European Leagues preview: Title race intensifies in Germany, Spain; PSG comfortable at top

As the race to the top heats up in Bundesliga, La Liga and Seria A, Paris Saint-Germain eyes extending its lead at the top of Ligue 1 against Marseille.

Just one point separates league leaders Juventus from second-placed Inter Milan in Serie A.   -  GETTY IMAGES

Atletico hopes Simeone has answers after familiar frustrations return

Atletico Madrid may need time to adjust after a summer of change but even this early in the season old problems are casting doubts over its Spanish title challenge.

After 77 attritional minutes at the Wanda Metropolitano on Tuesday, Alvaro Morata darted to the near post and headed in Renan Lodi's cross for a 1-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League that all but secured qualification.

After the game, Morata delivered a firm response to those criticising the team and its coach, Diego Simeone.

“People on the outside say we are going through a bad time,” said Morata, who arrived on loan in the summer. “But in La Liga we are three points off the top and in the Champions League we have seven points from three games. If this is a bad time, I wish all the bad times were like this.”

Yet there was enough in Morata's celebration, a raging run down the sideline to the bench, where he hugged Koke, who had just been whistled by the frustrated home fans, to suggest this was a win the players needed too.

Simeone is almost beyond reproach at Atletico, a club he led to the title in 2014 and where he has performed miracles on a budget roughly half that of Barcelona and Real Madrid.

When Koke was jeered as he trudged off, Simeone flapped his arms in disgust, demanding the fans applaud instead. Most duly did.

Before kick-off when the names of the players and the coach were read out to AC/DC's booming anthem 'Thunderstruck', Simeone's name, as always, received the loudest cheer.

“Everyone has their opinion but it isn't necessary for me to explain what Simeone means to the players, to the club and to the fans,” said Morata. “In the end we have to use that and focus on the group, which is our strength, and follow him.”

Simeone knows this Aletico team is only three points behind Barcelona in La Liga, more due to the bumpy form of its rivals than its own consistency. Eight goals in nine matches is not title winning form, still less four draws and one defeat.

When the transfer window closed in August, Atletico had signed nine players, including teenage sensation Joao Felix from Benfica and Kieran Trippier and let 16 go, among them top scorer Antoine Griezmann and captain Diego Godin.

Simeone's attitude, strategy and work ethic perhaps take time to absorb.

After its 1-1 draw against Valencia on Saturday, Simeone said: “There are some who look to blame others and some that want to work. Only the latter will get on with me.”

The need to adjust is unlikely to appease those fans who had hoped for a more expansive Atletico Madrid this season but instead have seen only more of the same. Half of its 12 matches in all competitions have been either goalless or settled by a single goal.

Morata changed the game in midweek, and showed intensity and fervour in his 20 minutes off the bench.

Diego Costa brings passion but with two goals this season, one from the penalty spot, and four in just over a year, the more pressing question is does he bring anything else?

“We have a lot to improve on, the precision at the end of our play,” Simeone said. “But when you have a team that defends well, the rest will come together because we have talented players.”

If Atletico beat Athletic Bilbao on Saturday, they will go above Real Madrid and level with Barcelona, both idle this weekend after the Clasico, scheduled for Saturday, was postponed due to unrest in Catalonia.

Granada and Real Sociedad, the league's surprise high-fliers in third and fourth respectively, each play on Sunday. Granada host Real Betis while Real Sociedad play away at Celta Vigo.

La Liga Fixtures

Friday: Villarreal vs Alaves

Saturday: Leganes vs Mallorca, Real Valladolid vs Eibar, Atletico Madrid vs Athletic Bilbao

Sunday: Celta Vigo vs Real Sociedad, Granada vs Real Betis, Levante vs Espanyol, Sevilla vs Getafe, Osasuna vs Valencia

 

Juventus, Inter return to Serie A fray after European successes

Champion Juventus turns its focus back to maintaining its Serie A supremacy ahead of nearest challenger Inter Milan with both Italian teams riding high after their European successes this week.

Juventus is just one point ahead of Inter Milan in the Italian league after eight games. Maurizio Sarri's side heads to promoted Lecce, while Antonio Conte's Inter is at home against Parma.

Juve extended its unbeaten run in all competitions with Paulo Dybala's quick-fire double earning a 2-1 over Lokomotiv Moscow in Turin on Tuesday in Europe.

Inter Milan beat Dortmund 2-0 in the San Siro the following night to boost its last 16 hopes, with Napoli also coming through with a thrilling 3-2 win in Salzburg.

“We're very much alive,” said Conte. “Unfortunately, we can't enjoy this result too much. We now have less than three days to recuperate ahead of our match against Parma, who are on an excellent run.”

Third-placed Atalanta return to the comforts of home against Udinese licking its wounds after a bruising 5-1 defeat to Manchester City.

Carlo Ancelotti's Napoli, one point behind the Bergamo side in fourth and six adrift of Juventus, need a result at relegation-threatened SPAL to keep pace with the leaders.

In a match between fallen giants, sixth-placed Roma hosts an AC Milan side which is struggling in 12th and desperate for a first win under new coach Stefano Pioli.

The injury-hit Romans were bitter after being held 1-1 by Borussia Monchengladbach's last-gasp penalty in Europa League action on Thursday.

“It's not a great spell for us,” said Roma forward Edin Dzeko, wearing a mask to protect a broken cheekbone. “This was our fourth draw in a row and a win would have been a morale boost.

“There's no point looking back though, only forward. We have a match against AC Milan and we must do everything possible to win it.”

City rival Lazio is also in need of a boost as it travels to Fiorentina, after falling 2-1 to Celtic in its Europa League clash.

New Genoa coach Thiago Motta's first game in charge of the club where his playing career took off a decade ago will be against Brescia. Former Italy international Motta's only previous coaching experience is with PSG's U19 team, which he managed until July.

“In 2008, Genoa changed my situation. Now I really want to coach the squad and change our fortunes,” said Motta.

The 37-year-old former PSG, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid player takes over a Genoa side that has won just one game out of eight this season.

Serie A Fixtures

Friday: Verona vs Sassuolo

Saturday: Lecce vs Juventus, Inter Milan vs Parma, Genoa vs Brescia

Sunday: Bologna vs Sampdoria, Atalanta vs Udinese, SPAL vs Napoli, Torino vs Cagliari, AS Roma vs AC Milan, Fiorentina vs Lazio

 

Defensive woes blight Kovac as Bayern host minnows Union

Pressure is mounting on head coach Niko Kovac as injury-hit Bayern Munich looks to beat minnows Union Berlin Saturday with just two points separating the top nine Bundesliga teams.

Third-placed Bayern is only a point behind leader Borussia Moenchengladbach, having been knocked off the top three weeks ago when Hoffenheim grabbed a shock 2-1 win at the Allianz Arena.

Union Berlin, in 14th place, has already beaten top-six clubs Dortmund and Freiburg in its first Bundesliga season and will hope to deny Bayern a first win in three league games.

Club chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge branded Bayern “careless” in Tuesday's 3-2 Champions League win at Olympiakos and called on the team to beat Union at home to “meet the standard FC Bayern has set” by regaining first place in the league.

However, a worry for Kovac is Bayern's trend of conceding exactly two goals in each of its last five games, on top of its defensive woes with first-choice centre-backs Niklas Suele and Lucas Hernandez out long term.

Suele could miss the next six months after tearing his cruciate ligament in Saturday's 2-2 draw at Augsburg, while Hernandez underwent surgery on Thursday for ankle ligaments torn in Greece.

Sport Bild is tipping Ralf Rangnick, sports director at rivals RB Leipzig, to step in if Kovac is fired.

The magazine claims time is running out for Kovac, 48, as Uli Hoeness, his chief supporter among the club's senior figures, stands down as club president next month. However, Union's head coach Urs Fischer refuses to perceive star-studded Bayern as vulnerable.

“We can try to force mistakes from them and if you make it easy for them, you are going to have problems,” said the Swiss.

With a phenomenal 18 goals in 13 games, Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski can claim a new Bundesliga record of scoring in each of the first nine league games if he hits the net.

“It's not just about Lewandowski,” added Fischer. “Obviously he's a top striker, on one hand, you have to be brave in one-on-one challenges with him, but it's also a team effort to defend.”

Kovac is not the only Bundesliga coach with reason to feel nervous as Jose Mourinho has been linked to Lucien Favre's position as head coach of Borussia Dortmund.

Dortmund is a point behind 'Gladbach in fourth before Saturday's Ruhr derby against seventh-placed Schalke.

“The hairs on the back of my neck go up when I talk about it,” admitted Schalke coach David Wagner before his first derby. “I have to make sure we all keep our feet on the ground.”

Jadon Sancho, 19, scored Dortmund's winner in the last Ruhr Derby in Gelsenkirchen, but fellow Englishman Jonjoe Kenny, 22, has made Schalke's right-back berth his own this season, on loan from Everton, and will be looking to dull Dortmund's attack.

Kenny, whose role model is Germany's 2014 World Cup winning captain Philipp Lahm, scored his first Bundesliga goal in a 3-0 win over Hertha in August and shone in last month's shock 3-1 win at RB Leipzig.

Also worth watching is Schalke's playmaker Amine Harit, the Bundesliga Player of the Month in September who has netted four goals this season and was the catalyst when the Royal Blues came from 4-0 down to draw 4-4 at Dortmund in November 2017.

Bundesliga Fixtures

Friday: Mainz 05 vs Cologne

Saturday: Bayern Munich vs Union Berlin, Hertha Berlin vs Hoffenheim, Freiburg vs RB Leipzig, Schalke 04 vs Borussia Dortmund, Paderborn vs Fortuna Duesseldorf, Bayer Leverkusen vs Werder Bremen

Sunday: VfL Wolfsburg v Augsburg, Borussia Moenchengladbach v Eintracht Frankfurt

 

Mbappe back with a bang as PSG gets ready for grudge match

An impatient Kylian Mbappe is set to make his first start for Paris Saint-Germain in two months this weekend after a blistering return to form off the bench in the Champions League.

The French champion hosts Marseille at the Parc des Princes on Sunday night in what is no longer much of a rivalry on the field but remains one of the great grudge matches in European football.

How Marseille would love to claim a first win over its bitter foes in almost a decade, but it will not look forward to the prospect of facing a fit-again Mbappe.

The 20-year-old World Cup winner came on as a substitute and scored a rapid blistering hat-trick in PSG's 5-0 demolition of Club Brugge in Belgium on Tuesday.

He doubled his goals tally for the season in the process and showed why he felt he deserved to start for the first time since pulling up with a hamstring injury in a game against Toulouse in late August.

“I wanted to start. The coach made his decision and you have to accept it,” Mbappe said. “I just wanted to come on and show that it is difficult to leave me out of the side.”

Tuchel insisted he did not choose Mbappe in his starting line-up because he was protecting his star forward, who was this week named among the 30 nominees for this year's Ballon d'Or -- unlike his perennially injured teammate Neymar.

“I always want to play with him in the team. He knows it,” said Tuchel. “But he could only play for as long as we gave him.”

The only doubt surrounds who will play alongside Mbappe in the PSG attack, although it certainly won't be Neymar — he is out until mid-November.

Angel Di Maria will be there after setting up four of his team's five goals in midweek, while Mauro Icardi could again be preferred to Edinson Cavani after notching five goals in four games.

'Le Classique' took top billing in France in the 1990s when pay TV giant Canal Plus bought PSG and turned it into a competitor to the era's dominant Marseille whose stars included Chris Waddle and Jean-Pierre Papin.

That helped boost viewing figures in a league which Canal Plus broadcast. These days Ligue 1 is utterly dominated by the now Qatar-owned club from the capital. Marseille, along with everyone else, trails in its wake.

PSG ended last weekend five points clear at the top of the table and eight points better off than Marseille, with Andre Villas-Boas's team lying fourth.

If Marseille is to spring a major surprise and record a rare win in Paris, then it will need Dimitri Payet to be on his game.

The 32-year-old should certainly be fresh — he has been out for a month while serving a four-match suspension but makes a timely return, although Villas-Boas has played down his team's prospects, saying Paris belong “in a different league”.

“That is my opinion, given how much they have invested in recent years. The 'Clasico' is a thing of the past.”

Ligue 1 Fixtures

Friday: Nantes vs Monaco

Saturday: Lille vs Bordeaux, Brest vs Dijon, Lyon vs Metz, Montpellier vs Angers, Reims vs Nimes, Strasbourg vs Nice

Sunday: Rennes vs Toulouse, Saint-Etienne vs Amiens, Paris Saint-Germain vs Marseille

 

Fight for glory: Title Race

One-point game in La Liga:

Barcelona is currently sitting atop of the La Liga table with 19 points from nine games. Lionel Messi and co. have won six, drawn one and lost two matches thus far. The defending champion will face Valladolid next and the team goes into the fixture with four wins on the trot.

Real Madrid is placed a close second with 18 points from nine matches. Zinedine Zidane's men are coming off a 1-0 loss to RCD Mallorca and will look to keep up the pressure on Barcelona by clinching three points from its next fixture at home against Leganes. Real has won fives encounters so far, with three coming in its five previous fixtures.

The surprise package this season, however, has been Granada. Currently placed third in the league table with five wins and two losses and draws, Granada has bettered the likes of Atletico Madrid, Villarreal and Sevilla to bag 17 points from nine games. Granada hosts Real Betis in its La Liga fixture.

 

Slender Margins in Germany:

Borussia Mönchengladbach is currently leading the race to the Bundesliga title in Germany. With 16 points, including five wins, one loss and 2 defeats, it is tied on points with Wolfsburg but a better goal difference means it tops the league table. It comes off a 1-0 loss to Borussia Dortmund, which snapped the league leaders' four-match winning streak. Mönchengladbach hosts Eintracht Frankfurt in its next fixture on Sunday.

Wolfsburg is the only unbeaten team in Germany thus far. With four wins and as many draws, the team has not been able to clinch three points in three of its five last matches. Wolfsburg would look to put its 1-1 draw away to RB Leipzig behind and look to bag three points from its next home fixture against Augsburg.

Defending Champion Bayern Munich is a close third with 15 points from eight matches. With four wins and three draws, Niko Kovac has come under constant scrutiny for his team's sub-par show. Bayern has lost one, drawn and won twice in its last five matches. Bayern played out a 2-2 draw to Augsburg and would look to do one better and look to claim a victory at the Allianz Arena against Union Berlin on Saturday.

 

Juventus, Inter domination in Serie A

Unbeaten in Italy so far, Juventus has won seven of its eight league games. Juve currently enjoys a five-match winning streak and has only conceded two goals in its last three matches. With 22 points from eight games, Juventus is coming off a 2-1 victory at home agains Bologna. Maurizio Sarri's men would look to extend the winning run to six when it travels to face Leece in the next league game.

Inter Milan is placed second in the league with 21 points from eight games, including seven wins and a solitary loss. It enjoys a better goal difference in comparison to Juventus, but its first loss coming against the same team has proved to a small roadblock. Inter Milan will host Parma on Saturday and hope to gain maximum benefit from this encounter.

Not AS Roma, not Napoli but it is Atalanta that is presently third in the league table with 17 points from eight games. With five wins, two draws and one loss, it hasn't lost a single match in its past five encounters. The team played out an entertaining 3-3 draw away to Lazio in its previous league fixture and would eye three points when its hosts Udinese on Sunday.

 

Clear road for Paris Saint-Germain?

Paris Saint-Germain is sitting pretty at the top of the Ligue 1 table with 24 points from 10 matches. PSG has won eight matches and drawn matches so far and four of these wins have come in the last five matches. The defending champions hosts Marseille next after downing Nantes 1-0 in its last match.

Nantes is a distant second to PSG with 19 points from 10 matches. With six victories, one draw and three defeats, Nantes is coming off a 1-0 defeat to the league leaders. The team has won three of its previous five matches and would look to get the better of Monaco next at home.

Stade Reims, with 17 points, in not too far at third from Nantes. Reims will face Nimes on Saturday, with one eye on extending its winning spell of two matches to three.

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