- Arsenal is facing an interesting crossroads over Mesut Ozil's contract, while Atletico Madrid's attack is becoming on par with Barcelona and Real Madrid in the headlines around Europe.
It was another exciting, story-filled weekend from around Europe as Manchester City dropped points again in the Premier League (ahead of Pep Guardiola's latest return to Barcelona in the Champions League) and was joined by Arsenal at the top of the table.
In Spain, Atletico Madrid is scoring more goals than ever before under Diego Simeone, while in Italy, Inter Milan captain Mauro Icardi faces a tricky few days after his autobiography caused a storm. Bayern Munich coach Carlo Ancelotti is not having things go all his way in Germany, while Mario Balotelli's Nice is a emerging as a contender in France's Ligue 1 after another impressive victory.
Here is what caught our eye from around Europe this week:
The biggest game of the Premier League this week takes place Monday in Liverpool, but there were no shortage of storylines coming out of the weekend action: Manchester City’s draw with Everton was its third straight game without a win, Bournemouth’s 6-1 evisceration of Hull further evidence of why coach Eddie Howe is so highly-rated and Southampton continues to be upwardly mobile and could yet compete for a top-four spot.
The weekend’s real winner was Arsenal, which saw City and Tottenham drop points and beat Swansea 3-2 to sit tied atop the table. Once again it was a masterclass from Mesut Ozil, who volleyed home what turned out to be the winning goal. The German has continued where he left off last season, but with just over 18 months to run on his contract, talks have reportedly stalled on a new deal.
“I don’t think he needs convincing. He wants to stay here. But if you have a good bank, call me,” Arsene Wenger was reported as saying by The Mirror after the game. “It’s not just money. Arsenal can win titles of course. But that’s what we have to show. We are in a league where Man City, Man United, Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea everybody fights and you cannot guarantee that to anybody. We keep that (negotiations) discreet. At due time we will come out with that. We want to keep our best players, of course. But the more I say that, the more he is in a stronger position!”
Arsenal has been here before, of course. The likes of Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Bacary Sagna all left after Arsenal failed to tie them down with new deals. But for once the team should copy its north London rival, Spurs. The biggest summer signings at White Hart Lane were the contract renewals of Dele Alli, Eric Dier, Danny Rose, Christian Eriksen and Kyle Walker. It is a side building for the future.
The cost of losing the 28-year-old Ozil would be more to Arsenal than the salary–which is said to be £200,000 per week–that he is demanding to stay. And if we were to fast-forward to the end of the season, when Wenger himself may leave, then the prospect of losing Ozil at the same time would be a tough one to take.
It’s hard to not to feel some sympathy with Inter boss Frank de Boer, appointed just before the start of the season. The latest issue he has to resolve–after falling out with Marcelo Brozovic and dropping Geoffrey Kondogbia–surrounds skipper Mauro Icardi, who incensed fans days after signing a new contract by criticizing them in his autobiography, Sempre Avanti, or Always Ahead.
So when Inter was awarded a penalty in Sunday’s home match against Cagliairi, the Ultras booed him before he even struck the ball. When his effort was saved, the Inter fans cheered. These are the fans whose banner in the stadium read: "You are not a man...You are not a captain...You are just a piece of s***.” Inter went on to lose the game 2-1.
The offending passage in the book focused on a run-in Icardi had with the fans after a defeat to Sassuolo in February 2015. There is one passage where he is alleged to write: “I’ll bring 100 criminals from Argentina who’ll kill them where they stand, then we’ll see.”
Before the Cagliari game, he apologized for any offense caused. “It’s true that in the book I spat out some exaggerated phrases… As for the issue of getting assassins from Argentina, as people continued to tell me that I would’ve found some hooligans under my house, I said that phrase. In the biography I also wrote that ‘I used threatening words towards the fans and I shouldn’t have done that… I look for you every time I score a goal, because I love Inter. I hope that you understand how important you are for me and Inter.'"
It's too late, though.
“We cannot accept this behavior from a person who works for our club,” said Inter vice-president Javier Zanetti, who said the question of the captaincy will be discussed this week.
The Ultras had their say: “You are finished with us. You're done. Take the armband off, you clown. Yes, that is what we demand.”
The next step could be decisive for De Boer: Icardi is one of the most talented players in this squad, and he has scored six of Inter’s nine league goals this season. He has to get him back on the side of the fans or face pressure to sell him in January, where there should be no shortage of suitors.
Last season, Atletico Madrid had the best defense in La Liga, conceding 11 goals less than champion Barcelona, which scored an astonishing 49 goals more. It only scored four or more goals in one game, a 5-1 win over Real Betis in the 31st game of the campaign.
This season, the numbers tell a different story. Eight games in, Atletico still boasts the best defense, with only three goals conceded. But it’s now averaging 2.6 goals per game, compared to 1.6 last season, and it maintained the top spot in La Liga with a 7-1 win over Granada. This was the third time it has scored four or more goals and the latest evolution in the Diego Simeone project is gaining clarity. His side is no longer satisfied with three points in matches; now, just like Barcelona (a 4-0 winner over Deportivo) and Real Madrid (6-1 over Betis), it is now thumping the opposition.
Why is this? Simeone has changed his system to play Yannick Carrasco-Ferreira, Angel Correa, Kevin Gameiro and Antoine Griezmann in the same side; support comes from Koke, whose quiet improvement has earned him a deserved starting place in the Spain senior side.
Carrasco was the hero Saturday, with the first hat trick of his career a glimpse of the player that could next season replace Griezmann as the team’s main goal threat. Simeone is expected to leave the club in 2018, but before then he is shifting the concept of Cholismo: Atletico’s warrior spirit now has an added goal threat.
Bayern Munich has been top of the table in Germany for the last 36 weeks, but there is an air of change in the Bundesliga. For a start, the teams behind them include FC Cologne, RB Leipzig and Hertha Berlin. Then there is the fact that Bayern has not won in three games and has lost the aura of dominance it had last season.
On Saturday, Bayern drew 2-2 at Eintracht Frankfurt, as it had last season (0-0). Twelve months ago, it was one-way traffic, this time Frankfurt had 13 shots on goal to Bayern’s 14.
“Now we are seeing Bayern play some matches that are real again,” reported Die Welt, which claimed that Carlo Ancelotti’s version of this side lacks a plan. “There is no strategy visible from the Italian, and his team does not have any security–only arrogance.”
The fact that Germany’s defensive midfielder Joshua Kimmich (four goals) is Bayern’s second-top scorer this season tells its own story.
It’s too early for talk of ‘Krise in Munchen’, as Die Welt put it, but Ancelotti could certainly do with a result in the Champions League against PSV Eindhoven this week to quiet the critics and get Bayern back to its dominating ways.
The last time PSG failed to win Ligue 1, back in 2012, Montpellier came from nowhere to stun the capital club. It then sunk back down the table, where it has been in relative mid-to-lower-table obscurity ever since. The biggest challenger to PSG this season may not be Monaco or Lyon, both of whom have had good moments this season, but Nice, currently in top and, with Lucien Favre in charge, with a sustainable structure than can last.
Favre launched the careers of Marco Reus and Marc-Andre ter Stegen at Borussia Moenchengladbach, and he had turned down approaches from Lille, Marseille and Lyon in the past. He claimed to be seduced by Nice’s faith in young players, as seen by his willingness to pick 17-year-old center back Malang Sarr, the only outfield regular his age in the league.
Nice boosted its youth with some experience in deadline-day signings Dante, Younes Belhanda (a champion with Montpellier) and Mario Balotelli, who missed a penalty in the 2-0 win over Lyon that maintained Nice’s unbeaten start to the season. Nice might not be able to sustain this form and it has to be expected that PSG, for all the talent in its squad, will close the gap eventually, but Favre’s Nice could compete for the Champions League places this year.
That seems more than can be said for Marseille, whose takeover by Frank McCourt will be ratified this week. Former Monaco sports director Luis Campos has been lined up to head up a new recruitment department. There is plenty of work to do, but taking a leaf out of the Nice playbook would be a start.
Top three goals of the week
Iker Muniain (Athletic Bilbao): A wonderful dribble and curled shot set Athletic on the way to a 3-2 win over Basque rival Real Sociedad.
Nabil Bentaleb (Schalke): The Algerian’s pile-driver from range cannoned in off the crossbar and gave Augsburg keeper Marwin Hitz no chance.
Juraj Kucka (AC Milan): The midfielder was given plenty of time to control the ball and line up his shot but he made no mistake with this cracker in Milan’s 3-1 win at Chievo.
Top three players of the week
Maarten Stekelenburg (Everton): The Dutch goalkeeper saved two penalties and made some top-class saves in the 1-1 draw with Manchester City at the Etihad. He has been an excellent signing for Ronald Koeman this season.
Edin Dzeko (Roma): The Bosnian is Serie A's top scorer with seven goals, and he scored two more in Roma’s 3-1 away win at Napoli.
Anthony Modeste (FC Cologne): Two more goals for the French striker, who is spearheading Cologne’s surprise charge up the table.