Juventus in turmoil as sudden Andrea Agnelli departure marks end of an era | Juventus

News that the entire Juventus board had resigned on Monday appeared, in the Italian phrasing, like lightning from a calm sky. Even the official statement published on the club’s website just before 10pm local time buried the departures of the club president, Andrea Agnelli, and his team of directors 10 paragraphs deep in a summary of their meeting that evening.

No major news outlet had anticipated the decision. This has been a complicated season for Juventus from a sporting perspective, beginning with two wins from their first seven league games and continuing through a Champions League group-stage exit lowlighted by defeat against Maccabi Haifa. Yet a sense of optimism had returned before the World Cup break, a run of six straight wins and clean sheets lifting them to third in Serie A.

Improving results distracted the public’s attention from a different cloud on the horizon. Last year, a major investigation was opened into Juventus’s accounting practices and financial reporting. In October 2021, Covisoc – Italian football’s industry watchdog – raised concerns about what it perceived as unrealistic player valuations being used to achieve “plusvalenze (capital gains) on various clubs’ balance sheets.

A list of 62 transfers was passed to the domestic football federation (FIGC), 42 of which involved Juventus. Many were exchange deals, such as the one that took Miralem Pjanic to Barcelona in a swap for Arthur Melo, at list prices alleged to have been artificially inflated.

In April, Juventus, and 10 other clubs, were cleared of wrongdoing by the FIGC’s disciplinary commission, who cited the difficulty of assigning objective values to footballers. In the meantime, however, a parallel investigation had been opened by the public prosecutor’s office in Turin, focusing on Juventus’s published accounts for the years 2019, 2020 and 2021.

The Prisma investigation deployed wiretaps to intercept communications between decision-makers at the club. Last November, a warrant was obtained for financial police to search Juventus’s training facilities as well as offices in Turin and Milan, seizing relevant documents. Sixteen individuals were placed under scrutiny, including Agnelli, his vice-president (until Monday), Pavel Nedved, and the club’s former chief football officer, Fabio Paratici, now the managing director of football at Tottenham.

Pavel Nedved and Andrea Agnelli talk before a Juventus match against Sampdoria
Pavel Nedved (left) and Andrea Agnelli have resigned along with the rest of the Juventus board. Photograph: EPA

Prosecutors concluded their inquiries last month, filing accusations of false accounting, market manipulation and false financial statements. Beyond plusvalenze, Juventus were alleged to have made misleading claims about an agreement by players to waive part of their salaries during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, the club released a statement reporting a pay cut equivalent to four months’ wages – saving €90m. Instead, players are said to have foregone one month’s salary.

The club denies wrongdoing but Monday’s resignations made plain how seriously these charges are being taken. “Given the centrality and the relevance of the pending legal and technical/accounting matters,” reads one passage, “[it was considered to be in the] best interest of the company that Juventus provided itself with a new board of directors to address these matters.”

Prisma has passed its findings to the FIGC’s disciplinary commission, who will consider whether to revisit its case against the club or to open a new one. The sporting code provides for fines and a potential points penalty if Juventus are found guilty of breaking the rules around player contracts. It is unclear what criminal proceedings could be pursued by the Turin prosecutors.

La Liga, the body which organises top-flight football in Spain, issued a statement of its own on Tuesday demanding “immediate sporting sanctions” against Juventus. It had already lodged an official complaint against the club with Uefa in April, citing the Prisma investigation.

Juventus announced on Monday that new financial statements will be released for last season, guided by “new legal and accounting opinions from … independent experts.” On Tuesday, the club named Gianluca Ferrero, a corporate adviser and auditor, to replace Agnelli as president. The existing chief executive, Maurizio Arrivabene, will stay on in the short term to oversee day-to-day running of the club while the board is replaced.

Agnelli’s departure marks the end of an era. Juventus achieved unprecedented results under his leadership, winning nine consecutive league titles and 10 further domestic trophies, as well as reaching the Champions League final twice.

A modernising push that was launched with the move into the Allianz Stadium in 2011 led to Juventus expanding their reach with documentaries on Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as the launch of a new logo in 2017. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo allowed the club to build its social media following.

But the Portuguese forward, and the failed launch of the Super League project, also symbolises a complicated legacy. Agnelli could hardly have predicted the global pandemic that was about to arrive when he signed Ronaldo in 2018, but the financial burden of his transfer fee and salary played its part in growing deficits. Juventus’s recorded losses for the past three seasons amount to more than €550m.

That figure may grow with the revising of the last year’s financial statements. John Elkann, the chief executive of Exor, the holding company that owns Juventus on behalf of the Agnelli family, stressed on Tuesday that the first task of the new board will be to restore stability while resolving the legal issues faced by the club, saying he had trust that “the club will demonstrate it always acted correctly.”

We love Brazilian skill, so why do we criticise their flair players so much? | World Cup 2022

The World Cup has finally started and, for some Brazil players, representing their national team may prove a welcome break from the day job. Manager Tite included 12 players from the Premier League in his 26-man squad – second only to England – and 22 in total from European clubs. Brazilian players have increasingly made home in Europe but their style is not always feted. At least once a month this season a young, skilful Brazilian has been criticised for doing what they do best: entertaining fans, expressing themselves and exhibiting their art.

Most recently, it was Antony’s turn to suffer a media pile-on in his adopted home. The São Paulo product was one of new Manchester United boss Erik ten Hag’s marquee signings in the summer. The Dutchman convinced the club to pay Ajax £82m – an Eredivisie record – for the 22-year-old. The forward has enjoyed a strong start in England, setting a record as the first United player to score in his first three Premier League games. He was generally well received by fans and the media. Until he did the unthinkable and tried to pull off a trick during a 3-0 win over Sheriff in the Europa League.

Former United player Paul Scholes called the youngster a “clown” after he span 720 degrees with the ball glued to his feet and then misplaced a forward pass. “That’s the way he plays,” said Scholes. “I’ve seen him do it many a time at Ajax as well and that’s just the way he is, but I think he needs that knocking out of him.” Robbie Savage called Antony “embarrassing”, adding: “If I was the manager and he did that again, I would drag him off.”

Savage’s wish was granted when Ten Hag replaced Antony with Marcus Rashford at half-time. The manager said after the match that he would “correct” his player, explaining: “When there is a trick like that, it’s nice as long as it’s functional. If you’re not losing the ball, then it’s OK – but if it’s a trick because of a trick, then I will correct him.”

Antony, meanwhile, was defiant. “We’re known for our art and I’m not going to stop doing what got me where I am,” he said on Instagram.

Antony in action for Manchester United against Sheriff in the Europa League.
Antony in action for Manchester United against Sheriff in the Europa League. Photograph: Jon Super/AP

The hugely popular Brazilian football pundit Paulo Vinicius Coelho sees both sides of the argument. “Like everything in the world, there’s reason in the middle of it,” says Coelho. “Brazil still sees football as if it were a team sport won by individuals when it is increasingly a collective game that is resolved by collective aspects. From this point of view, the English are correct and Paul Scholes was right to criticise him. Dribbling and tricks need to have an objective.

“There is also a certain contempt in Europe for the dribble, as if it wasn’t a beautiful thing. I think there’s an exaggeration in Brazil about the aesthetics of the dribble and an exaggeration in some parts of Europe in the contempt there is for these aesthetics. But there’s a place in the middle of this. Dribbling and tricks are some of the beauties of football, but they need to lead to a chance or a goal. From this last point of view, Antony can improve how he uses tricks – tricks that aren’t to promote himself but to advance his own team.”

If footballers face a battle between aesthetics and results, Brazilians have always tended to be more artful than pragmatic. But their choices have not always been appreciated in Europe. When Tottenham Hotspur forward Richarlison indulged in a few keepy-ups against Nottingham Forest earlier this season, Forest manager Steve Cooper was appalled, saying: “I wouldn’t want my players to do what Richarlison did. It wouldn’t be accepted here.”

Vinicius Jr has also been criticised for doing the samba after he scores for Real Madrid, which leads to the question of just how much these Brazilian players are appreciated in Europe. Why buy skilful Brazilian wingers for their craft and then chide them for doing skilful Brazilian winger things? Would they even bother leaving home if – and this is a big if – they weren’t guaranteed higher wages and the chance to play in the Champions League? Would staying in Brazil be more fulfilling than moving to Europe, being chastised for entertaining and made to play in rigid, mechanical systems that offer little room for creativity.

Moments like Antony’s are no longer allowed to pass by fleetingly, raising a smile from supporters. They are scrutinised to their limit by commentators and pundits, and used by rival fans to attack players. This feels like something new. Players such as Ronaldinho and Garrincha, artists with the ball, were lauded for their skills. Not everything they tried came off. Zico and Sócrates wowed the planet at the 1982 World Cup, but would they be branded show ponies today for crashing out of the tournament before the semi-finals?

As Neymar said last year when his Brazil teammate Lucas Paquetá was booked for attempting a rainbow flick while playing for Lyon against Troyes – something that Neymar himself has been cautioned for in Ligue 1 – “joga bonito is over”.

Perhaps the World Cup will give Brazilians a chance to be themselves and charm a generation of fans who have become obsessed with results over aesthetics. Maybe the current crop of players, who refined their art on muddy pitches and concrete favela courts, can win over hearts and minds by winning a sixth World Cup – and doing it in style.

The Ligue 1 players in great form before the winter World Cup | Ligue 1

Although the timing of this controversial World Cup is unorthodox, it will arrive at the right moment for many players. They have not just experienced the fatigue of a 60-game season and will be helped by the intensity and freshness of recent league fixtures, so the pace and standard at the World Cup in Qatar, heat permitting, could be at their highest for some decades. An energetic, buoyant, on-form Lionel Messi, now 35, will be helped more than most, having struggled with tiredness in the last two tournaments. But he’s not the only Ligue 1 player who may benefit from a winter World Cup.

For France, the timing has aided Monaco midfielder Youssouf Fofana’s late charge into Didier Deschamps’ squad. He has been Ligue 1’s most improved player in 2022. Before Monaco sacked Niko Kovac a year ago, the manager had become frustrated with Fofana’s erratic form and laid-back, class-clown off-field persona, dropping the midfielder. New head coach Philippe Clement, however, has put his faith in Fofana and is helping him become one of France’s best midfielders.

Fofana is both a destroyer and a creator. There are few greater sights in Ligue 1 than seeing the physical-yet-elegant 22-year-old jinking away from an opponent in midfield before breaking lines to barrel towards the penalty area. With Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté injured, Fofana might even start for the world champions in Qatar. With Deschamps set to return to the asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 that proved successful four years ago, the Monaco man could partner his former teammate, Aurélien Tchouaméni, in the France engine room. The pair have a nuanced understanding, an underrated trait at international level, and that could be key for France.

Lille striker Jonathan David is always important for Canada and he is hitting form at the right moment before the tournament. Signing him from Gent for £25m in 2020 was a mammoth outlay for Lille and his time in Ligue 1 started glacially. He was close to being dropped after scoring just two goals in 25 games. However, David proved decisive as Lille became shock champions last year, scoring 13 goals, including pivotal winners against PSG. David then rattled home another dozen after the summer break, giving him a better league minutes-per-goal ratio than Cristiano Ronaldo, Mo Salah and Kylian Mbappé in 2021.

However, he started painfully slowly in 2022, scoring just one goal in 18 games and scaring off Europe’s leading clubs after he had signalled his intentions to leave Lille. David’s extended stay in France has, however, seen him return to his best just in time for Qatar, scoring nine goals in 15 games so far this season.

Often an intelligent and precise finisher, David grew up training in the tight spaces of Ottawa’s sports facilities, as youth clubs vied for space during the freezing winter. As a result, his close control and snappy interplay is some of the best in France. His record of 22 goals in 34 caps underlines his importance to Canada.

Perhaps no other player is more fortunate to travel to Qatar than Rennes’ Belgian winger Jérémy Doku. The £25m Rennes paid Anderlecht for the now 20-year-old in 2020 was a club record and, despite fluctuating end product, the prodigiously skilful winger made a late run into Roberto Martínez’s squad for the Euros last summer.

Rennes' Jérémy Doku, seen here against Marseille in September, has been frustrated by injuries.
Rennes’ Jérémy Doku, seen here against Marseille in September, has been frustrated by injuries. Photograph: Daniel Cole/AP

After impressing for Belgium, he was linked with Liverpool and expected to enjoy a breakthrough season. However, a catastrophic run of injuries meant last season was a non-event for Doku. He struggled through a depressingly persistent cycle of injury, recovery and relapse, suffering a new issue just a few weeks after the last, returning only to quickly break down again.

Doku is the league’s most exciting dribbler outside PSG, boasting the ability to present the ball to a defender before having it magically disappear like a sleight-of-hand magician. Doku has been sorely missed during his injuries. However, he has put together three substitute appearances since his last injury and his manager has continued to show confidence in him. Doku has managed to sneak into Belgium’s squad again and the World Cup could be perfectly timed for him.

Few players have made as big an impact in Ligue 1 this season as Rennes midfielder Lovro Majer. The graceful, creative midfielder effortlessly tore many a French team apart last season, most memorably Lyon on his debut. Bearing more than a striking resemblance to countryman Luka Modric, Majer is not the quickest but he is able to drop a shoulder nonchalantly and drift past opponents, orchestrate intricate interplay around the box and unpick deep-sitting defences with his innovative passing. Rennes have reportedly set a €60m asking price after Atlético Madrid showed interest in signing him this summer.

Majer led a riotous Rennes team to fourth place last season as Bruno Génésio’s side scored 82 goals (30 more than fifth-places Nice). Consistency has since become an issue for the 24-year-old, however, and he has often been sacrificed in the name of balance this season by Génésio. Nevertheless, Croatia may have a potential successor to Modric in their squad. Some good performances at the World Cup could re-establish him as Rennes’ creator-in-chief and attract the interest of sporting directors around Europe.

The Croatian is not alone in that regard. Poland’s flying, technical wing-back Przemyslaw Frankowski has produced some of his best form, helping Lens go into the the break second in the Ligue 1 table. Frankowski could be a World Cup breakthrough name. His Lens teammate, Silas Abdul Samed, has also ably replaced Cheick Doucouré – now at Crystal Palace – at the base of midfield and could be key to stabilising weak defensive lines in the Ghana squad.

Meanwhile, Marseille forward Bamba Dieng will be a threat for Senegal. France midfielder Mattéo Guendouzi, Reims’ Japanese attacker Junya Ito and the USA international Timothy Weah, currently playing right-back, have all turned heads in Ligue 1 of late and are set to do the same in Qatar. For all, like Messi, a winter World Cup could be perfectly timed.

Quick Guide

Ligue 1 results


PSG 5-0 Auxerre

Brest 2-1 Troyes

Lille 1-0 Angers

Montpellier 1-1 Reims

Nantes 2-2 Ajaccio

Strasbourg 1-1 Lorient

Monaco 2-3 Marseille

Lens 2-1 Clermont

Rennes 2-1 Toulouse

Lyon 1-1 Nice

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Talking points

Laurent Blanc’s tenure at Lyon continues to underwhelm. They needed a late penalty from Alexandre Lacazete – his ninth goal of the season – to rescue a point at home to a disjointed Nice team on Friday night. He was initially keen to partner Lacazette with fellow striker Moussa Dembélé, but Blanc has already given up on his 3-5-2 solution and shifted to a 4-2-3-1, dropping last season’s top scorer, Dembélé. With Houssem Aouar installed as the creative fulcrum but badly underperforming, and lacking options at centre-back, Blanc has much to do before Ligue 1 returns on 28 December.

Laurent Blanc watches his Lyon team draw 1-1 with Nice.
Laurent Blanc watches his Lyon team draw 1-1 with Nice. Photograph: Laurent Cipriani/AP

Strasbourg’s 1-1 draw with Lorient this weekend means they enter the World Cup-imposed break with just one win in their 15 league games and sit second bottom. Having finished sixth last season, missing out on European football on the final day, Julien Stéphan’s team have struggled for the same ruthless intensity and boisterous physicality that made them both difficult to beat and an effective attacking unit last term. Injuries have been a constant caveat but, with four teams going down, Stéphan is under considerable pressure not to let his tenure fatally lose impetus as it did at Rennes.

Milan late show keeps them in distant contact with Napoli’s ‘Martians’ | Serie A

It was the 91st minute at San Siro when Milan scored the goal that might have rescued the Serie A title race. Technically the Fiorentina defender Nicola Milenkovic scored it for them – deflecting Aster Vranckx’s cross into his own net – but few were dwelling on the fine details as Zombie Nation’s Kernkraft 400, a German dance track older than some players on the pitch, blared out across the public address.

A crowd of 73,000 danced and sighed with relief. Milenkovic’s own goal secured a 2-1 win and kept Milan ‘only’ eight points behind Napoli at the top. The league leaders hold a double-digit advantage over every other side in the division heading into the World Cup break.

Napoli deserve every bit of their advantage, having played the best football in Italy this season by a distance. On Saturday they collected their 11th consecutive league win, beating Udinese 3-2 in a game less close than that scoreline implies. They were three goals up after an hour against opponents who had previously beaten Roma 4-0 and Inter 3-1.

It was yet another occasion to marvel at the outlandish talent of Victor Osimhen. He scored the first goal with a piece of classic centre-forward play, attacking the space behind his marker and glancing a header home from Eljif Elmas’s cross. The timing of his run and leap were everything. Osimhen appeared a foot taller than Jaka Bijol; in truth, he stands a couple of inches shorter.

Napoli’s second goal was a scintillating team move, Piotr Zielinski playing the ball out from the left corner of his own penalty box and finding Osimhen in the middle of the park. The forward turned and took two Udinese players with him as he drove toward the right wing before wrongfooting them with a no-look backheel to Hirving Lozano.

He, in turn, angled inwards before switching play back to Zielinski, who had run the length of the pitch. The Polish midfielder took one touch to wrongfoot the player tracking him and another to settle the ball before sweeping a shot into the bottom right corner of the net.

That was the 31st minute, and Elmas added a third goal for Napoli in the 58th, converting André-Frank Zambo Anguissa’s through-pass after beating Bijol one-on-one. Still, Napoli came forward, and only some sharp saves by the Udinese goalkeeper Marco Silvestri kept the margin at three.

Luciano Spalletti and Victor Osimhen, Napoli coach and striker.
Coach and star striker, Luciano Spalletti and Victor Osimhen, touch in as Napoli sign off with 41 points. Photograph: Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty Images

Udinese’s counter-punch did not arrive until the 79th minute, though it was another goal to marvel at. Roberto Pereyra chipped the ball in from the left, Isaac Success weighted a pass just right with his chest and Ilija Nestorovski drilled a first-time half-volley into the bottom of the net.

Three minutes later, Udinese scored again. Kim Min-Jae blundered to get caught in possession by Lazar Samardzic, who punished the mistake fully with a ruthless finish. A quick-fire double might have induced panic in a less confident side. Napoli calmly steadied the ship and sailed home. Udinese managed one further shot in the game, and that from outside the box.

Quick Guide

Serie A results


Empoli 2-0 Cremonese, Napoli 3-2 Udinese, Sampdoria 0-2 Lecce, Bologna 3-0 Sassuolo, Atalanta 2-3 Inter, Monza 3-0 Salernitana, Roma 1-1 Torino, Hellas Verona 1-2 Spezia, Milan 2-1 Fiorentina, Juventus 3-0 Lazio

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Victory meant Napoli finished this season’s first chapter on 41 points. They have won 13 out of 15 matches – something that no other club besides Juventus had ever done in the history of Serie A. The Bianconeri have, admittedly, done it four times. Unsurprisingly, they finished top on each occasion. (One of those, it should be said, was the 2005-06 season for which they would later have their title stripped.)

Journalists continued to ask at full-time whether Napoli were ready to start talking about themselves as potential Scudetto winners for the first time since 1990. Frankly, at this point, it would be ludicrous to pretend otherwise. Nobody knows how a World Cup interruption will impact this season but at this moment Napoli are clear favourites for the plain and obvious reason that they have been much better than anyone else.

“It makes no difference to me if you talk about the Scudetto or not,” said Luciano Spalletti on Saturday. “I know that there are 69 points left to play for this season and that is an ocean. The only thing for us to do is to keep our gaze clear in the fog that other people want to create.”

What a way to lose the match! 😭

Fiorentina were left heartbroken after Nikola Milenković put the ball in the back of his own net 🥅

A crucial goal in the title race 🏆 pic.twitter.com/kgCm8TWFFk

— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) November 13, 2022

He thanked his squad for “playing like Martians” but the manager deserves just as much credit for keeping them on track even when key performers have been absent. Saturday’s game was the third in a row for Napoli without Khvicha Kvaratskhelia, the breakout star of this Serie A season, yet his replacement Elmas rivalled Osimhen for man of the match, overlapping fluidly with another squad player, Mathías Olivera, who was filling in for Mário Rui at left-back.

Contrary to interrupting his team’s rhythm, Spalletti said he was looking forward to the World Cup giving his players a chance to rest and get together for a midseason training camp. Only five are heading to Qatar. Osimhen’s Nigeria and Khvicha Kvaratskhelia’s Georgia both failed to qualify, while others, such as Mário Rui for Portugal, were simply overlooked.

Spalletti’s perspective is not shared by everyone. The Lazio manager, Maurizio Sarri, told reporters last week that he would likely not even watch a World Cup that he described as an “insult to football”, adulterating an entire season in his mind.

His team entered into the break on a less positive note, beaten 3-0 by Juventus. Lazio were the one other team who could have stayed within eight points of Napoli, but instead were leapfrogged by their opponents. Who would have dared to predict that Juventus would reach the World Cup in third place, after they opened the campaign with two wins in their first seven games?

Six consecutive clean sheets have allowed a rapid ascent, and performances are starting to catch up to results. The gradual return of Federico Chiesa, who set up the third goal off the bench against Lazio, offers further optimism for them of a stronger second part to the campaign.

They are not the only ones who have picked up momentum in recent weeks. Inter finished their year with an impressive 3-2 win away to Atalanta, giving them six wins from their last seven. The problem for all of them, as Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri pointed out, is that Napoli are setting an impossible pace, on track to hit 52 points by the season’s midway stage.

It was left to the Milan director Paolo Maldini to strike a defiant note. “Of course we believe we can catch Napoli,” he said after his team’s last-gasp win over Fiorentina. “When we played the derby last year we were seven points behind Inter and then we managed to win. We know very well that it’s not easy to keep up this rhythm all the way to the end.”

The familiar sound of a two-decades-old dance track at San Siro on Sunday evening was a reminder of the enthusiasm that swept Milan to their first title in 11 years last season, and a warning that they have not given up on defending it just yet.

‘Just gifted’: Stoke City is a distant memory for Choupo-Moting at Bayern | Bundesliga

It wasn’t the sort of goal you’d over-celebrate. The second in an eventual 2-0 win to put away prone opponents, with the best team in the division besting the worst (the former beating the latter for the ninth time in a row), and the goalscorer netting against his former club for good measure.

Yet there was something else which made this not a goal to let off fireworks for. It reminded us that in recent times Bayern Munich have become used to seeing Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting deliver for them. For Schalke – his former club who are in a different dimension to the one which they inhabited back when the Cameroonian striker wore the royal blue – this was the latest, inevitable, familiar boot to the nether regions, their falling short as habitual to a modern-day Bundesliga script as Choupo-Moting emerging triumphant.

There will be those who wonder aloud how Choupo-Moting gets these gigs, as if that solitary relegation at Stoke City (when other bigger name overseas imports like Jesé and Ibrahim Afellay hardly covered themselves in glory) should define him. Yet this sort of image has always clung to him. When he signed for Schalke in 2014, plenty thought he wasn’t good enough to play for a club of that size; his peak, statistically, had been a pair of 10-goal seasons for Mainz and, statistically, those doubters were subsequently proved right over his three years in Gelsenkirchen. Then, as now, those criticisms missed the point.

Tuesday night’s 6-1 shellacking of Werder Bremen had underlined exactly how – and why – Choupo-Moting’s star is rising. After he missed a penalty it brought an end to seven successive games on the scoresheet, which was remarkable in itself, but also showcased exactly what makes him so valuable to the team. The goals – 11 in all competitions – have undoubtedly been handy, but his all-round play has really been a huge boost to Bayern’s season; his ability to anchor the attack by harvesting the ball and intelligently bringing others into play brings the best out of Serge Gnabry and the red-hot Jamal Musiala.

Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting makes it 2-0 for Bayern at Schalke.
Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting makes it 2-0 for Bayern at Schalke. Photograph: S Mellar/FC Bayern/Getty Images

“Bayern’s game has a clearer structure with him playing in the centre of the attack,” as Tobias Altschäffl of Bild wrote. “He’s exactly what we need right now,” enthused Hasan Salihimidzic after one of Super Choupo’s recent greatest hits, a delicious shot from range against Inter to finish off the Champions League group stage in style (“I plucked up the courage and thought I’d have a go,” said the man himself on the night, a window into his own surprise at how well things are going).

If Stoke was a case of wrong place, wrong time, this is right place, right time. His spell at Paris Saint-Germain, under Thomas Tuchel, did wonders for his confidence. He was valued for his positive influence in the dressing room and as a squad player. It helped the team’s difficulty in finding true attacking equilibrium – rather than simply a dizzying array of options – and has played well since the departure of Robert Lewandowski. One past back-up, Sandro Wagner, believed he had the ability to contribute but ultimately caved to the immense frustration of backing up the Polish striker. It’s just timing. And how Choupo-Moting has capitalised.

His current coach thinks his centre-forward’s current success is a little more nuanced. “For me, he’s not a classic No 9 in that sense,” Julian Nagelsmann argued after Saturday’s win. “He’s just a gifted footballer. You can sometimes allude to him (like that) because he has a certain size.” If Choupo-Moting’s contributions did tick many of the big target man boxes, heading against the post in the first half before nervelessly tucking away the second, there was plenty to recommend that point of view. His ability, at 33 years of age, to keep mental and physical pace with a lightning counter-attack to finish that chance, just underlined how sharp his is.

Naglesmann has been in reflective mood this week, talking of “a turbulent year. Probably the most turbulent half-year of my professional life.” He also insisted in protecting Sadio Mané after his injury, saying he would not go the World Cup if not fully fit, with the long-term health of his player being the most important. With Bayern four points clear at the top, the coach has room to ponder – and he owes Choupo-Moting great thanks for creating that space to breathe.

Quick Guide

Bundesliga results


Borussia Mönchengladbach 4-2 Borussia Dortmund
Schalke 0-2 Bayern Munich
Werder Bremen 1-2 RB Leipzig
Hoffenheim 1-2 Wolfsburg
Hertha Berlin 2-0 Köln
Augsburg 0-1 Bochum
Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 Stuttgart
Freiburg 4-1 Union Berlin
Mainz 1-1 Eintracht Frankfurt

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Talking points

  • Union Berlin have been the story of most of the first part of the Bundesliga season and rightly so, but they were supplanted to another less-heralded side deserving our attention. Urs Fischer’s long-time leaders were thrashed 4-1 at Freiburg, for whom the irresistible Vincenzo Grifo hit a first-half hat-trick – and they will spend Christmas in second place, despite also managing a European campaign (unbeaten winners of their Europa League group). “We’ve only played 15 games,” said the ever-cautious Christian Streich. “Let’s see how it goes.”

Vincenzo Grifo scored a hat-trick to guide Freiburg to second in the table.
Vincenzo Grifo scored a hat-trick to guide Freiburg to second in the table. Photograph: Helge Prang/Getty Images
  • On the other side of the capital Marco Richter-inspired Hertha to move out of the bottom three with a win at home to Köln who ended up empty-handed. One Sargis Adamyan open-goal miss for the visitors to the Olympiastadion on Saturday, when Effzeh were only one down, underlined the issues of a team that coach Steffen Baumgart admitted “are in a relegation battle, you don’t have to skirt around it,”. Hertha have many issues, with president Kay Bernstein leading his debut AGM on Sunday and presenting €80m losses, but this was a start.

  • All is not well at Borussia Dortmund, who tumbled to a Friday night defeat at Borussia Mönchengladbach in a pulsating game, a result which means they will enter 2023 outside the Champions League places. “It was just bad football,” their long-suffering goalkeeper Gregor Kobel told ESPN after a wretched defensive display. With any early-season optimism totally dispelled, they face a grim battle to snare a top four place unless something radically changes.

  • Another issue for BVB has been RB Leipzig’s surge in form. Their win at Werder Bremen was their ninth in 10 games, sealed by an excellent Xaver Schlager winner. Die Roten Bullen have taken more points than anyone else since Marco Rose took charge in September. “We played it with great maturity,” said the coach after his team resisted a determined Bremen onslaught in the second half.

  • They are joined by Eintracht Frankfurt in the top four after Randal Kolo Muani bookended his excellent opening to his career in Germany with a slick equaliser to secure a point at Mainz. With a Europa League win, qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League and World Cup calls for Kevin Trapp and Mario Götze all secured, “this is one of the best years Eintracht has had in a long, long time,” according to Trapp.

European roundup: Bayern ensure top spot, Napoli cling on for nervy victory | European club football

Bayern Munich eased past Schalke 2-0 to make sure of top spot going into the World Cup break as they hunt a record-extending 11th straight Bundesliga crown. The Bavarians, who fielded a starting lineup consisting entirely of World Cup-bound players, scored once in each half, through Serge Gnabry and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting, with the Germany international Jamal Musiala delivering both assists.

Bayern’s sixth consecutive league win – and 10th across all competitions – lifted them to 34 points, six ahead of second-placed RB Leipzig. Freiburg and Union Berlin, both on 27, face each other on Sunday.

Bayern had the upper hand from the start but it was not until Musiala, who at 19 is the youngest Bayern player to reach 100 matches, combined well with Ganbry for the lead in the 38th minute.

“Jamal has played an outstanding first half of the season and will hopefully play even better at the World Cup and the second half of the season,” Julian Nagelsmann, the Bayern coach, said of his attacking midfielder. “He listens well and he wants to develop. He just has a lot of talent. He also has improved defensively.”

Musiala, who also has nine league goals, delivered his sixth assist of the season for Cameroon’s Choupo-Moting to tap in seven minutes after the restart and leave Schalke in last place following their eighth loss in the last nine matches.

RB Leipzig muscled their way past their hosts, Werder Bremen, 2-1 to finish the year with their fourth consecutive league victory. Leipzig, who had a bad start to the season with only one win in their first four league matches, have recovered in recent weeks with six consecutive wins across all competitions and a 13-game unbeaten run.

André Silva put the visitors in front in the 31st minute but a deflected shot from Christian Gross drew Werder level in the 56th. Leipzig, however, were sharper up front and Silva superbly flicked the ball to Xaver Schlager, charging into the box, to snatch the winner in the 71st minute.

Xaver Schlager watches his shot go into the net against Werder Bremen
Xaver Schlager (left) scores the winner at Werder Bremen. Photograph: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

The Bundesliga goes into a prolonged break after this weekend’s matches, resuming on 20 January.

Napoli’s nervy 3-2 win over Udinese highlights how the Serie A leaders cannot take their position for granted, their coach, Luciano Spalletti, said. Spalletti’s side almost squandered the chance of setting a club record of 11 consecutive Serie A victories within a season when Udinese substitutes Ilija Nestorovski and Lazar Samardzic both scored late in the game.

“Every victory is a struggle, and the final 15 minutes of this game help to underline just how much these players have achieved so far is not to be taken for granted,” Spalletti told DAZN. “We thought the game was over and took our foot off the gas, but the game is never over because when you can introduce players off the bench like Nestorovski, they can find a way through if you don’t keep the tempo up.“

Napoli go into the World Cup break top of the Serie A standings, with their next game to come in early January, but Spalletti was still cautious about talk of winning the league. “There are six challengers and they are all close by, because it just takes a couple of incidents, a couple of minutes to create problems,” he said.

“This afternoon’s match will help us because it hasn’t happened so far, but we need to be even more determined and committed to the end in every match.”

La Liga packs up for World Cup and some need a break more than others | La Liga

“I’ll be watching it of course, at home, because I like football,” Carlo Ancelotti said. “My teams will be the teams where my players play: Brazil, Spain, France, Uruguay, Croatia, Germany, lots of teams. I’ll follow the World Cup as a fan, and may the best team win it. Unfortunately, Italy can’t.” There was a smile, a goodbye and with that he was gone. They all were. Just before midnight on a Thursday in early November and the Real Madrid coach was the last man to leave. La Liga was finished, everyone out of here for 50 days. Mentally, some had gone already.

This weekend is the first round of the Copa del Rey, but none of the Super Cup teams will be in it – no Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia or Betis – and not many of the World Cup players will be either. If they have got this far injury-free, and not all of them have, few will take one last risk against a team they’ve never heard of; in fact, while no one admits it, the calendar was drawn up this way for this reason, to gain a little room, however tiny. Spain’s squad has just been announced and some footballers have already flown, this final midweek round of games is a watershed no one wanted – even if for some teams stopping is the best thing they could do right now.

For others, it is the worst. For many players, meanwhile, getting here unscathed is all that matters. “We would rather not stop now; everything’s coming off, even when we don’t mean it to,” said Real Mallorca manager Javier Aguirre on Wednesday, and no wonder: one of only three teams to have won their last two games, along with Barcelona and Girona, Mallorca had just racked up a third win in four, and against Atlético Madrid. Vedat Muriqi, a kind of Kosovar Andy Carroll, “a big bastard with a big heart” in his manager’s words, “an ugly beast who plays really well”, had just scored for the fifth game running, leaving the side that survived on the final day last season up in 11th, eight points from relegation.

On the other side, Diego Simeone just wanted it to end. Atlético have not won in five – a draw with Leverkusen, defeat at Cádiz, defeat in Porto, a 1-1 against 10-man Espanyol and now this. Since their European elimination, it has taken them 71 shots to score four, two Álvaro Morata misses in Mallorca a portrait of something for which captain Koke insisted “there is no explanation”. Which was understandable, if not entirely true. Jan Oblak has talked about a team “psychologically not right”, the doubts around their identity have resurfaced and all is not well internally. The CEO, Miguel Ángel Gil Marín, says that part of it is the World Cup itself, an “atypical season affecting the squad” – even if Simeone then disagreed.

Giovanni González of Mallorca skips over a twin challenge in the 1-0 defeat of Atlético Madrid.
Giovanni González of Mallorca skips over a twin challenge in the 1-0 defeat of Atlético Madrid. Photograph: Rafa Babot/Getty Images

That of course is the case for many teams, even if only at some subconscious level. Sevilla’s Papu Gómez admitted that in the final weeks, the World Cup would be on players’ minds, some reluctant to put their foot in. In the Madrid media meanwhile, a new illness has been discovered, one that doesn’t only affect them even if, like the Fifa virus, it’s inevitably presented that way: worldcupitis. Defeated 3-2 at Rayo on Monday, where the last chance fell to Fede Valverde and ended up in someone’s front room, they had drawn the previous game with Girona 1-1, and on Thursday night defeated second-bottom Cádiz 2-1, relieved to see a clear chance for the visitors slip away in the last minute.

That said, they needn’t have reached that point. Toni Kroos – who is not going to Qatar but playing better than ever – scored an outrageous volley to put them 2-0 up and Luka Modric should have made it three but somehow missed a sitter from six yards. “It’s a good job Croatia have already picked their squad,” Ancelotti joked. They have been without Karim Benzema and at the end of this game, Vinícius tweeted: “Another game without an injury, thank God.” That was directed at the treatment from opponents – he is the most fouled player in La Liga – but the significance, the relief, comes from what’s next.

Ask Villarreal’s Gio Lo Celso, a footballer Argentina manager Lionel Scaloni says could play at any club in the world but won’t now play for his country. The good news is that Vinícius, like the rest, will not have to get through another club game without injury now. After an opening 14 weeks which have occasionally felt a little like they weren’t real, like they were in the way of the World Cup – preparation for some, a risk for others – La Liga stops now. Which does at least give everyone a chance to work out where they are and what they need, the last matchday delivering a league table that will last six weeks.

It’s not always good reading. Just one place and one point off the relegation zone, Celta’s second manager, Carlos Carvalhal, started by leaving Iago Aspas on the bench and making the most fun place in Spanish football anything but, though at least he got a 0-0 draw at normally rampant Rayo. “This can’t be; we can’t have four coaches in 14 weeks, bloody hell,” said Pere Milla after Elche were beaten again. Bottom of the table, they have not won a match – already the fifth longest winless start ever. And Villarreal could yet be heading for a third manager, although a 1-0 win over Espanyol might have saved Quique Setién – less than two weeks after taking over. “I’ve never watched a game so nervous,” said his former assistant, and friend, Eder Sarabia.

They were grateful to Espanyol, the team that bring to mind a line from Alfredo Di Stéfano: “I don’t ask the goalkeeper to stop the shots that are going in; it’s enough for me that they don’t put in the shots that are going wide.” Both Benjamin Lecomte and Álvaro Fernández have done that – this time it was the former who accidentally finished off an Alberto Moreno cross.

Quick Guide

La Liga results


Elche 1–2 Girona, Athletic 3–0 Valladolid, Osasuna 1–2 Barcelona, Almería 1–0 Getafe, Sevilla 1–2 Real Sociedad, Espanyol 0–1 Villarreal, Mallorca 1–0 Atlético, Rayo 0-0 Celta, Valencia 3–0 Betis, Real Madrid 2–1 Cádiz

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For Sevilla, it is even worse: down to nine men, the Pizjuan stood to applaud at the end, appreciating that they had even managed to make a game of it against a side who played superbly, but they were beaten again. Those fans have not seen them win at home all season, and Sevilla slipped back into the relegation zone.

Life looks looks better for Valladolid, Almería and Girona, the promoted teams lined up in 12th, 13th and 14th; Osasuna and Rayo, seventh and eighth; and just look at Athletic and Real Sociedad in the Champions League places. Then, above all, there’s Barcelona, who came back from a man down and a goal down to defeat Osasuna, Raphinha lobbing in a lovely late header from an even lovelier Frenkie de Jong pass.

It was perfect for Gerard Piqué, who lived the dream once more. How many times have you fantasised about finally sticking it to the man on your last ever day at work? Well Piqué did. Although he claims he didn’t tell the referee to eff off (literally, “I shit on your prostitute mother”), despite that being what the official reported – which is a pity because they would be very famous last words – he did approach Jesús Gil Manzano at half-time, finger poking, following him down the tunnel and telling him that over the years he had been the ref that “most fucked us over by far”. Sent off, unable to play his last game, Piqué did though spark a reaction and leave Barcelona top, the players dancing round the dressing room.

Takefusa Kubo of Real Sociedad in action in the 2-1 win at Sevilla.
Takefusa Kubo of Real Sociedad in action in the 2-1 win at Sevilla. Photograph: DAX Images/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

Whatever happens next they will be there for a while. Primera won’t be back until 31 December. So now what? “Watch a lot of football,” says Real Sociedad’s Imanol Alguacil. Another first division coach says he’ll be tuning into Real Oviedo’s games in the second division, although he might have been slightly playing to his audience. One thing is true: clubs are in unknown territory and managers didn’t know what impact the World Cup would have until now and or how it will play out from here on.

One coach says they have consulted with basketball and handball clubs, more accustomed to long breaks midseason, but admits the sports are too different for the conclusions and lessons to be beyond tentative. A fitness coach says one of the essential lessons from the pandemic is that you can’t really plan, because you don’t know what’s coming; instead you have to be “chameleonic”.

The players’ union guarantees a 10-day break, which non-World Cup players will get after the weekend’s cup games, sessions restarting around 24 November, and World Cup players will have later, depending on when they arrive. Most clubs are preparing mini-preseasons, then there are friendlies: Betis play Manchester United and Villarreal play Arsenal. Many clubs are travelling abroad, others admit they haven’t organised theirs yet, and the league is promoting tours. The teams that travel won’t look much like those that played this week, even the smaller clubs having at least a couple of players Qatar-bound.

“Right now, no one can complain,” said Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli. “This should have been fixed long ago. Because it’s a huge business everything else is pushed to one side, and the consequences are paid by other people below them. Stopping the competition now to go and play there, is done. Everyone accepted it. Fifa decided it would be played in a place it shouldn’t be played in and on dates it shouldn’t be played on, and all for the ‘silver’.”

Bayer Leverkusen’s revival under Xabi Alonso continues with derby delight | Bundesliga

If Leverkusen have spent most of the campaign so far hiding their bright light under a bushel, it was shining high in the grey skies last weekend as they steamrollered long-time league-leaders Union Berlin. The highlight of Englische Woche, though? Don’t be fooled. If Sunday was the main course this, a 15-minute hop behind enemy lines on a fresh Wednesday night, was the dessert.

That half-hour of second-half heaven against Union, where a goalless first half became a 5-0 virtuoso display, felt like a placebo in the context of the midweek derby at Köln, like a little holiday from reality. It had shown Leverkusen could play, but we knew that already. This showed they have the guts as well as the swagger (neither of which have been on display nearly enough this season). The jubilant reaction of Xabi Alonso – a twitchy, tense presence on the touchline all evening – and his staff at the end showed how much this meant.

Leverkusen’s tough midfielder Robert Andrich, disarmingly honest and increasingly the team’s spokesman while a season that had promised so much fell through the floor, warned that was the case as the embers of Sunday’s performance still glowed. “It’s important,” he had stressed, “that we don’t think it’s all about tra-la-la football.” Beating Union had sprung Die Werkself from the bottom three for the first time in weeks. It was only the first step.

If ever a challenge could have been artificially concocted to give weight to Andrich’s words then this kleine Derby would have been it. Leverkusen were on the rack for much of it, particularly in a first half in which they were unimaginative in attack and uncoordinated without the ball. They trailed from the half-hour, when Benno Schmitz chested down and smashed in a perfect volley from the edge of the box. It was the defender’s first Bundesliga goal for the club, almost four-and-a-half years after joining, his first goal of any sort since scoring for Bayern Munich’s second team nine seasons ago. His teammate Linton Maina held his head in his hands, unable to believe it. Little wonder one pressroom wag was overheard referring to Schmitz as the “Kölsche Cafu”. The goal underlined the superior enterprise and poise of Steffen Baumgart’s side, despite their inferior resources.

This was the moment for Leverkusen to show that the players are equipped for the task of pulling away from the bottom, rather than showcasing their feted coach’s ideas. “It’s not that easy to mentally accept the situation that you’re in and go from there,” the club’s sporting director Simon Rolfes told the Guardian afterwards. “[Alonso] stepped in without time to train the team, more or less. It’s great work from him to be very efficient in the few sessions we had, and from Sunday onwards we have six weeks to use like summer preparation.”

Fans at Köln let off flares
A fearsome atmosphere at Köln appears to have inspired Leverkusen. Photograph: Thilo Schmülgen/Reuters

Leverkusen rode their luck, especially during a sequence of play early in the second half when Köln skipper Jonas Hector crashed one off the crossbar from way out and then Lukas Hradecky saved from Sargis Adamyan. If either of those chances had gone in, we might have found out exactly how much stomach the visitors really had. On the back of that, though, Leverkusen began to scrap. Alonso’s substitutions worked, with one of them, Nadiem Amiri, levelling from a direct free-kick with 25 minutes to go. His goading of some of the home fans as he celebrated showed he knew what was at stake.

For even if Leverkusen have the greater riches, Köln have the richer history, and their big derby is Borussia Mönchengladbach. “We have a game against a team from the neighbourhood, for whom it will be a derby,” their head of football Thomas Kessler teased before the game. “Since Leverkusen are not doing well at the moment, it would be huge for them if they win against us.” Thanks to an electrifying counter started and finished by Moussa Diaby – their best player on the night – six minutes after Amiri’s equaliser, they did just that.

This season has been a climb and then some for Köln. First there was the sudden exit of Anthony Modeste, whose goals in his remarkable renaissance-season lifted them back into Europe – before Borussia Dortmund whisked him away as a short-term, big-money locum for Sébastien Haller, leaving only anger and indignation behind. Then there was dealing with Europe itself, always a challenge for a club of these means, but made all the harder by the eruption of violence in Nice on the Europa Conference League group stage’s opening night in September.

The emotional outpouring at the return with Nice last week, a gala night to hit all the right notes which ended in heroic failure, was still being recovered from. Needing a win to advance, Effzeh had trailed 2-0 to ex-Gladbach coach Lucien Favre’s men, clawed back to parity and just missed adding the finishing touch. Yet it still satisfied, for this is a club that deals in hope. Accordingly, Baumgart spoke before Leverkusen about being on the front-foot, despite a raft of injuries. “Our approach is to remain bold,” he said, or as the city’s daily Express put it: “Steffen Baumgart wants to go back to Baumgart football.” They did just that, but were ultimately unable to sustain their efforts, gravity doing its thing.

Maybe there is room to build in the winter window. The Conference League did more for Köln than it does for many. Three sold-out home games (at 50,000 fans a time), plus prize money, has pumped an estimated €10m extra into Kölner coffers, which could make a significant difference to the rest of their season. “The team have more than done their duty,” said managing director Christian Keller, and as the fans’ warm post-match response made clear. It’s just ironic that it could be the challenge of Köln’s atmosphere that belatedly sparks Leverkusen’s flagging season.

Talking points

It was joy for Bayern tempered by potential disappointment for the world in Munich. The champions’ 6-1 win over Werder Bremen, after the promoted side had contributed so much to the first half of this Bundesliga season, felt like the first real glimpse of the beast since the opening weeks of the season. Jamal Musiala can lay claim to being the best player in the league at the moment and Leon Goretzka, the scorer of the ridiculously stylish third, looks to be back in imperious form. That all paled in comparison with Wednesday morning’s news that Sadio Mané was in danger of missing the World Cup with a calf injury sustained in the game. After L’Equipe initially reported the Senegal forward as definitely out, the country’s president Macky Sall ended the day praying for good news.

Jamal Musiala continued his spectacular form for Bayern against Werder Bremen.
Jamal Musiala continued his spectacular form for Bayern against Werder Bremen. Photograph: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

With eye-catching wins for Leipzig (against Freiburg) and Eintracht Frankfurt (in a 4-2 win over Hoffenheim), Dortmund slipped out of the top four with defeat at Wolfsburg, the result of “being too sleepy at the start,” according to Niklas Süle. Meanwhile Niko Kovac’s side are now unbeaten in eight, having ridden out the very public row between skipper Max Arnold – playing superbly at present – and the excommunicated Max Kruse.

Roma’s early momentum dissipates to leave Mourinho pointing the finger | Serie A

The players were in the tunnel ready to emerge for the second half at the Mapei Stadium, but José Mourinho was headed in the opposite direction, returning from the dugout to the changing room. Roma were drawing 0-0 with Sassuolo but just for a moment that was not his priority, as he went to retrieve a team shirt to give to a young supporter in a wheelchair he had noticed beside the pitch.

This gesture could not surprise anyone who has followed Mourinho in his career. This is the man who gave a Manchester United supporter the jacket off his own back, and who had Inter staff send him the first person in the queue for Champions League final tickets so he could give them two free of charge. Such generosity with individuals has always been part of his nature. And so has a habit for singling out scapegoats when things go wrong.

By full-time, we had progressed to the latter. The game ended 1-1, Tammy Abraham putting Roma ahead in the 80th minute before Andrea Pinamonti equalised in the 84th. Despite briefly leading, Mourinho’s team deserved no more than a draw, showing commitment in the tackle but little inspiration on the ball. The better chances fell to their hosts.

More compelling than the game itself was the post-game press conference that followed. “Our efforts were betrayed by a player with an unprofessional attitude,” said Mourinho. “Mistakes are part of the game; footballers know they can mess up. But I don’t like unprofessional attitudes. I had 16 players on the pitch: I liked the attitude of 15. The other one, not so much.”

He declined to name names but said he had done so in the changing room, inviting the target of his ire to find a new club. “You have never seen me be critical of Rui Patricio who made a mistake here last year or [Lorenzo] Pellegrini who missed a penalty against Juve. You have never seen me be critical of any player. I make mistakes too and as a family we need to support each other.

“But attitude is a different story. When you’re a professional in something, not only in football, you need to respect who you represent, the people who work with you, giving your all like everyone else. That’s the only reason I’m unhappy, because I feel this sensation, and because I know the process behind that attitude.”

Corriere dello Sport reported that he had been talking about Rick Karsdorp. Other outlets soon followed suit, although there remains no confirmation that the Dutchman had been the subject of his wrath. Karsdorp, who replaced Zeki Çelik at right wing-back in the 65th minute, was at fault for the equaliser, tracking back lazily as Sassuolo broke down his flank. Giorgos Kyriakopoulos floated a pass down the line to Armand Laurienté, who cut it back for Pinamonti to flick home.

Heartbreak for Roma 💔

Just moments after Tammy Abraham scored what looked to be the winning goal, Sassuolo’s Andrea Pinamonti pokes home an equalizer 🤯 pic.twitter.com/mU7HmznDYj

— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) November 9, 2022

Mourinho had defended Karsdorp at the weekend, after the player responded to his substitution in the Rome derby by walking straight down the tunnel without acknowledging his manager or teammates. “He returned [a few minutes later] with some ice,” pointed out the Portuguese. “I don’t know if it was for his knee, his hamstring or his fever. He’s had a lot of problems this year.”

With hindsight those words might be framed in a different light. Was Mourinho trying to tell us even then that this is a player who always has an excuse not to train at 100%? Or was it all just another act of misdirection by a master of the art, whose team had dropped five points in four days? Gazzetta dello Sport defined Mourinho as “an exceptional snake charmer, quickly finding the way to shift everybody’s attention”.

Sassuolo celebrate after Andrea Pinamonti’s equaliser.
Sassuolo celebrate after Andrea Pinamonti’s equaliser. Photograph: Serena Campanini/EPA

The momentum that seemed to accompany his club in the summer, as they followed up their Europa Conference League celebrations by presenting Paulo Dybala to a crowd of thousands on the steps of the Colosseo Quadrato, has dissipated. Roma are not exactly having a bad season – they are a point better off than at the corresponding point last term – but nor have they shown any real signs of progress.

Mourinho had pointed to Dybala’s absence after defeat in the derby, naming him as the only forward on Roma’s books with the creativity to open up a low block. The next player he might turn to for inspiration, Pellegrini, was forced off with an injury of his own in the second half.

To lose such players would be a blow to any team. Dybala is the team’s top scorer, and Roma have also had to do without their other big-name summer signing, Georginio Wijnaldum, who fractured a tibia 10 minutes into his Serie A debut against Salernitana back in August.

Then again, were Lazio not also missing their two most influential players, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Ciro Immobile? And ought the risk of injury not have been baked into any consideration of Dybala’s role? He missed 39 games for Juventus over the past two seasons, many of them due to muscle strains similar to the hamstring issue which has sidelined him since 9 October.

His absence cannot explain the poor form of others. Abraham scored 17 times last season, but has only three so far in this campaign. Mourinho dropped him to the bench against Sassuolo, and his well-taken goal, stealing in front of his marker to head home Gianluca Mancini’s cross, reflected a hungry performance.

A November World Cup has disrupted this season in too many ways to count, but the question of whether Abraham’s anxiousness to claim a spot in England’s squad for the tournament had impacted his play hung in the air. “Probably there was too much pressure,” he said post-match. “I really wanted to score a goal, that started a vicious cycle.”

Quick Guide

Serie A results


Fiorentina 2-1 Salernitana, Inter 6-1 Bologna, Torino 2-0 Sampdoria, Lecce 2-1 Atalanta, Sassuolo 1-1 Roma, Cremonese 0-0  Milan, Napoli 2-0 Empoli, Spezia 1-1 Udinese.

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Abraham had begun by apologising to fans, teammates and coaches for not being “the best I can be”, yet if one thing is clear with this Roma team it is that the supporters are sticking behind them. Derby defeats have produced mutinous reactions many times, but on Wednesday the away section was packed out, with a banner at its centre inviting critics to silence in crude terms, and backing “Mourinho to the bitter end”.

We are a long way from that yet. The chasing pack behind Napoli at the top of Serie A are so closely clustered that Roma could yet finish the year anywhere from third to eighth. It will be fascinating to see how they approach the January transfer window as they weigh their pursuit of a top four finish. Mourinho will agitate for reinforcements, as well as for Wednesday’s scapegoat to be sent on his way.

Rayo Vallecano stun Real Madrid to end champions’ unbeaten start in La Liga | La Liga

Rayo Vallecano came from behind to upset Real Madrid 3-2 with the La Liga champions failing to reclaim top spot in the standings after two consecutive games without a win.

The hosts opened the scoring five minutes into the game when the midfielder Santi Comesaña finished from inside the box but Real responded quickly and went ahead with two goals in four minutes.

The first came in the 37th minute when the Croatian playmaker Luka Modric converted a penalty after Marco Asensio was fouled inside the box and the second came almost four minutes later with a towering header by Éder Militão.

However, the Rayo forward Álvaro García scored the equaliser just before half-time, scrambling home a loose ball.

Rayo were then given a penalty of their own in the 67th minute after a handball by the defender Dani Carvajal inside the area. Real’s Thibaut Courtois stopped Óscar Trejo’s effort, but the kick had to be retaken because the goalkeeper left his line too early. Trejo did not waste his second chance, scoring what proved to be the winner with a tidy finish to the goalkeeper’s left.

Barcelona remain two points clear at the top of the league following their victory over Almería on Saturday. Real Madrid suffered their first league defeat of the campaign against Rayo Vallecano and Carlo Ancelotti’s team play their final game before the World Cup break at home to Cádiz on Thursday.