This is not a list of the ‘best’ games I have ever seen, merely my five ‘favourites’. Feel free to comment and add your own. I’ve attempted to add some potential talking points as well. In reverse order:
5. England 2 -2 Argentina (30/6/1998)
For a list detailing one’s favourite matches of all-time it is a necessity to include something from the World Cup; this despite the global footballing tournament having experienced something of a famine of great matches during my lifetime. However, England Argentina in St. Etienne at World Cup 1998 was assuredly from the top drawer.
A mesmeric first half saw the advantage swing first to Argentina through Batistuta’s penalty; then to England when Shearer smashed home from the spot and Owen scored a goal of breathtaking pace, precision and youthful promise that has probably haunted him throughout his injury-riddled career. Zanetti’s intelligent equaliser on the stroke of half-time capped a classic opening period.
This was followed by over an hour of heart-stopping tension after Beckham’s red card. England soldiered on for penalties (even being denied – correctly – a golden goal during Extra Time from Shearer following Campbell’s foul on the Argentine ‘keeper Roa) before their 32 years of hurt were extended as Batty and Ince capitulated under the weight of asphyxiating pressure.
4. Liverpool 3 – 3 AC Milan (25/5/2005)
As a Manchester United fan it feels borderline traitorous to include this match in a list of ‘favourite’ ever games. However, one has to concede that the drama of Liverpool’s second half comeback matched, and perhaps even exceeded, the Camp Nou in 1999. Trailing 3-0 to AC Milan at half-time following a first half display that might have cemented the Italians’ place in the pantheon of great club teams were it not for the carnage that followed.
In six minutes the English side had drawn level through a hugely underrated header from Steven Gerrard, a long-range drive from Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso following up his own saved penalty. Liverpool miraculously hung on for the rest of the match before proving to have more bottle than Milan in the penalty competition. Andriy Shevchenko’s career never reached its previous heights following his decisive penalty miss and Rafa Benitez’ legacy was forever sealed in the hearts of Red Scousers everywhere.
3. Barcelona 5 – 0 Real Madrid (29/11/2010)
Tiki-taka. Tiki-taka. Tiki-taka. Barcelona had crushed Madrid 6-2 at the Bernabeu 18 months previously but scaled even greater heights during this frightening display of flair and finesse. The Catalans inflicted death by a thousand cuts on their eternal rivals, passing Real Madrid into submission and killing them off with a plethora of killer thrusts. With suicidal arrogance Jose Mourinho sent his team out to attack Barcelona and paid for it with the most embarrassing defeat of his managerial career.
Time and again the Madrid defence were sliced open by Barcelona’s magicians; Iniesta set up Xavi for the first, Villa squared for Pedro to double the advantage, Messi’s incisions delivered the third and fourth on plates for Villa, and youngsters Bojan and Jeffren combined to seal the rout. The demonstration of Barcelona’s ultimate attacking potency ensured that Madrid coach Jose Mourinho would not attempt to outplay them again and set about trying to stop them in future matches with force that has often verged on the brutal.
2. Netherlands 4 – 1 France (13/6/08)
For two matches at the start of Euro 2004 Holland briefly resuscitated total football. After battering Italy 3-1 earlier in the week with an audacious display of counter-attacking, the Dutch followed this up with a Friday night extravaganza of lightning speed, silk-footed touch and clinical finishing.
Kuyt’s thumping header, Van Persie’s tap-in following an electrifying counter-attack, Robben’s thrash into the roof of the net from an acute angle and Sneijder’s majestic curler into the postage stamp should mark this as one of the greatest international performances of all-time; however, perhaps because they were knocked out in the quarter finals by the surprising Russians, the Netherlands’ performance in eviscerating France has been underrated and possibly even forgotten.
A great regret is that this Dutch vintage did not get to play Spain. At the time Spain were still viewed as being decidedly fragile, and it was only winning this tournament that transformed the Spanish into the confident, classy world-beaters that we are now familiar with. Who is to say that their future success would have been quite as dramatic had they come up against the attacking prowess of the Oranje in Euro 2008?
1. Arsenal 2 – 4 Manchester United (1/2/2005)
No-one would claim that this was one of the most aesthetically pleasing of matches but the blood and thunder thrill of the English top flight has never been more evident than it was at Highbury in early February 2005. Starting with Keane and Vieira’s spat in the tunnel the game lurched from incident to dramatic incident in a breathless showcase of the English footballing mentality. Ironically, almost none of the key protagonists in this archetypal English match were actually from the country.
Vieira opened the scoring with a towering header; Giggs pegged Arsenal back with a deflected strike before Bergkamp gave Arsenal the half-time advantage sliding the ball under Roy Carroll after Henry’s weighted pass. In the second half United came storming back with a verve and passion that was largely anonymous during the rest of the season. Ronaldo’s quick-fire double gave them a 3-2 lead but when Silvestre was ordered off for butting Ljungberg Arsenal were given renewed hope. The Londoners pushed forward to exploit their man advantage but John O’Shea took advantage at the other end finishing off a delightful move by nonchalantly chipping the advancing Almunia.
From the fraught moments in the tunnel pre-match until O’Shea’s unlikely clinching goal, this game was packed with drama and tension; incident and threat. For these reasons, and as perhaps the final great battle of this war between United and Arsenal that had commenced at Highbury in November 1997, this is my favourite game.