Best, worst moments of European club season

As we creep towards the official end of the 2022-23 European football season — the English Premier League and German Bundesliga have concluded, while Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1 and Spain’s LaLiga have one round of matches left — it’s time to look back at the highlights and lowlights of the campaign. What did our writers love and hate? Which storylines did they enjoy most?

Was it Erling Haaland’s goals or Napoli’s remarkable first league title since 1989-90 and the days of Diego Maradona? What was the best game they saw live? How about the best goal? And what will they remember most about 2022-23 as it comes to a close?

With the UEFA Champions League final fast approaching on June 10 and the summer transfer window sure to spark soon after, we asked Mark Ogden, Rob Dawson, Julien Laurens, Gab Marcotti, James Olley and Tom Hamilton to recap their 2022-23 campaigns.

Liverpool 7-0 Manchester United (March 5, 2023). If you want close, hard-fought encounters as your best game, look away now. There was nothing close about this game at Anfield as Liverpool destroyed their biggest rivals, inflicting United’s heaviest defeat since 1931.

Mohamed Salah, Cody Gakpo and Darwin Nunez all scored twice for Liverpool, underlining the potential of the club’s evolving forward line, but the win ultimately counted for little as Liverpool missed out on Champions League qualification and United sealed a top-four finish.

– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

Chelsea 0-0 Fulham (Feb. 3, 2023). The game marked the debut of the Premier League’s most expensive signing ever — Chelsea’s £106.8m midfielder Enzo Fernandez — but it offered nothing else. This game was probably Chelsea’s season in a nutshell, too: big promise, but nothing to show for it.

Julio Enciso, Brighton vs. Manchester City (May 24, 2023). There’s something about a long-range strike that ends up in the back of net. Forget the neat approach play of a Manchester City goal, or the quick interplay of Arsenal’s attacking players: nothing gets a crowd on its feet like a shot from distance and Enciso’s goal for Brighton against City ticked every box.

It had power, accuracy and the audacity of the player to take the shot in the first place. A stunning goal.

Aston Villa. Villa were going nowhere except for a relegation battle when Steven Gerrard was fired and replaced by Unai Emery in November, but the change of manager was inspired. Having appointed one of Europe’s most successful coaches, but one with a point to prove in England after his disappointing spell at Arsenal, Villa hit the jackpot. Emery transformed the team, breathed life into the club and ended the season with qualification for the Europa Conference League. Villa could now take off in a big way.

Napoli. By the time I saw Napoli’s two games against AC Milan in the Champions League quarterfinal, Luciano Spalletti’s team had lost the momentum that would ultimately deliver a first Serie A title since 1990.

Injuries and suspensions had started to take their toll and they were unable to beat Milan and reach the semifinals. But Napoli were so brilliant to watch for much of this season with the goals of Victor Osimhen and wing-play of Khvicha Kvaratskhelia that it’s a shame they couldn’t sustain their in order to reach the Champions League final and take on Manchester City.

Cristiano Ronaldo — No, seriously. He started the season in a sulk at Manchester United, quickly found new manager Erik ten Hag to be a guy who shouldn’t be messed with and then burned his career at Old Trafford by going public on his complaints about anything and everything in an interview with Piers Morgan. He then went to a World Cup and was dropped by Portugal before ending up in Saudi Arabia with Al Nassr.

All of that in one season. Only Ronaldo could make it happen.

Manchester City 4-0 Real Madrid (May 17, 2023). The Champions League semifinal second leg at the Etihad Stadium was billed as something of a day of destiny for City and Pep Guardiola after what happened at the same stage last season, but the Spanish side were blown away by their brilliance.

It was a remarkable performance against a European heavyweight in a crucial game. It might yet go down in history as City’s best display under Guardiola, which is saying something.

Manchester United 1-0 Omonia Nicosia (Oct. 13, 2022). The Cypriot side seemed happy just to be playing at Old Trafford, but United still struggled to find a way past in their Europa League group stage tie. United have had a good season under Erik ten Hag, but they have also thrown in some shocking performances. This was one of them.

Rodri, Man City vs. Bayern Munich (April 12, 2013). His turn inside Jamal Musiala was so sharp that it opened up the space for the Spain midfielder to whip a left-footed shot into the top corner from 25 yards out. It was a great goal, but also a hugely important one in City’s run to the Champions League final.

Nottingham Forest. Newly promoted, signing a ton of new players and their manager permanently on the brink of the sack — everything pointed to Forest being relegated this season. That they didn’t owes so much to their fans, who willed their team to eight wins and six draws at the City Ground this season. Forest beat Liverpool and Arsenal at home and the atmosphere on both occasions was ferocious. Supporters still matter in the Premier League.

Brighton. The way they played against Manchester United at Wembley in the FA Cup semifinal was fantastic, and they probably deserved to win. Their style of football under Roberto De Zerbi is incredible to watch and the speed and precision with which they move the ball can be mesmerising. They are so good.

Erling Haaland and his goals. It’s tempting to say that we might never see goal scoring like this again, but you wouldn’t bet against the Norwegian striker bettering his tally next season. To put up the numbers he has in his first season in the Premier League is nothing short of extraordinary.

Manchester City vs. Real Madrid, Champions League semifinal, second leg. (May 17, 2023) I have covered hundreds of matches in my career as a journalist and attended many more as a fan, but never had I seen before such a masterclass and control like I saw from City on that night. They were just unplayable, unbeatable and unstoppable. Watching from the stands was just like poetry in motion: every movement, and every pass, was perfect.

For obvious reasons, it has to be the World Cup final. (Dec. 18, 2022) I could not pick it as the best game I attended this season given the heartbreak and sadness it caused me. I hated every minute of it — even the moments in which France were the better team. I know Lionel Messi made history, and Kylian Mbappe as well. I know many (including me) consider it as one of the greatest-ever matches, but it is still too painful. It hurt so bad on the night that it was one of the worst nights of my season.

There have been many, but I think Pedro Goncalves for Sporting against Arsenal at the Emirates wins it. (March 16, 2023) I love lobs from the halfway line like Cristiano Biraghi this season or Xabi Alonso, Memphis Depay, David Beckham and even Charlie Adam from past years. There’s something really magical about them: the vision and awareness to see it, the technique to produce it, the cheekiness to try it and the joy to score it. His goal kept his team in the tie before going on to beat the Gunners on penalties in the Europa League round of 16.

Erling Haaland. What he achieved this season is incredible. I can’t believe some people doubted him before he arrived, and still doubted him halfway through the season! He is a phenom: driven, ambitious and clinical in front of goal (even if he missed some chances in some games). He took Manchester City to another level this season and if they do win the treble, he would be the biggest X factor English football has ever seen. And he’s still only 22 years old!

Too many to mention! Luciano Spalletti’s Napoli just for Stanislav Lobotka and Kvicha Kvaratskhelia, Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton for their creativity, Pep Guardiola’s Man City from March onwards for the back four of center backs and John Stones’ role, Franck Haise’s Lens for the intensity, movement and their press, Vincent Kompany’s Burnley for their possession football and structure, Xavi’s Barcelona for the defensive solidity and finally, the Marseille guy’s PSG just to dream of what could have been!

The Chelsea nightmare. At the start of the season on the ESPN FC show, I predicted them to finish sixth this year. I had been told about the tensions within the club between Thomas Tuchel and the new owners, but I never thought — nobody really did — that their campaign could explode like it did. They finished in 12th place (they were third last season) with 44 points and a goal difference of 0 (38 goals scored, 38 conceded). It was a shambles.

The interventionism from Todd Boehly made it worse, the craziness of their two transfer windows (spending more than 600m Euros on new players) took the chaos to another dimension, the failure of Graham Potter, who was never comfortable there and never welcomed by the players, played a big part, too!

Argentina vs. France in the World Cup final. (Dec. 18, 2022) It was certainly the biggest game, and you couldn’t have asked for more drama. Argentina racing to a 2-0 lead, Mbappe scoring twice late on, then that Messi fella scoring in the second period of extra time to make you think it’s all over, only for Gonzalo Montiel to concede a goofy penalty and Mbappe to complete his hat trick. Then you had the penalties and Messi finally winning a World Cup.

I’m not sure you could ask for more in terms of drama, storylines and shared experience.

Qatar vs. Ecuador (Nov. 20, 2022) It was the World Cup opener, we didn’t know what to expect from Qatar in terms of their fans. It turned out to be a dud in terms of fans and atmosphere … except for the Turkish ultras flown in to provide support for the home team. Ecuador deservedly won 2-0, while Qatar looked far worse than they did in other competitions and friendlies they played in prior to the tournament.

Richarlison, Brazil vs. Serbia. (Nov. 24, 2022) Glorious control and a perfect scissor kick. What more could you want? I think he ended up scoring more against Serbia than he did for Spurs this season.

Napoli, hands down. To lose your three biggest players, cut your wage bill by 30% and still win the league by a huge margin while reaching the Champions League quarterfinals… yeah, Diego Maradona would have been proud.

Paris Saint-Germain. On the one hand, you get to see some of the greatest players in the world. On the other, there’s the entertainment value of chaos, horrible management, bad stewardship and the biggest spenders not getting their way.

Chelsea’s stream of horrendous decisions ever since Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital Group took over the club. From sidelining all of the Roman Abramovich era executives, to not hiring a sporting director until after a horribly wasteful summer transfer session, to firing Thomas Tuchel a few days after you brought in the players he wanted, to talking smack about how the Premier League was “20 years behind baseball” (gee, that sport must be doing great if it put in a pitch clock because fans complain games are too long and boring), to the absurd January spending spree, to firing Graham Potter (after spending god-knows-how-much to get him) to Boehly saying they’d beat Real Madrid 3-0 … wow!

It’s a steep learning curve, and they made it far steeper by seemingly not taking any advice (or taking advice from the wrong people).

The FIFA men’s World Cup final (Dec. 18, 2022). It was difficult to separate football from politics given the various controversies surrounding the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but in isolation, the final between France and Argentina is the best game I’ve ever seen live.

Matches of this magnitude are so often stifled under the weight of their own importance, yet this surpassed all expectations and delivered one of the best endings of all: Lionel Messi lifted the game’s biggest prize to cement his status as the greatest player of all time.

Crystal Palace 0-0 Liverpool (Feb. 25, 2023). Both teams were happy with a point, and it would have been beneficial to everyone if they’d just agreed that before kickoff and moved on. After it, Reds boss Jurgen Klopp said of Liverpool’s season: “There will not be big movies about it, but we have to go through it anyway.” That’s also how everyone at Selhurst Park felt about that 90 minutes.

Ilkay Gundogan, Manchester City at Everton (May 14, 2023). Superbly improvised control and finish in a tight area in a match City needed to win to stay on top in the title race.

Arsenal’s revival under Mikel Arteta, simply because nobody predicted it at the start of the season. The Gunners looked to have bought shrewdly as Arteta moulded a young squad with potential more in his own image, but they exceeded all expectations to push Manchester City all the way into May. They also did so with a blend of attacking, dynamic football which made them one of the best sides to watch as Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli and Martin Odegaard lit up the division.

The fact there is still a debate over whether their season was a success or a failure given they held an eight-point lead in early April only adds to the intrigue.

Brighton. After Graham Potter left to join Chelsea in September, there were major misgivings about how Brighton would fare under Robert de Zerbi, a man with not much of a reputation in England. Yet they ended the campaign reaching Europe for the first time, playing an enterprising brand of football which was an absolute joy to watch.

Kaoru Mitoma, Pervis Estupinan and Evan Ferguson are just three breakout talents who really caught the eye.

This will likely be Manchester City’s treble (should they achieve it) but for now, the utter absurdity of having a World Cup in the middle of season. It is perhaps easy to forget just how much the game’s top players were asked to go through to accommodate the first winter World Cup: with the upcoming international break, a season which began in early August will conclude in late June.

Borussia Dortmund 2-2 Mainz (May 28, 2023). For nerves and atmosphere, the final day of the Bundesliga is going to take some beating. The Yellow Wall was immense at Borussia Dortmund, but even that collective throng could not prevent their team from falling at the final hurdle against Mainz. The match oscillated between anticipation and desolation as the Bundesliga title exchanged hands between the match at Dortmund, and Bayern Munich over at Cologne.

Even though Dortmund could only draw, the sight of their distraught players being picked up by the Yellow Wall was an incredible thing to witness.

Denmark 0-0 Tunisia (Nov. 22, 2022). There are some positive memories from this match: the passion of the Tunisia fans and the performance of their defensive midfielder Aissa Laidouni. But this was a dreadful game, and unfortunately planted the seeds for what would prove to be a deeply underwhelming World Cup for Denmark.

Michael Olise, Crystal Palace vs. Man United (Jan. 18, 2023). Olise’s 91st minute freekick to force a draw against Manchester United was a remarkable goal. It was to the right of the United goal, about 30 or so yards out, and he managed to find the top corner of David de Gea’s net. A truly outstanding strike.

David Brooks’ return to the pitch for Bournemouth. On March 18, after 536 days out after fighting cancer, Brooks got back on the pitch for the Cherries, capping a remarkable journey. It came against Aston Villa as he was subbed on after 79 minutes and greeted with applause from both sets of supporters. It was a season where we also saw Sebastian Haller make his debut for Dortmund in January after taking time out to undergo chemotherapy.

Brighton. I wish I’d seen more of the Seagulls’ evolution under Roberto de Zerbi and witnessing every step of their journey first-hand. It would’ve also been great to have seen some of Napoli’s run to the Serie A title, and also to witness the brilliance of Barcelona women’s dominance in Spain.

Apart from the season where Erling Haaland was unleashed in the Premier League, it was the season where droughts were broken by Napoli and Feyenoord, but sheer inevitability took over the Bundesliga, Premier League and Women’s Super League narratives. All three leagues toyed with having new names on the trophies, but instead it was the reliable candidates who came through in the end.

This was all countered by Leo Messi finally lifting the World Cup with Argentina, but football has only so much capacity for romantic endings.

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