As Champions League resumes, moves aplenty at top, bottom of Europe's major leagues
With the Champions League on the cusp of returning to action, headlines were made at the top and bottom of the five major leagues around Europe.
Premier League champion Leicester City lost again to increase fears of relegation. In Spain, Barcelona hit Alaves for six goals but lost a key player to injury in a Copa del Rey final preview. Bundesliga doormat Darmstadt shocked Borussia Dortmund in a surprising week in Germany, while French league leader Monaco continued its run of form–and goals–thanks to new star Kylian Mbappe. In Italy, meanwhile, things are looking grim for bottom side Pescara both on and off the field.
This is what caught our eye this week Around Europe:
PREMIER LEAGUE: Relegation fears, Ranieri's job security worsen at Leicester
TOP GOALS/PLAYERS OF THE WEEK: Fernando Torres's sensational overhead kick steals the show
Leicester's relegation fears worsen after listless loss at surging Swansea
Two points separate the five teams between second and sixth in the Premier League as the race for the Champions League places gets more tense by the week. Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Tottenham tightened the gap further, and even Chelsea dropping points kept it 10 clear of the pack.
The real intrigue in England, though, is at the bottom of the table, where Sunderland followed last week’s 4-0 win over Crystal Palace with a loss by the same scoreline at home to Southampton; Hull lost 2-0 at Arsenal. Crystal Palace lost 1-0 at Stoke. And in the biggest result of them all, Swansea continued its surge of form under new boss Paul Clement and beat Leicester City 2-0.
These are worrying times for the defending league champion, which is one place and one point off the drop zone with Liverpool, Hull and Arsenal next up on the schedule–and that’s after a Champions League knockout first leg against Spanish title contender Sevilla. The loss to Swansea marked five defeats in a row–and no goals scored–for Claudio Ranieri’s side. Even the coach can see that N’Golo Kante’s departure is not the only reason for this alarming slump. Throughout the team, players have regressed. Jamie Vardy has only scored five goals, Riyad Mahrez has not scored from open play since last April, and center backs Robert Huth and Wes Morgan look like their age (a combined 65).
Ranieri received a vote of confidence from the club board this week, but he has reportedly left the players bemused by some of his changes as he tries to get a performance out of them. There have been suggestions of a mole inside the Leicester camp who has briefed opponents about bad attitudes in the squad. He vowed to make changes for the upcoming set of cup games, against Millwall and Sevilla.
“Of course I must change something, because it is not possible to continue in this way,” he said.
With Swansea and Hull getting a momentum boost from their new managers, Leicester and Middlesbrough, with only four wins all season (the same number Clement has achieved at Swansea since January), are now sucked into the battle for survival. The challenge for the decision-makers at those clubs is whether to stick with the coach–Leicester did the same with Nigel Pearson in 2014-15, and survived, while Boro chairman Steve Gibson is one of the more patient owners–or twist, knowing that time is running out for any new man to make an impact.
Frings's Darmstadt inflicts Bundesliga's biggest shock on Dortmund
The law of the ex still works, it seems.
In one of the biggest shocks of the Bundesliga season, bottom side Darmstadt avenged its 6-0 defeat earlier in the season and beat Borussia Dortmund 2-1. It was Darmstadt’s first win since October, a run going back 12 matches and three coaches. In charge for this one was new boss Torsten Frings, once of Dortmund; this was his first top-flight win as a coach. And it was deserved.
Jan Rosenthal had hit the post before an ex-Dortmund player, U.S. striker Terrence Boyd opened the scoring from close range. It was Boyd’s first top-flight goal as well, coming just a few weeks after moving from RB Leipzig to the basement side.
Even after Raphael Guerreiro equalized for an under-strength Dortmund, which had a bench containing Marc Bartra, Ousmane Dembélé, Andre Schürrle, Shinji Kagawa and Gonzalo Castro, the visitor did not look like getting a winner.
Instead, Sidney Sam set up substitute Antonio-Mirko Colak who scored the winner. Darmstadt is four points from safety but the next two games, against relegation-threatened Augsburg and Werder Bremen–another one of Frings’s former clubs–could help its case. Boyd was born in Bremen and said on joining that it was an honor to play for Frings, who worked with the Bremen youth team and then as an assistant coach. Darmstadt sacked Norbert Meier in December and his temporary replacement, Ramon Brendroth, lost all three of his games in charge. Perhaps Frings, as the third choice, is the charm.
“Frings is a person who embodies directness and authenticity," Darmstadt president Rudiger Fritsch said amid his appointment. “He has the will and passion, which are precisely the characteristics that Darmstadt thrive on.”
The result puts more pressure on Frings’s opposite number, Thomas Tuchel, who was resting players ahead of Tuesday’s Champions League last-16 first leg at Benfica. He was criticized (“It was a wrong experiment,” wrote Bild) for picking Emre Mor, who set up the goal on his first start for three months, and giving a debut to Dzenis Burnic.
Dortmund is still eight points behind RB Leipzig, which was another surprise loser, at Hamburg; but with the mood tense at the club, Tuchel’s future could there depend on a run deep in the Champions League.
Rout in Copa del Rey final preview vs. Alaves comes at a cost for Barcelona
A Spanish side had suffered only one defeat in 17 games and won a midweek tie in the Copa de Rey semifinal. But this was not one of the big boys in a league often accused of lacking competitive balance.
This was Alaves, a team that only four years ago was in the regionalized third division and close to extinction. But now the newly promoted side has reached a cup final and has already shown its ability to compete with early-season results at Atletico Madrid (1-1, Matchday 1) and Barcelona (2-1, Matchday 3). January had been a little slow for Mauricio Pellegrino’s side, with four straight draws (including three 0-0s), but it burst into life last week as Edgar Mendez’s later winner over Celta Vigo propelled Alaves into a Copa del Rey showdown vs. Barcelona, the first Copa final in its 96-year history. The only time it has come close to a title was the 2001 UEFA Cup final, which it lost 5-4 to Liverpool.
Its weekend opponent was Barcelona, the team it will face in the final. Pellegrino made huge changes to the side, and as expected, the visitor came out on top: the 6-0 win was Barcelona’s biggest in the league of the season and the fourth time it has hit for six this season. Alaves remains in mid-table safety, and despite the result, this should be considered one of the best weeks in the club’s history.
While the result put Barcelona on top of La Liga, briefly–until Real Madrid beat Osasuna 3-1, going one point clear with two games in hand–the match left manager Luis Enrique with a headache. Barcelona right back Aleix Vidal was stretchered off late after a late clash with Theo Hernandez, and his damaged ankle ligament will keep him out until the end of the season.
Luis Enrique has to find cover for Tuesday’s Valentine’s Day, Champions League clash at Paris Saint-Germain. He could choose between Sergi Roberto and Javier Mascherano at right back; PSG’s January signing Julien Draxler has been excellent in his brief spell in France, and he will look to capitalize on one of the rare weaknesses in this Barcelona side.
In Monaco's treasure trove of talent, Mbappe is the crown jewel
Kylian Mbappé, tipped by some (yours truly included!) as one rising star to watch before the season began, scored the first hat trick of his career in Monaco’s 5-0 win over Metz. With Nice dropping points in a 2-2 draw at Rennes, it’s now shaping up to be a two-horse race for Ligue 1's title, with high-scoring Monaco three points ahead of reigning champion PSG.
With Manchester City showing signs of clicking into gear under Pep Guardiola, the Champions League clash between City and Monaco could be a cracker. Enormous credit is due for Monaco boss Leonardo Jardim, who continues to use Mbappé sparingly, despite his undoubted talent. Whereas Thierry Henry was a left winger who converted to a center forward, the 18-year-old Mbappé is already at ease playing through the middle. He has pace, trickery and a fantastic eye for goal. He's also grounded.
“I’m not a phenomenon,” he said to the media after the rout. “That’s what Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar are, and I’m a long way off.”
In France, however, they are asking if Mbappé will be better than Henry. It’s not relevant and not possible to measure. Instead, the question should be how long will Monaco be able to hold onto this prodigy. Bernardo Silva, Thomas Lemar and Tiemoue Bakayoko have all been linked with moves this summer. Monaco, a team known to sell its talent for top dollar, will not sanction the total break-up of this team. But it would increasingly seem that for all the talent in the squad, Mbappé is the jewel in the crown.
Pescara's season going up in flames after another defeat, president's car fire
It’s hard not to have some sympathy for Pescara coach Massimo Oddo. The former AC Milan and Italy defender is coaching his hometown team but has endured the worst of seasons. The newly promoted side sits at the bottom of Serie A and has not truly won a game this season despite "boasting" a 1-17-6 record. It's three-point haul came only after Sassuolo fielded an ineligible player, overturning what was a 2-1 defeat into a ceremonial 3-0 win. So the wonder is not so much what Oddo can do to improve things, but that he remains there at all.
This week could prove the final straw. Sunday’s game against Torino was the tip of the iceberg: Torino was 3-0 up inside quarter of an hour, 5-0 up on the hour. Pescara rallied to make it 5-3, but that did little to change the final analysis, which reads: 11 goals conceded in its last two games (last week it lost 6-2 to Lazio) and 15 defeats from its last 17 games.
In the week building up to the game, the car of president Daniele Sebastiani was set alight outside his house. Some suggested it was fans unhappy with the team; Sebastiani himself claimed it was a potential buyer trying to drive down the purchase price. As it stands, Sebastiani has insisted that Oddo has his support for the whole season. Whether the feeling is mutual remains to be seen: sports director Luca Leone apologized on behalf of the club after the game, and said that both he and Oddo are weighing up their futures.
As a Pescara fan, Oddo is particularly distraught by the team’s plight. If Oddo decides to step away, Gigi de Canio is a possible replacement.
Fernando Torres overhead kick tops weekend's best performances
Top three goals of the week
Fernando Torres (Atletico Madrid): Superb flick and overhead volley into the far corner from the in-form veteran forward (who later missed a penalty).
Johnny Howson (Norwich): A volley from a dipping high clearance that sailed into the top corner. An incredible strike from the midfielder.
Yves Bissouma (Lille): Dribble, jink, feint and smash the ball home. Not bad from the young Malian midfielder for relegation-threatened Lille.
Top three players of the week
Kylian Mbappé (Monaco): A hat trick for the highly rated teenager may increase the expectations on him, but could also give Manchester City a headache in their Champions League tie.
Sadio Mane (Liverpool): Two goals for the Liverpool forward helped closed the gap on Spurs in a comfortable–and needed–home win for the Reds.
Gonzalo Higuain (Juventus): Another brace for the Argentine forward, who will hope his form continues in Europe this month.