Good week, bad week: Mesut Ozil shows Germany what they’re missing while Romelu Lukaku fails Juventus audition

In a new weekly blog, Ben Grounds looks at those in the world of football to have starred and suffered over the past seven days…

Good week…

Mesut Ozil

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The week started with the kind of individual performance which made us fall in love with football. Ozil has often polarised opinion, as Graeme Souness said in his assessment of the German following his spellbinding display in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over Leicester.

Souness is a hard taskmaster who has frequently criticised Ozil for his work rate, but it was as though the playmaker was aware of the special guest on Monday Night Football and decided to put on a special clinic, telling the Scotsman, “Hold my water.”

It didn’t stop Souness from reaffirming his belief that Ozil needs to produce his excellence on a more consistent basis, but the manner in which he cut Leicester’s defence to ribbons with his deftness of pass and dummies showcased why the Premier League needs players like him.

Mohamed Salah

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The sceptics were beginning to wonder had he been a one-season wonder. All the key attacking metrics were down on last campaign, his body language suggested fatigue, frustration, even a touch of selfishness.

But Salah is beginning to show the signs of his menacing best of January to February earlier this year, sparked then by a goal that booked Egypt’s place at the World Cup. On this occasion, on a far less prestigious stage, he helped his country to victory over eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), and it appears to have had the same effect on his form.

Salah has scored three goals in a week to steer Liverpool to wins over Huddersfield and Red Star Belgrade, and in so doing became the fastest player to reach 50 goals for the Reds in all competitions – taking just 65 games.

To put that into perspective, Salah’s half-century of strikes is 22 games quicker than Ian Rush and 29 faster than Robbie Fowler. Luis Suarez took 7553 minutes for his first 50 goals, compared to Salah’s 5116. After a ‘drought’ of four games, he appears to be doing just fine.

Mr Bonucci and Mr Chiellini

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FIFA president Gianni Infantino called it an ‘absurdity’ that six sides in Italy’s lower leagues are still unsure which division they’re playing in, but the country’s top-table is still in fine fettle.

English clubs have been defeated on three occasions by Italian outfits already this season, with Inter Milan and Napoli dispensing of Tottenham and Liverpool respectively, and the latest triumph owed much to the wiliness of two famed stalwarts.

Juventus’ 1-0 victory over Manchester United was a travesty in scoreline given their superiority, but Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini were so accomplished up against Romelu Lukaku that it moved Jose Mourinho to remark the pair should give a lecture in the art of defending at Harvard University.

Andre Gomes

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Fresh from his very assured Premier League debut in Everton’s 2-0 win over Crystal Palace, Gomes was present alongside the rest of his team-mates at the annual event for the club’s official charity.

The Portuguese midfielder gave a frank admission of his struggles to overcome mental health issues during his time with Barcelona last season, and Gomes endeared himself to Everton supporters during a touching moment with a supporter at the Everton in the Community (EITC) event.

The young fan with Down’s syndrome appeared to be overcome with emotion at playing with his idols, and Gomes was only too happy to provide him with a hug in footage that underlined the importance of staging such events in binding a football club with its community. 

Frank Lampard

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The fixture list was enough to make any Championship manager’s eyes water, but this fledgling 40-year-old has relished the challenge – and so have his players.

Then leaders Sheffield United were first beaten at Pride Park on Saturday before fellow promotion rivals West Brom were clinically dispatched 4-1 at The Hawthorns. The weekend’s trip to second-placed Middlesbrough holds no fears for Lampard.

His Derby side have come a cropper following dizzying highs already this season – Leeds put four past them in August while Millwall, Rotherham and Bolton have already recorded home wins – but Lampard has impressively managed a group containing several young pros to within two points of the top.

With Chelsea hosting the Rams in the Carabao Cup just reward for the scalp of Manchester United in the previous round, Lampard has the perfect stage on which to showcase why he is fast-becoming one of the country’s most exciting young managers.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek

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He’s not quite the forgotten man of Stamford Bridge (that unwanted title still was bequeathed to Danny Drinkwater some time ago), but Loftus-Cheek became the first English player to score a hat-trick for Chelsea in Europe since Peter Osgood and Tommy Baldwin 47 years ago.

The midfielder scored a hat-trick in Thursday’s Europa League win over Bate Borisov, but finds himself below four other midfielders in the pecking order.

Loftus-Cheek has played just 33 minutes of Premier League action compared to N’Golo Kante (810), Jorginho (810), Mateo Kovacic (476) and Ross Barkley (301).

Blues manager Maurizio Sarri admits he has a “tactical problem” and is struggling to fit the 22-year-old into the side – but Loftus-Cheek was out to prove a point against the Belarusians.

His first senior hat-trick was aided by abysmal defending, but with Ross Barkley receiving all the recent plaudits, this was a timely reminder to Gareth Southgate of his abilities.

Bad week…

Romelu Lukaku

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Lukaku must be tired of being called a pussycat by Martin Keown. But the bulky Belgian looked laboured in Manchester United’s defeat to Juventus, extending his barren run to eight games without a goal in all competitions against the side he had talked up wanting to join one day earlier this month.

Jose Mourinho’s touchline row with Chelsea assistant Marco Ianni showed the ringleader is still busy cracking his whip, but it’s left his lion overwhelmingly tamed.

He can still perform his trick of miscontrolling the ball and passing straight to an opponent, but Lukaku looks a shadow of the player United signed for £75m. A rest is unlikely given Everton are the visitors to Old Trafford this Sunday.

Mourinho said afterwards, “[The concern is] not just with the goals he’s not scoring but also his confidence, in his movement, his touch. He is not linking the game well with his team. I have to agree his moment is not sweet.”

The striker’s big chance conversion rate is down 26 per cent on last season, while his minutes per goal this term stands at 276 compared to 106 at the same stage of last season.

Lukaku can point to an almost non-existent supply-line but with his last shot on target in the Premier League coming against Watford on September 15, he needs to do a lot more to shake off the current malaise.

Julen Lopetegui

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Real Madrid’s dreadful start to the La Liga season reached its nadir as they were beaten 2-1 by Levante at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday, heaping yet more pressure on manager Lopetegui.

It’s is hard to know where to point the finger at Madrid at the moment, with Lopetegui apologists criticising Florentino Perez for a lack of investment in the first team stretching back two years.

Put simply, and on a much grander scale, the side are now failing to reproduce the same results with a weaker squad in the same manner Southampton no longer do following a spate of high-profile departures. But Lopetegui looks set to be the fall guy in all of this, with Real reportedly eyeing up Antonio Cone as his replacement.

With the decision seemingly already made that the former Spain head coach is not the right fit, a victory over Barcelona in El Clasico this weekend could prove an almighty inconvenience for the club’s hierarchy.

Lionel Messi

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The last time Messi missed an ‘El Clasico’, Donald Trump was about to host the first season of Celebrity Apprentice. Much has changed in the 11 years since, but Messi will be absent once more from the Camp Nou showdown this weekend.

The Argentine has been in scintillating form this season, scoring 12 goals in all competitions, but he’s now been ruled out for three weeks after breaking his arm in the 4-2 win over Sevilla last weekend.

Barcelona have enough quality at their disposal to counter the loss of their talisman – witnessed during the Champions League over Inter Milan in midweek – but with Ernesto Valverde’s side just one point clear at the La Liga summit, the Catalans now face the ultimate test to show they can function in Messi’s absence.

Hugo Lloris

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Lloris began the week in fine form. The Frenchman produced three vitally important saves to keep out Marko Arnautovic and preserve his team’s clean sheet as Tottenham recorded their best start to a Premier League season against West Ham. Positionally he remains sound.

But all the good work at the London Stadium was undone in Eindhoven. Spurs were in control and on course for a much-needed 2-1 win at PSV when Lloris came haring out of his goal to swipe the legs of Hirving Lorenzo. It was reckless, unnecessary and deserving of the red card that has severely compromised his side’s Champions League hopes with the hosts coming back to salvage a point.

The 31-year-old made being the sweeper-keeper his trademark, but having been caught in no man’s land against Barcelona, his poor judgement is beginning to make him a liability. Putting his recent indiscretions off the field to one side, Lloris’ uncharacteristic mistakes before, during and after France’s World Cup triumph points to a drop in focus that provides Mauricio Pochettino with a fresh problem to solve.

Slavisa Jovanovic

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The wheels have come off at Fulham following a promising start. Over-reliant on Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goals and porous defensively, Jokanovic faces a make-or-break home game with Bournemouth at Craven Cottage this weekend.

The Serbian is coming under increasing pressure following the 4-2 defeat at Cardiff which sent Fulham cascading into the bottom three. It’s not been so much a bad week for the Premier League newcomers as a bad two months, with things getting increasingly worse.

Fulham’s disastrous defence has conceded nine goals in their last two games, conceding 25 in total – comfortably the most in the division. Jokanovic looks no closer to finding the right combination at the back with 61 shots on goal allowed in just nine games.

They also come out bottom on the ‘expected goals against’ metric, with their xGA of 19.53 far higher than the likes of Cardiff (13.89) and Huddersfield Town (13.49). Mourinho remains the favourite to become the first managerial casualty of the season, but Jokanovic is not far behind. His position looks very precarious.

Thomas Frank

Managers with a bad run of results has spread further west of the capital. There’s a familiar theme here with October offering a natural point for struggling clubs to seek a new voice. But for Brentford, under different circumstances, there has been an unwelcome change.

The Bees were buzzing along happily under Dean Smith, in the play-off spots on October 6 after a 1-1 draw at Leeds. But they’ve now gone eight games in all competitions without a win, losing four – including Frank’s opening two games against Bristol City and Preston.

Smith sought pastures new, partly due to his boyhood ties to Aston Villa, but perhaps also with a sense he had maximised his potential growth at Griffin Park. Frank has been promoted from his position as assistant, but he has thus far created the opposite of a managerial bounce.

The Dutchman will point to shoots of recovery in the second-half fightback at Deepdale, but the trip to high-flying Norwich offers little scope for respite following a tough start.

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Behind closed doors but nothing to see as England’s search for missing link continues

Hopefully we won’t have to experience this again. It was a great chance for England to kick-start their Nations League campaign, but it resulted in an opportunity wasted in subdued, soulless fashion in Rijeka.

They had the home crowd silenced for them, but for all the build-up of how Gareth Southgate’s side would cope with playing behind closed doors, it really was a case of ‘nothing to see here’ in Croatia.

The second-half was considerably better than the first, pierced on the hour-mark by the unmistakable sound a bin lorry makes when reversing. It turned out to be an ambulance but it just about summed this up. It was rubbish.

Josip Pivaric produced a fine last-ditch sliding tackle to prevent Raheem Sterling from the type of far post tap-in he’s made his trademark at Manchester City, while Eric Dier headed Jordan Henderson’s corner onto the post.

Harry Kane rattled the woodwork in the second period while Marcus Rashford missed two gilt-edged chances that sums up his current lapse in confidence that has travelled with him from Manchester.

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England recorded just one shot in the first half – the fewest amount in the opening 45 minutes of an away game since June 2015 against the Republic of Ireland.

Here was proof that players need support from the stands, a revenge mission that will be remembered fondly only by the 16 hardened souls who stood atop a hill outside Stadion HNK, unable to even see one of the goal-mouths.

Before the second half, they could be heard singing, “Pickford, give us a wave?” The goalkeeper duly obliged for the biggest cheer of the evening.

Having found their voice and form, moments later came the ironic chants of “Your support is f****** shit” and slightly more impassioned “F**k off UEFA, we’ll do what we want!”

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They saw the first England international born in the 21st Century, with Jadon Sancho introduced with 13 minutes remaining, the youngest player to play for the senior team since Sterling at 18 years and 201 days.

His lively cameo will have been their one takeaway from this glorified training game, but there was little to get excited about.

Three months on, England confronted their World Cup semi-final foes, rekindling memories of the summer of 2018, Glenn Hoddle’s Love Train, Harry Maguire’s head, Boxpark Croydon and all that.

But it was a Nations League six-pointer in front of an official crowd of zero, and there were zero goals and zero talking points.

Of course, those 16 were the lucky few – around a hundred members of the media, 65 dignitaries from the English FA and the same from their Croatian counterparts were inside, while roads had been blocked off by police aiming to discourage fans from making the 102-mile trip from Zagreb.

Around 500 Three Lions supporters had instantly pressed the ‘purchase’ button when this fixture was first announced, a week before FIFA confirmed the game would be closed to the public as part of a punishment handed to Croatia after a swastika was marked on the pitch before a Euro 2016 qualifier against Italy in June 2015.

It was the first time in 988 senior internationals dating back to 1872 that England contested a game behind closed doors. Only three previous games involving English teams have been played under such conditions.

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Most recently in 2014, Manchester City faced CSKA Moscow in a Champions League match in Russia, while you have to go back as far as the early 1980s for the other two occasions.

West Ham hosted Real Madrid B in a Cup Winners’ Cup match in the 1980-81 season while Aston Villa’s home European Cup tie against Besiktas in 1982-83 was also played in an empty stadium.

Former England defender Martin Keown feared the conditions might in fact add pressure to the young players, but it was Sancho who provided the injection of energy in the final quarter of an hour in this snoozefest.

So what, if anything did we learn? Southgate had played his preferred formation of 3-5-2 for over a year, but he dispensed with that on Friday night.

“We think it’s time for the team to evolve a bit,” he said prior to the match. “3-5-2 has been fantastic for us really. We maximised the talents of the players across the summer, but in a couple of the matches against the better teams, we’ve suffered a bit without the ball.

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“We wanted to have a look at a back four, I think it suits the players we’ve got playing tonight, it still gives us the opportunity to move the ball and be a threat, but hopefully we’ll cover the spaces that were a bit of a problem for us in the last couple of games.”

Southgate cited his side being overloaded by Switzerland in midfield and down the flanks towards the end of his time using the old formation, but the shift towards a more attacking system was designed to suit an extra midfielder, and to find the missing link.

Ross Barkley returned to the side for the first time since May 2016 – his first game under Southgate – as part of a three-man midfielder in front of a flat back four. He has looked in good physical condition, and the former Everton midfielder was played in the same position that has led to his resurgence at Chelsea.

This was Southgate acknowledging the need to try out a different approach if England are to ever beat the leading nations when it matters, but what it showed was that an in-form Barkley is the same player he was at Everton without Eden Hazard.

With Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard absent, this was his chance to stake a claim. A chance for England to exorcise some demons from 93 days ago? Barkley has had to wait considerably longer than that, admitting this week he’d watched the Croatia defeat among fans during a family holiday.

That friendly against Australia was the last of his previous 22 caps, coming on as a second-half substitute, while you have to go back more than three years for his last competitive start – against Lithuania in October 2015.

But he was a largely peripheral figure, outshone by the rich talent in midfield whose company he shared, bizarrely opting not to appeal what looked a good shout for a penalty when he was clipped by Ante Rebic inside the box.

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Barkley was not alone in scurrying down blind alleys, but there was little to suggest he will be the long-term answer to England’s search for a midfield playmaker.

Two chances in quick succession were squandered by Rashford, showing too much of his intentions on both occasions as he opened up his body and found the gloves of Dominik Livakovic, but neither side controlled proceedings for any significant period.

There was an eerie feel to this fixture in a stadium with a capacity of 8,217 on the northern Adriatic coast, with Southgate warning his players to watch their language due to the absence of an atmosphere.

Only Henderson was clearly heard barking profanities at Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic after a decision went against him. “Are you the f***** ref?!” he said after 30 minutes. It was an all-too brief reminder of what was at stake.

The introduction of the Nations League has brought a competitive edge to what might otherwise have been a pointless friendly, but while the noises coming from the two sides revealed an eagerness to avoid relegation from the top tier of UEFA’s fledgling competition, the empty stands appeared to hinder both sets of players.

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This was a vastly different experience to the contest played in front of 78,000 at the Luzhniki Stadium three months ago, and there were very few conclusions that could be drawn on a very bumpy pitch.

Henderson was again England’s most creative player here. His two set pieces led to Dier and Kane hitting the woodwork – with the Tottenham striker having now gone six internationals without a goal – and the striker’s offside finish also came from a Henderson pass.

That says a lot about England’s missing stardust, and Kane might well have wished to have seen Sancho introduced sooner given the raw, fearlessness he showed. Ben Chilwell, on his first England start, looks primed to grow into the role at left-back after a confident display.

England were the better side, but for once, their failure to beat another leading nation was somewhat overshadowed by the conditions.

They head to Seville next knowing this odd night will not live long in the memory, but also that they must be far more clinical in front of goal against Luis Enrique’s in-form Spain side in far more raucous surroundings.

Southgate reflected afterwards: “You want to perform in front of a crowd. It raises the level of the game, but I thought our players were really good. We defended well and pressed well.

“If we’d been a bit more ruthless with our chances, we would’ve won the game.”

 

Tottenham vs Barcelona: Philippe Coutinho and Mauricio Pochettino cross paths again as key men in search to regain stability

It was the 67th minute and the game was already up. Tottenham had snaffled all three points in a contest many now view as a seminal moment in Jurgen Klopp’s time as Liverpool manager.

But Philippe Coutinho was still buzzing around, desperate to leave his mark, forcing Hugo Lloris to produce a save fit to rival those from any Premier League season, flying with his wrong hand to tip his trademark curling shot onto the crossbar.

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino leapt from his technical area in appreciation of the immense skill on display, wary of the danger any side trailing by three goals still possess when Coutinho is in such a mood.

Tottenham would see out the match, and while Liverpool have undergone major reconstruction since that defining defeat, Klopp’s ability to turn his side into title contenders this season has largely been thanks to the £146m raised by Coutinho’s sale.

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The Brazilian returns to Wembley this Wednesday night a Barcelona player hoping to land a significant blow to Pochettino’s hopes of taking Tottenham beyond the Champions League group stages.

Inter Milan have already shown to Spurs’ cost why they are the dangerous, floating pot four side everyone was desperate to avoid, and it was via the Nerazzurri that Pochettino would first learn of Coutinho’s immense talent.

It was in January 2012 when Inter boss Claudio Ranieri shipped out a 20-year-old Coutinho to Espanyol, then managed by Pochettino. It was an uncertain point in his career, having failed to leave a lasting impression at the Milanese club since his £4.5m move from Vasco da Gama in 2008.

But Coutinho flourished under Pochettino, scoring five goals in 16 games during his loan spell. One eye-catching free-kick struck underneath the wall against Malaga was a brief glimpse into the kind of skills he would produce many years later at Liverpool.

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Pochettino’s side in fact dipped collectively in the second half of the season with Coutinho in the side, drifting away from the Champions League spots to finish with a mediocre campaign.

But the Argentinian allowed Coutinho to develop character traits that would ultimately lead him to become the game’s second-most expensive player in history.

Pochettino offered Coutinho the chance to revitalise his career, through a steep process of development, despite the side’s free-fall to within five points of relegation.

Espanyol recorded just two victories during the loan spell, but the player will always be grateful to the man he faces again on Wednesday for the role he played in his career.

In December 2015, Coutinho said of his loan spell under Pochettino: “It helped me, the style in Spain when I went to Espanyol.

“And Mauricio Pochettino, who was the manager there at the time, gave me a lot of confidence. He always encouraged me to play and show my skills.

“And he told me to enjoy it. In that sense I have been lucky with all my managers. They have all encouraged me to play my game.”

In the end, it was Coutinho’s goals which kept Espanyol afloat. Learning how to produce the level of off-the-ball intensity required to stay in a Pochettino side would ultimately serve him well for life under Klopp.

But the appreciation between player and manager is mutual given Southampton were scouting Coutinho when they first came across the 46-year-old they would later appoint as Nigel Atkins’ successor at St Mary’s.

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By the end of Coutinho’s loan at Espanyol, Liverpool scouts were watching his performances, and it was clear that his future lay on a bigger stage.

In March 2013, two months after the pair had coincidentally arrived at roughly the same time on English shores, Pochettino said of Coutinho: “Philippe is a Brazilian player and, as it happens with most Brazilians, he has a special magic in his feet.

“Aside from the magic that he has, he also has an amazing work-rate and that makes us doubt whether he fits the mould of a typical Brazilian player or a European one because his work ethic is outstanding.

“What is important about him is he is a good lad, a good kid – a great, humble person. I do think Coutinho has that same quality that Ronaldinho and Messi have, but he has much to prove yet.

“What is really clear to me is that Coutinho is a really responsible player – really dedicated and responsible to his own players.”

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The 26-year-old has gone from strength to strength, and following his successful spell on Merseyside, Coutinho’s has taken his intense work rate with him to Barcelona under Ernesto Valverde.

It has been a torturous week for the Catalans, dropping seven points in seven days for the first time since 2003, two draws and a surprise defeat to bottom club Leganes underlining the difficulties Valverde has had in finding the same spark from last season’s double-winning team.

Coutinho was handed the unenviable challenge of not only shouldering his hugely overinflated transfer fee but also of replacing Andres Iniesta’s guile and game intelligence.

For all of his qualities, that was always going to prove an uphill task, but one of the primary reasons behind Barcelona’s current instability is the absence of a controlling midfielder.

Ivan Rakitic has understandably struggled to get back up to speed after helping Croatia reach the World Cup final, while Arturo Vidal has not been signed to provide the same qualities that Iniesta possessed.

Coutinho is no longer the new signing, especially given his previous stint in Catalonia, and with Tottenham not exactly at their most stable themselves, Wembley’s vast pitch provides the perfect setting for the playmaker to show Pochettino how far he’s come.