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McKenna: Ranking the best games Europe had to offer

| Thursday, January 27, 2022

When I first found out I would be studying abroad in the fall, there was a tinge of sadness. To lose a full football season (with the return of full-capacity crowds and tailgating, no less) was, briefly, a tough pill to swallow.

Any sort of regret I might have had quickly dissipated once the opportunity to watch some of Europe’s most iconic clubs playing the greatest sport in the world arose.

For my pure self-enjoyment, I’ve ranked my five match-going experiences from this past fall. There is no set formula, though I generally prioritized the intensity of the atmosphere, the novelty of the storylines surrounding the match and the entertainment value of the game itself. Unsurprisingly, my two real rooting interests, Liverpool and Crystal Palace, are involved at the top of the list.

5. Barcelona 3 – Levante 0  

Camp Nou 

Barcelona, Spain

I am not a Real Madrid fan. I was slightly underwhelmed by the atmosphere for this September clash.

The Camp Nou felt a bit cavernous, though a lot of that had to do with Catalonia still maintaining strict capacity restrictions in late September compared to most of Spain. A stadium that seats over 99,000 people will always feel a bit eerie when only half-full.

Even then, the small crowd lacked the intensity that I expected. Yes, Lionel Messi’s departure and the club’s financial crisis had led to what will likely be the club’s worst season in over two decades and the relegation-threatened opponent could also explain the muted buildup. However, I can’t let the most valuable club in the world, according to Forbes, off the hook.

Don’t get me wrong, No. 5 on this list still means I was awestruck: The tickets were relatively cheap and I saw American right back Sergiño Dest contribute an assist. A group of Barcelona academy products and patchwork signings carved up the hapless visitors with an ease Barça fans were accustomed to seeing not too long ago.

A goal off the bench for Ansu Fati in his first appearance in over 322 days after a knee injury did electrify the crowd, who had chanted his name since he had begun to warm up. For the heir to Messi’s No. 10 shirt, it was obviously an emotional moment. Some young, unruly and friendly guys who moved to our section late in the game added some flavor as well.

4. Atlético de Madrid 0 – Athletic Club 0

Estadio Metropolitano

Madrid, Spain

When I recruited a group of fellow study abroad students to go to our first match in early September, I overheard some gripes about “no scoring” and players rolling around on the floor. Well, if the soccer haters ever wanted vindication, this was the game for them.

Chances and attacking flair were few and far between in this goalless draw, but there was still plenty of spectacle. For just 60% capacity, the atmosphere was extremely solid, and the ultra-group, the “Frenti Atleti,” were not messing around.

Adding to the intrigue was the historical connection between the two clubs. Atleti was originally founded by students from Bilbao as a youth wing for Athletic Club before gradually developing into a separate entity.

The familial sort of rivalry carried over to the pitch on this day. Atleti’s João Félix received a controversial red card in the second half of a feisty affair and Atleti manager Diego Simeone was also up to his usual antics. It was a game without goals, but it had pretty much everything else.

3. Athletic Bilbao 0 – Cádiz 1

San Mamés

Bilbao, Spain

For what it’s worth, my girlfriend thought this was the worst match we attended together (actually, No. 5 might have been her favorite). Fortunately, I don’t think she’ll get around to reading this, nor do I believe I’ll ever stop hyping up the Basque Country.

The match was admittedly terrible. Relegation-threatened Cádiz scrambled a goal across early and then defended for their lives. Athletic Club, meanwhile, was insipid in attack.

However, “La Catedral” is simply a place anyone who appreciates sport’s culture must go. The museum in the San Mamés is an incredible window into Basque culture and identity. It helps outsiders understand why a traditional power in Spanish football willingly puts itself at a disadvantage by only fielding players who hail from the Basque region.

Sitting in a section with kids and older men chanting together didn’t hurt my romantic impression of the club, either. I’ll be back someday, hopefully for a better game.

2. Crystal Palace 1 – Aston Villa 2

Selhurst Park

London, UK

Plenty of rooting bias here, but I have simply never been anywhere like Selhurst Park. The route from train station to stadium takes you past rows and rows of packed brick townhouses until you suddenly come upon four stands that hold almost 25,500. Fenway Park is the only American comparison I can think of in terms of Selhurst’s tight confines, rustic quality and constant buzz, but this still doesn’t do Selhurst justice.

There was plenty of intrigue heading into this late November matchup. In his second game as Aston Villa manager, Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard was taking on an old rival from his playing days: Patrick Viera.

However, Palace’s seven-match unbeaten run came to end with a disappointing performance as the Eagles uncharacteristically struggled to create opportunities. As the Palace fans began to file out late on, the Eagles did get a goal back. It was only a brief glimpse of hope, but I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity to celebrate with the home crowd.

Like witnessing the return of Fati in Barcelona, a substitute appearance by mercurial Palace midfielder Eberechi Eze, his first game since suffering an achilles injury in May, was also a bright spot. The mouthwatering steak and Balti pies numbed the sting of defeat as well.

On another day, a 15-minute walk back to the train station in bitter cold surrounded by Villa fans chanting their own version of “Jingle Bells” (“Oh what fun it is to ride when Villa win away, hey!”) would have made the blood boil.

Instead, I was just over the moon to be there.

1. Atlético de Madrid 2 – Liverpool 3

Estadio Metropolitano  

Madrid, Spain

There’s nothing like European nights. This Champions League showdown comes in at No. 1, and it wasn’t even close.

Sure, this was two of the biggest clubs in Europe going at it. The last time the two had faced off was March 11, 2020. Atleti dramatically knocked Liverpool out of the last-16 of the Champions League that night, and COVID-19 shut down European football two days later.

Greg McKenna | The Observer
Atleti fans welcome the team bus before their Champions League match against Liverpool on Oct. 19, 2021.

A year and a half later, a raucous full-capacity crowd beckoned. I arrived in Madrid a few hours early to watch Liverpool fans party in the Plaza Mayor. I was sandwiched between away fans in full voice on the subway as they kept the beat by thumping the ceiling of the car.

However, even the mighty Liverpool faithful were drowned out in the rafters of the stadium’s East End when the Atleti fans sung their anthem. If the ultras were good at 60% capacity, they were thunderous all back together again to welcome one of the most successful teams in the history of the competition.

The match had everything. Liverpool scored twice within 13 minutes, the second goal coming from an absolute worldie volley from Naby Keita. Along with the Liverpool fans who had snapped up tickets in my section, I felt comfortable getting pretty loud amongst the throngs of Atleti supporters. Twenty minutes later, I felt a bit smaller after Antoine Griezmann scored a quick brace to bring Atleti level and put the Metropolitano into a frenzy, egged on by a demonstrative Simeone.

Liverpool looked to be suffering until Griezmann was went sent off in the second half, and the visitors won a late penalty that was dispatched by Mohamad Salah.

Simeone rushed down the tunnel, refusing to shake the hand of Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who in return gave him a sarcastic wave. It was simply antics, drama and goals galore. For my first-ever Champions League match, I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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