Real Madrid fall into crisis mode
The season's only three games old, yet Spanish sportspaper Mundo Deportivo has no doubt about what's going on at Real Madrid. CRISIS. All in capitals, which means it's serious. For last season, Real Madrid finished third, losing five games in the process; this season, they've already lost two. And while it's always vaguely surprising when Real don't win, such is their attacking power, this latest defeat to Atlético Madrid can't really be called a shock. For a start, Atléti have now won three of the last four league derbies. For an end, Real were rubbish.
That the European champions' defence was a mess was exposed last time around by Real Sociedad, but the international break appears to have done nothing to improve matters. Ahead of Sergio Ramos and Pepe, Toni Kroos isn't a defensive midfielder, and nor is Luka Modric; behind them, still, flaps Iker Casillas, who is suffering the fate of all ageing athletes. With each passing game he looks less like himself, more like a man doing an unkind impression of himself. And though they have arguably the strongest attack in the world on paper, on grass the combined talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, James Rodríguez and Karim Benzema aren't, well, combining. Madrid's only goal came from a penalty earned by a palpably unfit Ronaldo, and while Atléti's new goalkeeper Moyà made a couple of decent saves, a frustrated Real spent most of their time of blootering the ball from distance, either over the bar or past the posts.
In essence, it looks as though the removal of Ángel di María's direct running and Xabi Alonso's passing have effectively disrupted Real in both directions; made them more predictable with the ball and more chaotic without it. Fine going, Florentino Pérez, and no wonder Carlo Ancelotti is reportedly furious. But it should be noted that Atléti were themselves denuded over the summer, and yet their new signings appear to integrated into the team with admirable ease. There is no better spoiling side when they're on their game, and so there could have been no worse opponent for Real at this early stage of the season. Diego Simeone may have been watching from the directors' box, but his football was all over the Bernabéu.
Their first goal came when Tiago slipped his marker at a corner; the winner came when the admirable Arda Turan took advantage of a smart dummy from Raúl García to slot home the second. If bad marking can happen sometimes, there can be no excuse for the fact that Turan and his colleague were able to combine in almost total isolation on the edge of the box, with Real's defenders standing a short distance away, mouths open, eyes wide, brains empty. While it's unlikely to constitute much in the way of payback for last season's Champions League final, at least Atléti can be sure that they go into this season's tournament as by some distance the more coherent and effective football team. Real, for their part, will be hoping that Europe can provide some much more obliging opponents.
Milan sides have wild Sunday
This weekend, history very nearly repeated itself for Serie A's two Milan sides. Last year, when visiting Sassuolo, Inter pulled off a spectacular win, putting in seven unanswered against the newly promoted side. A month later, Milan and Parma scored freely, and despite a comeback from the rossoneri, a late goal from Parma ensured it was the crociati that went away with all three points.
Sunday brought both the memories of both of those games back. First up was Sassuolo's visit to the San Siro. It took just four minutes for Inter to take the lead, and although they failed to look all that convincing after the initial goal, the second, scored in the 21st minute, changed the game completely. Sassuolo were broken, no doubt plagued by memories of last season. Sure enough, Inter went on to score seven, with Mateo Kovacic in particular delighting in tearing the neroverdi to shreds.
The day's fixtures ended with Milan paying a visit to Parma. Having run out easy winners in the first match of Filippo Inzaghi's reign, the rossoneri were determined to not be embarrassed by Parma once more. A win was needed, was necessary. And so the fact that Giacomo Bonaventura scored first, 25 minutes in, wasn't a surprise. Nor was the fact that Antonio Cassano easily ripped apart the Milan defense to score the equalizer just two minutes later. Milan came back, and took a 3-1 lead into the break.
While much of what happened in the first half was predictable — Milan's centerbacks being caught out of position, Parma's old legs being unable to deal with the rossoneri speed — the following 45 minutes caused jaws to gape. A handball committed right on the line brought Milan down to ten men. Yet it was Nigel De Jong who scored next, taking the ball from the center of the circle all the way to goal. Yes, Nigel De Jong. Then, with Parma having managed to get the score back to 4-3, they had a player sent off as well. An absolutely fantastic backheel from Jérémy Menez put Milan up by two once more, and it looked like a win was a certainty. Except then goalkeeper Diego Lopez managed a spectacular fail on a backpass from Mattia De Sciglio, handing Parma another goal, with plenty of injury time left to play.
This time around, though, Parma couldn't get their last minute goal. And though it's early in the season, that might say much about this year's side, who've lost their first two, including the opening day match at newly-promoted Cesena. Milan, however, have to like their chances at regaining a Champions League spot this season.
As for the other Milan side, well, they shouldn't go basing their hopes on this result. Last season's dismantling of Sassuolo meant little, with Inter going on to demonstrate, again and again, fatal flaws. The opening day result against Torino — a scoreless draw — may well tell us more, particularly as ten of the eleven starters remained the same.
So both Milan sides are likely to continue showing their flaws. But the neutral will welcome both these sides. Not only are we likely to see a few high-scoring and rather hilarious matches, but it's also a good bet that both teams will be in the running for Serie A's European positions, making the league all the more fun to watch.
Saints flying high despite fire sale
It was easy to write off Southampton earlier in the summer. They were in the midst of what looked like a fire sale, losing a trio of England internationals in Luke Shaw, Rickie Lambert and Adam Lallana and selling one of their first-choice centre backs on top of that. Adding in the prospect of losing Morgan Schneiderlin and Jay Rodriguez make it feel only more inevitable that the Saints would sink back into irrelevance, or worse.
And it being the easy thing to do, millions of gallons of virtual ink were thrown at reams of virtual sheets to explain, in lengthy and frequently angry essays, just how screwed Southampton were (presumably people read these stories in the paper too, but paper-readers deserve all they get). And so far this season, they all look very, very wrong.
After two games — the first a tough 2-1 defeat at Anfield in which they pushed Liverpool close all match, the second a bizarrely uneventful clash against West Bromwich Albion at St. Mary’s — the Saints were about where most expected them. One goal, one point, and although they looked to have an interesting, tricky performer in Dusan Tadic, the goals weren’t coming.
And then they did. Back to back victories, including a 4-0 demolition job of Newcastle on Saturday, have pushed Southampton up to fourth in the young table, and while they obviously won’t stay there they’ve demonstrated far more quality than they were credited with in the summer. Having managed to keep hold of Schneiderlin and thus retaining their excellent midfield, the Saints then spent very, very well, using their influx of cash to hold serve or upgrade at several positions.
Take, for instance, Graziano Pellè, whose three goals and imposing stature have marked him out as a natural successor to Lambert. The aforementioned Tadic has looked even more dynamic than Lallana did last season; Ryan Bertrand is less of a step down from Shaw than most would suggest, and there have been obvious upgrades in central defence (Toby Alderweireld replacing Dejan Lovren) and at goalkeeper (Fraser Forster for Artur Boruc).
Perhaps the only head-scratching move of the summer was the acquisition of Shane Long for £12 million, but if that buy — and you might argue that it was worth it for the vine of him being punched in the face by Tim Krul over and over and over again — turns out to be their only misstep, they’re in better shape than ever before.
If you’re going to be forced into selling players, you’d better spend wisely. So far, at least, it seems as though Southampton have done just that.