The FA Cup got underway properly this week with the commencement of the first-round fixtures, and the football world paid fitting tribute to the tournament with a host of goal- fests and upsets across multiple competitions.
It seems only right to begin with a talking point from the FA Cup itself. The Premier League teams don’t enter until the third round, but there were still plenty of Football League reputations on the line as sides as far up as League One took on opponents from further down the footballing ladder. Generally, upsets were averted – Stockport provided a notable exception, however, with an impressive 3-1 victory over fourth-tier Yeovil Town. Stockport ply their trade in the National League North, the sixth tier of English football; it looked as though their game would go to script when they went behind inside ten minutes, but they produced a spirited fightback. Two goals in five minutes meant that the visitors went in ahead at the break, and Frank Mulhern rounded things off with a third midway through the second half. Stockport were in the Championship as recently as 2002, and will be hoping to restore something of their reputation through a cup run.
The elite levels of the sport are equally susceptible to upsets, and this was illustrated in the Champions League this week. The Monaco side inherited by Thierry Henry is not quite as star-studded as it once was, but he would nonetheless have been hopeful of finally picking up his first win when Club Brugge visited the Principality. Instead, he found himself on the end of a humiliating 4-0 defeat that confirmed Monaco’s failure to advance to the knockout stages. They sit rock bottom of Group A, with just a solitary point; the only consolation is that ejection from all European competition might give them an opportunity to focus solely on the league, where their dire form has left them vulnerable to a genuine threat of relegation. Liverpool are doing somewhat better in their domestic league, but they also demonstrated the futility of predictions in the Champions League – they suffered an undoubtedly deserved defeat at the hands of Red Star Belgrade, and now face potential difficulties in escaping their own group.
Not all of the big guns misfired in Europe: Real Madrid showed that they have well and truly recaptured their form with a 5-0 away win at Plzen. This was hardly a shock victory, but in the home fixture under Julen Lopetgui Los Blancos could only labour to a 2-1 win – the transformation under Solari has been immediate and drastic. Manchester City went one better, putting six past Shakhtar Donetsk. Gabriel Jesus netted an unusual hat-trick, with two of the three goals coming from the spot; the first of his penalties was awarded in farcical fashion, after Sterling kicked the turf and was somehow adjudged to have been fouled. It mattered little in the context of the game, however, which City controlled from start to finish: they have been nigh-on impossible to deal with this season, and Guardiola will be confident that he has a genuine chance of delivering the club’s first Champions League trophy.
Steven Gerrard is one man who knows exactly what it feels like to lift the Champions League trophy, but his campaign with Rangers in the Europa League is not going entirely to plan. The Glasgow side had been unbeaten after their first three games, but despite leading thrice in Russia against Spartak Moscow they could not extend this record. None of their leads lasted more than twenty minutes, and after Luiz Adriano had equalised for a third time the misery was compounded just a minute later – Sofiane Hanni scored what proved to be the winning goal, with the contest ending 4-3. This sent the Scottish outfit down to third in the group. Gerrard, who only recently threatened to sell anyone who was underperforming, was visibly angry in the post-match press conference. This certainly prompted a response, as back on home turf Rangers produced a remarkable 7-1 victory over Motherwell.
Domestic league football also provided some dramatic score-lines this week. It may not be October anymore, but there was still plenty of entertainment on offer in Germany: Der Klassiker rarely disappoints, but this one will live long in the memory. The stakes were higher than they have been in this fixture for some time; Bayern went into the game four points behind their rivals, knowing that a defeat would open up a gap capable of turning a rocky start into a genuine threat to their Bundesliga crown. It looked as though they were going to avoid this outcome on their visit to the Westfalenstadion, where they took the lead midway through the first half courtesy of Robert Lewandowski. Dortmund equalised through their own talisman, Marco Reus, but Bayern were back in front just three minutes later when Lewandowski struck again on fifty-two minutes. Sustained pressure from the hosts resulted in numerous squandered opportunities, but it eventually paid off when Reus equalised for a second time with twenty-five minutes to go. Paco Alcacer then continued his excellent start to the campaign with a winner that could prove pivotal to the direction of the
Alcacer’s parent club had a less enjoyable weekend. Barcelona played host to Real Betis in a game that looked straightforward on paper – Betis threw the paper out of the window and walked out of Camp Nou with all three points. The Catalans were rocked by a quick start, and found themselves two goals down at the break. Such is their strength that even at this stage many people would still have had them as favourites to win, and a familiar script certainly seemed to be unfolding when Messi pulled one back in the second half. However, on-loan PSG talent Givoani Lo Celso restored a two-goal cushion – a frenzied ending to the match saw three more goals and a red card for Ivan Rakitic, and when the dust settled Betis came away 4-3 winners. Ernesto Valverde’s men now have a lead of just one point at the top of La Liga. Hot on their heels are Atletico Madrid, who secured a dramatic victory against Athletic Bilbao this week. The sides were locked at 2-2 into stoppage time; this had partly been added on to account for an injury to Godin, who had nonetheless remained on the pitch because Atleti were out of substitutions. He limped up for a set piece in the 91st minute, and proceeded to score the winning goal. He epitomises the warrior spirit at the club, which in a topsy-turvy La Liga season may prove key in the title race.
Godin was not the only central defender making a late attacking impact this week. As drama unfolded in the Spanish capital, a similar storyline unfolded in the Welsh one – Cardiff played Brighton in Saturday’s early kick-off. The Bluebirds eventually triumphed over the Seagulls, who were reduced to ten men midway through the second half. There was a feeling around the Cardiff City Stadium that this presented the sort of opportunity that had to be taken if Warnock’s side are to have any realistic prospect of staying up, but for a long while it looked as though they would be unable to find a way to break through with the scores locked at 1-1. In the 90th minute, however, Bamba was on hand to deliver the three points. His acrobatic attempt was initially repelled, but after an almighty scrap in the box he eventually turned the ball beyond Matt Ryan. In his elation, he celebrated by taking his shirt off. He undoubtedly would have been willing to pay the price of a yellow card for this, but in the end he managed to avoid one; the referee asked him if he had removed his shirt, to which Bamba claimed he had not! Despite the celebration being far from covert, this account apparently satisfied Martin Atkinson. Cardiff fans will certainly be satisfied with the win.