I am writing this after the 2012 UEFA Champions League Final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea. Though technically there are still the Italian and Spanish League cups left to play, I have always considered the Champions League the crowning, final match of the season, so I am going to treat it as such.
Over the course of this blog, I will discuss what were the greatest matches, goals, and moments of the season, including a Power Ranking of the Top Ten teams and players. So...let's begin!
For starters, hats off to Chelsea FC, who tonight won their first ever European Championship, defeating Bayern Munich in a tense, thrilling final that had to be decided on penalties. Their's was a story fit for a Hollywood script, but we'll get to that later.
Top 3 League Reviews and Rating
Barclays Premier League
Widely considered to be the finest football league in the world, this turned out to be the most exciting season for the competition since I started following (about 6-7 years ago). Several surprise teams, headlined by Tottenham and Newcastle, made strong cases to be considered one of the league's elite. Arsenal, despite early troubles, stormed back to finish third, led by a breakout year from their talismanic captain and forward, Robin van Persie.
But the real story was the race between Manchester United, by far the league's best team of the last 20 years, and their upstart neighbors Manchester City. City, guided by Roberto Mancini, went on a wild run that saw them switch with Man U for the top spot multiple times, including 4 times in the final match! In the end, City came away with their first title in 44 years, in the most thrilling fashion possible.
Player of the Year: Robin van Persie - Arsenal (30 goals, 9 assists)
League Rating: 9.5/10
Liga BBVA (La Liga)
While England may have the world's best league, it is Spain that has the world's best teams. Real Madrid and Barcelona went on a remarkable run that went down to the second to last game of the season, when Madrid managed to clinch their first title in 4 years, stopping Barca's streak. Both Ronaldo and Messi broke multiple records (more on that later), though I'll give the Liga edge to Ronaldo, since his team were the champions.
Outside of those two, there was little major excitement, and I can honestly say I only watched 2-3 Liga games that didn't feature at least one of the league's giants. Hey, I can only see so much...
Player of the Year: Cristiano Ronaldo - Real Madrid (46 goals, 12 assists)
League Rating: 8.5/10
Though they failed to make a major impact in European competition, the Italian league regained the title of third greatest league in Europe (from Germany) with a thrilling title race, as well as a tooth-and-nail fight for the final Champions League Spot. AC Milan and Juventus battled it out over the course of the season, with Juve ultimately taking home their record 28th Scudetto, becoming the first Italian team since Milan in 1992 to go an entire season undefeated. The deciding figure turned out to be Midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo, who after a long and illustrious career at Milan, was shipped off to the Turin giants. His outstanding performance was the difference between the two sides.
Outside those two however, the season saw what came down to a 4-way fight for third on the final day of the season. Ultimately it was Udinese that came away with the final Champs. spot, with Lazio and Napoli headed to the Europa League. My beloved Inter, in a year that saw them have THREE different managers, ended up in 6th, out of European competition and their worst result since the 90s.
Player of the Year: Andrea Pirlo - Juventus (3 goals, 13 assists)
League Rating: 8.3/10
Obviously these weren't the only leagues to see some good action. Dortmund pulled away from Bayern to win the Bundesliga title, after a close fight all season. Ajax played great down the stretch to show Dutch football isn't entirely gone-yet. And France continues to grow as a legitimate footballing nation, especially with big money Paris-Saint Germain picking up stars left and right.
But as I already said, the best teams don't necessarily come from the best league. So, here are my power rankings of the Top ten teams in Europe. Note these are based on performance THIS SEASON, and not necessarily how I expect them to perform next year.
-3rd in Premier League
-Champions League Round of 16 (Lost 3-4 to AC Milan on Agg.)
Despite an atrocious start that included an 8-2 drubbing by Manchester United, Arsenal bounced back and at one point looked like they could make a late title push. However injuries slowed them down, and I honestly doubt they had any real chance of catching the Manchesters.
Best Player: Robin van Persie
Reason behind his teams final ranking.
9. AC Milan
-2nd in Serie A
-Champions League Quarterfinals (Lost 1-3 to Barcelona on Agg.)
This may seem unfairly low to some who watched the rossonieri play this season, but I think it's fair considering those I ranked ahead of them. At times they seemed to be a team with an outside shot at European glory, though at others they barely seemed capable of fielding a cohesive unit. Not a terrible year by any means, but considering their talent most fans will be dissapointed.
Best Player: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Scored a career high 28 goals to lead Serie A.
8. Manchester United
-2nd in Premier League
-Champions League Group Stage (3rd in Group and did not advance)
Again, perhaps a harsh rating, considering they could beat a lot of the higher ranked teams on their day. However the fact is Manchester United did not step up when it mattered this season, and as such I rated them lower. Bear in mind, this is a team with enough talent to beat ANYONE, especially with a mind like Ferguson at the helm.
Best Player: Wayne Rooney
As usual, was the engine running each match for United. The return of Paul Scholes and Giggs' resurgence helped out, but overall Rooney was the main decider in most United matches.
7. Bayern Munich
-2nd in Bundesliga
-Champions League Finalist (Lost 3-4 on penalties to Chelsea)
It feels wierd ranking a CL finalist as low as seven, but I honestly think this is right where they deserve to be. Like Man U, this is a team that simply did not take advantage of the talent they had. With the exception of the CL Semis (which were admittedly HUGE), Bayern failed to impress in big games. Had they not made it as far as they did, they would probably have dropped to 10th.
Best Player: Frank Ribery
Hard to decide between him and Gomez, but in general Ribery played better in bigger games. One of the best wingers in Europe for sure, his speed and dribbling dazzled defenses all year long.
6. Borussia Dortmund
-Champions League Group Stages (3rd in group and did not advance)
Despite their failings in the CL, Dortmund virtually dominated the competition in the league. Victories in both legs vs Bayern, and then a 5-2 thrashing of the bavarians in the German Cup Final, cemented their place as Germany's finest. I ca't wait to see what they do next year.
Best Player: Shinji Kagawa
Mario Goetze got all the preseason attention, but when he went down with injury, most write off the defending champions. Up stepped Kagawa, who many began to think was an IMPROVEMENT over the already amazing Goetze, and the team regained their crown. Now apparently United are interested in the midfielder.
-Serie A Champions (Undefeated)
-Did not play in Europe
Finishing an entire Serie A season undefeated is no easy task, especially when leaning on aging players such as Pirlo and Del Piero. New manager Antonio Conte did a wondrous job of mixing old and new, creating a squad and style that, on a good day, might just stand a chance against Europe's best teams. Though Pirlo was their main man, props to the ageless Gianluigi Buffon, who recovered from injury to have the lowest goals against average of Europe's top leagues.
Best Player: Andrea Pirlo
Absolutely stunning, arguably one of the top five midfield performances this season. Pirlo never missed a beat after his surprising switch to Turin, becoming the General Juventus' offense needed. Milan must be kicking themselves.
4. Manchester City
-Premier League Champions
-Champions League Group Stage (3rd in group and did not advance)
City won their first title in 44 years playing some of the best football in the world. Even while one of their best players decided to take a 6 month break, the team continued to win against virtually every opponent. A mid-season crisis almost cost them, but City came back, and proved themselves deserving champions. A 6-1 beating of Man U at Old Trafford set the tone for an amazing season.
Best Player: Yaya Toure
Close with both David Silva and Sergio Aguero, Toure wins for being the most consistent.
-2nd in Liga BBVA
-Champions League Semi-finals (Lost 2-3 to Chelsea on Agg.)
Barcelona began the year on a tear, with many believing them ever better than the side which won the CL and La Liga last season. When they beat Real Madrid 3-1 in Madrid last December, they seemed unstoppable. However, despite Lionel Messi having arguably the greatest individual season in the history of the sport, Barca began to fall apart near the end, and were ultimately conquered...twice...in one week. Now with the brilliant Guardiola departing to manage a new team, next year will prove to be a major test for these players.
Best Player: Lionel Messi (duh)
Well talk a bit more bout Messi in a sec...
2. Real Madrid
-Liga BBVA Champions
-Champions League Semifinals (Lost 1-3 on Penalties to Bayern Munich)
Now you must be really confused. After all, Bayern beat Madrid to make the CL final. Well for one thing, I think Bayern were incredibly fortunate to beat Madrid. That's not say Bayern did not deserve to win-they played their hearts out and made things happen-but I doubt they could have survived had Madrid not been exhausted from their close title race with Barcelona. The simple fact is, save for a mini-crisis that allowed Barcelona back into the title race late on, Madrid dominated from start to finish. They played beautiful, strategic football, and will be considered favorites to go all the way next year. It helps that their coach, Jose Mourinho, may be the finest club coach of all time.
Best Player: Cristiano Ronaldo
Same with Ronaldo...
-6th in Premier League
-2012 Champions League Champions (1st Title)
I know what most of you are thinking; "how can a team that finishes 6th in their league be the best in Europe?" And to answer your question; they're not. At least I don't think so. However these rankings are based on PERFORMANCE, and winning the champions league signifies a team as the Champions of Europe, and I honestly feel it is a fair title. On their way to winning, Chelsea defeated two other top ten teams, one of whom defeated my number 2 team. That's not to say Chelsea would definitely beat Madrid-in fact I highly doubt it-but do keep in mind that they had a 3-3-3 (W-L-D) against the teams on this list they played.
Best Player: Peter Cech
For best player, it came down to Goalkeeper Petr Cech and new signing Juan Mata. Both were huge at various points, but it was Cech who played arguably the bigges part (with Didier Drogba) in Chelsea's European triumph.
Many will disagree with those rankings. I had an especially hard time ranking Barcelona, who as I mentioned were second only to RM in sheer quality save for one disastrous week. If you think I got my rankings wrong, or if you think I left off a team that should be on here, sound off below.
Next we will look at my Top 5 Players of the Year. Like my Top Ten teams, this is based on performance this season, not necessarily skill. Player statistics as well as team performance were both used to develop my rankings.
5. Yaya Toure
The Ivorian was the heart and soul of Manchester City, controlling the game from his defensive midfield role. He showed incredibly versatility in his ability to shut down opponents moving forward, and then turn right around and set the offense in motion. Throughout the year Toure was consistently the team's best performer, completing 91% of his passes and giving the City offense a solid foundation to work around.
4. Petr Cech
The last few years, Casillas and Buffon were the undisputed two best keepers in Europe. Bayern's Manuel Neuer has matured into a keeper of similar caliber. But this year, no man delivered in the clutch quite like Chelsea's silent wall. His performances in the FA Cup final, as well as against Barcelona and Munich, took a team in shambles 3 months ago and made them the number 1 team in the world.
3. Robin van Persie
Talk about a one-man club. Okay, maybe that's not fair to the likes of Gervinho and Theo Walcott, but in all honestly Arsenal looked like a team headed for their worst finish under manager Arsene Wenger. That is until van Persie caught fire. His 30 goals (one short of the league record) gave Gunners fans hope for next year, assuming he decides to remain in London.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
You could make a very good case for Ronaldo being number one (you already know who it's going to be). I had a hard time choosing personally, since Ronaldo's team won the league, and he progressed just as far in the CL as our #1. 60 goals and 18 assists in all competitions are both career highs, proving that not only is CR7 currently on top of his game, but he is becoming a better teammate as well, and that can only mean good things going forward. Ronaldo did set one major record this year that Messi failed to: score against every team in La Liga.
1. Lionel Messi
70 goals. Let that sink in. 70 goals. A new European AND world football record. A record 50 in La Liga (Ronaldo had 46), and a record 14 in the Champs. League (Ronaldo had 10). He also had a career-high 27 assists. In a year where Barcelona saw their second best attacker (David Villa) go down to injury, and the rest of the attack perform inconsistently, Messi did something few athletes could ever do: He gave the fans a reason to look back with pride on a year they would normally consider a huge disappointment. THAT is impressive.
Almost done here. Now I mentioned in the teaser that this was perhaps the best season in soccer history...or at least in recent memory. Let's now look at the 5 biggest stories of the season, and how they made the year great.
5. APOEL make Champions League History
No one would blame you if you had never heard of APOEL. They are one of the best teams in the history of the Cyprus national league...too bad Cyprus is at about the same level as the British third division. Not ones to let the odds beat them, APOEL fought through several grueling qualifyers, eventually landing in the CL group stages. Then, against all odds, they won their group, which included Portugese champions Porto. APOEL were the first ever Cyprus team to advance into the UCL Knockout stages.
But they weren't done yet. In the round of sixteen, APOEL faced off against French giants Lyon, and dispatched them in a penalty shootout after they finished 1-1 after both legs. They eventually fell 8-2 to Madrid in the Quarters, but understand this; a team from Cyprus reaching the Quarterfinals is a bigger achievement than an English team winning the Cup...because it's not supposed to happen.
4. Madrid fight off Barca, set European Record
It all came down to a meeting on April 20th in Barcelona. Madrid held a 4 point lead going in, and had looked vulnerable of late. Barcelona had been in torrid form, barely even noticing their 1-0 loss to Chelsea in the first leg of their CL Semis. Most expected Barcelona to thrash Madrid, who would collapse and squander their lead to give the catalans their 4th consecutive title.
With the game tied at 1-1, a result which already favored Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo slipped past the back line, latching onto a perfect pass from Ozil, and calmly slotted home past Victor Valdes. As I mentioned earlier, though the title was not mathematically decided yet, at that moment everyone knew who the champions were. With wins in their following 3 games, Madrid became Europe's first team to finish a season with 100 points.
3. Failure, Disgrace, and Redemption
Carlos Tevez. Fernando Torres. Luis Suarez. Andy Carroll. What do these men have in common? Well, aside from the fact that Suarez and Carrol are teammates at Liverpool, all of these players were considered to be among the best talents in English football (and the world for that matter). And yet, each them went through an extended period of woe, either through poor choices or simple bad luck.
Fernando Torres was signed last year from Liverpool for 50 million pounds. In order to replace him, Liverpool spent 35 million on Andy Carroll, the highest ever fee for a British player. Torres, expected to eventually take over Drogba's spot as Chelsea's premier striker, went through a 24-game goal drought (about 4 months) during which many people began to speculate that he was a waste. Carroll likewise failed to live up to his price tag, as he was wildly inconsistent, resulting in being benched for several key league games.
For Tevez and Suarez, the story was different. Carlos Tevez (of Manchester City) supposedly refused to warm up after being called from the bench during a CL group stage game against Bayern. This led to a total meltdown, and Tevez eventually took off to play golf in his home country of Argentina...for six months. Suarez was Liverpool's best player early on in the season But after a 1-1 draw with Manchester United (Liverpool's fiercest rivals), it came out that Suarez had racially abused Man U fullback Patrice Evra, an action that got Suarez banned eight months.
Tevez, expected to be sold off in January, ended up staying at City. In his first start back, he supplied the winning assist in a crucial game against Chelsea. Throughout the closing matches of the year, Carlos worked tirelessly to be re-accepted into the squad he had abandoned...and it payed off. Torres eventually figured out where the goal was and started scoring again, just in time to help Chelsea pull off some major upsets. Carroll is currently a work in progress, though late on he did manage to put in some strong performances. As for Suarez, from the moment he got back he was a constant reminder of why you can't go to sleep against Liverpool's front line. His halfway line goal to complete his hat trick was one of the best this season. Watch it here.
2. Manchester vs Manchester
Not just the specific matches, I'm talking about the whole season. I mean seriously. Seriously, did anyone actually pay attention to this? This was the kind of title race fans deserve, the kind that, if it were a film script, would be thrown out as "too unrealistic". Early on, both teams dominated their competition, though most expected Man U to defend their title. Alex Ferguson is simply too good to be beaten by an upstart team with a coach who had never led a Premier League club. At least that's what everyone thought going into the teams' first head-to-head of the season, in historic Old Trafford. And then Man City won 6-1.
So now, everyone's on City's bandwagon. They're unbeatable, no possible way United could catch them. Well, not so fast. Yaya Toure and his brother Kolo (who is City's left back) left for a month to compete in the African Cup of Nations. Without Yaya holding firm, Silva and Nasri (City's other attacking midfielder) were more constrained, and asa result the goals came less and less often. United used this collapse, as well as the return of retired midfielder Paul Scholes, to leapfrog City and pad their lead to seven points with just a few games left.
Things were not done yet however, as United drew against Everton and lost to Swansea, putting City three points back one week ahead of their rematch at the Ethihad Stadium. Billed as a title decider and potentially the biggest match in Premier League history, City walked away with a 1-0 lead, meaning the two teams were tied on points. City had a higher goal difference, so all they had to do was match Man U's final two results to win the league. No problem? Yeah right.
On the final day of the season, United played Sunderland on the road while City hosted QPR, having not lost a home game all season. United scored through Rooney, and defended to hold on for the win. This meant City had to win to take home their first league title in 44 years. This is what happened:
Seriously, who writes this stuff?
1. Chelsea: Dead in the water to Champions of Europe
No, SERIOUSLY, who?
Let's go back to mid-February. Chelsea lost the first leg of their Round of Sixteen tie 1-3 on the road to Napoli. First-year manager Andre Villas-Boas was on the hotseat big-time, and Chelsea's 50 million pound-man wasn't scoring. It took one more league loss for billionaire owner Roman Abromovich to sack AVB, and appoint his assistant, an unknown by the name of Roberto di Matteo, as coach. Okay not completely unknown, as the Italian had actually spent a few years at Chelsea as a player, and had coached West Bromwich for 2 seasons, but no one really expected this guy to do anything special.
Cue "The Greatest Night in Stamford Bridge History" according to legendary Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard, after the Blues beat Napoli 4-1 after extra time to advance 5-4 on aggregate. Chelsea's old guard, who had been rarely used by AVB, shined in the win.
Next up was Portugese club Benefica, who proved tough though ultimately lackd Chelsea's experience and nerve. di Matteo's men worked hard and earned a 3-1 agg. victory to advance to the semi-finals...versus Barcelona.
In the first leg at home, Chelsea defended admirably, and eaked out a 1-0 victory after a rare Messi mistake led to a goal by Didier Drogba. However most were unconcerned with the result, as the true test lay in the second leg, on arguably the most daunting ground in European football. In the return leg, Barcelona went up 1-0 on a goal by Busquets to tie the agg. scoreline. Shortly after, Chelsea captain and main defender John Terry received a straight red card for kneeing Barca winger Alexis Sanchez in the back, meaning Chelsea had to hold out against Europe's best offense with only ten men. They couldn't, and Andres Iniesta gave the Catalans a 2-1 agg. lead shortly before half-time.
But before the referee blew for halftime, Chelsea midfielder Ramires received a Lampard pass and floated a beautiful chip over Barca's onrushing keeper, tying the score at 2-2. This scoreline also meant Chelsea would advance due to their 1-0 advantage on away goals. Then in the second half, a harsh penalty call put Europe's best player on the spot with a chance to restore Barca's lead...and Messi hit the crossbar. Chelsea held on through every ensuing attack, ad in the dying seconds Fernando Torres-of all people-broke away from the pack to score Chelsea's biggest goal of the season...so far.
Despite their CL push to the final, Chelsea were unable to perform as well in their league ultimately settling in at sixth, outside of next year's Champions League. In order to qualify for next year they would have to win the final, since champions by rule must be allowed to defend their title. However, they did manage to pick up the FA Cup (No small achievement) in a exciting 2-1 match against Liverpool.
Finally, everything came down to the May 19th Champions League Final against Bayern Munich, to be played in Munich own Allianz Arena (making them the fourth tea to play the European final at home). Chelsea were decided underdogs, and most believed their storybook season would come to an end against the Bavarian powerhouse. After all, how can a team with an interim head coach who finished sixth in their league have any real chance against a traditional European giant. Did I even mention Chelsea were without their two central defenders and two key midfielders (Terry for his red card, the rest for accumulated yellows)? I didn't? Well they were.
Though Bayern dominated possession, shots taken, and corners, Chelsea held on. At least until the 83rd minute:
Again, I'll let the video do the talking:
I had planned after seeing the City-QPR game to name that my match of the season when I wrote this column. However the brilliance of this match, along with being a picture-perfect ending to one of sports' greatest ever stories, has led me to name the 2012 Champions League Final as the Match of the Season.
Damn, I am exhausted. But before I go, I leave you all with with my 2011-2012 European Football goal of the season. In the most fitting way possible, it was scored against Chelsea.