A selection of exceptional displays by teams who have ended up with a numerical disadvantage
England 1–0 Argentina, World Cup quarter-final, 23 July 1966
While most English football fans would call Diego Maradona’s infamous Hand of God goal at the 1986 World Cup a despicable, deviant act of cheating on the biggest stage of all, their Argentinian counterparts would argue it was merely payback for the controversial dismissal of Antonio Rattin twenty years previously.
The midfielder was sent off in the 35th minute of England and Argentina’s last-eight encounter in 1966 for what German referee Rudolf Kreitlein termed “violence of the tongue”, leading to calls of corruption and favouritism from the angry Argentinian public. The incident – which saw an irate Rattin protest his innocence on the red carpet before being escorted away by two policemen – is well remembered; what is often forgotten is the strength of the Albiceleste’s second-half showing.
Given the sense of perceived injustice and the fact they were playing in front of a 90,584-strong partisan Wembley crowd, it would have been easy for Argentina to fold and allow the hosts to stroll to a comfortable victory. The England players were later very critical of their opponents’ physical approach, with the manager Alf Ramsey memorably preventing George Cohen from swapping shirts with Alberto González after the final whistle, but England gave as good as they got and actually committed 14 more fouls than Argentina over the course of the 90 minutes.
Far from attempting to hack their way to extra-time as many have claimed, Argentina in fact played some very good football in the second half, creating a number of goalscoring opportunities and going close to knocking England out of the tournament at the quarter-final stage.
Argentina began the game in their customary 4-3-1-2 formation, with the playmaker Ermindo Onega tucked behind strikers Luis Artime and Oscar Más. The captain Rattin dropped back to hold a disciplined position in front of the back four and Jorge Solari and González were used as shuttlers on the outside.
Ramsey’s England – dubbed the ‘Wingless Wonders’ – employed a similar shape: Nobby Stiles sat deeper than his partners in the engine room, with Alan Ball and Martin Peters in front on either side and Bobby Charlton further forward.
It was essentially two midfield diamonds coming up against one another and the teams duly cancelled each other out in the first half. The loss of Rattin, though, gave England a clear numerical advantage in the centre, which they were expected to exploit after the interval.
It was Argentina who began the second period the stronger, however. Despite the sending-off there was a swagger to some of their play, best evidenced by Solari’s outrageous flick over the head of Peters deep inside his own half just 35 seconds after the restart.
England created the first clear-cut chance, the goalkeeper Antonio Roma tipping Geoff Hurst’s effort behind for a corner, but Argentina gradually took control, frustrating Ramsey’s men at the back before springing forward and posing a threat on the counter. A discernible groan from the crowd when Ball carelessly gave possession away in a promising position summed up the twin feelings of anxiety and frustration, although things could have been far worse for England almost immediately had Más collected Onega’s through-ball and taken an instant shot rather than letting it run across his body, allowing Cohen to get back and make a tackle.
That opening served only to increase England’s nervousness. A stunning outside-of-the-boot pass from Roberto Perfumo picked out Más – who drifted further and further out to the left as time went on – in behind the centre-backs Bobby Moore and Jack Charlton, with Gordon Banks fortunate not to be punished after being caught in no man’s land as the shot drifted just wide of the near post. It was an almighty let-off.
Juan Carlos Lorenzo’s charges remained on top over the next 10 minutes, surging runs forward from the left-back Silvio Marzolini and the centre-back Rafael Albrecht evidence of both the South Americans’ ambition and the wider sense that the momentum was with them.
In the end, though, Argentina were made to pay for their profligacy. England grabbed the game’s only goal in the 78th minute, Hurst heading home Peters’ cross after some slack Argentine defending down their right flank.
It would be a stretch to say that Argentina deserved to win the match and advance to the last four – England, while not as convincing as they had been in group-stage meetings with Mexico and France, did not play particularly badly – but they certainly deserve credit for not capitulating after Rattin’s contentious dismissal.
Indeed, although things flared up after the final whistle, some members of the Argentinian party disgracing themselves by trying to attack Kreitlein, the Albiceleste could at least look back on their on-field performance with pride: had they taken one of their second-half chances, the most famous moment in the history of the English game may never have come to pass. “There is no doubt at all that they were the best team we played,” Stiles later reflected. “Even with 10 men they made life very difficult for us.”
Celtic 4–2 Rangers, Scottish Premier Division, 21 May 1979
More than 35 years on, this fixture is still joyously referred to by Celtic supporters as the night that 10 men won the league; in the blue households of Glasgow, Rangers’ failure to profit from a one-goal and one-player advantage with 35 minutes remaining means their winner-takes-all encounter with the old enemy is looked back on rather less fondly.
In early March 1979, Celtic found themselves in the unusual position of being closer to the bottom of the table than the top but with multiple games in hand that meant the title was still in theirs to lose. Their results in the run-in – the 65 days between March 17 and May 21 saw them play 17 times in the league – were excellent, but a 1-0 loss to Rangers in a rearranged fixture in early May gave their neighbours the edge in the championship race.
Celtic recovered well, however, winning their next three against Partick Thistle, St Mirren and Hearts to ensure that the destination of that year’s trophy would not be decided until the head-to-head clash between Scottish football’s two powerhouses. Since Rangers still had two matches left to play, a draw against Billy McNeill’s side would likely have been enough to see them scoop the prize. Celtic’s task in what was the final game of their campaign was more straightforward: win and they were champions, lose and they almost certainly were not.
The hosts came roaring out of the traps at Parkhead, but it was Rangers who opened the scoring through Alex MacDonald nine minutes in. If that was an early setback to Celtic’s chances, the sending-off of Johnny Doyle – the winger ludicrously kicked MacDonald in the stomach right under the referee’s nose after accusing the Rangers midfielder of feigning injury – in the 55th minute looked to be a knockout blow.
If anything, though, the impediment merely inspired Celtic and reignited a typically boisterous home crowd. The stadium grew even louder when Roy Aitken bundled in an equaliser from close-range and positively exploded as George McCluskey put Celtic ahead ten minutes later.
Rangers responded almost instantly, Bobby Russell converting with a neat finish from the edge of the box, but the tide had already turned in the Bhoys’ favour. Eight minutes later, the Gers defender Colin Jackson could only stand and watch as the ball ricocheted off his leg and into the back of the net to put Celtic 3-2 up, and with John Greig’s men desperately pushing forward in search of a leveller, Murdo McLeod found himself with ample time and space to smash an unstoppable 30-yard piledriver into the top corner with seconds left to play. The league title, against all the odds, was heading back across the city to Celtic Park.
Italy 1–0 Norway, World Cup group stage, 23 June 1994
With his team reduced to 10 men in a vital World Cup group stage match in which defeat would likely put them out of the tournament, imagine if Luiz Felipe Scolari had brought Neymar off for a replacement goalkeeper in 2014. Or if Raymond Domenech had withdrawn Zinedine Zidane in 2006, Carlos Bilardo substituted Diego Maradona in 1986 or Mario Zagallo hooked Pelé in 1970.
That is essentially what the Italy manager Arrigo Sacchi decided to do when first-choice custodian Gianluca Pagliuca was sent off for handling the ball outside the area just 21 minutes into this must-not-lose tie with Norway. To the astonishment of those watching both inside and outside the Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Roberto Baggio – by some distance the Azzurri’s best player, as his actions later in the tournament would prove – was chosen as the man to make way for Luca Marchegiani.
It was a brave decision by Sacchi, who must have been able to hear the knives being sharpened back home in preparation for the move backfiring. The former shoe salesman’s belief in the primacy of the collective was already well established after his four successful years at Milan, though, so it was perhaps no surprise to see him placing team above individual once more. Baggio, carrying a knock, could simply not be relied upon to put in the requisite defensive work that both Sacchi and the situation demanded.
Italy played well without their talisman – who was caught on camera muttering to himself “this guy [Sacchi] is crazy” as he trudged off the pitch – and grabbed the game’s only goal when Dino Baggio (no relation) headed Beppe Signori’s whipped free-kick home from eight yards.
“The substitution of Roberto was a difficult decision to make,” Sacchi admitted post-match. “But it was good for him and the team because I needed nine players who could run a lot. And I did not want to tire him too much; he can be decisive against Mexico.”
The Divine Ponytail was actually rather quiet in that clash and only produced his best stuff in the knockout phase, where his outstanding performances in dragging Italy to the final belatedly justified his controversial withdrawal in the encounter with Norway.
Liverpool 1–2 Arsenal, Premiership, 23 December 2001
The most memorable meeting between these two sides in 2001 was the dramatic FA Cup final in May, when a late double from Michael Owen turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 lead and ensured it was Liverpool who went home with the trophy. This fixture seven months later may not have been of such immediate importance, but in hindsight it proved to be a pivotal moment in the race for another piece of silverware.
A return of 10 victories and three draws in their first 16 outings put Liverpool second in the Premiership going into this clash at Anfield, with the table-toppers Newcastle United having played two games more than the Reds. Arsenal, further back in fifth, had yet to be defeated in nine matches away from home, but Liverpool – at that point managed by assistant boss Phil Thompson while Gérard Houllier recovered from a heart problem – knew that a win would give them the opportunity to move nine points clear of the previous season’s runners-up if they also defeated Southampton in their game in hand the following month.
The match began at a frenetic pace, with both teams’ determination to get the ball forward quickly leading to frequent turnovers of possession. Arsenal were the first to settle, with Kanu and Robert Pirès particularly bright, but their chances were dealt a severe blow when Giovanni van Bronckhurst was sent off by the referee Paul Durkin in the 35th minute. The Netherlands international had been booked 16 minutes earlier for catching Sami Hyypiä after the ball had gone; “now he’s got to stay on his feet,” observed the co-commentator Andy Gray. Van Bronckhurst’s second yellow did come after he had gone to ground, but it was a perceived dive rather than a mistimed challenge that he was harshly dismissed for.
Arsenal regrouped well and took the lead via a Thierry Henry penalty on the stroke of half-time after Fredrik Ljungberg was brought down by Jerzy Dudek. It was the first league goal they had scored at Anfield in six years, and it set them up nicely for what would be a superb demonstration of defensive resolve and incisive counter-attacking in the second period.
Arsène Wenger did not make any changes at the interval, instead continuing with the Kanu-Ray Parlour central midfield partnership that finished the first 45. With Ljungberg and Pirès on the flanks and a striker in the middle, Arsenal lined up in an ambitious 4-4-1 formation that could easily have been exploited.
The opening minutes of the half suggested it was Liverpool who had more to worry about, however. Henry should have done better after being played through on goal by Pirès, but Arsenal doubled their lead seconds later, Ljungberg tapping in from close-range after more wonderful work from the French winger, who beat Steven Gerrard with ease down the left and delivered a pinpoint low cross to his team-mate at the near post.
“This is awesome from Arsenal with the odds stacked against them,” Martin Tyler exclaimed up in the commentary box. The home crowd were shell-shocked but Liverpool responded almost immediately, Jari Litmanen nodding home Michael Owen’s mishit shot in the 55th minute to cut the lead in half.
The hosts rallied for a short period thereafter without ever really testing Stuart Taylor in the Arsenal goal. Patrik Berger skewed a left-footed effort wide from a good position and then grazed the post with a low drive from 25 yards, but Wenger’s men were relatively comfortable otherwise, with Martin Keown and Sol Campbell brilliant in the heart of the backline. Pirès and Henry continued to motor forward and offer an outlet on the break, and Parlour covered an extraordinary amount of ground in midfield to snuff out Liverpool moves before they reached the danger zone. The visitors’ commendable containment was demonstrated by the fact that Litmanen’s goal was the Reds’ only shot on target after the break.
It was an extremely gutsy performance from the 10 men of Arsenal and a triumph that proved to be the turning point in the battle for the championship. The Gunners, who climbed above Liverpool into second place with the three points on Merseyside, went unbeaten for the remainder of the season, winning 17 of their next 20 games to finish top of the pile. Liverpool, meanwhile, dropped points in five of their next six encounters, a period that proved to be costly as they finished the campaign seven points behind the north Londoners.
Uruguay 0–0 Scotland, World Cup group stage, 13 June 1986
“I play therefore I am: a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different,” wrote Eduardo Galeano in Soccer in Sun and Shadow. “For many years soccer has been played in different styles, unique expressions of the personality of each people, and the preservation of that diversity seems to me more necessary today than ever before.”
A proud Uruguayan, the late Galeano would be delighted to see the current coach Oscar Tabárez continuing to promote the country’s tradition of la garra charrúa, the deep-rooted combination of spirit, grit and unapologetic cynicism that was on show in this goalless draw with Scotland in the 1986 World Cup.
Just 56 seconds had elapsed when Sergio Batista was given his marching orders for a ruthless reducer on Gordon Strachan. Both sides knew a win would take them through to the knockout stage, but the red card saw Uruguay immediately abandon all hope of victory and simply focus on securing – by any means necessary – the draw that would be good enough for progression.
It was far from pretty. There was time-wasting and injury-feigning, referee-surrounding and opposition-baiting, overt fouling and covert fouling. The gloriously graceful Enzo Francescoli intervened now and then to remind the watching public that Uruguay were a football team rather than a blood-thirsty hit squad, but most of the remaining outfielders spent the subsequent 89 minutes camped on the edge of their own penalty area, snapping at ankles and brutally breaking up play whenever they had the chance.
Uruguay do deserve some credit for getting through an entire game a man light and still securing the point that was needed. It is possible that Batista’s sending-off – still the fastest in World Cup history – may even have aided Omar Borrás’s outfit, providing as it did an excuse for Uruguay to sit deep, batten down the hatches and assume their natural role as underdogs. Indeed, while this may have been an extremely ugly stalemate, there was still something impressive about the South Americans’ stifling of the Scots – even if the butchery that accompanied it was undoubtedly excessive.
“So much for soccer as an instrument of world peace,” the Los Angeles Times journalist Grahame L Jones lamented in his match report. The 1986 World Cup was memorable for many mesmerising moments of footballing majesty; this game, conversely, was merely evidence of the lengths to which Uruguay were prepared to go in the pursuit of a positive result.
Chelsea 2–2 Paris Saint-Germain, Champions League round of 16, 11 March 2015
The Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness has always been at his most captivating when irked, a feat that Chelsea’s players achieved when they surrounded the referee Björn Kuipers to ensure that Zlatan Ibrahimović was shown a red card after catching Oscar with a late tackle in the first half of this encounter with French champions Paris Saint-Germain.
Souness was at his bristling best after the final whistle, snapping at Chelsea’s “pathetic” reaction to Ibrahimović’s challenge. “To a man, they surrounded the referee,” he barked. “[Diego] Costa ran 50 yards to get involved… that is something we can do without. That is not the British way of doing things and it’s creeping into our game which I find totally unacceptable.”
His irritation at the Blues’ behaviour, though, did not preclude the former Liverpool midfielder from praising PSG – “they leave here with great credit; they’re a proper team” – for a magnificent display.
The tie looked to be headed in only one direction when Ibrahimović was dismissed, but the Ligue 1 leaders showed admirable character and commitment to stay in the game until the end of the 120 minutes, by which time goals from the centre-backs David Luiz and Thiago Silva had secured a 2-2 draw that was enough for PSG to go through on away goals.
The manager Laurent Blanc changed little after the sending-off, moving Edinson Cavani from the left into the central striking role in place of Ibrahimović but otherwise retaining the same shape. This helped the visitors to maintain their control of the centre of the pitch, with Thiago Motta, Blaise Matuidi and Marco Verratti outshining Chelsea’s three of Nemanja Matić, Cesc Fàbregas and Oscar and allowing PSG to enjoy 49% of possession in spite of the numerical deficit.
Gary Cahill’s strike in the 81st minute looked to have done enough for José Mourinho’s charges, but Luiz powered in a terrific header against his former employers five minutes later to take the game to extra time. Chelsea again took the lead through Eden Hazard’s penalty, but Silva made up for his concession of the spot-kick by looping a magnificent headed effort over Thibaut Courtois and into the back of the net, sending PSG – much to Souness’s approval – through to the last eight.
Argentina 0–0 Yugoslavia (3-2 penalties), World Cup quarter-final, 30 June 1990
“I think about the World Cup in 1990, what might have happened if we’d got past Argentina,” the former Yugoslavia manager Ivica Osim told Jonathan Wilson in Issue Seven of The Blizzard. “Maybe I am optimistic, but in my private illusion I wonder what would have happened if Yugoslavia had played in the semi-final or the final, what would have happened in the country. Maybe there would have been no war if we’d won the World Cup. I don’t think things would have changed in that way, but sometimes you dream about what might have happened. Things might have been better after the World Cup.”
Osim’s talk of Yugoslavia progressing to the last four ahead of Argentina was not fanciful wistfulness but very nearly the reality; on the balance of play, Diego Maradona and his side were extremely lucky to advance.
The Yugoslavs were without Srečko Katanec, the midfielder who was so vital to the balance of the team, because of the political situation back home: the Slovenian pleaded to be dropped because of a threat to his family back in Ljubljana, so Osim was forced to reconfigure his side accordingly. An extra defender, Zoran Vulić, was introduced in place of forward Darko Pančev to help combat Argentina’s strike duo of Maradona and Claudio Caniggia, while the more attack-minded Robert Prosinečki came into the midfield in Katanec’s absence.
Yugoslavia started slowly, perhaps partly due to the scorching heat in Florence but more likely because of their own anxiety. It took less than five minutes for Refik Šabanadzović to commit his first foul on Maradona, whom he had been tasked with man-marking, and 24 for him to be shown a yellow card that would contribute to his dismissal just after the half-hour mark for two bookable offences.
The red card had no immediate effect on proceedings, though, and by the end of the first period Yugoslavia had gone close on three separate occasions: Safet Sušić volleyed over from Davor Jozić’s gorgeous outside-of-the-foot cross, Prosinečki fired inches wide from 20 yards out and the goalkeeper Sergio Goycochea tipped Jozić’s header behind for a corner.
Despite a poor opening half, Argentina were expected to take control of the match after the break. Oscar Ruggeri flicked a header against the top of the crossbar in the 49th minute but Carlos Bilardo’s charges otherwise found it difficult to create clear-cut chances, with Yugoslavia shackling Maradona and halting their opponents’ attacking moves before they reached the danger zone. On the rare occasions the Yugoslavs’ defensive unit was prised open – one fine passing move allowed Jorge Burruchaga to get a shot away from a good position just outside the box – Tomislav Ivković stood strong between the sticks.
It was, however, never backs-to-the-wall stuff from Yugoslavia, who caused more than a few problems of their own at the other end. Sušić’s driving runs forward helped to relieve some of the pressure on the 10 men, while Dragan Stojković, who had been magnificent against Spain in the previous round, again showcased his poise, artistry and all-round class in a roaming role behind lone frontman Zlatko Vujović. Although they inevitably sunk deeper as the half wore on, Yugoslavia were able to hold Argentina at arm’s length pretty comfortably and actually ended the 90 minutes on top.
If extra time was supposed to bring about the belated Argentine onslaught, the message clearly did not reach the 11 players in blue. The holders, who were laboured in possession and disorganised out of it, should have fallen behind early on when Stojković, twisting and turning down the left, put the ball on a plate for substitute Dejan Savićević, who inexplicably blasted over from six yards.
Argentina themselves went close a few moments later, Ivković smothering Maradona’s header after the No 10 had ghosted into the box unmarked, but that golden opportunity merely served to highlight Argentina’s complete lack of similar chances in the preceding 105 minutes. Burruchaga had a goal controversially disallowed in the second period, but Yugoslavia held on to take the tie to penalties.
Jose Serrizuela stepped up and converted the first spot-kick with confidence, but Stojković crashed his effort against the bar. Burruchaga and Prosinečki both scored, before Maradona’s failure and Savićević’s success levelled things up at 2-2. Pedro Troglio and Dragoljub Brnović each spurned the chance to edge their side ahead; when Gustavo Dezotti then slotted his kick into the bottom corner, Faruk Hadzibegić knew he had to score to take the shoot-out to sudden death. The penalty was well struck but Goycochea threw himself to his left and brilliantly palmed the ball away, sending the Argentinians in the stadium wild and his country through to the semi-finals.
Yugoslavia could be proud of a performance that had seen them keep the eventual runners-up at bay with a man fewer for 89 of 120 minutes, but this heartbreak spelled the end. It would be their last tournament game as a country.
Charlton 7–6 Huddersfield Town, Second Division, 21 December 1957
At first glance, this seemingly nondescript second tier fixture may seem a little out of place on a list featuring World Cup quarter-finals, Champions League knockout ties and top-flight title deciders. What Charlton’s pre-Christmas clash with Huddersfield Town lacked in occasion, though, it more than made up for in pure, unadulterated entertainment.
With 17 minutes gone, the Charlton captain Derek Ufton landed awkwardly and was taken to hospital with a suspected dislocated shoulder. In the days before substitutes, the Addicks were forced to play out the rest of the game with 10 men, a challenge they embraced in the most spectacular manner possible.
Huddersfield took full advantage of their extra player early on, Bill McGarry’s penalty six minutes into the second half giving the visitors a 4-1 lead. That margin became even bigger shortly after the hour-mark and although a quick-fire double from John Ryan and Johnny Summers gave Charlton a glimmer of hope at 5-3, it was difficult to envisage anything other than a Huddersfield win with 20 minutes left to play.
The Addicks, however, had other ideas. Summers proceeded to notch an eight-minute hat-trick to take his personal tally for the afternoon to five and give the hosts an improbable 6-5 lead. Their shell-shocked opponents mustered enough strength to find an equaliser through Stan Howard – selected ahead of highly-rated 17-year-old Denis Law, who was nursing a thigh injury – in the 86th minute, but Ryan grabbed his second of the match with virtually the final kick to complete a remarkable turnaround.
In such circumstances, serious questions must be asked of the tactical nous and in-game management of the coach who oversaw such a calamitous collapse. Bill Shankly, the man in the Huddersfield Town dugout that day, must not have amounted to much.