After the recent round of domestic cup matches across Europe, league soccer returns with exciting performances and surprise results happening in the Premier League, Serie A, LaLiga, Bundesliga and Ligue 1.
On Saturday, we saw Chelsea edge Fulham 1-0 after Cole Palmer put away a penalty while Manchester City delivered a 3-2 comeback victory against Newcastle United. Elsewhere, Bayer Leverkusen beat Augsburg to retain their hold at the top of the German league.
Meanwhile in the Women’s FA Cup, Aston Villa’s woes continued after suffering a 3-0 defeat to Everton. And finally, in Italy, Napoli won their first game since Dec. 16 and are a far cry from their title-winning heroics last season.
Here is your look back at yet another roller-coaster weekend in European football.
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The old adage is you need to win ugly in order to win championships. And league leaders Bayer Leverkusen snatched a last-gasp win at FC Augsburg on their return after the Bundesliga restart, retaining their four-point lead over perennial champions Bayern Munich.
Leverkusen had received a potentially crushing blow a few days before the resumption with the news that star striker Victor Boniface had suffered a serious adductor injury. Initially expected to be absent for only a few weeks to play at the Africa Cup of Nations, the Nigerian, who has scored 10 goals in 16 league games, will now likely remain on the sidelines until early April.
Manager Xabi Alonso opted for a two-man strikeforce with Czech internationals Patrik Schick and Adam Hložek, while Florian Wirtz remained on the bench until the 62nd minute because of a niggly injury. Following Bayern Munich’s comfortable 3-0 win against TSG Hoffenheim on Friday evening, Leverkusen aimed to replicate their success but struggled to find the net despite numerous chances. In the second half, a resolute FC Augsburg nearly capitalized on a break, but Augsburg captain Ermedin Demirović missed a crucial opportunity that could have handed Leverkusen their first defeat of the season.
Instead, in the fourth minute of added time, Alejandro Grimaldo found Exequiel Palacios in the box. Palacios, an uncommon presence in that area, capitalized on being unmarked, taking enough time to shift the ball onto his left foot and slot a precious winner past goalkeeper Finn Dahmen. The resounding cheers from the Leverkusen players echoed through Augsburg’s WWK Stadion. Alonso’s unwavering emphasis on his team’s need to perform at their peak to stay atop the Bundesliga table was unquestionably validated by their hard-fought victory in Augsburg. — Constantin Eckner
Chelsea secured their third consecutive Premier League victory on Saturday with an unconvincing 1-0 win over Fulham at Stamford Bridge. No prizes for guessing who made the difference. Cole Palmer’s stoppage-time penalty is his 18th goal involvement (11 goals, seven assists) in all competitions this season, the third-highest tally for a player 21 or younger across Europe’s top five leagues. Only Real Madrid’s Jude Bellingham (22) and Bayer Leverkusen’s Wirtz (20) have had a greater influence.
When Palmer misfires, as he did in midweek against Middlesbrough, Chelsea tend to struggle. Here, he was the brightest spark in another largely laborious display which ended with some frantic defending against a team that had not won at Chelsea since 1979. There will be some concern over how reliant the Blues currently are on a 21-year-old, but at the same time, he provides hope a team can yet emerge from Chelsea’s expensively-assembled parts.
The game was also notable for a bizarre PR stunt in which seven identically dressed men stood up at various times near the dugout to either read a book, clean their teeth or check their watches. It was all designed to help promote a film involving a company connected to Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly, who was in attendance to watch such strange activity taking place a few yards away from Pochettino. The Chelsea boss afterwards said he was aware of the incident but it didn’t detract from the performance. In fact, he wants an invite to the premiere. The lead actor will do well to replicate Palmer’s star quality. — James Olley
With 9 and 11 points in the Women’s Super League respectively, both Aston Villa and Everton welcomed the FA Cup as a much-needed distraction from poor league form, but for hosts Villa it was more of the same sub-standard football. As for the Toffees, who were buoyed with the morning announcements of a loan deal for Arsenal’s Katherine Kühl and the signing of Rikke Madsen, there were more reasons to be optimistic coming into the clash.
On the pitch, Villa faded early on, and Everton began to dictate the tie, although they had little to show for it come the deadlocked half-time whistle. After the break, the visitors managed to make their better play count and, just before the hour, Karoline Olesen gave them the lead with a hammered effort off the bar. A seven-minute brace from Katja Snoeijs wrapped up Everton’s progression into the fifth round with relative ease and will give Brian Sørensen’s team more to build on when the Women’s Super League recommences next weekend.
For Villa, it was more disappointment and underwhelming football from a team that rode so high last season and has not just failed to build this campaign, but also has regressed and routinely fallen into a disconnect on the pitch, raising questions about the suitability of its favoured but easily bypassed 4-3-3. — Sophie Lawson
The Italian champions have had a rotten season so far and for 95 minutes in the derby against Salernitana at the Diego Maradona Stadium, it looked likely it would continue to be a bad one for Napoli. And then out of nowhere Amir Rrahmani scored the winner deep in injury time to gift his team its first win in five matches!
They needed a victory so badly and the celebrations showed it. For now, they won’t worry that they were a goal down against the worst team in the league so far. They won’t mind that they are still playing pretty average football under Walter Mazzarri whose run before this win was one of the worst in the club’s history.
For now, it is all about Saturday’s result, which takes them to sixth place in the table for now before Sunday’s games. After the humiliation in the Italian Cup against Frosinone (4-0), the battering by Torino last weekend (3-0), Rrahmani is one of the rare sources of joy Napoli can smile about this season.
After four losses (Inter Milan, Juventus, Roma and Torino) and a draw (0-0 against Monza), this is only the Neapolitans’ second win in Serie A in their last seven matches! They will gladly take it considering they are without star striker Victor Osimhen who is at the African Cup of Nations. Let’s see if they can continue winning when they face Fiorentina in the Italian Super Cup on Thursday in Riyadh and then Lazio in the league on Jan. 28. — Julien Laurens
Both Folarin Balogun and Gio Reyna came on as substitutes for their respective sides this weekend, but without making an impact.
Balogun has scored four goals this season for AS Monaco in 15 appearances, an underwhelming sum compared to his 21-goal tally last season for Stade de Reims. The 22-year-old came on for Monaco in the 46th minute on Saturday, but was unable to make an impact as his side lost to Reims 3-1.
In the Bundesliga, Reyna has struggled for minutes this season at Dortmund and came on in the 88th minute, only to come away with a yellow card in his team’s 3-0 victory. Reyna is yet to score and assist this season, and a move elsewhere in the January transfer window could be his best option to get into top form before this summer’s Copa America.
Finally, Sergiño Dest continues to deliver for PSV, who sit 13 points ahead of second-place Feyenoord in the league, after assisting Luuk de Jong in a 3-1 win over Excelsior. Dest has been brilliant this season for PSV in defence, and has a goal and three assists in 19 appearances.
On loan from Manchester United, Jadon Sancho — on his second debut for Borussia Dortmund — made an assist in BVB’s 3-0 victory over Darmstadt 98. The 23-year-old spent four seasons in the Bundesliga from 2017 to 2021, and after announcing his return to the club with a nod to Michael Jordan, Sancho’s start is a happy one after a sour spell at Old Trafford and a public row with manager Erik ten Hag.
Wearing the No. 10 shirt, Sancho came on in the 55th minute before squaring a ball from the right flank for Marco Reus to tap in for the team’s second goal after 77 minutes. Will we see more of the Sancho from his prior stint at Dortmund?