European Roundtable

Can Napoli or Roma unseat Juve this year? If so, who?

Antonio Conte’s exit from Juventus has opened up the Serie A title race.

Ahmad: This says more about Juventus than the other two, quite frankly, and with good reason. Antonio Conte is gone, replaced by AC Milan whipping boy Max Allegri. As soon as he left, Juventus lost out on signing Juan Iturbe to Roma, and the never ending transfer saga of Arturo Vidal to Manchester started picking up steam again. Meanwhile, Roma have built themselves quite a team, bringing in the aforementioned Iturbe, Davide Astori, Antonio Sanabria, Leandro Paredes, Urby Emanuelson, Salih Ucan, Seydou Keita, and Ashley Cole. Napoli, meanwhile, still have the Fat Spanish Waiter. They also added Michu to partner Gonzalo Higuain, who didn’t exactly light the world on fire with Argentina. Right now, Roma look like the better bet to overtake Juventus, but I still think Juventus’s squad – right now – is enough to win Serie A in spite of Allegri.

Cole: Nope. Not unless Juventus sells Pogba or Vidal. Roma’s inching up closely to Juventus talent wise, but there’s still a slight gap between the two. Meanwhile, none of Napoli’s signings have moved the needle much. Napoli ran a one striker system that I think fit the rest of the club really well, so I can’t see Michu replacing Higuain. As for Walter Gargano, I can’t see him finding much first team action with Inler, Jorginho, and Behrami in the fold. Allegri is going to do whatever he can to ruin this for Juventus, but I think they’ll still be the ones with the Scudetto come the end of the season.

Who do you think will be this year’s Atletico?

Faisal: This is a tough one. Atletico have done extremely well to bounce back from selling their best players as Ahmad has mentioned and Porto have done extremely well in the transfer market as always. However, I am going to go out on a limb and say that Arsenal will be this seasons Atletico  if they get a defensive midfielder a la Carvalho or Khedira. The talent that Arsene Wenger has at his disposal this year is absolutely phenomenal so getting knocked out at the last 16 will not be an option. If Arsenal don’t manage to sign a top quality  defensive midfielder, I’m going to go with Porto as they have done excellent business in the transfer window with acquisitions like World Cup star Bruno Martins Indi, Real Madrid starlet Casemiro and Barcelona one season wonder Tello. All three players, Tello in particular, will feel that they have a point to prove on the biggest stage so I could very well see them surprising a lot of viewers this year in Europe.

Moe: It’s a difficult question to answer cause what Atletico achieved last year was extraordinary. One candidate though could be Porto. From the looks of it they will get to keep Jackson Martinez for another season. They’ve signed the likes of Adrian, Brahimi and Bruno Martins Indi while acquiring Christian Tello on loan. Their group of Athletic Bilbao, Shakhtar and BATE is easily winnable, which will help them avoid some of the strongest teams until the quarterfinals.

Can PSG make it the Champions League semifinals?

David Luiz and Blaise Matuidi are now teammates. Will that be the extra boost PSG needed to make the Champions League semifinals?

Jeremy: PSG should have been in the semis the past two seasons, only going out on away goals to Barcelona and Chelsea. The Parisians have a deep squad with two world-class forwards (for now) up top. And with the French league in…well, shambles, PSG can focus almost fully on Europe. So, yes, I think they have a great chance, and should make it if they hold onto Cavani in the final days of the window.

Jordan: I say yes. I think the David Luiz signing is being dismissed as a result of World Cup recency bias. Bringing in Aurier addresses their biggest concern for me, which was fullbacks. Veratti, Cabaye, Matuidi and Thiago Motta are a nice group of four who can also be used in a 4-3-3. Zlatan should be get plenty of service to bang in goals. PSG came close the last two years but this year I think David Luiz and others give them that extra push.

Is Adrian Ramos and Immobile an upgrade over Lewandowski?

Cole: As much as I like both players, no chance. Lewandowski is one of the best players in the world to man the nine. Ramos and Immobile are solid, unspectacular parts that will get the job done at Dortmund, but there are very few players that can be consider an upgrade to the Polish wunderkind.

Jeremy: “Upgrade?” No. As for coming close to replicating his production, however, there’s a chance. Check out Lewandowski/Immobile/Ramos in the Squawka Comparison Matrix:

Capturezd

While neither Immobile nor Ramos is quite the shot-generation/accuracy monster that Lewandowski is, Immobile had a better goal-scoring ratio per 90 (albeit in a weakened Serie A), while Ramos was as proficient at goals from set pieces and could do well in support. Losing Lewa to arch-rivals Bayern made Dortmund hearts ache, but BVB should be okay with this forward pairing.

 

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Squad Depth and Title Challenges: The Arsène Quandary

Arsene

Alexis Sanchez, winger/”striker”: £30 million.

Calum Chambers, right back/centre back/defensive midfielder: £16 million.

David Ospina, goalkeeper: £3 million.

Mathieu Debuchy, right back: £12 million.

In total, Arsene Wenger has spent £61 million this transfer window alone. Here’s the sad part: it may not be enough to put up a successful league title challenge this season.

When you take a look at Arsenal’s best XI with all players fit, it can be argued that the Gunners can muster up a serious title challenge. This has been the issue with Wenger’s sides in recent years: when they have all their players fit, they’re exciting to watch. But when injuries strike, the great performances put on pre-injuries all are for naught, because the players selected to build on the success just cannot produce at nearly the same level. Squad cohesiveness takes a massive hit.

Looking at teams that have won major honors in the past two seasons, a commonality they shared was having highly-competitive squads bursting at the seams with quality players capable of picking up the slack in the event of an injury and keep momentum going. A good example of this would be Manchester City. If Alvaro Negredo and Sergio Aguero were to suffer injuries, two world class strikers in Edin Dzeko and Stevan Jovetic would come in and perform almost as well as the aforementioned duo. And here’s what other squads have spent to improve this summer:

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Now, I am not saying that Wenger hasn’t tried to improve Arsenal’s squad depth this season; the signing of David Ospina, the starting goalkeeper for Colombia at international level, gives Wojciech Szcsesny stiff competition between the sticks. My main issue is that Arsenal does not do this for other positions within the squad.

Kieran Gibbs’ injury history is a cause for concern, as he has never gone a full season without suffering some sort of knock. I’m surprised that Wenger looked past acquiring another left back for that very reason. Furthermore, Arsenal have not had a powerful defensive midfielder since Gilberto Silva and it seems ludicrous for them to believe they can contend without one. If you want to win a title, a defensive midfielder is mandatory, not optional. Wenger has attempted to rectify this situation, but to no avail.

Then, we have the main problem area, striker. I will say this about Olivier Giroud: in the current system Arsenal employ, he does a really good job in holding up the play and bringing others in, which makes him more of a team player rather than a poacher in the box. Yaya Sanogo has some potential but placing him as the only other striker in the squad is a huge risk and puts a huge amount of pressure on him. It likely won’t end well.

I admire that Wenger has kept faith in the former Montpellier man despite constant scrutiny from the media and fans, but the fact remains that Arsenal are without a quality backup striker. The Gooners cannot just stick Sanchez, Lukas Podolski, or Theo Walcott up top thinking they will work miracles. A proper out-and-out striker in addition to Olivier Giroud is needed for Arsenal to seriously challenge for honors.

So why hasn’t Wenger built a squad that can be compared to Chelsea or City? People tend to point to Wenger’s unwavering faith in the players he currently has as one of the main reasons for this. It is admirable that he would place so much belief in his players, especially through the troubled times like injuries (or in Tony Adams’s case, alcoholism). Whether you love or hate Arsenal, you have to respect the fact that Arsene Wenger has his players’ backs. And while that’s admirable, it has gotten in the way of Arsenal getting some major silverware in the past few years.

There has to come a time where Wenger realizes that not everybody is worthy of that faith. This philosophy can be both a blessing and a curse, so if Arsenal are to challenge for major honors, it cannot be expected that all the players he defends will repay that same faith.

The final days of this transfer window could very well make or break Arsenal’s season. The current Arsenal squad could do with a fresh few additions to help build it further. Rumors of William Carvalho, Alessio Cerci, and Adrien Rabiot have gotten Arsenal fans excited.

However, excitement doesn’t win trophies. Unless Arsenal are active in these last few days of the transfer window, don’t expect them to challenge for major awards this season.

Despite all the improvements at Arsenal these last few years, Wenger’s squad is still a tier below the main competition for the league title this season, meaning that the next year could look an awful lot like the past nine.

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Champions League Group Stage Power Rankings

The Champions League group stage was drawn today. 32 teams from 18 nations have been drawn into eight groups of four. But you already know that. Let’s rank the groups for how interesting, competitive and fun they’ll be.

1. GROUP E (FC Bayern München, Manchester City FC, PFC CSKA Moskva, AS Roma)

This is the runaway winner for the best group. Bayern Munich, Manchester City, CSKA Moscow make it a true Champions League group, with the German, English and Russian champions all duking it out. There’s also prior history between the three champions, as they were in the exact same group last year. Italian runners up Roma knew they were going to get a group of death being in the pot four, but no one could’ve expected this lethal of a group. Roma-Bayern will be particularly interesting with Mehdi Benatia facing his old team. There will be no dull matches in this group and an argument can be made for every team to make it out of the group.

2. GROUP F (FC Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, AFC Ajax, APOEL FC)

THE GROUP OF ZLATAN. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s PSG will find themselves facing two of Zlatan’s former sides with Ajax and Barcelona. Much like Group F, these teams have prior history. Barcelona and Ajax are two clubs closely intertwined in terms of philosophy, players and managers.  They’re both known for their fantastic academies, and shared players like Johan Cruyff, Patrick Kluivert, Ronald Koeman as well as managers like Louis Van Gaal and Johan Cruyff. In addition to the Zlatan angle, PSG will look to avenge being eliminated by Barca in the 2012-13 Champions League. APOEL is sadly left out of all the fun and looks to be a prime candidate for zero points in the group stage.

3. GROUP D (Arsenal FC, Borussia Dortmund, Galatasaray AŞ, RSC Anderlecht)

Much like Group E and F, this group has teams with a prior history. Arsenal and Dortmund were in the same group last year with Dortmund coming out on top.  Arsenal and Dortmund are the same type of club: one that prides themselves on making smart purchases in the transfer market, a focus on youth and has had their club poached of some of their best players recently. Only difference is Dortmund actually has won their league doing this. Galatasaray has an amazing home atmosphere and managed to steal second place in the group from Juventus last year. Anderlecht was one of the best teams in pot four and won’t be a cake walk for the other three sides.

4. GROUP C (SL Benfica, FC Zenit, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, AS Monaco FC)

This is a poor man’s group of death. The winner of this group probably wouldn’t win be able to beat the winner of any other group besides Group H. There isn’t a huge gap in quality between any of the teams and something ridiculous like every team finishing the group with eight points looks the most likely to happen here. This is the closest group for the oddsmakers, as Bayer Leverkusen is a 2/1 favorite while Zenit is fourth with only 7/2 odds. While there are higher quality games in Group E, this group will likely produce more closely contested games and the who advances from this group will surely come down to the last set of games.

5. GROUP H (FC Porto, FC Shakhtar Donetsk, Athletic Club, FC BATE Borisov)

If Group C was a poor man’s group of death, Group H is a poorer man’s group of death. The overall quality and appeal of the teams in this group is lower than Group C, and Group C’s worst team, regardless of who you think it is, is better than BATE. Porto and Bilbao both are perfectly meet the criteria for a hipster’s team to root for with their lack of big transfers and roster. The most interesting storyline for this group is probably the Ukrainian Shakhtar Donetsk. The political unrest in the region means their three homes game won’t actually be at their regular home stadium, the Donbass Arena.

6. GROUP A (Club Atlético de Madrid, Juventus, Olympiacos FC, Malmö FF)

This group is the only “true” Champions League group, as the victors of Spain, Italy, Greece and Sweden are all represented here. While that may be the cause, this isn’t a group rich which great storylines or great matchups. Atletico’s two matches against Juventus will be fun but I can’t see Mad Max pulling off a win, even in Torino, against Simeone’s men. Olympiakos did beat Manchester United in the first leg of the round of 16 last year, but ask MK Dons if that’s much of an accomplishment anymore. Malmo, Zlatan’s first club, will be the first Swedish team for 15 years but doesn’t look to pose much of a fight.

7. GROUP B (Real Madrid CF, FC Basel 1893, Liverpool FC, PFC Ludogorets Razgrad)

Real Madrid is going to waltz through this group. Let’s get that out of the way now. Real’s reward for winning La Decima last year is being handed the easiest group. Basel was probably the worst team in pot two, Liverpool won’t be much of a threat to them and Ludogorets doesn’t strike fear into anyone outside of Romania. However, the storylines of Liverpool and Ludogorets prevent this group from being last. Anfield will be hosting European nights for the first time since 2009 while Ludogorets find themselves here after they had an outfield player at goalkeeper win them the penalty shootout.

8. GROUP G (Chelsea FC, FC Schalke 04, Sporting Clube de Portugal, NK Maribor)

Dead last in these rankings is Group G. While Sporting and Schalke are respectable sides, Mourinho should do quite well in the competition he has won twice. There isn’t much in the way for interesting storylines in this. Sporting and Schalke should be a fun battle for second, but it doesn’t exactly capture the imagination.

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Van Gaaled

My mother once dated a man I didn’t much care for (sorry mom, if you are reading this.) Still, she was my mother, and I couldn’t really say anything while it was going on. When they finally split, I told her my sister and I had never much liked the gentleman. She said she knew and thanked us for not bringing it up.

My club is now employing a manager I don’t much care for. Thankfully, I’m under no such compunction against expressing my displeasure in real time. As a Manchester United supporter, I’m already despising the Louis van Gaal era. My only regret is not writing this three weeks ago when I originally planned to do so, because I hated the appointment before it became fashionable to do so (sometime between the 2nd and 4th goals Tuesday in Milton Keynes if you’re keeping track.)

Let me back up. I was never in favor of firing David Moyes, and certainly not doing so in-season. Even though it was clear Moyes was probably out of his depth, he had been thrust into an impossible situation. An aging, limited squad had been held together by a combination of shared history, willpower and Sir Alex Ferguson’s well-worn chewing gum.

Still, like any receding empire, it was decided that the club itself could not be in decline. It was only the manager that was the problem. Surely a team led by Robin Van Persie, Wayne Rooney and Juan Mata couldn’t be all that bad could they?

Enter Dutch genius (just ask him, he’ll tell you) Van Gaal. Fresh off guiding Holland to a surprising 3rd place finish in this summer’s World Cup, Van Gaal was quite pleased with himself following his appointment as Old Trafford’s caretaker. (And really he didn’t guide so much as grab the wheel from the passenger seat and head into incoming traffic with his amateurish keeper mental games of subbing in Tim Krul to face Costa Rica’s shootout takers). The arrangement was assumed to be a shorter-term post until the legend Ryan Giggs was ready to assume full time control.

Still, the acquisition of the 62 (now 63) year-old Dutchman was intended to signal that “the grownups” were back in charge, implying that with a new “daddy” in place – rather than Moyes’ substitute teacher act – and maybe one or two signings, the club would quickly return to Champions League prominence before a graceful transition to “a true United Man.”

This choice represents a terrible misjudgment of the state of the squad and a lack of curiosity to dig beyond the official history of Van Gaal’s career. Worse it confuses past success with future results.

As the Class of 92 receded into the background, holes began to pop up all over the squad. In Sir Alex’s latter years, the transfer record was, to be kind, indifferent. For every Ronaldo and Rooney, there was a Ashley Young or Bebe. Those mistakes could be absorbed as long as the club could rely on homegrown talent.

Even if more recent vintages never reached the heights of the Beckham, Giggs, Butt, Neville and Scholes cadre, the late 90s and early aughts saw a string of international class players come through the ranks in the likes of John O’Shea, Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown. But that pipeline has dried in recent years.

Against this backdrop, the number of true world class players dwindled as injuries and age sapped the ability from Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. The threadbare nature of the squad was cast into stark relief by Paul Scholes’ return to action late in the 2011-12 season. Both the desperation evidenced and the clear improvement he brought to the team were worrying signs.

However, despite all the indications that this was a team in need of full-scale refurbishment and no longer “one-player away,” first Moyes and now Van Gaal have dipped into the top end of the market. Certainly Angel Di Maria is a fine player and the best winger in the red half of Manchester since Ronaldo himself, but he can’t play center back. Or in defensive midfield. Or at fullback. In fact, he bolsters what is the one area of strength on the current roster.

Van Gaal’s supposed genius won’t save this squad either, as the legend has long outstripped reality as far as his reputation in concerned. Certainly he achieved wonderful success at Ajax in the 90s, but he did so with the players who formed the bulk of Holland’s great 1998 World Cup semifinal side. On the heels of that success, he has managed a succession of top clubs to some short term success before leaving in a fury of recriminations and infighting.

What is his track record of building or rebuilding a side? What good is the work he might do on the front if it is undone as part of the inevitable post-departure purge when his English sojourn ends?  The team is in in bad shape, but Van Gaal gives very little reason to believe he will leave the club in better condition than he found it.

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Marseille and the Bielsa Equation

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It’s only been only three games into Marcelo Bielsa’s tenure with Olympique Marseille, so jumping to conclusions on many levels is ridiculous, even bordering on stupid. Bielsa had his issues in domestic league play over his two seasons with Athletic Bilbao, but he did good things in tournament play during the 2011-12 season with Bilbao’s run to the finals in both the Europa League and the Copa Del Rey. His last season with Bilbao was surrounded by the cloud of the unknown, with transfer situations surrounding Javi Martinez and Fernando Loriente.

Athletic Bilbao finished in mid table obscurity under Bielsa, finishing 10th in 2011-12 and 12th in 2012-13. Something I did was look into some of the underlying numbers with Athletic Bilbao under Marcelo Bielsa. Here are Bilbao’s numbers from 2011-12:

La Liga

And here are Bilbao’s 2012-13 numbers:

La Liga

What you notice with both seasons is pretty subpar shot differential numbers. I’m obviously not privy to expected goal numbers from La Liga and I’m certainly don’t even have a model that could fire up these sort of numbers, but it’s pretty interesting to see the stark difference in the amount of shots that did hit the target from those two seasons (SoT stands for Shots on Target). That may have contributed to Bilbao having a high PDO one yr and an average one the next. Just for kicks, here is Bielsa’s two seasons with Athletic compared to the 2013-14 seasons under current Bilbao manager Ernesto Valverde:

Athletic

Marcelo Bielsa’s fame is lent much more towards his work with Chile and how he’s instilled a philosophy with the Chilean National team during his time as manager. Lots of pressing, full backs bombing down the field and at times acting more so as wingbacks, and more than anything a tempo that many attempt but few accomplish. His work could be seen with Chile’s current iteration, and how it won plaudits from many neutrals during their run in the World Cup. They played three at the back, with Mauricio Isla a lot of times playing as a RWB/RM while Gary Medel played a lot as the team’s CB.

And so far in his tenure with Marseille, we can see that he’s not going to deviate too much from playing with three at the back, and it’s produced disappointing performances (Montpellier) and solid performances (Guingamp). Marseille played something resembling a 3-4-3 vs Guingamp with Brice Dja Djedje playing in the Mauricio Isla role as the RM/RWB hybrid. Marseille in the second half even tried having Andre-Pierre Gignac operate much more as a RW in the 3-4-3 and it produced this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d3u5dUIhMXs&list=UU58LMAlfwtGRNR6Xpd4DlSA

Meanwhile Marseille’s TSR of 0.626 through three games this season is light years ahead of where it was last season when they finished in the upper mid table:

Ligue 1

Their current mark will obviously regress because well… Bielsa never even cracked a TSR >.500 with Athletic Bilbao, Marseille lost a very solid playmaker in Valbuena this summer (his playmaking numbers probably had a decent effect on Marseille’s ability to hit the target with their shots last season), and the highest TSR posted last year was still less than Marseille’s current mark.

I’ve greatly enjoyed Bielsa’s previous work with the Chile National team and how his ideologies have been passed on their current manager Jorge Sampaoli, but can Bielsa succeed as a domestic league manager? So far we don’t have much evidence to say he will, but it’s very early into his stint with Marseille. CB depth is a issue with Marseille and assuming Bielsa will stick heavily with a three at the back formation, getting a CB or two will be imperative. I can’t tell you how this experiment will work out, but it’s going to be really fun to see it unfold.

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Manchester City 2, Liverpool 1: A State Of Change

  • Fernando and Yaya Toure’s midfield relationship from Newcastle carried over against Liverpool. Fernando’s main job was to be apply pressure on whoever had the ball in the midfield, not allowing the trio of Gerrard, Allen and Henderson to have much time to feed their threatening attacking options. Fernando wasted no time doing this, as just two minutes into the game Fernando was able to force an errant pass due to his pressure on the ball. Unfortunately, a heat map can not properly illustrate this since most of this pressure didn’t actually lead to Fernando taking a touch, which would show up on the heat map.While it didn’t happen much in this game, Fernando’s seemingly never ending energy to sprint towards whichever Liverpool CM had the ball gives Yaya Toure the freedom to do whatever he wants and bomb forward as need be. Fernando also knew his role as a passer in the midfield: maintain possession and let Silva, Nasri, Toure do the burden of the play making. As a result of this Fernando had 97% pass accuracy.
  • In that aforementioned Liverpool trio, Joe Allen seemed to be the man who was played the farthest forward by quite some margin. This was much more visible when Liverpool either had the ball or shortly after they had lost it. This screen shot shows Allen much closer to Coutinho/Sturridge/Sterling than Henderson and Gerrard. This one also illustrates how much farther forward Allen found himself. Allen did track back on defense where he was more closely aligned with Henderson and Gerrard but on Liverpool’s attacks it was clear Allen had more freedom to go forward than the other two did.
  • Coutinho tracked back a lot more than Sterling did. Sterling didn’t take a single touch in Liverpool’s defensive third and generally was content to stay somewhat higher up the pitch and leave Glen Johnson without that much support. Coutinho was much deeper throughout the game, providing support to Premier League debutant Alberto Moreno. Coutinho took 18 percent of his touches in the defensive third. This led to a largely lackluster offensive performance from the Brazilian: he had 0 successful dribbles and 0 key passes in a game that likely won’t appear in any Youtube montages. Of course going up against the Premier League’s best right back doesn’t help much either.
  • An interesting development for Liverpool was when Lazar Markovic came on for Coutinho. Markovic was much more involved than Coutinho was, and Alberto Moreno also started coming forward a lot more. This probably has a lot to do with the scoreline, as City were comfortably ahead and playing solely on the counter. Liverpool had a lot more possession during this period, but their final ball was lacking. They were threatening, but not so much.
  • Silva comes off in the 65th minute for Jesus Navas, and he and Samir Nasri switched flanks. Navas was presumably subbed on to pressure the now attacking Moreno. His assist for Sergio Aguero’s goal in the 68th minute effectively killed the game.
  • In the 75th minute, Liverpool brought on Emre Can, and I thought his position was interesting. Rather than pushing Gerrard up, he acted as a cover for Stevie, playing like a second Jordan Henderson. It’ll be interesting to see what this means going forward for Liverpool, and whether this is a precursor to what the side will look like with Mario Balotelli.
  • The last ten minutes could also answer what the Danny – Mario partnership will look like. Rickie Lambert came on for Raheem Sterling, which affected the shape of Liverpool’s attack. Instead of being up front, Daniel Sturridge started getting the ball in wide areas, going one on one with the full back while Rickie Lambert served as a target man. Lambert’s goal in the 82nd minute came about when Sturridge received the ball at the edge of the area and lofted a cross for Lambert to head in. Lambert had another chance to add to his tally but he decided to pass the ball instead of shooting.

***

City look like a finished product – albeit one that was playing on cruise control – while Liverpool are clearly a team in transition. They started well but weren’t as sharp as they were last year with Luis Suarez. As the game went on and Brendan Rodgers started making changes, you could sort of see what this Liverpool squad is going to look like.

I don’t share Brendan Rodgers’s opinion that this squad is better than last year’s, as the same defensive questions still abound. Dejan Lovren is unsure of what to do in this scheme, and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but Steven Gerrard is not a defensive midfielder. While Moreno should have done better with the clearance, Steven Gerrard’s inability to track David Silva is equally at fault for Jovetic’s first goal.

Liverpool travel to White Hart Lane next week with Mario Balotelli in the squad and I will hold off making final judgment on them until I can see what Mario can do. That said, unless Mario can play full back and track back, I can see the Poch Press making life miserable for Liverpool yet again.

City welcome Stoke into the Etihad, but I have a feeling City will cruise through their fixtures until September 20th, when Jose Mourinho comes to town.

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La Liga Roundup: Week 1

lionel_messi_congratulated_by_his_barcelona_team_mates_Master

La Liga is back! The Spanish first division returned this weekend after its three-month break. The Big Three all picked up points, new boys debuted, and of course, there was controversy. Let’s round it up!

- Barcelona 3-0 Elche

Last year’s runners-up started the season in fine form, I’d say. Lionel Messi scored twice as ten-men Barça ran riot on the Valencian side. La Masia product Munir El Haddadi scored the other goal for Luis Enrique’s club, and holy Ivan Rakitić, Batman! The Croatian fired off 112 passes in his competitive debut. No Neymar, no Suárez, no problem.

- Rayo Vallecano 0-0 Atlético Madrid

The reigning Spanish champions endured a disappointing start to their season: a scoreless draw at the Campo de Fútbol de Vallecas. Atlético, Supercopa winners three days ago, played their third game in a week and will be without manager Diego Simeone for seven more weeks after the RFEF suspended him for his actions during Friday’s game. Rayo enjoyed 60% possession and Atleti finished with a lowly 68% passing. The champs have adjustments to make.

- Real Madrid 2-0 Córdoba

Karim Benzema scored his first goal for Real since April as the European Cup winners kept the Andalusians at bay. This was Córdoba’s first Liga game in 42 years, and they managed to keep a fatigued Real within striking distance until Cristiano Ronaldo’s goal in the 90th minute. Not a bad result for the new boys, all told.

-Eibar 1-0 Real Sociedad

Eibar’s first-ever La Liga couldn’t have gone any better: a Basque derby which ended in a victory. Javi Lara’s free-kick just before half gave the Liga Adelante winners a famous win in front of only 5,000 supporters. Lara pretty much did it all in the victory, accruing three total shots, five tackles, four key passes, and two interceptions.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Px42vkoNlOo

-Málaga 1-0 Athletic Club

The weekend’s opening game featured a highly controversial ending. Luis Alberto, scored 34 minutes in, slotting home a rebound after his penalty was stopped by Gorka Iraizoz. Speaking of Iraizoz, it was late in second-half injury time when the keeper headed home what should have been the equalizer. But #SpanishRefs struck, the goal was disallowed, and Málaga escaped.

https://vine.co/v/MLUAinlwlVd

-Other Results

Granada 2-1 Deportivo, Sevilla 1-1 Valencia, Almería 1-1 Espanyol, Celta Vigo 3-1 Getafe, Levante 0-2 Villarreal.

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