• What Gareth Bale's new contract should mean for his world status, and Gonzalo Higuain's winner vs. old club Napoli headlined the weekend in Europe's top leagues.
By Ben Lyttleton
October 31, 2016

As Matchday Four of Champions League group stage looms, the weekend yielded yet another intriguing round of league action around Europe. The big three–Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid–all won in Spain, but there was one player who emerged as the real winner, hitting the jackpot with a lucrative new contract. It’s tight at the top in England too, with one point separating the top two sides, and even Watford moved into the top seven. Its new coach, Walter Mazzarri, has had a major impact in his short time there.

Elsewhere, Juventus extended its lead at the top of Serie A as Gonzalo Higuain scored the winner against his former side Napoli. In Germany, Bayer Leverkusen beat Wolfsburg to keep under-pressure Roger Schmidt at ease. Meanwhile, in France, speculation continues to swirl around the future of Marco Verratti at Paris Saint-Germain, while Mario Balotelli and Nice remain in first place. 

Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week:

Angel Martinez/Getty Images

Real Madrid, on Sunday, confirmed that Bale has signed a new contract until 2022 with a buy-out clause reportedly set at £900 million, meaning the rumors linking him to a Premier League return can finally cease. Bale has been a success in the Spanish capital, from the moment he ended his first season with a stunning goal in the Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona and the crucial goal to put his team ahead in the Champions League final too.

In Spain, he has won two Champions League titles, two UEFA Super Cups, a FIFA Club World Cup and a Copa del Rey. Now in his fourth season at Real Madrid, he has scored 50 goals in 90 league appearances.

So why are people down on him? Or at least, why is there not more pride in the United Kingdom that one of its own players, a product of the Southampton academy, is among the best in the world?

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Bale lost some goodwill during his second season, when his agent, Jonathan Barnett, complained that his teammates were not passing to him as much as they were to Karim Benzema or Cristiano Ronaldo. Barnett has the last laugh: Bale, now 27, will reportedly earn £350,000 per week and become the most expensive player in the world. Cristiano Ronaldo is close to a new deal and may yet overtake him.

It does seem peculiar that Bale, the talismanic figure in Wales’s run to the Euro 2016 semifinal, is not more popular. Where were the stories Monday praising his talents, off the pitch as much as on it, for making life work in a dressing room as complicated as Madrid’s?

Real Madrid is currently appealing a FIFA ruling banning it from registering players until January 2018. That has made tying down its current stars an absolute priority: Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Lucas Vazquez have all extended their deals in recent weeks. Bale may have benefited financially from this ruling but when it comes to the Hollywood-ization of the club, as Professor Anita Elberse argues in her excellent book "Blockbusters," Real Madrid knows and understands the value of its stars.

Bale was involved in two of Madrid’s goals in the 4-1 win at Alaves which kept the club narrowly ahead of Barcelona (two points back), and Atletico Madrid and Sevilla (three points). Once again Ronaldo took the headlines with a hat trick (and a missed penalty). Bale won’t mind: it keeps alive his chances of a first Spanish title–but this contract will ensure he has a few more years of trying. 

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Leonardo Bonucci said Gonzalo Higuain should celebrate if he scored against his former side, Napoli, in Serie A’s big game Saturday night, but as it happened, Bonucci was the one wheeling away in delight when his powerful volley opened the scoring in Turin. Jose Callejon equalized shortly after, but then the inevitable happened: a loose ball fell to Higuain 20 yards from goal and he drilled the ball past Pepe Reina to hand Juventus all three points. And, he did not celebrate.

Higuain began the night embracing former coach Mauricio Sarri on the touchline, and despite a quiet first half, he proved decisive when it mattered. Not that former Napoli hero Diego Maradona was overly impressed: on the occasion of his 56th birthday, he released a video thanking Napoli fans for their good wishes, and added: I don't care what Higain did. Let him follow his own path. I don't care.”

What Higuain did, though, was lift Juventus seven points clear of fifth-place Napoli and extend its lead over second-place Roma to four points, after the capital club's 0-0 draw at Empoli.

Napoli's next game is the Champions League clash against Besiktas, and the build-up will be overshadowed by a touchline row between Sarri and the subbed-off Lorenzo Insigne. 

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It’s hard for a smaller club to get much attention in the star-focused Premier League. Even when Watford beat Manchester United 3-1 earlier in the season, the post-match reports were all about United, its coach Jose Mourinho, and his team’s failings. Very little was talked about the deserving winner on that occasion.

Only when there is a problem does the smaller club move into the spotlight: and so it appeared last week, when The Daily Telegraph revealed that a forged bank document was used in the transfer of ownership to Gino Pozzo in 2014 when Watford was in the Championship. There is the threat of a fine or even points deduction; but such is the start that the team has made to life under new boss Walter Mazzarri, the latter might not hurt them too much.

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After Watford beat Hull 1-0 on Saturday–an own goal making the difference as Watford’s 22 shots failed to find the target–the team moved up to seventh in the Premier League and ahead of United. Mazzarri deserves enormous credit for this, not least because he has introduced a three-man defense to the side and still, in media conferences at least, communicates with an interpreter.

“At the beginning we did a great 30 minutes where we played beautiful and the way I want my team to play every game,” he said after the game.

Antonio Conte is not the only Italian coach making three at the back work in the Premier League. Watford is establishing itself as a Premier League side and Mazzarri has done a great job so far. 

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PSG beat Lille 1-0 Friday night to temporarily close the gap on leader Nice, whose 4-1 win over Nantes kept it six points clear, but the main talking point was again Marco Verratti, whose agent threatened to take him out of France.

“I remain stunned when I read certain criticism,” Donato di Campli told RAI Sport. “The French press ought to be honored and thank their lucky stars if Marco plays in Paris, otherwise they’d be reporting on friendly games between locals. If they continue like this, he really will leave Paris. It’s not just the media, but others who criticize him and don’t understand football. I speak to other clubs and coaches in other teams who think very differently.”

We have to take these comments with a pinch of salt, given that four days earlier, Le Parisien reported Di Campli saying: “Verratti wants to win the Champions League in France; for now, it does not move at PSG.”

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Verratti admitted that he has turned down interest from Real Madrid in the past, and PSG extended his contract this summer to ward off interest from Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan and Manchester United. PSG coach Unai Emery has said Verratti is an important player, but he is yet to get the midfield blend right this season.

Next summer could be an important one for Verratti, though it depends on if Emery has found a way to get the best out of him by then. 

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This was the season, according to Hertha Berlin boss Pal Dardai, that Bayer Leverkusen might challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title. Coming off a third-place finish last season and under the guidance of Roger Schmidt, a rising star in the manager realm, things were looking up. It hasn’t worked out like that, though, as Schmidt went into this past weekend's match against Wolfsburg knowing that an upturn in results was necessary.

For the man once tipped as a potential successor to Pep Guardiola as Bayern Munich boss, this season has been quite a comedown, not least because of last week’s Cup exit to third-division side Sportfreunde Lotte (that was on penalties, after Charles Aranguiz, normally dead-eye from the spot, missed the target for the second time in a month).

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Wolfsburg was an ideal opponent; winless since opening day, it fired coach Dieter Hecking last week and Valerien Ismael was the interim manager on the bench. Over teh weekend, Max Arnold put the Wolves ahead, but Leverkusen was the dominant side thereafter, and late goals from Admir Mehmedi and Tin Jedvaj gave Schmidt some breathing room.

His team travels to London this week to face Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley, and after three straight draws in its group, Schmidt needs another positive result. 

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Top three goals of the week:

Kevin-Prince Boateng (Las Palmas)

It was not quite as stunning as last week’s effort, but the charismatic midfielder scored with his diving volley for Las Palmas’s equalizer as it came back from 3-0 down to draw 3-3 with Celta Vigo.


Sergio Aguero (Manchester City): There seemed to be little room on the edge of the area but Aguero, who recently lost his place in Pep Guardiola’s side, fired home a rocket from the edge of the area in the rout of West Brom.

Max Philipp (Freiburg): Philipp seemed about to topple over during his dribble through the Werder Bremen defense but he kept his balance and scored in a 3-1 away win. 

Top three players of the week

Anthony Modeste (FC Cologne): A hat trick for the in-form striker against a woeful Hamburg side Sunday puts the Frenchman top of the scoring charts in the Bundesliga with 11 goals in nine games.

Tom Heaton (Burnley): The English goalkeeper made some fantastic saves to frustrate Jose Mourinho in the 0-0 draw with Manchester United.

Wylan Cyprien (Nice): Two goals and an assist for the 21-year-old, who has hit the ground running since his summer move from Lens.

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