Around Europe: EPL giants fall; Gary Neville's challenge at Valencia
There were more shocks involving giants in the Premier League on another unpredictable weekend of action, while in Spain, Valencia has a new and intriguing coach in place ahead of a big game this week. Pep Guardiola has some thinking to do after a rare defeat for Bayern Munich, while Lyon is moving into a new stadium in the new year under a cloud. Meanwhile, in Italy, perennial favorite Juventus is back on the upswing after a horrid start to its latest title defense.
Here is what caught our eye this week Around Europe:
Credit to EPL giant slayers Bournemouth, Stoke
Some results make you sit up and take notice, and this was one of them. Down-on-its-luck Bournemouth is one of the stories of this Premier League season: a club that was minutes away from extinction but won promotion through the divisions under English coach Eddie Howe, sticks true to its principles despite losing four key players–Callum Wilson (who was on the verge of an England call-up), captain Tommy Elphick and the club’s two most expensive signings Tyrone Mings, Max Gradel–to long-term injuries in the season’s first few weeks. Oh, and last season’s PFA Player of the Year in the second division, Harry Arter, was missing until November, too.
This Premier League season has been so unpredictable that maybe newly promoted Bournemouth beating Chelsea 1-0 at Stamford Bridge is not such a surprise. But, really, it is. Chelsea may be in a rotten slump and Monday’s papers, understandably, focus on the latest threat to Jose Mourinho’s job: his former club FC Porto comes to London Wednesday and defeat could knock the Blues out of the Champions League.
But what about Bournemouth?
“This result is at the very top,” said Howe. “We’ve never been in the top flight before, so to come to the champions and beat them, it must be the best individual result in the club's history, and I’m very pleased this group have been able to achieve this.”
Mitchell Kaye, a diehard fan who has watched the team home and away for over 20 years, told SI.com: “It was the kind of moment you dream about as a kid and live for your whole footballing life.”
Yet last week’s result was arguably just as impressive as this one. Bournemouth was 2-0 down at home to Everton, and could have been feeling sorry for itself. But the spirit in the squad is strong, and it clawed back to 2-2. On 93 minutes, Ross Barkley scored for Everton, the TV commentator said: ”And he’s surely won it for Everton now!”
Most people would have agreed. But not this group of players: on 95 minutes, Junior Stanislas equalized to earn Bournemouth a point. The result was probably worth more than a point: it gave the side belief, and proved that it has a collective spirit that outshines what we have seen at times from the likes of Newcastle or Aston Villa this season. You can’t buy that in the January transfer window.
Howe is not the first English coach with a predominantly English group of players to win promotion to the Premier League, play nice football, keep the same core of players from lower leagues and impress with his management style. Last season, Sean Dyche did the same with Burnley, which, after 16 games, had an almost identical record: won three, had 15 points, held 17th position in the table. Bournemouth's now reads: played 15, won three, 13 points, position No. 17 in the table.
Burnley was relegated at the end of the season. At this rate, Bournemouth might just avoid that fate.
Chelsea, of course, was not the only big-name casualty in the Premier League over the weekend. Stoke City totally outplayed Manchester City and won 2-0, a score that flattered the title contender. Without Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero, City is a different team, and you fear for its European aspirations if those two players are not fit in spring.
The real story, though, was how Stoke outplayed City in every department, with the front four of Marko Arnautovic, Xherdan Shaqiri, Ibrahim Afellay and Bojan Krkic giving the visiting defense nightmares. This was coach Mark Hughes’s vision come to life (and it helped to embarrass his former team). The days of Stoke as the bruisers are over. The new Stoke is just as tough to beat, but has a new deftness and guile in attack.
Neville ready for Valencia challenge
You could see why Gary Neville did not take charge of the Valencia team for its weekend fixture at home to Barcelona. The Englishman, a surprise choice to replace Nuno Espirito Santo, was only appointed last Wednesday; he met the media on Thursday and watched Saturday’s game against the Spanish champion from up in the stands.
If the plan was to avoid being associated with an embarrassing defeat, it did not work: Valencia was excellent throughout and just about deserved its 1-1 draw against the Spanish champion. Neville would have been encouraged by his new side’s performance and effort–and noted the Valencia fans’ reaction to the caretaker-coach on the sideline, Voro Gonzalez, a former player who has been temporary coach before.
“If the contract is only for six months, why not give it to Voro?” wondered former Valencia captain David Albelda, a sentiment that ex-goalkeeper Santiago Canizares echoed.
Regardless, the first test of Neville’s career as head coach comes in the Champions League on Wednesday, with Valencia needing to beat struggling Lyon (more on that below) and hoping Zenit provides a favor and beats Gent. It’s a pretty important debut match, with £8 million in extra revenue resting on the outcome.
Neville made all the right comments in his press conference, promising to learn Spanish, bring over his whole family, and admitting that Neville the TV pundit would question the appointment of Neville the coach. Fans at the Mestalla can turn pretty quickly on coaches–as they've done on Hector Cuper, Unai Emery and Nuno in the past–but Neville should have some time to win them over.
His first job will be to restore Alvaro Negredo to the team; the Spain forward is one of Valencia’s best players but was inexplicably dropped from the squad by Nuno. Young fullback Ruben Vezo, who struggled against Neymar Saturday (join the club), could benefit from a Neville defending masterclass but there is enough talent in the squad, most of it young, to move up the table.
The plan for Neville is clear; make a success of his six months in Valencia and be in a strong position to potentially replace Roy Hodgson as England coach after Euro 2016 (Neville is already England's assistant coach and will retain that role). If he flops in Valencia, he can blame the mitigating factors of an inherited squad, a new language and a short time to turn things around.
As he said with his typical honesty: “Let’s see how it goes.”
Bayern endures first defeat
Is the title race back on again in Germany? Borussia Dortmund did what Manchester United needs to do in the Champions League Wednesday, winning 2-1 at Wolfsburg, to close the gap at the top of the table to five points. That’s because Bayern Munich lost its first game of the season, going down 3-1 at Borussia Monchengladbach, for whom caretaker-turned-permanent boss Andre Schubert continues to be a miracle-worker.
This was the first time Pep Guardiola had named an unchanged lineup in 99 games as Bayern boss, and it didn't prove fruitful. What went wrong? Exactly the same as what happened in the two Champions League semifinal losses in the last two seasons: Bayern conceded the first goal to a good side and then did not know how to react. Within 14 minutes, Lars Stindl and the prolific Fabian Johnson had turned 1-0 into 3-0.
“We lost control,” said Guardiola after the game.
This is one of the issues that the Spaniard has failed to correct in his time in Bavaria. It’s a tricky challenge, as Bayern is so dominant at home that it rarely happens. But if Bayern is to win the Champions League, it will need to resolve this issue before spring. And even though Dortmund was a bit fortunate to win all three points thanks to Shinji Kagawa's late winner, no, the title race is not really back on at all.
Elsewhere in Germany, the focus will also be on Wolfsburg as it welcomes United needing just a draw to get out of Group B. United needs to win to avoid needing help in CSKA Moscow-PSV, but might not find it easy.
And a note on naughty Marwin Hitz: the Augsburg goalkeeper scuffed up the area just to the left of the penalty spot with the heel of his boot before FC Cologne’s Anthony Modeste took a penalty.
Guess what happened next? That’s right, Modeste slipped as he struck the ball and Hitz saved the spot kick. The keeper later apologized for his behavior and the German FA, who could have charged him for unsportsmanlike behavior, will take no further action.
Lyon limps out of Stade Gerland
It was not supposed to end like this. Lyon’s final Ligue 1 game at Stade Gerland ended in another defeat–its third in four games–and a surreal atmosphere was completed when the fans who booed the players off at the final whistle hung around to watch a firework display and cheer Lyon’s former greats like Juninho Pernambucano and Sonny Anderson on a final lap around the pitch.
Coach Hubert Fournier was training his players on defending corners all week, so couldn't have been happy that the two goals newly promoted (and now second-place) Angers scored in its 2-0 win were both Cheikh Ndoye headers from set pieces. “We will meet, talk, try to think about things and not get carried away,” Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas told beIN Sports when asked about the coach's future. Winger Mathieu Valbuena, however, called recent performances “catastrophic.”
This is practically the same Lyon side that pushed PSG close in the title race last season, and rather than cashing in on young talents like Alexandre Lacazette, Aulas tied them down to lucrative new contracts. It has not worked, and Fournier looks on his way out–and soon. Wednesday, Lyon is the opponent for Neville’s first game as Valencia coach–ironically, if he had the choice of any team in Europe, he might have chosen Lyon–and then Lyon plays PSG. After that, Aulas could well sack Fournier.
Aulas wants a big name to lead Lyon in the new stadium, and Le Parisien reported that former hero Juninho, currently doing his coaching badges, was top of his list. That might be a bit early for the Brazilian, but change is imminent all the same.
Dybala, Juventus on the march
Italy was where the title race was the most open this season, but after five wins in a row, the latest a clinical 2-0 win at Lazio, there is something promising about the form of Juventus at the moment. After 10 games, the reigning champion had only won three matches; it was down in 12th place and 11 points behind leader Roma. Now it’s only one point behind fourth-place Roma and six off the pace set by Serie A-leading Inter.
Juventus has gone back to basics: switching to a back three in defense–at the request of the players–keeping clean sheets (three in a row for league games, four-and-a-half and over seven hours in all) and relying on some individual brilliance for the goals.
In recent weeks, that’s come from Paulo Dybala, the new signing from Palermo who Max Allegri has eased into the side. He’s now undroppable and like Carlos Tevez, is not just there for his goals: he’s scored seven, including both against Lazio (the first took a heavy deflection) and created three more.
Allegri fell out with Alvaro Morata last month, but the pair has made up.
It was in midfield where Allegri earned his money this weekend. With Paul Pogba suspended, the easy option would have been to pick a replacement and ask him to play like Pogba. That’s not possible, though, so he moved Claudio Marchisio into the center, picked Kwadwo Asamoah on the left and Stefan Sturaro on the right. The balance worked but with Dybala–or IncreDybala as Tuttosport called him–in this form, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before Juventus makes up deficit on Inter.
Top three players of the week
Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke)
The winger was too hot to handle for Manchester City and his two passes, the second an incredible defense-splitter, were converted by Marko Arnautovic for a well-deserved win.
Casimir Ninga (Montpellier)
The Montpellier forward came from Chad in the summer for €75,000 and has turned his team’s season around: two goals against Lyon last week and two more in a 2-2 draw at Marseille Sunday. Ninga, 22, is fast, strong and generous with the ball. Remember the name.
Antonio Sanabria (Sporting Gijon)
The 19-year-old Paraguayan striker scored a hat trick for Sporting Gijon in its 3-1 win over Las Palmas. Roma, who has loaned him out, will be happy.
Top three goals of the week
Jessy Pi (Troyes)
Bottom of the table and without a win all season, Troyes has not enjoyed much to cheer about this season. But the French club sneaked a point at Reims thanks to Pi’s tasty volley.
Renato Sanches (Benfica)
You’re 18, your team is 2-0 up at home with a few minutes left and you have the ball 35 yards from goal. Why not try a shot? That’s what Sanches did against Academica, and even his coach looked surprised when the ball powered into the top corner.
Jairo Sampeiro (Mainz)
A dipping volley from a lying-down position set Mainz on the way to a fine win at Hamburg – but not many would have expected Jairo to go for it from there.