Around Europe: Juventus's unlikely hero, Barcelona's next level
With two leagues featuring the top-four sides playing each other, the action across Europe this weekend did not disappoint. Juventus scored a last-minute winner to beat Napoli and go top of the table, while there were late twists in the Premier League title race.
A controversy in France has derailed PSG’s preparations for its Champions League tie, while Barcelona once again put on a masterclass, featuring even more wrinkles from its three-headed attacking machine. Meanwhile, in Germany, a new coaching appointment raised some eyebrows.
Here are the highlights from Around Europe this week:
Unlikely hero sends Juventus into first
Juventus has won 15 Serie A games in a row, but its latest success, the 1-0 triumph over previous leader Napoli, was its most significant, both in terms of the opposition and the manner of the success. A tight game in which chances were at a premium was sealed by Juventus substitute Simone Zaza, whose left-footed shot two minutes from time proved to be the match-winner.
This was meant to be a shootout between each side’s two Argentine strikers, Paolo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain, but it was a bit-part player, Zaza, who became the star of the show. When Juventus signed him last summer from Sassuolo (incidentally, Sassuolo was the last team to take points off Juve back in October), fans wanted his strike partner Domenico Berardi. And as Dybala, Alvaro Morata and Mario Mandzukic have started most of the time, Zaza has been on the sideline.
Premier League clubs wanted him in January, but coach Max Allegri did not want him to leave. Now we know why.
Zaza has now scored seven goals this season, from 15 appearances in all competitions, and five of those have come as a starter. In the crowd was Italy coach Antonio Conte, and the striker was optimistic that he caught his eye.
“I hope that this goal proves to be the Scudetto-winning strike,” he said after the game. “If we continue to play as we have been, then nobody will be able to take the Scudetto from us. The goal is to be a star at the Euros. I hope I can convince [Antonio] Conte that I should be named to the squad.”
Napoli, which had won its last eight games, was the more dangerous team in the first half, with Higuain close to connecting to a cross that was marvelously blocked by Leo Bonucci before he went off injured, while Gigi Buffon made a great close-range save from Raul Albiol. But Napoli's level dropped in the second half, with coach Maurizio Sarri claiming inexperience cost it dearly. Sarri still thinks Napoli could last the distance, but even if it falls short, finishing in the top two would count as a huge success in his first season in charge.
Allegri conceded that Juventus is now the title favorite but did not rule out Inter and Fiorentina, (who played each other Sunday, with Fiorentina winning 2-1) from the Scudetto race. What a season this has been for the Italian coach, who reportedly met with Chelsea in November to discuss a three-year contract. His team will face Bayern Munich in Europe in 10 days on a more level footing than when the draw was made, and Allegri believes that a slight deflection on Zaza’s shot shows luck is on his side. Juventus has also scored late goals against Torino, Milan, Fiorentina, and Roma.
As Allegri put it: “A friend of mine used to tell me: always hang around with the lucky ones.”
It's time to take Spurs seriously
The top four clashed in England and it looked like the second game would be a repeat of the first. In the opener, away team Leicester opened the scoring at Arsenal with a controversial penalty award and held on until the hosts made two changes; both subs came on and scored, the winner from Danny Welbeck in the 95th minute.
A similar story appeared to unfold at the Etihad, where Spurs went ahead through a generous penalty decision (one that so infuriated Manuel Pellegrini he may face an FA punishment for his comments after the game).
Then sub Kelechi Iheanacho equalized and with 20 minutes left, there only looked like one winner. But as City poured forward, Spurs sub Erik Lamela ran through the heart of the midfield, threaded a ball through the legs of Nicolas Otamendi, and Christian Eriksen, on his birthday, scored the winner.
Last season Spurs got over its hang-up with the big clubs by beating Arsenal and Chelsea; this season it has done the double over Manchester City, and both times it deserved to win.
Leicester may be the romantics’ choice to win the league–and rightly so–but Spurs is now a serious contender and has not taken the moneyed City approach. In fact, since Mauricio Pochettino has arrived at the club, it has brought in more than it has spent on transfers.
The Argentine believes that getting rid of players is just as important as bringing others in; which explains what may appear as harsh treatment toward the likes of Aaron Lennon, Vlad Chiriches, Emmanuel Adebyaor, Etienne Capoue, and Andros Townsend.
Fans may have wanted a backup striker in January, but Pochettino was pleased with the balance of the dressing room. Harmony is important to him.
That leaves the Premier League on a knife-edge: Leicester is two points ahead of Spurs and Arsenal, who face each other in three weeks time. Both also have European commitments in the next few weeks–against Fiorentina (Spurs) and Barcelona (Arsenal). Would a European exit help a title challenge?
Leicester has no other commitments and will not be cowed by the Arsenal defeat. It looks like a three-horse race and, at the moment, it’s impossible to call.
Barcelona hits new heights
Barcelona reached new heights on Sunday night. A forward line that has dominated the last 18 months of European football, that won a treble last season, that has scored 84 goals between them this season, did something it had never done before.
Previous Barcelona sides have played dominant games and beautiful periods of football.
Last season, it was Lionel Messi who inspired the memorable passages of play that allowed the club to overcome Manchester City and Bayern Munich in Europe.
Earlier this season, Neymar was the architect of the 4-0 drubbing of Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Against Celta Vigo on Sunday night, though, Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez did what they have been threatening to do all season: for half an hour, they destroyed a team, scoring four goals in the process, each one seemingly better than the last. We may forget the first 60 minutes were touch-and-go for Barcelona, who was given a real game against Celta Vigo. But then MSN stepped up, combining pace and daring and giving another passable impression of PlayStation football.
The memorable moment may have the "two-touch penalty" in which Messi passed to Luis Suarez to complete his hat trick–the record-books harshly notch that down as a Messi miss–but the peak was Suarez-Messi one-two which involved a dribble, a chip and a first-time volleyed goal as jaws dropped around the stadium.
Both Madrid clubs won in their usual way–Atletico 1-0 and Real Madrid with Ronaldo scoring twice–but no one can stop Barcelona when it is playing like this. The lingering question is can it afford to pay the wages to keep the top three players at the club over the next few years? If so, then more defenses can expect more punishment.
Oh no, Aurier
PSG has been unbeatable in Ligue 1 this season and before its biggest game of the season, against Chelsea in the Champions League, the stars seemed aligned for a repeat of last season’s triumph over the English side. But what could beat PSG is itself: defender Serge Aurier hosted a fans’ question-and-answer session on Periscope Saturday night in which he made offensive (and homophobic) remarks about half his team.
He directed a slur at coach Laurent Blanc and joked he shows his favoritism for Zlatan Ibrahimovic by performing sex acts on him. Fullback Gregory van der Wiel and goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu were not spared either.
His first instinct was to deny the stories and claim that it had been edited with his voice. That was wrong and on Sunday night he issued a mea culpa.
"I made a big mistake, I am here to apologize to the manager, my teammates, the club and the fans," he said. "I accept all the sanctions that the club will take against me. I am unforgivable."
Aurier has been one of PSG’s best players this season and his record with PSG is one defeat in 43 matches–that was away to Real Madrid, a match PSG deserved to win. How PSG reacts to AurierGate in Tuesday’s European tie against Chelsea remains to be seen. “PSG in a state of shock” ran L’Equipe’s front page Monday. It’s fair to say that this has eroded the goodwill from Blanc’s contract extension last week. Aurier’s stupidity could not have come at a worse time.
But what does PSG do with him now? In any other industry, he would be fired straightaway. But in football, different rules apply: it seems hard to see how Aurier will ever play for the club ever again, but he is young, talented and worth at least £15 million. Will PSG sell him in the summer, or suspend him for a few games and then welcome him back? If he was a fringe player, it would be an easy decision. It would still be a surprise to see him play for PSG again.
Hoffenheim promotes Nagelsmann
The idea of a club having a clear succession policy in place for its coach may sound a strange one, but earlier this season, Hoffenheim announced that Under-19s Julian Nagelsmann would replace Huub Stevens at the end of the season. Last week, Stevens stepped down after he was diagnosed with a heart problem, and so Nagelsmann stepped up. Nothing too strange in that, you may think. Except Nagelsmann is 28 years old.
He has walked into a challenging situation, as Hoffenheim is second from the bottom and five points adrift from safety. “It’s a big challenge of course, made harder by the current points situation. But I am looking forward to working with the team,” he said. He used to work as assistant to Thomas Tuchel at Augsburg and though the ideal situation would have been to take over next season, at least there are few expectations that he can keep Hoffenheim up this year.
Top three goals of the week
Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
Where do you start with Suarez’s hat trick? The third goal was a penalty masterstroke, but the second was even better, a convoluted one-two with Messi that ended in a scooped pass and a volleyed goal. Bravo!
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich)
A Robben run, a Muller cross and a Lewandowski finish sounds familiar, but this was somehow different, better. The center forward’s touch and spin away from his marker was brilliant, as was his finish.
Keisuke Honda (AC Milan)
You haven’t scored for 16 months and so you try your luck from 35 yards out? No one is quite sure what Honda was thinking, but he did score against Genoa as Milan closed the gap on Inter to two points.
Top three players of the week
Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
Every time you think this Barcelona cannot get better, it goes and does something even more spectacular. Suarez scored three goals and got two assists in the last half-hour of the 6-1 win over Celta Vigo.
Danny Welbeck (Arsenal)
Welbeck had not played for 10 months and was thrown on for the last eight minutes as Arsenal chased a late winner against Leicester. It was Welbeck who supplied it, a faint header from Mesut Ozil’s free kick. It was a huge goal for Arsenal, and Welbeck could be an important figure in the title run-in.
Simone Zaza (Juventus)
Another super-sub who made the difference, with Zaza scoring the winner over Napoli