Heaton back to haunt Man Utd and what we learned in Europe this week

The former Red Devils goalkeeper was the star at Old Trafford to frustrate Jose Mourinho, while Mario Balotelli and Robin van Persie were in lethal form elsewhere in Europe

Tom Heaton approached Sir Alex Ferguson at the end of the 2009-10 season after 13 years at Manchester United and told him that he wanted to leave at the end of his contract. He has previously spoken about Ferguson’s “heated” reaction when informed that Heaton, at the club since he was 11 years old, had decided to give in.

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Heaton had been in and around the first-team picture at Old Trafford without ever taking to the field for the seniors. He had to depart in order to fulfil his ambitions of becoming a Premier League goalkeeper and now he is well-established as Burnley’s No.1 – and a part of the England squad to boot.

He returned to Old Trafford on Saturday and haunted his old club in a defiant display from Burnley which earned them a point. Heaton made 11 saves on the day – a joint-season-high across Europe’s top five leagues – including one scarcely believable stop from a Zlatan Ibrahimovic volley in the second half. The goalkeeper leapt at the ball in the manner of Peter Schmeichel and admitted later that the shot nearly broke his arm.

At a time when United are throwing good money after bad in the transfer market, it was an important reminder that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.


NAGELSMANN DEFYING GRAVITY WITH HOFFENHEIM


Usually when talking about a 29-year-old exceeding expectations, we’d be in universal agreement that the man in question was a player. However, Julian Nagelsmann is the Hoffenheim coach and he has led his village team to third place in the Bundesliga – behind only Bayern Munich and Hoffe’s fellow upstarts, RB Leipzig.

Hoffenheim are unbeaten after nine matches, with five wins and four draws. Their latest victory came via a 1-0 win against Hertha at home this weekend – the team whom they leapfrogged into the third automatic Champions League place.

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It’s all the more remarkable considering that Hoffe lost last season’s best player, Kevin Volland, to Bayer Leverkusen over the summer. Nonetheless, Nagelsmann has hit the ground running this term – with Sandro Wagner having assumed the striking mantle up front – and his mix of pressing and a strong team ethic have seen Hoffe rocket up the Bundesliga table.

A defender who had his career ended by injury at the age of 20, Nagelsmann learned at the knee of Thomas Tuchel in Augsburg’s second team before striking out on his own at Hoffenheim. He was fast-tracked to the top job in February – a succession plan was already in place for him to take over from Huub Stevens in summer – but a heart condition meant that the Dutchman had to quit early.

Hoffenheim were well adrift of the relegation play-off at the time but Nagelsmann kept them up against all odds. Now he’s got his sights trained far higher than that while Bayern lie in store next week.


BALOTELLI’S BIG WEEKEND


Nice are now sensationally six points clear at the top of Ligue 1 after taking full advantage of Monaco’s slip-up against St Etienne on Saturday. A comprehensive 4-1 victory over Nantes on Sunday was enough for Lucien Favre’s side to extend their lead.

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Mario Balotelli had another good weekend – he was involved in two goals and scored one himself – again slaying the doubts which were levelled against him when he swapped Merseyside for the Cote d’Azur. Balotelli now has six goals in five Ligue 1 games to start his Nice career while strike partner Plea has seven in 11.

Nice remain unbeaten under their new Swiss coach and are impressing all comers with their storming of the table.

No one expected this from Nice after losing coach Claude Puel to Southampton as well as a host of first-team stars including Hatem Ben Arfa and Namplays Mendy. However, Favre has quickly forged a unit and made stars not only of Balotelli and Plea but also Vincent Koziello in central midfield.

Paris Saint-Germain will no doubt loom into focus as the season rolls on but, for now, Nice are enjoying their run to the full extent.


SPARTAK TASTE DERBY VICTORY


It’s going to take something pretty special to break Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow’s stranglehold on the Russian Premier League championship but the signs are encouraging for Massimo Carrera’s Spartak Moscow at this early stage.

It was Spartak who triumphed in the big Moscow derby against CSKA this weekend to solidify their place at the top of the table, with Zenit remaining level on points. Cape Verde striker Ze Luis netted twice in a 3-1 win during a game which had to be halted for five minutes as CSKA fans littered rival stands with fireworks.

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That will raise plenty of questions for organisers of the 2018 World Cup but the inquest will be for another day.

Spartak lost a crucial six-pointer against Zenit a few weeks ago but have now responded with three straight victories – including this one against Leonid Slutsky’s title contenders.

They are without a Russian title since 2001 – an eternity for a club of their stature – but look already to have the stomach for the fight this term.


VAN PERSIE AND FENER FINALLY HIT FORM


Robin van Persie was in the headlines in the UK two weeks ago when he returned to Old Trafford with Fenerbahce for a Europa League tie against former club Manchester United. He scored on the night – a consolation in a 4-1 defeat – and it was an embarrassment for player and club that simply had to be endured.

That’s the kind of season that it had been for Fener up to that point but the signs are that things are turning around.

Last Monday, they beat Konyaspor in the Turkish Super Lig and they followed that up with a demolition job on Karabukspor on Sunday. Van Persie netted twice to give him nine goals and four assists in his last 12 Super Lig games while fellow Dutchman Jeremain Lens was also on target.

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Fener had not won two consecutive league matches this season up to that point and blitzed their opponents with three goals in 342 seconds at the start of the second half.

Fener put city rivals Istanbul BB, Besiktas and Galatasaray at an immediate advantage, such was their poor start to the season, but Dick Advocaat’s side – now ably aided by Van Persie – are on the way back.

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