Races tighten in La Liga, Serie A; Manchester City stumbles again
- Sevilla ends Real Madrid's unbeaten streak and thrusts itself fully into title contention in Spain.
- Juventus's slip-up at Fiorentina opens the door for Roma to end the Old Lady's run in Serie A.
- Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are left with another head-scratching result following a 4-0 loss to Everton.
While the Bundesliga continues to remain on break, the title races came alive in two of Europe's other preeminent leagues as Real Madrid and Juventus both slumped to surprise defeats to reignite the drama atop La Liga and Serie A.
In England, Pep Guardiola has more problems to deal with at Manchester City, which is now out of the Champions League spots and 10 points behind Chelsea in the Premier League. Meanwhile, there is a new owner in Ligue 1 at one of France's clubs hoping to rebound and rediscover greatness.
This is what caught our eye around Europe this weekend:
Real Madrid's unbeaten streak ends, as Sevilla reignites La Liga title race
There were times when Real Madrid did not play very well during its Spanish-record, 40-match unbeaten run; some games where it was reliant on the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo or Gareth Bale to get a result. So there was some irony to the performance that ended the eight-month run; in Sunday's 2-1 defeat at second-place Sevilla, Real Madrid played some its best football of the 41 games. And still, it was not enough.
What an advertisement for La Liga this was; the third time these two sides had met in 10 days, after Real Madrid edged through the Copa del Rey quarterfinal thanks to Karim Benzema's equalizer at the death and Sergio Ramos’s chipped Panenka penalty the preceded it in their midweek second leg. Ramos began his career at Sevilla and was jeered furiously every time he touched the ball only to have the final word.
In a sign of how seriously Zinedine Zidane was taking the threat of Sevilla in the league–only one point behind the top now–the Madrid coach played a three-man defense for the first time, in the hope of matching Jorge Sampaoli’s system. Sampaoli, meanwhile, went for four at the back.
The manner in which Madrid’s run ended could not have been more dramatic. After going ahead through Ronaldo’s penalty midway through the second half, the visitor looked like it would hold. Indeed, Ronaldo almost broke away for a second before he was halted by the excellent Steven N’Zonzi, a player remarkably overlooked for the France national team and likely to leave Sevilla–if not this month, then in summer.
The equalizer came from a source close to home: Ramos, Madrid’s hero in midweek and so often its late-goal savior, headed into his own net with five minutes left. It was only his second own goal in 685 appearances. In true Sampaoli style, Sevilla pushed for the win and January signing Stevan Jovetic made it two goals in two games (both against Real Madrid) when his last-minute shot flew past Keylor Navas to seal a dramatic win.
Two points now separate the top three. Barcelona is in third after a 5-0 win over Las Palmas. Zidane was perhaps a bit optimistic after the game, but he could have no complaints. Madrid has pushed its luck at times over this run, and it simply ran out.
Sevilla, on the other hand, is a genuine title contender. Just as Diego Simeone breathed life into Atletico Madrid, so has his fellow Argentine Sampaoli hauled Sevilla into contention. This will only strengthen speculation that Barcelona will want him as its coach next season. But before then, Sampaoli is on the brink of something special in Seville.
Roma closes gap on Juventus, giving Serie A a title race–for a change
The title race is open again in Italy, too, as Fiorentina beat Juventus 2-1 to leave the leader only one point ahead of Roma, a 2-1 winner over Udinese, although it has a game in hand.
Fiorentina was worthy of the win, courtesy of goals from Nikola Kalinic and Milan Badelj. Kalinic was linked with a move to China this month–and a €45 million offer would certainly give the club something to think about. The win moves Fiorentina to within six points of European places, and gives coach Paulo Sousa a platform for the second half of the season.
“Determination, belief, courage and ambition are elements I’ve been trying to instill in my team and each individual player from the start,” he said after the game. “Naturally when we have those elements, the quality of our football improves. This victory must boost our self-belief, so we know that we can achieve great things and play like this every week.”
As a former Juventus player, Sousa's notable result against the team will no doubt add him to the list of possible names to replace Max Allegri in Turin, should the time come sooner than later.
Allegri was criticized for not playing Miralem Pjanic, whom he said had a muscle strain, and his postgame soundbite was the standard, "The title is not won in January." If Juventus wins its game in hand, it would still be four points clear, but Roma is on a great run of form (it's won six of its last seven Serie A matches), and so is Juventus’s next opponent, Roma rival Lazio. The current leader and five-time reigning champion is still the favorite, but this season does not look like the procession it has been it recent years.
More headache for Pep after Manchester City falls 10 points out of first
Last week it seemed like business as usual at Manchester City. It beat West Ham 5-0 in the FA Cup, and the strikers looked like scoring every time they poured forward. Fast forward a week and what a different outlook the Citizens are facing. Shambolic defending in a 4-0 defeat to Everton has left the early title favorite 10 points behind first-place Chelsea and with Pep Guardiola re-aligning his ambition for the season as simply finishing in the top four.
The English press seems to take pleasure from Guardiola’s travails, as if winning trophies at Barcelona and Bayern Munich were easy and it’s only "the tough Premier League" that is a true test for him. That's not correct, though. At City, the squad he inherited was far less coherent (and collectively, less talented; and perhaps, less adaptable) than at his previous clubs.
Guardiola has been criticized further for his decision to jettison Joe Hart for Claudio Bravo at the start of the season. Bravo conceded four goals from four shots at Everton and has let in 14 from the last 22 he has faced. City’s defense gives Bravo little help, though. For all the debate about John Stones’s form, Nicolas Otamendi has rarely looked worth his transfer fee while Guardiola is now using Pablo Zabaleta as a holding midfielder alongside Yaya Toure. It worked with Philipp Lahm, but he is not having the same success with the Argentine.
City spent a lot of money in the summer on freshening up the squad, and reducing its average age. Guardiola was expected to do the rest. That has patently not happened; although, as was shown in the Champions League in over Barcelona, this team can still hit new heights, albeit not on a consistent basis.
The Pep versus Jose narrative from the start of the season now looks like bubbling into a battle for fourth place between the two. Both may yet finish outside the top four. It’s not quite what either coach could have imagined entering the campaign.
New owner Gerard Lopez aims to restore success at Lille
A margin of four points is all that separates the bottom eight teams in France, with only two between those placed 13 and 18. It is tight. This makes it a particularly interesting time for someone to buy one of the clubs down there, as Gerard Lopez a half-Spanish, half-Luxembourgeoise businessman, did last week in purchasing a majority stake in Lille. Negotiations for this deal lasted over a year, and fans are excited because Lopez reportedly wants to hire Marcelo Bielsa as coach and Luis Campos, formerly of Monaco, as sporting director.
Lille, which sits in 13th place on 22 points, won the title as recently as 2011 and kick-started the careers of Eden Hazard, Mathieu Debuchy, Yohan Cabaye and Sofiane Boufal. Previous owner Mathieu Seydoux has spoken of his desire to “not find a buyer, but a successor… some with the vision, ability and desire to help the club to win titles.” At the moment, the team lacks a standout from the academy and this is something Lopez wants to address.
Lopez tried to buy Lens in 2013, and he was in talks with Marseille in the past. He has insisted that Lille is not his Plan B, but with Marseille under new ownership and with Rudi Garcia (ex-Lille) in charge, Ligue 1 is shaping up nicely with teams to challenge the recent PSG hegemony. Nice and Monaco are both three points clear of PSG at the top of the table, while Marseille is in sixth and looking to spend big this window.
If Lopez’s plan works out–and there is no guarantee, given the fate of many smart businessmen who take over football clubs–then Lille could be back competing at the top in the next few years. This is actually what PSG's Qatari owners wanted all along–some competition for its own side.
Carroll's bicycle kick, Jovetic's winner headline weekend's top performers
Top three goals of the week:
Andy Carroll (West Ham): With Dimitri Payet in the dog house, Carroll delivered a scissor-kick that had everything for the Hammers striker better known for his heading ability.
Thomas Lemar (Monaco): An acute-angled chip from the edge of the area for another French talent Monaco can expect to sell for a nice windfall in the coming seasons.
Nicolas de Preville (Lille): A powerful shot from the edge of the area soared into the roof of the net in Lille’s 1-1 draw at Saint-Etienne.
Top three players of the week
Tom Davies (Everton): The homegrown midfielder on his third Premier League start scored in the win over Manchester City–and gave Yaya Toure an afternoon to forget.
Stevan Jovetic (Sevilla): Only signed last week on loan from Inter, the Montenegrin scored the winner for Sevilla that ended Real Madrid’s 40-match, eight-month unbeaten run–one game after scoring on his debut, also against Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey.
Bernardo Silva (Monaco): The Portuguese playmaker is heading for a huge summer move if he keeps up this form. Monaco is Europe’s top scoring side and a possible Champions League dark horse; Silva instigated the 3-1 win at Marseille and even scored the third.