Why always Mario? What we learned in Europe this weekend

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The Italian striker was back in the thick of the action in Ligue 1 on Sunday, while there is a Jurgen Klopp-like revolution taking place in England’s second tier

Surprise table-toppers OGC Nice have attracted numerous curious observers so far this season thanks to the presence of a certain Italian No. 9 on France’s south coast and he again provided compelling viewing on Sunday.

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Mario Balotelli scored his fifth Ligue 1 goal of the season – and a special goal at that – against Lorient to move Nice back top of the French top flight. Not only did Balotelli provide the fireworks with an 86th-minute winner but he was also at the centre of things in injury time, earning a red card following a clash with Lorient defender Steven Moreira.

Referee Olivier Thual spotted something that no one else did when he judged that Balotelli moved his head towards Moreira’s and thus received his marching orders. In typical Balotelli fashion, he was given a first booking for removing his shirt after celebrating his goal. Balotelli did not deserve to be sent off and his dismissal is in no way representative of any kind of petty, immature behaviour.

Balotelli has got his head down in Nice, a club he likens to a family according to one source, and is concentrating only on getting his best form back.

That he was overlooked for Giampiero Ventura’s Italy squad was not a surprise to the player himself but the Azzurri coach is still banking on the likes of Eder and Graziano Pelle.

It’s one step at a time for Balotelli – who is on the road to redemption on the French Riviera. 


SOMETHING SPECIAL HAPPENING AT… HUDDERSFIELD


David Wagner – once a Dortmund II coach alongside Jurgen Klopp – is now doing extraordinary things at English Championship side Huddersfield Town.

The West Yorkshire side have never played in the Premier League but are sitting pretty in top spot following the weekend’s 1-0 win away at Ipswich Town.

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That might not sound like a big deal but that fairly mundane statistic masks the impressiveness of Huddersfield’s achievements thus far.

They lead the way from Norwich City and Newcastle United and Wagner even masterminded a victory against the Toon Army on their own patch earlier in the season.

His high-octane, hyper-intensive approach is winning many admirers across the league and it is no surprise that the German-American has been linked with higher-profile posts at Derby County and Aston Villa.

It would be a disappointment if Wagner – a great friend of Klopp – moved on without completing the season at Huddersfield because under his guidance they could well upset the odds to make the Premier League.

Whether or not they can keep up this level of performance over the course of a gruelling 46-game season – with no winter break – is an intriguing story line to keep an eye on this season.


WITSEL AND GIULIANO FIRE ZENIT TO GLORY


There wasn’t a better game anywhere in Europe at the weekend than the top of the table clash which took place in St Petersburg between Zenit and Spartak Moscow on Sunday.

Spartak – leaders of the Russian Premier League – stuttered in their previous game against Ufa meaning a win for Zenit would put them level on points at the top of the standings.

Led by Axel Witsel and the increasingly-prominent Brazil midfielder Giuliano, Zenit won 4-2 following a pulsating encounter – the Russian season’s first big six-pointer.

Twice Zenit led only to be pegged back by Spartak – on one occasion due to a scarcely-believable error from Zenit goalkeeper Yuri Lodygin – but Mircea Lucescu’s side carried the day.

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The man in the middle – Sergey Ivanov – was also in the thick of the action with much of the post-match analysis focused on the referee. He declined to whistle a Domenico Criscito foul on Quincy Promes – which would have led to a second yellow card for the Italian – and allowed play to develop instead. In that sequence, Zenit won a penalty which Giuliano scored for 3-2. He also neglected to award a penalty to Spartak which could easily have been given.

Much will be made of Ivanov’s officiating but that should not detract from what was a truly enjoyable, high-quality affair which proved Lucescu’s Zenit are ready to mount a title tilt.


SIMEONE’S PERFECT ATLETICO GO TOP


Real Madrid are struggling and the first whispers of discontent over the reign of Zinedine Zidane will soon be heard.

The Champions League holders could only manage a 1-1 draw against Eibar at Santiago Bernabeu with Zidane’s injury troubles seemingly mounting by the day.

James Rodriguez went down with a knock in the warm-up while French pair Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema both had to be substituted at half time.

They join Luka Modric (knee) and Casemiro (broken leg) on the sidelines, while Marcelo also missed the game with his own injury troubles. The international break could not come soon enough for Real, who have stuttered their way to three consecutive draws.

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Real are paying for an inattentive transfer market with the lack of depth beyond Zidane’s favoured XI now being exposed.

Contrast that pain to what is happening across town at the Vicente Calderon. Atletico Madrid are in imposing form having ironed out their early-season deficiencies which cost them two draws. Amazingly, Diego Simeone’s side have only conceded two goals in nine matches in all competitions and eased to top spot in La Liga before Barcelona’s game at Celta Vigo.

Antoine Griezmann may be incapable of scoring a penalty these days – he missed another one on Sunday against Valencia – but that did not stop Los Colchoneros registering yet another win.

Atletico are by far the best-organised elite team in Europe and possess devastating potential on the counter attack. They will take some stopping in the Spanish top flight this season.


SCHALKE AND EMBOLO SHAKE THE BLUES


Five games, five defeats – that’s how Schalke’s Bundesliga record read before Sunday’s vital clash against Borussia Monchengladbach.

New coach Markus Weinzierl – credited with terrific work at Augsburg – was in danger of losing his job before his reign truly began.

A squad enriched over the summer with some good young talents – among them Nabil Bentaleb and Breel Embolo – was under-performing and incoherent. Schalke and Weinzierl got just what they needed, though, by exploding into form with a 4-0 win against one of the most erratic teams in Germany.

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Eric-Maxim Chupo-Moting opened the scoring in the 52nd minute. That sparked a crazy six-minute spell in which Schalke raced into a three-goal lead.

Embolo opened his Bundesliga account with two goals on the day to give his new coach some breathing space at the start of the international break.

It’s been a topsy-turvy start to the Bundesliga season and this weekend delivered one curiosity. Neither Bayern Munich nor Borussia Dortmund won with the champions slipping to a draw against Koln and BVB losing to Bayer Leverkusen.

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