Around Europe: Life without Messi; Manchester City's mysterious slump

Ben Lyttleton goes Around Europe, where Barcelona must cope without Lionel Messi for a couple of months and Manchester City has fallen on some curious hard times.
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Another dramatic weekend across Europe left us with more questions than answers, with Lionel Messi now out injured for Barcelona and the Serie A title race blown open. Manchester City’s mysterious slump continues after an unbeatable start to the season, while there’s a new, yet old, star lighting up France's Ligue 1.

In Germany, Robert Lewandowski scored another pair of goals, while another German club in the Champions League has turned around its fortunes entirely after a lackluster start to the new campaign.

Here’s what caught our eye this weekend Around Europe:

Barcelona and life without Messi

As Luis Martin remembered in El Pais, the first time that Lionel Messi was injured he was out for 10 days and no one panicked.

Questions abound for Barcelona as it tries to cope with Messi’s injury

That was in February 2006, he had scored five league goals that season and wore the No. 30 shirt.

When he limped off after 10 minutes of Saturday’s win over Las Palmas, the reaction was somewhat different: half the directors’ box was empty as board members anxiously awaited the results of medical tests, and the rest of the game passed off in a blur as the minutiae of his knee injury are pored over.

This is, then, a test for his teammates to ignore the Messi-dependencia that has been an issue in the past. Messi has missed 75 games in his 12-year Barcelona career (it sounds like a lot but really isn’t): with him Barcelona won 70% of games and scored an average of 2.5 goals; without him, it’s 62.6% and 2.1 goals.

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The difference this time around is that Neymar is ready to step into his shoes as the team’s talisman, while Luis Suarez is not far behind him. Neymar said last week he was ready to replace Messi as the free-kick specialist and that he wants to be on the Ballon d’Or podium, as in the top three, in January (assuming Messi, the favorite, will be joined by Ronaldo, they might face a challenge from Suarez, Thomas Muller, Lewandowski or even Carlos Tevez).

The important thing for Barcelona is to not rush Messi back too soon, even if El Clasico against Real Madrid on Nov. 21 is a convenient return date that doctors have claimed he should make. The lesson of 2013 is an important one: Messi was rushed back half-fit to play Paris Saint-Germain in a knockout European tie. While his presence from off the bench was enough to psychologically destabilize the French champion, Messi was still not fit for the semifinal against Bayern, which Barcelona lost 7-0 on aggregate. Coach Luis Enrique, starting before this week’s European tie against Bayer Leverkusen, needs to turn the attention away from Messi and have his players, still with two of the best forwards in the world, focus on what they can do.

Manchester City and mind games

It’s a typical wheeze by betting operators looking to drum up publicity but only two weeks ago there was talk that some might start paying out those who bet on Manchester City to win the Premier League, so dominant was its 5-out-of-5 start. City captain Vincent Kompany spoke of the team’s renewed focus, adding: “Everyone knows we cannot afford ourselves a mental rest until we’ve finished the job.”

That all changed two weeks ago, when City’s mental strength was questioned following Juventus’s come-from-behind Champions League win at the Etihad. City then lost at home to West Ham, and Saturday capitulated horribly at Spurs, losing 4-1 after Kevin de Bruyne had put the Citizens ahead.

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There were mitigating circumstances: City started without Joe Hart, Kompany, Eliaquim Mangala and David Silva, while two of Spurs' goals, and City’s, could have been disallowed for offside (especially the crucial first, on the stroke of halftime).

Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero were subbed off and City looked a million miles from title contenders.

So what is going on at City?

Is it psychological? Does the club rely so heavily on Hart, Kompany and Silva, who was especially missed in the final third? Can it only get results when playing well? Coach Manuel Pellegrini was not in the mood for open debate, leaving his press conference early after saying: “What happened, we lost 4-1. That is the most important thing, I am angry, I am not angry. No more questions? OK.”

Next test for City is away at a revitalized Monchengladbach, and with the Champions League a growing priority for City, which has still never reached Europe’s last eight, it cannot afford a continuation of the current slump. Pellegrini could not find the solutions to last season’s disappointment; he needs to turn around this form, and soon.

Is there a way back for Ben Arfa and Les Bleus?

"The Ben Arfa Show" is how L’Equipe described the latest match-winning performance by Nice winger Hatem Ben Arfa, who scored two and set up two more in the 4-1 win at Saint-Etienne. Nice is Ligue 1’s top scorer and so is Ben Arfa, whose six goals are more than his former club Newcastle has scored all season. Ben Arfa’s second goal summed up his outrageous talent: he turned from his marker and dribbled past four men before scoring (see below). The question now for the 28-year-old is can he sustain it? He had similar bursts of form at Newcastle (and everywhere else)–after one game against Liverpool, Alan Pardew compared him to Lionel Messi–before falling out with the coach.

He has done that plenty of times before, notably with Alain Perrin at Lyon, and Eric Gerets and Didier Deschamps at Marseille. He once told L’Equipe that his complicated relationship with his father was at the root of his issues with authority: “My dad was very strict and he never said he loved me. There was a lack of affection, he didn't know how to show his feelings. I don’t blame him–but all the frustration I felt from the family side, I made people outside of that group pay.”

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He said after this game that he feels more mature but needs more consistency in his game. Will it be enough to get into France’s squad for Euro 2016?

The injury to Nabil Fekir may have opened the door, but his history with Deschamps–not to mention his behavior at Euro 2012, where he had a spectacular dust-up with Laurent Blanc–makes it an extreme long-shot.

Another French striker in the spotlight this week is Alexandre Lacazette, whose last-minute penalty miss in Gent two weeks ago leaves Lyon needing to beat Valencia this week in its Champions League tie. Lyon lost to Bordeaux at the weekend after which president Jean-Michel Aulas conceded the title to Paris Saint-Germain. Lacazette said Monday that he was “hurt and disappointed” when Aulas made public the €4 million salary he offered the striker in his new deal. Lacazette signed but has not showed a repeat of last season’s form yet. Tuesday against Valencia would be a good time to start.

Two weeks change everything for 'Gladbach

How quickly things can change. Borussia Monchengladbach lost its first six games of the season and on Champions League Matchday One, back in the European Cup for the first time in 37 years, conceded three penalties in a sloppy 3-0 loss in Sevilla. At that time, Wednesday’s Group F opponent Manchester City looked unstoppable, with five wins out of five and yet to concede a league goal. City then lost to Juventus, West Ham and Spurs. Meanwhile, Gladbach coach Lucien Favre resigned (against the wishes of his bosses) and the team has since turned a corner. Under-23 coach Andre Schubert has stepped in and overseen successive wins, 4-2 vs. Augsburg and Saturday’s 3-1 win at Stuttgart.

“Andre gave the players confidence over the past few days and encouraged them to think positively and play with bravery,” said sporting director Max Eberl, who had his contract extended last week (odd timing, given his most important task is to find a head coach).

Added midfielder Granit Xhaka: “The fun is back because we are playing the type of football that made us so strong in the past.”

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The Foals must now fancy their chances against a depleted and under-pressure City side. Eberl, on the other hand, has vowed not to be seduced by Schubert’s short-term boost.

“These points will give us the necessary time to search for a new manager. We are taking things slowly, because we believe that quality is more important than a fast decision,” he added.

One coaching appointment that seems to have worked is Andre Breitenreiter at Schalke. While Thomas Tuchel (rightly) is earning plaudits for his work at Borussia Dortmund, Schalke is only one point behind Dortmund after a 1-0 win at Hamburg. It’s now four wins in a row for Breitenreiter, who impressed at relegated Paderborn last season (and yes, those two terms are not mutually exclusive).

The team has a coherent strategy and in the likes of Max Meyer, Leon Goretzka, Pierre Hojberg, all 20, and Leroy Sane, 19, who scored the winner (his third in three), some stars of the future. No team can realistically challenge Bayern for the title, but Schalke is in the shake-up for second place and the title of "non-Bayern champion."

Juventus still can't find rhythm

Juventus lost three league games all of last season. It has now lost three of its first six games this Serie A season, and the latest defeat, at Napoli, could be the most significant. The team is still missing injured players like Claudio Marchisio, Sami Khedira and Mario Mandzukic, which gives coach Max Allegri wriggle-room if the pressure continues to mount.

But those who did start against Napoli are also struggling: Hernanes as the deep-lying playmaker, Paul Pogba in the No. 10 role, Simone Padoin as makeshift right back, while the Dybala/Zaza strike partnership rarely troubled Napoli’s backline. "Champions of Italy in total crisis of results and performance" was Sunday’s Gazzetta headline.

“Juve will come back to fight for the top spot, although it will be tough,” said Allegri. “We have to get out of the difficulty, perhaps the return of the injured players will help me to play some players of experience.”

This is the Juventus that many expected to see when Allegri was appointed one year ago: he has picked eight different starting lineups (and eight different formations) in eight games so far and is still looking for his best XI.

The reigning four-time champion is still 10 points behind first-place Fiorentina, who Sunday smashed previous leader Inter Milan 4-1.

It’s the first time in 16 years that Fiorentina has topped the table (it went bust in the intervening years and reformed) and coach Paulo Sousa has built on and improved Vincenzo Montella’s dynamic and offensive side from last season. Can Fiorentina last the distance?

Sousa thinks so, but Napoli, who beat Lazio 5-0 last week and face Milan and Fiorentina next, looks stronger at the moment.

As for Allegri, Juventus is home to Sevilla in the Champions League Wednesday and then Bologna in Serie A. The next big test comes in three weeks, when Juventus plays at Inter Milan. One Italian paper has already named out-of-work coaches who could be ready to step in: they include Marcello Lippi, Fabio Capello, Walter Mazzarri, Luciano Spalletti and Vincenzo Montella. The injured players should be ready by then, so excuses won't carry much weight.

Top three players of the week

Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal)

Alexis picked the best way to open his scoring account this season: a hat trick in an important away win. Alexis shrugged off concerns about his slow start with some trademarks strikes–a side-foot after a counterattack, a brave header from a Mesut Ozil dink, and a howitzer from outside the box–in Arsenal’s 5-2 win at Leicester. The Chilean, the only player in history with hat tricks in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A, is now off and running.

Carlos Kameni (Malaga)

So Malaga has still not scored yet after six league games this season, but that won’t bother coach Javi Gracia, whose side was the first in 56 games at the Bernabeu to prevent Real Madrid from scoring. Madrid had 32 shots and Kameni made eight saves to deny Ronaldo (14 shots) & Co.

Nikola Kalinic (Fiorentina)

OK, so his second goal was scored from less than one yard out, but few can begrudge Kalinic his moment in the sun. The hard-working Fioretina forward bagged a hat trick at Inter Milan to send the Viola top of the table. The last time that happened, it had Batistuta and Edmundo up front. Kalinic had a good week, but he’s not that good…

Top goals of the week

Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice vs. Saint-Etienne)

Twist, jink, wriggle, dribble, shoot: Ben Arfa leaves a trail of defenders in his wake with his latest piece of magic in Ligue 1. The enfant terrible is now 28 and while a France call-up may be too much to ask, we should enjoy his moments of brilliance while we can.

Bebe (Rayo Vallecano vs. Sevilla)

Perhaps this was what Manchester United expected when it signed Bebe, one of the biggest transfer flops in its history, back in 2010. The Portuguese forward channeled his inner Ronaldo and fired in this unstoppable free kick.

Marco Benassi (Torino vs. Palermo)

Torino has started the season really well, and it’s no surprise given the form of 21-year-old midfielder Marco Benassi, whose stock was on the rise even before this Van Basten-esque volley in the 2-1 win over Palermo.