The final to end all finals was meant to be the showpiece of this week’s column, but there is the small issue that it still hasn’t happened. The second-leg clash between River Plate and Boca Juniors in the Copa Libertadores was marred by ugly scenes in the build-up to the planned kick-off, and the fixture has had to be pushed back multiple times. Hopefully it will eventually be played, at least the week was not short on action without it.
Kicking things off on a bizarre note, Millwall’s game against Bolton was remarkable for having three different referees. The man initially down for the job had to pull out due to illness before a ball had even been kicked; a minor reshuffle saw one of the other matchday officials step up to the plate, leaving a Millwall fan to take over fourth-official duties. This is hardly commonplace but nonetheless not unheard of, but an injury to the stand-in ref turned a minor talking point into something of a farce. Perhaps the replacement had not warmed up with a full ninety minutes in the middle in mind – whatever the reason, barely half an hour had been played before he pulled up with a calf injury. He thus limped over to the sidelines to relieve the fan from his post as fourth official, and an assistant referee became the third man to attempt to officiate the fixture. This of course left a space for somebody to run the line: step up the Millwall fan! He was praised afterwards for an unbiased job in difficult circumstances, but it is frankly unbelievable that the situation even arose in the second tier of English football. Bolton nonetheless left The Den relatively happy, having ended a 6-hour goal drought on the way to a 1-1 draw.
Replacements have been the theme of the week in English football: Wycombe Wanderers got by with just the one ref in their match against Shrewsbury, but they did field their third goalkeeper in as many games. Two of these have been emergency signings, following a severe injury crisis in the position; Matt Ingram briefly returned to his old club from QPR last weekend and helped pick up an unlikely point away at Sunderland, but he was needed back at Loftus Road and therefore another new temporary loan had to be made. Gareth Ainsworth got on the phone – the same phone he used to message Adebayo Akinfenwa via WhatsApp and ultimately get him to sign for the club – and managed to procure a deal for David Stockdale. The Birmingham City stopper shipped two against Shrewsbury, including one to former Wycombe man Amadi-Holloway, but three goals for the Buckinghamshire side including two from ex-Shrewsbury players meant that Stockdale marked his debut with a win. Off the pitch, the Wanderers are leading the way in a theatre-style form of tiered seating designed to accommodate safe standing for those who want it without hindering the views of others.
It was a case of bad things coming in threes for Real Madrid, who simply could not compete with the standard set by Eibar in Santiago Solari’s first game as permanent manager. Eibar, who now sit just two points off Real in La Liga, were superior from start to finish: Escalante gave them the lead after sixteen minutes, before two more goals shortly after the restart shattered any hopes of a turnaround for the reigning champions of Europe. Things had looked to be improving under Solari’s temporary reign, but this will be a worrying reality check for the man tasked with one of the most demanding jobs in the game. Expectations do not come much higher, and sixth place in La Liga will certainly not be tolerated for long; things don’t get much easier with a midweek trip to AS Roma in the Champions League.
Bayern Munich are another big side having to stomach some humiliating results this season, and they dropped a shock two points this week at home to Fortuna Dusseldorf. Fortuna are second-from-bottom in the Bundesliga, and it looked as though Niko Kovac would guide his side to the routine win that everyone expected: Bayern were 2-0 up and cruising after twenty minutes courtesy of Süle and Müller. There were murmurs of discontent around the Allianz when Watford loanee Dodi Lukebakio pulled one back on the stroke of half time, but Müller scored again just before the hour mark to allay fears. Dusseldorf did not give in, however – Lukebakio was at it again in the 77th minute, and then three minutes into stoppage time he ran clear of the defence to poke home his third of the match. This was the first time anyone has ever scored a hat-trick past Manuel Neuer, and it leaves Bayern 9 points adrift of Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund.
There were no such problems for Liverpool this weekend, who took on Lukebakio’s parent club and came away 3-0 winners. Watford put in a pretty good performance at Vicarage Road, and Liverpool survived a disallowed goal and a penalty scare, but ultimately Klopp’s men had too much for the Hornets. Salah struck his sixth goal in just three appearances against this opponent, before a lovely Alexander-Arnold free kick and a Firmino header from close range compounded the misery for the home fans. However, although Liverpool supporters came away satisfied with the win, some of the optimism will have been extinguished when they checked the Manchester City score. Pep’s side went one better, beating West Ham 4-0 – this keeps them two points clear at the top. It was another vintage performance, but Guardiola said his side were ‘lucky’ to win – when your side can ‘fluke’ a 4- goal win, it can never be a good sign for the rest of the league. Liverpool are at least still hanging in there, but Chelsea began to drop away after a comprehensive 3-1 defeat at the hands of Spurs: Sarri’s unbeaten start to life at Stamford Bridge has finally come to an end.
Back in La Liga, Barcelona travelled to Atletico Madrid knowing that a defeat would see Simeone’s men leapfrog them into first place. A close-fought encounter looked to have been snatched by Atleti when Diego Costa struck in the 77 th minute, but the much-maligned Ousmane Dembele salvaged a point in the 90 th minute with a well-taken goal. This is his fourth directly result-changing contribution this season: reports continue to link him with a move away from Camp Nou, but perhaps some patience is in order with the young Frenchman. The draw was not enough to protect Barcelona’s position at the top, however: Sevilla overtook both Atletico and Barca with a 1-0 win over Valladolid on Sunday.
Thierry Henry will surely be touching Jamie Carragher’s leg in shock this week: he has finally won a game as Monaco manager, lifting the team’s points tally into double figures after fourteen games. An away trip to Caen ended in a 1-0 victory, with Radamel Falcao scoring the only goal. This in itself is a reminder that Monaco really have no business in 19th – Falcao has the talent to score against anybody on his day, and with other talents such as Youri Tielemans around him it is surely a matter of time before some semblance of normality is resumed in the Principality. In Paris, meanwhile, things are running as smoothly as ever: five games from the halfway mark in the season, PSG are still on maximum points. This equates to a 15-point gap over second-placed Lyon, a remarkable margin at this stage – Toulouse were the latest to be put to the sword, succumbing 1-0 despite the absence of Mbappe and Neymar through minor injuries. Fans will be hoping that they can recover from these knocks before the crucial Champions League game against Liverpool on Wednesday.