12 Days of Football 2018: Six Games Amazing
Welcome to It's Round and It's White's second annual holiday bonanza. Over the 12 busiest days in English football, we're doling out presents in the form of a unique article each day on special events from 2018. There's nothing more special than a cracker of a match. On Day 6, Nacy Adams lists her top six. For those of you who are like little children eager to unwrap their gifts, here they are.
Spain v Portugal
The first game in Group B at the 2018 FIFA World Cup confirmed Russia18 would be special. If anything was wrong in this match, beyond David de Gea spilling Cristiano Ronaldo's shot into goal, it was that the match didn't occur later in the tournament, Its quality begged for a quarter or semifinal slot.
Ronaldo's hattrick was the major talking point although Diego Costa's brace and Nacho Monreal's volley deserved better treatment. It was arguably the best game of the World Cup for all football purist. Arguably the best game in the tournament from a purist's perspective, the 3-3 draw was a good result for both sides, who would each bow out in the Round of 16, Spain to hosts Russia, Portugal to Uruguay.
Real Madrid v Liverpool
A Champions League Final is naturally expected to make it into a game-of-the-year list. The 2018 version legitimately belongs, if for some illegitimate reasons.
Liverpool were gunning for their sixth European Cup after last reaching the final in 2007. Real Madrid were seeking their 13th crown and third in succession.
It was an end-to-end match. The Reds put everything on the line to win the match but goalkeeping proved their bane. Loris Karius made two unforgivable errors, giving the ball away to Karim Benzema in the box and mishandling a long-ranger twister from Gareth Bale. It later emerged the German had suffered a concussion from a cheeky Sergio Ramos elbow that went undetected during the run of play. Ramos also tangled with Mo Salah, bringing him down in a heap, separating the Egyptian's shoulder, forcing him from the game. All that and a brilliant bicycle kick from Gareth Bale added up to a 3-1 win for Los Merengues.
Following the match, Zinedine Zidane resigned as manager. Following the World Cup, Cristiano Ronaldo transferred to Juventus. A fourth consecutive final, fifth in six years, featuring Los Blancos doesn't seem on the cards for 2019.
France v Argentina
After Cristiano Ronaldo lit up the group stage, many expected this match to be the one in which Lionel Messi proved he is the greatest player to ever kick a football. And we're still waiting. Instead, the match showcased France's new generation of young talent.
That talent included full-back Benjamin Pavard, who delivered a crushing volley to bring Les Bleus level in the second half. It also featured the dazzling ability of Paul Pogba that Jose Mourinho subsequently attempted to keep under wraps in Manchester. Most importantly, however, it was the defining moment for Kylian Mbappe.
Following Pavard's equaliser, the 19-year-old Paris Saint-Germain star took over the match, doing what everyone anticipated from Messi. First, he plucked the ball out of traffic in the Argentine box, found space, and put a low dart beyond keeper Franco Armani, His scorching run onto the ball minutes later, followed by a clinical finish, completely turned the match on its head. Sergio Aguero scored in added time but it was too little too late.
Already breaking Pele and Maradona's records, the young Frenchman banished Messi to the past and claimed the future for himself. France won the game 4-3 and went on to hoist the trophy. Argentina went home. Jorge Sampaoli resigned as manager. Lionel Messi didn't announce his retirement but has yet to play for La Albiceleste since that match.
France v Croatia
The manner in which both teams reached it made Russia 2018's final one for the ages. France defeated Uruguay, Argentina and Belgium, all candidates to make the finals themselves. Croatia schooled Argentina in the group stage then knocked off hosts Russia and high-flying England to qualify for their second final.
France were heavily favoured but the World loves an underdog, as evidenced by Luka Modric sweeping the UEFA and FIFA player of the year honours in 2018. France's penalty to go ahead after Ivan Perisic had brought terms all square with a low bullet was controversial. Perisic had no chance to move his hand away from the ball. Slow motion made the contact appear intentional but real-time video suggested it wasn't. France added two more but the match was more evenly contested than the final line suggested.
In the end, Modric broke down in sobs and had to be consoled by his country's prime minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic.
Belgium v Brazil
In a tournament filled with them, this was another match that could have been a final but arrived early. The quarterfinal affair was a great match. Both sides demonstrated why they are considered football powerhouses.
Belgium edged the game 2-1 but it could have gone either way. Thiago Silva got his thigh on an early corner kick only for it to loop off the bar. Vincent Kompany knew little about the glancing contact he made with a Belgian corner but it then caromed off Manchester City teammate Fernandinho's elbow and past Selecao keeper Alisson Becker. Kevin de Bruyne kept the City connection engaged by striking from just outside the box on a counter attack.
Tite sent Rene Augusto into the fray and the sub promptly headed home. It was the only shot that would beat Thibaut Courtois, however. The former Chelsea keeper played far better than he has for Real Madrid this season, parrying away shots from Philippe Coutinho, Neymar and others to preserve Belgium's victory. In similar fashion, assistant manager Thierry Henry went from paradise to purgatory when he accepted the Monaco job shortly after the Ligue 1 season began.
Someone once said football is a funny old game. They weren't wrong.
Roma v Barcelona
After winning 4-1 at Nou Camp, Barcelona looked primed for a long-awaited return to the Champions League semifinals. The football gods had other ideas.
Lionel Messi couldn't seem to sort his right foot from his left. Manager Ernesto Valverde directed his team to sit back. Asking Barcelona to park the bus is akin to demanding Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage show a bit of dignity.
While Messi kept sending free kicks over the goal, Edin Dzeko chipped in Roma's first goal, Daniele de Rossi converted a penalty and, finally, Kostas Manolas flicked in the winner [on away goals] in the 823rd minute, making up for the own goal he scored in the first leg. Barcelona had capitulated in spectacular fashion. A dead rubber had turned into the liveliest of wires.
Liverpool gave Roma the opportunity to repeat the feat when the Reds conceded two away goals at Anfield in the semifinal's first leg. Eusebio de Francesco's troops couldn't repeat their heroics at the Olympic Stadium. Liverpool went on to suffer their own crushing defeat, as already documented.
This season is proving a different story so far. Unbeaten in the Premier League season's first half, the Reds have suddenly opened a six-point lead at the top over Tottenham while Manchester City have just as suddenly dropped six points in their last two matches to Crystal Palace and Leicester City. Andros Townsend's stunner in the first match may put that one on next year's list. Stay tuned.