European Football Review

European Football Weekend Round-Up By Zach Lowy

The first day of Serie A after the October international break was full of jaw-dropping drama and excitement, with Spezia erasing Salernitana’s first-half lead and pulling off a 2-1 victory in a vital relegation six-pointer. The following match saw Inter manager Simone Inzaghi and Joaquín Correa return to their old stomping grounds, with the Nerazzurri taking the lead early via a penalty from Ivan Perišić. Lazio equalized in the 64th minute after Alessandro Bastoni handled the ball in the area, allowing Ciro Immobile to slot home from the penalty spot. 

Lazio Return to Winning Ways

Felipe Anderson put Immobile into a prime scoring position with a beautifully curved cross, and while the Lazio talisman failed to beat Samir Handanović, the Slovenian goalkeeper parried the ball into the path of Anderson who converted from close range. The go-ahead goal had originated from an Inter attack that had seen Lucas Leiva clatter into Federico Dimarco, leaving Inter undermanned. Inter, however, chose to continue to attack and after Pepe Reina saved Lautaro Martínez’s tepid effort, Reina rolled the ball to Sergej Milinković-Savić, who quickly found Anderson on the right flank. Denzel Dumfries, unamused that Lazio had played on whilst Dimarco was injured, stopped Anderson from celebrating and held him by the collar, resulting in a brawl between the two sides. The Biancocelesti sealed the victory as Milinković-Savić headed home from a free-kick from Luis Alberto to complete the remontada.

Leão Inspires Milan to Victory

To follow up a tense fixture between Inter and Lazio, Milan welcomed Hellas Verona to the San Siro. Gianluca Caprari put the visitors ahead in the 7th minute, with Antonín Barak doubling their lead from the spot to give Hellas Verona a 2-0 lead going into halftime. With Alexis Saelemaekers and Daniel Maldini coming off at the break for Samu Castillejo and Rade Krunić, it seemed that Stefano Pioli had thrown in the towel and was solely focusing on Tuesday’s visit to the Estádio do Dragão. For a team that had just lost star goalkeeper Mike Maignan for the rest of the year and Theo Hernandez and Brahim Díaz to COVID-19, giving up would have been a defensible decision.

Instead, the Rossoneri came roaring back in the second half thanks in large part to a superb performance from Rafael Leão, who wriggled past Ivan Ilić and delivered a pinpoint cross to Olivier Giroud for their first goal. Fresh off his debut for Portugal’s national team, Leão played a direct role in Milan’s equalizer, flicking a pass in between Nicolò Casale’s legs and into the path of Castillejo, who completed the one-two by receiving in the box and being hauled down by Davide Faraoni. Franck Kessié equalized from the spot, and within two minutes, Milan’s comeback was completed as Koray Günter deflected Castillejo’s tepid cross into the back of the net. It was a victory that likely would have been a draw last season, and another testament to the never-say-die, persistent confidence that Pioli has instilled in this squad, and an emotional result for everyone, not least Castillejo.

Castillejo Explains Milan Tears

Castillejo arrived from Villarreal in 2018 for €20 million but failed to make an impact under Gennaro Gattuso, Marco Giampaolo or Pioli and looked set for a summer departure this year, but failed to reach an agreement and remained in Italy. Despite being left off Milan’s Champions League squad and playing just one minute up until that point, Castillejo came off the bench, worked tirelessly to win the ball back and led the Rossoneri to a victory, before breaking down in tears after the final whistle.

“My tears say it all for the time I’ve been through and I’m going through,” said Castillejo. “I’m a guy who likes to leave his soul on the pitch. Yesterday my mom didn’t even want me and today I can cheer with the fans at my house.” Pioli, for his part, stated, “Samu is an example to follow. My decisions have obviously penalized him in this period, but he never stopped working, he is very much within the group and tonight he showed his quality.”

The 26-year-old Spanish winger’s contract expires in 2023 and there are reports that he has reached a verbal agreement to join Getafe in January. If that is the case, he will be hoping to replicate the example of Lucas Paquetà and enjoy a resurgence in his performances outside of Milan. After emerging as one of the most exciting talents in Brazil, Paquetà joined from Flamengo in January 2019 for a fee of €35 million, but like Castillejo, he was unable to convince in Serie A and ended up joining Lyon for €20 million on September 30, 2020.

Paquetà Praised by Teammates & Rivals

Over the following year, Paquetà has gone on to become an essential player for both Lyon and Brazil, picking up 10 goals and six assists and emerging as one of the finest players in Ligue 1 under Rudi Garcia. After scoring the sole goals in Brazil’s slim victories over Chile and Peru in the Copa América quarterfinals and semifinals, Paquetà has not only assumed the #10 shirt left by Memphis Depay following his departure to Barcelona, but became the team’s creative talisman under Peter Bosz.

Having started in each of Brazil’s three matches this month, it seemed unlikely that Paquetà would make the turnaround from their 4-1 victory over Uruguay in Manaus and their match against Monaco less than 48 hours later. However, with Lyon level 0-0 despite having the bulk of attacking opportunities, Bosz subbed on Paquetà for Rayan Cherki in the 67th minute, with the Brazilian receiving a standing ovation from the Groupama faithful.

Playing in a withdrawn role on the right flank, Paquetà quickly set up Lyon’s opening goal, receiving a pass in the half-spaces and then sliding a pass towards Léo Dubois, who was hacked down by Axel Disasi; Karl Toko-Ekambi promptly converted from the spot. Paquetá continued to terrorize Monaco’s left flank with his combination of speed, close control, acceleration and quick thinking, and he engineered the second goal with a beautiful no-look pass with the outside of his boot, playing the pass towards Emerson whose cross met the feet of Jason Denayer for a tap-in.

It was a performance that allowed Lyon to leapfrog Monaco in the standings and prompted praise from Paquetà’s teammates and rivals. “We had difficulties before Paquetà came on, and he’s an excellent player,” remarked Monaco midfielder Youssouf Fofana. “With Depay gone, he’s asserted himself. Technically, he holds the ball and is skillful in front of goal and as a midfielder. He’s really exceptional.” Monaco manager Niko Kovač, on the other hand, stated, “”Paquetá is an extraordinary player. He is able to make a difference and change the direction of a match.”

Unable to showcase his skills in Italy, Lucas Paquetà is playing the finest football of his career at 24 years old and is well on his way to becoming one of the best midfielders in Europe. Whether playing as a false 9, a central midfielder, or a winger on either flank, Paquetà is thriving with the full confidence and support of Lyon’s manager and fanbase and has become unleashed as Lyon’s creative talisman and leader in attack in the post-Memphis Depay era.

Felipe Anderson is Thriving Under Sarri

After coming to blows with Lazio manager Simone Inzaghi and forcing a club record £36 million move to West Ham in 2018, Felipe Anderson excelled in his debut season in English football with nine Premier League assists under Manuel Pellegrini, but a long-term back injury saw him fall out of favor under new manager David Moyes. Anderson was loaned out to Porto, where he would make just five league appearances due to an icy relationship with Sérgio Conceição. Anderson ended up returning to Lazio for free with West Ham desperate to shed a high earner from the wage bill, and has since thrived in attack alongside Ciro Immobile for Maurizio Sarri’s Biancocelesti, who sit fifth in the Serie A table.

Ávila Scores First Goal Since January 2020

Another South American player who has seen his career take various 180-degree shifts in recent years is Ezequiel ‘Chimy’ Ávila. Growing up in a poor, dangerous neighbourhood of Rosario called Empalme Graneros, Ávila stated: “I come from a family that sacrificed a lot. I had two paths: the darkness that diverts boys from the right path and carries them to crime and drugs or work hard to become what I am. There’s a lot of kids in the path due to poverty, lack of parental involvement and other factors that make kids have no other choice but to end up doing drugs or crime. I’ve many friends that died or were killed by the police or arrested because they didn’t have any other path.”

Chimy grew up with 8 siblings, but when his parents separated, his mother became “the warrior of the house.” With no bike or method of transportation, Chimy used to ride a horse his grandmother gifted his little brother into training at Tiro Federal, and then practice barefoot. He got the chance to play at Espanyol when he was 17, but he returned home after just 6 months. But in 2013, his career was put at a standstill. In February, he was arrested for trying to rob the club’s headquarters, when it was noticed that they were missing kits and equipment. Due to judicial proceedings, his career was put on hold for 2 years. 

He tried his luck in MLS, but he returned from Seattle to Argentina after 3 months. The reason? A cut above his ankle, which necessitated 14 stitches. San Lorenzo gave him a second chance, his first major break. He had quit football at times to become a construction worker, but his mother didn’t let him give it up completely. But there were other problems. Chimy’s daughter was born with a life-threatening disease. It seemed she was certain to die, but after praying with his wife nonstop, there came a day where she was miraculously cured. “It was a miracle.” Chimy credits San Lorenzo with being the first club to rescue his career and give him a chance to revive his dreams. “They bet on me when I was coming from the bottom of the sea.”

However, due to his struggle for consistent game-time, he left for Spain again after his ex-teammate Leo Franco, then manager of Huesca offered him a chance to play for them as they attempted to ascend to La Liga for the first time in their history. It wasn’t easy to convince his wife to join him in Spain. She has a phobia of flying, so the doctors gave her a pill, and she flew from Argentina to Spain “practically doped” with her two daughters. After quitting football and working construction to pay his daughter’s medical bills, Chimy chipped in 7 goals, 3 assists, nonstop running and aggressive tackling to Huesca’s promotion effort, and miraculously, they reached La Liga under the watch of Leo Franco. Having reached hero status in the Huesca fanbase, the club extended his loan, but despite a late, valiant effort to remain in the top division, Chimy’s 10 goals weren’t enough to keep Huesca up and he joined another newly-promoted side in Osasuna for €2.7 million.

Nicknamed Chimy by his dad for being “as spicy as chimichurri,” the diminutive Argentine forward grabbed 9 goals and 3 assists in his first 20 league appearances for Osasuna but ruptured his left anterior cruciate ligament in a 2-0 victory against Levante and found himself sidelined for the rest of the season, as Osasuna comfortably stayed up in 10th place. When it looked like he would make a speedy recovery and be fit for the 2020/21 season open, Chimy ruptured his ACL again in September, only this time on his right knee. Ávila made his return on April 3 but was unable to provide a single goal or assist in 198 minutes of football during the entire campaign. The 27-year-old’s dry streak continued with Ávila picking up more bookings than goals and assists during his first 210 minutes in 2021/22, but finally came to a halt on Sunday.

Villarreal found themselves behind early on as Lucas Torró slotted in from close range, but the hosts evened things up in the second half via a well-struck volley from Gerard Moreno. Whilst Unai Emery pushed for a winner by subbing on Samuel Chukwueze, Moi Gómez and Paco Alcácer, Jagoba Arrasate elected to bring on Ávila for Kike García in the 82nd minute, who capitalized on an amateur back pass from Aïssa Mandi and scored his first goal since January 5, 2020. Whilst the Europa League winners end the weekend in 11th place with 11 points in 8 games, Osasuna end it in 5th place with 17 in 9 — level on points with Atlético Madrid, Sevilla and Real Madrid, and three points behind league leaders Real Sociedad.

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