Monday November 21st, 2016

European football was back with a bang this weekend after the final international break of the year. The Madrid derby went the way of Cristiano Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane, while Borussia Dortmund beat Bayern Munich as the title race caught fire in Germany. There was a surprise comeback for one of Manchester City’s former heroes in the Premier League, while question marks persist around PSG coach Unai Emery after an injury-hit win over Nantes. In Italy, it was honours even in a dramatic Milan derby. Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week.

Monday November 21st, 2016

What a weekend for Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane. Just hours after Barcelona dropped points at home to Malaga – denied by inspired goalkeeper Carlos Kameni, it drew a Camp Nou blank for the first time in nearly two years – the league leader beat Atlético Madrid 3-0 in the final derby at the Vincente Calderon stadium. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick, timed well given the Ballon D’Or voting expires soon, but for once the headlines went to someone else: Zidane.

The build-up focused on how Atlético coach Diego Simeone would use his tactical nous to out-smart his opposite number. Simeone has changed Atletico’s approach this season, playing two strikers and two wingers in a far more attacking approach. Zidane was without midfielders Casemiro and Toni Kroos, while Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos were deemed not fit enough to start.

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That forced Zidane’s hand. He played Ronaldo as center forward, put Isco in his preferred position as number ten just behind, and picked Gareth Bale and Lucas Vasquez as wide midfielders in a hard-working midfield. The move came off, as Isco put in his best performance in a Madrid shirt and Ronaldo scored with a deflected free-kick, a penalty and a close-range finish late on. 

Atlético only threatened early in the second half, when Carrasco and Griezmann had chances. Despite not impressing for large parts of the season, Madrid remains unbeaten for the whole campaign, 29 matches, is now four points clear of Barcelona, which it faces in a fortnight, and is now nine ahead of Atlético. Madrid’s first Liga title since 2012 is in its own hands. Those who sneered at the appointment of Zidane are a little quieter now. 

Simeone, meanwhile, might have to revise his targets this season. Missing out on the Champions League next season would be unthinkable given the club’s plans to move into a new stadium. Currently the team is down in sixth, after Sevilla pulled back a 2-0 deficit to beat Deportivo, and Villarreal and Real Sociedad picked up points. “It’s never good to lose,” he said after a third loss in four games. The stylistic change might have harmed Atlético this season. Should Simone have changed its style? 

Monday November 21st, 2016

At last we have a bona fide title race in the Bundesliga: RB Leipzig maintained its unbeaten start with a dramatic 3-2 win over Bayer Leverkusen and in doing so, knocked Bayern Munich off top spot for the first time in 425 days. Bayern had a chance to leapfrog the upstart on Saturday, but went down 1-0 to Borussia Dortmund, so allowing it back in the race. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang scored Dortmund’s winning goal, which was created by Mario Goetze, who moved from Dortmund to Bayern, and back again.

 

It doesn't take much to create ‘Bayern in crisis’ headlines and even though it played pretty well, and had its own chances – Franck Ribery back-heeled in an effort but was offside while Xabi Alonso hit a shot from range that rattled the crossbar – there is an air of concern around the club at the moment. Carlo Ancelotti’s decision to take off Philipp Lahm did not go down well (with Lahm, at least) and the lack of apparent strategy, especially compared to teams like Dortmund and RB Leipzig, was emphasized by Ancelotti’s mournful stance on the touchline. “Are the world-class players at Bayern not actually world-class, but we just thought they were under Guardiola?” asked Suddeutsche Zeitung. 

RB Leipzig is now three points clear of Bayern, who in turn is three points ahead of a pack of five teams, Dortmund among them. This win eases some pressure off Thomas Tuchel, who warned that RB Leipzig must be considered a contender as it could do a Leicester this season. We will know more after December 21: that’s when the unlikely top two face each other for a match that will tell us more about their credentials. 

Monday November 21st, 2016

Talk about making an impact: this was Yaya Touré’s first league appearance of the season and he scored both goals in Manchester City’s 2-1 win. He won’t be in action in the Champions League Wednesday night, as he was omitted from City’s squad after the summer fall-out between coach Pep Guardiola and the player’s agent Dmitry Seluk. Guardiola banned Touré from playing unless Seluk apologised for comments he made to the media. It was Touré who made the first move, apologizing via Facebook last week and earning an immediate reprieve. He had been training with the first team and has lost the weight that Guardiola complained about in the summer. 

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Touré can now provide City with another dimension in midfield, even if he is no longer the powerhouse that dominated matches in City’s title win in 2012. His presence will allow Guardiola to rotate Kevin de Bruyne (who has taken on Toure’s match-winning mantle), Ilkay Gündogan and Fernando around the busy Christmas period. And then Guardiola will have two decisions to make: one, will he put Touré in his Champions League squad for the knockout phase if City makes it? And two, with the player’s contract up next summer, is there a potential way back for an extension at the Etihad or is it too late for that? 

Monday November 21st, 2016

As fan displays go, the effort from AC Milan’s tifosi to depict former owner Silvio Berlusconi surrounded by the trophies the club has won looked impressive. Milan’s sale to a Chinese consortium is set to be ratified next month, and so Sunday’s Derby della Madonnina against city rival Inter was to be Berlusconi’s last at the helm. It was also an opportunity to kick Inter when it’s down; with Frank de Boer sacked, this was new coach Stefano Pioli’s first game in charge, and a Milan win would have put 11 points between the two.

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It did not quite work out like that. Pioli made a few smart changes – restoring Geoffrey Kondogbia to the line-up, playing Joao Mario as number ten and picking Gary Medel at centre-back – and Inter was the better side in the first half, at least until Suso scored on the break for Milan. Inter hit back in the second half, but Suso doubled his tally, leaving Inter chasing an equaliser. It came in injury-time, Ivan Perisic leveling up from a corner to delirious celebrations. Milan coach Vincenzo Montella later said that Inter celebrating a last-minute draw like they had won the game was a sign of how well his side is doing. But there is more to be done: Milan may be joint-second with Roma but this is an open league and only two points separate the five sides behind leader Juventus. Inter is in the group behind that, and with Pioli in charge, has time to challenge them too. 

Monday November 21st, 2016

You can have all the talent in the world but sometimes your face just does not fit. That was how Portuguese centre-back Rolando felt (perhaps without all the talent) when Marseille’s ex-coach Franck Passi told him in the summer to look for a new club. It was only a lack of interest from other clubs that kept him in the south. Midway through his two-year contract, Rolando played for seven minutes this season under Passi – during which time Marseille conceded an equalizer to Angers.

The appointment of Rudi Garcia as new coach on October 20 changed everything. His first match was against PSG and he had no time to prepare his team. During his time at Roma, Rolando had been at Inter and Garcia knew that he could play in a back three if required. He started the game, Marseille drew 0-0 and Rolando was back. Another goalless draw followed, then a defeat to Montpellier, but Sunday Marseille finally won under Garcia: Rolando’s late header beating Caen. 

Rolando has now become one of Garcia’s trusted players. “I always thought he was a hard man but he is nice,” Rolando said of Garcia after the game. “He sees the personal relationship with his players as very important.” Marseille is still in the bottom half of the table, but a first league win under Garcia has them moving in the right direction. It could be a busy January at the Velodrome. 

Monday November 21st, 2016

Top three goals of the week:

Marcel Risse (FC Cologne): A last-minute free-kick winner from the German midfielder which seemed to gain speed as it flew into the top corner. Cologne is still joint-third after beating Gladbach away.

Hernanes (Juventus): The Prophet has not found his best form since leaving Inter Milan for Turin but this was a reminder of what he can do as the champion-elect maintained its seven-point lead at the top.

Kasper Dolberg (Ajax): Remember the name: The Danish teenager scored a fantastic first goal in Ajax’s 5-0 win over NEC Nijmegen. He scored two more in the first half. Just don’t call him the new Zlatan.

Players of the week

Carlos Kameni (Malaga): The goalkeeper shut out Barcelona at home with some astonishing saves, including two late on that left the home fans rubbing their eyes in disbelief.

Robin van Persie (Fenerbahce): The Dutch striker recovered from a nasty eye injury and scored twice as Fener beat Galatasaray 2-0 in the Istanbul derby.

Yaya Touré (Manchester City): The Ivorian midfielder has come in from the cold and scored two goals to remind Pep Guardiola how valuable he can be.

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