Monday September 14th, 2015

Another week in European football saw pressure growing on big-name managers in England, controversial penalty calls in Germany, a high-profile error in France and the return of the world's two preeminent talents to the spotlight and score sheet prior to the return of the Champions League.

Here is what caught the eye:

Is Mourinho a long-term option?

There was a time when everything Jose Mourinho said seemed to be part of a wider masterplan. The charismatic Portuguese coach was like a magician, a master of distraction; whenever his team lost, he would find a scapegoat and detract attention from its deficiencies. It worked, partly because the media were happily complicit in the deception but also because Mourinho’s teams rarely lost. As Everton coach Roberto Martinez pointed out after his team’s deserved 3-1 win over Chelsea on Saturday: “Last season after Chelsea beat us, he was such a nice man.”

Mourinho has not been so nice this season, with three defeats in five league games the worst start for a defending champion since Blackburn Rovers in 1995. Chelsea only lost three games all of last season and already it has conceded 12 goals, more than any other side (and it took 15 games last season to concede the same). 

His post-defeat tactic remains the same: distraction. After the Arsenal game, it was the non-handshake with Arsene Wenger; after the Swansea draw, the row with club doctors Eva Carneiro and Jon Fearn; after Manchester City, his decision to replace John Terry at halftime. His latest outburst, a reported complaint to Martinez over who should speak first to the press, seems less like someone playing mind games and more like someone annoyed, frustrated, and lashing out.

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​Mourinho has never lasted a fourth season at any club. He called his third at Real Madrid “the worst of my career” after Madrid finished 15 points behind Barcelona in La Liga, and lost in the Champions League semifinal and the Copa del Rey final. The last time he began a fourth season at Stamford Bridge, he was out after Champions League Matchday One, following a fallout with Terry and a clash with the owner over recruitment. Sounds familiar? 

Mourinho’s distraction has worked in some sense. Mourinho has remained loyal to Branislav Ivanovic, Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas this season, despite all three falling some way short of last season’s form. At some point, one will have to make way. Has Jose fatigue even set in at the club?

“The same players, the same opponents, the same journalists, the same games. Now everything is new,” said Pep Guardiola, explaining why he left Barcelona after four years.

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​Mourinho signed a contract extension on the eve of this season and declared he was at the club for the long-term. But maybe he’s just not a long-term coach. His belligerent persona, the siege mentality, management-by-personality, it can wear off after a while. Although that’s not the only reason for the current malaise, where individual mistakes, fitness concerns and recruitment are also factors.

Maybe  Wenger wouldn’t be successful if he only spent two years at a club. Fabio Capello has proven that a winning club coach does not necessarily make a good international coach. So should we expect Mourinho, whose resume is marked by short-term success (followed by no legacy after his departure), to suddenly be an expert at a long-term project? Monday, The Times reports of rumors, nothing more, “of back-up plans being put into place just in case Mourinho cannot turn it around.”

That seemed unthinkable only a month ago. Like players, coaches have specialties too. And maybe seeing out a long-term deal is just not in the Mourinho masterplan.

Return of Spain's big two

Have we missed this rivalry or not? The first few weeks of the Spanish season have been about Gareth Bale finding his form, and Barcelona grinding out wins; until Saturday, that is.

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In the space of a few hours, La Liga was back on the Ronaldo and Messi show, as the two best players in the world each put on a master-class. Ronaldo scored a 20-minute hat trick against a generous Espanyol defense and then added two more to become Real Madrid’s all-time top scorer in La Liga. He needed just 204 games to reach 230 goals, while Raul scored 228 in 504. “Ronaldo on fire!” was the AS front-page, after Madrid’s 6-0 win.

Messi’s intervention was even more decisive. Barcelona was at Atletico Madrid, with this fixture proving decisive to the title race in the last two seasons. In 2014, Atletico drew on the final day of the season at Camp Nou to clinch the title; last May, Barcelona won 1-0 to move two points clear of its rivals, and it never relinquished that lead.

Saturday evening in the Spanish capital, Barcelona coach Luis Enrique made a huge call that paid off. He started Messi on the bench. On the bench! It was the first time since the January defeat against Real Sociedad, which almost culminated in Luis Enrique’s departure (the aftermath of that decision turned around Barcelona’s season for the better).

This time around, it made sense; Messi had not trained since returning from international duty in Argentina, and his wife had just given birth on Friday. Messi came on at 1-1 (with Barcelona’s equalizer coming on a Neymar free kick that the Brazilian might not have taken had Messi been there), and with half an hour to play. He made all the difference, setting up Neymar for a chance cleared off the line before scoring the winner. Barcelona is now two points clear of Madrid and three of Atletico through three games. It’s very early days, but once again, this season could be the Ronaldo and Messi show for Spain's perennial powers.

France: We need to talk about Kevin

It was all about goalkeepers in France this weekend. PSG will no doubt ease to the Ligue 1 title, but new goalkeeper Kevin Trapp made it more interesting, with two howlers allowing Bordeaux a 2-2 draw on Friday. Trapp apologized straight after the game–he had kept four clean sheets before this one–and he maintains the support of coach Laurent Blanc, who prefers Trapp’s ability with the ball at his feet to Salvatore Sirigu’s (despite, after scoring an own goal, Trapp being caught in possession by Wahbi Khazri, who scored the equalizer with 10 minutes left).

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As though to highlight Trapp’s performance, Lille captain Vincent Enyeama was outstanding in his team’s 0-0 draw at Lyon, his saves keeping out Mathieu Valbuena (twice) and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa late on. Last week, everyone in the Lille crowd sang him ‘Joyeux Anniversaire’ mid-match. Lille has only conceded once in its first five games (only scored once too) and Enyeama remains one of the best in Ligue 1.

The more serious point from the PSG game is that even if it drops points before Champions League matches, the title race is barely worthy of the name. PSG is already well clear of potential challengers Lyon and Monaco (five points back), Marseille (seven points) and Saint-Etienne (three). PSG is rarely tested until it plays in Europe, which begs the question: would a more competitive league help prepare PSG for the big European games?

When is a penalty not a penalty?

Bayern Munich got out of jail late on when assistant referee Robert Kempter flagged Augsburg’s Markus Feulner for a foul on Douglas Costa and told referee Knut Kircher to award a penalty. Thomas Muller converted and Bayern escaped with a fortuitous 2-1 win.

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“We were cheated!” said the impressive Augsburg boss Markus Weinzierl, who is the only coach to have beaten Bayern in each of Pep Guardiola’s seasons in Bavaria.

“Never a penalty,” said Augsburg captain Paul Verhaegh. “You know when you’re in Munich the referee will give you a tough time.”

Even the Bayern players were not convinced it was a spot kick, but no one can blame Muller for scoring (he can’t stop, by the way–he now has six goals in four games).

At least Kircher came out after the game to admit his mistake–even if he pinned it on Kempter. In the Premier League, referees do not speak to the media, which tends to fuel refereeing controversies rather than end them. Kircher’s comments may not kill the "Bayern conspiracy" stories, but they certainly slow them down. Other leagues should follow this sensible lead.

Bayern has a perfect record but is still not top of the league: that’s Borussia Dortmund (via stronger goal differential), which looks more like realistic contenders with every passing game under coach Thomas Tuchel. The latest, a 4-2 win at Hannover, was the sixth straight game that BVB has scored three or more goals. Tuchel has his fullbacks pushing up–right back Mathias Ginter already has five assists–while Henrikh Mkhitaryan has rediscovered his zest from his Shakhtar days.

His three league goals so far already equals last season’s tally, but in all competitions, he has nine goals and seven assists. Tuchel has put the fun back into Dortmund; he even chuckled when Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored with a last-minute Panenka penalty.

Is Balotelli back?

Juventus dropped points again and needed a generous penalty award to draw 1-1 with Chievo, but the big story in Italy was the return to action of Mario Balotelli. The Liverpool striker is on loan at AC Milan, knows he is in the last-chance saloon, and though his team lost to current league leader Inter in the Milan derby, he came off the bench and caused havoc.

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He ran through the defense before his cutback was cleared, he smashed a long-range shot against the post and had a free-kick superbly saved by Inter keeper Samir Handanovic.

“Mario needs to continue just like this,” coach Sinisa Mihajlovic said after the game. “He is behaving well and training well, but I can’t judge him just yet after this substitute appearance.”

“For the first time in quite a while, ‘Super Mario’ resembled the talented attacking star that everyone knows exists, but few get to see,” wrote GB Olivero in Gazzetta dello Sport. Milan has managed fewer shots on target, seven, in its first three games than any other side. Fitting in Balotelli either alongside Carlos Bacca and Luiz Adriano, or behind them in place of the quiet Keisuke Honda, could be the next conundrum for Mihajlovic.

Top three players of the week:

Anthony Martial (Manchester United)

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Patience, everyone said. He needs time, was the message. Is 13 minutes long enough? That’s how long it took United’s big-money signing to make an impact on debut, a jinking run and smart finish showing pace, flair and unpredictability that United has lacked this season. That his goal came against fierce rival Liverpool made it more meaningful. Martial may not be worth €58 million but he has already given United fans a moment to remember.

Alex Meier (Eintracht Frankfurt)/Steven Naismith (Everton)

Two hat-trick heroes, both in surprise circumstances: for Meier, who scored three in Eintracht Frankfurt’s 6-2 win over FC Cologne, it was his first start in five months after an injury. Naismith started Everton’s win over Chelsea on the bench but scored a perfect hat trick–header, left-foot, right-foot–to stun the champion.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)

We barely notice when Ronaldo or Messi scores a hat trick these days. Ronaldo now has 21 of them in Spanish football, so no wonder he needs a museum to house all his match balls. It says something when scoring five goals is no guarantee in this list either. But Ronaldo likes playing Espanyol, he scored a hat trick at Cornella last season, and after seven scoreless outings (including preseason, which shouldn't count but in Spain it somehow does)–his worst run for five years–Ronald returned to normal service.

“The voices advocating getting rid of the Portuguese ace piped up louder than ever last term,” wrote Carlos Carpio in AS. “They are born out of the frustration that stems from a failure to grasp one of the fundamentals of sport: you can't win all the time. Not even if you have the amazing Cristiano Ronaldo.”

Top three goals of the week:

Anderson Talisca (Benfica vs. Belenenses)

OK, so Benfica was 5-0 up at the time and Anderson did seem to have quite a lot of time to weigh up his shot on goal. But still, what looked like a side-footer seemed to gather speed as it curled and flew past the bewildered Belenenses goalkeeper who must have been delighted to hear the final whistle.

Christian Benteke (Liverpool vs. Manchester United)

Where did that come from? Liverpool has scored three goals this season, one (by Benteke against Bournemouth) that should have been disallowed and two–this one, and Philippe Coutinho vs. Stoke–that have come out of nowhere, and against the run of play. Benteke’s was a beauty, an overhead kick combining elegance and power to leave David de Gea with no chance.

Fredy Guarin (Inter vs. Milan)

A goal worthy of winning any big match, Guarin proved that the wisdom of crowds sometimes makes sense. Inter fans protested at his proposed switch to Juventus last year kept him at San Siro, and the Colombian, an old face among Roberto Mancini’s new-look side, scored a beauty to take the city bragging rights–and keep Inter on top of the league. 

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