PARIS: Lionel Messi is bang in form in the new year, Schalke avoided matching the Bundesliga record for the most consecutive games without a win and there was a very rare defeat for Bayern Munich.
AFP Sport rounds up some of the main talking points from across the continent:
Messi means business
Lionel Messi looks like a man on a mission at the start of 2021 and what could be his final six months as a Barcelona player. On Saturday he scored twice – including direct from a free-kick, one of his late-career specialities – in a 4-0 win at Granada. That followed a masterful double and two shots off the post in a 3-2 midweek victory at Athletic Bilbao.
Before that he provided the assist for Frenkie de Jong’s winner at Huesca, and Barcelona have won three out of three since the turn of the year, while Messi is now La Liga’s top scorer. Maybe it’s not too late for Ronald Koeman’s side to challenge for the title: they are third, four points behind leaders Atletico Madrid, albeit having played three games more.
New Hoppe for Schalke
Matthew Hoppe is the latest young American to break through in the Bundesliga and he is already a hero for Schalke supporters. The California-born 19-year-old, who made his debut in November, had never scored a senior goal before netting a hattrick – the first ever for an American in the Bundesliga – in the 4-0 defeat of Hoffenheim that rescued the Royal Blues from equalling an unwanted record.
Their first win since January 17 last year, after 30 games without, prevented them from matching Tasmania Berlin’s infamous German top-flight record of 31 games without a victory set in 1965/66. Hoppe has given hope to a whole club, and suddenly Schalke have new cause for optimism as they bid to beat the drop. They are off the bottom, above Mainz, but they remain in the relegation zone.
Title race alive as Bayern come unstuck
Bayern Munich had begun to look a little less irresistible on a run of eight straight Bundesliga matches in which they had conceded the opening goal. But they had won five and drawn three of those matches. Then on Friday they were 2-0 up away to Borussia Moenchengladbach only to lose 3-2, just their second Bundesliga defeat since losing at the same ground in December 2019.
It is a result that keeps the Bundesliga title race very much alive, although Hansi Flick’s team have a winnable run of matches upcoming and they remain top, two points clear of RB Leipzig, who lost 3-1 at home to Borussia Dortmund, for whom Erling Braut Haaland scored twice. Third-placed Bayer Leverkusen are four points off the top after drawing 1-1 with Werder Bremen.
Milan unfazed by Juve defeat
Three days after a 3-1 home loss to reigning champions Juventus which ended a 27-game unbeaten run in Serie A stretching back to June, AC Milan bounced back to beat Torino 2-0 at San Siro. With second-placed city rivals Inter drawing at Roma, Milan are now three points clear at the top of the table, and remain seven ahead of Juventus, who are fourth but do have a game in hand.
Added good news for Milan came with the return of veteran top scorer Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a late substitute for his first appearance since November 22 after injury. The Swede came on for Rafael Leao, who had earlier scored his third goal in five games. Can Zlatan now fire the Rossoneri to their first Scudetto since 2011?
Lyon lead way in France
Mauricio Pochettino got his first victory as coach of Paris Saint-Germain, a 3-0 defeat of Brest, but it is Lyon who lead halfway through the Ligue 1 season. They claimed the symbolic title of autumn champions after coming back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Rennes on Saturday with Memphis Depay scoring one fine goal before setting up Jason Denayer’s equaliser.
Rudi Garcia’s team are unbeaten in 16 games although both PSG and Lille are just a point behind, and there is a very long way to go. Ensuring Depay stays to see out the remainder of his contract rather than leaving this month will be crucial.