Are you nostalgic for last season yet? Here’s the first of 20ish posts reliving the 100 best games of the recently departed season. The first two of these games may have escaped your attention, but I’m pretty sure you’ll remember the third. Enjoy.
Sun., August 23rd: AS Monaco 2 – Stade de Reims 2. Ligue 1 kicked off their season on the same weekend as the 2019-20 Champions League final, completing two matchdays before the September international “break” that preceded the start of the other major leagues. Finalists PSG missed both rounds and semi-finalists Olympique Lyonnais the first weekend in order to recover, while a Covid outbreak forced Olympique de Marseille to reschedule their opening match as well. One of four games squeezed into the Sunday of the Champions League final was Monaco’s first under Nico Kovač, who 10 months earlier was managing Bayern Munich to their third straight victory in the very same Champions League campaign they would win later that evening. While Monaco thoroughly dominated possession, David Guion’s side was well-prepared to counter-attack their high defensive line. A goal kick headed on by El Bilal Touré put Boulaye Dia through for a goal in the opening 5’, and 15’ later Touré stole a ball in Monaco’s half and scored a 2nd for Reims. But in first half stoppage time, center back Axel Disasi, a Reims transfer, headed in an Aleksandr Golovin corner kick to pull one back. Reims actually had the brighter start to the second half with several chances, but 10’ in Benoît Badiashile had a lovely touch and finish to equalize off a Golovin free kick. The game remained lively, with chances for both sides (most notably Dia and Disasi) but ended tied. Though an iffy start for Kovač, his side would win three of their next four games to ease into the season. Reims, by comparison, would go another six games winless, leaving them trapped in the relegation zone throughout October.
Thur., September 3rd: Faroe Islands 3 – Malta 2 (Nations League). Many questioned the wisdom of shoe-horning international breaks into a season already congested by pandemic rescheduling, particularly for a tournament many considered no more significant than the cycle of international friendlies it had replaced. The Nations League, with its four-league hierarchy, had been designed to create more competitive international fixtures, at least in theory for the minnows as much as for the European elite–and this League D fixture certainly delivered. The Faroe Islands and Malta had been grouped together in last year’s inaugural Nations League, and split wins; the only win in ten previous games for Malta and in 15 for the Faroes. After several early chances for the Faroes, Klæment Olsen headed in an opener at 25’ to put his side up. But a nice team goal by Malta late in the first half left things level at the break. Both sides had chances in the second half before Malta’s captain, defender Andrei Agius, first-timed a free kick delivered to him at the left post back across goal to put his side up. As the end of regulation neared, the Faore Islands’ Sølvi Vatnhamar dribbled into trouble in Malta’s box, losing the ball—only to have second half substitute Andreas Olsen lash it beautifully in across goal for a late equalizer. That might have been enough; but in the final minute of regulation, Brandur Hendriksson curled a world class free kick over the wall and into the top corner to give the Faroe Islands a late—and deserved—win. It was a more exciting game than League A could muster in the opening two matchdays, topping a 1-1 tie between Spain and Germany and a replay of the World Cup final between France and Croatia that replicated the 4-2 score line, albeit with less established line-ups.
Sat., 12th: Liverpool 4 – Leeds United 3. On the opening day of the Premier League season, the reigning champions faced the winners of the Championship, returning to the top flight for the first time in 16 years under the legendary Marcelo Bielsa. It was a breathless opening 30’. A questionable penalty gave Liverpool an opening goal at 5’, but debutant Jack Harrison cut past Trent Alexander-Arnold on the flank to equalize at 12’ (though a Brit, Harrison actually played for Wake Forest University in the States before becoming an NYCFC player and eventually a Manchester City prospect). Sadio Mane’s brilliant 16’ chipped goal was ruled out for offsides, but Virgil van Dijk headed in from a 20’ corner to restore Liverpool’s lead. Leeds keeper Illan Meslier had to make a fantastic save at 28’ to keep a mishit from becoming an own goal. Then van Dijk uncharacteristically gifted Patrick Bamford a second equalizer for Leeds at the half hour mark, but almost immediately Salah restored Liverpool’s lead by hammering in a loose ball off a free kick. Though the game by no means slowed, that scoreline held until a brilliant penetrating pass by Helder Costa at 66’ allowed Matheusz Klich to again equalize. With just over 10’ left in regulation, van Dijk had a goal off a corner disallowed (correctly) for a foul by young substitute Curtis Jones in the build-up. Then, shortly before the end of regulation, Roberto Firmino nearly scored off a cross in from Mané. But on the resulting corner, substitute Rodrigo Moreno fouled Fabinho in the box, allowing Salah to complete a hat trick and give Liverpool the win with the resulting penalty. Even so, this was a magnificent showing for the newly promoted Leeds at Anfield against a Liverpool side who had finished one of the greatest seasons in European history only a few months prior. A 4-3 win over fellow promotion side Fulham would see Bielsa’s Leeds in the most exciting game for two weekends running, a fitting start to a thoroughly entertaining and impressive season for the club. Tactical Analysis from: Total Football Analysis, Football Made Simple (YouTube), Football Bloody Hell, Pythagoras in Boots.
Up Next: In honor of Leeds United’s exciting return to the Premier League, I’ll be taking a brief break from the Top 100 of 20/21 to review Anthony Clavane’s Promised Land, a social history of the club. Even long-time readers will probably not remember that an excerpt from this book adapted for The Blizzard made my list of the best articles from the magazine’s first ten issues. See you soon.