The Gfinity Elite Series Delivered by Domino’s came to its thrilling conclusion this weekend as the qualifiers from the two groups came head-to-head. Having won their groups, Man City Epsilon and Team Envy progressed straight through to the semi-finals, but exceL Esports, AS Roma Fnatic, Hashtag United and Method battled it out in the quarters for the right to meet them.
With the group stages done, these matches were decided on aggregate and - if necessary - away goals, extra time and penalties, adding further drama to what was already a tense weekend of action.
exceL Esports v AS Roma Fnatic
The two teams came out with all guns blazing, and it didn't take long for the first goal to arrive. Some beautiful one-touch passing ended with Eden Hazard striking the woodwork only for Mo Salah to nudge it home on the rebound. Five minutes later, exceL's misery deepened when a poor clearance from Edwin van der Sar went straight to Sócrates, who headed down for Raul to hit home from long range. Excel steadied the ship in the rest of the first half, but they couldn't make any inroads into the scoreline.
Things went from bad to worse early in the second half when Sócrates and Raul teamed-up again to make space for Salah to smash home and make it three. With aggregate to take into consideration, exceL didn't panic and managed to pull one back in the 74th minute as Eusebio headed home after Kevin de Bruyne's shot smashed against the crossbar. However, Fnatic restored their three goal advantage in the dying seconds through Raul to take the first leg 4-1.
exceL needed to dominate this match and find an early goal to stand any real chance of progressing, but any hope of a comeback faded 27 minutes in. Some nice build-up play gave the ball to Sócrates, who made space on the edge of the area and found the back of the net with the tip of his boot. exceL simply didn't have enough conviction in their play, and their first half was summed up by a wild finish from Paulo Dybala, who blazed over the crossbar from close range when it looked easier to score.
Despite their clear advantage, Fnatic were merciless and refused to take their foot off the pedal. However, it wasn't until the 65th minute that they found a much deserved second of the game and sixth of the tie as Hazard found space in the area and curled a beautiful shot past van der Sar. There was no way back now for exceL, and Fnatic added insult to injury on 72 minutes with a beautiful looping shot from Raul and then made it four with seven minutes left through Salah. That was it for a dominant Fnatic display, and the match ended in an emphatic 8-1 aggregate victory.
Hashtag United v Method
The second quarter final was a much more even affair, with Hashtag and Method both coming close in a tight first half. For Hashtag, Marco van Basten was a stand out and narrowly missed out on a stunning goal with a finesse shot that fizzed wide. Method meanwhile almost found the net through Patrick Kluivert who forced an acrobatic save from the in-form Alisson. There was no way through for either team though, and they went into the break level at 0-0.
The second half began in much the same way, and it looked like it was going to take a stroke of genius or luck to break the deadlock. The latter came on 57 minutes when George Best crossed for Kluivert, whose shot deflected wickedly off Virgil van Dijk and went in. Method now had a precious away goal, so Hashtag came out looking for an equaliser. They got it with 20 minutes left when van Basten smashed home. However, just as the celebrations had died down Method retook the lead on 73 minutes through Best.
This was a truly remarkable second half though, and the scoring wasn't done yet. Van Basten fed Sadio Mane, who knocked down for Pele to equalise. It was utterly breathless football, and it didn't let up. Method went on the attack, and Pavel Nedved took advantage of a loose ball in the area to make it 3-2 to Method. The game slowed after that and Method saw out the win, taking a one-goal advantage and three precious away goals into the second leg.
It was a tight, nervy first half in the PS4 Leg as Hashtag struggled to find a way through the Method rearguard in search of the opener. There was no way through though, and the teams went into the halftime break level. The game erupted early in the second half though, and it was Method who took the lead, with Kluivert slotting home from Nedved's cross. Two minutes later, it was 1-1 as Ruud Gullit set up Pele for a curled finish. Needing two goals to win it, Hashtag streamed forward in the closing minutes, but they couldn't find a way through, and Method saw out a 4-3 aggregate win and secured a semi-final with Envy.
Envy v Method
With an excellent win under their belts, Method came out stronger in the semi and took the lead just three minutes in when Steven Gerrard's corner was headed in by Luis Figo. Gerrard was also involved in the second on 28 minutes when he fed Nedved for a finesse shot that took a decisive deflection and bounced in. Envy had a few chances of their own, but couldn't find a way through, and Method went into half-time with a deserved two goal advantage.
Despite a few scrappy passages, the second half continued in much the same vein, and a third goal looked to be only a matter of time away. It came with 20 minutes left when Clarence Seedorf fed a beautiful ball through to Best, who lived up to his name with a thunderous finish into the top corner. Best was again involved in the fourth as he slotted home from Kluivert's cross to make it 4-0 and put Method in complete control in the 77th minute. Kluivert nearly made it five in the dying seconds, but no further goals were added.
Envy had it all to do in the second leg and had a golden opportunity to get back into the tie when Frank Lampard went through on goal. However, he tried to tee it up rather than take the chance himself and the opportunity was squandered. Envy were harshly punished for this wastefulness in the 21st minute when Davinson Sanchez leapt highest to meet Gerrard's corner and make it 5-0 on aggregate. It didn't stay like that for long though as five minutes later Nedved fed Figo who added his team's sixth.
A stunning Rivaldo chip gave Envy hope before the break, but that was quickly snuffed out as a quick counter-attack ended with Figo side-footing home to make it 3-1. Envy were all but done, but they didn't give up, and they pulled another one back on the hour mark when Lucas finessed home a beauty. Not to be outdone, Method made it four through Best to kill off any lingering chance of a shock comeback. The game petered out after that and Method saw out a commanding 8-2 aggregate victory.
AS Roma Fnatic v Man City Epsilon
The second semi-final got off to a cagier start. The deadlock seemed to be broken on 18 minutes, but Ronaldinho's strike was correctly ruled out for offside. Man City Epsilon also came close in the 42nd minute with Ronaldinho again involved. His finesse shot came back off the crossbar, and the rebound was headed against the post by Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. It summed the first half up, with Epsilon largely on top but frustrated.
The same scenario continued into the second half. Epsilon had a golden opportunity to take the lead on 65 minutes when Aubameyang squared it for Dennis Bergkamp, who uncharacteristically slotted wide. They were made to pay for their error four minutes later when Salah curled home after some excellent build-up play. Epsilon piled on the pressure in the remainder of the game, but they couldn't find a way through, and Fnatic took a slender but significant lead into the second leg.
It was another tight and cagey game in the second leg, but Epsilon took the lead and levelled the tie-up on 27 minutes when a wayward goalkick gave away possession and the resulting attack finished with Kylian Mbappe slotting home from the edge of the area. Fabinho took three bites of the cherry just minutes later but couldn't find a way through, and Thibaut Courtois was on fine form to keep out Hazard and Socretes in the rest of the first period. But half-time arrived with the teams level at 1-1 on aggregate.
The second half was played out on a knife-edge, and both teams were thwarted as they went in search of what would have been a critical goal. It looked set to be going into extra-time, but as stoppage time ticked down, Fnatic found a way through with Hazard cutting in from the left, dancing past a couple of defenders and hitting low past the keeper to make it 1-1 on the night and 2-1 to Fnatic on aggregate. There was no time for Epsilon to strike back, and their unbeaten run came to an end. Fnatic meanwhile marched on to a final with Method.
Method v AS Roma Fnatic
Game 1 (Xbox)
With the finals being decided in a best of three format rather than aggregate, the first game was a more open affair, and it took just ten minutes for the scoring to open, with Nedved drilling home for Method. The Method lads were very much on top in the opening exchanges, controlling the possession and making it difficult for Fnatic to get even a sniff of the ball. But they were sucker punched in the last minutes of the first half as Hazard equaliser in what was almost a carbon copy of the winner he scored in the semis.
The second half was a much more tense affair, and both teams could have scored, with Figo coming the closest with a shot that clattered back off the crossbar. It looked like the first leg would finish in a draw but just like in the semis, Fnatic had other ideas. Piling forward for one last chance, Sócrates found some space in the area and slotted home low to the keeper's left. There was no time for Method to strike back, and a fantastic comeback was complete.
Game 2 (Xbox)
The second leg also took place on the Xbox and Fnatic made the better start with Sócrates heading home a corner, courtesy of some on-the-line help from an unfortunate Telles. Fnatic continued to have the better of the first half, and they got a deserved second on the stroke of half-time when Hazard finessed a beautiful curling shot into the back of the net. It was a late goal, but there was still time for Method to give themselves hope as Best scored seconds later.
Now in with a shout, Method came out all guns blazing in the second half and were level on 52 minutes thanks to a drilled finish from Kluivert. With everything to play for, both teams had high chances to take the lead in the rest of the second half, with Hazard coming close to another last-minute winner, but the game went into extra-time. Tired legs made the going slow and no-one could find the winner, despite an incredible last-minute chance for Mo Salah that came back off the post.
Penalties it was then! The first round was scored by both teams, but while Kluivert found the net for Method with the second, Hazard - who'd produced such heroics throughout the tournament - had his shot saved by Lehmann. Best then missed for Method, but Lehman was again on song to stop Raul. Method had a 2-1 lead with three penalties down, and Gerrard converted their fourth to make it 3-1. Salah had to score to keep Fnatic in the match, but his kick hit the post, and the Grand Finale went into a third and deciding leg.
Game 3 (PS4)
The final match took place on the PS4. With everything to play for, it was an entertaining affair, and the scoring was opened by Salah, who made up for his penalty miss with a stunning strike from just inside the area. Fnatic indeed should have doubled their advantage through Sócrates, but Method had chances of their own, with George Best forcing a smart save from David de Gea. The half-time whistle was blown with Fnatic a goal to the good.
It didn't take long for them to double their advantage though, as just three minutes into the second period Hazard took advantage of some terrible positional play from Lehman to make it 2-0. Needing to find a way back into the match, Method were more gung-ho for the rest of the second half, and as a result, they left space at the back that Hazard took advantage to make it 3-0. The game done, Fnatic saw out time and claimed the win their fine play deserved.
It was a great Grand Finale, but AS Roma Fnatic always looked to have the edge, and they were worthy winners of what was their second successive Elite Series title.