Around Europe: Suarez tilts balance to Barcelona; AC Milan wins derby
Transfer deadline-day across Europe’s big leagues comes on the back of another exciting weekend across the continent. It was one in which Barcelona cemented its title credentials, Chelsea began to usher in a new era and Inter Milan boss Roberto Mancini felt the pressure. Elsewhere, Bayern’s injury jinx struck again, its manager, Pep Guardiola, confirmed he's headed to Manchester City and a highly rated coach is back in the dugout in France.
Here is what caught our eye this week Around Europe:
Suarez tilts the balance to Barcelona
In the last few seasons, it was not the Clásico but Barcelona’s fixture against Atletico Madrid that determined the title race in Spain. When Atletico won the title in 2014, it was on a run of six games unbeaten against Barcelona, that included knocking it out of the Champions League and tying the Catalans to win La Liga on the final day of the season. Barcelona returned the favor last season, clinching the title at Estadio Vicente Calderon.
Barcelona’s 2-1 come-from-behind win over nine-man Atletico on Saturday was the sixth in a row for Barcelona. Lionel Messi scored Barcelona’s equalizer but the match-winner was scored by Luis Suarez, whose typically sharp finish put Barcelona three points clear at the top with a game in hand.
“Without doubt his arrival has given Barcelona more penetration than they already had," Atletico boss Diego Simeone said of Suarez. "He is such an important player, he makes the difference. He has different qualities to the rest. He is strong, a typical No. 9 in the area, he is a very complete player and he has enriched Barcelona.”
Barcelona has not been on top form in January–and for much of this game, was second-best–but the month could not have gone better; Atletico and Real Madrid have both dropped points and been handed transfer bans (though recently suspended over the summer).
Arda Turan has looked excellent and coach Luis Enrique is once again playing down talk of a double-treble, which really would be something.
Elsewhere, Real Madrid beat a patched-up Espanyol side 6-0 with Ronaldo scoring a hat trick. Curiously, eight of his 19 goals this season have come against Espanyol.
There was bad news for Gary Neville at Valencia, who lost 1-0 at home to Sporting. That’s now 11 without a league win (nine of which were under the Englishman). When he arrived, it was challenging for a top-four spot; now it’s five points off the relegation zone.
Mancini unhappy after Milan derby loss
It’s now one win and three losses in Inter Milan’s last six games, which must explain Roberto Mancini’s loss of self-control in his post-match interview with Mediaset. He had already been sent off during the 3-0 loss to rival AC Milan Sunday night, and responded to Mikaela Calcagno’s suggestion that striker Mauro Icardi’s penalty miss–when the score was 1-0–was linked to criticism from Mancini last weekend. “That’s bullsh*t,” he said as he left the interview area. He did confirm he showed his middle finger “to eight or nine [Milan] fans” for which he received the red card.
Inter is as good as out of the Scudetto race, which remains between Napoli (5-1 winners over Empoli) and Juventus (two points back after a 12th win in a row, 4-0 at Chievo). Six points separate four teams in the race for third place, with Milan at the back of the pile but with some momentum after beating Fiorentina last month. Its coach Sinisa Mihajlovic was facing the sack as the year turned; one month later, it’s Mancini who is now under pressure.
End of an era at Chelsea
On a weekend of FA Cup football that was short of shocks, the biggest surprise came after Sunday’s last game when Chelsea captain John Terry told the press that this season would be his last at the club. Coming soon after Jose Mourinho was sacked as coach–and the news that Didier Drogba would return to Montreal and not come back as a coach at the Blues–Terry’s departure marks the end of the last player from the most successful period in the club’s history. Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard, Drogba, Petr Cech have all gone; Terry will be next.
We were left with more questions than answers after Terry, clearly not happy with the decision, told the media following the 5-1 win at MK Dons. Whose decision was it? Why tell him now and not wait until the end of the season? What dressing-room leaders does that leave Chelsea with now? Will it be MLS or China next for the former England captain?
Whatever you may think of Terry–and he has plenty of critics given his track record of off-field misdemeanors–few can argue that he deserves better treatment from the club where he has played 696 matches and won four Premier Leagues, five FA Cups, three League Cups and one Champions League. Terry said that the club told his agent the news over the phone a few weeks ago; not the nicest way to hear it. Yet this is Chelsea, which sacked title-winning coach Carlo Ancelotti over the phone when he was in the tunnel at Goodison Park.
Terry added one astonishing caveat, which may yet signal a turnaround. “They said that when the new manager comes in, things might change. It's a no at the minute. I needed to know now like I have done every January and sometimes it takes a couple of months to get done. Unfortunately it was a no. It's not going to be a fairytale ending, I'm not going to retire at Chelsea.” But things might change? What a bizarre sacking. Essentially the club is saying, “We don't want you, but the new boss might.”
Terry now has time to explore his, no doubt lucrative, options, with China’s Guangzhou Evergrande, coached by ex-Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari, the biggest threat to the MLS. Chelsea’s center back options next season are Kurt Zouma, Gary Cahill, Matt Miazga and Michael Hector. One by one, the leaders have left the club. Given the way Chelsea has handled them, it’s anyone’s guess whether they will ever come back.
The Munich mole is back!
As the countdown to Pep Guardiola’s departure from Munich continues–on the pitch it was an unspectacular 2-0 win over Hoffenheim–the current Bayern is more and more reminiscent of the 1990s version that was nicknamed FC Hollywood. In those days, there was plenty of in-fighting and dressing-room leaks. German magazine Kicker is reporting that today’s Bayern has a mole in the dressing room leaking information and Guardiola is not happy.
“I don't know this anonymous player? Where does he play?” said the Spaniard while insisting there is “no problem” in his squad.
One week after losing Jerome Boateng to a long-term injury, now Javi Martinez is a short-term injury absentee. Serdar Tasci, formerly of Stuttgart, has been brought in as a surprise deadline-day loan arrival from Spartak Moscow. Bayern is eight points up on Dortmund and should still cakewalk to the Bundesliga title, but the dream of ending his three years with the Champions League is now less certain.
Hantz begins rescue act for Montpellier
The last team to win Ligue 1 before Paris Saint-Germain’s period of dominance was Montpellier back in 2012. Since then, its main battles have been further down the table and that explains why Frederic Hantz–a smart, young coach who won promotion with Bastia and was on the radar of some Championship teams–replaced Pascal Baills this week.
Montpellier had lost four in a row, failed to score in 10 games this season and slipped into the bottom three. Hantz made a few tactical tweaks, among them playing two up front and switching Bryan Dabo from right back to midfielder with license to attack. It paid off: Dabo scored twice as Montpellier beat Gazelec 4-0 to move out of the drop zone.
Hantz speaks English and in the future, don't be surprised to see him at a Championship side chasing promotion.
Top three players of the week
Juraj Kucka (AC Milan)
He was the driving force in midfield for AC Milan’s 3-0 derby victory over Inter Milan.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG)
Two late goals from the Swede downed stubborn Saint-Etienne and moved PSG 24 points clear at the top of Ligue 1. PSG is still unbeaten in France, but all that will count for nothing if it loses to Chelsea in the Champions League in two weeks.
Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
This was not Barcelona’s best performance by a long shot, but sometimes tough situations call for true leaders, and Pique was outstanding, as he has been for much of the season, at the back for Barcelona. Time for credit where it’s due.
Top three goals of the week
Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
This was a trademark finish from the Uruguayan in a goal that decisively changes the course of the Spanish title race.
Stephan El-Shaarawy (Roma)
An instinctive and quite brilliant back-heel volley was the perfect way to mark his debut in a 3-1 win over Frosinone.
Alex Sandro (Juventus)
Lichsteiner, to Pogba, to Sandro: a fantastic team goal that might worry the Bayern Munich scouts heading into their Champions League matchup. Juventus has got its game on at the moment. With Napoli and Bayern on the docket in the next three weeks, it needs it.