Around Europe: Familiar story for Arsenal; Stars emerge for Napoli, Monaco
- Arsene Wenger says he's been offered a two-year extension to stay at Arsenal, but will he move on?
- High-flying Napoli and Monaco are upstart sides to watch when the Champions League resumes.
- There was no shortage of hate for RB Leipzig at Dortmund's Westfallenstadion in a tense Bundesliga affair.
Another dramatic weekend in Europe’s big five leagues saw Chelsea extend its lead at the top as both Arsenal and Liverpool dropped points.
In Spain, Fernando Torres rolled back the clock for Atletico Madrid, while Borussia Dortmund came away with three points after a fierce, top-of-the-table clash against new Bundesliga rival RB Leipzig. High-flying Napoli moved into second in Serie A after scoring seven goals away from home, while in Ligue 1, Monaco continued its run of form, which could give European opponent Manchester City a headache once the Champions League resumes next week.
Here is what caught our eye around Europe over the weekend:
Groundhog day for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger after loss to Chelsea
We have been here before. Many times. Arsenal has now lost 11 of its last 12 fixtures at Chelsea, but that was not the only case of history repeating on Saturday.
Chelsea’s 3-1 win puts it 12 points clear of the Gunners and kills off what was left of Arsenal’s title challenge. Arsene Wenger’s side–with the manager still banned from the touchline–started well but had no response after Marcos Alonso had headed the host into the lead. The difference between the sides was summed up by Eden Hazard’s incredible solo goal that doubled the lead. Running from the halfway line, he shrugged off Laurent Koscielny, used his strength to see off Francis Coquelin, who bounced off him. He then twisted past Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi in the area and fired past Petr Cech. Jonathan Northcroft, writing in The Sunday Times, summed up Arsenal’s bedraggled defenders: “Mangled synapses and twisted blood.”
And so, the same conversations happen again, as they around this time every year. Where was Mesut Ozil in the big game? Does Alexis Sanchez really want to win more than his teammates, or does he just look like he does? Will Aaron Ramsey stay fit for a whole season? Should finishing in the top four be enough for a squad this talented? And of course, the killer question: should–and will–Wenger stay beyond this season?
The last one is perhaps the only one that matters now. Wenger confirmed after the game that he had been offered a two-year extension but said that he needs to feel more appreciation if he’s going to sign it. This is the dilemma at the club whose home defeat to Watford last week seemed to create a hangover effect at Stamford Bridge.
The biggest problem is that the future of Arsenal–whether it wins the league, progresses in Europe, or is just content to battle for the top four–is not up to the board. It’s up to Wenger himself. He has that much power that he decides whether he stays or goes; perhaps he wanted to go out on a high, having seen off the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho for one last time. That is unlikely; the next move is still his.
But this is Arsenal, and we have been here before. So you can probably guess what will happen next.
Tensions overflow from stands onto the field in Dortmund's win vs. RB Leipzig
The Dortmund fans made their disapproval of RB Leipzig perfectly clear on its visit to Westfalonstadion on Saturday. Banners were unfurled on the Yellow Wall stand behind one goal that read: "We are for the people’s sport, football, but against those who ruin it." Another came out which said, "Red Bull, enemy of football." There were some skirmishes between fans and on the pitch, the rivalry was all too clear to see.
Dortmund sees itself as representing traditional football club that represents its community; the difference with RB Leipzig, newly formed and seen by critics as a marketing vehicle, is obvious. But there also similarities between the two, not least in how they play, the type of players they recruit and the fact that RB Leipzig sporting director Ralf Rangnick was a former coach of and mentor to Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel.
This was a high-pressure game for Tuchel. His side, and not Rangnick’s, was expected to be pushing Bayern Munich for the title this season. And after Bayern dropped points in a lethargic draw against Schalke, this was an opportunity for both to close the gap. The host took it, thanks to a burst of speed and skill from Ousmane Dembele, who burst past two players and crossed for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to score the only goal. It moved Dortmund from seventh to fourth, still eight points behind Leipzig, which was missing key players Timo Werner and Emil Forsberg.
Leipzg thought it had salvaged a late point, but Federico Palacio Martinez’s goal was chalked off, correctly, for offside. The bad blood spilled over onto the benches, where Tuchel could be seen making a chatter-chatter gesture to the opposition after the offside call.
Dortmund deserved the win–Marco Reus could have doubled the lead in the second half–and Tuchel will hope he has enough in the tank to overhaul a new bitter rival. For Leipzig, even knowing its opponent was that rattled shows it is doing something right.
Fernando Torres turns back the clock for Atletico Madrid with two-goal showing
Fernando Torres rolled back the years for Atletico Madrid this weekend. After going 11 league games–and four months–without a goal, he scored both in Atletico’s win over Leganes.
His first was to react quickly to Antoine Griezmann penalty miss and touch home the rebound. Griezmann had failed to score from five of his last seven spot kicks, among them a miss in the Champions League final. Manager Diego Simeone shrugged it off by saying that Lionel Messi, Neymar and other great players have also missed penalties, but it's clear that he needs to take Griezmann off spot-kick duties for a while.
Torres’s second was a smart chop, reminiscent of the goal he scored in the Euro 2008 final against Germany. Torres is 32, and we are approaching that time of the season when contract talks come into view. Will he be offered a new one-year deal next season? Simeone loves the example he sets to the younger players with his work ethic and attitude in training. Sometimes a non-playing senior squad member can be a hugely important part of the group.
“He was not playing but he trained the same as always. That is his best virtue and I hope he stays on this same path now,” said Simeone after the game. "Renewing his contract depends on many factors: the club, sporting director and the coach. As always, it depends on results.”
Atletico faces Barcelona this week in the second leg of the Copa del Ray semifinal; it lost the first leg at home 2-1, so it is still in contention. For Barcelona, 3-0 winner over Athletic Bilbao, summer signing Paco Alcacer scored his first goal for the club. This correspondent always thought Torres himself would make a perfect back-up striker to the Barcelona front three of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez. Perhaps this is a chance for Torres, a notorious Barcelona killer, to remind the Blaugrana of that.
Napoli's fine-tuned attack rounds into form, hits for seven on the road
The visitors went wild away from home this week as Lazio beat Pescara 6-2 and Napoli went one better, destroying host Bologna 7-1 thanks to hat tricks from Marek Hamsik and Dries Mertens. The result put Napoli into second place ahead of Roma, which plays Fiorentina on Tuesday. It also put Mertens, the Belgian winger who has been converted to center forward after the early-season injury to Arkadiusz Milik, atop the Serie A scoring chart with 16 goals.
Mertens is Europe’s top marksman on current form. Since December he has scored 14 goals in 10 games, and his purple patch has coincided with Milik's return to fitness, as he stayed on the bench in Bologna.
Napoli is Serie A's top-scoring side and takes on Real Madrid in the Champions League in eight days. Mertens will keep his place for that one, said coach Mauricio Sarri.
“I don’t see the need to change system. We have the most prolific strike force in the league, so I should change it?”
He also paid tribute to Lorenzo Insigne, who “is playing at a level he perhaps has never reached before.”
This could also be a historic season for skipper Hamsik, who is now only six goals away from Diego Maradona’s record as all-time scorer with 115 goals.
“I hope to beat the record, and I’m happy to be getting close,” he said. Juventus remains six points clear at the top after beating Inter 1-0 on a phenomenal goal by Juan Cuadrado, but Napoli is keeping the pressure on, and it's three-headed monster may just concern Zinedine Zidane, too.
As La Gazzetta put it Sunday: "Sarri symphony for the three tenors."
Led by Bernardo Silva, Monaco could give Manchester City problems
Bernardo Silva is the best player in France at the moment, and once again he inspired Monaco to another impressive result, beating second-placed Nice 3-0 to throw a dent into Lucien Favre’s title chances with his upstart side. It’s been a rocky month for Nice, with one win in its last six games. It is down to third place but 12 points clear of fourth-placed Lyon, so it remains in pole position for a European spot.
At the top, though, Monaco seems irrepressible. Leonardo Jardim has constructed a devastating attacking side, with fullback Benjamin Mendy setting up two goals for Radamel Falcao. For all the talk of Monaco being brilliant at developing its own talent, the real skill is in spotting talents and signing them quick–the likes of Anthony Martial (Lyon), Thomas Lemar (Caen) and Tiemoue Bakayoko (Rennes) all started out elsewhere. Some of the stars of this season, Mendy (signed from Marseille) and fellow fullback Djibril Sidibe (Lille), are both in their debut seasons at the club. And in the midfield, keeping things ticking, is Silva, signed from Benfica at 19 and according to the French press, the subject of an €80 million bid from Manchester United last month.
Silva will be in Manchester soon: for the Champions League round-of-16 series against Manchester City, who itself is coming into a run of form. Monaco has already proved it can beat Premier League sides, knocking out Arsenal in 2015 and Tottenham in this season’s group stage. The assumption is that City, with its big-name players and a semifinal appearance last season, should ultimately prevail. But look at Monaco’s performances–it is still the highest-scoring side across Europe’s top five leagues–and this is no easy tie for City.
Monaco reached the final in 2004 when Didier Deschamps was boss. Write Monaco off at your own peril.
Hazard, Cuadrado score weekend's best goals around Europe
Top three goals of the week
Eden Hazard (Chelsea): A run from the halfway line left Laurent Koscielny and Francis Coquelin in a tangle as the Chelsea winger helped extend the Blues’ lead at the top of the table.
Juan Cuadrado (Juventus): The Colombian’s first goal of the season lit up the Derby D’Italia, as Juventus edged Inter Milan 1-0.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Dortmund): For the assist as much as the header, this was a brilliant piece of skill from Ousmane Dembele to seal a win over RB Leipzig.
Top three players of the week
Romelu Lukaku (Everton): Four goals for the Everton forward, who took advantage of some gifts from the Bournemouth defense in a crushing 6-3 win.
Mohamed Elyounoussi (FC Basel): A first-half hat trick for the FC Basel winger in the win over Lugano. He could be the next big summer sale for the Swiss leader.
Gabriel Jesus (Manchester City): The Brazilian teenager is currently keeping Sergio Aguero out of the City side, and his last-minute winner could yet prove vital in the race for top four.