Ten Games in February

harpersfebAfter letting things slide for a few months, I thought I would get back into the game and round up the ten best games of a lively February. It looks like I’ve gotten to the point in the season where all that’s needed is an unexpected wealth of goals to catch my interest, and this month provided plenty of those.

Barcelona 3 – Villarreal 2. Following a loss to Real Sociedad at the start of January, Barcelona found a renewed form that was, depending on whether you believed the best player in the world or his beleaguered manager, the result of the players taking responsibility for themselves or the natural progression of things. Either way, February opened with one of Barca’s more entertaining wins.  Barcelona dominated the early going, Luis Suárez in particular with a series of dangerous chances. But Villarreal struck first, at 31′, when Denis Cheryshev got a foot on an errant shot from Mario Pérez to redirect it past Claudio Bravo. The yellow submarine nearly held on for the rest of the half, Luciano Vietto even getting a serious headed chance at 43′. But Neymar scored off the rebound of a lovely Rafinha Alcântara shot at the death of halftime to bring things level. Villarreal would open the second half with a Vietto goal created by a run and cut back from Giovani dos Santos. But 2′ later Barcelona was again level off a team goal finished off by Rafinha, and 2′ after that they were ahead from a long shot by Lionel Messi. Both sides continued to have opportunities, including a goal by Víctor Ruiz called back on a tight offsides ruling, but the game ended 3-2. Barcelona would go on to dispatch Villarreal with significantly less resistance in a two-legged Copa del Rey semifinal tie and would follow up their only loss in February, 1-0 to Málaga, with a Champions League victory at Manchester City much more comprehensive than the 1-2 scoreline suggested.

Ivory Coast 3 – Algeria 1 (Africa Cup of Nations Quarterfinal). Though the dramatic come-from-behind shoot-out against Ghana to win Ivory Coast the Africa Cup of Nations was as exciting as anything the tournament had to offer, it finished off a 0-0 draw that, like so many international finals, was underwhelming. Their quarterfinal tie against Algeria, on the other hand, was probably the best game of the tournament. Both sides had chances before Wilfried Bony headed in the 26′ opener. El Arbi Hillel Soudani equalized at 51′ with the help of some poor defending by Eric Bertrand Bailly. Algeria continued to pressure Ivory Coast, but Bony scored a second header at 68′ to give his side the lead. A 94′ Gervinho strike padded the scoreline of a tight game.

Liverpool 3 – Tottenham Hotspur 2. Having beaten Arsenal the previous weekend, Spurs came into this match with a good feeling. It was certainly a high-flying affair between two of the most exciting teams in the Premier League at the time. Twice Liverpool pulled ahead, off a long shot from Lazar Marković at 15′ and then from a 53′ Steven Gerrard penalty earned by Daniel Sturridge. And twice Tottenham’s in-form Harry Kane came to the rescue, slipped into the box by Érik Lamela for a 26′ equalizer and then getting to the rebound of a Christian Eriksen free kick to assist Moussa Dembélé at 61′, though Kane may have been offsides on the second equalizer. Brendan Rodgers sprang into action, bringing on Dejan Lovren for Gerrard in order to push Emre Can into the midfield, Mario Balotelli for Sturridge, and Adam Lallana for Marković.  It was Balotelli scoring his first goal for Liverpool from a Lallana cross at 83′ that won the game, making the manager look a sharp operator in this one.

Borussia Dortmund 4 – Mainz 2. After spending effectively the whole of the season in the relegation zone, Dortmund finally returned to league form, winning all five of their games in February and scoring at least 3 goals in all but one. This game, however, opened with a poor decision by Roman Weidenfeller brutally punished, at 1′, when Elkin Soto recovered the keeper’s punched clearance and quickly hit a stunning shot to score on his open net. Marco Reus nearly equalized at 3′ with a point blank shot off the post, but Dortmund would have to wait for the second-half header from Neven Subotić off a corner kick.  Reus himself would have to wait until 55′ for a goal, fed through by Kevin Kampl. But Mainz equalized immediately, Yunus Mallı scoring on the counter. The winning goal came for Dortmund at 71′, Reus hitting a brilliant long ball to play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in behind for a touch past Stefanos Kapino. Nuri Şahin added an insurance goal 7′ later. Reus was a clear Man of the Match, but İlkay Gündoğan,who like Reus has been out for most of the season, dominated the midfield. Ironically, the turnaround in Dortmund’s league form was accompanied by their first hiccup in the Champions League, as they lost the first leg of a round of 16 tie to Juventus at the end of the month.

Bayer Leverkusen 4 – Wolfsburg 5. Probably the best game of a good month. 2nd place Wolfsburg seemed to have the game sewed up in the first half, with two goals from Bas Dost to either side of a remarkable 40 yard free kick goal from Naldo. But Roger Schmidt made all three of his changes at halftime and pushed the speedy winger Karim Bellarabi up top alongside substitute Josip Drmić, shifting from 4-2-3-1 to 4-4-2. The changes bore fruit around the hour mark, as Son Heung-min first scored by putting in the rebound off a Bellarabi shot and then took advantage of Wolfsburg’s Diego Benaglio coming off his line to score a second at 62′. The next 5′ saw two hat tricks completed, as first Dost and then Son each scored a third to bring the total to 3-4. When Bellarabi equalized for the home side at 72′, Leverkusen looked certain to get something from the game. But then Leverkusen defender Emir Spahić earned his second yellow at 82′ for an elbow in Dost’s face during an ariel duel, and the weight of play shifted back in Wolfsburg’s favor. With the final kick of the game, Dost slipped in front of Leverkusen keeper Bernd Leno to tip in the winning goal off a Vieirinha cross. Bayer would concede another last-second goal the following week in a 2-2 away tie with Augsburg, but they would return to form magnificently in a thrilling 1-0 victory over Atlético Madrid in the Champions League.

Celta de Vigo 2 – Atlético Madrid 0. Atlético entered this game off the back of four consecutive league wins, the last a 4-0 victory in the Madrid derby that suggested a renewed energy for their title defense. Celta Vigo, by comparison, were winless in eleven, but they dominated a scoreless first half, particularly Michael Krohn-Dehli and Nolito. Having already lost Tiago to injury in the first half, coach Diego Simeone replaced Fernando Torres with the more creative Cani at the start of the second half, but to little effect. Though deserved, Celta Vigo’s breakthrough came under questionable circumstances, with an uncalled handball by Augusto Fernández in the build-up to Mario Suarez’s foul on Nolito in the box. The goal seemed to spur a fight back in Atlético, but only until Krohn-Dehli found Fabián Orellana on the right side of the box to score a lovely insurance goal. The loss probably marked the end Atlético’s realistic chances of joining the title race.

Celtic 3 – Internazionale Milan 3 (Europa League). Two supposedly big clubs produced an undeniably compelling 1st leg tie in the round of 32 of the Europa League. The tie seemed done and dusted when first an electric Xherdan Shaqiri and then Rodrigo Palacio put Inter up by two with less than 15′ gone. But then Stuart Armstrong, playing in his first home game for Celtic, scored off an Adam Matthews assist and then forced a Hugo Campagnaro own goal to bring his team back level at 25′. But right before halftime, Craig Gordon misjudged a long ball into the box from Gary Medel, not getting ahold of it and allowing Palacio to slip past him for a second goal and Inter’s third. Celtic were probably the better side in a relatively open second half, and late substitute John Guidetti volleyed home an equalizer with one of his first touches at 93′ to give his side a deserved if spectacular tie. Inter Milan would control the return tie, scoring late after Celtic center back Virgil van Dijk was sent off at 36′; but Celtic gave their home supporters yet another European night to remember.

Real Sociedad 4 – Sevilla 3. Though something of a circus, this match was certainly exciting for the neutral. La Real took an early lead with an Imanol Agirretxe goal, but Sevilla dominated the first half and equalized with their own header from Timothée Kolodziejczak. The second half began with a confusing penalty for Real Sociedad that was probably deserved, but perhaps not for the reason awarded. Sevilla again dominated until Carlos Bacca equalized with a 67′ header that took him out of the game via a nasty cut over his eye. Sevilla’s next chance was headed off the line by Ion Ansotegi after keeper Gerónimo Rulli tried to stop Diogo Figueiras with what appeared to be a flying kick without a penalty. But the referee made up with a questionable hand ball call and Kevin Gamiero, Bacca’s replacement, scored Sevilla the penalty they had deserved 6′ earlier to take the lead at 78′. At 82′, Alejandro Arribas, who had been at fault for La Real’s first goal and missed an absolute sitter at 55′, capped his evening by scoring an own goal to bring Real Sociedad back level. A tie would probably have been a good result for the home side, all things considered, but at 90′ Xabi Prieto jabbed in a near post header off a right corner to give David Moyes the craziest, if not the most remarkable win of his tenure at La Real.

Athletic Bilbao 2 – Torino 3 (Europa League). Two teams that flourished in the first half of the 20th Century provided the most exciting two-legged tie of an above-average Europa League Round of 32. Having already delivered a scintillating 2-2 draw in Torino, Athletic coming from behind to equalize with a second away goal, Bilbao nearly went ahead in the return tie with a Beñat Etxeberria free kick at 9′. Instead, Fabio Quagliarella opened the scoring for Torino with a 16′ penalty that went in despite Iago Herrerin getting a solid hand on the attempt. The game, played out in the pouring rain, was as open as the scoreline suggests. Bilbao looked to enter halftime ahead on away goals when Andoni Iraola chipped Daniele Padelli off a brilliant cross in from Beñat. But in the dying moments of first half injury time, Maxi López headed in Matteo Darmian’s near post cross to put Torino back up. At the end of a furious opening 15′ of the second, Iker Muniain slipped a brilliant ball through to Óscar De Marcos in the box to pull Athletic back to level in the tie. But just over 5′ later, Darmian scored off an Omar El Kaddouri cross, and with the extra away goal now on their side, Torino looked comfortable seeing the game out.

Olympique de Marseilles 2 – Stade Malherbe Caen 3. Marseille and Caen were teams headed in the opposite direction even before this end-of-the-month meeting. Having raced to a commanding lead in Ligue 1, the wheels had come off Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille with an inconsistent January followed by three straight ties to start February. Caen, on the other hand, had begun January cemented to the bottom of the table, but a run that included a breathtaking 2-2 tie against Paris Saint-Germain (both goals coming after 88′) had them trending to the middle of the table. This game was even better, with a first half that had nearly everything but a goal. Caen had to substitute both of their wingers for injuries, and both teams had chances.  Marseille were the better side, though, and at 45’+2′ André Ayew was quicker than Alaeddine Yahia to the rebound off a magnificent Dimitri Payet shot to give the side their just reward. Caen started the second half brightly in response, creating threatening chances and leading Biesla to a double substitution at 60′, bringing on both André-Pierre Gignac and Romain Alessandrini. Gignac nearly scored with his first touch, and then at 63′ he finished a nice team goal to put Marseille two up. But at 67′, Nicolas Seube scored a remarkable deft goal off a corner kick that completely shifted the game’s momentum. Caen striker Emiliano Sala had a chance at 68′ and then did score at 70′, fed in by N’Golo Kanté, to equalize. From there, Marseille regained some of their composure. Rémy Vercoutre had to make a remarkable save at 76′ to keep Florian Thauvin’s effort out, and at 83′ Ayew narrowly missed a bicycle attempt. Caen left it to 87′, when Nicolas Benezet received on the left edge of the box, cut in, and curled the game-winner into the top right post, scoring Caen’s 20th goal in 7 matches.

Honorable Mention: 14th Paris Saint-Germain 2 – Stade Malherbe Caen 2, 19th Torino 2 – Athletic Bilbao 2 (Europa League), 22nd Tottenham Hotspur 2 – West Ham United 2, 24th Juventus 2 – Borussia Dortmund 1 (Champions League), Manchester City 1 – Barcelona 2 (Champions League), 25th Bayer Leverkusen 1 – Atlético Madrid 0 (Champions League).

Important but Uninteresting: 7th Atlético Madrid 4 – Real Madrid 0, 8th Ivory Coast 0 – Ghana 0 [9-8 PKs] (Africa Cup of Nations), 14th Bayern Munich 8 – Hamburg 0.

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