Monday September 26th, 2016

There were plenty of more storylines to develop across Europe this past week as Chelsea’s defensive problems under Antonio Conte continue–much to the delight of a milestone-setting Arsene Wenger. In Spain there was a surprise hero for upwardly mobile Athletic Bilbao, which finds itself in contention with the perennial heavyweights. In France, new PSG boss Unai Emery is under pressure again after another defeat, while on-loan goalkeeper Joe Hart is becoming a cult hero among Torino fans in Italy.

Meanwhile, in Germany, Borussia Dortmund won again, bringing its total goal tally in its last four games to 20 ahead of an intriguing challenge this week against reigning Champions League winner Real Madrid.

Here’s what caught our eye this weekend around Europe:

The last time Arsene Wenger celebrated a milestone as coach, the Arsenal boss was celebrating game No. 1,000 on the bench and his opponent was Chelsea, who ended up winning 6-0. That was over two years ago, and Wenger is still standing. It was appropriate, then, that Arsenal’s opponent to mark the 20-year anniversary of his taking charge was Chelsea.

More than any other team, Chelsea has marked Wenger’s reign; first as one of the many teams Arsenal beat during the glorious first half of his tenure with the Gunners; then, after Roman Abramovich bought the Blues and Arsenal cut its cloth to finance a new stadium move, as a symbol of ‘financial doping’ that Wenger rejected. Wenger rose above Jose Mourinho’s ‘win at all costs’ mantra and a recent book released about the Portuguese coach suggests that the animosity between the two was not just for the cameras.

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So after Arsenal swatted aside Antonio Conte’s Chelsea 3-0 in a dominant performance at the Emirates–ending a winless run of nine Premier Leauge matches over five years against the Blues–Wenger allowed himself extra satisfaction. Even Gunners fans still split on Wenger could agree that the first-half performance was close to perfection; Alexis Sanchez pressed Gary Cahill into giving the ball away for the first goal, the irrepressible Mesut Ozil volleyed in a second and Alex Iwobi and Theo Walcott combined for a delightful third. This was the performance that lives long in the memory for a romantic like Wenger; it also makes all those stressful moments worthwhile.

This will not affect his future at Arsenal. Wenger is in the final year of his contract and many still believe his presence is holding back the club. The only person who will choose what happens next, though, is Wenger himself. The Arsenal board thinks he has earned that right after the last 20 years. In any other business environment, it would be impossible to agree. 

6-0. 6-0. 5-1. 3-1. No, this is not a Davis Cup update, but the scores of Borussia Dortmund’s last four games. It is surely Europe’s most in-form club at the moment and takes on Real Madrid in the Champions League match of the week on Tuesday. This is an opportunity for the German side to make a statement against the reigning champion, whom it beat in the 2013 Champions League semifinal.

Once again, a busy summer of transfers saw some of its star players depart–the likes of Mats Hummels, Ilkay Gundogan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan–but the new faces, as always, seem to settle just fine. This is credit to the work of sporting director Michael Zorc and head coach Thomas Tuchel.

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Tuchel has been rotating his front line so far this season, to allow the likes of Ousmane Dembele to settle into the new side. Despite losing to RB Leipzig last month–for whom Scottish winger Oliver Burke scored this weekend–once again Dortmund represents the biggest threat to Bayern this season. How it gets on against Madrid could be an indication of its European capabilities as well.

It did not take long for Joe Hart to win over the Torino fans following his loan move from Manchester City.

At his first press conference earlier this month, he spoke some Italian and explained he was learning football phrases first. He also called coach Sinisa Mihajlovoc ‘Mister,’ as all players do in Italy. Ahead of Torino’s first big test of the season, a home tie against Roma, fans unfurled a banner showing Hart against a City backdrop. The goalkeeper may not want to be reminded of the club that has released him, but he did not show it.

Instead, Hart blocked an early effort from his former City teammate Edin Dzeko and then roared on his teammates as they won 3-1, with Torino’s loanee from Roma, Iago Falque, scoring twice. An image of Hart celebrating with his four defenders suggests he has settled in well.

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“He is a great guy and a wonderful professional, an international level goalkeeper with great charisma. His presence makes the rest of the team feel more confident,” Mihajlovic said after the game. "This was our best performance of the season: I saw 11 bulls out there today. We scored three goals, hit the woodwork and created another four or five clear-cut chances. We allowed Roma very little, so it was a deserved victory.”

This experience should improve Hart as a player, and who knows, maybe even encourage other British players to step out of their comfort zone and play abroad. 

You don't often hear games at Ludogorets in Bulgaria described as must-win, but that’s the situation in which Unai Emery finds himself after his PSG side 2-0 lost to Toulouse on Friday. These are tricky times for the Spaniard, with the French champion four points behind first-place Nice and having already lost twice this season, the same amount as it had in 38 league games last year.

PSG looked good against Arsenal in Europe earlier this month, but PSG is no longer–at least not at the moment–the dominant force it has been in recent years. This can only be a good thing for Ligue 1, which feels a little more open this season–that is, until PSG improves.

Le Parisien suggested that the club misses Zlatan Ibrahimovic “for his influence on the group, his efficiency in front of goal and his ability to unlock tight games.” PSG is now “Cavani-dependent” as the new attacking players are still bedding in: Jese Rodriguez was on the bench in Toulouse, and Hatem Ben Arfa was omitted from the squad again. PSG players were shocked that Emery has dropped Ben Arfa for his physical condition in recent weeks, though the winger will return for Wednesday’s Champions League tie.

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Angel di Maria has lost his form, Marco Verratti is often injured, Serge Aurier may be headed to prison for two months, Thiago Motta is struggling to adapt to Emery’s requirements in midfield while Lucas Moura, according to ex-PSG winger Jerome Rothen, “is not doing what he’s supposed to.” The likelihood is that Emery will survive the week and PSG will return to the top spot in France; but for now, the clouds of dissent are hovering, and for the rest of the league, there is a chance to compete.  

Athletic Bilbao left back Mikel Balenziaga had a match to remember in his side’s 3-1 win over Sevilla Sunday. It was game No. 332 as a professional, his 129th with Athletic. With the score at 1-1, Balenziaga set off on a dribble, rounded his marker and fired the ball into the far corner of Salvatore Sirigu’s net with aplomb. If Balenziaga didn't quite look like he had embarked on a goal celebration before, it was for good reason. This was his first score in 10 years as a professional player.

Athletic went on to win the game 3-1–a fourth successive victory that lifts it into fourth place, into Champions League contention–but for Balenziaga, it was not the goal that was significant.

“The joy that my teammates showed towards me, that was what was really special,” he said of the locker room ovation he received after the game.

These are exciting times at Athletic, a club that famously only hires Basque-born players, a policy it would rather be relegated with than change. The club is in the Europa League this season but with more performances like this at its new San Mames home, it could be targeting the Champions League next season. 

Top three goals of the week

Simone Verdi (Bologna)

As the cross comes over from the left, you think there’s no way this is going to end up in a goal; the player is too far from goal, the angle is not ideal, but then Simone Verdi swings his foot at the ball and delivers a stunning opener in Bologna's midweek win over Sampdoria.

Bertrand Traore (Ajax)

Chelsea’s on-loan forward scored Ajax’s fourth goal in a 5-1 win over Zwolle, and it was the pick of the bunch: a super dribble and clever finish after a pass from Hakim Ziyech.

James Maddison (Aberdeen)

This was a last-minute free kick to win the game against Rangers. It looked like the angle would be too difficult for Maddison, but his effort was spectacular.

Top three players of the week

Alban Lafont (Toulouse): The 17-year-old goalkeeper made two stunning stops to deny Edinson Cavani as PSG suffered another shock defeat.

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (Bayer Leverkusen): With scores with left foot and right foot (with a deflection) and an injury time header, the Mexican striker turned in a perfect hat trick to see off Mainz 3-2.

Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund): It’s not just Pep Guardiola who moves players around. Guerreiro was signed by Dortmund as a left back but impressed against Freiburg in midfield, from where he scored the last goal of the game in BVB’s 3-1 win. 

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