THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

In the cup with Tottenham

At this point, the continued existence of the League Cup has to go down as one of football's most against-the-odds triumphs. The big clubs, who control the game, absolutely despise the thing . They despise the mess it makes of the calendar. They despise the things it does to their squads.
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And that was before the pandemic.
Yet here it is, persisting, pottering along, the three-handled cup with the two-legged ties. And one of the reasons for its continued existence must surely be the fact that we get quite a lot of really good games. Knockout football under floodlights is the best place for football, and the League Cup knows it.
Which brings us to Tottenham. As befits a Big Club, Antonio Conte made changes to his starting line-up; as befits a club desperately trying to rebuild its bigness, he didn't make too many. Come in, Steven Bergwijn and Matt Doherty. But also stay in, Harry Kane and Son Heung-min, just in case.
The first thing to note is that twice in a week, Spurs have turned up to a potentially tricky fixture, found it to be an actually tricky fixture, and responded with a proper performance. They weren't perfect, or even necessarily dominant — West Ham were in this game all the way to the end — but they were something far more important. They were serious. And perfection and dominance are built on a foundation of seriousness.
So Spurs didn't buckle under pressure, didn't allow their mistakes to multiply, didn't turn the possibility of triumph into the certainty of disaster. That's twice in a week! They could have created all those chances against Liverpool and lost... but they didn't. They could have bounced from that heartening draw into a momentum-shattering loss against West Ham… but they didn't. Two glorious opportunities for Spursiness — the arch enemy of seriousness — both neatly avoided.
And what's interesting about this revival is that it's starting to show in some unexpected places. Harry Winks and Eric Dier were both great against Liverpool; here, against West Ham, Doherty turned in his best performance in lilywhite, Oliver Skipp was decent, and Winks was again excellent when he came on. And Bergwijn was the match-winner.
There has always seemed something at once perfect and doomed about Bergwijn at Spurs. A confidence player at a confidence club: when it goes right, it goes very right, but it all goes so easily wrong. The key, apparently, is for his teammates to engineer a situation where he can score an early goal from five yards. Once that's done, he turns into a magician.
One serious performance in a big game might be an anomaly. Two in two, though, begins to look like a pattern. A pleasing one for Spurs, a vaguely ominous one for everybody else. They may not be back to their Big Club best yet, but for the first time in a while they look like they know how to get there.

Big game hunting

We said earlier that the big clubs despise the League Cup, and that's definitely true, but it's definitely only partly true. They despise until winning it goes from something abstract, a fixture headache, into something immediate graspable. Then the old silverlust takes over.
When does this magical transformation happen? Our guess is that it's the semi-final stage, which by happy coincidence is just where we've arrived. This season's semi-finals are two things. The first is absolutely stacked: Liverpool against Arsenal, Chelsea against Tottenham. Two title contenders, two desperately trying to get back into the top four after a rough patches. We'd have liked a north London derby, but let's not get greedy.

Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool during the Carabao Cup Quarter Final match between Liverpool and Leicester City at Anfield on December 22, 2021 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

Image credit: Getty Images

The second thing they are still, despite [gestures wildly] everything, to be played over two legs. The full Carabao experience. Unless, that is, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp get their way. They've called for the games to be turned into one-off fixtures, the better to help with [gestures wildly] everything, and so let's not rule out some late jiggery-pokery.
You can see their point, of course. You may even agree with it. But the dynamic of the games and the feeling of the competition will be irrevocably shifted. The fact that, as it stands, managers get to pick a team twice adds a little extra edge to the business of rest and rotation, of respecting or disrespecting the competition. One goal down, two goals away from the final: stick or twist? Skipp or Winks?
As with so much that's going on these days, the Warm-Up will absolutely understand if this particular small delight is lost to us in these interesting times. But we'll miss it. If knockout football under floodlights is the best, as we've already suggested, then two-legged knockout football under floodlights must be twice as good. Simple maths.

Bringing the juego de posición

Speaking of simple maths, our warm congratulations to the new regime at Barcelona, who have settled the club's vast debts, paid off every one of their creditors, and can now charge back into the transfer market with total confidence that the place isn't about to collapse in a cloud of IOUs. In that situation, why wouldn't you sign Ferran Torres? Just to celebrate.
Hang on, what's that? They've actually borrowed some more? And Torres will only be coming in as and when some first-teamers get bounced on, freeing up a bit of space in the wage bill? Ah. Still, sure it's all fine. Nobody in football would borrow beyond their means, after all.
But if you wave away the ongoing financial crisis, this is a barnstorming piece of transfer business from everybody's favourite More Than a Club. Torres fits the Xavi mould precisely: he's young, he's good going on brilliant, he can play anywhere along the front three, and he's already had a year and a half of intense Guardiolisation. And intense Luisenriquisation, which works much less well as a made up word. Put him alongside Ansu Fati, Gavi and Pedri, and he even looks like a wise, experienced old head.
Will City end up regretting the move? Probably not. Torres has missed most of the season with injury, and City are top of the league and able to drop Phil Foden and Jack Grealish to make a point about discipline. That part of the pitch is not understocked. So the move makes sense for everybody, and serves as a reminder that being rich isn't a question of how much money you actually have. It's a state of mind.

IN OTHER NEWS

Look at the bend on this thing! He must have a foot like a pair of curling tongs! Like one of those brushes they use in curling! Like, er, one of those offramps that go around and then under the motorway. Tell you what, this traction engine business is harder than it looks.

RETRO CORNER

Christmas is a time for nostalgia, for the hazy recollection of times long gone. So back we go to December 23, 1978, and to one of the iconic North London hammerings. Tottenham's day begins with one of the worst backpasses ever played in this fixture, a backpass so precisely awful that it turns into a quite brilliant through ball, and then everything gets worse from there.
That Liam Brady could play a bit, hey.

HAT TIP

Sell your best players. Lose your manager. And get better? Inter were supposed to deflate this season, after the departure of Romelu Lukaka, Achraf Hakimi and Antonio Conte, and yet the defending champions are four points clear at the top of Serie A and have lost just once all season. Here's the Athletic's James Horncastle trying to work out just how they are doing it.
That game [against Roma] in early December, perhaps more than any other, left no one in any doubt that Inter’s run as champions is far from over. On a night when they were confronted with their trophy-laden icon Mourinho, Inter were celebrating another treble. Three-nil up at half-time, the three replacements for Lukaku, Eriksen and Hakimi all scored. The doubts around Inter, which resurfaced through October and into the beginning of November when they couldn’t shake the habit of either falling behind or failing to close out the big games, dissipated again.

COMING UP

Thin pickings on the football front: a bit of Eredivisie, a bit of Süper Lig, cup games in Belgium and Portugal. Assuming none of that grabs you, we suggest you find an old film on the television and eat an entire bowl of mixed nuts with raisins.
And Andi Thomas will be here with tomorrow's Warm-Up: all the transfer news from White Christmas, and full tactical analysis of a tricky away game for the Railway Children.
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