10. Man United 8-2 Arsenal (2011)
An odd one. United were certainly the dominant side in this August 2011 fixture, but not to the extent that would normally get you eight goals (they had 25 shots to Arsenal’s 20, five ‘clear-cut chances’ to Arsenal’s three, and even won fewer corners than the visitors).
Yet the viciously unequivocal nature of the result confirmed in no uncertain terms what they had suspected for some time: that Arsenal, who had long been on a low-key descent and had sold two of their best players in Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas that summer, did not need to be taken seriously as a Premier League challenger.
Most high-scoring wins involve some degree of freakishness, and as such tend to misrepresent the bigger picture. This one managed be both hugely freakish and yet remain perfectly illustrative of its wider context: Arsenal’s departure from the elite at that time was complete.
9. Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid (2010)
For a team that hoovers up the best players and shiniest trophies on an almost annual basis, Real Madrid haven’t half been on the wrong end of some serious tonkings over the years.
In 2005, the Bernabeu had no choice but to stand, grimace and applaud when a peak-era Ronaldinho single-handedly administered a 3-0 shellacking on behalf of their detested rivals. In 2009, Barcelona showed up and a delivered 6-2 hammering, while those same Catalan scamps managed a 4-0 win at the Bernabeu en route to their league title two years ago.
But it was in November 2010 that the most emphatic result was inflicted: a five-goal rollicking to depose Jose Mourinho's then-unbeaten side at the top of the table. It provided a full-house in Clasico bingo: a Messi masterclass, an indignantly exasperated Ronaldo, a red card for Sergio Ramos – and was a fitting first chapter in the season Guardiola's side arguably reached their aesthetic peak.
8. Man United 1-6 Man City (2011)
While it wasn’t quite the permanent tipping of the Mancunian power balance, it seemed at the time (City and United count one league title apiece in the seasons since) that this was the game which drummed home just how dramatically the Abu Dhabi petrodollars were reshaping the top end of English football.
In reality, the scoreline was largely unreflective of the match itself – three of City’s goals came after the 90th minute, much thanks to some kamikaze attacking from 10-men United – but the symbolism couldn’t have been clearer. The arrivistes had dethroned the champions on their own turf, and in the most ruthless and humiliating way possible. Rather than skulking off to bed, the noisy neighbours had pumped up the volume.
7. Barcelona 6-1 PSG (2017)
Declared a busted flush a fortnight before when they were out-fought, out-thought and outclassed in Paris, Barcelona provided the ultimate riposte at the Camp Nou. This was a comeback that, for sheer eye-bulging theatrical drama, may never be bettered.
Wider context has rendered it little more than a happy footnote (those obituaries weren't so misguided after all: Juventus wiped the floor with Barcelona in the next round) but that's not to take away from the sheer cinematic spectacle of the evening itself.
Already 4-0 down from the first leg, Barcelona were staring down the barrel of a 5-3 aggregate deficit as late as the 88th minute. Seven minutes of murderously determined attacking play from Neymar saw to that, capped off with a diving volley from Sergi Roberto that unleashed unbridled delirium. Pleasingly, the Barça players and staff responded to that final goal in the only way possible: a bench-emptying playground pile-on.
6. Senegal 1-0 France (2002)
Football is not a proxy for politics, but politics can sure make football more interesting. When France and Senegal were drawn together at the 2002 World Cup, the subplots were rich and varied. Senegal was a former French colony and with the exception of their two reserve goalkeepers, their entire squad played their football in France. Patrick Vieira, France’s midfield powerhouse, was born in Senegal. Bruno Metsu, Senegal’s coach, was a Frenchman.
If the overlaps in heritage and background were plenty, there were no such parallels in pedigree. France were the world champions; their talisman, Zinedine Zidane, the planet’s best player. Senegal, on the other hand, were going into their first ever game at a World Cup, 500-1 outsiders for the trophy.
It was to a cacophony of chuckles across the globe, then, that Papa Bouba Diop put the minnows ahead on the half-hour mark – a noise that only increased as France (without the injured Zidane) spent the remainder of the game trying and miserably failing to equalise.
In the end, both teams doubled down on their respective results: Senegal went all the way to the quarter-finals, scoring one of the all-time great World Cup goals against Denmark en route. France finished bottom of their group and stumbled out without having scored a goal. A genuinely historic game.
5. Man City 1-3 Leicester (2016)
Less a shock result in itself than one which epitomised the most ludicrously unlikely football achievement of the modern age. Leicester were already top of the table when they visited the Etihad in early February 2016, but had not shaken off the widespread presumption that their bubble would soon burst and this bizarrely brilliant half-season would become no more than exactly that.
It was City who were expected to do the honours; instead Leicester sauntered into the backyard of Toure, Aguero & Co. and played them off the park.
It was a performance that typified everything which eventually got Leicester over the line: goals came via the brawn of Robert Huth and the high-speed finesse of Riyad Mahrez; there was twice the sight of Jamie Vardy streaking clear of a bewildered defence; there was compact defending allied with laser-guided counter-attacking; and the whole thing was underscored by a perceptible attitude of defiance and fearlessness.
4. Liverpool 3-3 Milan (2005)
Forget the Camp Nou in 1999: this, once context is factored in, is the greatest comeback of all time.
The context of this shocking result is mainly if you skip to where expectations were 45 minutes in. At half-time in the Ataturk Stadium, Rafa Benitez’s slapdash medley of a Liverpool side – Jerzy Dudek, Djimi Traore and Milan Baros are in there alongside Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso & Co. – are dead and buried to a Milan team that have oozed style and conviction (Hernan Crespo's absurdly classy goal to make it 3-0 will go down as one of football great forgotten strikes.)
Then off comes Steve Finnan, on comes Dietmar Hamman, and suddenly Gerrard is celebrating a consolation goal like no player has ever celebrated a consolation goal before. The rest – Vladimir Smicer’s drive, Gennaro Gattuso’s lunge, Alonso’s penalty, Jamie Carragher’s cramp and two rounds of Shevchenko vs Dudek – is history.
3. South Korea 2-1 Italy (2002)
Looking back on it, the 2002 World Cup can't be faulted for drama. There was France's dethroning by Senegal, Turkey's march to the semi-finals, Ronaldo's redemption for Brazil, David Beckham's against Argentina and Roy Keane's lectures in human anatomy.
But perhaps the most unlikely story it threw up was that of South Korea, who in a astonishing Mediterranean killing spree, stunned Portugal, Spain and – most thrillingly – Italy, en route to the last four. Ahn Jung-hwan’s golden goal eventually sent a star-studded Italy side packing.
Less heartwarming was the reaction back in Italy, where referee Byron Moreno was fast-tracked to pariah status thanks to a couple of moments of mildly contentious officiating. “Italy has been thrown out of a dirty World Cup where referees and linesmen are used as hitmen," seethed Corriere della Sera. Worse, the scorer of the winning goal, Ahn, was promptly sacked by Perugia, whose chairman claimed to have "no intention of paying a salary to one who was the ruin of Italian football”.
With luck, it at least served to make Ahn's victory taste all the sweeter. And the truth is that even if the referee's decisions were wrong, the result was right. Throughout the tournament Italians were boring, entitled and, in big moments, grossly inept. Meanwhile, Guus Hiddink's side were dauntless, pacey and thrillingly unorthodox. Both got what they probably deserved.
2. Greece 1-0 Portugal (2004)
When Greece snuck a surprise 2-1 win against Portugal in the curtain-raiser of Euro 2004, no one thought much of it. After all, the hosts hadn’t had time to click, were probably a bit overwhelmed, and a lot of their players were still basking in their Champions League win with Porto, barely a fortnight before. Sure, Greece had put in a good display for a team that had never won a major tournament fixture before – and who would want to deny them their moment in the sun? – but their squad of has-been and never-would-bes was soon heading back to Athens.
Fast-forward three weeks and Figo, Ronaldo and Deco were lining up against the same band of journeymen upstarts, this time with the trophy at stake. Inevitably, the unthinkable happened: Angelos Charisteas did the honours midway through the second half, and Portugal's twinkle-toed Iberian flair was blunted by Greece's gritty brutalism. It was an unapologetic, backs-to-the-wall gameplan. They are history’s most magnificently dogged underdogs.
1. Brazil 1-7 Germany (2014)
Quite simply the most jaw-dropping result in football history (and almost certainly the only one with its own 5,000-word Wikipedia entry). Germany’s victory in Belo Horizone could not have been more murderously emphatic if it was soundtracked by the screeching score to Hitchcock’s Psycho.
It was a game that genuinely defied belief. The popular narrative before the 2014 World Cup being that Brazil, as the slick-passing, samba-jigging, caipirinha-swigging, Neymar-led host nation, pretty much had their name on the trophy. Germany, on the other hand, had looked little more than decent, having stuttered unconvincingly past France and Algeria in previous rounds.
In the event, Brazil learned that a false sense of security plus a false sense of entitlement can make for a fairly lethal formula. Unlike many such results, the scoreline was in no way freakish (it genuinely could have been double figures), and the hosts made history in the worst way possible.
The lessons of that Brazil team – about their host-nation hubris; about their absurd mourning of the injured Neymar in the game’s lead-up; about their staggering capacity for capitulation – will be preached for years to come. Or at least until they reverse it all in 2018.
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