THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Liverpool Take Charge

37 down, one to go… and right at the last moment, the Premier League top four becomes a Big Six party.
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Nothing's decided yet, of course. Crystal Palace are the guests at Anfield on the final day of the season, and Roy Hodgson is something of an expert at derailing Liverpool seasons. And failing that, Leicester simply have to outscore Liverpool by four goals. Perhaps Sergio Reguilón will carry on his fine goalscoring form.
Still, Liverpool and Chelsea are probably favourites to hold what they have. We can leave the debate over whether it's better to win a trophy or finish in the top four until later (spoiler: it's definitely the trophy). For now, it's time to appreciate the unlikely hero that may have saved Liverpool's season. Well, not quite saved. This is still one of the worst title defences in recent memory. But it could have been a whole lot worse, had it not been for Nat Phillips.
Now, you may say that Phillips is a poor replacement for Virgil Van Dijk. And you'd be right, but then that's true of everyone. And you might also say that there's more to being a central defender than being really good at really big headers. And that's probably true as well.
But there are times when a big lad doing big headers is precisely what a team needs. Such a player doesn't just protect the goal: they the lift the spirit. And last night against Burnley — the natural stage for a big lad with big headers — Phillips added goalscoring to his repertoire. Naturally, he put his first chance over the bar. It fell to his foot, and he cleared it. But the second chance landed on his head and he nutted it home.
Fourth place isn't a trophy but it is, for six of the teams in the Premier League, the bare minimum. Leicester are still in with a shout of breaking that hegemony, which shows that they've had an excellent league season, whatever happens on Sunday. And Nat Phillips late-season flourishing shows that even the superclubs need an unlikely cult hero from time to time.

Panic Stations

Been a good week for out of favour veterans. Karim Benzema is back in the France squad — more on that below — and now Muller and Hummels back in Germany squad for Euro 2020.
One of the running themes of this tournament is going to be this extra year. Every 2021 squad is going to be different from the 2020 version that we never got to see, and not just three players bigger. Every coach has had another year to think, to plan, to second, third and maybe even fourth-guess themselves.
And, in Jogi Löw's case, to panic about how his big renewal project is going. We're guessing there's a direct line between Germany's 6-0 thrashing against Spain last November, and this decision to welcome back Hummels. International football moves in cycles, and a balance must be found between the long term and the short. In the depths of winter, with the tournament years away, it's time to plan for the future. Come spring and the early notes of summer, it's time to mash that big red button marked "Veteran defender with 70 caps and a World Cup winner's medal".
Of course, the other theme of this tournament is going to be the state of the players. The absolute state of the players. Everybody's knackered; everybody's been knackered for months. And perhaps it's this context in which these returning veterans make the most sense. If this is going to be a tournament played at 75% pace, by sides thrown together amidst the sound of twanging hamstrings, then having a few wiser, older heads around seems a decent plan. For comfort, if nothing else.

Baaaaaaarcelona

Been a terrible season for Barcelona, narrative-wise. The title is going to be won either by Real Madrid, which would obviously be annoying, or by Atlético Madrid, inspired in large part by a striker they let go for almost nothing. Over in the Champions League, they got knocked out by PSG, who didn't even need the striker Barcelona let go for a small fortune.
But still, it was always going to be a transitional season. What matters is that Barcelona have begun the process of renewing themselves. Bringing through a new generation of kids, establishing a platform for next season, working on— wait, what's that, current Barcelona president Joan Laporta?
From my point of view, you'll see that a lot of decisions have to be made, starting next week. We'll comment on them then. … When I say that this is the end of a cycle, it's because that's what I think is necessary."
Oh. Right then. Another summer of chaos it is, then. This announcement comes along with the news that Barcelona have secured a €500 million loan from Goldman Sachs, and consolidated all their debts into one easy to manage package. Well, some of their debts. Well, less than half of their debts.
But that's not the point. The point is, Barcelona are now in a position to spend very large money on a very large signing. And that is what super clubs are for. That is their role in the footballing ecosystem. That is how Barcelona presidents stay Barcelona presidents. Let's get ahead of the game here, and congratulate [insert name of Euro 2020 top scorer] on his dream move.

IN OTHER NEWS

As if his excellent season wasn't enough, here's Luke Shaw stepping up to help a Manchester United fan accused of throwing a… hang on, scarf? You could have somebody's eye out with that. Get him chucked in prison immediately.

RETRO CORNER

As we get ready to bid a fond farewell to Roy Hodgson, let's start with Fulham's run to the 2010 Europa League final. Which, as a collection of words, has only gotten weirder over the years. "Fulham's run to the Europa League final". Nope. Still strange.

HAT TIP

Over at the Guardian, Adam White and Eric Devin take a look at Didier Deschamps' decision to bring Karim Benzema back into the international fold. What could possibly go wrong?
France are world champions and were the width of a post away from winning Euro 2016. Benzema was absent from both tournaments after the infamous Mathieu Valbuena "sex-tape" scandal engulfed the squad, further accentuating divisions among players. His return amounts to a stunning admission — that Deschamps and France need Benzema. And, perhaps more flabbergasting still, that Deschamps is willing to risk his camp’s togetherness despite its success so far.

COMING UP

Couple of playoff first legs tonight. Tranmere Rovers take on Morecambe in the attempt to get out of League Two, and Dundee face Kilmarnock for the right to take up a place in the Scottish Premiership.
Tom Adams will be here with tomorrow's Warm-Up, and you can't afford him, Barcelona, so don't even think about it.
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