’s 3-0 win at Monaco) while his most exquisite was a 40-yard defense-splitter from his own half which set up Ezequiel Lavezzi for the third.

The challenge for Laurent Blanc is to fit Di Maria into his side. The midfield three of Motta, Verratti and Matuidi is almost untouchable which leaves Blanc needing to squeeze in Di Maria around Cavani, Ibrahimovic (undroppable), Pastore, who was excellent last season, as well as Lucas and Lavezzi.

“The accumulation of egos and superstars could crank up the atmosphere in the Paris dressing-room,” warned L’Equipe.

A three-horse title race again in Spain

Real Madrid was back to winning ways with a 5-0 drubbing of Real Betis while Barcelona won its second successive match 1-0 as the rigors of heavy travel in preseason and two huge Spanish SuperCup ties against Athletic take their toll. The most impressive performance in La Liga this week, though, came from Atletico Madrid, who brushed aside Europa League winner Sevilla 3-0 in a game packed with intensity. Koke, Gabi and, coming off the bench, Jackson Martinez scored for Diego Simeone’s side, which once again have played the summer market to perfection.

There is also strength in depth lacking in previous seasons. On the bench were Luciano Vietto, Yannick Carrasco-Ferreira and Stefan Savic.

“This Atleti has retained their robustness but aspire to play better football, they’re not defined by brawn anymore, but are playing a new game from the refined school of Oliver Torres and Griezmann,” wrote Tomas Roncero in AS. “This is a serious new Atleti.”

Boris Streubel/Bongarts/Getty Images

Top three players of the week

Nabil Fekir (Lyon)

Lyon was without the injured Alexandre Lacazette, Ligue 1 top scorer last season, in a potentially tricky trip to Caen, who won this fixture 3-0 last season. With a front three of Valbuena-Beauvue-Fekir, Lyon needn’t have worried. Fekir, against the team that rejected him as a trialist in 2011, scored his first ever hat trick before Claudio Beauvue opened his Lyon account late on. Fekir scored 14 goals and got 11 assists in his breakout season last year; not since Franck Ribery in 2005-06 has a French youngster caused such a sensation.

The challenge now is to break up the Griezmann-Benzema-Valbuena attacking trio in the France team. But if he carries on like this…

James Rodriguez (Real Madrid)

Gareth Bale may have earned the headlines, initially with his first ever interview in Spanish on the day of the game, and then with two goals in Madrid’s 5-0 cruise over Real Betis, but it was Colombian winger James Rodriguez, in his first competitive start under Rafa Benitez, who was the host’s outstanding player.

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James was said to be upset at missing out last week, but made his point with two goals: the first a curling free-kick from the angle of the box, which might push him closer to Ronaldo in the free-kick hierarchy, and a bicycle-kick late on. “James on fire in the Bernabeu!” wrote Colombian paper El Deportivo. With Benzema back in attack, Madrid looked more look its old self. Now James just has to set up some goals for Cristiano Ronaldo, still scoreless after two games. 

David Alaba (Bayern Munich)

He won all of his tackles, had more touches than any other player on the pitch, and was not playing in his natural position. More than someone like Messi, Xavi or Iniesta, Alaba is the embodiment of the perfect Guardiola player. The Austrian played at center back for Bayern and humbly said afterwards, “It’s no secret I can play in multiple positions.”

That’s putting it mildly. When Bayern beat Manchester City in the Champions League last year, he played in three different positions: left back in 3-4-1-2, left midfielder in a 4-3-3 and then, with five minutes left, a holding midfielder in a 4-2-4 (Bayern won 1-0 with a late goal). While clubs obsess over producing the next Messi or Ronaldo, they would do better to develop more like Alaba. That way, you get three or four players in one.

Top three goals of the week

Valter Birsa (Chievo vs. Lazio)
A free kick as perfect as you could find. In the top corner, and even if you told the goalkeeper where it was going, he might not have stopped it. Bravo Valter! And a special mention to his teammate Riccardo Meggioroni, whose back-heeled half-volley wins assist of the week, allowing Alberto Paloschi to head home.

Joel Ward (Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea)

You’re a right back, you have scored two goals in your last 110 appearances, your team is playing the English champion, away from home, and has just conceded an equalizer with 10 minutes left to play. At that stage, an away draw looks like a good result. So what on earth are you doing in the center forward position, in the opposition six-yard box, one minute later? Pardew may well have asked the same question: the defender headed in Sako’s cutback to score a dramatic winner at Chelsea. But why was he there in the first place?

Gareth Bale (Real Madrid vs. Betis)

This was more like the Bale of his first season in Spain: he scored with a header after 94 seconds, and doubled his tally with a driving run and shot from 30 yards out that flew in off the post. The Welshman is playing in a more central role under Rafa Benitez; he looked more confident but where this leaves Ronaldo, now playing second fiddle, is one to watch as the season develops. 

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