THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
For Wales, no Gareth Bale, no Aaron Ramsey, no Joe Allen. For the Netherlands, not a single player that started their convincing win over Belgium. For everybody, another game even though we're well into June now. And for the Nations League, somehow, a half-decent game despite all of the above.
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What we'd like to do with a game like this - newly-qualified upstarts against a strong team in good form - is project forward to the tournament. Does this show Wales can mix it with the big beasts? Are the Netherlands really coming up on the rails? But something will have gone disastrously wrong somewhere if we see either of these starting XIs in Qatar. We think there might have been a subtle message in the Dutch starting line-up: You; Want Us To Play; Four Games In; Eleven Days UEFA.
Obviously, it's a disgrace that the ancient and noble Nations League isn't being taken with the utmost seriousness. But football insists on teaching us lessons even in less-than-ideal circumstances, and Rob Page will have woken up with plenty on his mind this morning. Good and bad.
You couldn't have blamed Wales if they'd rolled straight into this game from the pubs and clubs of Cardiff; if they'd turned out for the team photo in bucket hats. Once in a generation history-making doesn't happen every day. But they didn't, and for most of the first half the second string produced a very Modern Wales performance - sparky going forward, stodgy at the back - which says lots of positive things about the squad, about the principles by which they play football, about the group as a group. It also suggests that Ben Davies is the best defender in world football, but you can't learn something that you already know.
And what's better than being good? That's right, it's responding to adversity. After the Dutch took the lead, after the game began to sag under the weight of substitutions and fatigue, the Welsh kept going and got themselves the equaliser right at the end. Spirit! Togetherness! Further buzzwords! And had that been the end of it, then Wales (the team) and Wales (the nation) would have ended the evening feeling unambiguously brilliant about everything.
However, the Wout Weghorst that plays for the Netherlands seems to be better than the one who plays for Burnley, and Wales got caught out by the old goal-straight-after-a-goal. This ruined the party, but it also changed the lesson. To go with all the carrots, Page now had a stick. Concentration. Focus. Naivety. Other, colder buzzwords. And if Wales do go on to have a good tournament in Qatar, then perhaps this will go down as a small step along the way. A night when Wales were reminded that even at the very moment of celebration, there is always more work to do.
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Off to the wonderful world of transfer rumours we go. Where things are reported and understood; where clubs move ahead and drop behind in races that nobody can see; where the war chests swoop and the kitties wantaway. And today there's only one name on anybody's mind: Darwin Núñez.
He's going to Liverpool, it says here, it says everywhere. Or rather, he wants to go to Liverpool and Liverpool want him, but there's the price to be worked out and Liverpool don't want a bidding war. Those are expensive. And Manchester United are lurking, apparently, perhaps in the hope that the lad isn't too bothered about the Champions League but really does want to play in red and live in Cheshire.
Still, it all makes sense, right? Liverpool have a load of brilliant forwards but it's transfer time now, and they're losing one of last season's key players, a man without whom they would never have come close to that Quadruple. A man beloved by the fans and trusted utterly by Jürgen Klopp. Yes, Divock Origi has gone, and Liverpool are going to need somebody to fill those sizeable shoes.
We could have done that joke with Taki Minamino as well. Busy, busy Liverpool.
Anyway, if Darwin Núñez is the Sadio Mané succession plan, then he seems an ominously good one. Because the thumbnail sketch — a quick, clever, mobile forward who makes all manner of exciting runs in behind and who scores and scores and scores — could be either of them. In fact he has one great advantage over Mané, in that he's six foot two. And he's 22. And he doesn't want to go to Bayern Munich, which is a long way from Cheshire. That's three great advantages.
And if he does end up at Liverpool, as Erling Haaland goes to City, then both of last season's top two will have made the same decision. The two best managers in the world will have looked at their squads, looked at their 90-point hauls, and come to the same conclusion about what comes next. You can try to hide it with fancy tactics and modern innovations, but the underlying principles of English football will always shine through. Want to make yourself better? Get a big lad up top.
Sorry About All That
In the hierarchy of football's apology-makers, there's a pretty clear divide between those in the front-of-house roles and those hanging around upstairs. Players and managers are apologising constantly: facing up after every loss, nodding and grimacing their way through interview after interview.
The suits? Not so much. So the appearance of an open letter from Everton majority owner Farhad Moshiri came as something of a surprise. In it, Moshiri acknowledges that the team "underperformed" last season, acknowledges that "mistakes have been made", and apologises for those. He also says that Everton's new stadium is going well and the club are going to stop spraying money around like an out-of-control firehose.
Not quite in those words. But it's a good sentence nevertheless: "Of course, the [new] stadium alone will not help us achieve our objectives and we are committed to not making the same mistakes again including how we have not always spent significant amounts of money wisely."
Perhaps the most interesting bit - if you're into this sort of thing - is the part where Moshiri talks about the appointment of Frank Lampard as manager. Now, the Warm-Up had assumed that since this was Everton, Lampard got the job because he ticked all the usual Everton boxes: he was famous and expensive and available. But no! Such cynicism! Lampard was, according to Moshiri, "the outstanding candidate at the end of a robust and clearly defined process, demonstrating an ability to marry his technical skills with passion, intelligence, humility and in alignment with the values of our Club."
Capital letter on "Club". That's the good stuff.
This robust process was in place, says Moshiri, thanks to a strategic review carried out midway through last season, which led to all sorts of exciting conclusions about why Everton have been a total mess. Lampard is one outcome, along with various other recent appointments. The impending arrival of James Tarkowski is perhaps the first sign of this in the transfer market. And so Everton fans can relax! It's all been sorted, and you've an open letter to prove it. The rest of us are just going to have to find another club to laugh at.
IN OTHER NEWS
It's one thing when the VAR comes to an odd-seeming decision about a handball. It's quite another when a player throws a water bottle at one of the officials and the great snitch in the sky doesn't notice. Still, while this is obviously bad behaviour that should not be encouraged, it was also, thanks to the excellent distance but dreadful accuracy, quite funny.
Our apologies for not paying attention, but somehow The Warm-Up hadn't noticed that Edgar Davids had joined Louis van Gaal's coaching staff. Until, all of a sudden, there they were on television, side by side at the Cardiff City Stadium. So obviously we spent the next short while looking up highlights of Ajax '95 and "football utopia".
Admittedly, Davids only played the last few minutes of this game. But details, details.
While we're on our Wales tip, here's Elis James for the Guardian on the "frenzied night of red shirts, bucket hats and steadying drink" that saw Wales qualify for their first World Cup in a generation.
"As the full-time whistle blew during our scruffy 1-0 win over Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, the older man behind me was weeping at the prospect of watching Wales in the quarter-final of a major championship. … I asked if he remembered Wales reaching the quarter- finals of our only World Cup appearance in 1958. 'No,' he replied. 'I was three.' It’s hard to cling on to sporting history when even the old people you know are too young to remember it."
Fun fact: despite the postponement of the game against Ukraine, this is actually the first time that Wales have qualified in normal fashion. They picked up their spot in the 1958 World Cup having already been eliminated, after Belgium decided that participating in a special play-off was beneath their dignity. Which is not to diminish the achievements of John Charles and company; merely to note that whenever you find yourself, football is always weird.
The Nations League just keeps on rolling. Greece vs. Cyprus! Norway vs. Slovenia! Portugal vs. Czech Republic! Switzerland vs. Spain! One day, soon, these footballers will be permitted to rest. One day. But not today.
And it'll be Andi Thomas again tomorrow, though he'll have to work a lot harder to get Wales into everything.
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