The footballing world was rocked this week by a series of leaks alleging financial misconduct on the part of PSG and Manchester City. Neither side let the rumours affect them, however, as both secured statement victories.
The leaks also revealed supposed plans for a breakaway European Super League, but it was the South American continental competition that provided the drama this week. The second leg of the Copa Libertadores semi-final was contested between River Plate and Gremio; the Brazilian side had a 1-0 aggregate lead following a win in Argentina. They doubled that early on in the second leg of the tie, and looked to be heading to victory – they held a two-goal advantage with as little as ten minutes to go. However, River Plate pulled one back to set up a grandstand finish. This was marred by ugly scenes when referee Andres Cunha awarded a late penalty to the visitors with the assistance of VAR: riot police had to enter the pitch to protect the match official. A 9-minute delay ensued while order was restored, but Gonzalo Martinez held his nerve to slot away the spot kick and send River Plate through on away goals. This sets up a tantalising all-Argentina final against their bitter rivals, Boca Juniors.
Things were somewhat less intense in Real Madrid’s Copa del Rey fixture against third-tier Melilla. This was temporary manager Santiago Solari’s first game in charge, and he could hardly have asked for a more gentle easing-in – he put out a team featuring a mix of seasoned pros and young prospects, who combined to secure a 4-0 victory. They carried this form into La Liga, where Real finally broke their dreadful league run with a 2-0 win against Valladolid. This prompted Toni Kroos to tweet a photo with the somewhat uninspiring albeit unimpeachably accurate caption of “we won a league game yesterday”. A few more wins like that, and Solari might find himself handed the job on a permanent basis – the bookies currently have him as second-favourite, behind Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino. He will be hoping to take what might be called the ‘Zidane route’ of promotion from the reserve setup.
Gary Neville is one man who knows all about the toils of management in La Liga. He is also somewhat more adept at social media than Toni Kroos – he took to Twitter this week to do a Q and A session. It made for interesting reading, the highlight of which was undoubtedly Neville’s admission that he would rather see Salford City relegated than Liverpool win the league. A United stalwart having a pathological hatred for Liverpool is hardly surprising in and of itself, but the former right-back is of course part-owner at Salford. Fans of the non-league club, who have already had to come to terms with a radical change of identity since the huge injection of cash came in from some of the Class of ’92, may well not be best-pleased to learn of where Neville’s priorities lie. This comes just weeks after the Sky Sports pundit heavily criticised suggestions that Mourinho should be sacked as Manchester United manager, extolling the virtues of stability despite having dismissed Salford’s own managerial duo at the start of the season. Nonetheless, his success as owner so far cannot be denied: he and his peers have lifted the side from the seventh to the fifth tier.
Cash injections on a somewhat larger scale have transformed PSG in recent times. These were of course subject to controversy this week, but there was no sign of any of this discomfiting the players: Mbappé and Neymar were up to their usual tricks, scoring a goal each on the way to a 2-1 win over LOSC Lille. This makes it 12 wins from 12 in the league this season for the Parisian juggernauts, which constitutes a record start in any of the top five leagues. Spurs previously held this honour, having won eleven in a row at the start of the 1960/61 season. Questions about the quality of PSG’s opposition can legitimately be raised, particularly given their less than convincing start against altogether better teams in the Champions League, but ultimately they have to be given credit for breaking such a long-standing record.
Neymar might feel as though he has justified his move to PSG, but his former employers seem to be managing without him. Alongside Messi, he and Luis Suarez formed one of the deadliest attacks ever assembled – the Uruguayan showed that he is as lethal as ever with two important goals against Rayo Vallecano. Fresh from his hat-trick in the Clasico, Suarez opened the scoring after ten minutes. The hosts rallied, however, and Barcelona found themselves 2-1 down with just five minutes to play. Ousmane Dembele restored parity in the 87th minute, before Suarez delivered once again in the last minute of the game. He now has five goals in two matches; this might serve to at least temporarily silence the growing talk about the need to replace him.
Paolo Dybala continued the somewhat South American flavour to the week’s action when he opened the scoring after just 43 seconds against Cagliari. This was the perfect start for the Italian champions, who eventually went on to win 3-1 despite briefly being pegged back. On a personal level, however, Dybala was actually some way off the league record for fastest goal – that is held by his namesake Paolo Poggi, who scored for Piacenza against Fiorentina after just 8.1 seconds in the 2000/01 season. Juventus finished second that year, but having already accrued a 6-point lead at the top they will be confident that this campaign will bring another title.
Manchester City were similarly quick out of the block against Southampton, and they didn’t look back. They handed the team from the south coast an absolute battering, eventually running out 6-1 victors in an absolute mismatch of a contest. The Saints sit sixteenth in the league table, but their total lack of resistance against the champions suggests that they will struggle to stave off relegation – everyone finds it hard against Pep’s men, but the ease with which they sliced Southampton apart was remarkable. One sequence saw a series of passes stringed together just yards from the visitors’ goal while the defence did little more than stand and watch; City did not apply the finish on that occasion, but on the whole had an excellent day in front of goal. A brace from Raheem Sterling was accompanied by strikes from Sane, Aguero and Silva, as well as a Hoedt own goal. This puts City clear at the top of the table following Liverpool’s draw with Arsenal.