My Top 5 Sporting Moments of 2011

Messi gives Barcelona a 2-1 lead

5. Barcelona’s Champions League Final win

May 28th, 2011

Too often in major finals, teams are cagey and their performances are but a shadow of the standards they can reach when the stakes are not so high.  At Wembley in May, Barcelona put on a display that was an antidote to that frustrating phenomenon in their 3-1 Champions League final victory over Manchester United.  The final score did not give full credit to the dominance the Catalan side had in the game: 19 attempts on goal to United’s 4; 67% possession; 667 passes completed to the English side’s 301.

All four goals in the games were gems – Xavi’s pass for the opener cut through the United defence and gave Pedro nothing else to do than slot the ball in the back of Van der Saar’s net.  Manchester United responded well and managed to draw level before half-time thanks to a great strike from their talisman, Wayne Rooney.  In the second half though, their resistance subsided and both Lionel Messi and David Villa punished Sir Alex Ferguson’s men for gifting them too much space on the edge of the box.

This game was the antithesis of the World Cup Final from 11 months earlier, when Spain beat the Netherlands in extra-time, but with little of the attacking flair and flamboyance they had produced prior to the tournament.  Barcelona won the Champions League by playing with style, confidence and authority, and their destruction of Manchester United was the highlight of another incredible season for them.

4. World Series Game 6 – St. Louis come back from the brink – twice

David Freese hits a walk-off home run for the Cardinals

October 28th, 2011

To survive when you are down by two runs and on your final strike once is impressive, to do it twice is unbelievable.  To do it twice in consecutive innings is the kind of story that would have Kevin Costner salivating over the script – a home-grown hero keeps his team in the World Series.  The St. Louis Cardinals somehow survived Game 6 against the Texas Rangers to take the series all the way to game 7, which they went on to win, completing a remarkable turnaround for a team that had been 10.5 games out of the Wild Card in late August.

The game, as originally recapped here, was one full of twists, turns and comebacks.  All night, the two teams had been going back and forth on the scoreboard – the Rangers took the lead in the top of the 1st 1-0, only to see Lance Berkman hit a two-run shot in the bottom of the inning – 2-1 Cardinals.  Texas then leveled the score in the 2nd and took the lead 3-2 in the 4th, before St. Louis tied it up in the bottom half of that inning.  Michael Young doubled in a run in the 5th to give the Rangers a 4-3 lead – only to see the tying run walked in for the Cardinals with the bases loaded in the 6th.  In the 7th, it looked as though Texas had taken control of the game – Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz hit back-to-back home runs, followed by Kinsler adding an RBI single for a 7-4 Rangers lead.  Craig gave the Cardinals some hope in the 8th as he went deep to bring the deficit to 7-5 – but St. Louis went to the bottom of the 9th needing two runs to keep the World Series alive.  Ryan Theriot led off, but struck out swinging, which brought up Albert Pujols- St. Louis’s star first baseman who has since left as a free agent for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.  Pujols hit a double and then Lance Berkman drew a walk, meaning that the Cardinals had the tying runs on base.  Craig then struck out, leaving St. Louis with just one more out to save the series – the batter it all came down to was David Freese, who grew up in the city and supported the Cardinals as a kid.  Freese had two strikes on him, down to his last one, then hit a two run, game-tying triple just over Nelson Cruz’s head in right field.

Busch Stadium was buzzing, the crowd was hyped up – but then, in the top of the 10th inning, Josh Hamilton followed up Elvis Andrus’ single with a two-run shot to deep right, giving Texas a 9-7 lead and leaving the Cardinals on the precipice once again.  In the bottom half of the inning, Descalso and Jay hit back to back singles and then Lohse bunted them over, leaving St. Louis with runners on second and third with one out.  Ryan Theriot grounded out, but got in the run from third to leave the Cardinals down one run, two outs with a man on second base.  The Rangers then chose to walk Albert Pujols, a right-handed batter, with a right-handed pitcher on the mound, in order to face left-handed Lance Berkman instead.  The strategy backfired, however, as Berkman drove in the tying run and took the game to the 11th inning.

Jake Westbrook pitched in the top of the inning for St. Louis who gave up just one single to Mike Napoli and no runs.  To lead off the bottom of the 11th, hometown boy David Freese was back up for the Cardinals.  Unsatisfied with his already storybook night, he hit a walk off home run to center to force a game 7, and send Busch Stadium into a frenzy.  Having been down to their final strike in both the 9th and 10th innings, St. Louis somehow found a way to win and kept their season alive for one more night, one in which they would win their 11th World Series title.

Kyle Walker's strike gave Spurs a win in the North London derby

3. Tottenham beat Arsenal

October 2nd, 2011

The performance by Spurs in the North London derby was by no means the most impressive in a run of winning 10 games out of 11, having started the season with two defeats to the Manchester teams. But beating Arsenal will always be a highlight for us Tottenham fans.  What was impressive about this result (a 2-1 home win), was that Spurs did not play to their fullest potential yet still prevailed.  On balance, they were marginally the better side, but they certainly were not playing on all cylinders.  For the last 20 years, anything less than Tottenham’s best has led to defeat against their North London rivals and oftentimes even a great performance was met with scant reward.

Both sides should have scored earlier than they did: Scott Parker could only shoot straight at Szczesny in the 6th minute when he found himself with just the keeper to beat; then in the 28th minute, Arsenal’s Robin Van Persie played a great ball through to Gervinho, who dragged the ball wide from 10 yards out. Rafael Van der Vaart gave the home side the lead just before half-time – controlling a pass from Adebayor (Wenger claimed with his arm) before rifling the ball into the net.  However, the Dutchman was at fault for the visitor’s equaliser when he failed to track back to cover Alex Song on the wing and the Cameroonian’s cross found Aaron Ramsey in the box who slotted the ball into the back of the net.  Tottenham were not to be denied and in the 73rd minute, right-back Kyle Walker hit a powerful, swerving shot from 25 yards that beat Szczesny in the Arsenal goal – giving the youngster his first goal for the club and Spurs all three points.

Since that game, both sides have been in impressive form and have put in identical results in their 11 league matches: 8 wins, 2 draws and 1 loss apiece.  That run has seen Arsenal move up to 5th place, just a single point behind Chelsea in the race for a Champions League spot; while Tottenham are ending the year as London’s top side and only seven points off leaders Manchester City, with a game in hand.

2. Derek Jeter smacks a home run for hit number 3000

Jeter sends hit number 3000 into the stands

July 9th, 2011

Mr. November has always had a penchant for coming up big at crucial times – but that has always been for the Yankees rather than a personal milestone he was chasing.  Jeter had started off the season in poor form, his batting average was in the low .200s and the New York media was full of stories about whether or not he should be dropped down the lineup in favour of Brett Gardner leading off.  On June 14th, the Shortstop was forced to go on the 15-day Disabled List – his first stint on the DL in 8 years – as he was suffering from a strained calf muscle.  The delay to the chase for 3000 ended up being a blessing in disguise, as Jeter spent some of his rehab time in Florida training with his first hitting coach, Gary Denbo, working on his swing and getting back to basics on the mechanics.  When he returned to the Yankees, Jeter looked like the captain of old – rather than just old – and his average for the rest of the season was around .325.

Jeter’s timing was perfect, and not just on the home run swing.  The game against the Rays was the second-to-last before the All-Star Break, after which the Yankees would be on an eight game road trip and he may well have got number 3000 away from the Stadium.  Never one to do things half-heartedly, Jeter did not reach the milestone by going 1 for 4 with an infield single in a Yankees loss; in that game against the Rays he went 5 for 5, hitting three singles, a double and the historic home run.  He also knocked in the go-ahead run for New York, a lead which was held up with a save by his long time teammate, Mariano Rivera.  But hit number 3000 – when he became just the 28th man to have that many hits in the history of Major League Baseball, and only the second to do it with a home-run – is one that will live with all Yankee fans, all baseball fans, who witnessed – a great moment from a future Hall of Famer.

Superbowl MVP - Aaron Rodgers

1. The Green Bay Packers win the Superbowl

February 6th, 2011

Having been firmly in the Aaron Rodgers camp when the Packers told Brett Favre that they were not interested in his returning from a promised retirement (again), this was the year that number 12 stepped out of the shadow of number 4.

For all his many great years with the Packers, and there were many even if his legend has since been tarnished, Favre only managed to take the team to one Superbowl victory – a mark that Rodgers has already matched early on in his career.  He did it the hard way too, Green Bay squeaked into the playoffs as the six-seed in the NFC and then won road fixtures against the Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and Chicago Bears to reach the Championship game.  In the Superbowl itself, Rodgers performance was impeccable – throwing for 304 yards and three touchdown passes, with no interceptions.  The Packers, who led 21-3 at one point, held on despite losing cornerback Charlie Woodson and wider receiver Donald Driver to injuries – the final score being 31-25 to the Cheeseheads.

Aaron Rodgers, Superbowl MVP, followed up that triumph by starting the 2011 regular season with 13 consecutive wins – taking the overall total to 19 for the Packers dating back to week 16 of 2012 – and has broken Favre’s franchise record for touchdowns and passing yards with a week still remaining of the season.  As the number 1 seed in the NFC, this time around Green Bay has a bye and home-field advantage for the playoffs as they seek to repeat last year’s success.  Should they win it all again in Indianapolis in February, the ratio of 12:4 will be 2:1 – and few will question who is the better Quarterback.

Honourable mentions (if I had wanted to go with teams failing I was rooting against): Miami Heat losing the NBA Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, including a meltdown from LeBron James; Arsenal losing the Carling Cup Final to Birmingham and extending their trophyless streak from 2005 for at least another year; and the Boston Red Sox late season collapse which culminated in them missing the playoffs.

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