The Champions League is back! Defending is not as evidenced by Liverpool and Man City games - The Warm-Up
Five goals at Anfield, as things got chaotic, and Liverpool turned in another one of those European nights you've heard so much about. Nine goals at the Etihad, as things got ridiculous and Jack Grealish made his continental bow. And PSG's project got upstaged by Club Brugge. European football is a silly place.
'We can only improve from here' - Pochettino urges 'calm' at PSG after Brugge draw
You know how it goes by now. Anfield. Europe. The crowd. The floodlights. The noise. Weird stuff doesn't happen every time but it does seem to happen more than is sensible. And last night, we have to credit both Liverpool and AC Milan for reading the room correctly. When the crowd haven't been allowed in for a while, what do you do? You play the hits.
Which for this fixture, means comebacks. Lots and lots of lovely comebacks. About halfway through the first half, AC Milan were taking such a pummelling that they seemed to have just one option left: pick up a load of quick red cards and take the forfeit. "Form an orderly queue and call the ref something obscene," we'd have shouted, if we'd been managing Milan. "Not that obscene. It's a family occasion." This is just one of the reasons we're not managing Milan.
But the pummelling on the pitch wasn't matched on the scoreboard. Mo Salah even missed a penalty, which is a thing that simply does not happen. And it's times like that when football likes to get hilarious. Liverpool's opening storm ebbed, and that gave Milan the chance to introduce themselves to the ball, and then Liverpool, to quote Jürgen Klopp, "lost a little bit of the plot". They also lost the entire right hand side of their defensive structure, twice. One-nil to one-two.
They say the five minutes either side of half time are good times to score. Whether this is actually true is beyond the Warm-Up's analytic capabilities, but after Milan (42', 44') and Liverpool (48') took turns, we can confirm that they are certainly the most entertaining times to score. It's the up-ending of expectations. You thought half-time was going to be this? You thought wrong! You thought the second half was going to be that? Wrong again!
And if you were writing the script for a Famous European Night At Anfield™, you would of course write the ending first. You'd write "The captain blams one in from the edge of the box and wins the game." Then you'd sit with that for a bit, and eventually you'd think "too obvious", delete it, and come up with something a bit more original. Maybe with a car chase. People like car chases.
Football isn't scripted, and that means it can get away with the obvious ending. Jordan Henderson's winning goal probably won't achieve full Gerrard-against-Olympiakos significance: this wasn't a must-win game, he wasn't quite as far out, and he didn't give it quite so much in the celebration. And those of us at home had no Andy Gray to shout at us.
But it was a precise finish, and not just in terms of its technique. It was narratively precise. It was the right finish at the right moment to deliver the result that Liverpool wanted and the occasion that the crowd needed. Two good teams, one great game, lots of frantic nonsense. These are the best teams!
'We'll see how it goes for Bellingham and Haaland in the summer' - Dortmund boss Rose
Meanwhile, down the other end of the East Lancs Road, Manchester City and RB Leipzig were putting on their own nostalgia festival. 6-3 is not a scoreline from this moment in footballing history. It is a scoreline from the 50s, when Brylcreemed men in large shorts strolled around in black and white and defending hadn't really been invented yet.
We don't know what Jack Grealish uses in his hair— and now we think about it, that's quite strange, isn't it? The Grealish haircut has to be one of English football's ripest marketing opportunities. Maybe there's a frantic bidding war going on behind the scenes. Maybe he's about to get poached by Aesop. Maybe his hair will look better but his form will collapse, like a golfer changing their clubs when they hit the big time.
Oh right, the match. It is mildly odd that a footballer as talented and expensive as Grealish had never played in the Champions League before. For all that people fret about players taking a step up at international level, this is almost certainly a bigger deal, at least in terms of the quality of the opposition. And the anthems.
All modern football points to this competition, which is why players half as good as Grealish get snapped up twice as early by the big boys. Still, he coped okay. Scored a goal pretty enough to grace any decade; took a corner well enough to remind everybody that Nathan Aké exists, and plays for City.
The scoreline, the own goal, the fact that Leipzig scored their second after the ref tripped Kevin de Bruyne: all this takes the game as whole out of the realm of seriousness. But that's fine. Seriousness is overrated, and so is defending. Control is for cowards. Manchester City are going to no-hands this competition again.
Jack Grealish of Manchester City celebrates after scoring their fourth goal during the UEFA Champions League group A match between Manchester City and RB Leipzig at Etihad Stadium on September 15, 2021 in Manchester, England
Image credit: Getty Images
When Three Become One
A historic night in Belgium. The greatest front line ever assembled took the field together, for the first time. Messi, Neymar, Mbappé: the greatest triple-combination since the Earl of Sandwich looked at his bacon and tomato number and said "Hey! Hey guys! Let's get some lettuce in here!"
Annoyingly for PSG, it turns out that however much you spend on players, the opposition are still allowed to turn up. Club Brugge were the chosen sacrificial victims, and they went and ruined everything by playing well and keeping PSG to just the one goal. And that was scored by Ander Herrera, the least galactic Galactico imaginable.
The reasonable thing to do here is to note that this is still early in the MNM project, and that even geniuses need time to get to know each other. We haven't even worked out a good acronym for this front three, we can't expect them to be fizzing and firing yet.
The excitingly unreasonable thing to is to write the whole thing off. One player that doesn't press can be carried. Two, maybe. But three? This isn't the 1950s, whatever Manchester City might be up to. The Shankly piano equation — eight men to carry it, three who can play the thing — has been pressed, counter-pressed and squad-sized into something much more demanding. A church organ, perhaps. You need about five who can play it, and maybe 20-odd to get the thing moving. We're calling it now. The project is doomed.
IN OTHER NEWS
Ohhh, ya beauty! What a hit, son! What a hit!
Happy 63rd birthday to Neville Southall, a great goalkeeper and a great man. Here is five minutes of him demonstrating the former …
… and here, to confirm the latter, is that time he warmly congratulated Michael Owen on his goalscoring prowess.
Nottingham Forest lost against last night. Two-nil at home to Middlesbrough. Nottingham Forest have scored five goals in seven games, and have picked up just one point. Nottingham Forest are in a lot of trouble, and have been for years. Here's the Athletic's Daniel Taylor with a long read on the whole sorry business that, you suspect, could have been five times as long.
The curtains twitch, the wind howls. Over time, you come to realise the club are still talking about their European Cups, from 1979 and 1980, because there is little else for modern-day supporters to embrace. Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that, went up the cry when Arsenal rolled into town for a cup tie a few years ago. Champions of Europe, you weren’t even born, came the response from the away end.
Just the 29 European games tonight, across the Europa League and the Europa Conference League. Why not treat yourself to a double feature? Start with Spurs away to Rennes, follow it up with Leicester at home to Napoli.
Tom Adams will, of course, be watching all 29 games to produce the perfect Warm-Up tomorrow.