The Couch XI: 2013-14 Armchair FC Awards

The bad news is that another utterly brilliant, unpredictable season of European football has finished, with shocks and predictable results in equal measure: Real Madrid finally claimed their tenth European Cup, proving that you can accomplish anything with pluck, determination, and $1.3 billion in transfer spending. The defeated finalists, Atletico Madrid, claimed their first La Liga title in nearly two decades, breaking up what is arguably the most powerful duopoly in the history of organized sport to pip Real and Barcelona to the title. Liverpool surged back into title contension, producing football that was entertaining and terrifying, noted as much for its relentlessness in attack as for their utter refusal to defend under any circumstances. Having ditched the confrontational and abrasive style of Roberto Mancini, Manchester City smashed their way to a second Premier League title in three years under the avuncular, astute control of Manuel Pellegrini and Yaya Toure. In Italy, Juventus broke the record for points total in a top-six league, finishing the Serie A season with 102 points and winning 19/19 games at home (another record). Benfica lost yet another European final (that’s nine in a row since Bela Guttman cursed them in 1962) while taking back the Portuguese League from Porto. Twists, turns, and shocks aplenty, with more fluctuations between joy and crushing despair than a Game of Thrones episode.

We still have the World Cu-, sorry, the FIFA World CupTM to look forward to this summer, though god knows Sepp Blatter will do everything in his power to ruin it in time for 2034 to be played on Saturn. In the meantime, let’s take a look over the glory and pain of another season of football.

Best reason to skip class/work/family wedding

Every year turns up some absolutely brilliant games for neutrals and hardcore supporters alike, and this year was no different. But three games stand out above the rest in both importance and excitement. Manchester City 6-3 Arsenal was a crazy game, fitting City’s pattern of absolutely steamrolling opponents at the Etihad. Even with Arsenal’s superb start to the season, City simply hammered them into submission over the course of the ninety minutes. Any game with nine goals is bound to be a thriller, but the confidence, swagger, and ruthlessness of City’s performance, coupled with some pretty ropey defending across the pitch, made this game one to remember.

But the two best games of the season were the two marquee fixtures of Spain: the second Madrid Derby of the La Liga season was a ridiculously intense 2-2 draw at the Vicente Calderon. Real led inside of three minutes, before Koke’s equalizer and a superb, forty-yard shot from Gabi put Atletico ahead (more on that later). Atletico had ample opportunities to kill the game off, before a defensive miscue from Juanfran gave Ronaldo the opportunity to tie. After years of the Madrid derby being a dead rubber game that Real were guaranteed to steamroll, the intensity brought back to the fixture by Diego Simeone has been gratifying.

But even that game pales in comparison to the Bernabeu’s Real Madrid v. Barcelona Clasico, which had everything you could possibly want in a game: a massive, title-deciding rivalry, seven goals, three (extremely dubious) penalties, a (dubious) red card, a manic, defending-free first half that ended 2-2 but could easily have been 5-2, 2-5, or 5-5 had either side bothered finishing their chances, and the magisterial Lionel Messi registering three goals and an assist to become the first non-Real Madrid player to record a hat trick at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in a 4-3 victory for Barca. It was a neutral’s dream, and one of the scariest games I have ever watched as a Barcelona fan. I’m really glad that not every game is as insane and end-to-end, because I don’t think my blood pressure could take it.

Honourable mention to Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal, which was such an absolute comedy of a game from all involved that I was nearly on the floor laughing by half-time.

Best Insomnia Cure (Worst Game)

Of course, the football gods giveth and the football gods taketh, so we had to sit through some stunningly dull games this year. Valladolid 1-0 Barcelona was truly a ninety minutes from hell, with the Castilian side winning more through Barcelona’s utter inability to create much of…well…anything at all than through dogged defending. Manchester United 2-2 Fulham was also mind-numbingly boring, with Moyes’s side putting in close to four hundred crosses (almost none of which were on target).

But the winner just has to be Chelsea 0-0 Norwich City. For ninety minutes, I contemplated the void. There is no more to say about this game. Everyone who watched it is now poorer for having done so. May god have mercy on all of their souls.

Lifetime Achievement Award in 0-Metre Springboard

Neymar (Brazil, Barcelona), having been stuck by a light breeze.

We could do what we did last year and showcase all of the best/worst dives and flops of the year. But that would require so much work trolling through ancient, dilapidated gifs. So we’re just going to give the Lifetime Achievement Award to Barcelona forward Neymar, whose antics led us to start the “Neymar Hits the Deck Counter” during Barca games to monitor every time he crumpled to the ground in the face of a tackle, an angry stare from Pepe, or a light breeze.

Best Transfer

Martin Demichelis: His contract up at Malaga, Martin Demichelis signed with Atletico Madrid on a free. Atletico Madrid turned around and, without Demichelis having played a game, sold him to Manchester City for $7 million and used the money to buy Toby Aderweireld from Ajax and Diego Rivas from AFL Wolfsburg. Gaming the system at its finest.

Mikel Balenziaga (Athletic Bilbao): Formed one half of a superb center-back pairing with Aymeric Laporte that brought Athletic Club Bilbao back into the Champions League for the first time since 1999. Cost? 500,000 Euros.

Fernando Llorente (Juventus): the kings of free transfers strike again. Having picked up Andrea Pirlo in 2011, who was the heart of the team that went unbeaten in Serie A, and Paul Pogba in 2012 – who will likely be the best midfielder on earth in four years’ time, Juventus turned around and did it again, acquiring striker Fernando Llorente from the aforementioned Athletic Club on a free. He duly banged in eighteen goals in his debut season and provided Juventus with the missing link. His formidable strike partnership with Carlos Tevez helped the Fiat-owned club to a record points total.

Worst Transfer

For pure cost-to-value ratio, Neymar and Fellaini represent the worst individual transfers by far. Fellaini for his utter uselessness – three assists the entire season after being purchased for 28 million pounds as David Moyes’s marquee midfield signing. Neymar was a touch better, putting up fifteen goals in his debut season for Barcelona for a goals-to-euros ratio of…well…if someone knows that would be great. Barcelona claimed that the transfer was 57 million, but conveniently forgot to include a bunch of payments to the player’s father, several more payments to Santos and additional friendlies, further bonuses and image rights to the player himself, as well as a number of pre-payments to the club, agent (dad), and Neymar. We still don’t know what the actual number was, but the hoopla did lead to President Sandro Rosell resigning in disgrace and the possibility of criminal investigations into the transfer deal.

In terms of sheer stupidity, Bologna’s transfer (post-deadline day) of Allesandro Diamanti to Guangzhou Evergrande takes the turd cake: after transferring their top goalscorer, they proceeded to net eight in fifteen games and finish 18th, dropping to Serie B. Diamanti, meanwhile, has lost his place in Italy’s World Cup lineup, having been a regular in the Euro and Confederations Cups these past two summers. Lose-lose-lose-lose-lose.

Goal of the Season – Now with Zlatan Quota

“I don’t care if it’s the most insane thing you’ve ever seen anyone try. I’m Zlatan! I do what I want!”

When tallying up the goals of the season for this year, we quickly realized that one could devise a plausible list that included nothing but Zlatan goals, simply given the man’s penchant for the brilliant and unorthodox. We have decided, therefore, to introduce a Zlatan Quota to our Goal of the Season Award: Zlatan may occupy a maximum of 40% of the spots on the top 5 or 10 (depending on which we do). With that in mind, there were some absolutely brilliant goals this year.

5: Zlatan v. Anderlecht – what better way to cap a Champions League hat-trick than by volleying a 200km/h shot into the top corner from forty yards out? Everyone seemed surprised that he’d even attempted the goal. Except The Zlatan.

4: Gabi v. Real Madrid, Diego v. Barcelona – we agonized over this decision for a long time. Both Atletico goals came in huge games – the Madrid Derby and a Champions League quarterfinal tie against Barcelona. Both were superb – Gabi cannoned his shot past Diego Lopez from forty yards out, while Diego Ribas’s outside-of-the-weak-foot shot looped past Jose Manuel Pinto from close to 25 yards and an absurd angle and arc. But we couldn’t decide, so we’ll just put them both in as a draw.

3: Klaas van Huntelaar v. Real Madrid – An utterly pointless goal, given that Real Madrid had just finished scoring six away goals in the Champions League Octofinal against Schalke 04, but a brilliant volley from outside the box nonetheless.

2: Ronaldo v. Valencia – Must-score situation against Valencia? Check. Tricky, volleyed cross from Angel Di Maria? Check. Dogged defence that has blunted Real Madrid most of the game? Check. Difficult angle with back to goal? Check. And then he bloody goes and does this. Brilliance at its best.

1: Zlatan v. Bastia – I agreed with Stan Collymore about Zlatan’s utterly insane bicycle kick last year: I didn’t think such a goal would ever be topped for its brilliance and utter insanity. I still don’t think so. But this one comes damn close. Even Ronaldo’s goal doesn’t come close to this one. In fairness to Cristiano, the goals were quite similar: both came from difficult, redirected crosses; both had the attitude of “fuck it. This is going in”; both were backheel goals. But Zlatan’s was even more outrageous: a scorpion kick over his own shoulder. If only more footballers dared to Zlatan.

Armchair XI 2013-14

GK: Thibaut Courtois (Atletico Madrid, Belgium)

RB: Philip Lahm (Bayern Munich, Germany)

RCB: Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid, Uruguay)

LCB: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid, Spain)

LB: Felipe Luis (Atletico Madrid, Brazil)

LCM: Yaya Toure (Manchester City, Ivory Coast)

CM: Koke (Atletico Madrid, Spain)

RCM: Paul Pogba (Juventus, France)

LF: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid, Portugal)

ST: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (PSG, Sweden)

RF: Diego Costa (Atletico Madrid, Spain)

Bench: GK Manuel Neuer (Bayern), CB Benatia (AS Roma), CDM Daniele De Rossi (AS Roma), CM Andres Iniesta (Barcelona), CF Lionel Messi (Barcelona), RB Juanfran Torres (Atletico), RW Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), ST Luis Suarez (Liverpool)

Johan Cruyff Trophy 2013-14 (Best Player)

Honourable Mentions: The Zlatan, Diego Godin, Koke, Lionel Messi

5: Yaya Toure – became the second midfielder to score 20 goals in a Premier League season, and seemed to drag Manchester City across the finish line to the title by his own sheer force of will in the final weeks of the EPL season. A natural leader and incredibly gifted, multidimensional footballer who surely deserved better than his 3rd place finish in the PFA’s Player of the Year Award. Suarez had a brilliant season and scored more goals than anyone not named Messi or Ronaldo, but Suarez and Gerrard’s inability to close the deal at the vital moment brings them a notch down. For that reason, and for nutting up when it really really counted, Toure gets the nod.

4: Philip Lahm – Last year he was the best right back in Europe. This year he spent most of the year playing in defensive midfield, covering for injuries to Bastian Schweinsteiger and Javi Martinez, and looked just as good. His shift to the centre meant that Bayern had to make do with the inferior Rafinha at RB, but Lahm’s sheer adaptability and positional awareness meant that Bayern rarely suffered for it. The title of “most intelligent footballer Josep Guardiola has ever coached” is a bar set insanely high, but Lahm makes a convincing argument for being near the top of the list.

3: Thibaut Courtois –Back-to-back Zamora Trophies in La Liga, and the absolutely vital cog in the best defense in Europe. Simeone has affirmed that he would break the goalkeeper transfer record if it meant Atletico got him permanently. He’d be worth every single cent. The best reflexes since early-2000s Gianluigi Buffon (both, coincidentally, from families of volleyball players), coupled with supreme confidence in his own abilities and the ability to pull clutch saves out of nothing against Chelsea, Barcelona, Real Madrid, and AC Milan in Atletico’s improbable and incredible drive to La Liga and very nearly a Champions League trophy. Already the best goalkeeper in the world, even having just turned 22.

2: Cristiano Ronaldo – What more can you say about the man that hasn’t already been said? Goals, goals, goals, and more goals. Nobody tops Ronaldo for sheer belief in his own capacity to score, as evidenced by another European Golden Boot and a record-breaking seventeen (17!) goals in the Champions League – Ronaldo scored against every opponent that Real Madrid faced en route to their tenth European Cup. His on-field persona remains eminently dislikeable – as evidenced by his over-the-top celebration following a surprisingly poor showing in the Champions League Final – and his desire to play often gets in the way of his own fitness and health, but he has been nothing short of ridiculously, obscenely good this season.

1: Diego Costa – This was the first time in eight years that Diego Costa knew where he’d be at the start of the season. Since moving to Atletico in 2007, he’d been shipped out on loan three times, was very much in the shadow of Radamel Falcao last season, and never quite found form until the very end of the season. This season, Costa was the single most important player in Spain. He always looks like he’s falling over, like he has no idea what he’s doing and it’s all just a calamitous accident, but he somehow accidentally scored 29 goals in La Liga, broke the record for best goal haul by a Champions League debutant (8), and was the most important figure in Atletico’s relentless drive to the top of La Liga and the Champions League Final. As Sid Lowe put it last year, Costa is a diver, a cheat, a clown, a thug, and a mercenary. But at the end of the day, he was also the best striker in Europe this year, and by far the most important.

Rinus Michels Memorial Trophy 2013-2014 (Coach of the Year)

3: Brendan Rodgers – Liverpool. Last year, Liverpool finished seventh, having stuck to Rodgers’ philosophical gameplan of possession-based football. This year, he was far more pragmatic, and it showed in the results. Yes, Liverpool played fifteen games fewer than any of their title rivals, folding early in the cup competitions and not playing European football, but they were bloody entertaining to watch and utter mayhem to play against – the thrashings they unleashed on Arsenal and Tottenham attest to that. Rodgers will face a true test of his managerial skill in European competition next year, but much of Liverpool’s brilliant, yet ultimately insufficient, title run has been down to his skill as a manager.

2: Rudi Garcia – AS Roma. Roma were not in a good place when Garcia took over last summer: out of European competition, beaten in the Coppa Italia final by their arch-rivals Lazio, and in danger of losing the bulk of their best players over the summer. In the end, they lost Pablo Osvaldo, Marquinhos, Martin Stekelenburg, and Erik Lamela over the summer, and barely hung on to Daniele De Rossi. Roma bought well, and Garcia instilled a fluid and defensively-sound 4-3-3 in the team. They started strong – breaking the Serie A record with ten consecutive wins to open the season, and reached the Coppa Italia semifinal after beating Juventus in Torino. They eventually ran out of gas, but under Garcia the Roman club broke their own points record (only Juventus’s absurd 102 points meant that they missed out on the Serie A title) and returned to the Champions League for the first time since 2010-11. In any other year, Garcia probably would have won Serie A and this award.

1: Diego Simeone – Atletico Madrid. In December 2011, Atletico Madrid were knocked out of the Copa Del Rey by Albacete – a third division side – and were five points off of relegation. The revolving door of coaches and players had continued unabated since their Europa League victory in 2010: three managers had departed, as had Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan, and David de Gea. The club president and owner were at each other’s throats, and Atletico continued to ride their reputation as the jinxed team in Spain’s Primera Division. Diego Simeone stepped into this chaotic vortex, and out of it produced one of the true miracles of modern football. In 2012, Atletico Madrid bulldozed the Europa League and thrashed Chelsea 4-1 in the UEFA Supercup that followed. In 2013, they broke their decade-long hoodoo against Real Madrid, winning the Copa Del Rey (at the Santiago Bernabeu, against Real Madrid) and the first Madrid Derby of the season – their first back-to-back wins at the Bernabeu ever. Over the past season, Simeone has hardened a team that was already moulded in his image – competitive, intense, relentless, clever, and absolutely committed to the cause of Atletico – into one of the most frightening in Europe. We kept expecting them to slip up in La Liga, for their small squad to finally run out of steam, yet they ultimately drew Barcelona on the final day to win their first La Liga title in eighteen years – the first time the mightiest duopoly in football has been broken in a decade. In Europe, they dispatched FC Porto, Zenit St. Petersburg, AC Milan, FC Barcelona, and Chelsea FC to reach their first Champions League Final in four decades, which they were minutes away from winning before exhaustion and injury allowed Real Madrid to take it in extra time. Of the eleven that started against Chelsea in their 3-1 second leg victory, seven were on the pitch for the loss to Albacete. The transformation is nothing short of spectacular. And nearly all of it is owed to Simeone. As Sid Lowe put it in his season roundup, the only question over Diego Simeone being Coach of the Year is whether “year” is the correct unit of time. Even without the final crowning glory of the Champions League, winning this La Liga against this Barcelona and Real Madrid should go down as one of the greatest managerial achievements in the history of football. Plus the all-black suit, shirt, and tie combo is just so goddamned badass.

 

That’s a wrap

That’s all folks! Stay tuned for the fun and fury of the FIFA World Cup starting next week!

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