Lots was done on the pitch. Anthony Lopopolo selects the best moments of 2011.
On December 31, 2011
Before the year began, Barcelona had a chance to make history, AC Milan looked ready to topple rival Inter Milan from its Serie A perch, Manchester United aimed to reclaim the Premier League title it had lost to Chelsea and a young manger at Porto aimed to collect every trophy available in Portugal and Europe. All accomplished what they sought to do, and in the process some other clubs achieved their own kind of success, if only modest. One of the more inspiring stories of the year was written by Cypriot club APOEL Nicosia, which became the first team from Cyprus to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages in December.
SSC Napoli emerged out of Europe’s Group of Death, dispatching Manchester City along the way to reach the Round of 16 for the first time in club history. And Swansea City became the first Welsh team to play in the Premier League. Then there were not-so-glorious moments in football: controversies over the use or non-use of racial slurs, a fresh match-fixing scandal in Italy and the weekly case of shoddy officiating. Invariably, there were lots done on the pitch. Here is a selection of the best moments in 2011.
Surprise of the year: Udinese
During an era in which clubs have spent their way to the top, Udinese has done the opposite. By selling away prodigies and precocious talent, most notably in the form of Alexis Sanchez and Gokhan Inler, the Friuli have not only managed to soar to the summit of Serie A, but remain there for weeks on end, challenging for a spot on the podium of the league’s best. Under the ownership of Giampaolo Pozzo, who has reaped a total of around $65 million from the transfers of only three up-and-coming starlets this summer, Udinese has operated like a prototypical selling club without the nasty side effects; that is, without becoming irrelevant after every sale. They have instead set camp in the foremost echelon of Italian football. Before adjourning for the two-week winter break, Udinese boasted the best defence in Serie A, conceding only nine goals in 16 matches — with an entirely new and previously uninitiated set of defenders to boot. Despite the flux of players, there has been one constant: Antonio Di Natale, whose 28 league goals in 2011 helped Udinese to earn a Champions League qualification spot and praise across Europe.
League of the year: Serie A
It may be easy to point to the Barclay’s Premier League as the world’s best domestic campaign, but has it been the most exciting? Serie A may not draw the biggest audience or even make the most money, but it has arguably been the most tightly contested league in Europe. The Italian league has been unpredictable in all of its 35 rounds of play in 2011. AC Milan, Lazio, Udinese and Juventus — clubs with vastly different budgets — have all had control of the league’s summit at some point, and no lead has ever been significant. Despite losing a Champions League qualification spot this season, Serie A’s five representatives in European competition all remain alive — a total more than any other country.
Team of the year: Barcelona
Who else could it really be? The Barcelona of 2011 is the team of the year, and to some the best to go down in history. The Catalans won five out of a possible six trophies this year, more than any club in Europe, and have asserted themselves as a better squad than Real Madrid over the course of seven editions of El Clasico over the past 12 months, winning three times and losing only once against Jose Mourinho’s side. Led by Lionel Messi, who scored 55 goals in all competitions for Barca in 2011, the Blaugrana have peaked to a height never seen before in world football — and perhaps will never be seen again. But with Madrid leading their rival by three points ahead of the new year, Barcelona’s stranglehold in Spain could be loosening.
Most improved club of the year: Juventus
Bouncing back from two consecutive seventh-place finishes in Serie A — the worst in club history — Juventus has barked its way back up the standings with the kind of confidence they had before their match-fixing demotion to the second tier of Italian football in 2006. After a summer in which they spent wisely, bringing in Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal and Stephan Lichtsteiner, the Torino-based club has not lost a game in domestic play, remaining the only team in Europe’s top-five leagues to boast an undefeated record by year’s end. Coach Antonio Conte seems to have reinvigorated the side in a way the past six mangers in seven years could not. After helping to promote Bari from Serie B two years ago and Siena this year, Conte has proven that he can guide a team to success. Juventus heads into 2011 tied in first with AC Milan at 34 points.
Goal of the year: Eric Hassli, Vancouver Whitecaps
The year’s moment of individual brilliance belongs to a Major League Soccer player. Not often do we look to MLS for breathtaking sights, but Vancouver Whitecaps forward Eric Hassli served up a delicious goal against the Seattle Sounders in the summer that brought worldwide attention to the league. The dumbfounded look on the face of keeper Kasey Keller says it all. Hassli picked up the ball at the tip of the box, carried it a yard or two AWAY from the goalmouth and snapped a volley above the defender, the keeper and into the side of the netting.
Manager of the year: Harry Redknapp
What, not Pep Guardiola? That would be boring and predictable. Yes, Guardiola led Barcelona to its second Champions League triumph in three years, its third La Liga title in three seasons and its second FIFA Club World Cup, winning a total of 13 of a possible 16 trophies since taking over in 2008. But let’s face it: he has got a set of great players at his disposal that began to develop championship chemistry well before Guardiola became manager, as far back as their days growing up in La Masia.
No, the manager of the year should be Harry Redknapp. Think about what he has accomplished in 2011 with Tottenham: his side reached the quarterfinal of the Champions League for the first time in club history in March — despite the thrashing they duly received from Real Madrid — and head into the new year as the best London club (North London rival Arsenal have always finished the past 19 seasons ahead of them).
With the speed of Gareth Bale and the skill of Luka Modric tantalizingly on display to the world, Tottenham could have succumbed to a king’s ransom of tempting bids, sold their assets off and netted huge profits — they received a $47-million offer from Chelsea for the Croat and deflected many suitors for the $78-million-rated Bale in the offseason.
Instead, they held on to them in a bid to end the season as London’s top club for the first time in the Premier League era — and perhaps as England’s champion. Spurs moved six points behind Manchester City on Dec. 31, thrusting themselves into the title discussion. Redknapp guided Tottenham to a record-best season in his first full season in charge in 2009-10 with 70 points. He is on pace to beat his own record by May 2012.
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