The 12 Days of Football: Six Games Amazing
On the sixth day of football/UEFA gave to me six games amazing
Welcome to the sixth chapter in It's Round & It's White's 12 Days of Football, in which we examine the past year in football, revel in the moment, and look ahead. This time out, we pressured Zaid Pathan to choose a half-dozen of 2017's best matches.
Football never ceases to amaze, does it? There is absolutely no shortage of it throughout the year, save on Christmas Day. So, you can imagine how difficult it is to select just ‘six games amazing’ from who knows how many. There is only so much time to take in matches. Maybe I didn't see one you think should be on this list. If so, go easy on me. Last I checked, I'm only human. I do need sleep.
Here, in reverse chronological order, are the six games I selected:
Bayern Munich 3-1 PSG (UEFA Champions League group stage, 5 December)
For the second time in a year, Paris Saint-Germain would lose the second leg against a legendary club after dominating the first. This time, it was just a group stage match, however, and they would have survived on aggregate were it not. Baby steps.
The Ligue 1 goliaths returned to their rampaging selves in the first half of 2017-18, after acquiring Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. The pair had strutted their stuff in a 3-0 win over Carlo Ancelotti's Bayern at the Parc des Princes. The result cost the Italian his job. So, it was up to Bayern to show their stature in the same fixture at Allianz Arena.
Returning from retirement, treble-winning manager Jupp Heynckes had restored the Bavarian side's lagging spirits. Die Rekordmeister had lost just once under his guidance leading into the match.
Even so, Heynckes had to be concerned about Unai Emery's attacking trio of Edinson Cavani, Neymar, and Mbappe. They had bossed the entire group 24-1 on aggregate in the first five matches. Similar to their March tie against Barcelona, les Parisiens would only cede the group if they lost by four or more goals to Bayern. The French club had lost their first domestic affair of the season four days earlier, however, falling to newly promoted Strasbourg. Was it a crack in the armour, or a timely wake-up call?
At one point, it appeared to be the former. Robert Lewandowski opened the scoring on eight minutes. Corentin Tolisso added another before the interval. Bayern were halfway to embarrassing Unai Emery again. Kylian Mbappe rescued his side five minutes after the restart, though, rendering Tolisso's second moot.
Winning the group may not have been the best thing for PSG, as it turns out. They've drawn two-time defending champion Real Madrid in the first knockout round.
Milan 2-2 Benevento (Serie A Round 15, 3 December)
Like PSG, AC Milan is going through its own rough period. For several seasons. A summer spending spree that included picking up Juventus centre half Leonardo Bonucci hadn't changed matters. Considering their woes, the Rossoneri were happy to see Serie A newcomers Benevento on the calendar. The Witches had yet to earn a single point, in 14 games, in Lega Calcio's top flight. With firebrand Genarro Gattusso taking charge for the first time with the Milanese side, surely, three points were there for the taking.
This is football. It sometimes works illogically, as Gattusso was about to learn. Giacomo Bonaventura’s goal put Milan ahead in the 38th minute. Then, five minutes into the second half, George Puscas, with a 'c', not a 'k', leveled. Milan weren't having it. Nikola Kalinic restored the lead seven minutes later.
Gattusso's side could sit on the lead or try to add to it. When defender Alessio Ramagnoli was sent off for a second yellow, Milan opted for the former. It was less than a minute of added time from escaping with all three points when the witching hour struck.
A sprinting Marco D’Alessandro was brought down by Ignazio Abate. Benevento had a free kick in good position. Keeper Alberto Brignoli rushed into the box. Danilo Cataldi lofted the ball into the box, where it found the lunging netminder's head. Wild celebration followed at Stadio Ciro Vigorito as Benevento snatched a draw from the jaws of the defeat.
A diving header from a goalkeeper in the last minute of stoppage time for a team which hadn’t earn a point yet. How does that feel? Just ask Alberto Brignoli.
Arsenal 1-3 Manchester United (Premier League Round 15, 2 December)
Easily the Premier League's best match to date in 2017-18. There was something special about this match. His name was David de Gea.
The Spaniard stopped 14 shots from an Arsenal side intent on getting back in the match after two early errors. Even when Jesse Lingard added a third goal on 67 minutes, Arsenal kept coming. When Paul Pogba stomped on Hector Bellerin, earning straight red and banishment from the upcoming Manchester Derby, it may have turned United's most stunning performance into the end of its title hopes. Yet, the Gunners still couldn't get breach De Gea.
Their keeper's heroics will long be remembered, but United fans will prefer to forget the rest. Better to revel in their side's clinical finishing than the fact their opponents bossed the game in every category but the one that mattered.
Borussia Dortmund 4-4 Schalke (Bundesliga round 13, 25 November)
But enough about goalkeepers! What about unbridled scoring? The 91st Revierderby certainly provided that.
Dortmund was going through a rough patch reminiscent of Jurgen Klopp's final season. Schalke was intent on staying close to a rejuvenated Bayern. To everyone’s surprise, BvB put their woes behind them, coming out guns blazing. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang opened the scoring in the 12th minute. then Benjamin Stambouli’s own goal doubled Dortmund’s advantage. Mario Goetze and Raphael Guerrero added two more five minutes apart. It was 4-0 inside 25 minutes.
Schalke coach Domenico Tedesco made a quick decision. He introduced Leon Goretzka and Amine Harit, stabilising the faltering Schalke midfield. Two goals in quick succession from Guido Burgstaller and Harit fifteen minutes after the restart sparked hope.
A rash challenge from Aubameyang on Harit invited more trouble for the home side. Their ace striker was sent off. Now Schalke were in the mood. The deficit was cut to just one when Daniel Caliguiri scored in the 83rd minute.
The equaliser came in stoppage time from an unlikely source. No, not another goalkeeper! Naldo, a defender, headed in the perfect cross from Yevhen Konoplayanka to improbably share the spoils.
Spurs vs Real Madrid (UEFA Champions League group stage, 1 November)
This might have been the most enticing group in the 2017-18 Champions League draw. Three sharks, one minnow. Real Madrid, Tottenham, BvB, and Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia
Real Madrid was favoured, and why not? With the best players at every position, unless you're going to take Harry Kane over Cristiano Ronaldo and Hugo Lloris over Keylor Navas, and back-to-back titles in the competition in hand, who else? Yet, it hasn't been the Merengues' best season. Dortmund and Tottenham's status as ambitious challengers made for the proverbial grup de mort.
Dortmund was mired in a worse funk than Madrid's, but Mauricio Pochettino's Londoners were feeling their oats. First, Spurs frustrated the defending champion at the Santiago Bernabeu, drawing 1-1. Then they made a remarkable statement in the reverse fixture at Wembley. Dele Alli struck twice, once in each half, followed by a Christian Eriksen goal. Ronaldo notched a consolation goal for the sorry Spaniards, albeit far too late to inspire a comeback.
The result delivered a message to the rest of Europe. The Champions League was once again open to all comers.
Barcelona vs PSG (UEFA Champions League round of 16, 2nd leg, 8 March)
Unbelievable. Flabbergasting. Was it even real? To the tinfoil hat crowd, who suspected UEFA wanted Barcelona to match up with Real Madrid in the final, there was some doubt about the last. You’re always up for some drama and twists in theChampions League, certainly when new money meets old. But, my god, this sort of insanity is just unexpected and very, very rare.
Barca were handed a stern defeat in Paris. PSG apparently assumed they had already booked their place in the quarterfinals. You know what happens when you assume, though.
It was simply do or die for Barcelona in the 2nd leg at Camp Nou. Simply turn a 4-0 deficit around? The entire footballing world assumed this was finally a challenge beyond the mighty Blaugrana. There's that word again.
Barcelona was certainly determined this match would be anything but a formality. Luis Suarez proved Barca's intent on three minutes.Then Layvin Kurzawa turned Andres Iniesta’s backheel into his own net. A 2-0 scoreline at half-time had Barcelona halfway back into the match. Five minutes into the second half, Messi converted a penalty. Luis Enrique's side was within one, but work remained.
Twelve minutes later all the hard work appeared to fall off a cliff. Edison Cavani pulled one back for the Parisians. Down 5-3 on aggregate, and an away goal, the Blaugrana needed three goals to progress.
The clock ticked down without the score changing. Two minutes from the full 90, it looked hopeless to everyone except Neymar. The Brazilian made his final case to assume Lionel Messi's place in the hearts of Barcelona fans. Two quick goals included a spectacular free-kick and a coolly dispatched penalty. Luis Suarez did his part by drawing the call with a blatant dive that somehow fooled German referee Denis Aytekin.
Still, that wasn’t enough. Barca needed one more. Time didn't look to be on their side, but five minutes into injury time, every single Barca player occupied the attacking half. Neymar launched a long ball into the PSG box. Sergi Roberto twisted and turned in mid-air to send the ball behind Kevin Trapp.
In case you were wondering, the Catalan word for rapture is, as you might guess, rapto.
Happy New Year.