By Carlo Garganese
It was another exciting weekend of European football in the final matchday before most leagues retire for their Christmas breaks.
In England, Luis Suarez fired Liverpool to the top of the Premier League and Tim Sherwood temporarily stopped the rot at Spurs. In Italy, Juventus set a new Italian record for points gained in a calendar year as Inter defeated Milan in the big derby in the fashion capital.
PSG and Monaco both slipped up in France, as did Dortmund once again in Germany, while the big Spanish trio of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid all conceded two goals but won thrillers.
Below are a few key things we learned from the weekend action
|Spurs have managed Lamela terribly
Erik Lamela was one of Europe’s hottest properties when he arrived at White Hart Lane this summer, coming off a 2012-13 season where he had scored 15 Serie A goals and run riot against numerous Italian defences – most notably in home wins against AC Milan and Juventus.
But from the day Tottenham agreed to pay Roma €30 million, the wing-wizard has been managed appallingly. For starters, it is questionable whether the 21-year-old was even needed, considering the presence of fellow right-wingers Aaron Lennon and Andros Townsend. The England internationals had already started a Premier League game each this term, both victories, before Lamela even arrived on August 30.
Although Franco Baldini was the mastermind behind the transfer and Lamela naturally suffered settling into a new country and environment, Andre Villas-Boas did his very best to make life difficult for Lamela by offering him just two Premier League starts prior to the Portuguese’s sacking last week. The first of these - almost three months after he had joined - was, suicidally, in an away trip to free-scoring Manchester City. With no match-fitness, to be handed your full debut at Eastlands was only ever going to end in disaster. Especially as Lamela was fielded out of position on the left wing.
Villas-Boas’ current replacement Tim Sherwood has used a 4-4-2 system in his two games in charge, the second of which Lamela started in Sunday’s 3-2 Premier League victory at Southampton. Despite the win, the ex-River Plate wonderkid endured another miserable afternoon and was subbed after an hour – losing possession time and again with inaccurate passes, loose control and nervous dribbles.
Such a negative performance should also have come as no surprise, as Lamela is completely unsuitable to a 4-4-2. He doesn’t have the defensive or physical characteristics for this formation. The Argentine needs to play wide right in a 4-3-3, as he did for Roma. He has to start high up the pitch, close to the penalty area, so he can utilise his faints, skills and slow-slow-quick manoeuvres. In this system, once he has rediscovered his rhythm, he will be a star for Spurs.
Tottenham should have known all this when they signed Lamela. Caretaker Roma coach Aurelio Andreazzoli tested Lamela in a four-man midfield last season and immediately abandoned the experiment. If Spurs had no intention of playing a 4-3-3, they shouldn’t have bought the wideman. In time, once Lamela matures, he could potentially drop deeper into the centre or right of a 4-2-3-1. But not now. For those who are branding Lamela a flop or overrated, it is completely unfair to judge an unfit player who has been given only a handful of opportunities, all of them out of position.
|Falcao is not paying back his astronomical price tag
The 2013 Goal Transfer List revealed the extraordinary level of investment that Monaco made in signing Radamel Falcao from Atletico Madrid this summer. An extremely complicated deal – involving agencies and third party ownership – the total cost of the Colombian’s transfer, when taking into account all variables such as transfer fee, salary, signing-on fee, agent fees, taxes and additional payments, was a whopping €150.3m. Only Gareth Bale’s record-breaking move from Tottenham to Real Madrid was more expensive in 2013.
So far, Falcao has failed to pay Monaco back on this investment, although partially due to injuy. Nine Ligue 1 goals in 15 games is certainly not a bad yield, but two of these strikes were penalties and the 27-year-old’s general play has been largely disappointing. Falcao is an old-school penalty box poacher, but if his strike-rate doesn’t increase in the New Year then he needs to contribute much more to Monaco’s build-up than he currently is.
As it stands, the ex-River Plate man is set to end the season with comfortably his worst scoring ratio since arriving in Europe. Ligue 1 is far more competitive than it is often given credit for and Monaco only find themselves three points behind leaders PSG, with Lille a point further back, yet a player of Falcao’s quality was expected to take France by storm. It is no surprise that he is being so heavily linked with a transfer away from Monte Carlo in January.
Falcao owes it to himself to remain and demonstrate his professionalism, with so many critics accusing him of joining the nouveau-riche Principality outfit purely in order to bank his net salary of €70m over the course of his contract.
|Palacio one of Europe's most underrated strikers
Inter earned the bragging rights in Sunday’s Milan derby, and the hero at San Siro was undoubtedly Rodrigo Palacio. The Argentine flicked home a stunning back-heel from Fredy Guarin’s right-wing cross with just five minutes remaining to pile the misery on their crisis-hit neighbours.
Palacio has now scored 10 Serie A goals this season – an incredible achievement when you consider both the lack of individual quality in Inter’s squad and Walter Mazzarri’s safety-first approach. The former Napoli boss has mainly utilised a 3-5-1-1 formation, which relies heavily on defending deep and then countering at pace. As was the case for large spells of the Derby della Madonnina, Palacio has spent many games painfully isolated in attack. So isolated that former Interista Christian Vieri fittingly described the 31-year-old as “playing alone in the desert”.
Yet Palacio is still the third top-scorer in Serie A behind 14-goal Giuseppe Rossi and Carlos Tevez, and none of the Argentine’s strikes have been from the penalty spot. This season, in Europe’s five major leagues of England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, only Luis Suarez (19), Diego Costa (15), Sergio Aguero (13), Cristiano Ronaldo (13), Antoine Griezmann (11) and Javi Guerra (11) have scored more league goals that weren’t penalties. The likes of Lionel Messi, Radamel Falcao and Robert Lewandowski all have less.
Right foot, left foot, in the air, Palacio is one of Europe’s deadliest finishers. His link-play and movement off the ball is of the highest order. He works tirelessly in defensive phases and tactically can interpret numerous systems – excelling in a one, two or three-man frontline.
At the age of 31, and with Inter unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League, it is a shame that Palacio will possibly never grace Europe’s premier competition – at least at his peak. He will, however, be an outstanding deputy for Argentina’s attack of Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Messi at next summer’s World Cup.
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