- Jose Mourinho's return to Stamford Bridge couldn't have gone worse, while things are on the up for AC Milan, Sevilla and Hoffenheim across Europe's top leagues.
A superb weekend of action across the continent saw Chelsea kick into gear under Antonio Conte and ensure Jose Mourinho had a Stamford Bridge return to forget. In Spain, the title race changed hands three times after a dramatic round of action that saw Jorge Sampaoli's Sevilla announce its title credentials, while also breathing new life into Samir Nasri's career.
The Bundesliga has a raft of young coaches to keep an eye on, but few are as impressive as the youngest of the lot, Hoffenheim’s 29-year-old Julian Nagelsmann. Speaking of youth, AC Milan is on an upward trajectory thanks to manager Vincenzo Montella’s faith in his youngsters, while new Marseille coach Rudi Garcia made history on his debut in the French club's dugout.
Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week:
Six days after playing for, and getting, a goalless draw at Liverpool, Jose Mourinho’s plans to do similar at Stamford Bridge lasted only 29 seconds. By then, Pedro had put Chelsea ahead and it kept on coming, adding goals from Gary Cahill, Eden Hazard and N’Golo Kante to seal a 4-0 win, Mourinho’s worst league result as a coach in England.
By his own standards, the post-final-whistle conversation with Antonio Conte–which was reported by Italian press as saying he should not humiliate him by getting the crowd going at 4-0 up–was a poor diversionary tactic. After all, Mourinho’s history is hardly garlanded with humility from the touchline.
More importantly, it should not detract from United’s woeful performance. Who has ever seen a Mourinho side with such a chaotic defense? Was there a plan going forward? What is Mourinho asking of Marouane Fellaini, Anthony Martial, and even Marcus Rashford, who ended up at left back to cover Victor Moses? The energy from United was reminiscent of Chelsea’s before the Leicester defeat after which Mourinho claimed the players had "betrayed" his work. We can only begin to imagine what he thought of Eden Hazard’s performance, his fourth goal of this season as many as he managed all last year.
Chelsea was good but did not need to be great; Conte’s 3-4-3 system is starting to take shape, and wingbacks Marcos Alonso and Moses were both excellent.
Mourinho pointed to the table, where United is only five points off fourth place, “not 16,” he said in a dig at his predecessors. The reply could only be: “Yet.”
Any more displays like that and it will be. Mourinho cannot claim this is not his squad either. He claimed he wanted four players over the summer, and he got them all. Eric Bailly went off injured at Chelsea and that could be a loss for United, while Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimovic both struggled. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is reportedly confused by his omission from the side.
This season was billed as Pep Guardiola versus Jose Mourinho, and the two Manchester clubs–who square off again in the League Cup on Tuesday–were viewed by many as the title favorites. The last few weeks have reminded us that even the best coaches need time. United might also need to re-calibrate expectations. This side is miles away from winning the title.
Of more worry for United fans, the coach looks miles away as well.
"Milan Baby Boom" was the Gazzetta Sportiva headline after an attention-grabbing 1-0 win for AC Milan over Juventus on Saturday, which pushed the Rossoneri into second place in Serie A. The "babies" it alluded to included Manuel Locatelli, the 18-year-old breakout star who followed up his debut goal earlier this month in the 4-3 win over Sassuolo with the winning goal against the Serie A champion and current leader, an arguably better strike form the edge of the area.
Then came the intervention of Gianluigi Donnarumma, the 17-year-old goalkeeper whose injury-time save from Sami Khedira ensured the points. The result was not without controversy, as Miralem Pjanic had a free kick disallowed for what looked a questionable offside.
Does this mean that there is a new contender for the Scudetto this season? With Napoli missing Arkadiusz Milik for the next five months after his knee injury, there is a chance for this upwardly mobile Milan side to bid for a top-three spot. Coach Vincenzo Montella, celebrating his 200th game on the touchline, warned his players that this result will change how other teams now approach it.
“I told the lads a new season begins now, because after this the opposition and everyone else will have different expectations of us,” he said. “They will approach us a different way and the pressure on us will also be different.”
How this young group copes with that remains to be seen–but it’s nice to see a storied club as Milan is back among the top.
After last week’s combined 17-2 scoreline for the big three in La Liga–Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid–this week provided a different set of results entirely and a fourth contender at the top of the table.
Barcelona had to come from behind to beat Valencia 3-2, the winning goal coming from Lionel Messi’s penalty (which is no easy feat given his previous problems from the spot and given that Valencia's goalkeeper is Diego Alves, who has the best penalty-saving record in Europe’s top five leagues). Valencia felt one Barcelona goal should have been disallowed, had a penalty appeal turned down, and claimed Sergio Busquets should have been sent off.
Perhaps more significantly, Andres Iniesta was injured in a challenge with Enzo Perez and face two months on the sidelines.
But the real news is with Sevilla, which briefly went top of the table over the weekend as Jorge Sampaoli’s thriving side beat Atletico Madrid 1-0 thanks to Steven Nzonzi’s goal. Atletico could have taken the lead in the first half, but Angel Correa squandered the opportunity. Diego Simeone was left ruing that as his side lost for the first time this season. He has claimed that Sevilla is a genuine title contender this season, and in Samir Nasri, has one of the surprise stars of the Spanish season so far.
“I have a relationship built on trust with the coach and that is invaluable,” Nasri, who was cast away by Pep Guardiola from Manchester City, told RMC Radio last week. “This club has been good for so many players. It has rekindled their careers and got them going again. Now I feel that happening to me.”
Real Madrid rode its luck to edge past Athletic Bilbao 2-1 at the Bernabeu, thanks to a late winner from substitute Alvaro Morata. That put it top of the table, three points ahead of fifth-placed Atletico. Talk about tight at the top.
Among the surprise sides in the chasing pack behind Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, one team stands out. Last season, Hoffenheim was in a relegation battle and in February appointed Julian Nagelsmann, a 28-year-old promoted from the Under-19s, to get it out of trouble. Nagelsmann changed the system and won five of his first nine games, ensuring survival with two games to spare.
This season has started in similar vein, and Hoffenheim’s 3-0 win at Bayer Leverkusen–whose task was made trickier when Kevin Volland was dismissed after just six minutes–pushed the club provisionally into third place (until RB Leipzig’s win knocked it into fourth). It came with some controversy, as Leverkusen coach Roger Schmidt was sent off for swearing at his opposite number during the match.
“Football is emotional, this is no big deal, the topic is over for me,” said Nagelsmann, now 29, after the game.
Nagelsmann uses drones in training sessions and develops his own data to track how many players are in front of the ball at any one time. He worked under current Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel at FC Augsburg and has returned Hoffenheim to the high-pressing intensity it played with success under former coach Ralf Rangnick.
Last week Hoffenheim owner Dietmar Hopp, 76, said that he wanted Nagelsmann to stay in charge for as long as he lived.
“He’s so good that I wonder if we can keep him,” he said.
Hopp’s decision to appoint him, despite his age, has certainly paid off, and it could be a lesson heeded by clubs in England, for whom coaching appointments tend to focus on experience in the top flight rather than potential.
Marseille made history in its 0-0 draw at Paris Saint-Germain Sunday. In new coach Rudi Garcia’s first game in charge, the visitor registered zero (ZERO!) shots on goal–according to data company Opta, it was the first time a French team has done this since it started collecting data 10 years and 3,900 games ago.
Not that Garcia seemed too bothered: “I ask for solidarity and cohesion and that’s what I saw out there,” he said.
As for PSG, there was another head-in-hands moment for Edinson Cavani, who was leaning back when he stuck PSG’s best chance wide of the goal from close range.
PSG coach Unai Emery claimed his team was “on the right track” after the match, though he might have been concerned that the three players who were subbed off, Angel di Maria, Marco Verratti and Thiago Motta, all seemed to show dissent towards him.
The result leaves Nice, now with eight wins out of 10, six points clear at the top of Ligue 1, and Marseille in 11th–but at last with reasons to be optimistic about the future.
Top three goals of the week
Kevin-Prince Boateng (Las Palmas): This is more like a goal of the season contender, with a flowing move culminating with a back-heel volley assist before a scissor-kick strike. Shame that Las Palmas went on to lose 2-1 to Villarreal.
Eder (Inter Milan): A long-range drive from the midfielder gave Inter hope at Atalanta, but Frank de Boer’s struggling side still lost 2-1.
Manuel Locatelli (AC Milan): The teenager has now scored two goals, both of which were sensational. This cracker was the winner against Juventus, whose goalkeeper Gigi Buffon won his first Italy cap before Locatelli was born!
Top three players of the week
Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City): Two marvelous individual goals in the win over Hull lifted Stoke out of the danger zone and should now kick-start its campaign.
Nabil Bentaleb (Schalke): The Algerian was signed as a defensive midfielder, but his brace against Mainz took Schalke out of the relegation places.
Samir Nasri (Sevilla): No one doubted Nasri’s talent, but Jorge Sampaoli has given the French midfielder the freedom to express himself–and dominate matches. It could help Sevilla mount a title challenge.