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7 Points in 7 Days – Rodgers’ Old Firm Record Extended

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This was the last week of domestic football in the top flights before the first international fixtures of the season, and those involved certainly squeezed in the action before the break. Upsets in Spain, pantomime in France and late drama in England all made for an eventful seven days. Add to that the draws for the Champions League and Europa League group stages, and there is plenty to dissect.

 

Heroic Huesca

Prior to the start of the 2018/19 season, most football fans had probably never even heard of Huesca. After all, the club only reached the second tier of Spanish football for the first time in the mid-2000s; as recently as 2015 Huesca, who play in a 5000-capacity stadium, occupied the division below the Segunda. However, remarkably, the team achieved promotion to the top flight in the last campaign – the start they have made to life in La Liga has been nothing short of astounding. An opening day win against Eibar shocked fans and pundits alike, and at the start of this week they extended the unbeaten run for a little longer in dramatic fashion against Athletic Club. With the score at 2-1 late on, Ezequiel Avila produced a sublime volley on the turn that flew into the top corner.

The honeymoon period looked set to go on even longer when Huesca took the lead against Barcelona on Sunday, but they were eventually brought crashing down to earth in an 8-2 thrashing. Nonetheless, the minnows can be very satisfied with their positive start to life in the top tier.

 

Atletico Toppled

Celta Vigo are a somewhat more established name in the Spanish game, but they were nonetheless undoubtedly punching above their weight when they outclassed Atletico Madrid on the way to a 2-0 home victory. Goals courtesy of Maxi Gomez and Iago Aspas were no more than the Galician outfit deserved – their unbeaten run now stretches to three games. The team sit on seven points, enough for third in the table; for a brief period after the win, Celta were able to enjoy top spot! Their ambitions for the end of the season may not be quite so lofty, but fans have been given ample early reason to believe that their side can at least mount a realistic challenge for European qualification. From the neutral perspective, it can only be a good thing to see such positive football from unlikely sources: it promises to be an intriguing season in La Liga.

 

Champions League Draw

While various minnows impressed, the European elite learned their fates in the group stage draw of the continent’s most prestigious competition. English sides largely came off badly – Liverpool will be particularly aggrieved to find themselves alongside both Napoli and PSG, although their run to last year’s final will undoubtedly give them confidence that they can escape the group. Spurs will have to overcome the likes of Barcelona and Inter Milan if they want to advance, while Manchester United face a daunting trip to Juventus as well as a potentially tricky test against Valencia. Only Manchester City can consider themselves lucky: Pep Guardiola’s side should have little trouble navigating a group that on paper looks relatively straightforward. Outside of the English interest, the most competitive group looks to be Group A. Atletico Madrid will have to be significantly better than they were against Celta to overcome Monaco and Borussia Dortmund.

 

Cry-Baby

Liverpool supporters who were keeping an eye on their upcoming opponents over the weekend may well have learned a valuable lesson: do not provoke Neymar. The Nimes fans taunted the Brazilian with a banner that read ‘chorona’, which roughly translates to ‘cry-baby’. Neymar promptly responded by opening the scoring, rushing over to the fans and theatrically miming tears in front of the banner – not a bad way to silence the critics. Angel Di Maria was also on fine form in an eventful match; he scored PSG’s second directly from a corner, whipping the ball in ferociously at the near post after spotting the keeper’s suspect positioning. Nimes fought back to 2-2, but in the end the French giants ran out 4-2 winners despite a late Mbappe red card following an angry reaction to a tackle. They sit top of Ligue 1 with a perfect record after four games.

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Europa League Groups Decided

Those taking part in the Europa League also learned their groups this week. The draw included Rangers, thanks to a spirited draw in the playoff second leg against Ufa that was achieved despite being reduced to nine men for almost half an hour. Villareal, Rapid Wien and Spartak Moscow will prove stiff opposition, but if anybody can inspire European heroics then it is surely Steven Gerrard. Brendan Rodgers is less known for success in Europe, so he will be discouraged to find himself in a tough group with Rosenborg, Red Bull Salzburg and Red Bull Leipzig. Some have raised questions over the legitimacy of a group featuring both Red Bull outfits, but UEFA are convinced that there is sufficient separation at boardroom level to allow them to compete fairly – they have clearly been presented with a more persuasive case than Leipzig’s brazen declaration that the ‘RB’ in their name stands for RassenBallsport…

There is further British representation in the competition in the form of Arsenal and Chelsea. The Blues should progress but will not be enamoured by the prospect of repeated trips east, while Arsenal will have to vie for top spot in their group with Sporting Lisbon.

 

Old Firm

Rangers may have got the better of the draw, but it was Celtic that triumphed when the two sides met in the hotly-anticipated Old Firm. This historic fixture has been hugely one-sided of late, but there was some optimism around Ibrox that Gerrard could maintain his unbeaten start to life at the club and come away from Celtic Park with a result. In the end, though, Gerrard’s former manager got the better of him – Celtic prevailed, winning 1-0 courtesy of a goal from Ntcham and extending Rodgers’ unbeaten run in the fixture to 12 games. Gerrard was unhappy that a free kick was not awarded in the build-up to the goal, but in truth Celtic looked superior from start to finish; there is still plenty of work to be done if their vicelike grip on the Scottish game is to be broken.

 

West Ham Woes

Nowhere is there more work to be done than at West Ham. The club has been in a perpetual state of near-crisis since its controversial move to the Olympic Stadium, and the once-charming pre-match bubbles now seem to be indicative of things about to boil over. Despite a summer of big spending, both on new players and on the appointment of seasoned coach Manuel Pellegrini, the Hammers have yet to accrue a single point in 2018/19. This unhappy record looked set to come to an end against Wolves until a 93rd minute Adama Traore strike broke the hearts of fans. Pressure on Pellegrini is already beginning to mount; it looks as though he will survive longer than De Boer managed at Palace last season, but if things do not turn around soon he could be in for a similarly brief spell. The worry for supporters is that the problems might run far deeper than the manager.

 

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