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  • Real Madrid was held to another draw, while Tottenham handed Manchester City its first loss and Nice got the full Mario Balotelli experience in the weekend highlights around Europe.
By Ben Lyttleton
October 03, 2016

It was another weekend of huge drama and surprise results across Europe, as some of the biggest clubs suffered defeats and slip-ups. Tottenham ended Manchester City’s 100% winning record in the Premier League and now needs to be considered a credible title challenger.

In Spain, Barcelona lost at Celta Vigo, while Real Madrid stumbled again, drawing a fourth match in a row to increase pressure on coach Zinedine Zidane.

The goal-scoring, red-carded Mario Balotelli was up to his old tricks at Nice, while RB Leipzig’s rise under Ralf Rangnick continues in the Bundesliga. In Italy, a youthful AC Milan may be on the rise after a dramatic first goal from a Milanese teenager.

Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this week: 

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Haven’t we been here before in Madrid? Wasn’t it about 12 months ago when the pressure started to mount on Real Madrid coach Rafa Benitez, before he was sacked in early November? It’s too early to suggest anything like the same fate awaits for Zinedine Zidane, especially after he was in charge for Madrid’s Champions League win last summer, but this has been a tough couple of weeks for the French boss.

Real Madrid’s 1-1 home draw with Eibar was the club's fourth straight draw–the others were against Las Palmas, Villarreal and Borussia Dortmund–and left Madrid with 15 points after four wins and three draws from the first seven games of the season: an identical record to Benitez last year. Oh, and Benitez’s side had conceded five fewer goals.

Last season's Champions League success, not to mention his playing career in Madrid, will have bought Zidane a grace period, while there is also the fact that Luka Modric and Casemiro, Zidane’s go-to midfielders this season, have been missing through injury. Karim Benzema was withdrawn with a knock at halftime, and his replacement, Alvaro Morata was booked for diving and had a goal correctly disallowed for offside. Cristiano Ronaldo is not yet at full throttle and the team is yet to keep a clean sheet at the Bernabeu this season. There's room for improvement, but also explanation for the shortcomings.

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“This is not a crisis," Zidane said after the game. "We're only in October so we can't go crazy, but yes something's going wrong when you have three consecutive draws in the league. We allowed the opposition to dictate things in the first half but we played a lot better in the second half, which is something we're saying far too often lately. I don't believe we were missing creativity … rather what we lacked was intensity and aggression.”

The result means that Atletico Madrid is now top of the table in La Liga, thanks to a 2-0 win at Valencia despite missing two penalties. In a surprising round of matches Sunday–and perhaps some consolation for Zidane–is that Celta Vigo beat Barcelona 4-3. The title race is still a three-way fight, but this season, as the big two teams become less reliant on the magic of Lionel Messi and Ronaldo, the trophy is no longer dependent on results between the three sides playing each other. 

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It was first against second in the Premier League, and much of the prematch emphasis was how far ahead of the field Manchester City would be once the Pep Guardiola bandwagon rolled past Tottenham at White Hart Lane. Commentators on national radio asked if the limit of Spurs’ ambition might be to challenge for a place in the top four this season. As it happened, both theories were misguided.

Spurs took full advantage of the vulnerabilities that City has shown in the last week–first against Swansea last weekend and in midweek against Celtic in the Champions League–and deservedly won 2-0. It could have been more, had Erik Lamela not missed a second-half penalty. Guardiola would have known that Mauricio Pochettino’s side would press goalkeeper Claudio Bravo and his defense, but City seemed shocked by the host’s intensity.

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This performance could prove a pivotal point in the season. City under Guardiola is still a joy to watch and a favorite to win the league, but remains a work in progress, and it misses the injured Kevin de Bruyne more than any other player (although Spurs were without Mousa Dembele and Harry Kane and did not miss a beat).

As for Tottenham, a top-four spot should not be the limit of the club's ambitions this season. The steady progression under Pochettino, as well as the regular contract renewals that keep this young squad in place, point to a bona fide title challenge this campaign. Even after this game, bookmakers are placing Tottenham fourth in the betting odds, behind Man City, Arsenal and Liverpool. For all the talk about this season being a Manchester-based battle between Guardiola and United coach Jose Mourinho, the most serious challenger to City is actually Pochettino’s hungry young side. 

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This is the problem with Mario Balotelli. You know he has the talent that can win you games, but he can’t help putting himself in harmful situations. And so it proved Sunday, as he scored a magnificent winning goal after 86 minutes for Ligue 1 high-fliers Nice, which beat Lorient 2-1.

The first Mario moment involved him taking off his shirt to celebrate his curling finish, which resulted in a needless yellow card. Three minutes later, with injury time beckoning, Balotelli overreacted to a challenge on him and was, harshly, shown a second yellow card. It didn't affect this result, but Balotelli will now be suspended for Nice’s game against Lyon–which itself served notice of title credentials by beating rival Saint-Etienne.

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All of this may be moot if PSG’s form–it beat Bordeaux 2-0 with one of the goals coming via a back-heel from in-form Edinson Cavani–continues.

But simply put, if Nice wants to contend for a Champions League place, then it will need Balotelli available to play. He's proved invaluable with six goals in five matches at the club.

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RB Leipzig is the first newly promoted team to go unbeaten in its first six Bundesliga matches, and it sits pretty in third following Friday’s 2-1 win over Augsburg. The club still has detractors, who are unhappy with its ownership structure, but in an interview manager Ralf Rangnick gave to The Blizzard, published last year, he said: “Football clubs are now businesses, whether you like it or not. Ingolstadt is owned by Audi. The difference between them and us is that their average attendance is 7,000 and ours is almost four times that.”

Rangnick was in the news again this week as he was linked to the vacant England coach’s job. He confirmed a two-hour conversation/interview with FA head of performance Dan Ashworth over the summer, but was told later that the national team wanted an English coach after all. He has had no contact since then, but his stock continues to rise.

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RB Leipzig looks like it is here to stay, and the traditionalists need to get used to it. Other clubs could learn from Leipzig's smart recruitment practices (Rangnick signed Joshua Kimmich from Stuttgart Under-19s before he joined Bayern Munich) and of course Rangnick’s impressive style of play, which is based on the fast, pressing approach that has inspired the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel.

Rangnick is clearly a smart man, and he loves English football after a spell in the late 1970s, when he spent a year abroad at Sussex University as part of his English and PE degree from Stuttgart University. But other than sentiment, the real question has to be: Why he would consider the poisoned chalice that is the England coach’s job? 

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As goal celebrations go, the run and fist-pump is an Italian standard trademarked by Marco Tardelli in 1982. But there was something visceral about Manuel Locatelli’s reaction to hammering in an equalizer to get Milan to 3-3 from 3-1 down at home to bogey side Sassuolo. The 18-year-old midfielder was making only the sixth appearance of his career, and his goal helped Milan achieve an improbably comeback, as it won 4-3 with Gabriel Palletta heading home a winner soon after Locatelli's strike.

No wonder Locatelli broke down in tears during the post-match interview.

“This [goal] was for my family and everyone that believed in me," he told Mediaset. "This is a moment every child waits for and I still can't believe it. When I heard the noise from the crowd. I couldn't believe it. I just started running and it was all true.”

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Milan announced after the game that Locatelli had signed a new deal running until 2020. With Gianluigi Donnarumma (17), Davide Calabria (19) and Suso (22) all getting game time under coach Vincenzo Montella, the future is looking a little brighter in Milan. The result pushes the Rossoneri into a tie for third place in Serie A, and it may join Lazio, Roma and Chievo in pushing for a Champions League place this season. 

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Top three goals of the week

Dmitri Payet (West Ham)

The French winger dribbled through half the Middlesbrough team to score an outstanding individual goal and brighten what has been a dismal start to the season for the Hammers. But where there is Payet, there is hope.

Antonio Colak (Darmstadt)

This was a brilliant volley from the Croatian forward, which was Van Basten-esque in its execution.

Mario Balotelli (Nice)

This was vintage Balotelli, taking a back-heel pass from a teammate, cutting inside his marker and curling a shot into the top corner. Sadly his celebration, for which he was booked, and the subsequent red card was also all too familiar.

Top three players of the week

Diego Alves (Valencia): The goalkeeper is a true penalty specialist, and even though his team lost to Atletico Madrid, he saved spot kicks from Antoine Griezmann and Gabi (who had a 100% record before then). Alves’s current record is 19 saved from 41 kicks, a 46% saving rate. The average is around 20%. Sensational!

Jota (FC Porto): This was the teenage striker’s first start for his on-loan club–he is owned by Atletico Madrid–and he scored a first-half hat trick in Porto’s 4-0 win at Nacional. Not a bad way to mark a debut.

Heung-Min Son (Spurs): He scored the winner for Spurs in its European win at CSKA Moscow and led from the front in Sunday’s win over Manchester City. He is in a rich vein of form, which makes it more surprising when you consider that Spurs almost sold him to Wolfsburg in the summer. 

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