The start of a new season always brings fresh excitement. Last year’s powerhouses are looking to mark their territory while bedding in new arrivals from the summer transfer market, while newly promoted sides are still vibrant from last year’s successes and not yet worn down by the relentless grind of a higher level of competition. As it happens, both types of teams featured in August’s top games, though not from early birds Ligue 1 (whose season opened on the 8th) or late-risers Serie A (who opened on the 24th)–except for Napoli in a Champions League qualifier. This month I’m including a US/EU alternate for the tenth game (though games are listed chronologically rather than ranked) in order to get the MLS into the discussion.
Napoli 1 – Athletic Bilbao 1 (Champions League Qualifying Playoffs, 1st Leg). Many Italians viewed this tie, Serie A’s 3rd place team against La Liga’s 4th, as a kind of referendum on the health of Italian football as a whole. The first leg was arguably the best of this round of fixtures (it’s main competition being Bayer Leverkusen’s barnstorming 2-3 away win over FC Copenhagen). Shortly before halftime, Iker Muniain scored from the top of the box off a cross in from Óscar de Marcos, Athletic having grown into the game from about 20′ on. They statyed on the front foot until Gonzalo Higuaín took a ball from Marek Hamšík out of the air and scored a brilliant 68′ goal. Immediately afterward he fed José Callejón on his right for a great opportunity badly missed, and while Napoli remained the stronger side for the rest of the game, they were unable to capitalize. That set the stage for a second leg that confirmed Italian fears, striker Aritz Aduriz leading Bilbao in a second half surge to defeat Rafa Benítez’s side 3-1.
Real Madrid 1 – Atlético Madrid 1 (Supercopa, 1st Leg). Both legs of Spain’s pseudo-competitve season opener were in deadly earnest, a crosstown derby and rematch of the Champions League final. The first leg of the tie, though, was probably the better game. Toni Kroos and Mario Mandžukić both started for their new clubs, with fellow newcomers James Rodríguez and Antoine Griezmann waiting on the bench for 46′ and 57′ substitutions, respectively. The first half was evenly contested and played out to form, Real with 73% possession, but Atlético creating more shots on goal through their counter-attack. Gareth Bale looked sharp, particularly with his first touches, while the battle between Mandžukić and Sergio Ramos was a constant (Ramos actually got away with punching the Atlético striker in the face at 59′). Real’s increasing second half pressure eventually created an opportunistic 81′ goal for Rodríguez and they looked like closing out the game–until an 88′ corner was tipped in by Raúl García to give Atlético an away goal going into a second leg they would win off a solitary Mandžukić goal at 2′. That second leg also featured coach Diego Simeone sent to the stands for, among other things, “patting” the 4th official’s head.
Borussia Dortmund 0 – Bayer Leverkusen 2. Hopes were high for Leverkusen this season under new coach Roger Schmidt, and they delivered on this opening weekend game with the fastest goal in Bundesliga history. Off the kickoff, they passed down the left flank and inside to Karim Bellarabi, who nutmegged Matthais Ginter on the way to a left post goal in the 7th second. From there, Bayer gave Dortmund a taste of their own gegenpressing medicine, creating a frenetic, high-tempo game that never really let up. By 30′, however, Dortmund were probably the better side notwithstanding Bayer’s relentless press, and decidedly so for the final third of the game, spurred on after a brief resurgence from Bayer by the introduction of Kevin Großkreutz and Jonas Hofmann. In truth, Dortmund deserved an equalizer, but at 95′ Bellarabi stripped left back Erik Durm and slipped a perfect ball behind the BVBs’ defense for Stefan Kießling to hammer home. This was a riveting game throughout, contested on both sides. Do yourself a favor, and catch Bayer in the Champions League against Monaco on September 16th.
Everton 2 – Arsenal 2. Roberto Martinez claims his team is not yet up to full mid-season fitness, leading them to tire at the end of games from the pressing, tracking back, and energetic counter-attacking his brand of football requires. If so, neutrals may be hoping for at least another month of the same. They scored two first half goals, Steven Naismith assisting and scoring the second (which, notwithstanding his beautiful run, should probably have been ruled offsides). To start the second half, Arsène Wenger replaced Alexis Sánchez as the lone striker in his 4-3-3 with Olivier Giroud, further adding Santi Cazorla and World Cup stand-out Joel Campbell to the attack for the final 15′. At 83′, Cazorla assisted a Ramsey goal, and at 90′ Giroud scored the late equalizer to claw back a point for Arsenal.
[EU Edition] Eibar 1 – Real Sociedad 0. Though German minnow Paderborn FC have come flying out of the gates, with a 2-2 tie against Mainz and a 1-3 away victory over Hamburg to end the month in 2nd place in the table–no mean feat, it must be said–they are a whale of a team by comparison with little Eibar. With a population of just over 140,000, Paderborn is the same size as recent Premier League minnows Blackpool. Eibar, by comparison, is a Basque village of roughly 27,000. Their stadium is a 6000-seater. And yet, in this opening day Basque derby they somehow produced a fully deserved victory, with tight, organized defending and an utterly brilliant Javi Lara free kick at the end of the first half, striking the ball in from an impossible angle out on the left. It’s a goal that no Eibar fan will ever forget.
[US Edition] Portland Timbers 2 – Seattle Sounders 4. Simply on the level of play, this MLS showpiece probably doesn’t make the cut; but there is no question that this is the one European style derby in US soccer, with atmosphere off the pitch and bite on it. The reverse fixture was televised after the World Cup final, Seattle winning 2-0 as befit their position atop the table and Portland’s in the doldrums. In the next five games, however, Seattle picked up only 4 points while Portland picked up 10, creating opposing trends going into the game (one thing that must be said for the MLS, it has parity in spades). After an exciting opening 15′ with real chances for both sides, Brad Evans served up a goal for Obafemi Martins. The two sides continued to battle until Martins fed Clint Dempsey with a 34′ goal. Seattle never looked back. Substitute Chad Barrett scored a third at 70′, and when Portland sub Fanendo Adi pulled one back a few minutes later (he would score a 2nd consolation goal in stoppage time), Martins responded with the MLS Goal of the Week. Martins was the player of the game, and one of the stand-outs in the league this season.
Manchester City 3 – Liverpool 1. Liverpool looked solid for 20 minutes in the middle of the first half, but this game primarily served as a showpiece for last year’s champions. New signing Fernando looked solid as Fernandinho’s replacement in midfield, and Stevan Jovetić shined in attack, scoring City’s first two goals with real panache. Sergio Agüero looked good using his pace to score a third immediately after his 69′ introduction. A Zabaleta own goal created by legitimate Liverpool pressure late, which continued until 86′. Then Glen Johnson had to leave the game, bringing Liverpool down to ten men; followed quickly by injuries to Martin Skrtel and Alberto Moreno that left their back line decimated (though those two remained on the pitch). City didn’t run riot, but they were never in danger again. The next weekend, of course, Manchester City went on to lose to Aston Villa while Liverpool dismantled Tottenham, so it’s probably not a game to read much into.
Ludogorets Razgrad 1 – Steaua Bucharest 0, 6-5 PKs (Champions League Qualifying Playoffs, 2nd Leg). To be honest, it’s only really the end of this game that demanded attention, though amongst a round of comfortable 2nd leg playoff wins it stood out even before Ludogorets midfielder Wanderson knocked a short clearance straight back into Bucharest’s goal at 90′, sending the tie into extra time. At 118′, with Ludogorets already having used their three substitutions, Fernando Varela was sprung by a brilliant pass and Ludogorets’ keeper Vladislav Stoyanov drew a deserved red card for his tackle just outside the box. Romanian defender Cosmin Moți, who had previously played at Dinamo Bucharest, borrowed the back-up keeper’s jersey and went in goal for the free kick, which Nicolae Stanciu put over the crossbar. Penalties followed immediately, and Moți took the first (successfully), then saved two of Bucharest’s penalties to send Ludogorets through to the group stage of the Champions League. It’s worth noting that Razgrad, at just under 33,000, is not that much larger than Eibar (and they, too, play in 6000-seater), though they have won the Bulgairan league for the past three years and made the round of 16 in last year’s Europa.
Everton 3 – Chelsea 6. By some distance, this was the most exciting game of the young season. Two Chelsea goals in the opening 3′ were not promising, even if the Blues’ blitzkrieg opening had a kind of majesty to it. Tim Howard’s uncalled 9′ handling of the ball outside the box should have produced a penalty and a sending off that would have (rightly) ended the game. But by 15′, Everton had stabilized, and from 20′-25′ on were the better team, finally scoring a deserved goal off a Kevin Mirallas header at the end of the first half. While the first half was excellent, the second rose to yet another level, as the two sides exchanged blows, 5 quality goals in eleven minutes. Diego Costa was exceptional throughout, with sharp, smart movement and a real connection with Cesc Fàbregas. His personality came out, too, tussling with Seamus Coleman and then taunting him after the defender gave up an own goal created by Eden Hazard. On Everton’s side, Coleman and Steven Naismith, playing in the middle of a 4-2-3-1 beneath Romelu Lukaku, shined most brightly. Ramires, having been at fault in Everton’s first two goals, assisted Chelsea’s fourth and scored their fifth goal. In between those two, the newly signed substitute Samuel Eto’o scored a header against his old employers to bring Everton within a goal of Chelsea for the third time in the game. Costa got a late second goal to cap a great performance in a truly entertaining game.
Schalke 04 1 – Bayern Munich 1. Some big teams have struggled early in the season. Manchester United continued their woes from last season despite the hiring of Louis Van Gaal; Paris Saint Gemain managed only 4 points in their first three games against mid-table sides (though they ended the month with a 5-0 drubbing of a resurgent Saint Étienne); and Real Madrid did not win all the games (see above and below). Sensible Germans expected the same from Bayern Munich because of their deep run in the World Cup. Playing without Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, and Bastian Schweinsteiger (though new signing Xabi Alonso was in the starting XI), Bayern nonetheless dominated a high-paced and exciting first half with 63% possession. But they only scored an early Robert Lewandowski goal, and in the second half the pace dropped noticeably as Bayern reverted to their more patient style of last season. That seemed to favor Schalke, and shortly after early substitutions for two more World Cup heavies, Mario Götze and Jérôme Boateng, Benedikt Höwedes bundled in an equalizer off a Sidney Sam free kick. Bayern laid siege to Schalke in the final stage of the game, but were unable to wrest the tie away from their Westphalian opponents.
Real Sociedad 4 – Real Madrid 2. Despite purchasing arguably the two biggest stars of the World Cup in James Rodríguez and Toni Kroos, Real Madrid struggled in August. In addition to their Supercopa loss, they struggled in the season opener against Córdoba before pulling out a win. But facing a Sociedad side they had beaten in ten of their last eleven meetings, a side that was also in crisis after losing their opener to tiny Eibar and crashing unexpectedly out of the Europa League with a midweek 3-0 away loss to Russian side Krasnodar, los Merengues had every reason for confidence despite the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo to a relapsed thigh injury. The opening of the game confirmed the point, as they scored twice in the opening 11′, with a Sergio Ramos header and a brilliant goal by Gareth Bale. But Sociedad fought back, scoring a set piece goal of their own at 35′ and then a stunner from David Zurutuza at 41′ to draw level by halftime. The game remained a tight affair until the 60′ introductions of Sergio Canales and Carlos Vela turned the tide. The former contributed to the build-up play of Zurutuza’s second of the game, while the latter scored Sociedad’s fourth to put a stunned Madrid out of the game with 15′ remaining.
Header image modified from Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, woodcut for “August” Eclogue.