It was another weekend full of talking points around Europe as the Premier League grappled with postponements due to coronavirus cases rising, and the Bundesliga kicked off again behind closed doors. Beyond that, Barcelona wrapped up a dramatic win, Arsenal surged into the top four for Christmas thanks to Gabriel Martinelli and Borussia Dortmund continued to cause themselves problems as they disappeared from the title race in Germany.
Here are Rob Dawson, Derek Rae, Alex Kirkland and James Tyler with what you need to know from around Europe.
Four talking points
Xavi, Barcelona claim much-needed win
Where would Barca be without their kids? This weekend, it was Ferran Jutgla, Gavi and Nico Gonzalez on the scoresheet in a last-gasp 3-2 win over Elche; last week, Nico and Abde got them a 2-2 draw at Osasuna. The scorers of Barcelona‘s last five goals in LaLiga are 19, 17, 22 and 20 years old. Xavi called them “the future … a spectacular generation.” The coach was careful not to frame his praise of the youngsters as implicit criticism of the team’s veterans, but it’s hard not to read it that way. Gavi, Nico and Abde are delivering under pressure, so why aren’t Ter Stegen, Alba or Busquets?
Once again this Saturday, it was Gavi, 17, who had everybody talking. Teammate Ronald Araujo called him “a machine” while Xavi said, “I played for Barca at that age, and I was scared.” Gavi plays like he’s never been scared of anything in his life. His first-half goal against Elche was gasp-inducing, spinning away from one defender and wrong-footing another before slotting beyond the goalkeeper from the edge of the box. His assist for the winner was just as good: a one-two with Ousmane Dembele and then a no-look pullback for Nico, 19, to control and finish under pressure.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about him isn’t his technique, vision or quality on the ball, though: it’s his aggressive, no-holds barred, street-fighting attitude. This Barca team could do with a bit more of that. — Alex Kirkland
Not sure if Gavi or Messi 😯 pic.twitter.com/Urup0fiVte
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 18, 2021
Arsenal are back in the top four again
There isn’t a club in England that experience mood swings like Arsenal. After back-to-back defeats to Manchester United and Everton at the beginning of December, there were calls for Mikel Arteta to go. Three games and three wins later, and Arsenal are guaranteed to be in the top four on Christmas Day for the first time since 2016. On Dec. 25 last year, they were 15th in the table and only four points above the relegation places.
It’s not all plain sailing at the Emirates, however, and the ongoing situation surrounding Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a distraction Arteta could do without. But on the field, Arsenal’s young squad have shown they are capable of putting a run of results together that should see them challenge for fourth place behind Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea.
Steve Nicol and Kay Murray discuss Arsenal’s prospects after their 4-1 win away vs. Leeds.
Since draws with Brighton and Crystal Palace in October, Arsenal have taken 21 points from a possible 30. Finishing in the top four would represent success for Arteta, particularly after losing their first three games without even scoring a goal. Arsenal are not good enough yet to avoid more set-backs this season, but the quality and resilience is there to earn a place in next season’s Champions League. — Rob Dawson
Dortmund continue to slide away from the Bundesliga summit
Fair or not, whenever Borussia Dortmund lose a game they could reasonably win, there is a feeding frenzy. Why aren’t they better? Why is the defence so wobbly? Is there a mental weakness within the squad as a whole? And now, why are Dortmund 9 points behind Bayern going into the winter break?
Saturday’s 3-2 defeat in Berlin against Hertha was partly of BVB’s own making: too passive, too much standing around watching, and too many errors — in particular from Julian Brandt, who had earlier given them the lead with a classy chip. In fairness, it exposed just how limited the Dortmund squad is when key players are missing.
Jan Age Fjortoft discusses why Borussia Dortmund won’t ever be able to compete with Bayern Munich.
The Schwarzgelben have an over-reliance on a handful of individuals. Jude Bellingham might only be 18, but his absence through suspension at the Olympiastadion deprived BVB of one of their most dominant performers. Manuel Akanji has become arguably the club’s most important defender, and with Mats Hummels also out, Dortmund struggled with a makeshift alliance of Axel Witsel Marin Pongracic.
When Erling Haaland is restricted to just 30 touches and one shot, Dortmund are in trouble. Coach Marco Rose’s word of the day was “Bedingungslosigkeit” (“unconditional commitment”). In this case, he wasn’t using it to illustrate what his players gave him as they fell to a fifth defeat in 17 league matches this season. — Derek Rae
Roma, Atalanta provide entertainment
Atalanta and AS Roma have been two of Serie A’s most entertaining teams, albeit for different reasons: the former through their football, the latter through their off-field chaos. Yet the embattled Jose Mourinho — he’s pretty much always embattled, isn’t he? — pulled off a magnificent heist on Saturday, as his Roma side scored early and often on their way to a 4-1 win in Bergamo.
The chief instigator of Roma’s romp was Tammy Abraham, whose form in Italy (12 goals and three assists in 24 appearances, all competitions) is surely noticed by former club Chelsea. His deflected shot in the first minute put the visitors on their way, and he capped the win with a close-range finish for the final goal of the match — both efforts were his only shots on goal all day, as Roma managed just eight total over the 90 minutes. The other goals came from Nicolo Zaniolo and Chris Smalling, both of whom are vital to the Giallorossi‘s top-four aspirations this season.
Meanwhile, Atalanta’s wild winter continues; after beating Napoli and Juventus in recent weeks, Saturday’s heavy defeat has them suddenly six points behind league leaders Inter Milan. No time to dwell on it, though; they have a very winnable trip to Genoa to come this week prior to Serie A’s pause. — James Tyler
Three must-see goals
A stunner from Sane
The fall and rise of Leroy Sane, a highly talented player, represents one of the better feel-good stories of the past couple of seasons. For much of last term, the discussion on German TV was often about how Sane hadn’t properly adapted to Bayern ways after joining from Manchester City. After a miserable time at the Euros, he was even booed by a small section of Bayern fans.
Sane’s wondrous left-footed curler in the 4-0 stroll against Wolfsburg on Friday was a thing of pure beauty, and while commentating live for the Bundesliga world feed, I couldn’t resist likening it to one of Arjen Robben’s gems from the past. We used to think of Sane as a bit of a one-dimensional wide player. But Julian Nagelsmann has used him more and more in the “Halbraum” (or “half-space”) position. The result is you never quite know where he’s going to pop up next, and good luck to opponents trying to read his every move.
Special mention also to Union’s Max Kruse, who got married on Thursday and then celebrated a working honeymoon by scoring the only goal in Bochum, an absolute bullet with his weaker right foot. — Rae
It’s three for Bayern. What a strike from Sane! 🚀 pic.twitter.com/L3mmYHVRDD
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 17, 2021
Loren’s laser from long distance
Who could blame you for missing Loren Moron’s goal for Espanyol on Friday night? A consolation in the 92nd minute of a 3-1 defeat at Celta Vigo isn’t exactly headline-grabbing stuff, but this was an extraordinary strike and the goal of the weekend in LaLiga, better even than Gavi’s solo effort for Barcelona or Ivan Rakitic‘s rocket for Sevilla.
When Moron latched onto the ball, just inside Celta’s half and close to the right-hand touchline with two defenders close by, there appeared to be no danger whatsoever. That was before he clipped it first time — with a pace and conviction that most long-range lobs lack — up, up and over the desperately backtracking goalkeeper Matias Dituro and into the net. It was his first goal for Espanyol since joining on loan from Betis in the summer, and he won’t score a better one. –Alex Kirkland
Cancelo continues to dazzle for Man City
Joao Cancelo is enjoying some of his best form since joining Manchester City from Juventus in 2019, and his brilliance was summed up by his goal against Newcastle during Saturday’s 4-0 win. Picking up the ball close to the halfway line, he beat two players before thundering the ball into the net from the edge of the penalty area as three more Newcastle defenders tried to close him down. Not bad for a full-back.
In Pep Guardiola’s team full of stars, Cancelo is one of the brightest and he deserves to be in contention for this season’s top individual awards. — Dawson
Two teams that should be worried
Wolfsburg lose their seventh straight game
We’re spoiled for choice in this category. Borussia Monchengladbach and RB Leipzig certainly qualify, given results and performances well below expectations. Yet I’ve picked Wolfsburg, as their plummet in the Autostadt is remarkable. A run of seven successive defeats in all competitions is new territory for the club since first winning promotion in 1997. They’re out of the Champions League — indeed, they’re out of Europe altogether having finished bottom of their group — and now find themselves in a fierce relegation fight.
In truth, there’s not much fight evident in this iteration of Wolfsburg. Remember too that they’re on their third coach of 2021. Oliver Glasner left in the summer after creative differences with club boss Jorg Schmadtke. Mark van Bommel was supposed to be an innovative successor, but his four-game winning sequence to begin the Bundesliga season proved to be a mirage. The Dutchman’s emphasis on possession football was a poor match for a squad built to play more powerfully on the counter attack.
Following three successive victories in all competitions to start off, Florian Kohfeldt has presided over this horror run. It’s sometimes said no one explains away defeats more eloquently than he, and he had plenty of practice last season in getting Werder Bremen relegated for the first time in more than 4 decades. Kohfeldt has confidently promised a very different Wolfsburg when they return to the pitch in Bochum on Jan. 9. — Rae
Atletico’s title defence looks over
The last time Atletico Madrid lost three league games in a row, it was Feb. 2011, Quique Sanchez Flores was the man in charge and Diego Simeone was helping Catania avoid relegation from Serie A. So much has changed during Simeone’s decade at Atletico — Dec. 23 marks his 10-year anniversary at the club — and the credit he’s built up during that time, most recently by winning LaLiga last May, is vast. But the pressure after back-to-back defeats to Mallorca, Madrid and now Sevilla is real, and growing.
RAKITIC GOLAZO FROM OUTSIDE THE BOX 🤯 pic.twitter.com/2v7L0iTUDb
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) December 18, 2021
Atletico are 15 points and four places worse off than they were this time last season. They’re conceding too often — Lucas Ocampos‘ late winner in Sevilla’s 2-1 victory on Saturday was yet another goal conceded from a dead ball — as Simeone struggles to find a balance between defence and attack. Luis Suarez, a talisman last season, has lost his scoring touch, with one goal in 10 games. His frustrated cry of “Always the same!” after he was hauled off after 57 minutes told its own story.
Atletico have one more game this year, visiting Granada on Wednesday, to avoid a dispiriting end to 2021. — Kirkland
The excitement around Gabriel Martinelli can make it feel like the Brazilian forward has been around forever, but we’re only now witnessing his breakthrough season. The 20-year-old scored twice in Arsenal 4-1 win at Leeds United on Saturday to take his tally for the season to four in 11 games. It’s already his best return in a single Premier League campaign, and it’s only December. His target from here should be at least 10.
Martinelli is becoming a key part of Arteta’s young squad alongside Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe, and that trio are cause for optimism in the minds of any Arsenal fan. Saka and Smith Rowe were also on target at Elland Road as Arsenal made it three wins in a row.
Martinelli has been a little slower than Saka and Smith Rowe to earn Arteta’s trust, but after starting each of the last five games, he is well on his way. Consistency is key if he wants to keep his place, but three goals in his last three games should ensure he’s one of the first names on the teamsheet over the busy Christmas schedule. — Dawson