THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Liquid Nations League

What a strange thing football is. Take a simple international friendly. Now tweak the rules so that the two teams will generally be of a similar standard. Now tweak the rules again to add a bit of knockout peril. Then stick a polished silver thing at the end of it. And all of a sudden you've got the San Siro giving Il Canto degli Italiani the full treatment.
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Football administrators get a lot of stick, and most of it is deserved. But every now and then, in between all the nonsense, somebody gets something incredibly right. The Nations League. It's good.
So were Spain. This wasn't Luis Enrique's strongest eleven — you could tell by the presence of 17-year-old Gavi in midfield, yet to play 90 minutes for either Barcelona or Barcelona B — but this performance had the sharp edge that sometimes goes missing in amongst all that possession. Mikel Oyarzabal, out on the left, crossed like the mirror universe David Beckham. Ferran Torres looked like Manchester City's best no.9.
Players missing, teenagers covering: Spain weren't perfect, but they were fantastic. Fantastic in a way that promises more to come, with a terrifyingly talented core of young players to build around. Along with Gavi, Yeremi Pino (18) made his debut, Bryan Gil (20) came on late, and Pedri and Ansu Fati (both 18) were absent due to general knackeredness.
Incidentally, it must be galling, up in the Barcelona boardroom. Former player and manager Pep Guardiola hoovering up trophies in Manchester, former player and manager Luis Enrique slowly but surely working Spain into something very exciting indeed… and neither of them would return to the Camp Nou even if Barcelona could afford them. Which they can't.
As for Italy, it was all a bit weird. In flashes they looked like the team that won the Euros: chaos and pace and barrelling breaks through the lines. But their hard edge turned brittle, led from the front by captain Leonardo Bonucci. We don't have our Big Book of Captaincy to hand, but from memory it's pretty clear: don't get booked for dissent in the first half. And if you do, don't then elbow somebody in the neck.

"Italy's streak was meant to end" Luis Enrique after Spain victory

These things happen. Maybe minds were scrambled by the weirdness of the Milan crowd, bellowing out the anthem one minute and booing their own goalkeeper the next. Or maybe the line between admirable cynicism and getting caught is a thin one and everybody falls over it in the end. Even Bonucci.
It takes two to semi-final. Between this game, which was great and intense and emotional in all the ways international football should be, and the Euros semi-final, which was also that, we have a genuine international rivalry bubbling up. Now the responsibility passes to whoever FIFA wheel out for the 2022 World Cup draw. Another chapter of this, another semi-final, please and thank you.

It's Hard To Defend With Your Foot In A Bucket

On Tuesday, European champions Barcelona Femení began their title defence in smooth and ominous fashion, dismantling Arsenal 4-1 at the Johan Cruyff Stadium. Last night, in west London, last season's defeated finalists Chelsea rejected smoothness in favour of unbridled chaos.
First they took the lead over Wolfsburg. Then they defended like clowns. Like clowns that had never met before. Like clowns that had never met before but had taken an instant dislike to one another, all jammed up in that silly little car, giant shoes sticking everywhere. Who squeezed my squirty flower? Get your hands off my ladder. And then they grabbed a 3-3 draw right at the death.
Football: it's fun! Football: it's hard. Chelsea's defence has been wobbly all season. Emma Hayes has introduced with a 3-4-3, though as she pointed out after the game last night, the goals weren't problems of shape so much as inexplicable brainfades.
They aren’t tactical problems, they are just errors, all three goals. We shouldn’t have to score three goals every game. But it’s a point gained.
Goalkeeper and defender coming for the same bouncing ball and tackling each other. Goalkeeper passing to their most closely marked teammate. Defender trying a clever turn and just passing the ball on to an attacker. One of these in a game would be unusual. Three starts to look like some kind of cosmic event.
And cosmic events are rare, right? So Chelsea won't ever have to worry about this happening again, and can proceed through the season without fear. Well, maybe. But errors breed errors, uncertainty breeds uncertainty. Clownishness begets clownishness. And a point gained here means two points dropped, which means Chelsea may need to get something on their travels to Juventus. If they are getting back to the final, it's going to be a bumpy ride. In a tiny car.

Here We Go Then

And so, to turn our attention from last night to this bright new shiny Thursday, there's only one story on everybody's minds. Will France really pick a back three in a big game? Again?
Oh okay, fine, it's Newcastle. Today could well be the first day in more than 14 long and tragicomic years that Newcastle United is not the property of Mike Ashley. If not today, maybe tomorrow; if not that, then soon. Whenever it comes, it will be a day of celebration for plenty in the city and beyond. If only the careless and contemptuous frying pan wasn't hovering over the morally despicable fire.
It has been clarifying, this latest development. Of all the reasons that anybody might have to object to the takeover of Newcastle by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, the important one — the sticking point — was the country's ban on beIN Sports. Television Rights 1-0 Human Rights.
We all knew that, of course, but it's useful to have it spelled out so clearly, so bluntly. This is what fit and proper means. And nothing else.

IN OTHER NEWS

[looks up, wags tail, makes ball shape with front paws]

HAT TIP (1)

Here's James Montague for the Athletic (£) with a piece first published last May, digging into why exactly Saudi Arabia is buying Newcastle United, and speaking to Hatice Cengiz, the widowed fiancée of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Since the murder, many companies and countries don’t want to partner or do business because of the backlash. [Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman] wants legitimacy and credibility. Buying a team like Newcastle in the Premier League, in one of the most powerful countries in Europe and the world? You buy legitimacy in the international community. He’s accepted and celebrated for rescuing a struggling team. Everyone then sees everything in a different light.

HAT TIP (2)

To balance out that bleakness a little, here's Paul Buller for When Saturday Comes (via the Guardian), on the awkward business of filming lower league games.
At an ageing stadium I might have to climb a rusty ladder that is planted directly between spectator seats and removed 45 minutes before the match starts, leaving me no way of getting down. Many gantries of a particular age are covered in rust and bounce and sway disconcertingly, making it almost impossible to move while you’re filming.

COMING UP

The two most temperamentally distinct managers in world football meet in the second Nations League semi-final, as Roberto Martinez and Belgium face off against Didier Deschamps and France. Comedy vs. Tragedy. Tigger vs. Eeyore. The irrepressible force against the sorrowful object.
And some joker named Andi Thomas (team Eeyore, obviously) will be here tomorrow.
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