Ten Games in October

octoberOctober opened with a game between the last two teams in the major European leagues to not have dropped points, and ended with the return of Luis Suárez in the first Classico of the season.  Not shabby as bookends go. It was a month in which Real Madrid and Bayern Munich cemented their positions as the top clubs in Europe, particularly after Chelsea’s late wobble. Borussia Dortmund continued their surreal season of domestic losses and Champions League dominance, though without producing any deeply compelling games along the way. Add to that a truly riveting European break and you have yourself a pretty good month of football. Here were the ten top highlights:

Eibar 3 – Levante 3. While Leicester City has struggled since defeating Manchester United late in September, European minnows Ludogorets Razgrad (Romania), Paderborn (Germany), and especially Eibar have continued to deliver the goods–never more thrillingly than in this match. Levante scored almost immediately off a long shot by José Luis Morales, and though Eibar were the better side in the first half, a late goal from Víctor Camarasa seemed to put the game out of reach. But just after the restart, Javi Lara took a shot that Pedro López chested into Levante’s net for an own goal, and Eibar were back in the game.  They equalized at 70′ off a truly unbelievable volley from Saúl Berjón, and should have gone ahead at when a goal by substitute Federico Piovaccari was incorrectly called back for offsides. Víctor Casadesús added salt to the wound by putting Levante back ahead at 79′, but Piovaccari regained a point for his side with a goal at the death.

Juventus 3 – Roma 2. This showdown between the last two teams in the major leagues not to have dropped points did not disappoint, though referee Gianluca Rocchi played a larger role than one might have hoped. Some of that was a tempest in a teapot. Having awarded a very questionable 26′ penalty to gift Juventus a Carlos Tevez penalty, he awarded a 31′ make-up call when Francesco Totti grabbed hold of Stephan Lichsteiner and was “pulled down” by him. Totti made good and things were essentially even up, though Rudi Garcia had been sent to the stands and the first half ended with six of the games eventual seven yellow cards. That said, the first half offered some excellent two-way football. Giorgio Chiellini scored at 43′ off a brilliant Gervinho assist, but at 45’+2′, Pogba drew another penalty for a foul that happened just outside the penalty box, and Tevez unjustly equalized before the half. Roma started the 2nd half strongly, but slowly Juventus shifted onto the front foot. At 86′ a corner fell to Leonardo Bonucci at the top of the box for a great left post winner. After the game, Totti suggested that Juventus bought the game, but if so it was their only purchase in a horrible month that saw losses to Atlético Madrid, Olympiacos, and Genoa, as well as a tie at lowly Sassuolo.

Poland 2 – Germany 0 (Euro 2016 Qualifier). There were a number of stunning results in the 2nd and 3rd round of Euro qualifiers, including Spain’s 2-1 loss to Slovakia and Iceland’s 2-0 victory over Netherlands. None were more enjoyable than this one. Poland had never won in their 19 encounters with Germany, and while they were competitive in an entertaining opening 35′, Germany finished the half with a series of dangerous chances, debutant Karim Bellarabi looking particularly threatening. But at 51′, Arkadiusz Milik beat Manuel Neuer to a ball in from Łukasz Piszczek and headed it past the World Cup-winning keeper to put the home nation up. Germany’s response was immediate and sustained, though after 60′ Poland again managed to get the occasional chance on the counter. Substitute (and Polish-born German national) Lukas Podolski hit a powerful volley off the crossbar at 81′; but it was Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski who ensured Poland’s victory, easily holding off Eric Durm to receive a throw-in in the box and square it for a waiting Sebastian Mila. Germany followed this loss up by conceding a late John O’Shea goal to tie with Ireland.

Manchester City 4 – Tottenham Hotspur 1. A misleading scoreline for what was a cracking game. Spurs attacked from the outset, creating an open and exciting two-way game. Sergio Agüero opened the scoring at 13′, but Spurs answered immediately Ryan Mason stripping Fernando at 15′ to spark an attack ending in a Christian Eriksen equalizer. 5′ later, City were awarded a fairly weak penalty that gave Agüero his second goal on the day. He got another penalty chance at 31′, this one well deserved–but missed it, keeping Tottenham in touching distance. At 62′, it was Spurs’ turn for a penalty, the least deserved of the lot since the foul took place outside the box. But Roberto Soldado missed his chance, and by 68′ his team was down a man and another Agüero penalty thanks to the poor decision-making of center back Federico Fazio. The final goal was also by Agüero, this time in open play, completing one of the most dominant individual performances by anyone not named Ronaldo this season.

Queens Park Rangers 2 – Liverpool 3. No one had this game on their tip sheet of tasty games, but it turned out to be one of the most exciting encounters of the month. Despite being rooted to the bottom of the table with manager Harry Redknapp odds on favorite for the sack, it was QPR that came out best in a scoreless but exciting first half. Charlie Austin and especially Leroy Fer each had goalmouth chances, while Bobby Zamora also put in a good shift. They had another golden chance from Sandro saved at the start of the 2nd half, but by the 60′ mark things began to change.  At 62′, Mario Balotelli missed Liverpool’s best chance of the game, shooting over an open goal. But at 67′, a quick free kick led to an own goal by Richard Dunne put Liverpool up. The best was yet to come, though.  At 87′, late substitute Eduardo Vargas scored his first Premier League goal to equalize. At 90′, Philippe Coutinho scored a lovely goal on an effective Liverpool counter-attack, apparently the winner. But Vargas scored his second off at 91′ corner kick. In the final minute of announced stoppage time, QPR had a long free kick to try and win the game. Instead, Coutinho spurred a counter-attack and hit Raheem Sterling with a long pass into the box, and Sterling’s squared pass created a 2nd own goal, this time off Steven Caulker. A breathless ending to an already fantastic game.

[US Edition] Los Angeles Galaxy 2 – Seattle Sounders 2. Whether through happenstance or conspiracy, the MLS regular season effectively ended with a home-and-away series between the top two sides to determine the winner of the Supporter’s Shield and home field advantage throughout the play-offs. The first of these games was absolutely electric. Though the Galaxy started well, Seattle was by a good bit the stronger side in the first half behind the strike partnership of Clint Dempsey and Obafemi Martins. But it was LA who scored against the run of play at the death of the half, Baggio Husidić collecting a ball at the top of the box and beating Stefan Frei low right. When Husidić fed Marcelo Sarvas on a second LA goal on the other side of halftime, the game seemed over. But Seattle hung in the game, introducing Marco Pappa and releasing Deandre Yedlin to join the attack. At 69′, Yedlin crossed a ball in that Martins redirected for a far post Dempsey goal, and three minutes later Martins fed an unmarked Lamar Neagle to equalize from the right. It was a momentum-shifting performance capped off by an Omar Gonzalez ejection in the 88′ to set Seattle up nice for their home tie the following week, which they won 2-0 to take their first trophy in the league.

[EU Edition] Schalke 4 – Sporting Clube de Portugal 3 (Champions League). With the exceptions of Olympiacos and Ludogorets Razgrad, the third round of group games involved big teams dominating smaller opposition, most remarkably in Bayern Munich’s 7-1 win away at Roma. And then there was this clash of mid-sized clubs. Manchester United loanee Nani, thriving back at his old club, put in the opener at 16′.  Quickly, however, things began to go wrong for the Lisbon side. Algerian striker Islam Slimani was injured and had to be replaced (by former Seattle Sounder, Fredy Montero) at 25′, and at 31′ defender Maurício dos Santos Nascimento was sent off for his second yellow card. Dennis Aogo equalized on the resulting free kick, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored from a potentially offside position at 51′, and Benedikt Höwedes headed in a Kaan Ayhan free kick at 62′ to seemingly secure the victory. But at 63′, Ayhan tripped André Carrillo in the box, and Adrien Silva scored the penalty. At 78′, he headed in an equalizer off a Cédric Soares cross for what should have been a truly remarkable comeback. But at 92′, an Aogo cross again reached Huntelaar, and his header rebounded off the face of Jonathan Silva. The end-line official unfortunately thought the ball had come off of Silva’s unwisely outstretched arms, and signaled for a penalty that was scored by Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. A stunningly harsh end given Sporting’s remarkable ten-man performance.

West Ham United 2 – Manchester City 1. Though West Ham were coming off attractive wins against relegation sides and could boast an electrifying win against Liverpool in September, City had just beaten Tottenham in a 4-1 victory that, while less convincing than the scoreline suggested, was still a good win. But no manager loves beating a top club more than Sam Allardyce, and at 21′ Alex Song fed Enner Valencia into the space behind Gaël Clichy to attack new-to-the-Premier-League center back Eliaquim Mangala, cutting a pass across the box for a waiting Morgan Amalfitano to tap in. West Ham continued to threaten on the break, but Manchester City’s possession was far from sterile, Sergio Agüero and Ya Ya Touré both hitting the bar with efforts that should have been goals. The game hung in the balance until 75′, when Diafra Sakho headed in an Aaron Cresswell cross to give West Ham an insurance goal. The policy was short-lived, however, as 2′ later David Silva dribbled down the right, cut inside through three defenders, and fired off a lovely far post goal to bring City back within one. Manuel Pellegrini’s side continued to press, with the best chance coming from an incredible left-sided shot from Stevan Jovetić, just tipped over by a diving Adrián to preserve the Hammers’ lead. The improbable win kept West Ham in 4th place for another weekend.

Real Madrid 3 – Barcelona 1. Though Real Madrid had won comfortably against Liverpool at midweek, the season’s opening Classico was the real test for Carlo Ancelotti’s updated side. This game also marked the return of Luis Suárez, making his competitive debut for Barcelona, but it was last year’s galactico Neymar who opened the scoring for the blaugrana at 3′. Real Madrid responded immediately with heavy pressure for about 20′ until Barcelona refound their footing. Sid Lowe described the first half as feeling something like a basketball game, with each side taking it in turn to attack the other. The equalizer came at 35′ from a Gerard Piqué hand ball resulting in a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty kick. Real Madrid were decidedly the better side to start the second half, and it was right in the middle of that spell that Pepe hit a long, powerful header in off a Luka Modrić corner to put Madrid up. Then, at 61′, came the crowning goal: a beautiful team effort that began with Isco (ably standing in for the injured Gareth Bale) stripping Andrés Iniesta on one side of the pitch and ended and ended with Karim Benzema scoring from the other, Ronaldo and James Rodríguez each getting their touches in along the way. Barcelona recovered their form and looked dangerous for the final 12′-15′ of the game, but by then it was too late. With the win, Real cemented their place alongside Bayern Munich at the summit of European football heading into November.

Manchester United 1 – Chelsea 1. This game was a tactically interesting slow-builder. Chelsea came into the game in top form, overwhelming favorites to win the league and coming off a mid-week hiding of Slovenian side Maribor in the Champions League. Even so, it was Louis Van Gaal’s side who looked sharper for the first half and early in the second (for an explanation of United’s game, see Michael Cox’s excellent analysis). But where last month Chelsea was pegged back by a goal from former legend Frank Lampard, this time around it was returning hero Didier Drogba, subbing in for the injured Diego Costa, who had a great header across goal from a Cesc Fàbregas assist at 53′. That could have been the end, but United did not give up. Ángel Di María, who had been deployed on the right (presumably to test Filipe Luís filling in at left back), shifted over to the left, and as José Mourinho was introducing John Obi Mikel to kill the game, Van Gaal brought on 18 year-old striker James Wilson for Juan Mata, shifting from 4-3-3 to a more aggressive 4-4-2. By 86′, Chelsea fans were chanting “Is there a fire drill?” at departing United supporters, but the last laugh came in Van Gaal time, as Branislav Ivanović received a second yellow card to give up a 94′ free kick that led to a great save by Thibault Courtois–punched out to Robin Van Persie, who scored the equalizing goal. It was a stunning ending to a fascinating tactical battle.

Borussia Mönchengladbach 0 – Bayern Munich 0. Following their historic 7-1 victory away to a Roma side that almost all pundits had suggested would be the real measure of Pep Guardiola’s side this year, Bayern Munich visited second-place Bundesliga side Mönchengladbach. As always, Guardiola’s side was tactically fascinating, once again using both Philippe Lahm and David Alaba as inside fullbacks (an idea I hope to develop in some analysis shortly) ahead of deep-lying playmaker Xabi Alonso to form the midfield triangle that allowed Juan Bernat and Rafinha to play as wing backs in a 4-3-1-2. Lucien Favre’s side, for their part, stayed in a tight 4-4-2 and looked to counter. Special praise goes to World Cup final concussionist Christoph Kramer, who topped every individual defensive category in the game with the exception of blocks (he had one less than the leaders). Having made it to halftime with chances both ways but no one conceding, Mönchengladbach came out looking even more threatening on the counter in the second half. Manuel Neuer certainly looked like the best goalkeeper in the world, and needed to in this game. To Guardiola’s credit, he responded with attacking changes, replacing Rafinha with Franck Ribéry. The result was a fabulously tense finish to about as exciting a nil-nil draw as you’re likely to see, as well as a potential game plan for how to frustrate this Bayern side.

Honorable Mention: 1st Basel 1 – Liverpool 0 (Champions League), 9th Slovakia 2 – Spain 1 (Euro 2016 Qualifier), 13th Iceland 2 – Netherlands 0 (Euro 2016 Qualifier), 22nd Olympiacos 1 – Juventus 0 (Champions League), Ludogorets Razgrad 1 – Basel 0 (Champions League), 25th Eintracht Frankfurt 4 – Stuttgart 5.

Important but not Entertaining: 1st Atlético Madrid 1 – Juventus 0 (Champion League), 18th Southampton 8 – Sunderland 0, 21st Roma 1 – Bayern Munich 7, 26th Olympique Lyonnais 1 – Olympique de Marsaille 0.

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