Xavi’s winning Barcelona debut, Vlahovic magic vs. Milan: Weekend review

Soccer

The weekend will be dominated by events at Manchester United, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was finally relieved of his managerial duties, but there were talking points galore around Europe in the top leagues. Xavi made a positive start to life as Barcelona boss, Arsenal‘s superb unbeaten run was halted in ruthless fashion by Liverpool, and Lionel Messi finally broke his scoreless run in Ligue 1.

There were also some great goals (including a belter at Burnley) and further evidence that Dusan Vlahovic is destined for the big time.

Here are Sam Marsden, James Tyler and Alex Kirkland with what you need to know from around Europe.

Go to: Talking points | Top goals | Troubled teams | Weekend MVP


Four talking points

Xavi’s debut is a winning one

Xavi Hernandez’s debut as Barcelona coach ended with three points, but Saturday’s 1-0 Catalan derby win over Espanyol was far from simple. Raul de Tomas twice hit the woodwork and Landry Dimata missed a header that looked easier to score in the final 15 minutes, as Barca were forced to hang on for their lives in the final stages at Camp Nou.

For the first 75 minutes, everything had gone well for Barca and Xavi. They dominated the first half, pressing high and risking single-man coverage in defence, but were unable to find the breakthrough. It eventually arrived just after the break when a soft penalty was awarded for Leandro Cabrera‘s foul on Memphis Depay. De Tomas called the decision a “joke,” though Memphis scored from the spot and despite Espanyol’s late rally, the home fans left with the feeling they have got “their Barca” back.

Over 74,000 attended the game — double the attendance of their previous home match against Alaves in October — to see eight academy players named in Xavi’s starting XI, including two 17-year-olds (Gavi, Ilias Akhomach) and a 19-year-old (Nico). Another 19-year-old, Abde Ezzalzouli, a summer signing from Hercules, brought fans to their feet in the second half with his range of tricks and street skills.

There were still some remnants of the previous regime, notably missed chances and poor defending, but there’s finally some optimism surrounding Barca. With Benfica to come in a must-win Champions League game on Tuesday, though, it might not last for long. –Sam Marsden

Dortmund back in the title race?

Bayern Munich‘s surprise 2-1 defeat at Augsburg on Friday gave Borussia Dortmund a golden opportunity: beat Stuttgart a day later, and the title race was back on. Dortmund haven’t exactly been reliable lately, though; beaten home and away by Ajax in the Champions League, they had lost to RB Leipzig in their last outing before the international break.

Struggling Stuttgart should have been straightforward opponents, but Dortmund needed first a bit of luck — Donyell Malen‘s optimistic shot deflected in for his first league goal for the club — and then some late magic from Thorgan Hazard, who set up Marco Reus to take the win. Bayern’s lead at the top of the Bundesliga had been cut to just a point.

It’s still much too early to say if Bayern will face genuine competition for the title this year. There were promising signs of that from both Dortmund and Leipzig in 2019-20 and 2020-21, before Bayern — who’ve been crowned champions a record nine times in a row — finished a comfortable 13 points clear of their nearest rivals on both occasions.

Dortmund’s challenge has also been hit by the hip injury suffered by Erling Haaland, who may be absent until after Christmas. Next weekend’s trip to Wolfsburg will be another opportunity to prove their ability to deliver results consistently before the real test: Der Klassiker against Bayern on Dec. 4. — Alex Kirkland

Liverpool and Arsenal put on a show (so do Klopp and Arteta)

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Janusz Michallik says Liverpool did not look themselves before the managers clashed on the touchlines.

In the opening half-hour Saturday’s affair at Anfield felt different to drubbings of the recent past. Mikel Arteta has galvanised his young Gunners squad and after culling so many of the problematic pros who threatened the rebuild, they’re finally trending in the right direction. Eight wins in their past 10 games (all competitions) certainly speaks to forward progress, but by full-time, it was more of the same as the Reds proved too strong, too fluent and too quick in attack for an Arsenal side that’s still not the finished product.

The spark to really ignite the home side, who’d go on to wrap up a 4-0 win, would be a throw-back clash of managers; Arteta felt that Sadio Mane had led with his elbow in an aerial battle with Takehiro Tomiyasu and was quick to tell Jurgen Klopp of his displeasure. The two coaches spilled from their technical areas and had a shout, prompting referee Michael Oliver to issue both coaches a yellow card. From there, Liverpool continued to harass and stress Arsenal in possession and despite some brilliant goalkeeping from Aaron Ramsdale — who smiled and howled after every acrobatic save, a hallmark of a top goalie (in my opinion) — the Reds would canter to victory.

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After Mane opened the scoring with a wide-open header from a Trent Alexander-Arnold free-kick late in the first half, Arsenal proved to be their own worst enemies as Liverpool poured on the goals. Despite knowing the intensity of Liverpool’s press, Arteta’s side still tried to play their possession game out from the back and paid for it several times; Nuno Tavares should get the assist on Diogo Jota‘s goal, after dribbling out from his own penalty area only to side-foot it back into the box where Jota shrugged off Ben White and Ramsdale to tap into an empty net for the decisive second goal.

Jota is becoming a star in this team, having deputized for all three first-choice forwards along the front line since arriving in 2020. It was his intelligent, forceful flicked header in midfield that put Mane clear down the left for Liverpool’s third, finished calmly by Mo Salah from Mane’s square pass. The fourth was more quick movement as Alexander-Arnold drilled a low cross from the right side of the box for sub Takumi Minamino, who’d been on the pitch for barely a minute before tapping home.

The scoreline was perhaps harsh on Arsenal and Ramsdale in particular, such was his agile madness between the posts, but it further showed both Liverpool’s evident title credentials as well as the distance that Arteta’s side still has to go in order to genuinely contend. — James Tyler

Real Madrid‘s veteran midfield still putting on a show

Carlo Ancelotti says Casemiro, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are still the best midfield trio in world football and watching them create all four goals in Real Madrid’s impressive 4-1 away win at Granada on Sunday, it was hard to disagree. They turned in a joyous display of ingenuity and craft. Kroos provided the first two for Marco Asensio and Nacho; Modric played his part with a selfless, Guti-esque assist when through on goal to allow Vinicius Junior to make it three; Casemiro, nominally the most defensive-minded of the bunch, picked out Ferland Mendy to finish the job.

Madrid have spent some years preparing for the inevitable renewal of the team’s engine room. Martin Odegaard was rushed back from his loan at Real Sociedad last year, but got tired of waiting for Modric’s level to drop and moved to Arsenal on a permanent basis. There are no doubts about Fede Valverde’s tireless midfield running, but he hasn’t found a regular spot, either. Even Eduardo Camavinga, one of the most exciting young talents in the game, has spent much of his early months at the Bernabeu watching from the bench.

In the games that really matter — or even, like this trip to Granada, the ones they expect to win comfortably — it’s still Casemiro, Kroos and Modric in midfield. Enjoy them while you can. — Kirkland


Three must-see goals

Messi gets his first in Ligue 1

It’s taken three months and six games, but Lionel Messi has finally scored his first goal in Ligue 1. The Paris Saint-Germain attacker has scored three in three in the Champions League for his new club, but had not hit the target domestically until this weekend.

It was a vital goal, too; PSG looked set to drop points against Nantes in Paris on Saturday, goalkeeper Keylor Navas had been sent off and the score was 1-1 with less than 10 minutes to go when Messi stepped up. First, his run and pass resulted in an own goal from Dennis Appiah, and then he added his side’s third goal in the 87th minute to seal the three points.

It was a trademark Messi finish, too, as the Nantes defenders allowed him to drift inside from the right before he bent the ball into the corner with his left foot from 20 yards. PSG remain 11 points clear at the top of the league after 14 games. — Marsden

Felipe on the mark for Atletico

It’s been baffling to see Atletico Madrid‘s set-piece threat — previously one of their greatest strengths under coach Diego Simeone — diminish in recent years. They might not be able to call on Diego Godin, Miranda or Diego Costa anymore, but they’ve still got players who can provide quality deliveries (Koke, Thomas Lemar, Rodrigo de Paul) and targets like Stefan Savic and Jose Maria Gimenez to aim for.

A more expansive style in open play seems to have come at the cost of menace from dead balls, which made Saturday’s 87th-minute game-winning goal against Osasuna was a welcome blast from the past. Yannick Carrasco whipped in the corner, Felipe flicked in the near-post header and Atletico won 1-0. It felt like 2014 all over again. — Kirkland

Cornet comes to the Clarets’ rescue

The Premier League’s Saturday slate was one for the ages, with a remarkable 30 goals across the eight-game slate and only one match (Wolves 1-0 West Ham) without multiple net-busters. Speaking of net-busting, the pick of the crop was from Burnley’s Maxwell Cornet in a dizzying 3-3 affair against Crystal Palace at Turf Moor.

In a game that saw 33 shots and 17 on target of all shapes and sizes, Cornet’s effort was a true blend of ferocity and fine art. Johann Berg Gudmundsson’s deep cross from the right flank was flicked to the back post by James Tarkowski, where it was met on the volley by Cornet and arrowed into the roof of the net. Vicente Guaita had made some fine saves despite conceding three times, but he knew little about Cornet’s thundering blast. The goal preserved a point for Sean Dyche & Co. and capped a memorable afternoon. Here’s to many more if the former Lyon winger is involved. — Tyler


Two teams that should be worried

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Mark Ogden says Manchester United had no desire to remove Solskjaer, as shown by their lack of a backup plan.

Solskjaer’s gone, but that won’t fix Man United

Manchester United finally moved on from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after Saturday’s 4-1 defeat to Watford at Vicarage Road. The Norwegian coach had survived a humiliating 5-0 loss to Liverpool at Old Trafford in October and being outplayed by Manchester City two weeks later, but his time finally came to an end this weekend.

The nature of Watford’s win and the fact it saw United slip to eighth in the table, a top-four finish this season now in genuine doubt, left the club with no other option. Goalkeeper David de Gea‘s comments probably didn’t help, either. “It was embarrassing to see Man United play like we did,” he said. “It was hard to watch the team playing today.”

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United’s problem now is that there appears to be no quick-fix manager on the market following Antonio Conte’s appointment at Tottenham Hotspur. Judging by the club’s statement on Solskjaer’s sacking, they don’t even appear to have a short-term plan, let alone a long-term one. “Michael Carrick will now take charge of the team for forthcoming games, while the club looks to appoint an interim manager to the end of the season,” United said Sunday. — Marsden

Cadiz continue to sink

When you’re losing 4-0 to bottom-of-the-table Getafe, you know you’re in trouble. Cadiz have been on a dreadful run, with one win in nine games, but this was the result that stung the most. “The midfield didn’t work, neither did the attack, and the defence least of all,” local newspaper Diario de Cadiz said in a match report headlined “Cadiz make a fool of themselves in Getafe.”

Alvaro Cervera’s side have been something of a miracle team since winning promotion in 2020. They regularly boast the lowest possession stats in the league and the lowest rates of pass completion, but they actively relish that fact. They don’t want the ball, as that would mean taking risks. They’ll sit tight and try to take the odd chance that comes their way. It worked last season, with an admirable 12th-place finish, but judging by what we’ve seen so far, they’ll do well to survive this time. — Kirkland

Fiorentina took down Milan in the weekend’s big Serie A result.”>


Weekend MVP: Dusan Vlahovic

Fiorentina forward dooms Milan to first Serie A defeat

Milan are firmly in the title race this season after years of missteps, mismanagement and squad imbalance that’s kept them from where they (and their fans) feel they belong. And yet, on Saturday night, we saw just why the abundant optimism among the Rossoneri faithful needs a little bit of tempering. A trip to Fiorentina might not seem like much — Milan have won five and drawn two of their past 10 Serie A meetings — but thanks to Dusan Vlahovic, Milan finally saw their unbeaten start to the season come to an end.

Vlahovic was a menace in a frantic, end-to-end affair that saw Fiorentina surge to a 3-0 lead via Alfred Duncan, Riccardo Saponara and Vlahovic by the hour mark. Zlatan Ibrahimovic pulled two back in quick succession before Vlahovic’s second of the game finally ended the fight-back, rendering a 96th minute Lorenzo Venuti own-goal irrelevant in a 4-3 win for La Viola. But what made Vlahovic stand out was the throw-back manner in which he took his chances; there’s a reason he’s been compared to both Ibrahimovic and Erling Haaland in recent months given his prolific scoring record.

His first goal was the kind of finish that’s had him linked with Newcastle United and Tottenham in 2021: Vlahovic met Duncan’s clever pass around Matteo Gabbia in stride, taking two touches before faking out Ciprian Tatarusanu and calmly arrowing a left-footed shot into the empty net. The second was a predatory, clever effort that defines world-class forwards, as Nicolas Gonzalez dispossessed Theo Hernandez at the edge of the box, the ball sitting up for Vlahovic to first-time beyond Tatarusanu. In tight games where an error (and taking advantage of it) can make all the difference, Vlahovic showed he’s got the skill and composure to decide games.

Vlahovic’s brace pulled him level with legendary Fiorentina striker Kurt Hamrin (27 in 1960) for the most Serie A goals scored in a single calendar year, though the 21-year-old Serbia forward still has a month of matches to set the new standard. Beyond that, expect to see Vlahovic in the January transfer headlines as he goes from strength to strength. — Tyler

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