Is there a better time than now to look back over the last year of soccer? As we prepare to welcome in a new year, I want to take some time to look back at this year and reflect on what we have learned. The look back has to start with the World Cup. This was a fantastic spectacle and reminds us all why we love this game. Whether it was watching the matches at a bar with friends or in Grant Park with thousands, the World Cup is a great launching point for soccer in this country. Fans flocked to bars, parks, and couches to watch as the best players in the world were put on display. The tournament brought new stars to the forefront like James Rodriguez, Keylor Navas, and Julian Green. It elevated the reputation of some goalkeepers like Guillermo Ochoa, Tim Howard, Claudio Bravo. However, in the end it was just like Gary Lineker says, “football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win..” Well actually it took them 120 minutes this time around, but they were the best team in the tournament and deserved to be the champions. The tournament also saw Luis Suarez continue his biting problem when he took a chunk out of Giorgio Chiellini. That was a very dark moment in the tournament and changed the tournament for Uruguay and the summer for Liverpool and Barcelona. For me, the player of the tournament was Javier Mascherano. He was amazing and was the rock that Argentina needed.
You could also think about this year as the year of the Spanish in both a positive and negative way. In Brazil, we saw the end of the Spanish Dynasty. They were a hollow shell of the team that they were in the past. They were one of the first teams eliminated from the tournament and never really seemed to even participate. However, this year was not all bad for the Spanish. Spanish teams dominated in Europe. In the UEFA Champions League, the final was an all Spanish affair and it was a fantastic game. Real Madrid’s long wait was over as La Decima has arrived. It had been 12 years since they had won number 9, and they triumphed in extra time to win their 10thEuropean crown. The Champions League final was another special match that showed us why we all both love and hate this game at times. With the clock at 90:00, Atletico Madrid lead 1-0. In the 3rd minute of extra time Ramos headed in the tying goal and this set the stage for their 3 goal onslaught in extra time. It was mission accomplished for Real Madrid. Sevilla also went on to win the Europa League making the UEFA Super Cup an all Spanish affair as well. This last year was a remarkable season for Diego Simeone and Atletico Madrid. They were typically third fiddle to the big two in Spain, and this past year they bucked that trend by not only reaching the final of the Champions League, but by winning the league when they drew 1-1 at the Camp Nou on the last day of the season.
For me personally, this was an amazing year of football. In one fantastic week, I went to 3 matches in Spain. I took an amazing trip around Spain with my brother and it definitely had a soccer theme. It started with us sitting 4 row from the pitch for the Sevillan Derby, Sevilla FC vs. Real Betis. What a game and what a historic match up. The match was in Benito Villamarin and dates back to 1915. On this day, Betis was about to be relegated while Sevilla was playing for a Champions League spot and en route to winning the Europa League. The match was amazing for the atmosphere. It was my first live match in Spain and it set the bar high. If you ever find yourself in Southern Spain, I highly recommend a trip to the Benito Villamarin. This was just the start of our epic soccer journey. We then bused down to Gibraltar and then over to Malaga before taking the train to Valencia for a midweek game that I will never forget.
In the US we have rivalries, but none of them are even close to what we saw. My brother and I were lucky enough (Thanks Dad) to score two tickets to La Mestalla for the Copa del Rey final. As a Barcelona fan, my excitement is not capable of description. I had seen them train once before in Chicago, but a live match that actually matters, let alone was final…I felt like it was all a dream that whole day. Not only was I going to watch Barcelona, but they were play Real Madrid…El Clasico…the biggest rivalry in the world. Messi, Neymar, Fabregas, Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Alves, Bartra, Masche, Alba and Pinto against Bale, Benzema, Di Maria, Isco, Modric, Alonso, Coentrao, Ramos, Pepe, Carvajal, and Casillas. Does it get any better? The answer is simply no. The atmosphere around the stadium can only be described as rocking. People were everywhere as we headed down the streets of Valencia towards the stadium. Our seats were amazing and the game was just as good. The two sets of fans were loud and proud. There were many moments during this game where all I could do was sit back and look around and realize that I was really there and it was not a dream. I was watching the two greatest teams in the world live in Valencia. The only thing that would have made this better was a Barcelona victory, but there is always next time 😉 I am sure my brother Jon would join me again.
The last of the three matches was in Barcelona and was like a trip to Mecca for me. I had been to the Camp multiple times before, but that was always during the summer and never for a match. The stars aligned for me and I was able to attend Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona with my dad. What a match up to end the trip with, the Basques versus the Catalans. While Barcelona did have a disappointing season, it was still unreal to take this game in. Then the moment happened that made this night special. Leo Messi scored from a brilliant free kick to win the game. A Leo Messi game winner to top of the trip. It was brilliant and I will never forget this trip. THANK YOU SO MUCH DAD!!! YOU ARE THE BEST!! I hope you and Jon enjoyed these matches just a quarter as much as I did because they are memories that I will never forget.
In the Copa Del Rey, many big clubs punched their ticket to the next round. The Round of 16 is all set to be played in the first couple weeks of January. It will have Malaga against Levante, Celta Vigo against Athletic, Valencia vs. Espanyol, Granada vs. Sevilla, Barcelona vs. Elche, Atletico Madrid vs. Real Madrid, Villarreal vs. Real Sociedad, and Almeria vs. Getafe. The obvious tie of the round will be the Madrid Derby as these two teams have had some amazing matches over the last two years. Atletico struggles a little this week as they faced L’Hospitalet. Mandzukic opened the scoring in the first half and Atleti took a 1-0 lead into half time. Then L’Hospitalet equalized through Alcaraz. Mandzukic then scored a second goal, but 10 mintues later Alcaraz equalized again in a moment of déjà zu.
In Germany, Bayern Munich continued to roll as they beat Freiburg 2-0. They even extended their lead at the top as Wolfsburg drew 2-2 at Dortmund. The result was not good for either side as Wolfsburg now sit 11 points of the top and Dortmund sit in the relegation zone. Monchengladbach and Bayer both won as well to move within 4 points of Wolfsburg for second, but sit 15 points behind the leaders.
In England, the fifth round of the League Cup took place. Chelsea beat Derby County 3-1 and then Liverpool beat Bournemouth by the same score to set up a fascinating two legged semi-final. Tottenham finally looked dominant as they beat Newcastle 4-0 and now face third division Sheffield United for a spot in the final. Could a trophy be headed to the North side of London?
This weekend marks the last weekend of matches for most of the European continent. English teams will continue to play, but the rest take a break until the first weekend in January. This weekend is also the midway point for Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga.
In Ligue 1, PSG, Marseille, and Lyon will try to take advantage of the last round of games before the New Year. Any one of these three can be on top at the new year and will look to stay in the race. PSG hosts Montpellier on Saturday and will look to jump to the top before the other two play. Marseille will host Lille as they will look to claim the top spot. Lastly, Lyon will travel to Bordeaux as they will look to either take advantage of dropped points or keep pace. St. Etienne also has a big game as they host Evian Thonon Gaillard as they will look to stay just 3 points out of the Champions League.
In Serie A, Juventus played on Thursday as they traveled to Cagliari. Roma host Milan on Saturday as the two horse race for the title continues. While those two chase the title, the chase for the last Champions League spot is really heating up. Italy sends 3 teams to the Champions League each year. Currently, Lazio sit in third place with 26 points. Sampdoria and Genoa also have 26 points while Milan and Napoli have 24 points. This could be very interesting to watch as the year goes on.
In the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich are looking to extend their lead today as they travel to Mainz. Wolfsburg will hope they slip up and that they can cut their lead to under 10 points for the new year. In what is a huge relegation 6 pointer, Werder Bremen host Borussia Dortmund. Who would have thought that this game would be a big match at the bottom of the table?? Not me. Bayer Leverkusen host Eintracht Frankfurt and Dorussia Monchengladbach travel to Augsburg as they look to maintain their Champions League spots.
In La Liga, Barcelona will look to take advantage of Real Madrid playing in the Club World Cup and cut their lead to 1 as they host Cordoba. In a Basque vs the Capital battle, Bilbao host Atleti. Atleti will look to rebound after drawing with L’Hospitalet. Bilbao beat Alcoyano in the Copa. Sevilla also has the weekend off as they would have faced Real Madrid but will now make this match up in February. Valencia will look to take advantage of this a jump into 4th with a win at Eibar.
Lastly, the festive period in England begins. While the rest of the world rests, the EPL teams will play matches this weekend, on Boxing Day, the next weekend and then again on New Year’s Day. These teams will play 4 matches in 13 days. The rest of the world takes a couple weeks off and these teams ramp up. Some of the big matches over this time-frame will be Liverpool hosting Arsenal this Sunday. Manchester United against Newcastle on Boxing day. Tottenham host Manchester United and Chelsea travel to Southampton on the 28th. If you are in the mood for some New Years Day soccer, Tottenham host Chelsea and Southampton host Arsenal.
This will be my last blog of the year. I will be traveling out of the country for the rest of the year so I will not be blogging then. I will be back on the 5th of January. Happy Holidays to all and Happy New Year.
EPL Pick ‘Em
My Picks –
Week 17 (December 20-21) City 3-1, West Ham 2-1, Tottenham 2-0, Swans 2-1, United 2-1, QPR 1-1, Saints 2-1, Toon 1-1, Pool 1-1, Chelsea 2-1
Week 18 (December 26) Chelsea 3-0, City 2-0, Hull 1-1, Everton 2-1, Spurs 2-1, Pool 1-0, Saints 2-1, Swans 1-1, United 3-2, Arsenal 2-0
Week 19 (December 28-29) Spurs 2-1, Chelsea 2-1, City 2-1, Villa 2-0, Stoke 1-0, Hull 1-0, QPR 1-1, Arsenal 2-1, Everton 1-0, Pool 1-1
Week 20 (January 1) United 2-2, City 2-1, Pool 1-0, Newcastle 3-1, Villa 1-0, Swans 1-0, Everton 1-0, West Ham 2-1, Saints 1-1, Spurs 2-1
Week 17 (December 20-21) City 3-1, United 2-1, Swans 1-0, QPR 2-0, Saints 2-2, Spurs 3-1, W. Ham 2-0, Newcastle 2-1, Pool 2-2, Chelsea 3-1
Week 18 (December 26th) Chelsea 3-2, Pool, 2-1, Saints 4-1, Everton 1-1, Spurs 2-0, United 3-1, Sunderland 1-0, Swans 2-2, City 3-0, Gunners 2-1
Week 19 (December 28-29) Spurs 2-1, Chelsea 3-1, Villa 1-1, Hull 2-2, City 4-1, QPR 2-1, Stoke 2-2, Arsenal 3-1, Everton 1-0, Swans 3-2
Week 20 (January 1) United 2-1, Villa 2-2, Everton 1-0, Pool 2-0, City 2-1, Toon 2-1, QPR 2-2, Saints 2-1, W. Ham 3-1, Chelsea 4-1