When France defeated England 3-2 in their friendly match this week, what made the loss particularly painful for England players and fans was that the French had played for nearly the entire second half with ten men, after Raphael Varane was controversially sent off. And yet all true football fans know that the loss of one player can actually galvanise the remaining ten, such that they play far better without a player than they did with the full complement.
For all the brilliance of the French display, which has seen them being installed by some bookies as the favourites to win next year’s World Cup, their performance does not rank among the finest ten-man displays in football history.
Here are the five finest performances by ten men.
- MANCHESTER UNITED 2 ARSENAL 1 (A.E.T.) (1999 FA CUP SEMI-FINAL REPLAY)
It is undoubtedly true that many other teams have played with ten men for far longer than Manchester United did against Arsenal in their 1999 FA Cup semi-final replay. United only had to cope with being a man down against for about 45 minutes, including the 30 minutes of extra time. What must be remembered is that few sides have faced such powerful opposition having had a man sent off as United did in that game, and still won.
United won the treble in 1999, but this was probably the single most difficult game they faced en route to that historic achievement, including the European Cup final itself against Bayern Munich. That was because, as Sir Alex Ferguson himself conceded afterwards, the 1999 Arsenal side were probably superior to the 1999 Bayern side.
United and Arsenal were so closely matched that year that when Roy Keane was sent off in the 74th minute, it seemed inevitable that Arsenal, having an extra man, would go on to win the game. That feeling was only intensified when Arsenal were awarded a late penalty. Of course, Dennis Bergkamp had his penalty saved by Peter Schmeichel and United survived the majority of extra time before Ryan Giggs broke away to score his magnificent winning goal. And the fact that he achieved it while his team were a man down to their greatest rivals only made it all the more magnificent.
- MANCHESTER CITY 4, TOTTENHAM 3 (2004 FA CUP FOURTH ROUND)
This was a virtually unbelievable victory, which Manchester City achieved at White Hart Lane after they had not only gone 3-0 down but had a man sent off (unsurprisingly, the culprit was a young Joey Barton). Indeed, it was probably one of City fans’ few true highlights in the long period between the successes of their great team of the late 1960s and the club’s re-emergence after being bought by Sheikh Mansour in 2008.
Spurs had romped into a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead, with Ledley King opening their scoring after just two minutes. Robbie Keane and Christian Ziege added further goals and any chance that City might have had of responding in the second half seemed utterly doomed when Joey Barton was sent off just before the interval after receiving a second yellow card.
As City trooped off at half time, it seemed that there was no way back for them. Indeed, their only realistic hope appeared to be keeping the score down in the second half, and even that hope seemed a forlorn one.
Instead, what followed was further proof, if it were needed, that football is the world’s most popular game largely because it is the most unpredictable game. In almost any other sport, conceding both a huge advantage in the scoreline and losing one of your players would almost certainly have led to defeat. But City, seemingly inspired by manager Kevin Keegan’s half-time team talk, came out in the second half and completely turned the game on its head.
They were undoubtedly helped by the fact they scored so early in the second half, with Sylvain Distin heading in a 48th minute free-kick. Even then, it appeared that it would be little more than a consolation, but City were really encouraged when Paul Bosvelt, their Dutch midfielder, scored with the help of a huge deflection off a Spurs defender. Then, with just 10 minutes of the 90 left, Shaun Wright-Phillips scored one of his greatest ever City goals, even if Spurs players and fans claimed that he was offside when he began the move.
At 3-3, the game seemed set for extra time, when surely Spurs would have been able to make their extra man count as fatigue finally took its toll on City. However, City’s Lazarus-like comeback was completed when Jon Macken, a boyhood City fan, headed a 90th minute winner. It was a fittingly unbelievable end to an unbelievable game, and even though City lost in the next round to loathed local rivals United, the memory of the miracle of White Hart Lane would, as famous City fans Oasis put it, live forever.
- BRAZIL 2, ENGLAND 1 (2002 World Cup Quarterfinal)
This week’s defeat to ten-man France would have reminded many older England fans of an even more ignominious and far more costly loss to ten men, when England lost to eventual winners Brazil in the 2002 World Cup despite having an extra man for the last half hour of the game. Indeed, the similarities between the two matches perhaps point to the underlying cause of England’s lack of success at international level.
The man who was sent off for Brazil in 2002 was also the man who won the game for them, famed Jar Jar Binks lookalike Ronaldinho. It was his spectacular long-range free kick against David Seaman that had finally given Brazil the lead in the game, after they had conceded an early goal to Michael Owen, which Rivaldo equalised just before half-time.
The dismissal of Ronaldino initially gave England hope that they could get back into the match. However, in the punishing heat of the Japanese city of Shizuoka, Brazil’s ability to keep the ball effectively denied England any opportunity to create an equaliser. Even with ten men, or perhaps especially with ten men, their passing was infinitely superior to that of England.
Of course, the same was evident this week in the Stade de France, when it appeared that England and not France were a man down. If possession is nine tenths of the law in football generally, it is virtually ten tenths of the law in international football, where the best teams, like Brazil in 2002 and France in 2017, can just pass and pass before finally launching a deadly attack, as France did for Ousmane Dembele’s winner.
For all the other improvements in English football over the last two decades, from players’ physical well-being to the treatment of fans, unless English players can keep the ball better and not simply give it back to the opposition, they will never have a chance of winning a senior World Cup.
JOINT FIRST: BARCELONA 1, INTER 0 (2010 Champions League semi-final second leg) AND Barcelona 2, Chelsea 2 (2012 Champions League semi-final second leg)
It is impossible to divide these two achievements, precisely because they are so similar. In both instances, an unfancied team was away to the truly great Barcelona side of the late noughties/early teens, had a man sent off early but somehow still managed to defeat Barcelona over two legs to reach the Champions League final.
In the wake of Real Madrid’s recent third Champions League win in four seasons it is easy to forget just how great Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side was. Whereas Real only really turned on the style for just one half of their three recent Champions League finals, Guardiola’s side set such a consistently high standard of play, including in two winning finals against Manchester United in 2009 and 2011, that at one point it was genuinely that it was impossible to beat them over two legs. But both Inter and Chelsea proved otherwise.
In 2010, Inter undoubtedly benefited from divine (or at least geological) intervention, when an earthquake in Iceland grounded every plane in Europe and necessitated Barca taking a long, uncomfortable coach ride to their semi-final first leg in Milan. Barca duly lost 3-1, but were still optimistic that they could win the tie overall when they returned to the Nou Camp. That feeling only incrased when Inter’s Thiago Motta was harshly sent off with less than half an hour gone, when Sergio Busquets feigned injury after a tackle.
Down to ten men, against a side who were beginning to look like one of the best teams ever, Inter’s task seemed an impossible one. However, that was to reckon without the defensive genius of José Mourinho.
For all his protestations to the contrary, Mourinho is essentially a master tactician, or to be more precise a master of organising defences. That was never more evident than on that night in the Nou Camp in 2010, when Inter held out against Barca to reach the Champions League final, with even Samuel Eto’o tackling back ferociously from his unaccustomed right-wing position.
Such is Mourinho’s effect on teams that his imprint seems to remain on them long after he has left, and that was especially true at Chelsea. He may have left the club nearly five years earlier, but in 2012, when it was Chelsea’s turn to face Barca in their own stadium in the second leg of a Champions League semi-final, it was essentially the spine of Mourinho’s first Chelsea side—with Cech in goal, Lampard in midfield and Drogba up front—that somehow resisted the Catalan giants after their captain, John Terry, had been sent off.
When Barça went 2-0 up to lead the tie 3-2 on aggregate, Chelsea appeared doomed. Then, like Inter before them, they drew on the remarkable self-belief that Mourinho had instilled in them to score a fantastic breakaway goal through Ramires and then weather the wave after wave of attacks that crashed down on them in the second half.
Whatever the apparent statistical similarities, Guardiola’s Barcelona were a better side than Zidane’s Madrid. But even more importantly, over a period of about five years they produced the most consistently stunning level of football by any European club side since Ajax in decades. Only two teams, Inter and Chelsea, were able to resist their greatness in that period, producing sides of such extraordinary defensive organisation and application that they could even resist them even when they were a man down.