THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
Think of the match reports. Think of all those poor lost match reports, topped and tailed and ready to send as the 90-minute mark ticked around. And think about how boring they must have been.
UEFA Europa Conference League
Jose’s time to shine, as Klopp wins award that no one will debate - The Warm-Up
No fault of the press pack, of course; we're not coming for their prose. But up until 90 minutes, City's visit to Madrid was - to use the code words - a cagey and intriguing affair. City, although they hadn't played particularly well, had done enough. Madrid, although they hadn't played particularly badly, had failed to manufacture a single good chance, or even come to that a single shot on target. Nobody had overthought or underthought anything: the obvious thing to happen, had happened, and the better team had won.
Indeed, the most agitating thing about the game last night was the prospect of the final: on the one hand, the two best teams in the world; on the other, two teams from the same league. A question of taste, of sporting questions against narrative HANG ON. THAT'S REAL MADRID'S MUSIC.
The word that's being thrown around for this Madrid team is magic. This is another code word and it means, essentially, "Look, we don't really know what's going on here, but nor do you, and nor does anybody that's actually responsible, so that's okay." Any sufficiently inexplicable comeback is indistinguishable from magic, as Arthur C Clarke would have written if he'd been a football fan. Probably
Of course, while magic is fun to watch - unless you're a rabbit, or Rúben Dias - it's a little unsatisfying as an explanation. A wizard did it? Well then. After the game, Carlo Ancelotti pointed towards the power of Real Madrid in the Champions League: "I cannot say we are used to living this kind of life, but what happened tonight happened against Chelsea and also against Paris. If you have to say why, it is the history of this club that helps us to keep going when it seems that we are gone."
He's on to something there, you suspect. Comebacks breed comebacks. Real Madrid's long term history with the European Cup is one of beautiful reciprocity; their immediate history is one of pulling victories out of the jaws of defeat. Or, in this case, reaching right through the jaws of defeat, down the throat, and pulling the half-digested victory right out of the stomach.
As Rodrygo, superest of supersubs, put it: "We were losing the match, we were dead and what happened happened. With this shirt, we learn to always fight to the end. We were almost dead but with my first goal we started to believe."
Beyond football's beloved intangibles - magic, history, belief - there is something else impressive happening with this Madrid team. Sure, they begin each game with Karim Benzema up front and that perfectly-balanced midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Toni Kroos, Casemiro. But by the time they got around to scoring in this one, that midfield had all taken their training tops and sat on the bench. By the time the final whistle went, Benzema had joined them. This win belonged to Rodrygo, who is 21, and to the brilliant, precocious Eduardo Camavinga, who is just 19. To Fede Valverde, 23, and Vinicius Jr, 21.
It is easy to take Real Madrid slightly less than seriously. The same is true of Carlo Ancelotti. The club don't seem to operate along any of the accepted lines for being a proper, sensible, smoothly-run football club, and their manager attracts adjectives like "cuddly". Pep Guardiola turned up dressed like Steve Jobs and waved his hands around a lot; Ancelotti turned up in a nice suit and raised his eyebrow a bit. This world is supposed to belong to people who dress up like Steve Jobs.
But look at that renewal: the old guard dragging their aching bones to the touchline, the new guard sprinting on. Look at how unfazed, how unspooked the kids were, as they replaced some of the greatest players of their generation and stepped up. Football management is about making individuals into better individuals, and then those better individuals into a team. And a team is more than just a plan: it's togetherness, it's interdependence, it's mutual reinforcement. This Madrid squad are possessed of a great unified calmness that allows them to ride through the shaky moments and make the most of their good ones. And when it comes to football, that's the magic that really matters.
- ‘It’s their history!’ – Guardiola after Madrid stun City
- 'Character and quality' inspired Real's comeback against Man City - Ferdinand
- Our history helped us come from behind to beat City - Ancelotti
From time to time, Alex Ferguson would remind journalists that he had got hold of the early match reports from the Champions League final in 1999. Presumably he found great amusement in reading about Manchester United's disjointed and lacklustre performance, about Bayern Munich's well-deserved if narrow win. He certainly liked to tell the press that he'd had a peek at the other version of history, the one they'd written and then had to rewrite.
We're guessing that Pep Guardiola won't be trying the same trick with this inexplicable comeback. Mostly because he was on the miserable end of it, but also because even before Rodrygo happened, then happened again, City hadn't exactly laid waste to the Bernabéu.
Of course, if they'd held on, we'd all be out here praising their control, their calm professionalism, the nerveless way they stepped around the banana skin. History is a results business. But this was a frustrating watch even as the City-Liverpool final loomed in the distance. City weren't exactly timid but they were … let's say conservative. The first leg was about making chances, scoring four and missing more. This one, not so much.
As with Madrid's win, the temptation is to reach for the mystical. They won because of magic; the other side lost thanks to some malign curse. And frankly, that's as good an explanation as any other we've been able to come up with.
Perhaps we need to return to belief. City were the better team on paper, and the better team on grass for almost all of the tie. But football isn't played on paper, and it's only half played on the pitch. The other half happens between the ears, in the heart, up and down the spine; deep in that mysterious thing we call the soul. Even when Madrid were flat and heading out, they knew they could win the thing. And City, even when they were in charge, knew that they could lose it.
Take that Jack Grealish chance, the one that dribbled past Courtois only to hacked off the line. Or that other Jack Grealish chance, the one that Courtois tickled wide with the very tip of his studs. Logically, each of those moments should have reinforced City in their preeminence, as the team making chances and getting closer.
Instead, the opposite happened. The question for City became "How have we not killed this?" For Madrid, "We're not dead!" That's not a question, but then, unlike City, they don't seem a side given to questions.
We seek to explain the inexplicable. We do so by imagining narratives, story-shapes; by imputing magic and curses. But looking at City last night, as they dissolved into tears, and looking at Madrid, as they exploded into giddy, laughing joy, we wondered: maybe the footballers are imagining the exact same things as we are. Maybe a curse doesn't have to be real. Maybe it only has to be believed.
More? Go On Then
As the saying goes, after the Lord Mayor's Show comes the Lord Mayor's Europa League. And also the Lord Mayor's Europa Conference League. It's a busy gig, being the Lord Mayor.
Unlike last night, where the semi-final stood alone in the schedule, each Europa and Europa Conference game is jostling with the others for your attention. How to choose? Well, here's our thinking, which you're welcome to steal.
If you're looking for the fairytale comeback, then watch West Ham's trip to Eintracht Frankfurt. West Ham are trailing after the first leg but have belief and Jarrod Bowen on their side. And we're not ready to let David Moyes' big European adventure end just yet.
If you're hunting for chaos, then it's Marseille against Feyenoord you want. Hopefully the good chaos and not the bad. But they shared five goals in the first leg, including one straight from kick-off, so we're going to assume more messiness to come. If, on the other hand, you're after some kind of Great Men of Management tussle, then Roma against Leicester is the game for you. Master against apprentice, ego against ego, Mourinho against Rodgers. Some footballers will be there too, probably.
And if you support Rangers, watch Rangers.
IN OTHER NEWS
The WSL title race is going down to the last day, after Arsenal dispatched Spurs, and after Caitlin Foord did this.
Lovely finish, obviously. And something very charming about the control, if control can be charming. A little poke with the toe, just to calm the ball down.
Carlo Ancelotti against Liverpool, then. It occurs to the Warm-Up that there is a lot more attention paid to the 2005 final than the rematch in 2007. Obviously that makes sense, since the former was one of the greatest and silliest comebacks in the history of elite football, while the other wasn't. But still, each was worth exactly one European Cup. So here's Paolo Maldini getting all nostalgic about his last chance.
Nobody celebrated goals like Pippo Inzaghi.
OTHER RETRO CORNER
Much of the build-up to the Champions League final will, presumably, focus on the last time this game happened, when Loris Karius wrote his name into infamy and Gareth Bale scored one of the greatest final goals of all time. But they also contested the 1981 final, which, if we're being honest, doesn't appear to have been quite as exciting or quite as funny. Still, Alan Kennedy takes his goal nicely.
As well as all that Europa fun we noted earlier, the League One play-off semi-finals get under way with Wycombe Wanderers against MK Dons.
Currently undefeated against Real Madrid in all competitions, Andi Thomas will be back again tomorrow.
Chelsea to spend £200m to compete with Man City and Liverpool – Paper Round
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