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Football Whispers writers pick their 2018 highlights

 • by Football Whispers
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Ah, 2018. It was a year which sucked for many reasons.

In football terms, however, it was pretty great. Over the last 12 months, a lot has happened in the footballing world and the Football Whispers team have been there to watch it unfold every step of the way.

So, as we draw up our New Year’s resolutions and look forward to 2019, our writers take a moment to reflect on their favourite moments, goals, matches and so on from 2018.

Adam Newson

Favourite moment: Wenger’s Old Trafford farewell

Football can be a quite cynical and ruthless game at times so this was a genuinely heart-warming moment as Arsène Wenger’s farewell tour came to Old Trafford.

Manchester United fans showed their class by giving Wenger a warm applause as he walked to the visitors’ dugout for the last time as Arsenal boss, and then the Frenchman was presented with a vase from his old adversary Sir Alex Ferguson to commemorate his achievements.

To see these giants of the Premier League – two coaches who have made the division what it is today – demonstrate such mutual respect was a standout memory for me.

On a lighter note, honorary mentions go to Milad Mohammadi for his failed somersault throw-in attempt as Iran scrambled for an equaliser against Spain at the World Cup. And Michy Batshuayi kicking the ball against his own face via the crossbar during the third-place play-off between Belgium and England.

Favourite goal: Cristiano Ronaldo vs Juventus, Champions League

When a goal plants the seeds for one of the biggest transfers in recent history, you know it is special.

The technique is simply flawless; Ronaldo couldn’t have caught the ball any cleaner. And the fact it flew directly into the corner – whereas in many other overhead kick goals the ball bounces before the cross the line – just adds to its perfection.

Juventus fans gave the Portugal star a standing ovation, a sentiment that eventually led to him heading from Madrid to Turin.

Favourite game: Portugal 3-3 Spain, World Cup 2018

Before the World Cup began, the game was one of the most eagerly anticipated of the group stage. Then, when Spain sacked their coach Julen Lopetegui just 48 hours before the tournament kicked off, it became even more interesting.

The match certainly didn’t disappoint. Ronaldo scored twice in the first half, either side of an excellent Diego Costa goal, to put Portugal in front. But then Spain clicked into gear and dominated the second period.

Costa scored again and Nacho thumped home a stunning half-volley. La Roja, for much of the second period, weaved possession mesmerically across the pitch – it was arguably the best football they played during the tournament.

But the last word was had by Ronaldo who, in the dying minutes, whipped an incredible free-kick over the wall and past David de Gea. It was a thrilling finish to a thrilling game, one that set the tone for the rest of the goal-laden tournament.

Player you’ve most enjoyed watching: Lionel Messi

The answer to this question is Messi. And, until he retires, it’s always likely to be Messi.

Every game he does something that leaves you in awe. A feint. A run. A pass. A free-kick. A cute finish. He has normalised genius, which is arguably his most impressive feat of all.

And his performance against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley was one of my highlights of 2018. All the talk pre-match was about how bad the pitch was after an NFL game had been played at the stadium just 48 hours earlier.

But the surface was no problem for Messi. He scored twice and was involved in the other two Barcelona goals. Every touch he took was that of a master at work. It was breathtaking.

Player who has surprised you most: Jadon Sancho

Not to be that guy but I’ve been aware of Sancho since he was a 14-year-old. I previously covered Watford for the town’s local paper and when Manchester City signed him in 2015 for an initial £66,000, the Hornets knew they had lost a special player.

Yet even I wouldn’t have predicted the impact he has made in 2018, especially as Sancho had never started a league game at senior level until January.

His decision to move to Borussia Dortmund from Manchester City in the summer of 2017 has paid off, and then some. His form, especially this season, has been scintillating and he produces a moment of brilliance almost on a weekly basis.

He has contributed to 14 goals in the Bundesliga in 17 appearances during the first half of the campaign and the frightening thing is that the 18-year-old is only going to get better.

Player you expected more from: Marco Asensio

Perhaps I’m being slightly harsh but in the post-Ronaldo era at Real Madrid, especially given Los Blancos didn’t spend big to replace the Portuguese, I was expecting Asensio to step up and become a bonafide superstar.

It hasn’t happened and, if anything, he has regressed. The fact he has been constantly in and out of the starting XI over the past year could be to blame but, barring the odd wonder goal, Asensio hasn’t produced enough when given the opportunity and responsibility.

Given he is only 22 years old he has plenty of time to make the leap to consistent match-winnner, but a single LaLiga goal and just three assists in the first half of the campaign is not enough for a player as talented as the Spaniard. He has to improve.

Favourite Football Whispers article: Premier League: The Modern Day Emperor’s New Clothes

I decided to go for this piece – one of mine, obviously! – as it’s an article that I still think rings very true despite it being written in January. It’s focused on the Premier League and its hype machine.

Few other favourites are this on Hamburg, a club I gained an affinity for after visiting the city for my stag do and watching HSV defeat Augsburg last season. And this on Dan Crowley, a one time Arsenal prodigy who has impressed in Holland this season.

Favourite non-Football Whispers article: Kylian Mbappé and the Boys From the Banlieues

Amid the world of clickbait and pointless sensationalism, there are several brilliant football writers producing outstanding articles on a weekly basis. And the World Cup gave many of these a platform to write a range of enthralling and informative pieces.

Yet it’s the article above by Rory Smith and Elian Peltier for The New York Times that really stood out for me. Read it, you certainly won’t regret it.

Tom Bodell:

Favourite moment: England v Colombia

In terms of the spectacle or the technical level, it wasn’t a great game. But as an England fan under 30 it will live long in the memory as I hadn’t seen my country win a penalty shootout before – I was four in 1996!

Naturally, Gareth Southgate’s side did it the hard way but Yerry Mina’s last-minute equaliser made that win all the more special.

Favourite goal: Domingos Quina, Watford vs. Reading (Carabao Cup)

I’m sure plenty will pick Gareth Bale’s bicycle kick in the Champions League final or the Cristiano Ronaldo one against Juventus. So I’ve gone off the beaten path a little.

A highly rated Portuguese youth international, little was expected of Quina when he joined Watford from West Ham for £1million in the summer. This was his debut and what a way to introduce yourself. Picking up the ball 30 yards out he strode forward into space and let fly, arrowing a swerving, rising effort into the top corner from 25 yards.

Oh, Arsenal’s team goal at Fulham in the Premier League in October was quite nice too.

Favourite game: Liverpool 5-2 AS Roma, UEFA Champions League

As thrilling as Manchester City were on their way to the title last season, Liverpool stole the hearts of most neutrals – especially in the Champions League. And no game encapsulated their attacking brilliance more than their semi-final first-leg win over Roma at Anfield.

One of ‘those famous Anfield nights’, the hosts were simply unplayable for 70 minutes and although two late Roma goals almost ruined it, this was Liverpool at their scintillating best.

Player you’ve most enjoyed watching: Raheem Sterling

Possibly because I struggle to remember any football beyond the previous weekend’s Watford game and possibly because his name has been in the media so much recently, but Sterling has been a joy in 2018 (and 2017 before that).

No-one at City has benefited more from playing under Pep Guardiola and he has gone from inconsistent winger to one of the world’s best attackers under the Catalan. And he’s still only 24!

Player who has surprised you most: Ederson

Like most, I’d not seen him kick (or catch) a ball when he arrived at Manchester City. But it soon became apparent why Guardiola abandoned the Claudio Bravo experiment so readily to sign the Brazilian.

Keepers coming to the Premier League have typically needed a period of adjustment – think David de Gea’s shaky first few months at Manchester United – but not Ederson.

He’s played with the maturity of someone who’s a Premier League veteran and more than paid off his transfer fee. Which in a post-Kepa Arrizabalaga and Alisson era, looks even more of a bargain.

Player you expected more from: Naby Keïta

Our own Sam McGuire banged the drum for the Guinean for almost a year before he finally signed for Jürgen Klopp’s side and apart from one turn and pass against Crystal Palace and a display up at Burnley in a scatch Liverpool side, his highlight reel at Anfield is sadly lacking.

I realise I’m leaving myself open to look daft here as most Liverpool signings take time to bed in – think Andy Robertson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Fabinho – but I expected more from Keïta sooner than this. I’ve no doubt he will come good.

Favourite Football Whispers article: Doucouré can become new Pozzo poster boy

There are few subjects I like writing about more than Abdoulaye Doucouré so the chance to wax lyrical about the Frenchman as the rest of the Premier League sat up to his brilliance following a masterclass in the 4-1 thrashing of Chelsea was pure indulgence for me.

Favourite non-Football Whispers article: The Real Arsène Wenger by Matt Hughes

There was a lot of good writing around Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal departure but perhaps the best was this piece in The Times by Matt Hughes. The kind of detail you can only get by going through a man’s bins in the dead of night.

Ryan Baldi

Favourite moment: The World Cup – all of it

The World Cup only comes around once every four years and it’s always a treat for football fans. Wall-to-wall football for a month, as much of the beautiful game as you can greedily stuff into your face. And by the end, usually, you feel engorged to bursting point with it and glad of the few weeks of respite before the new season.

And World Cups tend to be remembered differently by different people depending on where they are in their life, acting as a photograph in time; mention of a particular tournament or a flash of a clip not only conjures memories of a particular game or goal but of feeling, of the person you were at the time – for example, I’ve heard it suggested the World Cup closest to your tenth birthday is the one that you identify with most, which is probably why I feel so nostalgic about Euro 96 and France 98.

Just as Italia 90 is remembered so fondly by a whole generation, despite being one of the lowest-scoring World Cups ever, England’s deep run in this tournament will have forged pleasant memories of Russia 2018 for most English fans. For me personally, this World Cup began days after I became a father, so it will always be connected to a very special time – any mention of the final, for instance, will take me right back to quietly watching France thump Croatia while my newborn son was asleep in another room.

Favourite goal: Fabio Quagliarella vs Napoli

Quagliarella has a career highlight reel comparable with some of the game’s best. Now 35, the veteran striker has scored spectacular goals everywhere he’s played.

Currently in his second spell with Sampdoria, the 25-cap Italy international is more prolific than ever before. But even though the goals are flowing more regularly, they are no less spectacular, as his stunning backheel volley against Napoli, the club he supports, attested.

Favourite game: Sevilla 3-5 Real Betis

This La Liga classic started as it meant to go on, with Fabian Ruiz firing Betis into the lead after just 21 seconds. And in the 94 minutes between that strike and Christian Tello scoring on the break to confirm a win for Betis, this Seville derby was a passionate, back-and-forth contest between two sides playing the game in the right style and spirit that could have gone either way.

Player you’ve most enjoyed watching: Lionel Messi

He’s just a joy. He’s been the best player in the world for more than a decade now and, at 31, he’s still as good as he’s ever been. He continues to evolve, tweaking his role and adding strings to a bow you didn’t think had room for more strings.

Messi is by far the best player I’ve ever seen and, although comparing players across different eras is a fool’s errand, I’m confident no one has ever been this good this consistently. Every single week he does something that takes your breath away. He won’t be around forever; cherish him.

Player who has surprised you most: Lionel Messi

This may come across as fanboying – and it is – but it’s true. You know he’s better than everyone else, you know he does things others can’t, yet still he produces passes that defy physics, dribbles that defy belief and goals that reaffirm your love for this silly sport.

Player you expected more from: Alexis Sánchez

From being heralded as the player to spark Manchester United’s attack back into life, a shot across the bow to the noisy neighbours who wanted to sign him, Sánchez is now little more than a (very well remunerated) squad player.

It remains to be seen whether a new manager will be able to get more from the Chilean than José Mourinho could, but it’s looking more and more like United should cut their losses. Arguably their worst ever signing.

Favourite Football Whispers article: Gareth Bale and the anatomy of a perfect goal

This was the piece I most enjoyed writing. I was on duty to cover the Champions League final this year and the sheer brilliance of Gareth Bale’s bicycle kick forced my hand in breaking from our usual structure for match coverage to focus solely on that wonderful feat of skill, timing, athleticism and showmanship.

And not only that goal, but the component parts that go into the making of a great goal or indeed any great sporting moment.

Honourable mention to this piece about poor old Scott McTominay and this on why Eddie Howe deserves a little more love.

Favourite non-Football Whispers article: After heart-breakers and nail-biters, England’s win over Sweden was that rarest treat – pure fun

The answer to this is anything Jonathan Liew has written, basically. I think football writing is in a fantastic place right now with tons of excellent writers producing consistently good, insightful, thought-provoking and entertaining work. Liew is the pick of the bunch. His Champions League final piece was magnificent, but I remember especially enjoying his coverage of the World Cup, with this piece about England’s win over Sweden making me laugh out loud several times.

For a non-football article, I’ll go with this, by the brilliant Brian Phillips, on Facebook controversies and how the internet is a less fun place than it used to be.

Matt Gault

Favourite moment: José Mourinho being sacked

I’m not afraid to admit that I’m a Manchester United fan. I’m also not afraid to admit that for much of Mourinho’s two and a bit years at the Old Trafford helm, I stuck by him. I stuck by him when we finished sixth in his first season, I stuck by him when Sevilla dumped us out of the Champions League. I even stuck by him when Spurs wiped the floor with us at Old Trafford.

But enough was enough. The toxic, fractured environment he fostered was tearing the club apart and we there were clear signs of regression, not progression, which was thoroughly depressing.

Finally, I’m not afraid to admit that I met Tuesday’s news that he’d been given the boot with a Tiger Woods-esque fist pump and little dance around my living room.

As an Irish United fan, it was much-needed good news at the end of a trying year.

Favourite goal: Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang v Leicester City

I’m assuming Andrew Gibney will pick Benjamin Pavard’s sumptuous strike versus Argentina, so I’ll go for something a little more obscure.

There’s something endlessly appealing about an impeccably constructed attack. I haven’t seen much better than Arsenal’s impossibly fluid surge up the Emirates pitch which sliced Leicester open with such ruthless precision.

Favourite game: Brazil 1-2 Belgium

I was fairly blown away by Arsenal’s 4-2 win over Tottenham last month but it says a lot that, despite hearing that Belgium had knocked Brazil out of the World Cup after touching down in Dublin airport after a trip to Berlin, I was still hopelessly engrossed when I watched the match back in its entirety.

Belgium’s counter-attacks were breathtaking, as was Kevin de Bruyne’s strike, but the general pace and intensity of the game had me enthralled from beginning to end. I was glued to it until the final whistle, even though I knew full well Brazil had gone home.

Player you’ve most enjoyed watching: Lionel Messi

Kylian Mbappé’s been great, sure, but little compares to watching Messi gliding around the pitch, leaving defenders in his wake and being utterly in control of the ball. He sees and plays the game like nobody I’ve ever seen.

Watch his goal vs Nigeria in the World Cup for the most unanswerable demonstration of his genius over the past year.

I’ve always been more in awe of Ronaldo’s supreme athleticism, but Messi is the greatest artist this generation has produced. Pure and simple.

The only thing I hate about Messi is the thought I get while watching him: that there will never be anyone like him again.

Player who has surprised you most: Paco Alcácer

He never made much of an impression at Barcelona but he’s exploded onto the scene at Dortmund. He just seems like a good fit.

Dortmund fans feared they would struggle after missing out on Michy Batshuayi following the Belgian’s impressive stint there last season but Alcacer has been a glorious surprise.

Initially signed on a season-long loan from Barcelona, capturing the 25-year-old on a permanent basis was a complete no-brainer.

Player you expected more from: Romelu Lukaku

Would have been tempting to pick Pogba but after 27 goals in his first season, I expected Lukaku to fire on all cylinders after the World Cup.

In Russia, particularly during that thrilling win over Brazil, he looked razor-sharp and incredibly dangerous. The sight of him flying past Brazil’s defenders filled me with glee. But seeing an admittedly chunkier Lukaku fluff his lines this season has been thoroughly depressing.

One can only hope that, now that Mourinho is gone, he can get back to his devastating best.

Favourite Football Whispers article: Before I joined in April, I was keeping tabs on my future colleagues. I particularly enjoyed this by Ryan: Hair Like Fellaini, Feet Like Messi: Meet Tahith Chong

After I joined, I enjoyed reading this from Mark while stranded in traffic: Spain deserved knock-out for tiki-taka catastrophe

Favourite non-Football Whispers articles: Maybe because it’s fresh in my mind, but Ken Early dissecting Mourinho’s Napoleon complex was wonderfully original and thought-provoking – and quite easily the best thing I’ve read on him in a long, long time.

The World Cup gave us a deluge of great, in-depth reads from across the footballing world, too, but none come close to matching the masterful storytelling of ESPN’s Wright Thompson, the greatest living sportswriter. His Pogba interview prior to the World Cup is a clinic in reportage and feature-length writing:

Thompson’s dispatch from Florence as Fiorentina said goodbye to their captain, Davide Astori, who died in his sleep in March, was also a beautiful piece of writing.

Oh, and finally, this isn’t even a football article, but Jonathan Liew on Team Sky pretty much explains why everyone constantly raves about his writing. 

Mark Thompson

Favourite moment: José Mourinho being sacked by Manchester United.

The schtick was tiresome; ditto the press treating every rant as something to be analysed in-depth rather than treated as the deflection tactic it was; aspects of his time at Old Trafford (eg Luke Shaw) seemed to have genuinely nasty air about them. What United do next is just an interesting story as the soap opera of Mourinho, and hopefully will not be tinged by unrelenting negativity.

Favourite goal: Eric Dier’s penalty against Colombia.

There have been a lot of really great goals this past 12 months, but the significance of that spot-kick and the celebrations it caused up and down the country…

The Colombia match was the peak of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ chat, in my opinion, as well; it’d gathered enough steam that everyone was making the jokes and singing Atomic Kitten to Gareth Southgate, but hadn’t yet been tinged by seriousness like it did after Sweden and around the Croatia game.

In terms of goals seen in the flesh though, it has to be Caroline Weir’s goal against West Ham, coming out of nowhere in the opening minutes of the match. A peach of a strike.

Favourite game: Germany vs South Korea, 2018 World Cup

The champions being dumped out was great, topped off by Son Heung-Min’s goal in stoppage time. Manuel Neuer in midfield, ahead of two centre-backs. Calling to receive a throw-in. Getting it, being tackled, 25 yards from the opponent’s goal. There were a lot of games at the World Cup that were fun, but that one probably encapsulates the giant-killing, bizarro moments, and fast attacking football that characterised the best bits.

Player you’ve most enjoyed watching: Miguel Almíron

Team-mate Josef Martínez won the MLS MVP award this season, rightfully so for his record-breaking goal tally, but it’s Almíron who’s being linked with a move to the Premier League. And deservedly so.

Player who has surprised you most: Virgil van Dijk

Southampton played a system that sheltered their centre-backs so much that I wasn’t sure how the Dutchman would do for Liverpool and was wary of the £75m price tag. I think I underestimated his communication and leadership skills, and he’s proved himself a sound purchase.

Player you expected more from: Maybe this is unfair, but Paul Pogba…?

Maybe he was just misused by his manager, but I don’t think anyone would say he’s been performing at expectation. He’s the one player in United’s squad you’d expect to have consistently good performances.

Favourite Football Whispers article: Selfishly, I’m going to choose one of my own. Essential reading if you’ve ever heard someone say ‘the art of defending is dying’, if I do say so myself.

Favourite non-Football Whispers article*scrolls through Pocket favourited archive*

It’s not football, but The new vocabulary of T20 was a great article from the start of the year by fantastic writer Jarrod Kimber about the way stats usage, and terminology, is changing around Twenty-20 cricket. It’s more than a piece about cricket and data, it’s about how a sport is evolving.

Football wise, two pieces by Jonathan Liew stand out. The second paragraph of his Champions League final piece might be the best single paragraph about big games in football writing history.

Unfortunately, though, his article on how the sports media also needs to talk more about racism in football might be the best piece of football writing in 2018. It’s both well-written and immensely important.

Andrew GIbney

Favourite moment: Mario Mandžukić’s 109th-minute winner for Croatia against England in the semi-final of the World Cup.

You could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from Scotland all the way in the Luzhniki. Football wasn’t coming home and everyone north of the border and more importantly those living with the enemy were safe for another four years. Phew.

Favourite goal: Benjamin Pavard vs Argentina

As a player I had watched develop from the youth sides at Lille and being somewhat involved in his transfer to Stuttgart, when the ball fell to him at the edge of the box and knowing his record in front of goal, there was a split-second though of ‘Don’t do it….”

Wooooow. Best goal of the tournament and personally meant something special.

Favourite game: Toulouse 2-3 Lille, Ligue 1

The threat of relegation was real and after taking the lead, Lille found themselves 2-1 down away from home against another side fighting for survival.

Cue a stunning and uncharacteristic free-kick from Yves Bissouma and a bit of magic from soon to be hero and Arsenal transfer target, Nicolas Pépé and the three points were heading north.

Player you’ve most enjoyed watching: Lucas Torreira

It’s not until you see him in person you appreciate the amount of work he puts in across the pitch. He’s exactly the type of player Arsenal have been screaming out for since Patrick Vieira left. Maybe if Wenger had signed him sooner, his final days wouldn’t have been as disappointing. Signing of the season.

Player who has surprised you most: Kylian Mbappé

After seeing him make his debut for Monaco and become a massive part of their title-winning season, everyone who watched Ligue 1 knew he’d be good, but to go on and capture everyone’s attention in Russia, help France win the World Cup and also take the spotlight from Neymar has exceeded all expectations. It doesn’t look like he’s peaked either. Which is scary.

Player you expected more from: Serge Aurier

Was genuinely one of, despite his off-the-field issues, the best full-backs in France and was so happy with his move to Spurs. Kieran Trippier is good, but Aurier should be doing more to push for a place in that team.

At his best he is devastating at both ends of the pitch. So it’s sad to see it hasn’t worked out.

Favourite Football Whispers article: From Champions To Crisis: Lille Lie in Ruin

Nothing beats a good rant. 

Favourite non-Football Whispers article: Green Machine: The Story of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s Saint-Etienne Rebirth

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