- Mario Balotelli was subjected to racist chants in France.
- Raheem Sterling was ultimately punished for doing the right thing and not diving vs. Tottenham.
- After a 40-game unbeaten run, the questions–and injuries–are piling up for Real Madrid.
All five of Europe’s top leagues were back in action this weekend, and there was drama aplenty. Manchester City played a great game but was unable to get past Spurs in a controversial 2-2 draw. Cristiano Ronaldo's form is once again dominating the talk in Spain, despite his Real Madrid getting back to its winning ways.
The Bundelsiga returned from its winter break, but one of Bayern Munich’s star players could be getting ready to say auf weidersehen (goodbye). In Italy, Juventus unveiled a new-look on and off the pitch, while Nice forward Mario Balotelli has demanded sanctions after he was the victim of racist abuse by Bastia fans in Corsica.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this week:
There was so much to take away from the Etihad during Manchester City’s compelling 2-2 draw with Tottenham.
Man City was back to its swashbuckling best, but unable to see out the game from 2-0 up. Gabriel Jesus made a late cameo appearance and looked just as good as the hype machine that had preceded him. City boss Pep Guardiola was left rubbing his face in astonishment at how Spurs, who under previous coaches would have capitulated to a heavy loss, somehow got anything out of the game (especially after Toby Alderweireld limped off, leaving them with two midfielders as center backs).
But the turning point came with City 2-1 up and Raheem Sterling clean through on goal. Behind him, England teammate Kyle Walker was struggling to keep up. As Sterling entered the penalty area, Walker put two hands on Sterling’s back and gave him a push–gentle enough for Sterling not to fall over, hard enough to put him off his shot, which was hit straight at the goalkeeper.
“I wasn't going to get the ball otherwise,” said Walker after the game. “You have to put him off as much as possible.”
Referee Andre Marriner ignored the penalty claims–and the red card that would have inevitably followed. One minute later, Spurs equalized to make it 2-2.
Sometimes players just cannot win: Sterling, one of England’s best talents, was unfairly made a scapegoat for England’s failure at Euro 2016. He was (unluckily) booked for diving against Barcelona earlier this season. Perhaps those two experiences informed his decision to stay on his feet. Had he gone down, you would have expected Marriner to penalize the foul. So what’s a player to do? How can we convince players not to dive, when officials don't give the right decisions if they don’t?
Guardiola did well to hold his tongue in the aftermath of the game–one can only imagine Jose Mourinho’s reaction to a similar incident. And if you could possibly put the scoreline and controversy to one side, this was one of City’s best performances under its new coach. If there's a silver lining, it's that City is still ahead of rival Manchester United, despite the swirl of negativity around the club.
Nice dropped points for the second week running and has now only won one of its last seven games. The 1-1 draw at relegation-threatened Bastia, though, could have other consequences after Mario Balotelli posted his thoughts on racist abuse he received from Bastia fans on Instagram.
"Is it normal that Bastia supporters make monkey noise end 'uh uh' for the whole game and no one of the 'commissions discipline' say nothing? So is racism LEGAL in France? Or only in Bastia? Football is an amazing sport .. those people like Bastia supporters make it horrible!" Balotelli wrote.
Nice had not complained to the Football League, the LFP, about the chants but the story took on a life of its own when BeIn Sports, which aired the game, dug out footage of fans making monkey noises in the direction of Balotelli and his teammates during the pre-match warmup.
The Football League issued a vague statement saying it will investigate; once it saw the footage, a new statement was released, condemning the insults "with the utmost firmness." Bastia then countered with a furious statement suggesting these claims were harming the fine standing of the club’s name. This is a standing that has seen repeated crowd problems over the years. Last year, a game was postponed after 100 people attacked a Corsican police station with Molotov cocktails following a Bastia game.
The LFP will investigate the claims later this week; it seems like a stadium ban is the most likely outcome. Is the story over? You’d think so, but this is Balotelli we are talking about. Which means, for some reason, it's not that simple.
A former Bastia defender, Julien Palmeri, defended his former club and suggested that Balotelli was looking for excuses after a poor game. That was not smart. Footage has also been released showing Bastia boss Francois Ciccolini saying to Balotelli in the tunnel: “Who the f**k do you think you are? Do you know where you are?” Balotelli, however, has behaved in an exemplary fashion. As he might well ask himself: "Why Always Me?"
What a busy January for Juventus. The Serie A leader bought Riccardo Orsolini from Serie B side Ascoli–he will join in the summer–and unveiled a new logo that divided public opinion. The "Double J" look clearly keeps the team’s black and white stripes, but loses the traditional shield that represents an old-fashioned coat of arms for many teams. Critics say it doesn’t look like a football badge; modernists say that’s why they like it. Overall, it was a triumph for Juventus’s marketing department. Even those who didn't like it were talking about it.
On the pitch, there was also a new-look Juventus, as coach Max Allegri changed things around for his 300th Serie A game in charge. Playing a 4-2-3-1 system with Sami Khedira in holding midfield alongside Miralem Pjanic, Juventus shocked in-form Lazio early on, scoring two goals in the first 17 minutes.
Allegri started with an attacking trident of Juan Cuadrado-Paulo Dybala-Mario Mandzukic behind Gonzalo Higuain, and all four combined for the goals. Mandzukic set up Dybala for the opener before Cuadrado crossed for Higuain for the second.
General manager Beppe Marotta called the system “curious and audacious” while Allegri, who praised Mandzukic’s work rate, hinted that he could use it again in Europe. Juventus faces FC Porto in next month's round of 16.
“It’s one of the options in the future,” he said. “Everyone was involved and played a great game as a team. This side has the technical quality to challenge anyone and we need to use all of that to succeed in Europe.”
Behind Juventus, Napoli beat AC Milan 2-1 thanks to goals from Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon, while Roma won 1-0 at Udinese. Both remain four points behind the new-look Bianconeri.
Real Madrid followed its Spanish-record, 40-game unbeaten streak with a pair of losses, first to Sevilla and then to Celta Vigo in the Copa del Rey. So it was a nervous Madrid that took to the field against Malaga, and edged through 2-1 thanks to two goals from Sergio Ramos, who has now scored eight goals this season (more than Gareth Bale’s seven).
But the team did not play well, and as it clung on at the end, boos rang out around the Bernabeu.
“It's in the difficult moments that we need the fans to be behind us, not kicking us when we are down,” Ramos, the club's captain, said. “We know how our fans are and we like the way they are. The objective is that we all take this forward together."
Coach Zinedine Zidane had plenty to ponder after the game, as Marcelo and Luka Modric both went off injured. Both could miss up to a month, which would mean them missing the Champions League last-16 first leg against Napoli. AS reported that 19 members of the Madrid squad have reported a total of 26 different injuries this season.
“We’ve got lots of games coming up and we also have lots of injuries,” said Zidane, who also watched Ronaldo limp off at the end.
Ronaldo hit the post against Malaga and his form, or lack of it, has been dominating the Madrid media this week. He’s not scored a league goal from open play since November, and he has scored three in his last six games in Spain. That’s almost a drought, by his standards.
"Cristiano, uphill January," was the AS headline last week, with his current run his worst in January since his first season back in 2009-2010. Spanish pundits are asking if this is just a slump, or the start of a decline. Real Madrid played better as a collective in the Copa del Rey win over Sevilla–without Ronaldo–compared to the Sevilla loss in which he played. As the season enters its decisive phase, the Ronaldo debate will intensify.
The second half of the season kicked off in Germany and many of the questions that lingered over the winter break were answered.
Can RB Leipzig keep up with Bayern? Yes, although it helped that Eintracht Frankfurt was reduced to 10 men after 131 seconds, when goalkeeper Lucas Hradecky was sent off at the start of a 3-0 win.
Will the surprise contenders Hoffenheim (won 2-0 at Augsburg), Hertha Berlin (lost 3-1 at Leverkusen) and Cologne (drew 0-0 at Mainz) be able to sustain their form? What about Borussia Dortmund, in sixth place at the break; can it get back into the top three? Winning 2-1 at Bremen pushed it up to fourth.
And which new signings will work out? In the cases of Wolfsburg, for whom Paul-Georges Ntep was outstanding, it looks positive; the same can be said for Schalke’s new No. 9, Guido Burgstaller, who waited until the last minute to score the winner against Ingolstadt.
The one question for first-place Bayern Munich is one of a longer-term impact. The club remains at the top, but needed to work hard–and rely on some late Robert Lewandowski brilliance–to edge past Freiburg on a freezing Friday night. But the question is regarding the future of 35-year-old Xabi Alonso, who will reportedly retire at the end of the season. It appears there won't be a China pay-day or MLS stint for one of the classiest midfielders of his generation.
Xabi Alonso has won titles at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. He won three international tournaments in a row for Spain from 2008-2012. And among his coaches were some of the best around: Rafa Benitez at Liverpool, Jose Mourinho in Madrid, and, in Germany, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti. He is smart and articulate–and already expected to be a great coach. There will be a race to sign him up on the sidelines this summer, whether it’s as an assistant, following the Zinedine Zidane path to managing a top club; as part of a youth set-up like Steven Gerrard at Liverpool; or even at Real Sociedad, where he began his career.
One thing is certain: You can expect to see his famous quote about tackling, which he gave in a 2011 interview with The Guardian come up a few times.
"I don't think tackling is a quality," he said. "It is a recurso, something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game… You will need it, but it isn't a quality to aspire to, a definition. It's hard to change because it's so rooted in the English football culture, but I don't understand it."
Admit it: you’re already excited about seeing him patrolling the touchline, in charge of a team.
Top three goals of the week
Lasse Schone (Ajax): Perhaps 12 yards is too close to the goal: Schone missed from the penalty spot, but he made no mistake from double the distance with this piledriver in Ajax’s win at Utrecht.
Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli): A wonderful left-footed strike into the top corner capped a smart counterattack and helped Napoli beat Milan 2-1.
Robert Lewandowski (Bayern Munich): Chest control, volley, and shot, almost all in the same movement, as Bayern’s center forward sealed a late win at Freiburg. Oh, and he was surrounded by defenders at the time. Pure class!
Top three players of the week
Paul-Georges Ntep (Wolfsburg): On his debut, the replacement for Julian Draxler was excellent and set up a late winner for Mario Gomez, as the Wolves moved further to safety following a third consecutive win.
Wayne Rooney (Manchester United): The Manchester United captain broke Sir Bobby Charlton’s all-time club scoring record with a stunning free kick from the corner of the area to seal a last-gasp draw at Stoke. In typical style, he barely celebrated the goal but dashed to get the ball and push for the win. A much-maligned talent, Rooney deserves more praise than he gets.
Edinson Cavani (PSG): Two goals for the striker, the second a brilliant free kick, kept the pressure on leader Monaco, which won 4-0 against Lorient. PSG is three points back but looking dangerous again.