With the new year right around the corner, it seems like a good time to reflect on the opening half of the 2017-18 season (often referred to as the “apetura” in South American football). This is the first of 5 posts, one for each month of the European season, tracking the fifty best games so far. Here are my picks for August, a fantastic opening to the season.
11th Arsenal 4 – Leicester City 3. The Premier League’s first Friday night opener started brightly, with a laser header from new Arsenal signing Alexander Lacazette answered by a Shinji Okazaki header off a corner in the opening 5′. Arsenal dominated possession, but a Granit Xhaka turnover at the half hour mark led to a Jamie Vardy goal that put Leicester ahead. Right before halftime, a well-worked team goal finished off by Danny Welbeck drew Arsenal level. Leicester came out strong to start the second, Vardy scoring a second. Arsène Wenger responded by bringing on Aaron Ramsey and Olivier Giroud, and switching from a 3-4-3 to a 4-2-3-1. It paid off, with Ramsey equalizing and Giroud scoring an 85′ winner. A great comeback, but Arsenal’s goals conceded would prove more indicative, as they went on to lose 4-0 to Liverpool in the last game before the international break.
13th Juventus 2 – Lazio 3 (Supercoppa Italiana). Lazio scored an early opener in this pre-season one-off, Ciro Immobile earning a PK off Gianluigi Buffon and then scoring it. Early in the second half, Immobile headed in a second to double Lazio’s lead, and probably would have completed his hat trick on the hour mark but for an alert Buffon shutting down a counter-attacking opportunity. But Lazio began to fall deeper and deeper to protect their lead, and Juventus fought back with Paulo Dybala scoring a free kick at 86′ and a penalty in injury time that seemed to ensure an additional 30′. But Simone Inzaghi’s late substitutions combined to win Lazio the game before extra time, Jordan Lukaku assisting Alessandro Murgia for a dramatic finish.
Barcelona 1 – Real Madrid 3 (Supercopa de España). A half month after Barcelona beat Real Madrid in the so-called Miami Clasíco, the teams met once again in the first leg of Spain’s pre-season cup. Barcelona probably had the better of the early chances in a hotly contested first half, but it was an own goal by Gerard Piqué not long after the restart that put Real Madrid up. Jordi Alba had to block a Dani Carvajal chance not long afterward. But at 75′, Barcelona ended a long spell of possession with a penalty chance created by Luis Suárez, probably diving but in response to a lunging tackle by Keylor Navas (and perhaps, too, a make-up call for a foul by Carvajal that hadn’t been given). Lionel Messi scored the equalizing penalty. Real responded at 80′, Cristiano Ronaldo scoring off a counter-attack started by Toni Kroos and continued by Isco. Right after that, Ronaldo was given a harsh 2nd yellow for diving (he also shoved the ref after the call); but substitute Marco Asensio managed to score an insurance goal that left Madrid in charge of the tie despite Ronaldo’s suspension from the second game. They would go on to win that game 2-0 in the Camp Nou with a sub-strength side, underlining their position as the best team in the world.
19th Olympique Lyonnais 3 – Girondins de Bordeaux 3. Lyon jumped out to an early two-goal lead, the first an amazing mid-field strike by Nabil Fekir. But Sergi Darder got his second yellow to put Lyon a man down with 10′ remaining in the first half, and Malcom pulled one back for Bordeaux on a free kick just before the end of the first half. But a resolute Lyon held their ground and managed to regain a two-goal lead from a Bertrand Traoré free kick in the 74′. It wasn’t until the closing minutes of regulation that Lukas Lerager created space for himself in the box to pull one back for Bordeaux; and in injury time Malcom hit a stunning 25-yard shot to equalize at the death.
Girona 2 – Atlético Madrid 2. Tiny Girona made a fantastic start to their first-ever season in the top flight (in fairness, having been purchased this summer by the Manchester City ownership group and Pep Guardiola’s brother, Pere, has not hurt their loan recruitment policy). Against one of Europe’s stingiest defenses, they went two up in the opening 30′ off a brace by Cristhian Stuani. Atlético were clearly frustrated by the upstarts, and star Antoine Griezmann was sent off for diving and dissent with his team still two goals down and only 25′ remaining. But Diego Simeone teams do not give up, and Atlético managed to level off a blast from substitute Ángel Correa and a free kick headed in by José Giménez. Olarenwaju Kayode almost got a header in injury time for Pablo Machín’s side, who looked genuinely disappointed with the draw. They would go on to beat Málaga in their second game to start off their inaugural season with 4 points from two games.
20th Tottenham Hotspur 1 – Chelsea 2. This was probably the most interesting tactical battle of the new season. Antonio Conte chose to play David Luiz as his holding midfielder, while Mauricio Pochettino eschewed matching Chelsea’s back three, opting instead to field an aggressive 4-3-3 that had his fullbacks joining the attack in what looked more like a 2-3-4-1. Chelsea opened the scoring at 24′ with a Marcos Alonso free kick, but Spurs absolutely dominated the first half. They continued to dominate at the start of the 2nd, Dele Alli joining Harry Kane atop a 4-4-2 with a lop-sided midfield diamond. Chelsea finally started to assert themselves from about 70′ on, but it was Tottenham that equalized in the 82′ off a Christian Eriksen free kick that Michy Batshuayi headed in for an own goal. But at 88′, Luiz stripped Victor Wanyama of a pass out from goaltender Hugo Lloris and got the ball out to Alonso, who scored the dramatic late winner for Chelsea. The win suggested Chelsea’s opening weekend loss to Burnley was an outlier.
Paris Saint-Germain 6 – Toulouse 2. Neymar had opened his PSG career with a goal and an assist at Guingamp the previous weekend, but Max Gradel put the away side up against the run of play inside of 20′. Neymar struck back at the half hour mark, scoring a put-back off an Adrian Rabiot shot he had set up, and then assisting a Rabiot shot that did beat Toulouse keeper Alban Lafont. That would have seemed to settle matters, but Toulouse held on, as they had in their opening 3-2 loss to Monaco. Things even seemed to turn their way when Marco Verratti was sent off for a questionable second yellow with just over 20′ remaining. Neymar earned a penalty that Edinson Cavani scored, but almost immediately Toulouse responded with a Christopher Jullien header off a corner kick to stay within a goal. Only in the final 10′ did PSG pull away with goals from Javier Pastore and Layvin Kurzawa before Neymar capped off the game with a brilliant dribble past six defenders in the box for a final, definitive, hat-trick goal.
26th Genoa 2 – Juventus 4. You couldn’t ask for a more exciting opening than this game. 20 seconds in, Goran Pandev fired a ball into the box that hit two different Juventus players before deflecting into the goal. Goalkeeper Mattia Perin then had to make a fantastic save to prevent a headed own goal at the other end by teammate Santiago Gentiletti. Then Genoa was awarded a penalty by the newly instituted video assistance, and Andrey Galabinov put them two goals up at the 7′. Paolo Dybala helped to settle Juventus by pulling one goal back just before the quarter hour mark, but Genoa did not capitulate. It took a second VAR decision in first half stoppage time, this one catching a handball in the box, to allow Dybala to draw Juventus level from the penalty spot. It took another quarter hour of the game before Juan Cuadrado put Juve ahead. Genoa still continued to create chances, and it wasn’t until stoppage time that Dybala fully secured the points for his side with a brilliant long shot snuck in low at the near post to complete his hat-trick. Despite the warning signs, Juventus finished August undefeated in the league.
Roma 1 – Internazionale 3. Luciano Spaletti returned to face the Roma side he had managed so successfully for the past two seasons, now under Eusebio Di Francesco. Roma started well, Aleksandar Kolarov hitting the woodwork just before Edin Džeko scored off a lobbed assist from Radja Nainggolan at the quarter-hour mark. Nainggolan himself hit the post from 24 yards out shortly before halftime, and Diego Perotti caught the frame yet again at the 65′. Inter made Roma pay, Mauro Icardi scoring shortly after Perotti’s miss and putting in a second ten minutes later to push Inter ahead. Near the end of regulation, Matías Vecino put in a ball from Ivan Perišić to add a third and ensure the win.
27th Real Madrid 2 – Valencia 2. Filling in for the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo, Marco Asensio looked very much a rising star, moving with freedom in the attack and opening the scoring at the 10′, capitalizing on a turnover and hitting a curling left post shot that froze Valencia goalkeeper, Neto. Real Madrid controlled the first half, but it was Carlos Soler who equalized off a cross in from Toni Lato. Madrid looked particularly threatening at the end of the first half, and their dominance continued into the second. But Daniel Parejo nearly scored on a free kick just before the 75′, and a late arriving Geoffrey Kondogbia (who was involved in the turnover that led to Asensio’s first goal) finished off a flowing attack to put Valencia up against the run of play. A late Asensio free kick, once again leaving Neto flat-footed, saved a point for Madrid; but the game foreshadowed both Madrid’s struggles and Valencia’s rise for the rest of the calendar year.
Honorable Mention: 5th Borussia Dortmund 2 – Bayern Munich 2, [4-5 PKs AET] (DFL Super Cup), 12th Watford 3 – Liverpool 3, Chelsea 2 – Burnley 3, 19th Southampton 3 – West Ham United 2, 22nd Sevilla 2 – Istanbul Başakşehir 2 [4-3 Agg.] (Champions League Playoff Round), 31st Bulgaria 3 – Sweden 2 (World Cup Qualifying), Cyrpus 3 – Bosnia Herzegovina 2 (World Cup Qualifying).