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As clubs around Europe went into the international break following the Champions League draw, there were key developments across the continent's top leagues. A derby win in Manchester for United opened up the Premier League's race for fourth place–and a spot in the Champions League–even more.
Barcelona and Atletico Madrid both dropped points in Spain, where the future of Gary Neville at Valencia is under the spotlight. Germany has a new coaching talent to look out for, while trouble is brewing on France’s south coast for a traditional power. Meanwhile, Gianluigi Buffon set a new goalkeeping standard in Italy, even at the age of 38.
Here is what caught our eye this weekend Around Europe:
How might Pep like Europa League?
Wins for the top three in England put the spotlight on the race for the fourth place in the league and the final spot in the Champions League. After Manchester United beat a listless Manchester City 1-0 away from home–in a performance that showed the worst of City, from its reliance on Vincent Kompany (out injured) and Sergio Aguero (two half-chances in the game, both missed) to strange recruitment choices in defense (the hapless Martin Demichelis had a game to forget) and a starting XI that had seven players over 30–there are now three teams within one point of each other.
United is one of them, and once again this was a bizarre performance from the Red Devils, in that it came it three days after such a lethargic display against Liverpool. Every time the pressure mounts on Louis van Gaal his team pulls out a result that keeps him in a job. This one came on the day that a Spanish paper reported that Jose Mourinho had signed a pre-contract agreement to join United in the summer. How much game time he would give match-winner Marcus Rashford, who has scored five goals in eight games since his debut 25 days ago, is just one of the issues fans might have with his arrival.
Both Manchester clubs face a nervy run-in thanks to the form of West Ham, who came away from Chelsea with a 2-2 draw. It’s a sign of the Hammers' improvement that they was not even happy with that, as Chelsea bagged a very late equalizer. Hammers boss Slaven Bilic has said that the TV money has helped "the middle class clubs" bridge the gap to the top sides and, if signings and the coach work out, they can challenge the traditional dominance.
We have seen it this season and it might happen more in the future.
The problem with that from Manchester City’s point of view is that after three years wooing Pep Guardiola to the club, he did not expect his first season to be out of the Champions League. It’s not there yet, as it is hanging onto fourth, but on current form it could very well find itself in that shocking position.
Buffon sets a new Serie A standard
So Juventus finally conceded a goal in its 4-1 win at rival Torino, but not before Buffon broke the long-standing record of 926 minutes without conceding a goal in Serie A. The new record is 974 minutes. The keeper whose record he broke, Sebastiano Rossi (AC Milan 1993-94) did not look too happy watching on in the studio, where there was a debate about the quality of the strikers back then compared to now (better strikers then, but more restrictions now on defenders).
Buffon responded as a true great would, with humility. He paid tribute to his teammates, name-checking every single one and explaining their qualities in a long Facebook post. This is the art of leadership in action: for him, the success is a collective one.
That goes some way to explaining his longevity and why, even at his age, he remains among the best in the world.
Elsewhere in the league, Gonzalo Higuain scored two more for Napoli in a come-from-behind win over Genoa to remain three points behind Juve and keep it a two-horse race, with Roma, whose run of eight wins in a row ended with a 1-1 draw with Inter, hanging on in third, 10 points off Juventus's lead.
Chaos in Marseille
There was anger and dissent in Marseille Friday night as Abou Diaby’s return from injury was overshadowed in the most horrible way. It was Diaby's first Ligue 1 game since he played for Auxerre in 2005 and his first match for 18 months. He deserves enormous credit for his resilience in returning to action, but the same cannot be said of his teammates. Marseille is a club in freefall at the moment; players may have talked about a top-three finish last month but the bigger concern now is avoiding the bottom three.
Marseille has never recovered from Marcelo Bielsa’s walkout after the first game of the season; with Michel in charge, it has not won at home since September, and only Troyes and Darmstadt have won fewer matches at home in Europe’s top five leagues all season.
Marseille fans went on strike for the first 15 minutes of the match against Rennes; by which time the team was already 3-0 down. The final score was 5-2, and for Rennes, Ousmane Dembele was once again brilliant while Yoann Gourcuff scored two goals. Michel said he would not resign after the game.
“I'm not sure that my leaving would improve the situation,” he said.
President Vincent Labrune called it an “apocalyptic evening” before adding: “I've been saying this for four years, I repeat: There is no money.”
It was hardly the best response to a big defeat, and the fans remain unhappy. A banner unfurled at the game read: "Louis-Dreyfus [owner, Margarita] you've destroyed our dreams, Labrune you've sold our passion, you've killed OM. **** off."
Monday’s L’Equipe linked Sergio Conceicao to the coaching job, but this club needs more than a new man in the dugout to sort itself out.
Neville's Valencia face dire situation
One name not considered in the coaching mix at Old Trafford is that of Gary Neville, whose first experience of coaching is proving to be a chastening one. Valencia has won three of his 15 La Liga games in charge; and from eyeing a challenge for the Champions League places it is now looking over his shoulder at the relegation zone. Valencia is only six points from the drop and for once Neville was on the receiving end of fans' chants.
“I understand that the fans are frustrated, "I'm just concentrating on the present and the two months of work ahead of us in order to save ourselves,” Neville told the press after the game.
He has canceled a proposed trip to England to work with the national team, for whom he is an assistant coach, for the international fixtures this week, but with games against Barcelona and Real Madrid away and Sevilla at home still to come, the season run-in could be a tense one at the Mestalla.
Hoffenheim recovering under Nagelsmann
When Hoffenheim boss Huub Stevens stood down earlier this year, the team looked dead and buried. After 20 rounds, it was tied for last with 14 points and seven from safety. Hoffenheim had already agreed to appoint Julian Nagelsmann, a former assistant to Thomas Tuchel, for next season, so it fast-tracked his appointment. Nagelsmann is only 28, but his record so far would draw envious looks from any of his more experienced colleagues: in seven games, Hoffenheim has won four and drawn one. After the latest win, a highly impressive 3-1 success at Hamburg, Hoffenheim is finally out of the bottom two.
“We are playing completely different football now, and I think people can recognize that,” said striker Kevin Volland, who scored Sunday.
Nagelsmann has also gotten the best out of Leicester loanee Andrej Kramaric, who has four goals in his last five game. If Hoffenheim stays up it will be a huge achievement for the rookie manager; the club itself also deserves credit for its brave choice.
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Top three goals of the weekend
Hatem Ben Arfa (Nice vs. Gazelec Ajaccio)
Ben Arfa was not named in the France squad last week so this was a timely reminder to Didier Deschamps, as he cut inside two defenders before curling the ball into the far corner.
Daniel Sturridge (Liverpool vs. Southampton)
Roy Hodgson has some interesting decisions to make over the striker position for England at the moment, and when Sturridge scores goals like this, we are reminded just why he can be a difference maker.
Alvaro Morata (Juventus vs. Torino)
The pass from Pogba, the finish from Morata–it’s no wonder Juventus is at the top and seemingly unstoppable in Serie A at the moment.
Top three players of the week
Marcus Rashford (Manchester United vs. Manchester City)
That’s now five goals in eight games for the local boy, and some have been big goals; two against Arsenal and now the winner at the home of local rival City. Rashford gave Martin Demichelis an afternoon to forget–and could have ushered the Argentine towards the Etihad exit.
Yoann Gourcuff (Rennes vs. Marseille)
A shot from distance that beat Steve Mandanda was the pick of Gourcuff’s moments–he also scored another–but few can begrudge the former France midfielder some joy after nine months on the sidelines.
Gigi Buffon (Juventus vs. Torino)
A champion goalkeeper and a record-breaker with humility. His open letter to the goal he defends is a piece of art: “I swore to protect you. To look after you. A shield against all your enemies. I’ve always thought about your welfare, putting it even above my own.”