Ten Games in September

septemberThe European season tends to hit full stride in September, with enough games played for stories to emerge that shape our expectations going forward, and this September was no exception.  After an international break, the month opened with a Madrid derby and ended midway through an entertaining Champions League midweek. Serie A again failed to make the mark, though AC Milan – Juventus was a candidate and sides Juventus and Roma ended the month as the only teams amongst the major leagues yet to drop points. German minnows Paderborn 07 continued to shine, and Olympiacos scored an upset of their own.

Real Madrid 1 – Atlético Madrid 2. The third Madrid derby of the season kicked off domestic football following the international break that opened September, and it was even better than the Supercopa games. With Diego Simeone still in the stands serving an 8 game ban from his actions in the last derby, Atlético started with Meixcan national (and childhood Real supporter) Raúl Jiménez alongside Mario Mandžukić up top. Real began the game in a 4-2-3-1, but after a 10′ Mandžukić header off a corner kick, they shifted to a 4-4-2 with Ronaldo joining Benzema in the front. Both sides had chances before Ronaldo earned and scored a 26′ penalty equalizer. Real went onto to dominate the rest of the first half, but Miguel Ángel Moyà was fantastic in goal to keep Atlético level. Atlético started the second half more effectively, and sought to push on at the hour mark by introducing Arda Turan on the right.  Atlético and especially Juanfran began to really press down the right flank, and at 75′ the right back cut back a pass from all the way in the corner that Raúl García dummied beautifully, leaving it for Turan to paste in at the left post. With a lead in hand, Atlético settled in and weathered an intense attack from Real for the final 15′ led by an excellent defensive display from João Miranda. Ironically, each Madrid team spent the rest of the month moving in the opposite direction, Real scoring 25 goals (+20) in the next five games, while Atlético earned two losses and a tie in the same period.

Olympiacos 3 – Atlético Madrid 2 (Champions League). Though some might point to erratic Schalke’s 1-1 draw against an otherwise rampant Chelsea, the biggest upset of the opening round of group stage Champions League games was almost certainly this rollicking David-and-Goaliath affair. Arthur Masuaku scored early, and Ibrahim Afellay added a second at 31′ to put the Greek side two up. But Atlético pulled one back shortly before halftime from a Mario Mandžukić header out of nothing, and the game was set for a second half siege. Olympiacos held up well, and at 73′ got the ball inside to Konstantinos Mitroglou to score a well-executed insurance goal. Atlético continued to press, however, and an 86′ multi-player build-up down the right flank ended with a Koke cross for Antoine Griezmann, tapping in at the far post. Atlético got a chance to equalize at 88′, attacking down the left flank, but in truth Olympiacos looked secure in injury time to earn a stunning victory.

Bayern Munich 1 – Manchester City 0 (Champions League). A tight, tactical battle between the champions of Germany and England. Pep Guardiola’s Bayern came out in an unexpected 3-4-3 built around a two-man midfield with newcomer Xabi Alonso sitting back and former left back Philipp Lahm more advanced. By 30′, though, Guardiola’s side had already reshuffled, Alonso dropping into the three-man defense and Lahm setting up deeper to allow David Alaba into a midfield position supporting the attack. For their part, a Manuel Pellegrini-less City set up in a counter-attacking 4-4-1-1, David Silva supporting Edin Džeko up top. Despite Bayern dominating possession (they had 59% for the whole game), City held their own effectively and created chances on the counter. At 58′, they brought in James Milner in order to further shore up their midfield defense. Bayern continued to attack down the right, and at 76′ added pressure by introducing Arjen Robben. At 88′, Pellegrini brought on Aleksandar Kolarov as a left wing to add an extra layer of defense in what increasingly looked like a hard-fought point for City.  But a blistering 36 yard shot from Jerome Boateng (impressively saved by Hart) led to consecutive corners, and in the aftermath of the second Boateng got the ball just left of the top of the box and hit a lovely 90′ winner to take all three points.

Paderborn 07 2 – Hannover 96 0. Tiny Paderborn went top of the table as a result of this 4th week win, admittedly with the help of dropped points from Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich–the first time in 5 1/2 years that neither has scored in a gameweek–and from Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach. The first half of the game was fast paced, but it remained 0-0 until a 71′ header from striker Elias Kachunga off Uwe Hünemeier’s cross in from the left. From there on it was all Hannover, who had an 89′ chance from Christian Schulz and an unanswered penalty shout against Padrborn’s Daniel Brückner at 91′. But the real magic came at 93′, when Mortiz Stoppelkamp, arguably Paderborn’s best player this season, made Bundesliga  history when he collected just outside his own box, turned, and fired an 83 meter shot that trickled the final few yards into Hannover’s goal. A magical end with a magical result–even if the magic only lasted until Paderborn’s midweek 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich.

Leicester City 5 – Manchester United 3. This didn’t look like a fixture destined to be the best game of the month. True, United had struggled in the season, with losses to Swansea City and League One side MK Dons (playing a youth team in the Capital One Cup) and ties with Sunderland and Burnley; while Nigel Pearson’s Leicester City had posted impressive ties against both Everton and Arsenal and were coming off their first victory of the season against Stoke City. But Louis Van Gaal’s side appeared to have started the turnaround with a 4-0 demolition of an admittedly anemic QPR. Leicester was a step up, to be sure, but transfer arrivals Radamel Falcão and Ángel Di María looked more than ready to push on. Though Leicester started the game well, David Nugent dropping off to set up in a 4-3-1-2 that mirrored their opponents, by just over a quarter of an hour they were two goals down against the run of play, Falcão feeding Robin Van Persie and Di María scoring a brilliant goal on his own. The potential landslide was arrested at 18′, when Leonardo Ulloa headed in off a Jamie Vardy cross to pull one back, and the first half was generally an evenly contested affair. A 57′ shot by Di María redirected in by Ander Herrera, however, would seem to have sewn things up for the away side at 1-3. But at 61′ Jamie Vardy shoved Rafael da Silva off the ball and then fell over in the box when the defender retaliated, earning his side a penalty efficiently taken by David Nugent. Vardy’s shove was not the only controversial action by referee Mark Clattenburg (right back Ritchie de Laet was s particularly lucky boy), but it was the one that turned the tide. At 64′, Argentine legend Esteban Cambiasso deposited a ball United couldn’t quite clear low and right to equalize. At 79′, de Laet stripped Juan Mata of the ball and fed Vardy on the counter, whose near-side shot put the home side ahead. And at 83′, Leicester City secured the win when Leonardo Ulloa scored a penalty given up for a red card tackle by Tyler Blackett. Manchester United would begin to actually turn the tide in the aftermath of this performance, but Leicester’s refusal to capitulate made this one a David-and-Goliath affair to be remembered.

Manchester City 1 – Chelsea 1. Though overshadowed by the 8-goal early game, the season’s first meeting between likely Premier League title contenders was a fantastic game in its own right. City were probably the better team in a physical first half; certainly they were the more controlling, with 61% possession as Cesc Fàbregas sat back alongside Nemanja Matić in a 4-2-3-1. After an hour, José Mourinho brought on Andre Schürrle and John Obi Mikel, releasing Fàbregas to create in the middle while adding a second true holder behind him. The key shift in the game, though, came when Pablo Zabaleta fouled Diego Costa, creating a kerfuffle that earned Costa a yellow but Zabaleta his 2nd, bringing City down to 10 men. Chelsea struck almost immediately, with Schürrle finishing off a nice team goal to put Mourinho’s team up. Pellegrini wasn’t willing to concede the game, however, bringing on first winger Jesús Navas and then, at 78′, Chelsea legend and New York City FC “loanee” Frank Lampard. City continued to push, and at 85′ David Silva played James Milner in behind, whose cross found Lampard to equalize against his former club. Milner put in a Man of the Match performance in a fantastic contest.

[US Edition] Sporting Kansas City 2 – New England Revolution 3. As Major League Soccer heads toward that constant of American sports, the play-offs, things appear to be heating up. The New York Red Bulls had beaten the league-leading Seattle Sounders on the 20th in a closer game than the 4-1 scoreline would indicate, and in a game similar to this one on the 27th, Michael Bradley scored an 89′ free kick that snuck in at the right post to give Toronto FC a 3-2 victory over the Portland Timbers. But this Eastern Conference showdown was the best of the bunch. New England’s Kelyn Rowe scored a 22′ goal, and then a devastating field length run up the middle by defender José Gonçalves ended in the Revs’ 2nd goal before halftime. But the second half favored KC, with Paulo Nagamura scoring a goal and assisting Dom Dwyer in a matter of minutes right before the hour mark to pull the game level. The game seemed headed for a tie until recent New England acquisition Jermaine Jones wasn’t closed down 24 yards out and scored his first MLS goal with a stunning 85′ strike to give his team all three points and move them to second in the East.

Schalke 04 2 – Borussia Dortmund 1.  The opening Reiverderby of the season saw two struggling teams. Dortmund came into the game following a midweek tie and a loss the previous weekend, leaving them with only 7 points in their opening five games, already in danger of slipping out of contention for the title. Schalke, for their part, had managed impressive ties against Bayern Munich domestically and Chelsea in the Champions League, but continued to lose games against lesser competition as is their wont. Schalke opened the scoring at 10′ with a Mats Hummel’s header, and then an even more impressive second at 23′ from Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting in the teeth of a strong response to the first from Dortmund. But Dortmund continued to dominate, and quickly got their reward three minutes later, Adrían Ramos crossing for Pierre-Emrick Aubameyang to pull one back. The rest of the 1st half was exciting, but the 2nd was even better.  After a two-way quarter hour that probably favored Dortmund, Jürgen Klopp brought on his prodigal son, Shinji Kagawa, and Dortmund further tightened their grip on the game, but could never quite get the breakthrough they needed. Neither team would rebound well (Schalke undoing their Champions League heroics by tying Maribor at the midweek) after this one, but it was a big win for Schalke and a great game for fans.

[EU Edition] Olympique de Marseille 2 – Saint-Étienne 1. With Paris Saint-Germain struggling, Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille have been the story of Ligue 1 this season. The team had adapted rapidly to Bielsa’s trademark 3-1-3-3 (or 3-3-3-1, depending on where the wing backs and the wide strikers are placed), and after a tie and loss in their opening games had not dropped a point. For all that, Saint-Étienne were their first serious opposition, and Marseille rose to the challenge early, Giannelli Imbula scoring a long shot at 7′ and André Ayew stealing a ball to set up Dimitri Payet for a second at 28′. But if the first half was all Marseille, Saint-Étienne took charge in the second. At 53′, Jonathan Brison ran onto what had appeared an errant cross by Allan Saint-Maximin and scored near post to pull one back. But despite the improved performance from Saint-Étienne and a drop in intensity from Bielsa’s squad, they managed to hold on and keep their spot atop Ligue 1.

Manchester City 1 – Roma 1 (Champions League). With both Milan sides and Napoli struggling in the early going, Roma has been the most exciting threat to Juventus in Serie A, matching their rivals win for win in the league. Which means that Manchester City again find themselves in a very difficult group, and in something as close to a must-win game as is possible in the second round of the group stage. Sergio Agüero converted an early penalty, but at 23′ Seydou Keita started a counter-attack that ended in a brilliant chip goal by the eternal striker, Francesco Totti, becoming the oldest player (38) to score a Champions League goal. Gervinho, too, shined in an open-ended first half that perhaps slightly favored the Italian side. The start of the second half, though, saw the introduction of James Milner to stiffen City’s midfield, and they looked the better side for the rest of the game, particularly so after the 71′ introduction of Lampard. But despite some brilliant team play and late chances by both Lampard and Silva, Manchester City was unable to break the deadlock, leaving the group’s second qualification spot (behind Bayern Munich) very much up in the air.

Paris Saint-Germain 3 – Barcelona 2 (Champions League). With Zlatan Ibrahimović out with a tendon injury and Barcelona flying under new manager Luis Enrique, this game seemed unlikely to produce quite the sparks of the 2012-13 quarterfinal tie between the sides. But at 10′ Barcelona’s old weakness at set plays reared its head, David Luiz scoring from a Lucas Moura free kick. Barcelona responded immediately with a stunning tiki-taka goal created largely by the interplay between Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Barcelona continued to look the more dangerous team, right up to their 26′ concession of a corner kick goal to Marco Verratti, and despite roughly 60% possession Barcelona entered halftime a goal down. Paris started the second half strongly, and at 54′ went two goals up, Blaise Matuidi scoring at the back post off a Gregory van der Weil cross. For the second time in the game, Barcelona responded immediately, Messi drawing three defenders in his effort to connect with a Dani Alves cross, leaving Neymar with plenty of space and time to pass his shot into the far post when the ball dropped to him instead. Barcelona continued to push for another goal, bringing on Xavi Hernández in the 69′ (his record-setting 143rd appearance in the competition), but despite a lively finish it ended 3-2.

Honorable Mention: 3rd Germany 2 – Argentina 4 (Int’l Friendly); 9th Czech Republic 2 – Holland 1 (Euro Qualifier); 13th Arsenal 2 – Manchester City 2, Barcelona 2 – Athletic Bilbao 0, Weder Bremen 3 – Bayer Leverkusen 3; 17th Schalke 04 1 – Chelsea 1 (Champions League); 20th AC Milan 0 – Juventus 1, West Ham United 3 – Liverpool 1, Atlético Madrid 2 – Celta Vigo 2; 27th Liverpool 1 – Everton 1; Villareal 0 – Real Madrid 2, Toronto FC 3 – Portland Timbers 2.

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