- Liverpool has won just once in eight games, but there is hope on the horizon.
- Barcelona's controversial no-goal has sparked the goal-line technology debate in Spain.
- After years of PSG's dominance, Ligue 1 finally has a title race worth watching.
There was another exciting weekend of football across the continent as the FA Cup in England produced plenty of shocks, among them Liverpool losing a second cup match in four days.
Real Madrid, with Cristiano Ronaldo returning to his goal-scoring ways, extended its lead at the top of La Liga after Barcelona dropped points in a controversial draw at Real Betis, one that sparked the goal-line technology discussion.
Wins for the top two in Germany increased the pressure on Borussia Dortmund, where the future of coach Thomas Tuchel has suddenly come under scrutiny. Inter Milan is Italy’s in-form team after a seventh straight win, while the top-of-the-table clash in France ended in a draw, which suited visitor Monaco just fine.
Here is what caught our eye around Europe this week, as the transfer winds swirl with the deadline creeping closer.
It was not a good week for Liverpool. Three home losses–to Swansea, Southampton (League Cup) and tier-two Wolverhampton (FA Cup)–extended its poor run of form to one win in its last eight games across all competitions. The scrutiny has intensified on coach Jurgen Klopp and his selection policy, not to mention the club’s recruitment department, the success of which is an on-going cause of distress for fans.
This cannot have come as a total surprise to anyone who saw Klopp’s struggles with the winter fixtures last season. This time last year, Liverpool won two matches out of 10–those wins were an FA Cup replay win over lowly Exeter and a 5-4, get-out-of-jail result against Norwich. The team also lost to Leicester, Manchester United and West Ham and drew with Sunderland. Klopp demands what he calls "heavy-metal" football from his players and the fact is, with his current squad, they cannot maintain the performance level when the fixtures come thick and fast, all this despite the fact that figures show Liverpool players have covered the most distance in league games in January.
There have been mitigating factors: Joel Matip and Philippe Coutinho have been hurt, and the former had a clearance fiasco with FIFA; Daniel Sturridge has lost his form; and Sadio Mane has been absent due to the Africa Cup of Nations. Klopp rotated his side for the FA Cup tie, but he cannot win either way: he wants to give young players from the academy a chance, but is then accused of disrespecting the tournament once he does. Welcome to England, Jurgen.
While the debate about Klopp’s record in cup competitions continues–he has reached seven semifinals and won one trophy–there is some optimism on the horizon. As February approaches, the European fixtures kick off again, and it won't be Liverpool playing twice a week anymore. It will be its rivals for a top-four spot–Arsenal and Manchester City in the Champions League, Spurs and Manchester United in the Europa League.
Liverpool is back to playing just once a week now, which should work in its favor. The only other top-six side with no European action is Chelsea, Liverpool’s opponent on Tuesday. It could get worse before it gets better for Klopp. But it should get better soon after.
Barcelona dropped more points in a 1-1 draw at Real Betis Sunday afternoon, in a match that will go down as the moment the goal-line technology debate got serious in Spain. Barcelona, without Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, was second-best for much of the contest, and it fell behind when Alex Alegria finally headed home past Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
That kicked the visitor into action and minutes later came the controversial incident. Aleix Vidal crossed from the right, and Neymar was the target in the box but went down claiming a penalty. The ball cannoned off a defender and headed towards the goal, where Aissa Mandi cleared it away–with the ball, that most angles showed, well behind the goal line. The goal was not given, but Barcelona picked up its point when Luis Suarez converted in the last minute.
“We deserved to score sooner," Suarez said after the game. "The ball was clearly a meter over the line. The referees are trying to do their work and so must we.”
Luis Enrique added: “Technology can help, I've already said that. It's clear that the referees need help.”
Neymar was more succinct, posting a picture of the ball over the line on his Instagram account with the message "HAHAHAHAHAHA."
A Marca poll showed over 90% of fans wanting goal-line technology introduced in Spain. Its introduction in Germany and England has been well-received; only last week, in the EFL Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Southampton, GLT deemed that a goal had not crossed the line after Fraser Forster scrambled it away in the nick of time. There was no controversy, no drama–just the correct decision.
The debate will still continue as to whether technology should influence other areas of the game, like offside or penalty decisions, but for now the GLT system is working well. AS reported that Spain’s referees’ committee is in talks to have a system on trial next season, but the Spanish league’s preferred GLT system has not been approved by FIFA (those in Germany and England have been). This incident will expedite the push for change.
Borussia Dortmund coach Thomas Tuchel returned to his past as he went to former club Mainz for Sunday’s 1-1 draw–further losing ground on Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, who both won again–but it was his future that dominated the post-match analysis. The highly rated German is halfway through his three-way contract, which expires after next season. He was asked about a possible extension but said he wanted to wait until the end of the season to think about it.
Why was he asked now? The German press reported last week that Tuchel did not know about the signing of Swedish rising star Alexander Isak, and his relationship with CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke and sporting director Michael Zorc is cold. It has been alleged that he stopped talking to chief scout Sven Mislintat after the failed transfer of Oliver Torres last summer. Tuchel played down any issues, saying that signing young players like Emre Mor, Ousmane Dembele and Isak was more down to Zorc, but a short-term signing would have more of the coach’s input.
There are two things going on here: Dortmund continues to pick up the best young talents around–even seeing off Real Madrid for Isak–but the best young coach around is far off from a title challenge, which was the expectation entering the season.
Tuchel could rightly argue that losing three big players in the summer, Mats Hummels, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Ilkay Gundogan, has made his job that much harder. But if the relationship at the top level continues to cool, then top clubs across Europe will be keeping a close on developments.
The form team in Italy is not leader Juventus, despite its 2-0 win over Sassuolo. On a weekend when second-placed Roma lost to Sampdoria and third-placed Napoli drew at Udinese, Inter Milan took advantage of the opportunity to close the gap in the race for the Champions League places. After beating Pescara 3-0, Inter is now up to fourth and only three points behind Napoli.
New coach Stefano Pioli has overseen eight wins in 10 league matches since replacing Frank de Boer, and the current run, seven league wins and nine consecutive wins in all, is the club's best run for five years. Piolo has not made sweeping changes to the team, though he has brought back Marcelo Brozovic and Geoffrey Kodogbia after their exclusions under De Boer.
This is a decisive week for Pioli, as Inter faces the coach’s former side, Lazio, in the Coppa Italia quarterfinals before hosting Juventus next week. That should give a good indication of what this team is capable of.
“We’re doing good things, but I am sure we can do even better,” said Pioli. “I have players of a high level, but we’ve not yet reached our peak and that should give us real confidence going forward. We’ve done nothing yet, we are not in the position we want to be or playing the football we want.”
Pioli has his players working as a team and Inter, finally, is reaping the reward. Taking the next step and pushing for top-three is the next challenge.
Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta were among the crowd at Parc des Princes to watch Ligue 1’s title contenders Paris Saint-Germain and Monaco play out a 1-1 draw in a tense game that burst into life late. Chances were at a premium, but it was the visitor who looked the more likely winner, with PSG goalkeeper Kevin Trapp called into action to keep out Radamel Falcao and Tomas Lemar, injuring himself in the process.
PSG missed the midfield link play of Marco Verratti, while Blaise Matuidi was off his game. Monaco keeper Daniel Subasic kept out Edinson Cavani from a tight angle but PSG’s best threat came from the right flank, where Thomas Meunier was superb. It was the Belgian who won the penalty from which Cavani opened the scoring with nine minutes left. At that point it seemed PSG had done enough to join Monaco atop the table, but shortly after, Alphonse Areola had kept out Kylian Mbappe’s effort, and then Bernardo Silva scored to make it 1-1.
Monaco, which plays Guardiola's Manchester City in the Champions League round of 16, remains three points clear of PSG and level with Nice, whom it plays next week, at the top. Win that next matchup, and Leonardo Jardim’s side can rightly call itself the title favorite. Still only one result behind, though, PSG cannot be written off.
It's worth mentioning, too, that also in the crowd in the French capital was Roberto Mancini, who has been linked with the PSG coaching job in case Unai Emery’s first season does not go according to plan.
At last, for many reasons, France has a title race worth following.
Top three goals of the week
Steven Defour (Burnley): The Belgian midfielder tallied a goal and an assist against Bristol City, with his strike a sublime chip that seemed to float over the goalkeeper in a different time vortex.
Allan Saint-Maximin (Bastia): The winger showed a clean pair of heels to the Caen defense with a remarkable turn of pace to score on a lengthy run in his side’s 1-1 draw.
Nadiem Amiri (Hoffenheim): A superb team goal on the counter, which did to Leipzig what it normally does to other sides. Wonderful pace and one-touch passing.
Top three players of the week
Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich): A nice way to mark a contract extension for the flying Dutchman, who hammered in Bayern’s winning goal in its labored 2-1 win over Werder Bremen.
Bafetimbi Gomis (Marseille): A hat trick for the Marseille striker in the 5-1 win over Montpellier. New signing Dmitri Payet will soon be providing him with more chances as Marseille pushes for a top-four finish.
Jose Antonio Reyes (Espanyol): The former Sevilla winger haunted his old side, scoring one and setting up another as Espnayol shocked the title chaser with a 3-1 result.