7 Points in 7 Days – River Flowing in Madrid
It has been a truly action-packed seven days in football, so much so that some very notable goings-on have missed the cut. The rumoured sale of Newcastle, a 6-goal thriller between Sassuolo and Fiorentina and even a dog saving a certain goal in Argentina ultimately did not make the list – this says it all about the seven points that have been included.
The Ballon D’Or provided an eventful start to the week. In the mens category, Croatia’s Luka Modric finally broke the stranglehold that Messi and Ronaldo have exercised over the award in recent years – the midfield maestro reached the final of the World Cup with his country as well as winning his third successive Champions League with Real Madrid, and was rewarded with the ultimate individual recognition. Bizarrely, Messi could only manage 5th place: this certainly raised some eyebrows, given that many consider the Argentinian to be the best player to have ever graced the game. There was also an inaugural award for the greatest female player; Ada Hegerberg was the deserved winner of this historic honour. She was one of a host of Lyon players who made the shortlist – the French side have been all conquering in the last year, and Hegerberg has been the pick of the bunch. Some ill-judged comments from DJ Martin Solveig, who was presenting the award, should not be allowed to overshadow the Norwegian’s moment.
Lionel Messi did not dwell on his midweek disappointment. He was his usual phenomenal self in the Catalan derby against Espanyol, letting his performance pour scorn on the classification reached by the panel of judges. In fact, he achieved one of the few firsts still left in his remarkable career: he scored two direct free-kicks in the same match for the first time. The second in particular was a remarkable strike, unerringly finding the top corner from distance. The goals bookended a comfortable 4-0 away win – a wonderful strike from Dembélé and a goal from Suarez completed the scoresheet. Things were not so routine in the West Midlands Derby; some of the glamour may have been lacking, but the entertainment certainly was not. Anwar El Ghazi gave Aston Villa an early lead, but West Brom’s Dwight Gayle brought things level just before the half-hour mark. The Dutch El Ghazi scored a second with thirty minutes to play, and it looked as though this would be the winner – things were still all square as the game entered the 90th minute. In time added on, however, Jay Rodriguez snatched a dramatic late equaliser. As the cross came in he appeared to divert the ball into the net with his hand, but Villa’s protests fell on deaf ears. This leaves West Brom in the playoff places, four points above their neighbours.
Former Baggie James McClean also made the news this week after paying for hotel accommodation for four homeless people in his native Derry. The midfielder, who now plies his trade for Stoke City, is regularly vilified in some corners of the press for his principled decision not to wear a poppy – those same areas of the media have been suspiciously quiet about this particular act of charity. It is always good to see footballers giving back to their communities; McClean organised the donation through his father, having become aware of the extent of the homelessness problem in Derry.
Continuing the theme of derbies, Schalke hosted Borussia Dortmund this week in the Revierderby. Thomas Delaney gave league leaders Dortmund an early lead, but a Caliguri goal from the spot after an hour brought things level. Lucien Favre’s side know that Bayern will not struggle forever: it was imperative to turn a draw into a win to avoid reigniting hope within the Bavarian giants. Step up Jadon Sancho. The mercurial English talent has been the hero time and time again since joining from Manchester City in the summer, and he may well have cemented his place in the hearts of the Dortmund faithful forever with his winning goal in the derby. His mazy run terrorised the Schalke right, before a quick one-two got him in behind Caliguri. He kept his head to provide a cool finish past the keeper and seal a 2-1 victory.
Sancho’s old club had no such luck when they came up against Chelsea. Pep Guardiola suffered his first defeat of the season at Stamford Bridge, losing 2-0 to a very well-drilled home side. City dominated the opening exchanges, and a breakthrough looked imminent, but dark blue shirts seemed to be constantly on hand to provide last-ditch interventions. The pace of Hazard, Willian and Pedro was always likely to pose a threat on the counter if they could hang in there at the other end, and so it proved – on the stroke of half-time a raking David Luiz pass took out most of the City defence, and even after Willian and Alonso inadvertently held things up there was still disarray in the middle when Hazard eventually pulled the ball back from the left. Kanté steamed into the box unmarked and rifled the ball beyond Ederson, leaving City behind at the break in a league match for the first time in a year. On that occasion they came back to defeat West Ham, but no such revival was on the cards here. Chelsea’s superb defensive efforts were redoubled in the second half, and they even exercised a degree of control rarely seen against the champions. Azpilicueta in particular put in a stunningly good performance, but all of the back line could be proud of their efforts. Luiz also made a telling impact at the other end, nodding home Chelsea’s second from their first corner of the game to wrap up the victory. This result meant City could not reclaim top spot, taken from them earlier in the day by Liverpool. Klopp’s men, who are now the only unbeaten side left in the entire Football League, excelled in a 4-0 victory over Bournemouth. Mo Salah silenced his doubters with a superb hattrick; he has now reached the landmark of forty league goals faster than any other Liverpool player, surpassing Fernando Torres.
Kanté was not the only Frenchman amongst the goals this week. Hatem Ben Arfa, formerly of Newcastle, scored a stunning strike in Ligue 1 to set Rennes on their way to victory away at Lyon. Ben Arfa was linked to Kanté’s old club Leicester City over the summer while a free agent, but it was ultimately Rennes who picked him up after his release from PSG – they will be satisfied with their business after this goal, which left Lopes rooted to the spot. Ben Arfa repeatedly shaped to curl one into the top left before eventually slamming it emphatically into the bottom right to break the deadlock against his former club; he caused pandemonium by going to celebrate in front of the fans who used to sing his name, who were less than pleased to see him on this occasion. Theoson Siebatcheu doubled the lead just two minutes later, and this flurry just before half-time proved insurmountable for Lyon: the game ended 2-0.
The week ended with the showpiece event. Finally, after much drama and multiple postponements, the second leg of the Copa Libertadores took place. It was not in the Monumental, as it should have been – the first attempt at playing the game demonstrated that a fixture could not go ahead there safely, after River Plate fans clashed with the Boca Juniors team and with the police. Boca sought to have River disqualified on this basis, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport rejected their claim; this is highly unlikely to be the end of the story, but the game did at least go ahead. It was played in the Bernabeu, and although some of the magic of the fixture was inevitably lost there were still impressively sizeable levels of partisan support in the Spanish capital. They witnessed an engaging contest: Boca looked superior for much of the first half, happy to cede possession to River but constantly threatening to hit them on the break. This they did in the last few minutes of the half – Nandez split the River Plate defence with an absolutely glorious pass, allowing Benedetto to run through on goal and make it 3-2 on aggregate. River looked a different proposition altogether in the second period, and Lucas Pratto’s goal midway through the half was deserved. This sent things to extra-time, where the balance of the game was titled hugely by a red card for Wilmar Barrios. The referee, who must have known before a ball had been kicked that he would have his work cut out, had to show a second yellow; the challenge from Barrios could even have been considered a straight red offence, and in any case was sheer madness when already in the book. Quintero made the numerical advantage count for River in the 109th minute with a sublime strike – he finally found the pocket of space he had been looking for ever since his introduction, and slammed the ball beyond the goalkeeper from the edge of the box. It eventually ended 3-1 on the night, after Gonzalo Martinez was able to walk in a counter after Boca sent the keeper up for a late corner.