FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES

Good Old Carabao Just Like Mother Used To Make

Sometimes it's nice to watch a football match and learn things. And sometimes, it's nice to sit back and watch a game, and be reassured that everything you knew, that you thought you knew, was correct. So went Liverpool's win over Arsenal, which confirmed that Arsenal pick up some monumentally daft red cards, Arsenal need a striker, Diogo Jota is very good, and Trent Alexander-Arnold is absolutely sensational.
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And you knew all that already! Aren't you clever?
Let's go in reverse order. It seems pretty clear by this point that Alexander-Arnold is the best crosser of the ball the Premier League has had since David Beckham. Mere mortals stick their crosses into the corridor of uncertainty and hope for the best. Alexander-Arnold, a fancy architect, creates vast oak-panelled hallways of panic draped with velvet curtains of dread, that end in sweeping marble staircases of mortal terror. Also that often end in goals.
And Liverpool's second goal was, in the delivery, pure unadulterated Beckham. The trajectory, the fade, the deceptive pace of the thing; the way the ball first sucked the defenders in and then made them look very silly.
It's a bit played out to bring up England at this point, so we beg your indulgence. In part, that's because we all know why Gareth Southgate doesn't pick him: England's manager has a system, and that system doesn't need its full-backs to do what Alexander-Arnold does. Such is the prerogative of the national team manager.
But we're probably at (or well past) the point where we need to wonder if this tactical preference is wasting one of England's most potent attacking weapons. If a system that doesn't have a place for Alexander-Arnold is necessarily worse than one that does. The motivations are very different from those weird days when England's managers kept overlooking England's maverick playmakers, but the effect is a similar one: an England team that could have something very, very exciting going on, and just doesn't.
Since we're going overboard with comparisons between this Liverpool team and great players from the 90s, let's consider Diogo Jota set against Pippo Inzaghi. He's not got the relentless commitment to offside, nor the knack of celebrating every goal like it's the winner in the World Cup final, but they both come from that glorious lineage of strikers that make very good goals look very scruffy.
All angles, all pokes, all contacts that look like mishits until they roll, slowly and precisely, into the one spot nobody is covering. We praise elegant players because they make the simple look beautiful and the complicated look easy; similarly, we enjoy the scruffy players because they make the simple and the difficult look all the same kind of peculiar. Like they kicked the ball and sneezed at the same time, but on purpose, and to great effect.
How Arsenal must gaze with envy at Liverpool's forward options. Jota isn't even a guaranteed starter when everybody's fit, while Arsenal have to pick between the fading memory of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the fading memory of Alexander Lacazette. With the former undergoing medical checks it was the latter's turn to underwhelm, and underwhelm he did, and the pressure to buy somebody — anybody! — rose by another tick.
You have to feel a little sorry for Arsenal's acquisitions team. On the one hand they need to get this striker purchase absolutely right: it's going to be expensive, because strikers are expensive and good strikers even more so, and getting it wrong would be a disaster. But on the other hand they absolutely need to get it sorted yesterday, if not a couple of weeks ago, because currently there is nothing at all up front.
Lacazette had two sights of goal yesterday. One was a free-kick, well saved. The other went hard and high into the crowd, and then, having missed the frame of the goal completely, he received the ultimate insult. The referee looked at the striker, and looked at the weird and terrible shot that disappeared in the wrong direction for no apparent reason, and thought "Yeah, that checks out. Goal kick." Not even a sympathy corner.
Arsenal's other pressing need is a midfield — little tactics joke for you there — although that's not just a question of recruitment. Having been without Granit Xhaka for this game due to a daft red card, they will be without Thomas Partey for the next because of, yep, a daft red card. Though honestly, we have nothing but sympathy for the lad. You ask us to do anything complicated the same day we get off a plane, and we'll kick somebody and go home early as well.

Leave The Trophy By The Door, Lads

When it comes to international tournaments, there is something wonderfully freeing about an early exit for the defending champions. Whatever happens from that point on, you know it will be something different. Something new. So that'll be some consolation for the shellshocked players, coaches and supporters of Algeria, right? Right?!
No, no, probably not. Having failed to beat or even score against Sierra Leone or Equatorial Guinea, beating a stacked Ivory Coast looked highly unlikely. And yet they still managed to disappoint: this wasn't just a defeat but an outclassing, in skill and commitment, body and brain. And the Ivory Coast's second goal, in which Algeria somehow managed to switch off at a set piece despite having a man advantage, neatly summed up the whole misadventure. They'll need to borrow the word "Abysmal" once the Ghanaians have finished with it.
Of course, even Algeria in form and in tune might have struggled to keep up with the Ivorians. This was a game they likely didn't even need to win, and yet they tore into it, as though they were trying to take control of the whole tournament. As though they could take the belt by boxing rules. They were one of the favourites before it started; they might be clear favourites now.
What do we want from a group stage? Three things: a couple of big names crashing out, some underdogs charging through into the knockouts, and more than one of the pre-tournament favourites looking in the mood to go deep, in style. So thanks to Algeria and Ghana for taking care of the first part, and Comoros for headlining the second. And we note with interest that Nigeria and the Ivory Coast won't meet until, potentially, the final. So far, so perfect AFCON.

IN THE CHANNELS

Best Dan Brown hats on, kids, it's time for a treasure hunt. Fiorentina, those mysterious violet scamps, are up to something. Look at this tantalising video, which appeared on their socials a few days ago. Ominous music. Ominous lighting. Normal shirt, normal shirt, normal shirt… what's that? Hmmm.
Then, a day or so later, came this. Who is this mysterious Lorenzo? Why is their music so portentous? There's no number 26 on Fiorentina's squad list. What on earth could be going on?
Oh, it's a mascot.
Oh come on.
Given that Fiorentina's owner Rocco Commisso seems to be locked in a permanent argument with everybody else in the world, we're not ruling out the possibility that he's in that lion suit. Or that he's going to have a fight with it. Either way, we'd like to formally register our disappointment at the lack of respect for civic history on display. Lions are boring. Fiorentina's mascot should be a seven foot tall cricket.

COMING UP

It's a rest day at AFCON, so you'll have to amuse yourselves with Norwich against Watford. The first relegation six-pointer of the season? We're saying yes. Over in Spain, Real Betis will be trying to keep their Champions League push going when they visit Espanyol.
Have a good weekend, everybody. Tom Adams will be— wait, who let that giant lion in here. Help! Help! Aaaaaargh!
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