Monday November 23rd, 2015

A stunning weekend of action across Europe was highlighted with Barcelona beating Real Madrid 4-0 in the Spanish capital to open a commanding lead in La Liga, while ramping up the pressure on first-year Madrid manager Rafa Benitez.

Elsewhere on the continent, there were surprise Premier League defeats for Manchester City and Arsenal, and a shocking new leader emerged in England's top flight.

German clubs might have found one reason for optimism when it comes to Bayern Munich, 37-year-old Gianluigi Buffon out-dueled his 16-year-old counterpart, while Nice is flying high on France's south coast.

Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this weekend:

Time running out for Rafa

One thing normally happens when fans chant for the club president to resign: he sacks the coach. It was a surreal atmosphere at Real Madrid Saturday, where even before its 4-0 humiliation at the hands of an irrepressible Barcelona side, fans booed than pre-match announcements of star man Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Rafa Benitez.

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Ronaldo had upset fans with his public courting of PSG boss Laurent Blanc after Real Madrid’s last home match while Benitez picked a surprising lineup, dropping Dani Carvajal for Danilo and leaving out Casemiro, who had been outstanding in recent weeks. It was a line-up packed with stars but no cohesion: the perfect symbolism of Florentino Perez’s Hollywoodization of this team. And in the biggest game of the season, Benitez had picked a Perez team.

As Ken Early wrote in the Irish Times: “He had sacrificed his principles to keep his job, and would probably end up losing both.” Perez has called a press conference for Monday night at which we will know more.

Let’s not downplay the brilliance of Barcelona either; for all Madrid’s inability to pass the ball out of defense, for the gaps in the center of the pitch between the midfield and attack, and the wanderings of the Benzema-Bale-Cristiano strike force that was kept at bay by Claudio Bravo, Barcelona was sensational, dynamic, unplayable. This was a team performance for the ages: Lionel Messi only joined the party late on (which team at 3-0 down wants to see him coming on as a sub?) and by the end, Jordi Alba and Gerard Pique both had a go at center forward to try and score a fifth. 

There are no immediate plans to sack Benitez, but the white hankies came out from the Bernabeu faithful on the final whistle and any future slip-ups could result in an early change (it does not help that Atletico Madrid’s 1-0 win over Betis has pushed Real Madrid down to third in the table). As for his replacement: Perez has just the solution in house. Someone he loves even more than Bale and than Benitez: Zinedine Zidane.

It no longer seems to be a matter of if Zidane will ever make the step up as coach of Castilla (Real Madrid's second team) to the first team. Now it’s a question of when.

Time to give Leicester's Ranieri some credit

It was a great weekend for the EPL title race, as leaders Arsenal and Manchester City both slipped up while from the chasing pack, Manchester United and Tottenham both won. But there is a new name at the top of the table: Leicester City, which at this time last year was at the bottom of the pile.

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An outstanding run at the end of last season kept Leicester from relegation, and this season the appointment of Claudio Ranieri as coach (after he lost three out of four games as Greece coach–never mind the fact that Greece had just lost captain and icon Giorgios Karagounis, the country was in an economic freefall and Ranieri had only spent five days with his players before his first game) was met with a sense of bafflement.

Ranieri’s career proves that he can take over clubs at important moments: at Napoli just after Diego Maradona had left, at Juventus just after it was promoted from Serie B, at Chelsea after Gianluca Vialli’s departure and at Monaco after its relegation to Ligue 2.

“Who is this funny grandpa with a glittering CV who dropped into Ligue 2 just after fighting for the Scudetto?” asked So Foot magazine after the Italian swapped a title race with Roma for life in Monaco. “It’s simple: Ranieri is a builder and the challenge that excites him is not trophies but improving squads and making teams better.”

He is proving that again: Leicester is dynamic and exciting to watch, not only because of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, two stars of the season (Vardy’s goal in the 3-0 win against Newcastle was his 10 straight game in which he has scored) but because of the way Ranieri wants them to play. Leicester is unlikely to win the title, but with Manchester United and Chelsea on the schedule in its next three games, it looks set to shake up the big boys a few more times this season. And who would begrudge Ranieri that?

At what point does Robben's ego become a problem?

We have been here before with Arjen Robben. Back in January 2011, he had a row with Thomas Muller over who should take a free kick against Werder Bremen. There was a similar clash with Franck Ribery the same season, against Schalke–and one year later the two had to be separated after a game against Real Madrid. Former Bayern forward Mario Gomez complained that Robben would always cut inside instead of passing to a forward in a better position.

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Now Robben is back from the injury that disrupted the start of his season, the same conversation has reared its head. "Ego-Robben" is the nickname his teammates have for him, reported Sport Bild last week, though it’s unknown whether they say that to his face or not. The current issue is with striker Robert Lewandowski, who didn't scored in the 3-1 at Schalke, but feels that Robben doesn't pass to him as much as he should.

Lewandowski has scored four goals in the seven league games Robben has played and 10 in the six he missed. Robben has provided three assists for Lewandowski in 25 games. Robben refused to answer a ZDF reporter’s questions about the issue after the Schalke win.

Bayern plays Olympiakos in Champions League this week; a draw will knock out Arsenal from the group stage and a win, if Arsenal also beats Dinamo Zagreb, leaving the Gunners needing a two-goal win in Athens on Matchday Six. Either way, Bayern looks solid, but the Robben-Lewandowski tension is something that Pep Guardiola will want to nip in the bud as soon as possible.

Inter finds its shooting boots

An emotional week for Inter winger Jonathan Biabany ended with him scoring the opening goal in Inter Milan’s 4-0 win over Frosinone and dedicating the victory to coach Roberto Mancini. This was Biabany’s first start of the season since rejoining his former club in the summer all while recovering from an arrhythmia condition that threatened his career. And while this was the first time that Inter had won a game by more than one goal this season, it was also the fourth straight game without conceding a goal, its best run in Serie A for five years.

Mancini, who slipped on the touchline trying to control a ball coming his way, continues to play down title chances.

“I think there are three or four teams that have an advantage over us as they have been playing together for a longer period of time,” he said.

We will know more next week, as on Monday the top two sides Inter and Napoli take each other on at the San Paolo. Juventus is slowly making its move, though, as a 1-0 win over AC Milan puts it nine points back. It’s still far too early to write off the Bianconeri.

Is Puel a contender for the France job?

What is it about the south coast that brings out the best in Claude Puel? He spent 17 years as player, academy coach, reserve boss and head coach (1999-2001) at Monaco and now, after spells in charge of Lille (2002-08) and Lyon (2008-11) he is back on the Côte d'Azur as Nice coach. This weekend, his side beat Lyon 3-0 to move fourth, one point behind Lyon in second place.

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While the headlines this season have gone to enfant terrible Hatem Ben Arfa, top scorer with seven goals and back in the France picture, it’s Puel who deserves all the credit. This is his fourth season at Nice and he has built an attacking side built around young players. Only PSG has scored more than Nice’s 30 goals this season, and it was significant that Eric Roy left his post as sporting director within weeks of Puel’s initial appointment in 2012. Puel runs everything.

“When I come into a club my job is to put an infrastructure in place, to develop youngsters and to train them myself,” he told So Foot. “I am interested in structure, putting in place coaches, and defining a pathway for youth players up to the professional team.”

That has worked: Nice’s third goal over Lyon was scored by Vincent Koziello, 20, who has played 12 of the 14 games this season. Other regulars are also extremely young, like Nampalys Mendy, 23; Mouez Hassen, 20; Wallyson, 21; and Ricardo Pereyra, 22. There are more knocking on the door as well: like Alexandre Mendy, 21; Saïd Benrahma, 20; and Boscagli Olivier, 18.

There is less pressure on Puel at Nice than, say, at Lyon, where he replaced Alain Perrin just after he won the double (and coincided with Lyon’s cost-cutting spell while it funded a new stadium). That’s not to say he can’t handle the pressure. In fact, given his focus on picking young players and going for the jugular, his name should be in the mix to replace Didier Deschamps after Euro 2016 next summer.

Elsewhere, the most dramatic Ligue 1 game was at Rennes, which was tied 2-2 against Bordeaux when it was awarded a last-minute penalty. Up stepped Giovanni Sio, and he missed. Perhaps it was no surprise: Rennes has now failed to score from each of its last six penalty-kicks.

Top three players of the week

Andres Iniesta (Barcelona) 

The midfielder ran the show at the Santiago Bernabeu, assisting on Neymar’s goal and scoring a tremendous one himself. The fact he was given a standing ovation from the home fans–nearly 10 years to the day that they did the same for Ronaldinho–tells its own story.

Roberto Firmino (Liverpool)

The Brazilian was outstanding as Liverpool continued its excellent away form under Jurgen Klopp, scoring one and setting up two in a 4-1 win at Manchester City.

Michy Batshuayi (Marseille)

Ligue 1’s player of the month for October scored the crucial opening goal for Marseille in its 2-0 win at Saint-Etienne. Defeat would have left L’OM one point off the drop-zone. As it is, things are still tricky at the Velodrome and the club can expect a succession of January bidders for its top striker.

Top three goals of the week

Paolo Dybala (Juventus vs. Milan)

A brilliant chipped ball down the line from Paul Pogba, a smart cross from Sandro and Dybala did the rest; this goal was worthy of winning a tight game against Milan.

Andres Iniesta (Barcelona vs. Real Madrid)

You could have chosen any one of Barcelona’s four goals for this–or included all of them–but Iniesta’s was special for the back-heel assist from Neymar, which set up the rasping shot.

Kamil Grosicki (Rennes vs. Bordeaux)

A fantastic strike from the Poland international was not enough to beat Bordeaux in a thrilling match. 

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