April 19, 2024

We’re well into the weekend of European football action, and the game’s stars were at the centre of the conversation. And yet, there’s one team without many of them who still reign supreme.

Real Madrid were without mighty Jude Bellingham on Saturday, but they still rocked Valencia. Even still, they can’t overtake high-flying underdogs Girona atop LaLiga.

Paris Saint-Germain are your new Ligue 1 leaders after beating Stade de Reims, Kylian Mbappé netting his first hat trick of the season. Nevertheless, his coach still found nits to pick in his game after the match.

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Here’s what else you missed from Saturday’s action.

The Saturday lead: There’s more to Madrid than Bellingham

Jude Bellingham was in the stands, not on the pitch, but Vinícius Júnior and Rodrygo showed in Real Madrid‘s 5-1 win over Valencia in LaLiga that there are plenty of goals in this Madrid team, with or without the already talismanic England midfielder. Bellingham had been ruled out earlier on Saturday — the shoulder injury picked up against Rayo Vallecano last weekend is more troublesome than first thought — and that gave Vinícius and Rodrygo the chance to take centre stage.

Both have been questioned this season. Rodrygo hadn’t scored in LaLiga since Aug. 12. Vinícius had scored just twice in the league, his last coming against Osasuna on Oct. 7. There was a suspicion that coach Carlo Ancelotti’s change of formation, dropping his habitual 4-3-3 to accommodate Bellingham in a midfield four, had left the Brazilians disorientated, squeezed uncomfortably into a front two.

Vinícius in particular was determined to deliver against Valencia. The last time these two teams met, on May 21 at Mestalla, he was subjected to racist abuse from the crowd. The criminal trial of the three alleged perpetrators is ongoing. Valencia’s away fans were even warned about their matchday conduct by the club ahead of this trip to the Bernabeu.

The first half was not as one-sided as the 5-1 scoreline suggests. Valencia forward Hugo Duro missed a hat trick of presentable chances, two of them saved by Madrid’s stand-in goalkeeper Andriy Lunin.

By that time, Madrid were already 1-0 up thanks to Dani Carvajal‘s unexpected, left-footed strike on the bounce in the third minute. It was the right-back’s second goal this season, the first time he’s scored twice in the same LaLiga campaign in a decade.

Rodrygo was already looking confident. He almost pulled off the assist of the century for Vinicius when some electric, spinning footwork took the entire Valencia defence out of the game midway through the first half. Not long afterward, he provided the cross that allowed Vinícius to make it 2-0. It was an unconventional but somehow appropriate finish, chesting the ball into the net with the crest on his Real Madrid shirt.

In the second half, Valencia’s young team — Javi Guerra is 20, Diego López and Fran Pérez are 21 — began to crumble. Vinicius made it 3-0 in the 48th minute, cutting infield and shooting effortlessly low inside the near post. Ninety-two seconds later, Rodrygo added a fourth, finishing coolly when goalkeeper Giorgi Mamardashvili gifted him the ball. The game’s outstanding player, Rodrygo made it 5-0 before the end, before Duro belatedly responded with a consolation goal.

Two goals for Vinícius, and two goals and two assists for Rodrygo. Their loss of goal-scoring form was temporary. Now the challenge is to maintain this uptick when Bellingham returns to the team. With all three firing, Madrid’s attack will be formidable. — Alex Kirkland

Saturday’s talking points

Luis Enrique unimpressed by Mbappé despite hat trick

Kylian Mbappé went home from Stade de Reims with the match ball in his bag but also with an incoming rollocking from manager Luis Enrique. The Spanish manager was not happy with his superstar after Paris Saint-Germain‘s 3-0 win on Saturday.

“I’m not really happy with Kylian today,” Luis Enrique told French television after the match. “I have nothing to say about the goals but he can help the team more in different ways. I am going to talk to him about it first. I’ll never tell you what it’s about, it’s private.”

He doesn’t need to explain further.

Against a very good Reims team, who deserved much better than a 3-0 loss, Mbappé’s lack of defensive work and commitment at times was penalising for his team. He made up for it with his three goals — his first hat trick of the season — but he needs to work harder for the team out of possession. The issue is not new and has happened under many managers, but it is rare for a manager to criticise a player who has just netted three goals.

The Parisians are top of the table for the first time this season, and with Nice‘s draw on Friday against Montpellier, they are certain to stay there through matchday 12. For Mbappé, it is now 13 goals in 11 Ligue 1 games and 29 goals for the calendar year, three short of his previous record of 32, which he achieved in 2022. No doubt that, with more than a month of competition still left in 2023, he will smash it. — Julien Laurens

Arsenal remind Burnley of Premier League pedigree

Arsenal love playing newly promoted teams at the Emirates. Ahead of Saturday’s game against Burnley, the Gunners were unbeaten in their past 37 home league games against such opposition.

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It always seemed unlikely that Vincent Kompany’s team would be the side to break that run, and so it proved as Arsenal eventually got the better of their opponents to win 3-1 in north London.

Leandro Trossard put Arsenal ahead with what was Arsenal’s 1,000th goal at the Emirates since its opening in 2006. Bukayo Saka has assisted all six of Trossard’s goals so far this season and their partnership has helped Arsenal navigate the injuries suffered by Martin Ødegaard and Gabriel Jesus.

Josh Brownhill‘s deflected effort briefly had Burnley level but Arsenal regained their lead just three minutes later when William Saliba rose highest in the box to head home. Oleksandr Zinchenko doubled Arsenal’s lead with a goal that had fans of a certain age reminiscing about Paulo Di Canio’s scissor kick against Wimbledon in 2000.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Arteta’s side. Kai Havertz was a passenger again, and it was no surprise to see him substituted in the wake of the celebrations that followed Saliba’s goal in the 57th minute. His replacement Fabio Vieira didn’t fare too much better though as he was shown a red card for a high tackle on Brownhill in midfield.

Burnley never looked like getting back into the game in the closing stages despite their man advantage. Nobody in the division has scored fewer goals than Kompany’s team this season (9).

“The first promotion up, it’s pretty ruthless,” Kompany admitted after the final whistle. — Tom Chambers

Americans Abroad: Balogun repeating his 2022-23 form is no guarantee

The longest Folarin Balogun went without scoring in his breakout 2022-23 season on loan with Stade de Reims was four games. Saturday marked his fourth straight appearance for AS Monaco in which he was held off the scoresheet.

Now, those four games last season were spread across 354 minutes while his current goalless drought is just 232 minutes. However, that tells a story of its own.

Balogun started Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Le Havre AC from the substitutes’ bench and wasn’t introduced until the 73rd minute. In Monaco’s 2-0 defeat to Lille on Oct. 29, the 22-year-old United States international was taken off at half-time.

Twice in the past three matches, then, Balogun has been on the periphery of manager Adi Hütter’s plans or seen as a detriment to his tactical vision.

It’s far, far too early for the Arsenal youth academy graduate to panic, but this month-long dry spell does serve as a reminder that it’s one thing to achieve success in Europe’s Big Five leagues, but it’s another entirely to sustain it. — Austin Lindberg

Saturday’s news lines

  • Manchester United are sweating on the fitness of Rasmus Højlund and Christian Eriksen after their narrow 1-0 win over Luton Town. Højlund was substituted in the second-half with a hamstring problem while Eriksen was forced off in the first-half with a knee injury. It’s more bad news for manager Erik ten Hag, who is already without Casemiro, Lisandro Martínez, Luke Shaw, Tyrell Malacia and Jonny Evans. Aaron Wan-Bissaka missed the win over Luton because of illness while Jadon Sancho remains exiled from the first team because of a disciplinary issue. Read the full story.

  • After Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta had been criticised for branding the level of officiating in the Premier League as an “absolute disgrace” following last week’s defeat to Newcastle United, he requested reporters ask him about his opinion of the officials in charge of the Gunners’ 3-1 win over Burnley on Saturday, saying that they were “so good.” “Please ask me about VAR because today it was good. … I hope that I’m on TV saying the referees are so good and I’m completely with them and being very constructive,” Arteta said. Read the full story.

  • Newcastle United defender Kieran Trippier confronted angry supporters of his own team following their surprise 2-0 defeat at AFC Bournemouth in the Premier League on Saturday. In a video posted on social media, England international Trippier can be seen walking over to a section of Newcastle fans and responding to one supporter by saying: “Are the lads not giving everything? How many injuries have we got?” He was then led away by teammate Joelinton. Read the full story.

Saturday’s And finally …

Who would’ve thought that coming into the November international break, the league leaders in Spain wouldn’t be Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Atletico Madrid?

The Girona fairytale continues its magical run as the Catalan side had to crawl back and earn a 2-1 comeback win against Rayo Vallecano on Saturday to get their fifth straight win of the LaLiga season as they continue to top the league heading into the final international break of the year.

Michel’s side conceded early as Vallecano’s Álvaro García scored in the fifth minute but they turned it around with an Artem Dovbyk equaliser just before half-time and a Sávio winner in the 66th minute. With that win, Girona are now two points clear of second-place Real Madrid, the only team they have lost to this season.

It’s now 11 wins out of 13 matches for a Michel side who have only dropped points to Madrid and Real Sociedad, a remarkable start for a team who are only competing in their fourth-ever top-flight season. Dobvyk also extended his lead atop the goal-scoring charts with his seventh goal of the season, an incredible feat considering he is the club’s record signing at a mere €7 million.

In a season in which we’ve seen underdogs such as Tottenham Hotspur, Bayer Leverkusen and Nice have fantastic starts to their league campaigns, it’s safe to say that the Girona bandwagon might begin to fill up very soon. — Roberto Rojas


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