Barcelona coach Ernesto Valverde praised young substitute Riqui Puig for the maturity he showed in Barcelona’s 4-1 win over Leonesa in the Copa del Rey.
Puig made his senior debut coming off the bench in the second half as Barcelona eased into the next round with a 5-1 aggregate score.
Valverde hopes it will be the first of many games for the Nou Camp side.
“We’re happy with him,” Valverde said in his post-match press conference.
“This is the first step of a long career.
“He is a player who doesn’t hide and who always wants the ball, but you have to be patient with them.
“It was a game in which those with less minutes played. A mixture with players from the B team.
“The opposition didn’t give up even at 3-0 and the atmosphere was great in the stadium.”
Valverde confirmed Malcom, one of Barcelona’s goalscorers on the night, suffered an ankle injury.
The coach said the severity of the injury is unknown, but there is hope it is not a long-term injury.
“He has a sprain,” Valverde said.
“We don’t know how long he’s out for, but he walked off the pitch.
“We’ll have to wait until Thursday, but it’s the ankle that got injured in the summer so he’s a little scared.”
Domestic football in December started with two rollicking Premier League derbies as Arsenal stormed to victory over Tottenham and Liverpool stole it at the death against Everton.
But which heroes, celebrated and unsung, truly stood out in Europe’s top-five leagues? Find out below …
GK – Kepa (Chelsea)
Chelsea had been waiting for a signature game from Kepa – he did cost them €80 million after all – and the Spaniard supplied it in a 2-0 victory against a Claudio Ranieri-inspired Fulham.
Not only did he keep out Calum Chambers’ point-blank header, but completed 95 per cent of his passes (with 11 of 41 going long) as he helped relieve pressure time and again.
Lightning quick reactions from Kepa Arrizabalaga. pic.twitter.com/QKszWLOs81— 🇧🇪 (@FlicksLikeEden) December 2, 2018
RB – Ricardo Pereira (Leicester)
Leicester may not be competing at the EPL’s top table any more but they have certainly retained a knack for making shrewd moves. Pereira is turning into one of the league’s very best right-backs and delivered a Herculean display in the 2-0 win over Watford that saw him rack up four tackles, three interceptions and an incredible 15 clearances.
CB – Pablo Martinez (Strasbourg)
Winless in four Ligue 1 games, Strasbourg needed to right the ship and Martinez was only too happy to help skipper it. Such was his commitment to the cause he bled for it – taking a gash to the face in the process of winning a penalty, before he marked his first goal for the club with a deft chip in the 4-1 victory over Rennes. Not bad for a centre-back.
CB – Jordan Torunarigha (Hertha Berlin)
Another centre-half just as active in the opposition third as his own. The 21-year-old’s bullet header from a corner – beating two defenders to the ball – set Hertha away at Hannover.
In the second half he then showed off his skill with his feet, lashing in a left-footed cross at the by-line and giving Vedad Ibisevic the simplest of finishes. Goal, assist, clean sheet – that gains you an entry here.
LB – Alex Moreno (Rayo Vallecano)
Everywhere you look Moreno was on the stats sheet against Eibar in a marauding display that brought Rayo just their second victory of the La Liga season.
The left-back chipped in with eight tackles, more than in his four previous games combined, as well as eight clearances and five interceptions. But then to provide a wonderful near-post cross for Adri Embarba to score the winner … the Spaniard deserves the captain’s armband.
CM – Jasmin Kurtic (SPAL)
Kurtic both opened and closed the book on SPAL’s 2-2 draw with Empoli. The rangy Slovenian got proceedings off the mark with a header, and then kept grips on midfield despite team-mate Thiago Cionek’s sending off shortly after the interval, as SPAL threatened to collapse.
However, at 2-1 down, Kurtic used his head once again, directing a wonderful effort full of power and curve into the left-hand corner of the net. A crucial point saved as his side look to stave off the trap door.
CM – Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus)
The Uruguayan’s one-two with Paulo Dybala, before being helped out by Ronaldo’s arcing run, split open Fiorentina’s defence and he needed no second invitation to stroke home. It was only one highlight of a 3-0 victory over La Viola in which he both constantly kept and won possession.
Rodrigo Bentancur vs Fiorentina— FootballTalentScout (@FTalentScout) December 1, 2018
93% pass accuracy
2/2 accurate long balls
3 tackles won
2 blocked shots
2 aerials won
Constant progress. Growing more each game. What a player he can become. ⚪️⚫️ pic.twitter.com/y4zYvGTac6
CM – Oscar (Leganes)
Oscar is perhaps unlucky to be the only Leganes inclusion in this week’s edition, with Guido Carrillo firing a brace in a 4-2 win at Real Valladolid that saw them pull away from the relegation zone.
Oscar ultimately stood out for his assuredness in such a crucial game at the age of only 20. Along with three key passes – including an assist – the youngster reacted first to a deflection to plant home a diving header. Good news, Real Madrid fans – you’ve only let him go on loan.
RW – Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona)
It’s not quite time to ditch the ‘mercurial’ tag, but the hot-and-cold winger had moments of blistering form in an otherwise workmanlike Barcelona victory over struggling Villarreal. Even with Lionel Messi on the pitch most of the play went through Dembele, who took the second-most touches behind midfielder Ivan Rakitic.
The winger may never be refined but his electric dribbling and pace, setting up the opener for Gerard Pique, are very rare assets indeed. From unceremoniously dropped to cream of the crop in the space of a month.
When Ousmane Dembele's 🔥, he's very 🔥! pic.twitter.com/UPQ3Ldipv8— Sport360° (@Sport360) December 3, 2018
ST – Iago Aspas (Celta Vigo)
While doubles against basement clubs such as Huesca aren’t going to win anyone a Ballon d’Or, Iago Aspas continues to prove he is one of Europe’s best strikers – even when most people still aren’t paying attention.
His first was a tap-in but in contrast his second was nothing short of divine, haring from his own box on to a loose ball and flummoxing the last man with an audacious back heel around the corner. His finish wasn’t bad, either. That’s now 10 goals in 14 league games.
LW – Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (Arsenal)
Arsenal’s critics had pointed to the fact that despite their fine form under Unai Emery, they still hadn’t beaten anyone of note. How about winning a raucous north London derby?
Making the most noise at the Emirates was Aubameyang, who could not be caught all afternoon by a flat-footed Spurs. His penalty started the pandemonium but it was his first-time finish for the second that took the breath away. Just a striker? Not a bit of it – watch his gorgeous pass for Lucas Torreira that sealed the pulsating 4-2 win.
Gareth Southgate greeted England’s relatively kind Euro 2020 qualification draw in Dublin on Sunday by challenging his team to win the entire tournament.
Having won their Nations League group this autumn, England have already qualified for a Euro 2020 play-off but Southgate will be justifiably furious if that is required after they were drawn against the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo.
Ranked fifth in the world, England are 37 places higher than the Czechs, the next best team, and have never lost a game to any of the quartet.
“We’re favourites and that’s something we’ve got to start getting used to anyway,” Southgate said.
“We’re going to have high expectations over the next few years and adapting to that is probably key to our development as a team. Look, it’s up to us isn’t it?”
Having surprised most experts, and perhaps even himself, by taking England to the last four at the World Cup, the 48-year-old has since presided over a thrilling England win in Spain and revenge over Croatia, the team that ended the Three Lions’ run in Russia.
Those victories have taken England to another last-four situation – and another shot at winning only their second senior international title – at next summer’s Nations League finals in Portugal. There, they will be up against the hosts, the Netherlands and Switzerland, with a draw on Monday deciding the path to glory.
But an even bigger prize could be on offer a year later, when Wembley hosts seven of Euro 2020’s 50 games, including both semi-finals and the final.
“I think it can be a really exciting 18 months,” said Southgate. “We’ve got this coming summer to look forward to and then a big chance because we host and we have to make sure we are there.
“That could be an incredibly exciting two-year period from the World Cup right through and a great opportunity for our players.”
Of course, Southgate knows only too well that England have fallen short before, even on home soil, as he missed a penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final shootout against Germany, and he has also seen the Three Lions look timid in qualifying, including three times in recent stalemates with Montenegro.
But he believes the “competition for places” England have in their squad now will guard against complacency.
That is certainly what his group A rivals believe, with Kosovo manager Bernard Challandes calling England “one of the best teams in the world” and Montenegro coach Ljubisa Tumbakovic saying they “are the absolute favourites of the group”.
They believe they are effectively playing for the second qualification spot, a goal seemingly shared by the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in their groups, too.
Ireland’s hopes of achieving even that appeared remote for a moment during Sunday’s draw when they were the third ball out of the bowl of third seeds.
For a normal tournament, that would have put them in group C, with the Netherlands and Germany, who were lurking menacingly in pot two because of their recent struggles.
But with Euro 2020 spread between 12 cities in 11 countries, UEFA had limited each qualification group to just two ‘host nations’, meaning Ireland could not join group C, as Amsterdam, Dublin and Munich are all venues in two summers’ time.
That meant the room’s groans turned to relieved laughter when the draw computer reallocated Ireland to group D, only for Northern Ireland to take their place in group C seconds later.
“It’s probably the most difficult group,” admitted a dejected-looking Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill.
His Ireland counterpart Mick McCarthy joked about “magic fingers on the laptop” but quickly reminded everyone that the “collective sigh of relief” was “premature” when you consider his side must face the higher-ranked sides of Switzerland and Denmark, as well as Georgia and Gibraltar.
For Scotland, the challenge is Belgium, Russia, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino, while Wales face Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan.
Asked if this means his side are playing for second, Scotland boss Alex McLeish said: “Yes, that would be the normal thinking, but Belgium have got to come to Glasgow and they’ll hopefully get a tougher game than last time – we’ve improved since then.”
That was in September, when Belgium won 4-0, but McLeish is determined to qualify without having to come through a play-off.
“I’m confident in the group of players we’ve got – we’ve got a fighting chance,” he said.
Wales boss Ryan Giggs was pleased his side were drawn in one of the five groups of five teams but said they must “climb the mountain again” to reach only their second European Championship finals, having impressively made the last four in 2016.
“Croatia will go into it as favourites but for the rest of us it’s going to be really competitive and, with the long trip to Azerbaijan, it’s not going to be easy, but it never is,” he said.