The gloss of a derby match, like any good rivalry, comes from the looming prospect of amazing. Regardless of how either team has been getting along outside of this particular match against these particular opponents, the amazing is not only possible in a derby, but practically tipped by the universe. Because history. Because stakes. And because of the attendant emotional intensity.
There were three big derby matches this weekend, one smaller one, and two other league matches of arguable derby-size importance. In order, those would be: Der Klassiker (Borussia Dortmund vs. Bayern Munich); the 177th Manchester Derby; a Copa Libertadores edition of El Superclásico (Boca Juniors vs. River Plate); a London derby between Tottenham and Crystal Palace; AC Milan vs. Juventus; and Monaco vs. PSG. There was a lot of randomness—missed penalties! Robert Lewandowski not knowing how to properly signal for a video review!—but also a lot of things working like they’re supposed to. For instance, Manchester City strolled to a comprehensive and aesthetically pleasing 3-1 win. And Cristiano Ronaldo scored. Let’s do some more winners and losers, shall we?
Loser: Manchester United’s Gallows Optimism
Manchester United’s second half against Juventus in their Champions League match Wednesday was much like a lot of second halves United have played recently, which is to say that it was desperate, spectacular, and just a bit lucky. Juan Mata curled home a gorgeous free kick to draw United level. The late winner came in the form of Leonardo Bonucci bumbling in an own goal. It wasn’t United’s most convincing victory, but it was a 2-1 comeback win over an opponent that had lost only two of their previous 34 Champions League home fixtures. For about five minutes, United were back. This is how back they were:
Since beating Newcastle 3-2 in early October—the day José Mourinho was reportedly on the verge of losing his job—United have assured us that they are fine and not in crisis via gritty, hard-fought comebacks. Ross Barkley ruined a statement win at Chelsea with a late equalizer later that month, but in November the Red Devils battled back to a 2-1 win over Premier League giants Bournemouth. These results have been discussed as hints toward a more realized version of this weird United team, one that has attacking verve. But the problem is that they have had to get scored on first to show flashes of it. Things are not that bad, you can tell yourself.
This wasn’t the story of the Manchester derby. Against the defending league champions, shortcomings are always thrown into sharp relief. Sunday, United were barely part of the story at all. The Guardian’s Barney Ronay described them as “a plot device” in City’s 3-1 win, “a piece of exposition around the edges.” Mourinho insisted that his team wasn’t played off the field by its crosstown rivals, but here is a goal attached to the end of a 44-pass move involving every City outfield player.
"You will not see a better team goal than that!" pic.twitter.com/gaZaDdbLvy— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) November 11, 2018
City, who have yet to lose a game, are at the top of the table. After Ilkay Gundogan’s goal, United, who are eighth, became the only team in the Premier League’s top 10 with a negative goal difference. You are still welcome to feel good about Anthony Martial—who converted a penalty in the 58th minute—scoring in each of his last five games.
Winner: Low-Quality Shots (and Marco Reus)
It was 2-1 Bayern an hour into the latest edition of Der Klassiker, which is what it’s called when Borussia Dortmund, Germany’s pluckiest lunch-pail team, meet Bayern Munich, normally the Bundesliga’s version of winter. This year Bayern haven’t been all that great, while Dortmund came into the match at the top of the table, unbeaten through their first 10 games. For the league leaders, Sunday’s game was nearly an object lesson in “too cute.” “Too cute” is what people typically say when a player goes for great at the expense of good. A midfielder tries a heel flick in their own half and gives up the counter on a short field. A striker tries to sell a fake when smashing it hard and low would do: too cute.
An aging Bayern team struggled to match Dortmund’s pace. Mats Hummels was caught chasing the exhaust trails of Dortmund’s dynamic English winger Jadon Sancho; Mahmoud Dahoud, who came on for Julian Weigl at the half, cut dazzling lines across midfield. Bayern striker Robert Lewandowski took his chances, scoring two goals, and it seemed as if Dortmund were squandering theirs, especially after Lewandowski’s second put Bayern up 2-1. Marco Reus in particular struggled from this affliction. UNTIL.
To be clear, he missed several easy chances, including a sitter and an early one-on-one. Then he scored on a half-volley from an odd angle. In traffic. Dortmund sub Paco Alcácer added a delicious tie-breaking goal six minutes later, and now they are unbeaten in 11, with 27 points and a plus-21 goal differential. Meanwhile, here’s Bayern’s line: fifth place, 20 points, and a plus-6 goal differential. Winter may still be coming, but it’s a ways off yet.
Loser: Gonzalo Higuaín
Imagine being Gonzalo Higuaín.
You score 50 goals in 85 appearances for Juventus, during which time you also help them to two league titles and two Champions League exits at the hands of Real Madrid. Then Juve go out and buy Cristiano Ronaldo, at which point you become surplus to requirements and head out to AC Milan on loan. Then, you’re handed a chance to exact revenge against your old club—you know, for being obsolesced—and instead of revenge you get Wojciech Szczesny, producing one of the best saves of his Juventus career.
Imagine Ronaldo then extends Juventus’s 1-0 advantage. Who among us wouldn’t then, in frustration, angrily hurl ourselves into a 50-50 and fan the resulting yellow card into a red by shouting down the referee?
Milan lost 2-0, and Higuaín left the field in tears.
Winner: Juan Foyth’s Confidence
This is 20-year-old Argentine center back Juan Foyth during his first Premier League start for Tottenham against Wolverhampton on November 3. He had just given up his second penalty.
This is 20-year-old Argentine center back Juan Foyth on Sunday in his second Premier League start for Tottenham. He just scored the winning header against Crystal Palace.
Good for 20-year-old Argentine center back Juan Foyth.
Loser: Thierry Henry
Not only has Thierry Henry scored 175 of the Premier League’s prettiest, most inventive goals, but he’s also cool and good-looking. He’s been in a GQ spread that had nothing to do with soccer; they just wanted to tell you all the different ways you can wear a navy suit and needed someone who looks good in everything. He’s won a World Cup, two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, and the Champions League.
As a player. As a first-time manager—he was hired by AS Monaco in October—he’s winless in six games, the most recent of which was a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of PSG. Monaco are a mess from top to bottom, and, Henry, like the sacked Leonardo Jardim before him, is being asked to make the best of an untenable situation. To put it simply, Monaco became a hipster soccer darling by developing young players like Kylian Mbappé and resetting every 18 months with new and electrifying talent, but have largely been selling on in recent years. This means that the core Henry is working with is young and relatively inexperienced (compared with other big Ligue 1 teams) and prone to the kind of mistakes young and relatively inexperienced players make.
There will be more reaction shots like this one before anything gets better.
Winner: Darío Benedetto
You can read a lot about how loud and fraught and bloody a Superclásico between Argentina’s Boca Juniors and River Plate can get. There are documentaries to watch about the ways in which heritage, class, and politics all collide on the field, about how emotions run over. The intensity of the feud between these two teams can be explained by this headline, which was floating around last week: “Boca Juniors and River Plate Fans Have Argument, Someone’s House Gets Burned Down.”
The fundamental connection between fan and player, the one that says that guy wearing the blue jersey is representing me out there, and I will burn your house down if you try to come between us, was on full display at La Bombonera in the first leg of the Copa Libertadores final Sunday, especially after Boca’s Benedetto scored the go-ahead goal just before halftime, redirecting a free kick into the far post with a glancing header.
The goal itself is fine—River Plate would later equalize, setting up what should be a whale of a second leg in their home stadium November 24. But it’s the hysterics after Benedetto’s goal Sunday that will live long in memory—each Boca player celebrates like they scored too, even the goalkeeper. Benedetto tears off to the corner flag, eyes wide, his primal screams of “GOL! GOL! BOCA! BOCA!” drowned out by thousands of delirious drunken fans singing his praises. All of a sudden, you, an uninvested neutral, are shouting too. That’s the true magic of derby day.