Jose Mourinho's presence looms over Manchester United, while a slew or Argentine attackers made their presence felt Around Europe, writes Ben Lyttleton.
As the transfer window gets set to shut and teams in Europe's top leagues take stock of where they stand, significant developments continued to unfold around the continent. Arsenal, down to 10 men, lost ground in the title race after a London derby defeat, while Manchester United also slipped again at home in the Premier League. Real Madrid dropped its first points under Zinedine Zidane, while Pep Guardiola is facing another injury-induced challenge at Bayern Munich. Two Argentine strikers are fighting it out for top honors in Italy, while in France, the title race is over already.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this week:
Decision time looms for Manchester United
He was not on the bench, but the scepter of Jose Mourinho overshadowed another dramatic Premier League weekend after a round in which Chelsea overturned the formbook and beat Arsenal 1-0 at the Emirates. It was a similar story for Arsenal, which was reduced to 10 men early on with a deserved red card for Per Mertesacker and could not stop Diego Costa continuing his recent upturn in form.
The question on Sunday was not so much, "Why did Chelsea not play like this under Mourinho this season?" but "Did Mourinho really write a six-page letter to Manchester United?" as The Independent reported, “explaining how much he desires the job and would be willing to conform to club principles, as well as offering a detailed plan for the team.” Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, normally quiet in the face of speculation, quickly released a statement calling the story "absurd"–but not false.
The story broke just hours after United had lost 1-0 at home to Southampton, after going a 10th first-half goalless at Old Trafford. After the game coach Louis van Gaal seemed to offer a mea culpa to the fans, and it seems the Dutchman will leave in the summer if United fails to finish in the top four.
What next, though: will United swallow its pride (and values, in some respects) and go for Mourinho? Or will Ryan Giggs get the chance he has been quietly waiting for? United is more dramatic off than on the pitch at the moment, and as long as that continues, then Mourinho’s chances of landing up in the northwest–and possibly re-igniting a Manchester-based rivalry with Pep Guardiola next season–increase by the day.
First wobble for Zidane at Real Madrid
It was a perfect week for a heavily-rotated Barcelona, who beat Malaga 2-1 as Atletico Madrid (drew 0-0 with Sevilla) and Real Madrid (1-1 at Real Betis) both dropped points. After two thumping home wins, this was the first away game in charge for new coach Zinedine Zidane, whose rotten record at Betis, no wins in six as a player for Bordeaux and Real Madrid and now as a coach, continues. Madrid has won one of its last five away league games, and is now four points back on the top two, with Barcelona having a game in hand.
Zidane made all the right comments after the game–“it’s a tough place to come, my players did all they could”–but the return of Danilo and James Rodriguez, favorites of Florentino Perez, was lost on no one.
These are Perez players whose omissions under Rafa Benitez caused rifts at the club, and when Dani Carvajal replaced Danilo, the back line looked stronger.
A report in The Sunday Times this weekend shed further light on life under Perez in Madrid; he was furious that Benitez subbed off Gareth Bale after scoring four goals against Rayo Vallecano (“He could have scored five! The worst substitution!” said Perez). The same report also said that Ronaldo wipes his face with ice before interviews to provide that perma-glow. It’s too early for Zidane to come under pressure, but early signs are showing that he is purely a company man.
Does Pep have an injury blind spot?
The Bundesliga returned to action after the winter break amid a backdrop of calls for games to take place on Boxing Day next season–in a bid to replicate the Premier League’s give-broadcasters-what-they-want strategy–and it was like it had never been away. Robert Lewandowski scored two for leaders Bayern Munich in a 2-1 win at Hamburg; Borussia Dortmund remains second with an impressive 3-1 win at Monchengladbach.
While the destination of Pep Guardiola’s next club remains unconfirmed (with Manchester City still the favorite) there is still the matter of his legacy to contend with; and that involves trying to repeat the feat of Jupp Heynckes in 2013 and winning the treble. Guardiola will need his best players to stay fit for that to happen–last season he was without Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and, for a period, Lewandowski, in the crucial final stretch of the campaign.
Saturday saw injury hit Jerome Boateng, Bayern’s most solid (some might argue only) defender. He will miss the Champions League tie against Juventus and could be a long-term absentee, with even his participation in Euro 2016 under threat.
Bayern does have Mehdi Benatia, Holger Badstuber and Javi Martinez to call upon, but all of them have had injury problems in the past. It’s unlikely that Bayern will bite the bullet and sign a center back this month; but it has restarted debate about Guardiola and injuries. Remember his row with Bayern doctor Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt last April? The doctor had been with the club for over 38 years but walked away (temporarily) after a row with Guardiola following a 3-1 loss to Porto.
Guardiola’s training methods have been blamed for the spate of muscle injuries that have affected his players. He needs as many fit and firing when the Champions League restarts next month, and it will remain a story to watch wherever the Spaniard ends up next season.
Argentine strikers on display in Serie A
Juventus won match number 11 in a row, this time against title rival Roma, with Paolo Dybala once again taking the plaudits for his late match-winner. The Argentine coast €40 million from Palermo this summer, and Gazzetta dello Sport has suggested he is already more valuable than Paul Pogba, who set up his smart strike, to the team. He now has 11 goals for the season and has helped Juventus up to second and two points behind Napoli.
“Tevez Who?” wrote Tuttosport, in reference to Carlos Tevez, who left the club for Boca Juniors in the summer (and was at the center of a massive SuperClasico brawl over the weekend).
“Paulo reminds me of Omar Sivori,” Juventus director Giuseppe Marotta said. “He moves like El Cabezon and he has an intelligent mind. He sees the goal, but plays for the team.”
Napoli won 4-2 at Sampdoria, with another goal for Gonzalo Higuain, who now has 21 goals in 21 this season. Only once has Serie A’s top scorer won the title in the last 10 years, that being Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Inter Milan. Higuain will be hoping to emulate Maradona’s achievement with Napoli in 1987 and 1990, its only two Scudetto successes.
In his way is ‘IncreDybala’, aiming to continue Tevez’s standards and make it five-in-a-row for the reigning champion.
PSG's Ligue 1 dominance continues
What’s the difference between first and third in France? We found out this weekend as PSG took on Angers–which entered the weekend with second-best defense in Ligue 1–and totally destroyed it, winning 5-1. This was a response to some criticism after a lackluster Cup performance last week, with talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic warning: “We can play when we want to.”
The pity for Angers, which had conceded only 13 goals in 21 games, was that PSG wanted to. Monaco cemented its position in second place with a 4-0 win over Toulouse while Nice, once again inspired by Hatem Ben Arfa, is up to third, but the coronation is set yet again for PSG, which has a commanding 21-point lead and has not lost in 22 games this season (19-0-3).
Top three players of the week
Angel di Maria (PSG)
Two sublime goals and a hand in two others for the Argentine, who has found his best form at just the right moment. His first goal, a volley from 25 yards, would have made Ibrahimovic blush:
The second, meanwhile, was a cheeky lob similar to his last great moment for Manchester United, against Leicester City. His slump at Old Trafford is a distant memory now.
Sergio Aguero (Manchester City)
Where would Manchester City be without Aguero? He scored both its goals in the 2-2 draw at West Ham and could have more, hitting the post in the first half and seeing a late chance saved. City must keep him injury free if it wants to achieve its goals this season.
Aritz Aduriz (Athletic Bilbao)
Two fantastic goals for the Athletic forward in a stunning 5-2 win over Eibar. Aduriz (13) and Eibar’s Borja (14), who scored twice in this game, are now the two highest-scoring Spanish strikers in La Liga this season. They trail Luis Suarez (18), Karim Benzema (17), Neymar (16) and Cristiano Ronaldo (16) in the overall chase for the Pichichi.
Top three goals of the week
Dele Alli (Tottenham)
The 19-year-old midfielder has been a revelation this season and he turned this game on its head with a volley out of nowhere that earned the visitor three points. Despite having had a quiet game, he still had the confidence to try it, and his execution was stunning. Even coach Mauricio Pochettino joined in the celebrations.
Clemens Fritz (Werder Bremen)
This was game No. 300 for Fritz, the 35-year-old midfield skipper who inspired his team in the come-from-behind win at Schalke. His goal was a beauty from outside the area, and it was his first for four years. He then set up two more for Bremen, whose win was crucial in its fight for survival.
Gregory van der Wiel (PSG)
This was like a training-ground game of headers-and-volleys: Ibrahimovic juggles the ball five times on his foot, passes to Di Maria, whose pass out wide is volleyed back across goal by Matidi for Van der Wiel to, yes, volley, it home. Brilliant goal–and it just pipped Di Maria’s first, a volley from 30 yards out, as PSG held its own goal-of-the-season contest.