The Seven to Remember

Year 2014 is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet his maker. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. But there were plenty games played on the course of it and plenty of good memories coming from them. Some of them, more memorable than the others, got into this best-of-seven list. Why seven? Well, that’s because in my eyes, only seven games stood significantly above all others. So, having in mind Poland’s crazy win over the World Cup winners (2-0), Milan’s demolition done by Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi (4-3) or Luis Suarez’s injury resurrection against England (2-1) – let’s kick it off:

#7 – The Fall of Rome
AS Roma – Bayern Munich 1-7

That’s how it started: Robben puts it in. With his left foot, of course.

By the looks of it, 2014 was evidently the year of trashing seemingly competitive teams by even bigger, richer and more competitive super-teams. And right now, Bayern Munich is, without a doubt a super-team – a team with a world class manager, a world class amount of money in bank and world class players in roster. But for them, to beat Serie A runner-ups in Rome, by six goals – it’s just not normal, just as Pep Guardiola admitted himself after the game. Once again, the trademark German-school of lethal finishing took it’s toll in that game and before Romans knew it, they had four goals inside their net and a penalty against them. Shocking on a first glance? Well, not as shocking on a second.

Because 2014-15 Roma and 2013-14 Roma are very, very different. Last season, Gialorossi, equipped with Mehdi Benatia and Leandro Castan, had nearly unbreakable defensive line and would go on pressuring Juventus in a title race for a very, very long time. Today, with Benatia gone to… Bayern and Castan undergoing more and more treatments to the health consequences of his previous injuries, Roma’s defence is leaking severely. Players like ageing Ashley Cole or notoriously Don-Quixotesque Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa might still cut it on a Serie A level, but when faced against Robben, Götze, Mueller or Lewandowski, they are more likely to fail than to succeed. And frankly, this time around, they didn’t have too much support from defensive midfielders either.

As for Bayern – they are still keen on to try various defensive experiments. Guardiola, realising that other teams prefer to sit back and defend against them, currently does whatever it takes to safely push more players forward and press their possession-based initiative more. Against Roma that plays the pacey Gervinho upfront, those experiments almost led Bayern to concede three or four goals. But, on the other hand, with Manuel Neuer in goal, it’s always less of a disaster than it could’ve been – and this time, Gervinho scored only once. A great result for Bavarians, but I just can’t wait until they get really exposed and punished for all this tactical extravagance like leaving only three people at the back. To this day, only Sergio Agüero did it right; where are the other contenders?

#6 – The Little Man’s Paradox
FC Barcelona – Valencia CF 2-3

Dani Parejo celebrating in front of Catalan fans.

The only Barcelona’s home defeat in the whole 2013-14 La Liga campaign came on the evening of February 2nd 2014. But even in that game, Barcelona remained true to their spirit, keeping the ball for 66% of the game, getting 20 shots on goal as compared to only 8 by the visitors, winning 9 corners to opponents’ 5 and dominating the game quite heavily.

So why did they lose?

Because Valencia did their homework. They knew they’re not going to win by playing their normal style. Instead of that, they just dug in and countered. Even when Alexis Sanchez opened the scoreline, Valencia didn’t overreact, they didn’t try to take over the game by exposing themselves. The lack of suicidal tendencies, so often exhibited by other Camp Nou visitors, this time was quite enough to spark a sensation. Because just as everyone on the stadium was waiting for the half-time, Parejo, the leading force of Los Che, won the ball in the middle, moved it past Barca’s midfield line and cut all the way through penalty area, receiving a calm, simple, back-pass from Feghouli – the other Valencia’s man of the hour. And this time, there was nobody to stop them – instead of being 0-1 down, the visitors struck just in time to get a confidence boost they’ve needed so badly.

Funnily enough, in 2014, Barcelona had a thing when it comes to conceding goals to headed attempts. When they went to Paris for a Champions League game, Marco Verratti, 165 cm tall, beat their centre-backs and the keeper after a corner played towards the far post of their goal. Against Valencia, same happened to Pablo Piatti, 163 cm attacking midfielder who beat ten-centimetres taller Dani Alves to the key header, 48 minutes into the game that was so far tied 1-1. That should not happen – but then, again, the team that has only 5 accurate attempts on goal through the match should not score three goals. Valencia did both of these and it was glorious – especially because they needed this goal to overcome the referee’s injustice that was soon about to come into play.

When Messi scored a penalty that should never been awarded, the clock was stuck only at 53rd minute. Seemed enough to score a winner, right? And, the winning goal came – only for the other team. Feghouli, once again placed a ground-based cross, this time to Alcacer. Now, on this occasion, Pique, who had an abysmal first half of the year, has forgot how to centre-back and positioned himself directly in front of Victor Valdes instead of marking the striker, who has clearly moved into his zone. I was absolutely pathetic piece of defending – almost as if Valencia’s striker was invisible! However, Paco had no time to wonder why he isn’t marked at all – he just smashed it with force – and that was it. Three points left the Catalonia. And soon enough, Atletico won the league with three-point advantage over FCB…

#5 – The Missing Glory
Liverpool FC – Manchester City 3-2

Happy Coutinho! If he only knew how that season was going to end…

I could be cruel to Liverpool. I could pick a game like the battle against Chelsea, where they ran into an unmovable object and lost trying to move it because of Steven Gerrard’s literal slip. I could pick the game against Crystal Palace, a game that was basically won for them but late into it, they’ve made defensive errors so criminal even some of the Championship sides would cringe. I could finally single-out the post-Suarez-era match with Basel at home, underlining the hopelessness of the team that lost their most valuable player. But frankly, that wouldn’t be fair to the team that got so close to their first Premier League titles in decades only to let it slip (ha!) at the very last second. It wouldn’t be fair to Brendan Rodgers. And, above everything else, it wouldn’t be fair to Luis Suarez himself.

Let’s face it: The Reds were a bloody mess of a team long before 2013-14 season happened and they’re likely to be a bloody mess of a team long after 2014-15 season finishes. The only reason they were winning so much in 2014 is that upon realising that their defence is shitty, Brendan Rodgers ordered his lads to go for all-out cowboy-style attack from the start of every match – and it worked, because he had Suarez and Sturridge banging goals like there was no tomorrow. This Blitzkrieg philosophy was a total success because most of the teams were too gutted by being 0-2 or 0-3 down 30 minutes into the game to ever put up any fight through the rest of the game and expose the shittiness of Liverpool’s defence. Man City was an exception to the rule because they actually came back into the game by the virtue of Johnson’s and Mignolet’s mistakes. But it ended all the same – with three points staying at Anfield.

So why this game took #5 spot on my list even though it eventually didn’t make the difference? Well, first of all, it was a good, exciting show. Second of all, it was a big red flag for Brendan Rodgers which he presumably noticed but never managed to deal with – a red flag of concern over the quality of Reds’ defence that has hardly gone up in the second half of 2014. And finally, the final goal was delivered by one of the most inconsistent, yet brilliant players in Premier League – Philippe Coutinho. How this guy didn’t make into Brazilian squad for the World Cup – we may never know. But those days, he was certainly no worse than Oscar, not to mention the likes of Hulk or Fred, whom Scolari picked over him en route to his impending doom.

#4 – The Robben Factor
Spain – Netherlands 1-5

Vicente Del Bosque clearly had enough that day.

Some stars arise – the others go down in flames. 2014 World Cup was a swan song of a Spanish national team – the same that captured three consecutive international titles in a row for the first time in history. They used to be ruthless, technically excellent and patient at building the decisive attacks – but in 2014, they weren’t any of that anymore. The addition of new faces to the team – Cesar Azpilicueta and Diego Costa – was not enough to wake up the success-full side against the team that they narrowly took out in a previous World Cup’s final – and before we knew it, the promising start to the game against Netherlands marked by Costa’s dive in a penalty area – turned into a full-blown nightmare.

One word or two about the winners, though: nobody really expected from them as much as there was to be expected in 2012. As for Netherlands, the transition was still in making: in Brazil, they’ve shown a brand new defensive line, couple promising midfielders and, most importantly, the totally new to them, Van Gaal’s trademark tactic of 3-2-3-2 – with three centre-backs, two wingbacks and two strikers out of which their leading star, Arjen Robben, has been given a free role. And if there’s a one thing we’ve learned from that game – it’s that this tactics can be a real nightmare for the teams that play mainly short passes through the middle and rely on having midfielders arriving into the box to mess up the opposition’s defence. Spain – with Silva and Iniesta following those instructions – were suddenly up against the wall of players in the middle – and once they got dispossessed, the Dutch would punish them on the counter.

And on the counter, there was Robben. Previously known as a sort of football primadonna, hardly ever passing the ball, getting outcasted from Chelsea and Real Madrid – at the age of 30, he has finally reached his footballing maturity. The Dutchman still won’t pass the ball on many occasions when he could just do that for a better effect – but his left foot remains the fastest one in the world. Every defender in the world knows that Bayern’s #10 is eventually going to cut inside against him – but they never know when exactly it will happen, and once it happens, it’s already too late. Add the obscene amount of pace to that and multiply by the years of training and experience – and you’ll have a worthy World Golden Ball recipient – a recipient he’s unfortunately never going to be.

#3 – The Set Piece Horror
Bayern Munich – Real Madrid 0-4

Ramos has been waiting two years for his revenge.

2013-14 season saw Bayern rampaging all across the Europe in all competitions. Even more refined by the passing-game preacher Pep Guardiola, German champions won 29 out of 34 league games, capturing the domestic title with 19 points to spare. They’ve also won all 6 games in a DfB Pokal and quite comfortably marched to the Champions League semifinal, losing only one, meaningless game to Manchester City in group stages and later, very convincingly eliminating Arsenal and Manchester United out of the battle for the Champions Cup. When they were paired against Real Madrid, they had to be seen as the favourites – and a very narrow defeat in a first game at Santiago Bernabeu didn’t change much. Until this happened.

Rarely does a game of football go down to the one element as much as this one did. On that day, April 29th, it was all about the set pieces. Real methodically annihilated the home side by playing long balls towards the far post, to Sergio Ramos, who that spring, was more useful as a finisher than he ever was as a defender. The deliveries from Luka Modrić and Angel Di Maria turned out to be pitch-perfect and Ramos – the same man who horribly missed a critical penalty in 2012’s semifinal – rose to become Real Madrid’s hero. To make bad news even worse for Bayern, Real’s finishing touch came from a set-piece as well – and this time, it was quite embarrassing, as Cristiano Ronaldo took a simple, placed shot from a freekick that went below the feet of Bayern players, all jumping together in an anticipation of a top-corner blast.

For the first time in years, Champions League face of Real Madrid was not just good but consistently good – in all formations. Ronaldo played like Ronaldo again – 17 goals in 13 CL matches – but this time, he had the team of outstanding people around him that overcame the major difficulties they’ve had against Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Dortmund. Those games – won, lost and drawn – were proper eye-openers for the team that was – as Cristiano Ronaldo admitted himself – “desperate to win La Decima”. And when it went down to the wire, they finally did win – with a little help of Ramos’ head again. But to be fair, the final was far sloppier game from Real than this semifinal – and thus, the Lisbon showdown never made to this list.

#2 – The Spartans Emerge
Chelsea FC – Atletico Madrid 1-3

Arda Turan has proven his class once again.

2014 was all about Atletico Madrid. The enigmatic Spanish side, led by a former enfant terrible, Diego Simeone, went on an absolute tear in the first half of the year. With total score of 90 points in their pocket, Los Colchoneros captured the domestic league title, breaking a decade-long domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid, whom they both beat repeatedly through the season. And not only that: in Copa del Rey, they advanced as far as to the semifinal, while in Champions League, the red-stripped kits were seen and triumphant all the way through – with the exception of the Grand Final that came on 24th of May. Which is even more ridiculous, considering that Simeone had no more that fifteen class players at his disposal – and was forced to play them nearly all the time in all three competitions.

Last season, Atletico’s fitness levels were simply out of this world. They didn’t play the passing game Barcelona used to display to conserve their energy; they didn’t even play the all-out attack into cruise control Liverpool used to base their efforts on – an approach that also saves players’ legs a bit. No. Each and every game, Atletico would relinquish the possession to their opponents, chasing them with tackles and hard work until the ball was recovered – and once that happened, their counters were lightning quick. Such tactics usually spell a quick exhaustion of whoever tries it: but for workhorses like Gabi, Tiago or Diego Godin, this was not the case. Los Colchoneros simply outran and out-worked other teams – consistently. Amazing.

The doubts and odds were all against them, right to the final whistle, in all competitions. But the absolute peak of the doubts came in Champions League semifinal, against Chelsea. After all, The Blues had Jose Mourinho working for them again and Thibaut Courtois formally still on their payroll, seeking a permanent comeback to the London team as a first-choice goalkeeper. On top of that, Chelsea left Estadio Vicente Calderón with a goalless draw, meaning that they deciding set of this struggle was moved to the lion’s cave of Stamford Bridge, where Mourinho is nearly invincible. An early goal from ex-Atletico legend, Fernando Torres didn’t help to dispel doubts: Atletico was very rarely trailing one goal this season, and it almost never ended well for them…

And then, the unthinkable happened – again!

The aftermath is well-known: Mourinho admitted that Atletico had better players than he did and soon, Diego Costa, Courtois and Filipe Luis all went to Chelsea. Wise move, Jose – especially considering the fact that those players missed lifting the European Champions Cup by mere seconds of the final against Real.

#1 – The Great Spanking
Brazil – Germany 1-7
The horror! This is the face David Luiz wakes up with after dreaming about that game.

Well, this was a no-brainer. 1-7. O-n-e-t-o-s-e-v-e-n. At home. In a World Cup semi-final – the highest stakes anyone can think of. In front of their die-hard fans in the stadium and millions watching it on TV screens. Not just the biggest humiliation in the history of the World Cup – this was, in fact, the biggest humiliation in the history of the game! And, by a rather comfortable margin – as it was the match between two highly professional teams that both had players worth millions and millions of dollars in their ranks. The initial shock was too strong. In the morning of 9th of July, all football fans across the world woke up with the same thought – did that really happen? And – even though it was just one game of football – the world was never the same again.

Before the game, surprisingly many people were picking Brazil to win. I wasn’t. I was sitting there, digging through the statistics, seeing facts as they were. No Neymar. No Thiago Silva. But, above everything else – Brazilian team, even WITH Neymar and Thiago Silva, has been committing the most fouls out of all World Cup participants – and they also had the highest aerial success rate. That, combined with the long-ball-to-Neymar-and-hope-for-the-best tactics and the utter lack of number 9 up front – all meant we’re going to see some solid, Stoke City-tier football. And we did. And it was horrible because in the meantime, Germans grew the whole new generation of ridiculously gifted players who, as a team, evolved to the point Spain was at when they started they run of victories in 2008 – the point of mastery in all aspects of the game.

This turned out so badly, it really looked like a sabotage. Goal one: corner ball falls ON A FEET of Mueller, who was arriving straight into the middle of the box – the area that’s normally crowded with players of all sorts. Goal two: a through ball to a RIGHT-BACK, who lays it off and Klose has all time in the world to finish Brazil off. Check out the replay and notice what was Fernandinho doing there after he missed the initial interception – how he reacted to the ball running right in front of his face. What a pace. What a determination. What a hard work. Not. The third goal killed Brazilians – the fourth and fifth, however, saw them shooting themselves in their feet again, as they displayed an utter incompetence at dealing with simple, one-two passes through the middle. For the first time in years of competitive football, the professional players were literally unlearning how to play the game before our eyes!

If someone told me this will happen before it did happen – I’d send him to a psychiatrist. And if someone showed me that game without me knowing about it’s stakes – I’d say players in yellow shirts fixed it by betting against themselves beforehand. To be honest, I’m still not sure they didn’t. That being said, let’s hope 2015 will have more games as entertaining as this one!

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