TUESDAY'S BIG STORIES

Oh When The Saints Hold A One Goal Lead

Football teams can fail in many ways, some spectacular, some banal. But there can be few as frustrating as failing to properly work a back-up keeper. Fraser Forster returned to the Premier League last night, older, greyer, wiser and up against Liverpool's title-winning front three. And he had exactly one shot on goal to deal with.
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Some of the credit there goes to Southampton's defenders, who protected their keeper heroically. But in a season where everybody looks a bit knackered, Liverpool look utterly drained, fatigued in mind and body. For the second game in a row they had a corner in the very last seconds … and took it short.
That's seven points dropped in three games for Liverpool, who plummet in the table to, er, first place, and whose odds have slumped to, er, favourites to retain the title. Still, at least they've got company in the race this year. Three or four horses are better than one, as the saying doesn't quite go. A game in hand is worth two in the bush? That doesn't even make sense.
Anyway, as tempting as it is to look at Liverpool's botched Christmas and make noises like "hmmm" and "ouch", we should take a moment to praise Southampton. They came with a shape and a plan, Danny Ings scored a quite brilliant goal, and then, when his players finally stopped running, Ralph Hasenhüttl fell to his knees and wept salt tears of sweet joy.
Apparently Hasenhüttl dislikes it when people call him "the Alpine Klopp", so we apologise for bringing it up. But there is a similarity there, we think, and it's not one of style. It's a question of buy-in. This is a squad, a coach, and a club all humming the same tune in the same key. The Premier League has never wanted for badly-run, unhappy clubs. Always nice to watch the opposite at work.

Eze! Eze! Eze!

On the off-chance you watched Crystal Palace's win over Sheffield United, chances are that you most enjoyed Eberechi Eze's beautiful goal just before half-time: a slippery run through defensive traffic, and then a firm long-range putt into the far corner.
But you, dear reader, are not Roy Hodgson. (Unless of course you are, in which case: hi Roy! Hope you're well.) Palace's veteran manager operates on a different plane to mere mortals. He shops a different list. He dances to a harsher beat. And he most enjoyed the fact that Eze, in the second half:
showed the intensity and the concentration and determination to defend properly to make certain we weren’t under the cosh in any way
You might think this is just Hodgson being Hodgson, and of course it is. The brand is strong. But this, also, is precisely what Eze and the rest of us needed to hear. With Jeffrey Schlupp out injured, there's a spot in the starting line-up going. And if Eze has convinced his manager that he can do all the miserable, gritty, Hodgson stuff, then he'll be given the platform to do all the cool stuff as well, and we can all enjoy that. Everybody wins! Well, except Sheffield United, obviously.

Still Essential, After All These Tiers

England is heading into a third lockdown. But football — at least, professional football — will continue. Elite sport remains essential, and the game's protocols remain satisfactory … well, at least as far as the government is concerned.
Of course, it's not entirely clear that the virus is listening to the government. The latest English club to suffer a rash of positive tests in their first-team squad is Derby County, who have closed their training ground and are talking to the FA about this weekend's cup game. Meanwhile, up in Manchester, four players in City's women's team have returned a positive test. It's not yet clear if the club will be able to play West Ham this weekend.
Leaving aside the ethics and the optics of football carrying on as everything else grinds to a halt, again: listen carefully. That sound you can hear? That faint, ominous squeaking? That's the season, straining at the seams as postponement after postponement is wedged into it. Four in the Premier League so far, 52 across the Football League. And as José Mourinho points out, it's not just the fact that the games have to be squeezed in somewhere, but that clubs don't know when and so can't plan around them.
I'm not happy with the fixtures since day one and in day one I was far from imagining that I would have a game postponed. I'm not happy since day one that Man Utd and Man City [had a game postponed] without knowing when those matches are going to be played. [And] I would like to know when I play against Fulham, refusing totally to be punished by a congestion of crazy fixtures like we were in the beginning of the season. I'm waiting.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but it's a little strange that football's organisers didn't stake out a couple of weeks somewhere towards the end of the season — even if it meant trimming one of the competitions — and say: unprecedented times, potential for pile-ups, this is where postponements will go. But then, it was all supposed to be in hand by now.

IN OTHER NEWS

A friendly nod to the good people at Mundial for bringing this to our attention. Balm for the troubled soul.

HAT TIP #1

The Guardian have chosen their 2020 footballer of the year, and given the year it could only be Marcus Rashford. Here's an interview with David Hytner in which Rashford, lovely lad that he is, hands all the credit on to his mother.
I’d injured my back last January and spent time with families during the early stages of my recovery through FareShare and it was clear they were as reliant on the food vouchers [for school meals] as the food banks. It wasn’t one or the other. They needed both to survive. I knew what that fear felt like. I knew what fear in my mum looked like. I didn’t want that for any child or any parent.

HAT TIP #2

Over to the Irish Times, where Ken Early asks and then answers the big question: "Is Lampard plus Time a credible formula for creating a Guardiola or a Klopp?"
It is simply not true to suggest either Guardiola or Klopp ever went through periods when the job seemed to be beyond them, where they wandered alone in the wilderness, and everyone seemed to have deserted them, before their malfunctioning teams suddenly came together, rewarding the wisdom and patience of their club owners.

COMING UP

You know what time it is? That's right: it's League Cup semi-final time! Tottenham take on Brentford in what experts are calling "the one that isn't a Manchester derby". Should be interesting, though. Brentford are decent and Spurs can be strange.
Ben Snowball plus Time is a credible formula for creating a Warm-Up, and you'll be able to read it tomorrow morning, you lucky so-and-so.
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