THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
When Chelsea's men's team walks out on May 29 to play in the Champions League final, it will be their third appearance in the biggest of the big games. And on all three occasions, the man in the suit leading them out will have been a mid-season appointment. Generally speaking, football clubs look for stability in the dugout; in west London, it's all about riding that new manager bounce as high as it will go. Boing, boing, wheeeee.
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Of course, it helps if you have N'Golo Kanté on your side. As if deliberately trying to embarrass everybody in England that thought he was a destroyer, a hard worker, and nothing more exciting than that, Chelsea's no. 6 did all that stuff and made both goals. A gorgeous turn and one-two for the first goal, a perfectly timed piece of ball-snaffling high in Madrid territory for the second, and a man of the match award that picked itself.
Hopefully Maurizio Sarri's apology — from all of English football: we were wrong — is in the post.
Hey, while we're feeling apologetic, let's bring Mason Mount in here as well. "Teacher's pet", right, that was just a joke. A piece of banter. What we meant was: 22 years old and ready to outplay Real Madrid in a Champions League semi-final. Definitely. Just a pity there's only so much hype to go around.
And why not, let's get Antonio Rüdiger involved. Sorry, Antonio. And Jorginho. And— you know what, we'll be here all day. It really has been quite the turnaround: from underwhelming to overwhelming Real Madrid. This new manager bounce is strong stuff.
So much so, in fact, that over the two legs this could have a rout. Chelsea had the weight of good chances, and it took some excellent gangling goalkeeping from Thibaut Courtois, along with some wonky finishing, to keep the scoreline respectable and the atmosphere nervy.
That, perhaps, is what will be giving Thomas Tuchel just a little concern, this morning after. It is better to create chances, and miss them, then not create them at all? That's the ironbound law of Expected Goals. But that kind of habit can also prove costly in any given one-off game, like a cup final. And Chelsea — oh, Andreas Christensen? Sorry about all that writing-off back there — have two of those coming up.
The FA Cup final will be played at Wembley, of course. The Champions League final, by contrast, will be played in Istanbul, one and a half thousand miles from London and a couple hundred more from Manchester. In a pandemic. We don't expect Uefa to actually move the game, particularly since Istanbul lost out last year, but the very best of luck to whoever gets landed with designing the covid protocols. And congratulations to the Istanbul branches of both fan clubs.
And let's think about the game for a moment. Everybody's knackered. The FA Cup semi-final wasn't much cop, and the teams hadn't jumped an entire continent beforehand. City are going to pass the ball around all careful like, and Chelsea are going to let them; a team set up to stop counter-attacks, and a team looking to spring them. It could be a classic. The quality is there to make it so. But it could be Milan-Juve II: This Time, It's Covidball, and we should probably all be ready for that too.
For every winner, a loser. And it looks like this era of Real Madrid is over. So, goodbye to the only team capable of rocking up to the Champions League, having a flunky say "Don't you know who this is? It's Real Madrid", then strolling through the velvet rope and on to victory.
From where we were sitting, this looked like a shattered team all grown old at the same time: a bad Sergio Ramos impressionist, two passing midfielders that still pass like butter but run like curdled yoghurt, and Karim Benzema. He's a wonderful player, Benzema. He's had a wonderful career. He's not an entire attack.
And if you're confident you know what the next version of Real Madrid looks like, the Warm-Up will be delighted to hear your theories. We should know, of course. The regeneration should already be underway. We even have the names: Sergio Reguilón and Achraf Hakimi at full-back. Martin Ødegaard in midfield. Eden Hazard and Luka Jović making merry up front.
To be fair to Hazard, he has been mostly injured. But we suspect people are going to be unfair, since he made his biggest contribution last night after the final whistle. There are few sins more serious, for a footballer, than being seen in public smiling after a big defeat. Laughing! The monster! We don't think he'll be returning to much sympathy.
As for the rest of them. Reguilón and Hakimi have both been moved on; the former's been one of Tottenham's few silver linings, and the latter's just won Serie A with Inter. Ødegaard's been impressive on loan, returned, and been sent out again, while Jović barely had time to unpack before he was returned from whence he came. And since we're being extravagant here, let's look at James Rodríguez. Goes out on loan, wins a couple of Bundesligas, then gets pinged off to Everton for nothing. Still only 29.
We're not saying any of these players are the difference, in themselves, between winning and not winning La Liga or the Champions League. Or that any of them are about to win the Ballon d'Or. But that's a lot of money and time out there working for somebody else; a lot of questions that were answered and now need answering again. You can see why Florentino Pérez was so keen on the Super League. Making mistakes is an expensive habit.
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Actually the Premier League Fixture-o-Matic 3000 decides when you play
Got to feel a little for the Premier League's fixture computer. Just as it looks like it might make it to the end of the season without losing any more games to the pandemic, the Super League happens, and Manchester United's fans decide to get involved in the scheduling.
Which is why Manchester United vs. Liverpool, theoretically the Premier League's most interesting, most exciting, most hate-fuelled and hype-laden and history-drenched fixture, will be kicking off at 8:15 next Thursday night. Quarter past the Europa League.
Apparently it's all because West Brom, quite understandably, refused to move their game against Liverpool. So United now have to play four games in eight days: Thursday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday. Just about 50 hours between their trip to Villa Park and their home game against Leicester. Hopefully Donny van de Beek remembers where his boots are.
But as well as being awkward for United's conditioning coaches, this does rather demonstrate just how vulnerable the season is to further disruption. We can probably assume that United's fans won't be getting into the stadium again, but there's not much wriggle room left here. Keep your asterisks on stand-by.
IN OTHER NEWS
Let's check in and see how that Hazard giggle has landed in Madrid? Oh. Oh no. We don't actually speak Spanish, so if this is a two minute feature on the importance of maintaining long distance friendships and the value of keeping sport in perspective against life and happiness, then: good! It's not though, is it. It's definitely not.
This year will see the third all-English final in the Champions League/European Cup… but you already know all about the other two. However, the only time two English managers have faced one another in the final came way back in 1979: Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest against Bob Houghton's Malmö FF. So here's that.
Pep Guardiola getting back to the Champions League final seems a good excuse for a bit of tactics nerdery, so here's Grace Robertson working out why City, briefly rubbish, have ultimately been so good this season. It's all a question of trust. And passing. Lots and lots of lovely careful passing.
City have become the slowest team in the Premier League. Their sequences of possession are longer than anyone else, and those sequences are slower at moving the ball forward than every other team. In any other context, you’d assume those stats were highly critical, but this has been extraordinarily effective. In the pandemic era, Guardiola has found a way to kill off the counter attack: make everyone play at walking pace.
In England's bid for a clean sweep of the European final spots, it's Arsenal that have the trickier task tonight, 2-1 down after the first leg. They do have that away goal though. In the other tie, Manchester United will attempt to defend a four-goal lead. Roma do have those two away goals, though… no, no, probably not.
Tom Adams, very much the Kanté of the Eurosport operation, will be here to Warm-Up your Friday.
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