Messi and Ronaldo move, Mourinho sacked: 21 football highs and lows of 2021

We take a look at the highs and lows of the game over last 12 months

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With 2021 almost in the books, we look at 21 of the top moments in football this calendar year.

Christian Eriksen’s collapse

Denmark midfielder suffered cardiac arrest during the Euro 2020 group game against Finland. The most arresting football moment of 2021, for the severity of the situation, the brilliant work of the medical staff, the Danish team’s resolve throughout that moment and then in their run to the semi-finals and, thankfully, Eriksen’s survival.

European Super League takedown

In April, 12 of Europe’s main clubs got together to announce a breakaway league. Met with widespread opposition from players, clubs, leagues, governing bodies, politicians and, perhaps most importantly, supporters. Participating clubs then began quickly pulling out because of weight of backlash. The ESL collapsed within three days. However, this likely will not be the end of the story.

Lionel Messi to PSG

Arguably the greatest footballer in history signed for Paris Saint-Germain on free transfer in August, ending 20 years at Barcelona, the club he joined aged 13. Expected to remain a one-club man, Messi scored a record 672 goals in 778 games for the Spanish side, lifting 35 trophies. Tear-filled press conference to say goodbye was watched around world.

Cristiano Ronaldo to Manchester United

Just when it appeared he could be moving to Manchester City, rivals Manchester United stole in late August to take back their former forward in a $17 million deal. Ronaldo, 36, signed a two-year contract, with the United social-media team sent into overdrive. His initial spell lasted six years, comprising three Premier League titles, one Champions League, two League Cups and a FA Cup.

Saudi Arabia complete Newcastle United takeover

Mooted for some time and met with fierce opposition from many, a Saudi Arabian-backed consortium completed the purchase of Newcastle United in October for a reported $400m. Saudi’s Public Investment Fund is believed to have provided 80 per cent of the funds for the deal, ending Mike Ashley’s 14-year spell as Newcastle owner.

Biennial World Cup controversy

The idea of men’s and women’s World Cups being held every two years instead of four was floated in May by the Saudi Arabian Football Federation. Has since become one of the main talking points in football, meeting with strong opposition from Uefa and Conmebol but enjoying huge support in Africa and Asia. Still no decision made despite results of Fifa’s feasibility study recently revealed.

#StopOnlineAbuse campaign

In late April, English football - players, clubs, organisations - boycotted social media for a weekend to highlight how social media companies, regulators and governments must do more to eradicate discriminatory abuse online. Racism in particular continued to affect football in 2021, including Hungarian fans' racist chants directed at England players, while England’s players were abused online after their penalty shootout defeat in the Euro 2020 final.

Euro 2020 final shootout

Italy prevailed in the delayed-but-delightful European Championship, defeating England on penalties in the final at Wembley. The hosts took an early lead, but their 55-year wait for a major trophy sustained. England missed three of five penalties, with Gianluigi Donnarumma denying Bukayo Saka to increase Italy’s unbeaten run to 34 matches and seal the country’s second Euro title.

Chaos at Wembley

For all the jubilation in the country regarding England’s run to the showpiece, the celebrations boiled over on the day of the final. A subsequent review by the Football Association found that more than 2,000 people gained access to Wembley without tickets, with 17 mass breaches of security, and detailed that fatalities and widespread injuries were narrowly avoided. The review labelled what unfolded a “national shame”.

Chelsea triumph in Europe’s ‘Battle of England’

The third all-England Champions League final ended with Chelsea lifting the trophy for a second time. Kai Havertz struck the game’s only goal just before half-time in Porto, extending Manchester City’s search for club football’s premier prize. Thomas Tuchel had delivered big-time for Chelsea - four months after being installed as manager.

Jose Mourinho sacked by Spurs

One of football’s major needle-movers was dismissed by Tottenham Hotspur in April, 17 months into his reign. Spurs had fallen to seventh in the Premier League having topped the table in December, with results and atmosphere around the club souring greatly. They had recently exited the Europa League in ignominious fashion. Mourinho was gone six days before Spurs contested the Carabao Cup final.

Zinedine Zidane says ‘Adios’ to Madrid - again

In May, the Frenchman resigned from Real Madrid – for the second time. Madrid had failed to win a major trophy for the first season since the 2009/10 campaign, losing out on the league title on the final day. Zidane, who during his first stint led Madrid to three successive Champions League crowns, said the club “no longer had faith” in him.

Mohamed Salah v Man City

The Egyptian’s effort in the thrilling 2-2 draw in the Premier League in October may well end up being goal of the season. Salah slalomed through the City defence at Anfield before finishing expertly past Ederson. Against their main title rivals, it fell within a fine run of form for Salah, elevating him to arguably the finest footballer on the planet at present.

Xavi seals return to mismanaged Barcelona

After a year to forget for Barcelona both on and off the pitch – they struggled under huge financial pressures – Xavi offered some solace. The Spaniard returned in November as manager to his boyhood club, the side he spent almost his entire career with, winning 25 titles in 17 years across 767 appearances. The former captain signed until 2024.

Messi joy with Argentina – finally

The Argentine snapped his long wait for a first major international title as Argentina defeated Brazil 1-0 in the Copa America final at the Maracana in July. Appearing in a 10th major tournament with his national team dating back 15 years, Messi was instrumental: he scored four goals en route to the final and was named the tournament’s best player.

Man United 0-5 Liverpool

A 5-0 defeat at Old Trafford is embarrassment enough, but to your arch-rivals? Liverpool were 4-0 up by half-time of the Premier League encounter, with many United fans leaving the stadium during the break. The manner of the October defeat cranked up the heat on manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – he was sacked less than a month later.

Alisson scores for Liverpool

One of the most memorable sights of last season arrived in the penultimate week of the campaign. Needing victory to keep alive hopes of qualifying for the Champions League, Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson headed home an incredible injury-time winner against West Brom. Understandably, wild celebrations followed. Liverpool finished third.

Sergio Aguero calls time on career

Not even six months after joining Barcelona, Aguero was giving a tearful press conference confirming his retirement, aged 33. The Argentine had been taken to hospital in October citing “chest discomfort” during the match against Alaves. He concluded his career early, but what a run: 427 goals in 786 games, Man City’s all-time lead goalscorer, and conjuror of the greatest finale in Premier League history.

Robert Lewandowski’s magic goal haul

A decent way to get over losing out to Messi in the Ballon d’Or, this month Lewandowski struck his 43rd Bayern Munich goal of 2021. The fact it broke Gerd Muller’s record for the most Bundesliga goals in a calendar year, a mark almost half a century old, felt fitting: the great Muller died, aged 75 and thus much too soon, in August.

Late, late drama in Fifa Arab Cup

The inaugural Fifa Arab Cup, staged in Qatar as a precursor to next year’s World Cup, more than lived up to its billing. The standout moment arrived in the last-four clash between Qatar and Algeria, when the hosts equalised in the 97th minute and then Algeria snatched it, 2-1, in the 107th minute… of normal time. The North Africans went on to win the final.

Harry Kane asks to leave Spurs

The Tottenham Hotspur talisman didn’t want to be ‘One of Their Own’ any more. Kane, the home product chasing all types of club-scoring records, reportedly had a gentlemen’s agreement to leave Spurs, with his apparently impending move to Man City a prominent storyline of the summer. A saga ensued. Eventually, Kane stayed.

Updated: December 29, 2021, 6:05 AM