Monday September 12th, 2016

Pep Guardiola and his side won the first big derby of the Premier League season as Manchester City beat Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford, kicking off a notable weekend of results around Europe. Outside of England, there was a shock in the Bundesliga, as title contender Borussia Dortmund lost, while in Spain, Barcelona displayed its new depth but was stunningly beaten at home, falling to promoted Alaves.

Meanwhile, two Italian players with very different career paths had matches to remember, as Mario Balotelli and Francesco Totti made headlines in their respective leagues.

Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week, beginning with Super Mario and the start of his return to on-field relevance:

All eyes were in southern France Sunday, as Mario Balotelli became Nice’s latest player reborn. Last season it was Hatem Ben Arfa, whose 17 goals earned him a move to PSG. And even though coach Lucien Favre said Balotelli might not even make the bench for the derby against Marseille, he started–and starred in a dramatic 3-2 win.

It took the Italian seven minutes to make his mark, scoring a penalty in typically nerveless fashion–despite Marseille captain Bafetimbi Gomis trying to put him off before he struck the ball. The visitors equalized soon after and Gomis put them ahead, also from the spot, with 18 minutes to go. That was the cue for Balotelli to step up again, heading home Ricardo Pereira’s cross from close range to level the score.

A crazy game was complete when Wylan Cyprien launched a 25-yard goal two minutes from time that caught Yoann Pele flat-footed.

Before the game, Balotelli told French station Canal Plus that joining Liverpool was the worst decision of his life. “Apart from the fans, who were fantastic, and some players who I got on really well with, I didn't like the club,” he told former France midfielder Olivier Dacourt. “I had two coaches, with Rodgers and Klopp for a short time, but neither their methods nor their personality left me with a good impression. I never really felt right there.”

(And after the game he was treated to one of the weirdest post-match interviews, while on the massage table)

Balotelli also said that he believes he can still win the Ballon D’Or, which for players of his generation, sadly seems to be more prestigious than any team-based title. His performance Sunday was a million miles from that, but if he continues to show his undoubted talent on the French Riviera, then Nice will be a compelling team to watch this season.  

The biggest game of the Premier League season finally lived up to the hype.

It was billed as Pep Guardiola vs. Jose Mourinho, good vs. evil, the philosopher against the pragmatist. In the end, City deservedly won 2-1, and the change of style and identity that Guardiola has affected at City in such a short space of time should put other coaches to shame.

Typically, Mourinho had nothing to do with the result, as he put the blame squarely on his players. “I told them at halftime that some of them were doing exactly what I told them not to do," he said after the game. "I think some of the boys felt the dimension of the game, everything around it, the derby, the focus, the attention. Maybe in the next big game I know who can accept that well; it’s very important.”

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EPL Notes: Manchester City seizes chance in first derby of the Guardiola-Mourinho era

There were also some learnings for Guardiola: goalkeeper Claudio Bravo will take time to adjust to a new league, as he showed in his uneven debut. He flapped at a cross, which allowed Zlatan Ibrahimovic to score, and he was lucky not to be sent off and concede a penalty for a reckless slide into Wayne Rooney while attempting to recover a ball he'd lost with a poor touch. He can take solace in the face that other goalkeepers–Hugo Lloris and David de Gea among them–have also started slowly in this league.

Even more significant is that City, such sharp operators in the final third, can clearly cope without Sergio Aguero, who has carried the team far too often on his own in previous seasons. In short order, Guardiola has already improved the team and its individuals. Kevin de Bruyne put in his early claim for the league’s Player of the Year award, while holding on for the win in the second half away from home showed a steeliness that has been questioned in the past.

City’s Champions League campaign gets underway Tuesday at home to Borussia Monchengladbach. In the past, City fans have had a distant relationship with the competition, as if believing that it doesn't quite belong in the top tier.

That could all change now. Guardiola has already lifted the team to another level.

Winning back-to-back league and cup doubles and a Champions League title can buy you a grace period. Barcelona coach Luis Enrique took the blame for his side’s surprise first defeat of the season, a 2-1 loss at home to promoted Alaves, and for once, there was some sympathy for his situation.

“I’m the most responsible for results and I accept [the criticism],” he said. “Everything bad that happens is my fault, but it’s easy to criticize with hindsight. This season we don’t just move forward with 11 players, we move forward with 22.”

That last comment went some way to explaining the result. Last season, the consensus was that Barcelona missed out on another European title because the side was not rotated enough during the season, and that the key players were shattered when the big games came around. Barcelona’s summer moves were designed to improve the squad depth, which Luis Enrique wanted to utilize after an international week. So Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Andres Iniesta all started on the bench, Gerard Pique, Sergi Roberto and Jordi Alba were rested.

“The problem wasn't with the rotations, but with not playing well,” wrote Luis Rojo in Marca.  

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The front line of Arda Turan, Paco Alcacer and Neymar did not work: Arda played like he did last season (not well), Alcacer has only had two training sessions with the squad and Neymar seemed to sense it, going for the individual rather than the more obvious pass.

Errors at the back did not help–Javier Mascherano was at fault for Deyverson’s first goal–but this is just a blip for Barcelona, nothing more. It also happened early last season, when a 4-1 loss at Celta Vigo served as a wake-up call.

Barcelona will be at full strength Tuesday in the Champions League against Celtic, which will be hoping normal service doesn't resume just yet.

Remember last season when coach Luciano Spalletti came in midway through the campaign and dropped Francesco Totti to the bench? It seemed then that the end was close for the Roma legend.

Not so fast.

Totti is 39 and has developed into a rather useful super-sub, as he proved again against Sampdoria. Brought on in torrential conditions with his side 2-1 down, his wonderful through-ball, a first-time volley over the top of the defense, set up Edin Dzeko’s equalizer, before he stood over a penalty to win the game on 93 minutes.

“That was the first time I've ever felt afraid of taking a penalty,” he said after coolly converting the spot kick.

He has now scored five goals and set up three more in his last eight appearances, with Sunday’s goal ensuring he has scored in Serie A for 23 seasons running. Incredible!

Sampdoria's president, film director Massimo Ferrero, was not so enamoured. He suggested that Dzeko had dived for the spot kick.

“What an actor he is, I will have to get him for one of my comedy films,” he told the press after the game.

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The newspapers, however, took a different approach.

"The Totti flag is flying" ran Gazzetta dello Sport while Corriere dello Sport’s front page had Totti asking: “And I’m supposed to retire?”

He turns 40 in three weeks, but is clearly showing that age is just a number.

Even the disrupters can get disrupted from time to time. Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel is, in management-speak, a rule-breaker who does not conform to traditional coaching stereotypes. His young side met its match at Red Bull Arena, where newly-promoted RB Leipzig scored a last-minute goal to win 1-0.

The pre-match talk may have been about the fans, with BVB supporters claiming they would boycott the match in protest at Red Bull’s corporate structure. On the pitch, though, the host was a deserving winner, with three of its new signings taking the plaudits: Timo Werner was a constant threat up front, and the 20-year-old German forward, who has been compared to a young Wayne Rooney, is already benefiting from a move away from hometown club Stuttgart.

The two players who combined for the winning goal also had points to prove: Oliver Burke is a Scottish teenager who started this season with four goals for Nottingham Forest before a deadline-day move to Germany. BBC pundit John Hartson described his move as one “that stinks of agents” and said he would be better off at Burnley or Sunderland. Burke came off the Leipzig bench and crossed for the last-minute winner.

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After the game, he hit back at Hartson: “I hope (my performance today) does shut him up,” Burke told reporters after the game. “Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but I know I've made the best decision of my life.”

Learning a new language, and developing his game in a different league, is bound to make Burke a better player. 

The beneficiary of Burke’s cross was midfielder Naby Keita, another fantastic signing from a club that has high ambitions. Keita moved to Germany from Red Bull Salzburg, which caused much consternation in Austria. The Salzburg club has failed to make the Champions League group stage for nine seasons running and is now seen as a feeder club to its Bundesliga partner. Players and fans are not happy with that situation at all: but after two games of the season, it’s fair to say that Red Bull Leipzig needs to be taken seriously.

Top three goals of the week

Michail Antonio (West Ham): A fourth headed goal this season for the recent England call-up, but this was all about Dmitri Payet, whose rabona cross was inch-perfect.

Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus): A scissor-kick volley into the top corner takes the Argentine’s tally to three in as many games as the chat about his physical condition has gone quiet.

Raul Garcia (Athletic Bilbao): A blast from distance from the Athletic midfielder which was enough to win the game at Deportivo and get the Bilbao club off the mark for the season.

Top three players of the week

Joel Pohjanpalo (Bayer Leverkusen): The Finnish forward came off the bench to score a 15-minute hat-trick in his side’s 3-1 win over Hamburg. Remember the name: he could be a star of the future.

Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City): The Belgian midfielder looks like the best player in the Premier League at the moment: he scored one and hit the post twice in City’s win at Old Trafford. This could be a huge season for him.

Francesco Totti (Roma): Another dramatic performance from the young 39-year-old, who continued his habit of game-changing cameos from the bench.

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