Top 10 footballing moments of 2012

Posted by Michael Cox

It's been an incredible year for football, both at the club and international level -- with that in mind, here are 10 of the most memorable moments of 2012.

10. Falcao's second goal versus Athletic Bilbao, Europa League final

Falcao had won the previous season's Europa League final for Porto with an excellent header to defeat Braga. This year, he repeated the trick with two stunning goals against Athletic. The first was a superb strike, the Colombian forward casually shifting the ball away from Fernando Amorebieta to create the angle for a curler into the far corner -- a shot dispatched with typical precision. "My dad always said I have to aim for the far post," Falcao said. "And for the first time I did -- he will be happy!"

But the second goal was even better -- receiving a low pass from Diego on the edge of the six-yard box and under pressure from Athletic defender Jon Aurtenetxe, Falcao dragged the ball back with one foot, sending his opponent crashing to the floor, then slammed the ball into the goal with the other. It was audacious, it was genius, it was Ferenc Puskas versus England in 1953.

Athletic Bilbao had been the neutral's choice for their incredible pressing and passing throughout the competition, but Falcao was the difference in that final, establishing himself as the world's most prolific number nine.

9. Zlatan Ibrahimovic's bicycle kick versus England

The Swedish FA hoped for something special for the inaugural match at the Friends Arena, its new national stadium, but this was a remarkable way for the nation's finest footballer to complete a virtuoso display. The sheer imagination to take the ball first time, on the volley and with his back to the goal while knowing Joe Hart was outside the penalty area and struggling to get back, was incredible.

Even within the already extravagant concept of a bicycle kick, the execution was a showboat in itself -- taken at head height, Ibrahimovic thrusted himself towards the ball rather than simply falling backwards. It was a goal you only see in a children's cartoon -- complete with school bully Ryan Shawcross ending up embarrassed, tangled in the netting.

"It was a good try, that is all," said Ibrahimovic. "When it comes off it looks fantastic but for me, I liked the first goal more because it was history -- the first in the new arena."

A nice touch, though the fourth will live longer in the memory.

8. Lionel Messi scores versus Brazil

In isolation, it was a brilliant goal. Lionel Messi received the ball on the right touchline just inside the Brazil half, with a defender immediately in front of him. He darted away from Marcelo the way he has done in numerous recent Clasicos, sped towards the goal at an astonishing speed and then arrowed the ball into the far top corner.

In context, it was even better. The most famous rivals in international football had been tied at 3-3 with five minutes remaining of a gloriously open and attacking friendly in New Jersey, making this strike a picture book game winner. Furthermore, that day's two Euro 2012 matches (Denmark 1-0 Holland, Germany 1-0 Portugal) were "defense versus attack" with the flair players -- most notably Cristiano Ronaldo -- failing to shine. Frustrated at a couple of underwhelming matches, the world switched over to a brilliant exhibition of fearless attacking football, and Messi showed that no football tournament can compete with his sheer individual brilliance.

7. Cristiano Ronaldo wins the league at the Nou Camp

Less than 18 months ago, Real Madrid attempted to play Barcelona at the Nou Camp with an adventurous, attacking strategy -- and were thumped 5-0 in a match that will be remembered as one of the all-time great team performances. Thereafter, they were cautious, defensive and occasionally dirty when returning to Catalonia while Jose Mourinho's previous triumph at the stadium (as Inter manager) involved parking the bus and settling for a 1-0 defeat.

This was different. Real arrived at the Nou Camp in a confident mood and simply outplayed Pep Guardiola's side. Barcelona needed to win -- Alexis Sanchez's equalizer gave them hope for all of three minutes. Then Cristiano Ronaldo stepped up when it mattered most.

Perhaps more significant was the measured through-ball from the wonderful, ghostly figure of Mesut Ozil, who summed up Real's attacking intent. Previously, Ozil had become expendable against Barcelona, dropped to the bench in favor of an extra defensive player. His inclusion (and subsequent assist) underlined the fact that Real were beating Barcelona fair and square -- with a slice of imagination, too.

"Cristiano's goal, coming straight after they leveled, broke their stride and that was fundamental," recalls Xabi Alonso. "We controlled the match perfectly -- it was a great performance and a fantastic result."

6. Andrea Pirlo's Panenka penalty versus England

Andrea Pirlo is a beautiful player and a perennially understated rebel. He was a rare deep-lying playmaker in an era when football was obsessed with aggressive destroyers in his position, then was written off by Milan because he was too old before producing his finest football in Juventus' historic unbeaten season.

At the European Championships, he was one of the best two players in the competition, alongside Andres Iniesta. He represented everything good about Italian football's new era under Cesare Prandelli and contributed greatly to the Azzurri's progress. His performance against England was utterly dominant -- stereotypically picking up the ball unmarked in deep positions before sending huge, accurate long balls over the top of the defense. Wayne Rooney afforded him an incredible amount of freedom and Italy somehow failed to score from one of his lofted passes.

The style of his penalty was vain and unnecessary, but still absolutely brilliant. "Joe Hart seemed to be very confident in himself and I needed to do something to beat him," said Pirlo. "Penalties are a very personal thing and it seemed to be a psychological blow."

5. Didier Drogba wins the Champions League versus Bayern

Half a year on, Chelsea as European Champions feels normal, but it's worth remembering quite how ludicrous their victory was. Chelsea were taken over by Roberto Di Matteo, a manager Roman Abramovich clearly had significant doubts about, when trailing 3-1 to a fine Napoli side from the first leg of their second-round tie. From there, they had to navigate past Benfica in the quarterfinals, a legendary Barcelona side in the semifinal (while recovering from having their captain sent off in the first half of the away leg) and then Bayern Munich in the final while playing in the German club's own stadium. After 88 minutes they were trailing, yet still lifted the trophy for the first time in their history.

Didier Drogba was the face of Chelsea's previous failures in the Champions League. He was sent off in the defeat to Inter in 2010, went ballistic at full-time of the loss to Barcelona in 2009 and was dismissed shortly before penalties in the 2008 final -- John Terry only took Chelsea’s fifth kick because Drogba was no longer on the pitch.

The difference between hero and villain is incredibly marginal -- Drogba had fouled Franck Ribery for Bayern's extra-time penalty, missed by ex-Chelsea winger Arjen Robben. One way or another, he was always the story, not to mention that his record in finals was remarkable: the only player to score in three League Cup finals, the only player to score in four FA Cup finals. He always saved his best for the vital moments, ending his Chelsea career with the single most important kick in the club's history.

4. Jordi Alba's goal versus Italy

Midway through Euro 2012, there was a genuine debate about whether Spain's passing football had become boring -- frustrated onlookers implored them to attack more and combine their possession with penetration. In years to come, fans will watch the video of this performance in the 4-0 final win and be astonished at this argument -- how could anyone not enjoy this? But that would be missing the point entirely.

Spain weren't doing this in previous rounds -- they were neither penetrating defences nor breaking forward at speed. But in the final, they were transformed. David Silva's glorious opener came at the end of a long, patient passing move and was scored by the player who Vicente del Bosque had been determined to include despite fears he was simply one passer too many.

Meanwhile, Jordi Alba's goal came following an unusually quick, sudden attack, scored by the player who brought renewed verticality and energy to the side. It was the variety and the contrast that took the breath away -- in that final, Spain could slowly strangle Italy to death or kill them with a sudden stab. By a considerable distance, it is their greatest performance of a wonderful era.

"We gave our best performance in the last game. This is unrepeatable," said Andres Iniesta.

3. Andriy Shevchenko turns the game against Sweden

Andriy Shevcheneko didn't enjoy his final six years in football; the Ukrainian was once the best player in Europe, but his reputation and confidence levels never recovered from a disastrous spell at Chelsea. He would have retired long ago were it not for Euro 2012 -- hosted in his homeland, it represented the perfect opportunity to leave football on a high.

Pre-tournament suggestions suggested Shevchenko wasn't fit enough to start matches, while his diminished technical ability meant he didn't even deserve a place in the starting XI based upon pure merit. But is there any substitute for outright quality, character and determination?

Shevchenko started the first game against Sweden, the biggest match in Ukraine's history and one the whole country was watching. His side was 1-0 down at the break and then out of nothing, two Shevchenko headers turned the game -- he couldn't sprint, he couldn't turn, he couldn't run for 90 minutes. But he could still score.

The joy on Shevchenko's face was wonderful -- his pride at contributing a key moment in his nation's football history mixed with sheer relief that all those years of toil had been worthwhile. "I have so many emotions right now," Shevchenko said. "This is fantastic: it's the European Championship, playing at home, the opening match, and we win 2-1. And it was well deserved, too; we played very well. I am so happy, so emotional."

Shevchenko retired from football after the tournament, turning his hand to politics -- yet at Euro 2012 he bowed out with a performance that will rightly see him remembered as a legend.

2. Sergio Aguero wins the Premier League

Just when you are finally sick of the exaggerated excitement, drama and unpredictability the Premier League supposedly offers, it goes and justifies the hype. Manchester City's task on the final day of 2011-12 should have been perfectly simple -- they merely had to record a victory over relegation-threatened QPR at the Etihad Stadium. City had the best home record in the division, QPR the worst away record -- it was their perfect scenario.

Other things went their way: Paddy Kenny's attempt to stop Pablo Zabaleta's opener was abysmal, Joey Barton's moment of madness saw QPR reduced to 10 men, and yet City still found themselves down 2-1 going into injury time.

Then came Edin Dzeko, who provided an equalizer in stoppage time, leaving City with a minute to launch a desperate last attack. Suddenly, the ball fell to Sergio Aguero, who made himself a hero with a composed first touch, a sudden burst of acceleration and a confident, powerful finish into the net.

Manchester United's players, on the pitch at Sunderland ready to celebrate, walked off in disbelief. Meanwhile, fans of QPR -- safe in the knowledge that relegation rivals Bolton had lost to confirm Rangers' own survival -- celebrated Aguero's goal like crazy just for the hell of it. At the end of the Premier League's 20th year came its most incredible moment. "You want to say it's the best moment of your life," said captain Vincent Kompany. "But if I'm honest, please never again this way."

1. Zambia win the ACON

A story so emotive that it needs no exaggeration. The 1993 Zambian national football side was the greatest in its history but met tragedy when its plane crashed 500 meters off the coast of Gabon, killing everyone on board. It took two decades for Zambia to build anything close to that side again, with a large slice of credit due to the long-term planning of former international Kalusha Bwalya, now president of their football federation, who only escaped death in 1993 because he was travelling separately from the rest of the squad.

It was remarkable that an underdog like Zambia even reached the final of this year's Africa Cup of Nations, more remarkable still that they triumphed over favorites Ivory Coast.

But it's truly extraordinary that the final was held, of all places, in Libreville, Gabon. Before the final, Bwalya and coach Herve Renard accompanied his side to the beach near the site of the crash. They sang a funeral hymn and laid flowers in the water -- one for each person killed. "I am convinced that our dearly departed brothers who lost their lives here 19 years ago have lent us a helping hand," Bwalya said. "In 1993, the Copper Bullets came here to fulfil a promise, they did not succeed, but instead gave up their lives for a gallant cause. Their dream to bring glory to our country, mother Zambia, is the same cause that brings us here today, the only difference is that we are alive and our former teammates are no longer here."

The final itself was terrible, settled on penalties after a 0-0 draw. But the emotion was incredible -- Zambia's substitutes spent the shootout linking arms, swaying and singing traditional Zambian songs. Renard celebrated the victory by picking up Joseph Musonda -- distraught when forced to depart through injury in the first half, rendered unable to walk -- and carrying him over to the rest of the Zambian players to celebrate before leading his squad in a celebratory traditional dance.

There have been many greater performances and there might have been greater shocks, but it's difficult to recall such an emotional footballing triumph.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.

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