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Around Europe: High-class Klassiker; Leicester City, the favorite

Leicester reinforced its place as Premier League favorite, Bayern and Dortmund entertained in a 0-0 draw, and Ronaldo answered the boo birds in Madrid. Ben Lyttleton goes Around Europe.

There were major developments all across Europe this weekend as the Premier League title race took another twist, while the top two faced each other in Germany, where we were treated to a bizarre insight into the managerial techniques of Pep Guardiola.

Cristiano Ronaldo was booed and then scored four goals for Real Madrid, while France has a new teenage star knocking on Didier Deschamps’s door. Over in Italy, Roma boss Luciano Spalletti has turned things around at the capital club ahead of its Champions League return leg at Real Madrid.

Here is what caught our eye Around Europe:

Bayern, Dortmund split high-class Klassiker

After Bayern lost 2-1 at home in midweek to Mainz, it drew 0-0 at second-placed Borussia Dortmund, so preserving its five-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga. This was a game that had everything but a goal: fantastic technique, great pace, super chances and some marvellous saves, notably Roman Burki’s point-blank stop from Arturo Vidal. Germany coach Joachim Low called it the best game of the season, and by the end, both teams seemed content with the point. It meant Dortmund is still in contention if Bayern drops points, although coach Thomas Tuchel did not push for the home win in the second half.

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Pep Guardiola took the headlines after the game when images of him deep in conversation with 21-year-old midfielder Joshua Kimmich, who has played at center back for the last few weeks, were beamed around the world. At times Guardiola was shouting out at him and gesticulating wildly, other times with his arms round his shoulders and their foreheads touching. All around, players shook hands with their opponents but Guardiola seemed oblivious.

As an insight into his intensity, it was fascinating: here is a coach who sometimes forgets to eat on matchdays and, as SI’s Grant Wahl put it: “Obviously a great manager. Might be a little insane.”

After the game, Kimmich said that’s what Guardiola is always like: “As a player it’s what you want and gives you something to really work with.”

Kimmich himself was outstanding in the match and is a star of the future.

“I love him,” said Guardiola.

Meanwhile players at Manchester City, where the Spaniard takes over next season, might be a little alarmed.

This was also a big week for Germany’s enfant terrible, Stefan Effenberg. His coaching career at second division Paderborn had started so well, with the side beating Braunschweig and Union Berlin, both 2-0, in the fall. Despite saying he would never start out in the second division–“the attention would be huge”–that’s exactly what he did. But last week, after a run of 13 games without a win and Paderborn second-from-bottom in the table, he was fired.

That doesn't quite tell the whole story. There was a drunken-driving ban and fine of €30,000, and in the winter training break, a "Penis-Skandal," in which striker Nick Proschwitz exposed himself to a teammate in a hotel lobby in the presence of female communications staff. He was sold to Belgian club Saint-Truidense at the first available opportunity, and claimed that club boss Walter Finke had overreacted.

Last month it was revealed that Effenberg, despite waiting three years for the right coaching job, did not have the right coaching license anyway. There’s a punchline in there somewhere but Effenberg is not laughing now. It’s one thing taking a chance on him for his first job–but who takes a chance on him now?

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NOW is Leicester EPL's favorite?

The midweek round of matches saw Leicester increase a lead at the top by one point after a home draw while Spurs, Arsenal and Manchester City all lost. The Leicester players claimed to pay no attention to the dramatic 2-2 draw between Spurs and Arsenal Saturday lunchtime–two more points dropped for the chasers–and seemed remarkably in control of its 1-0 away win at Watford later that day.

So now Leicester is five points clear of Spurs and eight ahead of Arsenal. With nine games left.

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That’s still plenty of time for twists and turns–don't forget Liverpool was five points clear with three games left in 2014 and finished second–and canny coach Claudio Ranieri has changed his tune.

Up to the turn of the year, his message was, we just want to avoid relegation. Then it was, we want to repeat the first half of the season. Then it was, the big clubs are all favorites and we are not.

But now it’s changed again: until it’s mathematically possible, we will not believe it. All brilliant soundbites, all designed to take pressure off his players. And all working. But at some point, we have to look at the table, look at the fixtures left to play (Arsenal could play another 20 while Leicester only has nine) and look at the form guide. From the neutral hoping that Leicester does hold on, we cannot be too far from saying it should hold on. With Newcastle next up for Leicester, that point is surely nearly upon us.

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Elsewhere, the performances of referees are regular talking points for losing managers in the Premier League, and on a weekend with plenty of red cards, there were also lots of upset coaches. Arsene Wenger was furious that Eric Dier was not dismissed for a second yellow card, while Francis Coquelin was–in the pulsating North London derby, both teams left thinking they could have won it–while Louis van Gaal suggested Juan Mata was unfairly shown two yellow cards because “he’s a nice guy”.

Meanwhile after Liverpool scored a last-minute penalty to beat Crystal Palace, losing coach Alan Pardew said there was contact on Christian Benteke in the challenge that drew the spot-kick, but not enough. Defender Damien Delaney, who made the tackle, even suggested that if a penalty is awarded late on in the game, it must somehow be more definite. “I certainly didn't feel there was enough to award a penalty in the 96th min,” he wrote on Instagram. “If a penalty is awarded that late it has to be unequivocal.” No wonder referees have such a hard job. Everyone wants consistency from referees, but how about from players and coaches too?

Spain's big three all win again

Barcelona won its 11th league game in a row, brushing aside Eibar 4-0 in a game notable for a scored Panenka penalty from Lionel Messi (that’s eight scored by Barcelona in 14 penalties this season in La Liga, with each of MSN missing two). Atletico Madrid won 3-1 at Valencia, and is now only three points behind the pace it had when it won La Liga in 2014. And then there was Real Madrid, who beat Celta Vigo 7-1 at home in a win that was anything but normal.

In the second half, Madrid fans booed Ronaldo after he missed a pass. Soon after, he opened the scoring with a 30-yard blinder and went on to celebrate by cupping his hand to his ear. He went on to score three more goals and, in the midst of a strange season by his standards, is back on top of the Pichichi race with 27 goals. Gareth Bale, back from injury, also scored late on.

When coach Zinedine Zidane played for the club, he was part of a policy called "Zidanes and Pavones," a madcap Florentino Perez plan to promote young players alongside expensive signings. It didn't work but was mentioned last week when Zidane promoted Borja Mayoral, 18, to the starting lineup. Ronaldo is 31 and Real Madrid’s season depends on him maintaining this form. As for whether he, Zidane, or even Perez will be there next season: that’s all still up in the air.

Is Dembele a France wildcard?

France coach Didier Deschamps is not short of options when it comes to attacking talent for Les Bleus’ Euro 2016 squad. With Antoine Griezmann and Mathieu Valbuena the preferred starters (Deschamps could also turn to Karim Benzema despite the Valbuena blackmail episode), the squad picks are from Olivier Giroud, Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman, Hatem Ben Arfa, Alexandre Lacazette and Nabil Fekir. To that list you can add one more name–and not West Ham's Dmitri Payet, whose outspoken comments on Deschamps have seen him struck off the list.

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The other contender is Ousmane Dembélé, an 18-year-old winger at Rennes who is enjoying a breakout campaign. He scored a first hat trick as his side ended Nantes’s 14-match unbeaten run with a 4-1 win. He is the youngest player to score a Ligue 1 hat trick since Jeremy Menez in 2005; no player under 20 has scored more than his nine goals for the season, while his 75 dribbles for the season is double the highest of any teammate.

Scouts have increased in number at Rennes's home stadium, and Dembélé is the reason why. After a late match-winner last week, this time he ran the game and Rennes is now pushing for a top-three place. If Martial cost £36 million from Monaco last season, Rennes might be in a position to name its price for the next super-kid in waiting.

Spalletti has turned things around at Roma

As it turned out, Roma’s game against Fiorentina was not the banana skin that many expected from two teams with top-three ambitions. Roma won its seventh straight league game, 4-1, to go three clear of Fiorentina and start asking questions of leader Juventus, now just five points back. Stephan El Shaarawy and Mohamed Salah both scored, but the star man was Diego Perrotti, bought as a trequartista but currently starring as a false nine in Spalletti’s new-look side.

The next question for Spalletti is can the form continue against Real Madrid in the Champions League this week?

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Already 2-0 down from the first leg in Roma, the Italian side was humbled at Barcelona in the group stage this season–losing 6-1 at Camp Nou–but Spalletti has added some defensive organization to the attacking flair in the side. It might be asking too much for Roma to overturn this deficit, especially if, as has been suggested in some quarters, Francesco Totti starts in what would surely be a swan song for him.

How and when he leaves the club has still not been decided

Top three players of the week

Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid): It’s astonishing to think that some fans even booed Ronaldo before he scored his first goal in Madrid’s 7-1 win. He celebrated by cupping his hand to his ear and then scored three more to overtake Luis Suarez in the race for top scorer in Spain.

Riyad Mahrez (Leicester): This was not Mahrez’s best goal of the season but might as well rank among his most important. With Spurs and Arsenal drawing earlier in the day, Mahrez hit the match-winner at Watford, and Leicester is now five points clear at the top.

Ousmane Dembele (Rennes): A hat trick for the teenage star who will surely be coming to a top-tier side soon. Benfica tried to sign him last summer; 12 months on, he is set for a bigger club than the Eagles. 

Top three goals of the week

Alfred Duncan (Sassuolo vs. AC Milan)

A training-ground move with a fantastic curled corner, a dummy and then Ghanaian midfielder Duncan smashing the ball into the top corner. Bravo!


Mario Lemina (Juventus vs. Atalanta)

A jink, a dribble, and a super finish from Lemina as Juventus continued its excellent form at the top of Serie A, unbeaten in 18.

Harry Kane (Tottenham vs. Arsenal)

A fantastic curling strike from the England forward from a seemingly impossible angle. If this goal had ended up as the match-winner, it would have been seen as even better.