In this week's Around Europe, Ben Lyttleton talks Leicester City's title run, Cholo Simeone's importance to Atletico Madrid, Edinson Cavani's PSG frustration and more.
Leicester City, the Premier League’s surprise side, is still leading the standings in England. A goal-heavy weekend in Spain saw all six forwards at Barcelona and Real Madrid score in the same round of matches for the first time. There was a big coaching change in Italy, and in France, the future of Paris Saint-Germain's big-name striker is still up in the air.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this weekend:
Leicester City deserves its shot at the title
A fixture between English football’s two most successful clubs, Liverpool and Manchester United, normally dominates any weekend, but that wasn't the case this time around. Sunday's match was merely a game between the sixth- and ninth-best sides in England this season, and it looked like it. In a game short of drama, Wayne Rooney scored United’s only goal in a 1–0 win, leaving coach Louis van Gaal to declare that his team could go on and win the title this season.
If United manages that, something went seriously wrong at Manchester City (six points ahead) and Arsenal (seven points), not to mention joint-leaders Leicester City. The Foxes would have been out on their own at the top of the table had Riyad Mahrez not missed a first-half penalty in their 1–1 draw with bottom club Aston Villa; as it stands, Leicester is tied with Arsenal with 44 points, one point ahead of Manchester City.
Leicester won 1–0 at Spurs in midweek, and despite that being its only win in the last five league games, City is not in a false position in the league. Coach Claudio Ranieri has set a new target for the second-half of the season: to better the 39 points for the first half. (At the start of the season, the total was 40 to avoid relegation.) Seventy-nine points would go close to winning the title.
In England, all the talk is of other clubs that were in contention after 22 games but fell away: Leeds United in 1999–2000 finished third, Newcastle in '01–02 ended fourth, Charlton Athletic in '03–04 was seventh, and Bolton, in '06–07, finished seventh. Over in France, though, the rise of Leicester is taken far more seriously. As recently as 2011–12, Montpellier was second going into the winter break and in the second half of the season, and instead of slipping down the table, it took on PSG and came out on top. That should be the example that Ranieri points to for his players. It might not be easy, but it’s not impossible.
Cholo Simeone so important to Atletico Madrid
This weekend was the first time in over a year that three big-name forwards at Barcelona and Real Madrid all scored in the same round of matches. For Real, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo all scored in Madrid’s 5–1 win over Sporting, inspiring Spain's Diario AS to go with the headline ‘Perfection Exists.' For Barcelona, meanwhile, it was Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar each getting on the scoresheet in a 6–0 win over Athletic Bilbao, the side that beat Barcelona, 5–1, on aggregate in the Super Cup at the start of the season.
Both clubs, though, remain behind leader Atletico Madrid, which beat Las Palmas, 3–0, and continues to prove that defenses, and not strikers, win league titles. Atletico's stingy defense has conceded only eight goals in 20 games, far fewer than Barcelona (15) and Real Madrid (19). Wins aside, though, this has been a tough week for the Madrid sides, with FIFA’s transfer ban potentially throwing January and summer plans into disarray. But the line from Atletico is ‘No Panic.’ Atletico manager Cholo Simeone has increased his squad size from 20 to 24, and the group of talented young players breaking though—Jose Gimenez (20), Saul Niguez (21), Angel Correa (20), and Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco and Luciano Vietto (both 22)—suggests an exciting future ahead.
Reports in England have suggested the ban will help Chelsea in its efforts to recruit Simeone as manager for next season. That brings two questions to mind: Is the Argentine the type of coach to leave his club at the first sign of trouble, and are his methods transferable to another team? Simeone is a part of Atletico history: He was captain of the team that won the league and Cup double in 1995–96, and since his return four years ago, he has instilled ‘Atleticismo’ mentality into the players, the fans and the club. He has made them proud of their team again, and for all the talk of underdog status, Atletico has undeniably broken the hegemony of Spain’s big two. Would he have the same success at Chelsea, where coaches are known not to stay very long? Would he even want it, given that toppling the big boys is what he has enjoyed for so long? It’s rare to see much loyalty among players and coaches these days, but Simeone seems to understand that Atletico is as perfect for him as he is for it. To break that would be a risk.
Luciano Spalletti back in the capital
There was no immediate return to winning ways for Roma, where Luciano Spalletti returned to replace Rudi Garcia as coach. Garcia’s downfall was a quick one: Last year, owner James Pallotta told SI.com he thought that the Frenchman could be the club’s answer to Sir Alex Ferguson. Not quite: Even though Roma beat Juventus and Lazio earlier in the season, there were plenty of disappointments, like the defeats to Barcelona (1–6), Atalanta (0–2), second-division Spezia in the Coppa Italia and the Champions League draw with BATE Borisov (0–0). Roma now faces Real Madrid in the Champions League having won just one of its six group games.
Garcia never recovered from the October 2014 loss to Juventus, when he was dismissed for playing an imaginary violin in protest at the referee’s decisions. He promised Roma would beat Juventus in the title race (the gap was 17 points, just like the previous year), and his complex about the champion never went away. Recruitment did not help him either: Marco Borriello, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Seydou Doumbia and Urby Emanuelson hardly made an impression. Nor did Juan Iturbe, who was signed for €22M from Verona and who just moved to Bournemouth on loan.
Spalletti coached Roma from 2005 to '09, and in that time, Roma achieved its record points tally (82) and once won ten games in a row, though Inter won the league with 85 points. But the two Italian Cups (2007 and '08) and the Italian Super Cup ('07) were won over main rival Inter, which again is challenging this year. Spalletti is most remembered for his offensive style of play that brought about Totti’s most prolific season: 32 goals in 2006–07, playing as a false nine in a 4-2-3-1. He has some work to do in this spell: Roma could not see out the win against bottom club Verona, whose manager, Luigi del Neri, had a short spell with I Lupi before Spalletti turned up.
The title race now looks like it’s between Napoli—3–1 winners over Sassuolo this weekend—and Juventus, which has now won nine in a row after a 4–0 victory at Udinese, with all the goals coming in the first half. Inter lost ground with a surprise draw at Atalanta, making it one win in four for Roberto Mancini.
Could Edinson Cavani be the January surprise?
The quiet transfer window might produce one big twist. Edinson Cavani is reported to be increasingly frustrated with his role at PSG, where for the second week running, he was named as a substitute—though unlike last week at Bastia, he at least came on for 20 minutes in the win over Toulouse. On Monday, L’Equipe called him “a true lone wolf” among the squad, and that PSG is expecting more from a player that cost it €64M to acquire. According to L'Equipe, manager Laurent Blanc took Cavani aside during winter training in Doha to discuss his attitude, but the frosty relationship with his teammates continues. Lucas Moura or Javier Pastore are currently ahead of him in first-team reckoning, and although PSG has always said no to talk of a departure, a big-money bid from Chelsea or Manchester United could be timely.
PSG is so far ahead that second-place Monaco, 21 points back, is nearer the relegation zone than the leader. It’s also worth pointing out that Saint-Etienne won the northern derby against Lyon, which had an astonishing eight academy graduates starting the match. For all the talk of recruiting cheap talent and buying smart, that Lyon did that deserves some credit—even if it has now slipped to ninth in the table, still only five points behind third.
Top three players of the week
Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
The Uruguayan was the only one of the Barcelona strike-force not on the Ballon D’Or podium last week, but he responded in a powerful manner, scoring a hat-trick in the European champion’s latest easy win.
Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice)
Two goals and a dribble past five players that almost ended in a score for the French winger, who is finally living up to his potential back in his homeland.
Charlie Daniels (Bournemouth)
The left back is making a name for himself in his first Premier League season and helped the Cherries beat Norwich with a penalty and pinpoint cross for Benik Afobe’s first goal for the club. Expect calls for international recognition to come soon.
Top three goals of the week
Joao Moutinho (Monaco)
This was a smart free kick from the AS Monaco midfielder in the 2–0 win at Lorient.
Alvaro Negredo, Valencia
Valencia coach Gary Neville has yet to win any of his first seven La Liga matches in charge, but there was some optimism when striker Negredo pulled this beauty out of the hat.
Paulo Dybala (Juventus)
After a slow start, Dybala now has 11 goals in 20 games for Juventus, just the same as Carlos Tevez managed at this stage of last season. Dybala’s first goal in a 4–0 first-half blitz was another good effort.