Season’s End

The final round of club soccer in Europe, spread over the previous two weekends, produced a surprising number of genuinely great encounters, good games with real consequences. Here’s a quick rundown of the best games in case you missed them.

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5. Hoffenheim 3 – Borussia Dortmund 1. The final day of the Bundesliga could not have been better designed for the usually noxious multi-match coverage format. In addition to both Hoffenheim and Dortmund, Bayer Leverkusen and RB Leipzig were all in the hunt for the last two German Champions League spots (to say nothing of other action covered in the honorable mentions below). Dortmund had a three-point edge on Hoffenheim and Leverkusen, but Andrej Kramarić’s first half goal (and Leverkusen’s early lead against Hannover) brought all three level on points. Marco Reus equalized briefly in the second half, but goals from Ádám Szalai and Pavel Kadeřábek pushed Hoffenheim ahead of Dortmund on goal differential. Meanwhile, Leverkusen’s three-goal lead left Dortmund in some threat of falling into the Europa League–before two late goals from Hannover secured that fate for Leverkusen.

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4. Levante 5 – Barcelona 4. Technically, this game is a cheat; though played during the final weekend of Premier League and Bundesliga football, it was actually in the penultimate round of La Liga fixtures. But Levante’s commanding performance against the only undefeated side in Europe deserves inclusion. At the start of the season, Ernesto Valverde’s side was supposed to be in crisis because of Neymar’s departure.  Instead, they went 36 games without a loss. In the 37th, however, Emmanuel Boateng scored a first half brace on the back of a sterling Levante performance. Philippe Coutinho did pull one goal back late in the first, but Levante opened the second half with Enis Bardhi scoring a brace on either side of Boateng’s 3rd goal to give the home side a 5-1 lead. Coutinho completed a hat trick of his own, and Luis Suárez added a late penalty, but Levante were deserving winners, breaking a host of Barcelona records in addition to their unbeaten streak.

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3. Olympique Lyonnais 3 – OGC Nice 2. Nice had a slight setback this season following 4th and 3rd place finishes in the previous two outings (under Claude Puel and current manager Lucien Favre respectively). But the mid-table side could still play spoiler with Lyon needing a win to secure France’s final Champions League spot. Alassane Pléa put Nice ahead early, fed on the counterattack by a ball over the top from Mario Balotelli, and Pléa would complete his brace in the final minutes of regulation. But the second half belonged to Memphis Depay, whose hat trick (from a Nabil Fekir square, a surprise free kick slipped under the wall, and a late counter-attacking chip over Walter Benítez) secured Lyon’s finish above Olympique de Marseille.

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2. Lazio 2 – Internazionale 3. No game without relegation implications had more at stake than this head-to-head battle for Italy’s final Champions League spot. Lazio held the edge, only needing a draw to secure 4th place, and with striker Ciro Immobile leading Inter’s Mauro Icardi by a goal in the Capocannoniere race. The first half was an exciting seesaw affair. Lazio took control after a bright opening from Inter and deserved their lead despite the fortunate deflection off the face of Ivan Perišić. They continued to have the better of play right up until Danilo D’Ambrosio muscled in a corner kick to the far post, equalizing just before the half hour mark. From there, Inter seemed to take control of the game. But just before halftime, Lazio struck back on the counter, Senad Lulić with a perfect threaded pass for Felipe Anderson, who matched it with a perfectly placed finish to put Lazio back ahead. In the second half, Lazio seemed fairly comfortable, and with just over 10′ remaining removed Immobile in a series of defensive substitutions to see out the game. Almost immediately, Icardi won and then converted an equalizing penalty, followed by a reckless Lulić tackle that sent Lazio down to ten men. The turnaround was completed when Matías Vecino headed in a corner kick. Inter stole their way into the Champions League while Icardi won a share of the Capocannoniere from the benched Immobile.

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1. Tottenham Hotspur 5 – Leicester City 4. The best measure of the Premier League’s strength this season is the fact that a Tottenham team as talented and impressive as this one hardly made a mark. They came into the final week needing a win to ensure a 3rd place finish, and by halftime Liverpool’s 2-goal lead over Brighton and Hove Albion confirmed the necessity of that win. To do so, Spurs would have to come from behind after an exciting three-goal first half. It opened with Jamie Vardy heading in a Riyad Mahrez free kick in the opening 5′, only to have Harry Kane strike back in a matter of minutes, dribbling into the box for a stunning solo effort from the left. Just after 15′, however, Leicester were back up. An attack begun by Kelechi Iheanacho, entering the box on the right, ended up with a fantastic shot from Mahrez on the left. Both sides had further chances in the first half, but were unable to finish them. It got worse for Tottenham just after the restart, Iheanacho scoring a rocket from distance to extend Leicester’s lead to two goals. But Spurs again answered immediately, Érik Lamela finishing off a beautiful, quick-passing team goal. The 53′ equalizer needed a bit of help, Lamela’s wide shot deflecting off defender Christian Fuchs to nestle in the back of the net. Then at 60′, Lucas Moura beat Demarai Gray in a foot race and crossed in to give Lamela an easy finish to put Spurs up. With just under 15′ remaining, Mahrez fed Vardy on a classic Leicester counter-attack, and his top-shelf finish from the left side brought the Foxes back level. Kane would have the final word, however, dummying a shot only to side-step defensive substitute Hamza Choudhury and curl a game-winner in at the right post.

Honorable Mention

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Fans react to Hamburg’s first ever relegation from the Bundesliga.

6. Villarreal 2 – Real Madrid 2. After gaining an early two-goal lead in the first half, Real Madrid dropped two points to confirm Atlético Madrid’s 2nd place finish ahead of los Merengues. It was an ignominious end, though one that will be easily forgotten given Bale’s magical goal and the equally ignominious performance of Loris Karius in the Champions League final.

7. Bayern Munich 1 – Stuttgart 4. Back after a year in the second division, this deserved win capped off a fantastic 15-game run by Stuttgart under midseason replacement Tayfun Korkut, beating the league champions to slip past Eintracht Frankfurt into 7th place.

8. Hamburg 2 – Borussia Mönchengladbach 1. Despite a solid win, Wolfsburg’s 4-1 victory over FC Köln ensured Hamburg’s first ever relegation in the Bundesliga’s 55-year history. Fireworks and flares forced a late suspension of action before the inevitable end.  In the words of Nick Miller, “The last moments of Bundesliga football in Hamburg – for now, at least – included the pitch filled with police and the goalmouth on fire.”

9. Swansea City 0 – Southampton 1. Though technically played in the midweek before the final round of Premier League games, this was essentially a playoff for the final relegation spot. And so it proved to be, Swansea City returning to the Championship following a 7-year run in the top flight that earned the admiration of many neutrals.

10. Stade Malherbe Caen 0 – Paris Saint-Germain 0. Caen needed this point against the league champions to stave off relegation, Toulouse winning their final game but coming up just short of the mark thanks to a solid game from Caen, who produced the lion’s share of the chances despite having only 25% possession.

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