Monday November 30th, 2015

There was more action all across Europe this weekend as the Premier League crowned an unlikely record-breaker, and there was a managerial casualty and a key injury in Spain. One in-form African striker in Germany has heeded Yaya Toure’s advice, while a clash of philosophies is on the menu in Italy. Over in France, a PSG striker's poor attitude is a big talking point and more coaches are fearing for their jobs.

Here is what caught our eye this week Around Europe:

Vardy-mania hits the Premier League

England coach Roy Hodgson was in the King Power stadium in Leicester to see Jamie Vardy make Premier League history when he scored for the 11th game running against, of all teams, Manchester United. Vardy scored his first Premier League goal against United in a memorable 5-3 win 14 months ago, but then had to wait another five months for his next goal. This season, he has barely stopped scoring.

His achievement is impressive, and so was the manner of his record-breaking strike. From a United corner, Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel rolled the ball to Christian Fuchs and the left back gave a good impression of a right-winger with a disguised pass around the back of the defense. Vardy beat Paddy McNair for pace and struck it beyond David de Gea. The game finished 1-1.

The biggest difference between Vardy 2014 and this season is his shot conversion rate. Last season it was 12.5%, well behind the league average of 17%. This season it’s up to 31%, which is greater than that of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski.

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“What he’s added this year is a higher level of technical ability, the confidence and belief is there and with that comes the goals,” England assistant coach Gary Neville told Sky Sports last month. “He's a center forward I think 95% of teams would love to have within their pool of strikers, because of the fact that he sets the tempo and the tone for the rest of the team and gives no other player behind him any excuse for not working hard.”

His background in non-league, or amateur, football–he was playing for Fleetwood Town against Gateshead four years ago this week–makes his rise to prominence one of the feel-good stories of the season. The Sun reported that Hollywood script-writers want to turn to rags-to-riches tale into a movie. That said, a controversy in August, when he was caught on camera racially abusing a gambler in a casino–for which he swiftly apologized–left some wondering if clubs have double standards when it comes to players’ ethics: can the better players get away with behavior that others cannot?

As for Hodgson, he now has a decision to make. Vardy has so far only played in wide positions in his four England appearances (as he did for much of last season for Leicester). Given that Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane are ahead of him in the pecking order, you can see why. But if Hodgson wants his side to play with pace in attack and be dangerous on the counter–useful against stronger teams–then it makes sense for Hodgson to play him in his best position, as Leicester coach Claudio Ranieri has done.

Tiago injury a blow for Atletico

“No,” was Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone's simple answer when asked if his club could challenge Barcelona for the title. But to be in contention to beat Real Madrid for second place is credit to the coach and his remarkable ability to rebuild his squad after losing key players every summer. Last summer it was Joao Miranda (Inter), Arda Turan (Barcelona) and Raul Garcia (Athletic Bilbao) who left; Jose Gimenez, 20, has stepped in for Miranda at the back, while Yannick Ferreira Carrasco is looking like a capable replacement for Turan.

Atletico beat Espanyol 1-0 Saturday, with Antoine Griezmann scoring with his first touch of the game. He has now tallied the first goal in eight of the 10 games in which he has scored and looks certain to be Atletico’s next big-money sale next summer.

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The smartness of Simeone’s recruitment team, though, is that it already has replacements: Luciano Vietto, 21, and Angel Correa, 20, are stars of the future while Saturday’s standout player was Saul Niguez, 21, who coped in midfield after Tiago Mendes went off with a broken tibia. The Portugal midfielder is one of Simeone’s key leaders in the side and now faces a fight to be fit for Euro 2016.

Atletico has now kept five clean sheets in a row, and scored only six goals in winning them all. If this runs counter to how Real Madrid likes to win its matches, then it suits Simeone just fine. Six goals conceded in 13 games is bettered only by Bayern Munich’s five goals–but then again, the German champion has not faced Real Madrid and Barcelona this season.

Speaking of which, normal service was resumed in Barcelona as Neymar (two), Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi all scored in the club's 4-0 win over Real Sociedad. The trio has now scored a remarkable 124 goals in 2015, just one fewer than Bayern Munich.

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What’s noticeable about them since Messi’s return to action last week is just how keen they all are to get each other on the scoresheet. 

Messi and Suarez were both on hat tricks when they let Neymar take a penalty against Roma (he missed) and Neymar preferred to cross for Messi to score Barcelona’s fourth rather than go for his hat trick in this one.

It’s in stark contract to Madrid, where AS columnist Alfredo Relano says, “Rafa Benítez is a prisoner of the BBC (Benzema-Bale-Cristiano), which this season is more ‘C’ than anything else, because everything revolves around whether Cristiano Ronaldo scores a couple of goals, or doesn’t score.”

Ronaldo did score a late second goal in Madrid’s 2-0 win over Eibar. Gareth Bale opened the scoring on what was a routine, but not spectacular, win. That’s the way of things under Benitez these days.

There was an actual coaching casualty Sunday night, when Valencia’s boss Nuno Espirito Santo paid the price for a poor start to the season. The Portuguese was the lightening-rod for fans’ frustrations at the way owner Peter Lim and agent Jorge Mendes were running the club’s recruitment. He will end up in another decent job; in the meantime, Phil Neville is caretaker coach with Salvador Voro as his assistant.

Aubameyang takes it to another level

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored two more goals as Borussia Dortmund beat relegation-threatened, basket-case club Stuttgart 4-1 Sunday. Aubameyang is the success story of Thomas Tuchel’s debut season as Dortmund boss, with 17 goals in 14 league starts (25 in 23 in all competitions) challenging Robert Lewandowski (14 in 13), Neymar (14 in 16) and, yes, Vardy, for Europe’s top-scoring crown.

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​Aubameyang has scored 44 goals this calendar year, seeing off Ciro Immobile (now at Sevilla) and Adrian Ramos as center-forward options with his combination of raw pace (he once clocked 3.7 seconds for a 30-meter sprint) and sharp finishing. Last season he scored once every 6.4 shots, this season it’s 3.3 shots, doubling his goals per game from 0.54 to 1.1. “If Ronaldo can score 50 goals a season, why can’t I?” he asked L’Equipe last month.

Spending time in Germany has made him more professional, say his friends. He takes naps to keep fresh instead of playing computer games, and while he remains a showman who loves fast cars, crazy haircuts and comic-book hero goal celebrations, is more focused on his career than ever before. Next month he could receive another accolade: the African Footballer of the Year award.

No one deserves it more. It’s as though Aubameyang has taken note of Yaya Toure’s recent criticism of African players. “They do not always have the hunger. Not enough, for my liking. They are not aware enough of the efforts needed to reach the top,” he told France Football last month. “They sometimes give up too fast. They are in their own world, they believe they have arrived, are the best, the strongest. But they do not understand there are other steps to get to the top. Unfortunately, many see this job for the good side: easy money, girls, nice cars, beautiful clothes. And they give up the idea of reaching the best. They do not always know how to suffer.”

Aubameyang has suffered: he was released by AC Milan four years ago. It’s a decision the Italians should regret. 

Pressure mounts on Roma's Garcia

It’s one thing to have a buccaneering approach and the attitude that you will always try and go toe-to-toe against your opponent. Sometimes, though, it pays to be more cautious, and Roma coach Rudi Garcia might just be finding that out the hard way.

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Last season it came in the form of a 7-1 home shellacking at the hands of Bayern Munich; last week it was Barcelona who beat Roma 6-1. No team has conceded more than Roma’s 16 goals in five Champions League games so far–and yet the capital side can still qualify from Group E. Two clean sheets all season is the major problem, and the side that was seen as one of the best contenders to dethrone Juventus in Serie A missed the chance to go top of the table as it lost 2-0 at home to Atalanta.

Injuries to key players like Mohamed Salah, Gervinho and Francesco Totti left Roma short of pace in attack, but a front three of Edin Dzeko, Iago Falque and Juan Manuel Iturbe should still have hurt the visitor. It was not to be: captain Daniele de Rossi has insisted the team is still a title favorite, but Corriere Dello Sport reported Monday that Garcia’s future depends on victory in the Champions League group finale against BATE Borisov. Win that, and Roma reaches the last 16. Lose, and Roma president James Pallotta will have a decision to make. Potential successors linked to the post include Carlo Ancelotti, Cesare Prandelli, Walter Mazzarri and two former bosses, Luciano Spalletti (2005-09) and Fabio Capello (1999-2004).

Another bad reaction from Cavani

It must be tough for Paris Saint-Germain. Another win, this time an emotional home success (in its first game since this month’s terror attacks) against bottom club Troyes. PSG is already 13 points clear of second-placed Caen and the Ligue 1 title is as good as assured. A lack of competition at home is one of the reasons put forward for PSG’s failure to make the final step in the Champions League, as it’s just not used to the quality of opposition.

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The talking-point from this game, though, was another bad reaction to being subbed off from goalscorer Edinson Cavani; this was his third straight game going off and once again he did little to hide his displeasure. But does he have a point? The figures suggest not. Cavani has been subbed off 23 times in 100 starts under manager Laurent Blanc. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, in 96 starts, has gone off 20 times.

Le Parisien calculates that Cavani even stays on for longer than Ibra when he does go off; on average, the Uruguayan lasts 73 minutes and Ibrahimovic 70 minutes. The dissent does not go unnoticed in the dressing room and the scorer of the fourth goal, highly rated youth product Jean-Kevin Augustin, might hope for more game time as a result.

Elsewhere in France, pressure is mounting on two other Ligue 1 coaches. Lyon’s Hubert Fournier is enduring a wretched season with a dismal European campaign, with a 4-2 home loss to Montpellier causing president Jean-Michel Aulas to bring out the public vote of confidence (never a good sign). Willy Sagnol, at Bordeaux, also has a fight on his hands after a 4-1 home loss to Caen left his side in mid-table.

Top three players of the week

Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao)

The Spanish forward scored a perfect hat trick–left foot, right foot, header–in Athletic’s win over Rayo Vallecano to make it 20 goals for the season before the start of December. No wonder coach Ernesto Valverde warned Barcelona not to bid for him in January. But was he joking?

Junior Stanislas (Bournemouth)

This is the kind of result that can turn around a whole season. Newly promoted and injury-ravaged Bournemouth could have felt sorry for itself after recovering from 2-0 down at home to Everton to take it to 2-2 only to have Everton score after 95 minutes to re-take the lead. Stanislas had other thoughts and scored his second of the game to equalize on 97 minutes. A 3-3 draw, but its impact might well be more than one point.

Neymar (Barcelona)

With two more goals and an assist, the Brazilian continues to take his performances to new levels at Camp Nou. He follows Iniesta, Ribery and Neuer as the non-Messi/Ronaldo candidate on the Ballon d’Or podium. If the votes were based on this season alone, he would win (but they’re not, so Messi will win).

Top three goals of the week

Yacine Brahimi (Porto)

The Algerian was on the right wing when he cut inside and curled a delicious left-footer into the far corner for the winner against Tondela.

Almamy Toure (Monaco)

A center back playing right back who runs half the length of the pitch, rounding three players in the process and slotting the ball calmly past a France goalkeeper? If you say so…

Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Borussia Dortmund)

Aubameyang showed the confidence of a man in form with this delightful chip, but huge credit to Gonzalo Castro, who had scored the first goal, for his magnificent back-heel. 

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