THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
Hands Across Europe
People mock the Super Cup. Unnecessary, they say. Irrelevant. A waste of time. But in these times of division and conflict, there's something to be said for an occasion that can unite an entire continent. And last night, Europe came together as one to say: Wait, they're playing extra-time?
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Yes, five minutes after the end of an international summer and five minutes before the start of the top-flight season, Chelsea and Villarreal travelled to Belfast to play through two whole hours of theoretically competitive football. Afterwards, Thomas Tuchel described the extended exercise as "physically the worst thing that could happen", which isn't a great review.
But no game that ends in a penalty shootout can be all bad, right? Right.
Tuchel is an obsessive student of the game, and he will have been aware that the last time Villarreal played, they beat Manchester United on penalties after David de Gea — admirable goalkeeper though he is — failed to save 10 and then missed one. He'll have been through the tape time after time, looking for an edge. We can imagine Tuchel, on his fourth or fifth watch of that shootout, suddenly jumping to his feet. "I've got it!" he shouts. "I've got it. United had an unused substitute! And they had another goalkeeper!"
That's why he gets the big bucks and wins the big trophies. Sure enough, as time ticked down, on came Kepa Arrizabalaga for Edouard Mendy: a pre-planned move that Tuchel said was based on save percentages, analysis, and the fact that penalty saving is a particular skill. And we're sure that's true. But the reason — the real reason — you want Kepa over Mendy for a shootout has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with general vibes.
Mendy is a better goalkeeper for actual football because he is calmer, more reliable, and less prone to suddenly turning into a cloud of gas at key moments. And Kepa is a better goalkeeper for penalties precisely because he is twitchy and unpredictable. Try to take him off for a shootout, and things will get very awkward, very quickly. Bring him on for one, and he's in his element.
The job of a goalkeeper during a shootout isn't just to save: it's to disrupt. Distract. Discombobulate. Kepa made two saves, and that won Chelsea the trophy. But he also managed to get booked for faffing about, and that is what won Chelsea the argument.
Meanwhile, Back In Spain
Timing is everything. And Leo Messi, with all his trademark skill and light-footed dexterity, appears to have got out of Spanish football just as Spanish football descends into an entirely uncivil war.
Real Madrid are suing La Liga for attempting to sell 10 percent of itself to private equity. This is itself not a huge surprise: Florentino Pérez takes legal action against La Liga the way other people do jigsaws or build model aeroplanes. It's all about wellness, self care, and finding space for something he truly enjoys. Something for him.
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But Pérez isn't alone. The Spanish football federation has called this same move "economically dreadful", "deplorable", and "a flagrant violation of the law", which is all rather punchy. Oh, and also "unrigorous". And "opportunist". Whew.
Fortunately, as we all know, the best way to de-escalate a conflict is through the medium of a sarcastic quote-tweet. Here's Javier Tebas, the head of La Liga and the scourge of Barcelona's wage bill:
At last the RFEF releases their much-anticipated statement on the Super League, supporting UEFA and the leagues. Ah, no! About a project which threatened to destroy Spanish football THEY SAY NOTHING. But of course, they don't miss a chance to attack LaLiga. Orders must be followed. They haven't even read the documents!
That dream of the Super League is still being kept alive, of course, by Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. And we can be pretty sure that their resolve will have been stiffened by the sight of Messi cutting about in his shiny new kit, while his new club nod and smile and say "Financial Fair Play — it just works!" The very top of football is being stretched and squeezed and placed under tremendous stress, and while the future remains unclear, we can be sure of one thing. All of our futures contain a lot more sarcastic quote-tweets.
We've been thinking about the Premier League. We've been thinking about making a Big Call. We've been thinking: could all three newly-promoted teams stay up?
Technically, of course they could. Realistically? No chance. But we suggest this not on the basis of any particular qualities inherent to Norwich or Brentford, but rather on the grounds that the Premier League, this season, contains a lot of what we're calling "potential crisis".
Two clubs, Crystal Palace and Wolves, have gone from a well-established, predictable, safety-first manager to somebody much more exciting. Exciting is good, everybody knows that. But exciting is also dangerous. Then there's Brighton, who don't score goals, and Burnley, who also don't score goals. Then there's Newcastle, who are Newcastle.
And top of our list for Crisis Team of the Season: Southampton.
Last season's long slide from surprise package to suspicious package left Southampton in an odd place: a pretty decent side that spend a lot of time looking like a poor one, with a manager that everybody rates but who oversees a good number of poor performances. This summer, they've sold their best striker on to Aston Villa, and now it looks like their best defender, Jannik Vestergaard, is off to Leicester.
It's not just that Ings has left, and Vestergaard is apparently following him. It's that the moves have come late. Ings' replacements, Adam Armstrong and Armando Broja, are both exciting enough in their different ways. But they've got less than a week to get to grips with Ralph Hasenhüttl's football; he may be an educator, but education takes time. And if Vestergaard does go, they've got a matter of hours before the campaign begins.
Oh, and their fixture list is a moderate nightmare. Everton up first and Manchester United up second, with Manchester City and Chelsea to follow in short order. We don't make predictions and we never will, but we've got a weird feeling. All three new clubs are staying up. Southampton are going down three times.
IN OTHER NEWS
Good, wholesome content from the Chelsea dressing room.
Sid Lowe on Messi? Sid Lowe on Messi. And a reminder that after the nonsense of this transfer dies down, after Messi's done at PSG and in MLS and wherever else he ends up, there will still be the greatest sustained spell of greatness to look back on. To laugh at, and with.
He has scored 672 goals and registered 306 assists at Barcelona, but then you know that, which is part of the problem: he made the ridiculous routine, no longer news. If Messi had done that, we’d hear about it endlessly, is the line when a less known player does something incredible. No, we wouldn’t, because it became normalised and soon repeated. "Messi is Maradona every day," Jorge Valdano likes to say, and even Maradona wasn’t that. He has scored more than 20 league goals 13 seasons in a row. Testimony to effort as well as inspiration, the consistency is as absurd as the quality.
Cheer up, Barcelona fans! It's not like this is the first time the best player in the world has wanted to stay and then left. Remember that time Ronaldo turned up and scored 35 goals in a season? And then things went from "He'll be here for life" to "Yeah, he's off" in the space of a few days? Good times, great days.
Europa League qualifiers! Which means the second leg of St Johnstone against Galatasaray. Europa Conference qualifiers! Which means Dundalk against Vitesse Arnhem.
Just one last Warm-Up before the Premier League returns, and it'll be Tom Bennett delivering it tomorrow.
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