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European soccer news: Leverkusen’s fairytale, all eyes on Toney

There might be a winter break in the English Premier League with games stretched across weekends, but there are still plenty of talking points happening in Serie A, LaLiga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and more.

On Saturday, we saw Bayer Leverkusen’s fairytale season continue with a stoppage-time winner against RB Leipzig, Ivan Toney return to action for Brentford, and Arsenal edge Everton in the Women’s Super League. Meanwhile in Italy, Daniele De Rossi secured his first victory as manager of Roma after José Mourinho was sacked by the club earlier this week. Can the club legend turn things around in the second half of the campaign?

Here’s what you missed in European soccer on Saturday.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

SATURDAY REVIEW

The lead: Leverkusen keep unbeaten streak alive with another last-minute win

Bayer Leverkusen are seemingly making a habit of scoring last-minute winners. The Bundesliga leaders and fourth-placed RB Leipzig clashed in an exciting back-and-forth game on Saturday which saw Leverkusen snatch a precious 3-2 win thanks to a Piero Hincapié goal in stoppage time.

Leipzig made an explosive start, with strikers Loïs Openda and Benjamin Sesko both running at Leverkusen’s back three time and time again. The returning Dani Olmo and Xavi Simons provided the necessary creativity and were both involved in the early go-ahead goal, as Simons juggled the ball inside the box and slotted home left-footed past Lukas Hradecky.

While Leverkusen were attempting to control the ball and advance down the field methodically, as they have done in so many games previously, they faced the constant threat of conceding another goal through a Leipzig counterattack, with Openda and Sesko usually lurking tight to the offside line.

Bayer experienced another setback at the half-hour mark when wing-back Jeremie Frimpong suffered a knee injury, prompting manager Xabi Alonso to make a substitution. Nathan Tella was brought on in his place. The 24-year-old Nigerian international arrived from Southampton during the summer for a transfer fee of €23m and had thus far not shown many convincing performances for Bayer. But it was Tella who finished a fast-paced sequence after the half-time break, beating David Raum at the back post to convert Alejandro Grimaldo’s cross for the equalizer.

In an unusual display of negligence, Leverkusen subsequently permitted Leipzig to regain the lead after an ill-advised decision to direct a corner kick toward the edge of the penalty area. Simons intercepted the ball, initiating a counterattack that resulted in Openda scoring the 2-1 shortly before the hour mark. At that stage of the game, it was evident that Leverkusen would need an iron will to keep their season-long unbeaten streak intact.

They not only did that but also took home three vital points by scoring two goals following corner kicks toward the back post. In both cases, Lukas Klostermann and Xaver Schlager were not in position to defend effectively against Jonathan Tah and Hincapié, respectively. With another win in the bag, Leverkusen are now seven points ahead of perennial champions Bayern Munich who host Werder Bremen on Sunday. — Constantin Eckner


Saturday talking points around the leagues

Ivan Toney scores on return

It took just 19 minutes for Ivan Toney to remind Brentford — and his possible suitors in the transfer market — what they’ve been missing by scoring in Saturday’s 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest. Toney’s first appearance in 266 days after serving a ban for admitting 232 breaches of the Football Association’s betting rules ended just as he imagined earlier in the day.

“I manifest things like this,” he said at full-time. “Before the game, before I left my house I thought ‘yeah, we’re winning today and I’m scoring’. And I made it happen, so it’s good.” Danilo had given Forest a third-minute lead with a brilliant strike before Toney lined up a free kick just outside the box which he expertly bent around the wall — after moving the ball a fraction to his right to improve the angle — to equalise.

Ben Mee put Brentford in front early in the second half before Chris Wood drew Forest level only for Neal Maupay to land the decisive blow at 68 minutes, swivelling superbly with one touch before firing a left-footed volley into the far corner.

But all eyes were on Toney, who has attracted interest from Arsenal and Chelsea this month although both clubs are so far deterred by Brentford’s valuation in excess of £80m. Toney has flirted with a move away in several interviews conducted while he was suspended and he showed little signs of rustiness in a typically combative display which helped Brentford win for the first time in six games.

Brentford boss Thomas Frank described Toney as “impressively good… he doesn’t feel the pressure. He’s still a human being, of course there were a little extra normal nerves, butterflies in the stomach but when they kick off, boom, he switches on and plays the football he loves.”

Toney added: “I’m grateful to be back playing with the lads. I missed it so much. The fans, everyone. Yeah, I’m back. I’m back.”

He certainly is. — James Olley

Arsenal claim win but questions remain

Things could have turned ugly in Borehamwood after the Gunners’ opening goal, the hosts smothering the Toffees from the first whistle and Caitlin Foord’s ninth-minute effort suggested a long afternoon for the travelling side.

Everton, to their credit, managed to pull themselves into a more cohesive shape and with their second foray into the Arsenal half, pounced on some static defending to pull themselves level through Katja Snoeijs. Yet all of their hard work was undone in first-half stoppage time when Beth Mead met Lia Walti’s neat cross with a thumping header to score the deciding goal in a 2-1 win.

Arsenal continued to show their ability to dominate the ball in the second half but by then Everton had found more resilience in their own shape and did well to stem the flow, with Courtney Brosnan once again starring between the sticks for the Toffees. Indeed, with Arsenal unable to put the game to bed, they left the door open for Everton’s (very) late flurry as the visitors amped the pressure, looking for a stoppage-time point.

The Gunners managed to hold out and claim the deserved three points to keep themselves in the title race, but, with Arsenal head and shoulders above Everton on paper, there will be more questions about why the win was far from comfortable. Jonas Eidevall has asked his squad to be more efficient with their chances, but again they fell into familiar patterns of struggle in breaking their opposition down once Everton had managed to locate their self-belief. — Sophie Lawson

Winning start for De Rossi and Roma in post-Mourinho era

We don’t know yet if Daniele De Rossi will become a great manager or not, but history will forever remember that he won his first game in charge of his beloved Roma. The former Giallorossi midfielder took over for José Mourinho after the latter’s sacking on Tuesday and got a wonderful reception from a packed Stadio Olimpico. And the Roma fans would have loved what they saw in the first half.

With a back four and a 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation, in contrast to Mourinho’s 3-5-2, De Rossi’s team played on the front foot and produced some good football. They scored two goals by Romelu Lukaku and Lorenzo Pellegrini and created more chances.

De Rossi promised attacking football and his team delivered. However, it was a different story after the break when Hellas Verona were the better team. Roma rode their luck when Milan Djuric missed a penalty after an hour and held firm to win 2-1 and come back into 5th place in the table.

After three games without a win in all competitions, Roma have the perfect start under their new manager. De Rossi will now have nine days to prepare until the team’s next Serie A game against Salernitana — who sit bottom of the table — on Jan. 29. Then Roma will be at home to strugglers Cagliari before a trip to Inter Milan. De Rossi has two winnable games on paper to make even more of an impact on his team. He will want to see more of their first-half football on Saturday than what they delivered in the final 45 minutes. — Julien Laurens

play

2:43

Why Roma decided to sack Jose Mourinho

Gab Marcotti dissects Roma’s decision to part ways with Jose Mourinho.


Americans abroad: Pulisic subbed off as Milan win; Turner struggles

AC Milan’s Christian Pulisic was subbed off in the 75th minute after managing just one blocked shot against a stubborn Udinese side. The Rossoneri came back to clinch a 3-2 victory through Noah Okafor’s goal in stoppage time, but 25-year-old Pulisic will want to add goals to his otherwise solid performance on the right wing in both defense and offense. The U.S. international has 11 goal contributions this season in 18 appearances, with his last goal coming on Dec. 30.

Elsewhere, is the USMNT facing a goalkeeper crisis? We dove into the team’s woes behind the sticks earlier this week, and on Saturday, Nottingham Forest’s Matt Turner showed why. The goalkeeper from New Jersey has conceded 26 goals in 16 matches in the Premier League this season, with only two clean sheets. Against Brentford, he conceded three goals including a free kick that required a better wall set-up. With a 70% save percentage, Turner will hope to improve his form as Forest hover over the relegation zone.


News of the day

  • Barcelona boss Xavi Hernandez has said he believes his team’s next two games will define their season. Barça, who are eight points behind league leaders Girona and seven points adrift of second-place Real Madrid, play at Real Betis on Sunday in LaLiga before travelling to Bilbao for Wednesday’s Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Athletic Club. “These next games will mark the season, but also if we have good results with Betis [in LaLiga] or Athletic [in the Copa],” Xavi said. He is confident despite being under pressure following Barça’s humbling 4-1 defeat against Real Madrid in the Spanish Super Cup final on Sunday and their unconvincing 3-1 triumph at third-tier side Unionistas de Salamanca on Thursday.

  • Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami started their preseason tour with a draw against the El Salvador national team. The Argentina star played in the first half alongside Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez, his new teammate for the upcoming MLS season. Inter Miami will play FC Dallas next Monday at the Cotton Bowl and then will travel to Saudi Arabia to face Al Hilal on Jan. 29 and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al Nassr on Feb. 2.

  • Cristiano Ronaldo said on Friday that the Saudi Pro League is better and more competitive than the French Ligue 1. Ronaldo, who joined Al Nassr after leaving Manchester United just over a year ago, was speaking at the Globe Soccer Awards after being honoured as the Best Goalscorer and Fans’ Favourite Player of the Year. “To be honest I think the Saudi League is not worse than French league,” said Ronaldo. “In Saudi now I think it’s more competitive. They can say whatever they want, it’s just my opinion and I played there one year so I know what I’m talking about. But I think right now we are better than [the] French league, we still improve.”


And finally on Saturday …

After making her first start for Arsenal in their home win over Everton, U.S. international Emily Fox who has previously spoken about her fondness for the English game, explained the timing behind her Women’s Super League move to ESPN.

“It was important to get some experience professionally first in America and then make that step over here. I feel like Lindsey [Horan] is a great example of someone who went to Lyon and has really enjoyed it and thrived there and for me, there are so many UNC players who’ve ended up at Arsenal and having that connection and seeing them doing good gave me inspiration to want to come here. But I’ve always wanted to do it.”

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