We come to it at last: the end of the season for international football. For many, this is a time of profound sadness; With the Confederations Cup, Champions League, U21 Euros, and the domestic leagues of every major nation finished, we have little to look forward to and much to endure for the next two months: insane, nonstop babble from The Daily Mail about whether <insert English Team here> will be able to sign the current or Next <insert name of really really good foreign continental footballer here>, how many trillion dollars newly-rich AS Monaco will spend in the transfer market (having already bought half of FC Porto’s current and former squad), or which mega-rich club will try to buy Tottenham Hotspur (aka Gareth Bale). If you’re really in the mood for self-punishment, you could always find a stream of EB Streymur (Faroe Islands) v. Tre Penne (San Marino) in the opening qualification round for this year’s Champions League, but we rather doubt that’s a good idea. What we do know is that it’s time for the end-of-season awards for this year in European football, Armchair style: the way your grandpappy would talk about football.
Popcorn Prize (Best Game):
There are so many fantastic games to choose from this year. To narrow the focus, we’ll stick to games that were both intense (lots of exciting, high-octane play) and meaningful (lots on the line). The two Champions League Group Stage Clashes between Juventus and Chelsea were both excellent, seeing tactical versatility – Juventus played an unorthodox and extremely effective 3-5-2, while Chelsea varied between 4-2-3-1, 5-2-2-1, 5-2-3, and 4-2-4, spectacular goals – particularly Brazilian starlet Oscar’s second at Stamford Bridge (and absolute screamer of a shot into the top corner), and high-pressure, chance-heavy football from Juventus that ultimately saw them strike the hammer blows that knocked the defending champions out of the Group Stage for the first time in Champions League history. Any game involving Real Sociedad was highly entertaining (more on that later) particularly their two clashes with Valencia that ended 4-2 and 5-2 (both in Sociedad’s favour), as was Valencia’s 5-1 hammering of Malaga that saw a four-goal blitz from the 25th to the 31st minutes (Parejo, Soldado, Soldado again, and Canales). The high-octane Champions League final was also a phenomenal game – probably the best evenly-matched Champions League Final since the 2005 “Miracle of Istanbul” – featuring open attacking play, brilliant goals from Mandzukic, Gondogen, and Arjen Robben, superb goalkeeping at both ends, and the spectacle of Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich’s unbelievable fans belting it out in Wembley Stadium.
But it really is hard to look beyond two games that involved Spanish teams. The first was Sevilla v. Valencia in Seville on the last day of La Liga season. Valencia needed a win to qualify for the Champions League, while Sevilla needed a win to qualify for the Europa League. The clash had added edge as star strikers Alvaro Negredo (Sevilla) and Roberto Soldado (Valencia) were tied in the race for the Zarra Trophy (most goals scored by a Spanish national in La Liga) and fighting for the final place in Spain’s Confederations Cup squad. Ever Banenga made it 0-1 for the visitors in the twelfth minute, Negredo scored two goals late in the first half to make it Sevilla 2-1 Valencia, before Jonas was sent off for the visitors in injury-time. Soldado duly responded to make it 2-2 before Negredo completed his hat trick one minute later to give Sevilla the lead. Four minutes after, Negredo would make it four on the night to give Sevilla a commanding 4-2 lead. But Valencia weren’t done. Soldado scored in the 88th and hit the post in the 89th, while Sevilla held on to narrowly edge out a high-octane 4-3 win. The fact that the crowd was going absolutely nuts only added to the entertainment.
The second game to claim the award is Barcelona v. AC Milan in the Champions League Round of Sixteen. Down 2-0 on aggregate thanks to an absolutely abject performance at the San Siro, an injury-ridden, misfiring, sluggish, and defense-deficient Barcelona needed to pull of an improbable comeback, winning by at least three goals against a defensively sound AC Milan team that had stymied Messi and Iniesta in the opening leg. Barcelona adjusted tactics, using a risky 3-4-3 formation with Messi pulled back into a Centre-Forward Position, part-time fullback and full-time winger Dani Alves (known for running lots, crossing wildly, and defending little) at the RW position, David Villa positioned in front of Messi, with the Midfield Triumvirate of Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta in front of a 98,000-strong crowd at the Camp Nou. What followed was one of the most brilliant performances seen since Barcelona’s 5-0 dismantling of Real Madrid in November 2010. Barcelona pressed like they haven’t done since the 2011 Champions League Final, hunting Milan players in packs while the Rossoneri were in possession, firing passes around the pitch at breakneck speed, and using the added threat of David Villa in a traditional striker role (thereby upsetting the double-marking of Messi) to allow Messi, Iniesta, Pedro, and Alves all sorts of space to maraud into the Milan box. Barcelona won 4-0 with goals from Messi (2) and David Villa putting them ahead on Aggregate. But Milan fought back with determination – hitting the post late in the first half and having two superb shots blocked late in the second. It took an insane run from Jordi “The Road Runner” Alba (A Left-Back, for crying out loud!) to put the game away 4-0 for Barcelona. The fact that several members of ACSS watched this game in a bar filled to capacity with Milan and Barcelona fans adds to our ranking of this as “game of the year”. Simply put: it was insane.
Best Insomnia Cure (Worst Game)
Queen’s Park Ranger 0 – 0 Reading. A brutal, sleep-inducing, boring ninety minutes that saw literally nothing happen – no attacking, no defending, barely any playing at all. It was a perfect summation of both teams abysmal seasons, as it sealed Relegation to The Championship for both of these teams. For those of us condemned to watch this Crime Against Football, I can only say that it is two hours of my life that I want back.
Yes, there were boring games all across the continent. No, none of them were as bad as QPR v. Reading.
Lifetime Achievement in Popcorn Consumption (Most Entertaining Team):
Two-way tie between Borussia Dortmund and Real Sociedad. Simply put, Dortmund are brilliant. They press like 2008-9-era Barcelona, are young, dynamic, fast on the counter, and play with a confidence and swagger when in possession that belies the fact that they are an extraordinarily young team. Marco Reus is beyond brilliant, and the mouth-watering prospect of Jurgen Klopp (the most delightfully adorable manager on earth) adding Ajax superstar Cristian Eriksen to his lineup over the summer more than makes up for the imminent departure of Mario Goetze to Bayern Munich. The undisputed kings of Swaggerville.
Real Sociedad were also brilliant. Possessed of an often shaky defense, brilliant forward play, a young and dynamic midfield, and a tactically brilliant coach, the Basque club played an lengthy string of high-scoring and entertaining games in their second season back in the First Division – a 3-2 victory of Barcelona, a 4-3 loss and 3-3 draw to Real Madrid, and a number of games that ended 4-2, 4-3, 5-2, 3-2, and other high-scoring combinations. To cap it all off, they qualified for the Champions League for the first time since 2003.
Gold Medal in 0-Metre Springboard (Best Dive):
This season saw the usual heavy competition from the Spaniards and Italians, each nation putting in a host of excellent and atrocious dives. Honourable mentions go to Burak Yilmaz’s “shot by a sniper” number against Real Madrid in the Champions League Quarters, Neymar’s “wall run” dive in the Brazilian League, Valencia’s Joao Pereira’s “Invisible Lasso” dive against Atletico Madrid, and Gokhan Inler’s “I’m a Gymnast” against Juventus. But the true king of this year’s 0-Metre Springboard Competition really does have to be Juventus Centre-Back Leonardo Bonnuci, with one of the most outrageous and hilarious dives in the history of football against Palermo. Mr. Bonnuci, take a bow. In Shame.
Collective diving performance award goes to new Barcelona signing Neymar, who has produced a dive highlight reel that rivals his quite considerable goal-scoring youtube compilations. A young player who never misses an opportunity to writhe about in pain (fake or imagined), goes down at the slightest of breezes, and who is never quite sure whether they will earn a free kick or a 9.2 from the Russian judge. A true class(less) act, even for a player of his considerable talent and potential.
Grand Larceny Ribbon (Best Transfer Steal).
The transfer market always sees a number of excellent, under-the-radar buys that end up having a profound impact for their value. Turin-based giants Juventus continued their string of brilliant Free Transfers, bringing in French youth star Midfielder Paul Pogba from Manchester United for 0 Euros. Three transfer steals stand out above the rest: Brazilian Defender Dante went from Borussia Monchengladbach to Bayern Munich for $5 million, where he promptly became one of the best defenders in Europe and backstopped an unstoppable Bayern Munich side to the Treble, including a 4-0 defeat of Juventus and a staggering 7-0 aggregate hammering of FC Barcelona. Michu from Rayo Vallecano to Swansea City for two million Euros is staggering, not least because he dragged the club from Promotion to their first silverware in a hundred years (League Cup) and an appearance in the Europa League next season. But the king of transfer steals really has to go to Bayern Munich for their poaching of Mario Mandzukic from Wolfsburg. He proved a more mobile attacker than Mario Gomez, effectively closed down Andrea Pirlo in the Champions League Quarterfinal against Juventus, and then scored in the Champions League Final. The price? $500,000. Someone call the cops. Wolfsburg got robbed.
Entrapment Charges (Worst Transfer)
Two finalists for this award – one collective and one individual. Individually, the award for the biggest transfer blunder – the most money spent for the least impact – really does have to go to Zenit St. Petersburg’s purchase of Brazilian forward Hulk. Zenit were bought by Gazsprom in the summer of 2012, and promptly set out on a huge spending spree to prove that they were legit contenders. Hulk was bought from FC Porto for 40 million euros – a hefty sum. The result? Zenit were comprehensively knocked out of the Champions League by AC Milan, the subject of Hulk’s insane wages caused an insurrection by Russian players on the team, the government of Vladimir Putin stepped in to stop outright race riots from occurring amongst Zenit’s fans, Hulk’s relationship with coach Spalleti collapsed faster than England’s hopes of winning the World Cup or Euro, and by January he was demanding an against-the-rules transfer away from Russia. “Legit” indeed.
Honourable Mention goes to every single transfer performed by Queen’s Park Rangers in the 2012 off-season. Having barely survived relegation in 2012, Mark Hughes’ side went on a spending spree that saw them buy Christopher Samba, Ji Sung Park, Loic Remy, and Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar. Close to a dozen new players were brought in from teams as big as Inter Milan, Real Madrid, and Tottenham Hotspur. The spending blitz paid off too: QPR won a single game in the first half of the Premier League season, finished bottom of the table, and were relegated. They will now have to contend with the ultra-high wages of their new superstars in the Second Division. And ‘Arry Redknapp. It won’t be fun times at Loftus Road next season.
Goal of the Season
5: Van Persie v. Aston Villa. The goal that sealed the title for Manchester United was absolutely superb. A lofted volley that put the Red Devils up 2-0.
4: Andrea Pirlo’s free kick v. Mexico. Even the normally-quiet British commentators were having on-air goal-gasms about this one.
3: Roberto Soldado v. Atletico Madrid. An insane six-foot volley from a ridiculously tight angle that saw Diego Simeone’s fourteen-game unbeaten run in La Liga come to an end. Pure class.
2: Philip Mexes v. Anderlecht. Keep in mind this is a Central Defender. A bicycle kick so good it would have been goal of the season in any other year. But alas, it happened the week after our final entry.
Heskey Memorial Trophy (Best Player)
It goes without saying that we’re not allowed to give this to Emile Heskey every year, so in the name of fairness we’ll leave him out of the running.
5: Javi Martinez – Even at $45 million, Javi Martinez was a superb buy for Bayern Munich. The Basque Defensive Midfielder – a mainstay at the Spanish U21 and Athletic Bilbao sides – proved the difference-maker over last year’s Bayern Munich team and this years. Though it took time to adapt to the Bundesliga, Martinez excelled in his role as a disruptor of play. He comprehensively shut down Andres Iniesta in Bayern’s semifinal tie with FC Barcelona, performed admirably in the Champions League Final, and was an absolute rock in defense. Unshakable.
4: Cristiano Ronaldo – top scorer in this year’s Champions League, second in La Liga. Often seemed to be the only Real Madrid player who was still trying to win La Liga. Has now scored against every team in Spain (his own included in a very funny own goal v. Granada). That CR7 putting away forty goals in a year has become routine speaks volumes of how good he is. Slight dip in form over last year, which saw him walk away empty-handed for trophies, but phenomenal nonetheless.
3: Robert Lewandowski – Top Scorer in the Bundesliga, integral part of Borussia Dortmund’s run to the Champions League Final. Capped off a string of superb performances with an unbelievable four-goal one-man show against Real Madrid in the Champions League Semifinal. Absolutely brilliant all year.
2: Lionel Messi – Even only half-fit against Paris St. Germain in the Champions League Quarterfinal, he was the best player on the pitch by quite some distance. Though injury hampered the last quarter of his year, a string of incredible performances for club and country – goals in 21 consecutive La Liga games (a new record), braces in three separate Champions League games, second-highest scorer in South American qualifiers for Brazil 2014, now 2nd-highest scorer all-time for Argentina and highest all-time for Barcelona. We all know how good he is, the difficult part for defenders is stopping him. Jose Mourinho suggests a rifle.
1: Phillip Lahm – Rifles being illegal on the football pitch, Phillip Lahm is your best bet. Captain for club (Bayern Munich) and country (Germany), he can do everything – attack (very well), defend (very well), score (often), assist (more). Managed to nullify a host of brilliant teams throughout the Champions League and Bundesliga including Juventus, Barcelona, Dortmund (several times), and Valencia. A spirited leader of the back-line and his club, he has been the best Right-Back in the world for two years now. That the all-conquering Bayern Munich side he leads won the most dominant Treble in history was a fitting reward for his abilities. Incredible.
Emile Heskey XI (Best Starting XI) – 3-4-3
GK: Manuel Neuer (Germany, Bayern Munich)
Left-CB: Thiago Silva (Brazil, Paris St.-Germain)
Centre-Back: Andrea Barzagli (Italy, Juventus)
Right-CB: Philip Lahm (Germany, Bayern Munich)
Defensive Midfielder: Javi Martinez (Spain, Bayern Munich)
Right-Centre Midfielder: Arturo Vidal (Chile, Juventus)
Left-Centre Midfielder: Andres Iniesta (Spain, FC Barcelona)
Centre Attacking Midfielder: Thomas Muller (Germany, Bayern Munich)
Left-Wing: Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Real Madrid)
Striker: Robert Lewandowski (Poland, Borussia Dortmund)
Right-Wing: Lionel Messi (Argentina, FC Barcelona)
Subs: Gianluigi Buffon (GK, Italy, Juventus), Dante (CB, Brazil, Bayern Munich), Marco Reus (LAM, Germany, Borussia Dortmund), Bastian Schweinsteiger (CM, Germany, Bayern Munich), Juan Mata (RAM, Spain, Chelsea), Gareth Bale (LW, Wales, Tottenham Hotspur), Jordi Alba (LB, Spain, FC Barcelona).
From all us at ACSS, enjoy your football-free summer. Try not to die of misery or boredom before the Premier League and La Liga kick off again in mid-August.