As September turns into October and the domestic seasons stretches on, bad runs of form begin to become crises and good strings of results start to form the foundations of title challenges. The last week in football has seen misery piled on for some of the big names – Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid fans have all been given cause for concern.
An irresistible Carabao Cup draw saw Frank Lampard come up against his former manager Jose Mourinho. Lampard’s Derby travelled to Old Trafford in hope more than expectation, and an upset did not look on the cards when Juan Mata swept the ball in after a clinical break within five minutes. The Rams levelled, however, with half an hour to play: Liverpool loanee Harry Wilson scored a stunning long-range free kick that left Sergio Romero stranded. Wilson raised five fingers to the United fans in celebration, delighting supporters of his parent club with what they perceived as a reference to Liverpool’s number of Champions League triumphs. Romero’s day went from bad to worse when he saw red just minutes later – Wilson timed his run to perfection to get in behind the defence, and the Argentinian stopper could only prevent a goal by handling the ball outside his area. He was duly sent off. Derby pressed their advantage, and Marriott looked to have checked Mourinho out of the cup early when he scored in the 85th minute. Fellaini conjured up a late equaliser with 95 minutes on the clock, but after a marathon penalty shootout Derby prevailed regardless. Phil Jones missed the crucial kick after fifteen penalties had been converted. United’s misery was compounded at the weekend with a 3-1 defeat to West Ham.
Barcelona endured a similarly torrid seven days. They were defeated in midweek by bottom- of-the-table Leganes – few would have predicted that it would be this fixture that brought an end to the Catalans’ unbeaten start to the season. Coutinho had put Ernesto Valverde’s team in front rapidly, but a two-minute double salvo early in the second half saw Leganes run out 2-1 winners. Nabil El Zhar, the scorer of the equaliser, will be a familiar name to Premier League fans: he made 21 league appearances for Liverpool between 2006 and 2011. Barcelona looked to bounce back from the loss when they hosted Athletic Bilbao at the weekend, but for much of the match it seemed as if they were heading for another defeat. There was no response to Oscar de Marcos’ first half strike for the visitors until the 84th minute, when Munir managed to equalise. Nonetheless, coupled with last week’s draw against Girona, this has not been a happy few games for the Spanish champions.
Barca’s perpetual rivals were unable to capitalise on this mini-collapse. Real Madrid knew that a win against Sevilla would put them top of the league following Barcelona’s loss, but instead they found themselves on the end of a 3-0 thrashing. Andre Silva scored twice in the first 22 minutes to give Los Blancos an uphill battle, and they were simply not up to the task – Wissam Ben Yedder scored a third before the break to all but secure the win for Sevilla. Real had 60% possession and amassed 21 shots, but could not find a way past Tomas Vaclik. Julen Lopetegui’s men then faced a tough challenge at the weekend in the Madrid derby. A win would have restored much-needed momentum, and also provided another chance to go top of the table. However, the match ended in stalemate: Thibaut Courtois was the less busy of the goalkeepers as he faced his former club, but ultimately neither side could muster a goal.
Another of Courtois’ former teams was in action repeatedly last week, as Chelsea faced Liverpool twice in the space of seven days. Klopp’s 100% record this season was always going to face a test against the Blues, and sure enough the fixtures proved difficult. The first of the meetings, a Carabao Cup clash, saw Liverpool throw away a lead to lose 2-1. Sturridge had given the hosts the advantage through an inventive overhead kick, but two late strikes from Emerson and Hazard turned things around and ensured it was Chelsea who progressed to the fourth round. The competition has thrown up another great draw; Lampard will take his Derby County side to the club at which he became a legend. He will have to devise a plan to try and cope with Eden Hazard; the Belgian terrorised the Liverpool back line again when the sides met at Stamford Bridge in the league, and he opened the scoring with a powerful finish across the goalkeeper. It looked as though the Reds were heading for a second loss to Chelsea in a week, but Sturridge was introduced with five minutes to play and produced a piece of sheer inspiration against his former club. He collected the ball 30 yards from goal before whipping it into the top-right, curling it delightfully beyond the reach of Kepa. The renaissance of the English striker will force both Klopp and Gareth Southgate to sit up and take notice when it comes to their selections.
Sturridge has been persistently linked with French champions PSG in the last few windows, but they seem to be doing fine without him. Thomas Tuchel’s side made it eight league wins out of eight when they took on Nice; Neymar scored a brace on the way to a routine 3-0 victory. This followed a similarly comfortable 4-1 triumph over Stade de Reims in midweek, in which Cavani struck twice. All this leaves the Paris side eight points clear at the top already – it looks as though the league title will once again be a formality. The real challenge comes from the Champions League; PSG will look to bounce back from their opening defeat to Liverpool when they host Red Star Belgrade on Wednesday.
Massimiliano Allegri’s Juventus have enjoyed a similarly comfortable start to the league campaign. They took on closest challengers Napoli at the weekend; Dries Mertens put the visitors in front after ten minutes, but the Old Lady came back strongly. Mandzukic struck twice to overturn the deficit and put Juventus in front – Mario Rui then saw red, which extinguished any real hopes of Napoli clawing back a result. Leonardo Bonucci wrapped things up in the 76th minute. The gap between the two sides, which occupy first and second respectively, has stretched to six points. Ronaldo may not yet be netting with the regularity many expected, but Juventus are not suffering as a result.
Marcelo Bielsa took his Leeds United side to Hillsborough hoping to hold on to his lead at the top of the Championship. United have been the early pace-setters under his tutelage, but no amount of rigorous training could prepare them for Sheffield Wednesday’s opening goal. Only last week I declared that nothing would come close to challenging John McGinn’s wonder-strike for Aston Villa in the Championship Goal of the Season award; Wednesday’s Adam Reach is already forcing me to backtrack. The ball bounced high, and Reach struck an improbable dipping half-volley from all of 30 yards. It arced high through the air before coming down delightfully into the top-left-hand corner, where it went in via the post over a helpless goalkeeper. Leeds fought back but could only manage a draw despite Bielsa describing the performance as the best of the season. Klich’s equaliser was not enough to prevent West Brom leapfrogging them into top spot.