FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES
In the 59th minute of last night's game against Napoli, Ferran Torres stepped up to take a penalty. It was a VAR penalty, you know the sort of thing: the handballs that flash past almost unnoticed at full speed but then, stretched and made strange by slow-motion, become serious and penalty-worthy incidents.
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Not that Torres cared about the penalty's provenance. He was too busy scoring the thing. A straight run-up, a shift of balance, a twitch from the keeper… and he rolled it home calmly and with great precision. The finish of a player entirely in control of himself and his processes. Not the most spectacular way to open his Camp Nou account, but quietly impressive in its own right.
That was the good Torres. The other one had one, two, three excellent chances from open play, and sent them all screwing wildly over the bar. Which is why the player that scored Barcelona's potentially vital equaliser, and got on the end of all Barcelona's best attacking move, ended the game in tears. It's a miserably cruel game, this one.
He's in a strange position, Torres. By rights, any 21-year-old moving to Barcelona should be able to spend some time adjusting to the place. Coming on for the senior players, picking up a start here and there. Learning from the already established stars. But Barcelona's attacking stars are gone, and the replacements — Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Memphis Depay, Luuk de Jong, Martin Braithwaite — are all improvisations of one kind or another. There is real pressure on Torres to be brilliant immediately, and judging by last night's showing, he's feeling it.
As for Barcelona in general, it was a strange and mixed showing. There was no immediate impact from Aubameyang; there was no midfield control until Sergio Busquets came on, looking very spritely for his 473 years. For long spells of the first half it looked like kids against grown-ups, and with a bit more depth on the Napoli bench, or with Victor Osimhen showing a little more respect for the offside line, Barcelona could have been in real trouble.
And yet! They made those good chances for Torres to miss, and they dominated the ball, and they piled on the shots — if not the shots on target — and you really can see, in moments, where it's all supposed to be going. It's been a while since Barcelona had any kind of identity beyond sorting the squad by transfer value, then picking the 11 most expensive players, and so we can probably say that the first part of Xavi's rebuilding project is moving along, albeit slowly. Obviously there's still the defence to sort, and the midfield, and the goalscoring, and replacements to be found for Busquets and Gerard Piqué, and the ever-yawning financial black hole threatening to swallow the club, and the fact that other clubs are going to try to pinch these kids at some point, and the ongoing pandemic, and the looming threat of war, and somebody should really do something about climate change. But: progress!
No idea if they'll make it through leg two, mind. If Napoli can get 90 minutes out of Dries Mertens, you fear for Barcelona.
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As karmic punishment for everybody that decided to watch (and laugh at) Barcelona, football's prankster gods put the best game of the night on at the same time, on the other channel. Dortmund began the night as one of the favourites for the Europa League. They ended it gazing blankly at the prospect of elimination at the earliest possible stage.
It's a daft sport, this one. Sometimes teams have to work and graft and puff and hack and grind away to find even the tiniest crumb of a chance. And other times goals just bubble up out of the ground. For ten minutes either side of half-time, Rangers were wandering around Westfalenstadion like the luckiest prospector in all of Texas. Sit on a rock? Oil! Trip on a bush? Oil! Take a corner? Shoot from the edge of the box? Ping a cross off the defender's knee? Oil everywhere!
The "4" next to Rangers' name made this a performance for the ages, to be folded into the "best game ever" arguments that all clubs sustain and no club ever resolves. But the "2" next to Dortmund's name… that's a fun number. That keeps the tie just about alive. That provokes thoughts like: One goal and then another goal. Or: They can't be that vulnerable again.
But that's all for the future. Rangers went to Germany as underdogs, hoping — as all underdogs hope — for a good performance, a solid showing, a chance to get them back home with the tie still alive. They come away covered in oil and laughing uncontrollably. What more could anybody ask from an evening of football?
Martial FC Is Go
Not to sound spoiled or anything, but these big Europa nights: they really are big. There is so much football happening, all at once, all of it at least slightly important. In the end you just have to give up on trying to follow everything and just wait for the moments to come to you.
Like Anthony Martial, scoring his first goal for Sevilla. Over his time in Manchester, Martial had come to embody United's struggles to turn the brand into silverware. Bought for a lot of money in something that looked a bit like a panic; in and out of the team; in and out of form; in and out of favour with the revolving cast of managers. Brilliant, often enough, to suggest a footballer worth sticking with, but perhaps not at a club with such a profound identity crisis.
Obviously this was all highly frustrating for Manchester United fans and, we're guessing, Martial himself. But there is a sense in which players like Martial, those precious souls that have magic sparking from their boots, belong to everybody. Football is consumed in matches but it is also consumed in moments, and while Sevilla may not have as many fans as Manchester United — who boast 9.6 billion, by Ed Woodward's last count — there is a vast community of interested people that want to see fun players doing cool things as often as possible. Like this.
Also, if we wanted to be pedantic about things, we could note that Martial has essentially upgraded his prospects for the season. Sevilla are still in the title race at home, and are among the favourites to lift their European competition. United are not, and are not. Martial FC takes the lead.
IN OTHER NEWS
This is not a football clip. No, this is a warning: we're falling behind. We got so complacent after the Euros, revelling in the joy of that little car. And rugby league has stolen in and taken the lead. Look at this little car! It's got a little driver.
Wake up, football. There's tanks on the lawn. Tiny, adorable tanks.
Today would have been Bobby Robson's 89th birthday. That poses a problem for Retro Corner: with a career that long and that interesting, and with a personality that admired and respected, what on earth do we pick? Well, we decided we hadn't seen enough of his time at Porto, so here's a montage from the club. And is that a young José Mourinho glowering by his side? Of course it is.
Remember Football Icon? Here at the Warm-Up, we'd filed it away as one of those strange experiments in reality television that never really came to anything, and while we weren't exactly wrong about that, like all experiments in reality television it left behind a fair number of people with their lives changed. Some a little, some a lot. Here's the Athletic's Simon Johnson talking to Carl Magnay, winner of the second and final series.
You stood in front of a big telly, on this big 'X' the production crew had put on the floor. There was no one coaching wise to actually talk to about how you did. You just had to wait for the screen to flash. It would either show a green tick if you’d made it, a big cross if you’d failed or a question mark if you were close and still to be decided. It was pretty cut-throat having to stand there like that. Thousands of boys in my trial didn’t progress. Fortunately, I got a green tick.
Nottingham Forest travel to Bournemouth: the former doing their best to scramble into the playoffs, the latter desperate to stay out of them. In Italy, there's the small matter of the Turin derby. And the Winter Olympics continues all over discovery+.
Have a good weekend. Enjoy the curling. Tom Adams will be here on Monday.
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