Monday December 12th, 2016

With one week to go ahead of the winter break for many of Europe’s top leagues, these are tense times around the continent, and as always there were some dramatic moments over the weekend.

In the Premier League, reigning champion Leicester City stunned Manchester City led by a resurgent Jamie Vardy, while Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos was up to his old habits with another important late goal. Struggling German club Hamburg is hoping a change at the top will herald a change of fortunes on the pitch, while PSG dropped two points at home to title rival Nice. In Italy, Juventus beat local rival Turin ahead of next week’s showdown against Roma. 

Of course, the matches this weekend were overshadowed by the shocking explosions and scenes of terror outside of Besiktas's stadium in Istanbul, where 38 have been pronounced dead and another 155 wounded. The football world will send best wishes to all of those affected.

Here is a look at the latest Around Europe:

Monday December 12th, 2016

The last English team to be crowned champion and then relegated the following season was Manchester City back in 1938. Talk before Saturday's game was of how Leicester was in danger of repeating that strange feat, and coach Claudio Ranieri had strong words after the club's 5-0 Champions League defeat at Porto.

The loss of N’Golo Kante in midfield is one of the reasons for Leicester’s poor form; his absence gives the defense less cover and the back four played further from goal and been caught out as a result. The other two star performers of last season, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, have failed to hit the same heights as teams play deep against their pace. 

As Vardy admitted after the much-needed 4-2 win game, City was the perfect opponent for Leicester. It played high up and allowed Leicester to attack on the break. This was the Leicester of last season; fast and decisive on the counter, 2-0 up inside five minutes and backed by a raucous home support. Two late City goals put a gloss on the score line. 

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As for City, Pep Guardiola’s side has kept two clean sheets in its 15 games, and there was bafflement among the English press when the Spaniard, responding to the fact that City did not make a single tackle in the opening 35 minutes, reportedly replied: “I’m not a coach for the tackles. What’s tackles?”

The Pep doubters see this current run as proof of the Premier League’s superiority. If anything, it only highlights how bad City’s defense is, and continues to be. 

Monday December 12th, 2016

Sergio Ramos scored in the last minute again for Real Madrid–just as he did against Barcelona–and this time it was for the winning goal in a nerve-wracking triumph over Deportivo de La Coruña. In England they call it Fergie time, but in Spain it’s becoming known as Ramos o’clock, the time when the Spanish center back comes up with important goals. The win keeps Real Madrid atop La Liga and gave coach Zinedine Zidane a new club record of 35 games unbeaten.

Across town, there was a sign that authentic rival Atletico Madrid is entering a new phase of its history with an updated logo and, more significantly, the announcement that its new stadium will be called the Wanda Metropolitano.

Chinese business Wanda Group bought 20% of Atletico, while the club’s first stadium, where it played from 1923 to 1966, was the Stadium Metropolitano de Madrid. “It’s a name full of history and future,” said president Enrique Cerezo, while chief executive Angel Gil Marin made the announcement from Beijing.

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Fans were not so happy with the decision, though. A poll in Marca showed the majority wanted the stadium named after former coach Luis Aragones, while others wanted the New Calderon.

“Maybe someday I can tell my grandfather I played at the Metropolitano,” said Fernando Torres, going slightly off-script by dropping the sponsor name.

Atletico used to relish its position as an underdog, and embody the cholismo spirit of coach Diego Simeone. Speculation continues to swirl over his future, with the Argentine confirming that at some point in his career that he’d like to coach Inter Milan. But this new development shows just how far the club has come in his five years at the helm.

Real Madrid may be off to Asia this week to play in the Club World Cup, but Atletico’s Wanda partnership, thanks in part to the success under Simeone, has made the latest incarnation of the club a very modern parable.

Monday December 12th, 2016

A 3-1 win over Torino for Juventus suggests this was a walk in the park for the Serie A leader, but nothing could be further from the truth.

Torino continued its impressive performances under coach Sinisa Mihajlovic and took the lead through striker Andrea Bellotti, who had a €100 million release clause put in his contract last week. That’s almost how much Gonzalo Higuain cost Juventus, and he repaid the fee with two goals to put Juve ahead. Miralem Pjanic added a late third to extend Juve’s lead at the top–at least before Roma plays AC Milan Monday–to seven points.

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Joe Hart made a series of good saves for Torino and was described as “Robin Hood against destiny” by Tuttosport newspaper. Juventus, and "Speedy Gonzalo" [so says Corriere dello Sport], await Monday’s battle between second and third, Roma and AC Milan, with interest. With Roma playing against Juventus next week, the title race, for all intents and purposes, could be all over then. 

Monday December 12th, 2016

Even Nice coach Lucien Favre looked surprised. It was one minute before halftime at Parc des Princes when Dalbert swung a hopeful cross into the center, where PSG’s Brazilian duo Thiago Silva and Marquinhos somehow both failed to deal with it; the ball spun to Alassane Plea, who tucked it into the far corner to put the visitor, which was without the injured Mario Balotelli, 2-0 up over the reigning French champion.

Minutes earlier, Edinson Cavani had a similar chance, from slightly closer range, but had somehow scuffed his shot. PSG was already chasing the game after Wylan Cyprien’s superb free kick had broken the deadlock. PSG goalkeeper Alphonse Areola went into the game under pressure after being preferred to Kevin Trapp by coach Unai Emery–after a spell of conceding five goals in a run of five shots he faced–but he could do nothing to stop Cyprien’s masterpiece.

PSG recovered from the 2-0 halftime deficit, and two close-range goals for Cavani made it 2-2. The Uruguayan continues to be a divisive figure even though his goals tally, 21 in as many games, is unarguable. If PSG does recruit in January, it’s likely to be a center forward rather than defensive cover.

This result leaves PSG four points off Nice, and still three behind free-scoring Monaco, who smashed Bordeaux 4-0 away from home. It’s now three games without a win for the second time this season to make it an uncomfortable period for Emery, whose side lost its top place in Champions League Group A after failing to beat Ludogorets at home in midweek and was punished by drawing Barcelona in the round of 16. 

Monday December 12th, 2016

Just as Hamburg started to turn things around on the pitch, there is a major change off it.

Club chairman Dietmar Beiersdorfer was sacked Sunday, just after the team, which has never been relegated from the Bundesliga, won its second match in a row to extend an unbeaten run to four games (not quite at Real Madrid's level but it’s now at least out of the automatic relegation spots). Heribert Bruchhagen, who left Eintracht Frankfurt in the summer, is the new man in charge, and his big change will be to appoint a sporting director in time for January. Beiersdorfer was fulfilling that role himself, as he was unable to agree a deal with Horst Heldt, the former Schalke sporting director.

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This was Beiersdorfer’s third spell at the club: first as a player from 1986-1992; then as sports director from 2002-09, when he helped Hamburg into the Europa League. Those days look a long way off now.

So who does Bruchhagen want to hire soon to help Hamburg in the winter market? According to Kicker, none other than Heldt himself. Timing could be of the essence, though. News broke Monday that Wolfsburg sporting director Klaus Allofs has also been fired, and Heldt is on its list too (as is former Karlsruhe's Jens Todt, and ex-Bayern director Matthias Sammer).

At the other end of the table, there was a sense of normal service resuming, as Bayern Munich beat relegation-threatened Wolfsburg 5-0 while RB Leipzig lost its unbeaten record by losing to coach Ralph Hussenhutl’s former side Ingolstadt. 

Monday December 12th, 2016

Top three goals of the week

Jeff Hendrick (Burnley): An impressive chest and volley from the midfielder on the way to his team’s win over Bournemouth.

Arjen Robben (Bayern): The tried and trusted Robben move, cutting in from the right and unleashing a drive into the far corner. He makes it looks simple.

Lionel Messi (Barcelona): Messi dribbled past three opponents and still found time and space to dummy his shot to send another defender sprawling before scoring yet another beauty.

Top three players of the week

Jamie Vardy (Leicester): A hat trick for the England striker, who put in a performance on a par with his 2015-16 form.

Radamel Falcao (Monaco): Another hat trick, this time for the in-form Monaco front-man, who will hope this run continues into February and the showdown with Manchester City.

Vicente Iborra (Sevilla): Sevilla is solidly ensconced in third place in La Liga, and its 3-0 win at Celta Vigo was inspired by Iborra, who was wanted by Sunderland in the summer. The midfielder came on at halftime and scored three goals to justify coach Jorge Sampaoli’s faith in him.

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