WEDNESDAY’S BIG STORIES

The road to… where?

Stick to football! That’s the classic cry, isn’t it? Sport is so often keen to shirk talk of politics, as are some sports fans, but how can you when the nation pencilled in to host the Champions League final is seemingly on the verge of invading another country?
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Far down this escalating crisis involving Russia and Ukraine is football. There are far greater concerns as tensions grow between Russia and the West, but still, remarkably but unsurprisingly, the sport has this transcendent quality that makes it an easy headline-maker and an avenue into discussing politics.
And so, that is why yesterday’s updates were littered with reports about the possibility of UEFA moving the final from St Petersburg, more specifically the Krestovsky Stadium – aka the Gazprom Arena. Yes, the very Russian state-owned energy company which has sponsored the Champions League for the last 10 years.
Gazprom’s adverts with those amiable jingles during Champions League matches have made them a now globally recognisable brand. They “light up football” apparently, they plastered advertising hoardings in Champions League matches night, and now UEFA must decide whether to switch them off – temporarily at least.
“You’d have to show cause to tear up this sponsorship contract,” sports marketing expert Tim Crow told FT. “That would be a big call.”
UEFA are considering a change for the final and some British talking heads have not hesitated in making their feelings clear.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said there should be “no chance of holding football tournaments in a Russia that invades sovereign countries”, while UK sports minister Tracey Crouch urged UEFA to move the final “immediately”.
We’ll wait to see what materialises, but for now clubs are fighting to play in a final where the location is unclear. Sure, some people may not overly care – recall the show going on despite Henrikh Mkhitaryan being unable to play the Europa League final in Baku – but as it stands it is difficult to see Russia remaining hosts.

Kai paves the way for Chelsea

The initial mission was clear when Kai Havertz was picked over Romelu Lukaku for Chelsea against Lille last night – count Havertz’s touches.
Despite Lukaku’s seven touches against Crystal Palace prompting Thomas Tuchel to declare this was “not the time to laugh”, the Chelsea boss did not hesitate in dropping the Belgian at Stamford Bridge.
Indeed, it took Havertz just eight minutes to score for Chelsea, and around 15 minutes to record as many touches as Lukaku managed in the full 90 three days prior.
In doing so, he could well have ended the debate. The only reason it could go on is because he only cost a mere £72 million to Lukaku’s £97.5m, but when it comes to big-game players who can score on the biggest stage – Havertz appears to be their man.
He did so in last season’s Champions League final. He did so again recently in the Club World Cup final, and though he trails Lukaku by three in the overall standings this season, he seems to be the man Tuchel fancies when the chips are down.
The League Cup final against Liverpool is next – we’ll probably know the answer definitively then.
PS: It always helps when you have N’Golo Kante collecting MOTM awards for fun.

Juve fast start – poor everything else

Talking of big players for the big stages – Dusan Vlahovic. After scoring for Juventus on his Serie A debut for the club, he scored again on his Champions League debut.
Not only that, but in scoring after 32 seconds he recorded the fastest-ever debut goal in the Champions League era.
Incredible. If only he hadn’t joined a team struggling everywhere else then we would arguably be talking about a player capable of taking his side the distance.
Instead, Juve’s weaknesses were once more exposed at Villarreal, and what started perfectly ended all-too disappointingly, with a 1-1 draw meaning the last-16 tie remains too close to call going into the second leg.
Sure, Juve will fancy their chances back home in Turin, but there will no doubt be nerves after exiting to Lyon and Porto at this stage on the past two occasions.
Vlahovic, it’s on you to help Juve avoid an unwanted hat-trick.

IN THE CHANNELS

Yeah, we’re too easily pleased. Or should that be 22-2-2022 easily pleased.

RETRO CORNER

Enjoy Juninho Pernambucano being Juninho Pernambucano 17 years ago today!

COMING UP

A very decent evening of action. Two Champions League matches, including Manchester United at Atletico Madrid, and then Liverpool against Leeds the pick of the Premier League catch-up games.
Andi Thomas is the man for the big occasion - sadly all we've got for him is tomorrow's Warm-Up
Premier League
All change at Chelsea as Boehly takes control of transfers - The Warm-Up
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