European football roundup: France, Portugal and the best of the rest
As the rest of Europe slowly but surely returns from their winter breaks, JOE takes a look at the news from France, Portugal and beyond
We could be here all year if we tried to get around to all the football going on in Europe, so while the fans of second tier Austrian football will be outraged, we've decided on a quick round up of 'the rest' of Europe, taking in what's happening in France, Portugal and a few notable performers as the seasons kick back into gear.
More so than any other year perhaps, the new über-rich clubs of Ligue 1 were creating a real buzz, and the league attracted some of Europe's best players to contest the title, including Edinson Cavani, who joined Zlatan Ibrahimovic at Paris Saint-Germain, Radamel Falcao who went to Monaco along with Lucas Ocampos, João Moutinho, and a host of others. There have been plenty of talking points since, so what's happening at the top end of the table?
A huge number of big-name players now litter this squad, and after last year's title win, they were able to add even more star power to the line up in the summer in the form of Marquinhos and Edinson Cavani, as well as Laurent Blanc on the bench.
The Uruguayan didn't take too long to get on the scoresheet, and with a fairly nice goal too against Ajaccio, to ensure that his new side didn't slump to a loss on the opening day.
Of course, not to be outdone by anyone ever, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is once again producing some scintillating football, scoring a selection of unbelievable goals, and he has already notched 15 so far this year. If you fancy seeing them all, you can feast your tiny eyelets on them here.
The Parisian side sat atop the league at the Christmas break, and while they have been impressive, they have not been as dominant as their wage bill would suggest they should be. Aside from a loss to Evian which you can definitely term a shock, they have been getting a lot of draws, and they may look to add to their already stellar squad with a few more players in January. With plenty in defence and some solid midfielders (Marco Veratti has been in superb form this year and makes the side tick) they may look further up the pitch, with rumours that Juan Mata agreed to sign with them in this window way back in September. Money is seemingly no object, so a move for Paul Pogba from Juve is also a possibility, according to reports. The bianconeri would be loathe to let him leave, but money talks.
Claudio Ranieri has proven before that he can get a decent performance out of a team that has been thrown together, and with all the comings and goings at Monaco this summer it's definitely fair to say that he had a similar job to do here. However, few managers will have sympathy for him when players like Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez, Eric Abidal, Ricardo Carvalho, Jérémy Toulalan and Geoffrey Kondogbia are thrown at him to try and make a competitive team out of.
Amongst all those big names however, Emmanuel Rivière is the one doing most of the scoring for Monaco, most notably in the absence of their star summer signing Radamel Falcao. Ranieri has been forced to come out in the press to state several times that there has not been a falling out with the Colombian and everything is fine. However, as the old saying goes, when you're explaining you're losing, and it seems that Falcao is angling to get out of Monaco already. While it's unlikely that they'll be willing to part with him this soon into his Ligue 1 career, but they may have to admit that he's gone in the summer, at the latest.
On the field, they have been running PSG close, which is no small feat given that the squad has had so many changes. They have been solid enough at the back, but still may look to bolster their options there in this window. They returned to action this weekend with a 1-1 draw against Montpellier, which will put a little bit more pressure on Ranieri.
Rest of the league
A few managers have seen the sack already this season, with Élie Baup shown the door by Marseille after a very disappointing Champions League campaign saw them finish bottom of their group. They are strong contenders for a European place once again this year though, as they currently sit in fifth. The man with the Frenchest name in town, André-Pierre Gignac, has gotten his fair share of goals for them, including this stonker against Ajaccio.
Claude Puel at Nice is a man who's also under some pressure going in to the New Year, but for those of us who remember Middlesbrough in their golden age, the highest profile sacking was that of Fabrizio Ravanelli at Ajaccio, after his side lost five in a row. Results have not improved under interim boss Christian Bracconi however, and they find themselves at the bottom of the table.
Another side who are looking into the void are Montpellier, and have snapped up AC Milan's M'Baye Niang, who slotted home a penalty on the second attempt this weekend to get off to a scoring start and do his best to help them avoid the drop. Decline has been quick for the side that won the league in the 2011-12 season, and they too sacked coach Jean Fernandez earlier in the season after he could only muster two wins in 17 attempts.
Olyimpique Lyonnais have been plodding along nicely, but not to the high standards that they came to expect not so long ago. They cannot compete in financial terms with the biggest clubs in the league now, but that doesn't mean their squad isn't talented. France international Yoann Gourcuff has produced some great form, including a goal in the opening week with this brilliant free kick against Nice.
Speaking of goals, Vincent Aboubakar has grabbed a lot of them already this season, having scored 11 for his Lorient side. At just 21, he will surely be on the shopping list for plenty of clubs, possibly even in this window.
Lille found themselves high up the table at the break, and drew with giants PSG just before heading off on their Christmas holidays. That was thanks to the fact that they had a run of 14 clean sheets in 17 games, making their defence the best in Europe, and the brilliance of Vincent Enyeama between the sticks played no small part in that. Here's a compilation of some of his best saves, including a stunning double save against Monaco.
Liga Zon Sagres
They have returned to action in Portugal, but things are still very tight at the top of the table. Going in to the break, there were three teams tied for top spot, and the usual suspects Porto and Benfica were joined by Sporting Lisbon, all tied on 33 points. With the resumption of hostilities, two of the top three came face to face and something had to give, so what can we expect in 2014?
Diego Capel remained at Sporting this summer despite persistent interest from England, and while they may not make it through this window unscathed, he has helped them to have a very surprising season so far. They can definitely be termed over-achievers this term; the fans were not expecting much and this was seen as a transitional period, but they have gone beyond expectations and sit in second spot, a mere two points off the leaders.
Their defence has been extremely strong, having conceded only nine goals all season, and kept five clean sheets in a row in their last five games with Rui Patrício playing no small part in that. The breakout star has been Fredy Montero, another Colombian plying his trade in Portugal, and has scored 13goals in his 14 appearances in the league this season.
He is only on loan from Seattle Sounders of the MLS, of all places, but there Is an option to buy at the end of the loan period, which they will surely be taking up. Colombian national team coach José Pékerman is yet to confirm whether he will be with the team in Brazil, but on current form it would be hard to exclude him.
Jackson Martinez is the player everyone is talking about in this squad without a doubt, as European clubs once again turn their eyes to the port city in search of striking talent. They consistently manage to produce players of great quality and sell them on for huge fees (Hulk, Falcao, James Rodriguez, to name but a few in recent years) and still manage to get in to Europe every season and acquit themselves well. Some may argue that is easy to do in the Portuguese league, but very few teams ever fancy a trip to the Estádio do Dragão.
Things didn't quite go to plan this year though, and Vitor Pereira was not offered a new contract to take the side into this season, despite winning the last two Liga titles. He was replaced by Paulo Fonseca, who has had a difficult settling in period. The Champions League campaign from his side left plenty to be desired, in particular in the games against Austria Wien, and now they must concentrate on domestic matters.
They faced fellow table-toppers Benfica away this past weekend, but by all accounts were the second best side on every front as they sunk to a 2-0 defeat. They have already strengthened their squad with the addition of former star Ricardo Quaresma, who is now 30. When he was younger, he was talked about as a serious talent, but has never reached the heights that were expected. While that match may not decide the title, it certainly showed that Porto still have a bit to do yet if they want to retain their crown.
A death of a legend of the club, and world football, took many by surprise just over a week ago, and tributes have been pouring in at the Estádio da Luz for Eusébio. This weekend in their huge clássico against Porto, all the players paid their respects to one of the greatest to ever play the game by wearing shirts with his name printed on them, and it was an emotionally charged evening. It was perhaps written in the stars that they would win, and they duly attained a 2-0 victory, appearing to be much the stronger side and claimed their first victory in that fitxure in four years.
It has not been all plain sailing for as águias this year though, and as the shadows of the vultures that are Europe's richest clubs loom over them, they will be forced to part with Nemanja Matic, who was in superlative form in this weekend's fixture. In the Champions League they were perhaps unlucky not to progress along with Paris Saint-Germain, beating the French champions in their final fixture, but had not done enough previously to go through.
That left them in the Europa League spot, and it will be a long run for them this season, which may have an impact on their title ambitions as their squad becomes a bit more stretched. The aforementioned Matic might be headed for Chelsea, but Lazar Markovic is a young player from whom they can expect big things, while Nicolás Gaitán is another talented Argentine who is on a few shopping lists, along with centre-back Ezequiel Garay. From the B team, they have a few young stars who could yet prove to be worth testing at the higher level, namely Argentine Rogelio Funes Mori and Ivan Cavaleiro, with the latter seeing some action this year already.
They sit atop the table by just two points, but the spectre of last season also looms large, when they lost a four point lead with three weeks to go in the league and were then defeated in the Europa League final in the last minute. It remains to be seen if they have learned from that, or will let it weigh them down.
Frank De Boer's name was in the headlines after Andre Villas Boas got the sack at White Hart Lane, but he chose to stay put and keep going with the project he has underway at Ajax. They sit atop the table (no surprise there) but only by virtue of goal difference, as Vitesse are running them very close.
Although they lost Chrisitan Eriksen (also to Spurs in the summer), attacking midfielder Davy Klaassen has gone some way to filling that void with seven goals so far this term in just seven starts.
Young Chelsea star Lucas Piazón is on loan at Vitesse, and is certainly playing his part in helping them mount a title challenge with 11 goals so far. Kelvin Leerdam is also having a fantastic season there too from right back (although he also plays in defensive midfield sometimes) and has scored seven to help bolster the attack.
PSV are disappointingly off the pace, but a big game is approaching as the league resumes this weekend, with leaders Ajax hosting the side from Eindhoven in what will be a real test for both teams. Phillip Cocu, manager of PSV, has been looking at some reinforcements in this window, and Bryan Ruiz's name has been linked. His side ended their poor run of form with a 5-1 win over Utrecht and a victroy over ADO Den Haag before the break, so this weekend's clash is a must-watch to see if their up turn in fortunes continues.
Didier Drogba and Wesley Senijder settled on playing their football for Galatasaray, and have lit up the Türk Telekom Arena with some dazzling displays. Sneijder in particular has been of importance and helped to qualify his side for the next round of the Champions League with a vital goal that will help to pay his not inconsiderable wages this season against Juventus.
Dirk Kuyt left Liverpool last year to join up with Fenerbahce and former team mate Raul Meireles, and they were both involved in one of the most exciting games of the season so far when they met rivals Besiktas in a game that ended 3-3.
Both sides are battling it out at the top of the table, although Fener have the advantage at the moment, with an eight point lead over Mancini's men. His side lost the derby back in November, and he will be keen to get a win when the two sides meet again in week 28 of the season. He is also confident of a few more reinforcements to his squad this window (we know he likes to spend money) to help them challenge for the league, while they also have a tasty Champions League fixture lined up against Chelsea.
Burak Yilmaz hasn't reproduced his amazing goalscoring form of last year just yet, but he is the side's leading scorer ten goals so far. If he can hit his stride along with an in form Drogba, then there's no telling just how much this talented squad can achieve.
There were rumours that Ronaldinho would be on his way to Besiktas this January, but despite the money on offer he elected to stay in Brazil at Atlético Mineiro. We would have loved to see him back in Europe (technically, at least) but all the more reason to watch more South American football in 2014, as we're running out of time to appreciate one of the most skillful players to ever kick a ball.