FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES
One of the more abiding principles of the news business is that an ordinary thing is much less interesting than an extraordinary thing. Dog bites man? No thank you. Man bites dog? Hold that front page!
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And as the big game clock in Faro ticked around to the 88th minute, we were ready for something far stranger. "Ireland Beat Portugal". In fact, given the way things have been going under Stephen Kenny, we could have gone with "Ireland Win Football Match (Against Not-Andorra)". But that would have been a little cruel.
They'd have deserved it, too. This was a performance straight out of the plucky underdogs playbook: some big saves, a lot of stout defending, and enough attacking endeavour to keep their opponents queasy. Portugal huffed and puffed and bumbled and grumbled and looked — were made to look — like a team without much of a plan beyond 'get it to Ronaldo'. Ah.
Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates scoring against Republic of Ireland
Image credit: Getty Images
Then, come the 89th minute, a whole load of ordinary things happened very quickly. Ronaldo scored a goal, one of those headers that starts in the stomach and comes up through the neck. He does that all the time. That goal broke the men's international scoring record. He does that sort of thing pretty regularly too. And then, in the seventh minute of five minutes injury time, he scored again. Dog bites man, dog bites man, dog bites man.
There is, too, a not-news familiarity to the place in which Ireland find themselves, that horrible state of being proud but gutted. At least the search for positives will be a fruitful one: almost everybody played well, from Gavin Bazunu at the back — 19 years old and saving Ronaldo penalties? Ridiculous behaviour — to Adam Idah up front, who gave Rúben Dias a long and stressful evening.
But it's important in situations like this to take the right negatives as well. Defeats may require a constructive response, but a gut-punch like this one requires a certain amount of belligerent misery. A fist shaken at the universe, here represented by the refereeing team. We don't know if the officials got anything wrong, as such, but we can say for sure that the back and forth of VAR — what got looked at and what didn't — was extremely unclear.
And hey, from a certain angle this was a job well done. Getting three points out of this game was always going to be a long shot. But it was important that Ireland not look like a team that was bottom of the group with zero points, six points behind Luxembourg. This makes the fact that they actually are bottom of the group, six points behind Luxembourg, considerably easier to live with. For the moment.
Hup Holland Hup
Elsewhere in Europe, the Netherlands were going back to the future. Louis van Gaal is back in the dugout, and the continent trembles. Or at least, the continent's innocent journalists cough nervously. Hey, maybe he's mellowing with old age.
It's an odd thing, this qualifying cycle. The fact that the Euros ended up in the middle of it has meant that a lot of teams, including the Netherlands, have found one plan interrupted by another. Frank de Boer was manager when they started trying to qualify for Qatar 2022, but then lost his job in 2021 after the Netherlands disappointed at Euro 2020. If the football management doesn't work out, there's always time travel.
Saying that, it's perhaps unlikely that De Boer would have made it through the full stretch anyway. The Netherlands are in Group G, which stands for "Gosh, what a mess." While the Dutch were drawing 1-1 with Norway, Turkey were conceding a late equaliser to Montenegro. Which leaves the situation at the top of the group as follows: Turkey, played four, eight points; Netherlands, Montenegro and Norway, all played four, all seven points.
Van Gaal took charge of his team just two days before yesterday's game. Qualification will be done in just over two months. This isn't a normal qualifying situation: this is a staggered sprint across a bumpy track. For all Van Gaal's knowledge, for all his experience, for all his tactical and strategic thinking, you kind of wonder if the KNVB haven't just picked the most confident man they could find. Get over the line with bluster and habit, and see where things are come the new year.
Football's Back On Tour
Here we go. The qualifier after the final before. This evening, England take to a football pitch for the first time since Wembley, since that penalty shootout, since the silver medals and the tears and the pride and the montages.
England are not very good at finals, it seems, nor penalty shootouts. But these days they are very good at qualifying: a smooth, efficient operation that gets the job done. Frequently unspectacular, occasionally boring, but perfectly constructed.
Which isn't very promising, if you're a neutral looking for drama. But the potential intrigue in tonight's game comes from two places. First is the England project: while they came pretty close against Italy back in July, it was hardly a flawless performance. They failed to truly capitalise on their early dominance, and then they failed to control the game when Italy came back into it. Southgate has more exciting attackers than the rules of football permit him to pick, yet between them they created little and converted less.
England manager Gareth Southgate
Image credit: Getty Images
This isn't meant to be an "England were rubbish and lucky" argument. But there is space for this side to grow into something better. The effective grinding out of results will take you all the way through qualifying to penalties in the final, it appears, and that of course is far enough, if you get the penalties right. But actually winning a final? That might require something a little more imaginative.
The other interesting question is their opposition tonight. Hungary went into Euro 2020 as the presumed also-rans in the Group of Lols, and sure enough they went out after three games. But they did manage to get right up everybody's noses first (in a good way), backed up by a full and noisy stadium (in perhaps a less good way). And they did all that without their best player, Dominik Szoboszlai, who is back from injury.
So on the one hand, it's an England qualifier and you know how those go. But on the other, the opposition are relatively strong and should be up for it, and Southgate has to start experimenting at some point. Are we clutching at straws? Yes, a bit. Is there anything wrong with that, in an international break, as summer slips away and the nights begin to draw in? Absolutely not.
IN OTHER NEWS
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108 years ago today, Bill Shankly was born in Glenbuck, Ayrshire. Here's an interview from 1974 — four years after he left Liverpool; seven years before his death — in which he expounds on football as socialism, the importance of personal fitness, marriage, George Best, hooliganism and plenty more. Listen to the intensity, the absolute conviction behind everything he says. You can see why his players loved him.
Credit to the Athletic for putting together this overview of the allegations against Cristiano Ronaldo. It's not comfortable reading, but it's detail that has been missing from a lot of the breathless hype surrounding his return to Manchester United.
More international football than you can shake an international stick at. England go to Hungary, Italy host Bulgaria, Northern Ireland travel to Lithuania, and Sweden take on Spain.
Tom Adams, Eurosport's very own Striking Viking, will be here with the Warm-Up tomorrow.
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