With Champions League quarters on horizon, some eye-opening results around Europe
- Dele Alli starred for Tottenham again; What's the key to making sure he doesn't bolt?
- Bayern Munich routed Borussia Dortmund, whose manager was not surprised by the lopsided result.
- Napoli's hometown hero could be forced to head elsewhere amid a contract dispute.
There were some shock results across Europe this week as the big clubs prepared for the Champions League quarterfinals this week.
Barcelona and Real Madrid both dropped points in La Liga, which also said farewell to prolific Sevilla sporting director Monchi. In Germany, Bayern Munich handily beat Borussia Dortmund in Der Klassiker, although both teams face bigger challenges this week.
Dortmund's Champions League opponent, Monaco, continues to win in France, but its progress is building up to fixture congestion at the worst possible time.
As for clubs not in the European picture this season but aiming for glory next season, Tottenham cemented its place as Chelsea's closest challenger in the Premier League with another impressive victory at home, while Lorenzo Insigne's future has come into focus at Napoli.
Here is what caught our eye Around Europe this week:
Keeping Pochettino is Tottenham's key to maintaining its young, star core
There was a moment during Tottenham’s 4-0 win over Watford–a result that, if anything, was kind on the losing side–when you wondered if Dele Alli’s dark side might reappear. He had dribbled past three players on the left wing, showing considerable agility in the process, before Daryl Janmaat hacked him down. It was just the type of challenge that last year would have had him jumping up in disgust to face down his provocateur. It didn't happen.
A few minutes later, he tangled with Jose Holebas and the pair briefly exchanged views. Alli was ushered away by teammates. This is the fine line that Alli treads; for most of the game, he was outstanding, finding pockets of space between a patched-up Watford defense and scoring a glorious opening goal to set Spurs on its way.
“He’s special, a bit different to all the players that play now at his age,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said after the game. “His energy, his character, his quality. I think he is a unique player.”
Alli is the latest young English Spurs player to improve his abilities under Pochettino. After Harry Kane was last month hailed as a ‘three-season wonder’ for continuing the form of his breakout season, this time Alli has confirmed his potential, and will surely be in the running for the league’s Player of the Year award (after winning Young Player of the year last season). Alli has now scored 15 goals this season and was linked earlier this week to Real Madrid, whose former assistant coach Paul Clement (before Alli scored against his Swansea side), said: “Why can’t he make the step up? He’s still so young. All the best players get linked with Real Madrid.”
In the last two seasons, no team has won more cumulative points than Spurs. This young team plays exciting and vibrant football and has smartly signed its key assets to long-term contract to ward off big club offers this summer–Alli signed a deal running to 2022 last September. In recent weeks, Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker have all been linked with big-money moves to clubs below them in the Premier League. But why would they want to leave the club now?
The same must be true of Alli, who turns 21 Tuesday. Like that of his teammates, his future seems inextricably linked to that of Pochettino. As long as the coach is in charge, this team will stay together and can realistically compete for the Premier League title next season.
Alli, like all the Spurs players, speaks highly of his Argentine coach.
“It is nice to have a manager behind me who backs me and trusts me as much as he does,” he said last month.
The task for Spurs chief executive Daniel Levy is to keep Pochettino in charge for as long as possible. That’s the best way of keeping this talented side together.
There's good reason for Bayern Munich's rout of Dortmund in Der Klassiker dud
Has there been a more low key edition of Der Klassiker in recent seasons? The clash between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund had little riding on it short of getting into best possible shape for this week’s Champions League quarterfinal first legs, with Dortmund playing at Monaco Tuesday while Bayern faces Real Madrid the next day. After all, Bayern has as good as wrapped up another title, while Dortmund, currently in fourth, should have enough time to overhaul the one-point gap with third-placed Hoffenheim to secure automatic Champions League qualification.
While Bayern’s 4-1 win told its own story–the reigning champion is clicking into form just at the right point of the season–this lacked the intensity of previous encounters. Dortmund is still decimated by injuries, and coach Thomas Tuchel claimed not to be surprised by the result, which was never in doubt after Franck Ribery and Robert Lewandowski scored inside the opening 10 minutes.
“Anything other than this dominance [by Bayern] and this result would have taken me by surprise,” said Tuchel, comparing Bayern to Real Madrid or Barcelona. In his defense, he picked an inexperienced team, with six players making their first appearance in Munich and another, Sebastian Rode, who had been out for six months.
It could have been closer, too. At 3-1, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang missed a one-on-one opportunity, and Bayern went up the other end and scored again.
Against Monaco this week, we will be able to compare two teams with the best young squads in the game, but Aubameyang cannot afford to miss those chances then (like he also did against Benfica in the round of 16 first leg). Tuchel will hope that Julian Weigl, Shinji Kagawa and Lukasz Piszczek will all be available, while Marco Reus could be back for the second leg. And as for facing Bayern again, Dortmund will have the chance for revenge in the German Cup semifinal at the end of this busy month.
As for Bayern, this preparation match for Madrid could hardly have gone any better. Arjen Robben scored a brilliant third and is in fine form; the only concern was Lewandowski, possibly Bayern’s only irreplaceable player, going off early with a sore shoulder, but he reassured that he'll be ready for Wednesday.
Bayern's form has been impressive since the turn of the year; more than Dortmund, or any other team in the Bundesliga, its closest rivalry is probably with Real Madrid. After this result, former Bernabeu boss Carlo Ancelotti will go into the game confident of eliminating the reigning European champion.
Monchi sets out on new challenge after impressive reign as Sevilla sporting director
It was a significant weekend in La Liga as Real Madrid dropped two points in the Madrid derby, thanks to Antoine Griezmann’s late equalizer for Atletico. Barcelona failed to capitalize and was beaten 2-0 at Malaga and had Neymar sent off in the process. The most significant story involved fourth-placed Sevilla: there were tears when Ramon Rodriguez Verdejo saw the sign made in his honor outside Sevilla’s Ramon Pizjuan stadium. The sign read: Glory eternal. Legend Sevillista.
Verdejo, better known as Monchi, has been Sevilla’s sporting director for 17 years, but Saturday was his last game in charge. In that period, the club has won 11 trophies–each one marked with a replica trophy displayed on the pitch before the game–and earned millions in sell-on fees from the talents he has discovered.
It was appropriate that Stevan Jovetic, his final signing–No. 151–should score the opening goal in Sevilla’s 4-1 win over Deportivo. Pablo Sarabia, probably Monchi’s best deal of last summer, also scored.
Monchi is one of the leading sporting directors of his generation. He recently told Radio Marca his favorite team of players he had signed and it was this: Palop; Dani Alves, Navarro, Escude, Adriano; Rakitic, Poulsen, Banega, Renato; Fabiano, Kanoute. Not bad, and plenty of quality players–among them Seydou Keita, Geoffrey Kondogbia and Carlos Bacca–failed to make the cut.
How will Sevilla cope? In the short-term, there are concerns that coach Jorge Sampaoli, said to be on the wanted list as Argentina national coach and a potential candidate for the Barcelona job, might not stay, while midfielder Steven Nzonzi is set for an elite-club move.
Monchi has not yet confirmed his next move, though reports from Italy suggest he will become Roma’s sporting director; Paris Saint-Germain and Arsenal have also been linked. Monchi was a player at Sevilla and understood the club from top to bottom. He knew what made it tick.
Dr. Dan Parnell, who teaches a course in sporting directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University, defines the role as being “the guardian of the club’s future, to protect the owner’s investment and bring on-field success through effective leadership and decision making in the short, medium and long-term.” Or as Monchi put it: “No one takes a ‘what great economic results’ banner to the stadium.”
We know that the Monchi method works in Seville; but is it transferable? Can he be just as successful elsewhere, in a new league with different demands? Monchi is pushing himself to a new and tougher challenge. As a leading sporting director, if he is successful, expect more clubs to devote more resources to recruiting the experts who recruit the players.
Contract squabble could force hometown hero Insigne out of Napoli
Lazio began the weekend as the most likely challenger to Roma and Napoli for a top-three spot in Serie A, and last week Simone Inzaghi’s side beat Roma to reach the Coppa Italia final. That form did not continue into Sunday’s home game against Napoli, who won 3-0 in a performance inspired by Lorenzo Insigne. He scored two goals and made a goal-line clearance in the important victory.
“Tonight was an important stepping stone, now we go to the end of the campaign and try to get as many points as possible,” said Napoli coach Maurizio Sarri, who is looking to chase down Roma, four points ahead. “I hope all these lads will remain with us and the others can really come in properly, because we couldn’t use [Arkadiusz] Milik for long periods due to injury. When he gets back to full fitness, he can do great things here.”
More pressing, though, is the future of Insigne, whose latest contract talks have been running since before the start of the season. Gazzetta dello Sport reported Monday that no agreement is close, with the main obstacle being the player’s request for a 50% image rights clause. Napoli president Aurelio de Laurentiis is refusing to budge, which will alert interested clubs from the Premier League.
Insigne gave a candid interview to TV station RAI last month about the hold-up in the talks.
“From the summer I’ve taken some steps back from what I was asking earlier financially,” he said. “I want to play for my city. There were other clubs willing to offer me more even when I was still in the youth team. I had some offers then but didn’t feel the need to chase money. My dream was to play for Napoli ... If this dream ends one day it won’t be my fault.”
Last week, Gonzalo Higuain seemed to blame De Laurentiis for his departure from Napoli to Juventus; it looks like Insigne will be next to go, although the local boy would surely draw the line at moving to Juventus … right?
Monaco's success leads to congestion headache for season home stretch
Monaco is still atop Ligue 1 after edging past Angers 1-0 on Friday, much to the relief of coach Leonardo Jardim, who rested Tomas Lemar, Djibril Sidibé and Kylian Mbappé with the Champions League quarterfinals on the horizon.
Monaco was second best for much of the game, which was decided by Radamel Falcao’s winning goal on the hour mark in what was his first appearance after six matches out. Angers created more chances, but had one of those nights where it couldn't finish. Monaco is usually so free-scoring, but this was a hard-fought victory that gives conviction to its title hopes. Sometimes champion sides need to win ugly.
But the fixtures are piling up: Borussia Dortmund is the Champions League opponent this week, followed by Dijon, Lyon away and then Paris Saint-Germain in the French Cup semifinal. Monaco has played 51 matches already this season, a campaign that began on July 27 with its Champions League qualifiers, and it still has a league match against Saint-Etienne, postponed from last weekend, that has yet to be rescheduled.
Fans may remember 2004 with dread; that season, the team coached by Didier Deschamps was fighting on three fronts for titles. It lost a French Cup quarterfinal to second division Chateauroux, let a 10-point lead in January slip in Ligue 1 to end up in third place and lost that season’s Champions League final to FC Porto.
Monaco remains three points ahead of PSG in the title run-in and this week is the next big test for Jardim’s young talents, who have already eliminated Tottenham and Manchester City from the Champions League this season. Can they do the same to Dortmund, with so much else on the way?
Alli, Robben, Cavani turn in weekend's best performances around Europe
Top three goals of the week
Dele Alli (Spurs): A wonderful curling effort from the English youngster set his team on the way to victory against Watford.
Raphael Guerreiro (Dortmund): A fizzing drive that flew into the roof of the net from the Portuguese midfielder was the highlight for Dortmund in a loss to Bayern Munich.
Fin Bartels (Werder Bremen): Werder Bremen added another point as it veers toward safety thanks in part to a cheeky chip from the experienced midfielder.
Top three players of the week
Lorenzo Insigne (Napoli): The Italian winger scored two goals in a brilliant performance for a club challenging for a Champions League place.
Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich): The trademark cut inside from the right wing to score once again worked for the Dutch winger, who shows no sign of slowing down.
Edinson Cavani (PSG): The Uruguayan continued his prolific season with two more goals and an assist to set up Angel di Maria in PSG’s 4-0 win over Guingamp.