WEDNESDAY’S BIG STORIES

REVENGE OF THE BIG DOGS

In the aftermath of Italy’s 1-0 defeat to North Macedonia in Palermo last week, the scene resembled a Renaissance painting of a lost battle.
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The vanquished lay stretched out on the grass, a distraught Marco Verratti buried his head in his hands, Giorgio Chiellini stood staring into the middle distance while Roberto Mancini, like a defiant, wounded general, could only turn his face away.
For that kind of overblown melodrama and navel-gazing on a national scale, it’s hard to beat an upset in a World Cup qualifier.
Given that they shocked Germany last year and made it to Euro 2020 – albeit losing all three of their group games – maybe North Macedonia’s underdog status was a little overstated.
They couldn’t repeat the trick in Porto, unfortunately, with two goals from Bruno Fernandes allowing Portugal (in a big game, no less!) to take revenge on behalf of European football’s established order.
Nonetheless, Blagoja Milevski’s side gave us a timely reminder that there’s still jeopardy in international football and that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it’s unbelievable entertainment when the most storied teams fail to make it to major tournaments. We may not have got to see Cristiano Ronaldo turn on the water works, but Verratti’s tears will have to do.

SHOCK AND AURIER

This may have been his first red card with Ivory Coast, but somehow the words “totally needless sending off in an international friendly” seem tailor-made for Serge Aurier.
Truly the master of self-sabotage during his time at Tottenham, he was denied a reunion with former team-mates Harry Kane and Kyle Walker-Peters on account of the fact that he had trudged down the tunnel long before they came on as second-half substitutes.
While it feels like an unspoken rule of refereeing that red cards should be reserved for only the most heinous crimes in friendlies, Aurier arguing himself into a second booking while captaining his national team has to go down as a career highlight of sorts.
Speaking afterwards, Jack Grealish was characteristically baffled. “I said to the ref: ‘Come on, let him stay on.’ But once he’d shown him the second yellow he wasn’t going to go back on it.”

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I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES

Given that top-level football has the capacity to reduce even the sunniest, most optimistic individual into a state of dark despair, hopeless misanthropy and twisted, bitter cynicism, Christian Eriksen’s comeback stands out as one of the few genuinely joyful things going on in the game at the moment.
From the stunned silence and sick feeling that settled on football fans worldwide in the moments after he collapsed at Euro 2020, to following fitful updates on his condition in the hours that followed, to the outpouring of relief when it became clear that he was no longer in immediate danger, that day last June felt like a fever dream and, for a while, it was difficult to come to terms with the idea that it had really happened.
Eriksen has said that being able to return to the pitch nine months on has felt like a miracle and, to see him not only playing for Denmark again but scoring in consecutive games for his country, few would disagree.

RETRO CORNER

While it was a pleasure to have Kolo Toure on punditry duties for the England game – the twinkle in his eye undiminished by having to sit through what was, let’s face it, an objectively miserable evening for those supporting Ivory Coast – it was hard not to raise an eyebrow at his assessment of Aurier’s red card.
“As a captain, you have to try to control yourself a bit more,” he said cheerfully, before the sound of his glass house shattering under a hail of stones prompted him to add: “I know it’s very difficult, I’ve been in that kind of situation.” Bear in mind this is a man who, according to Ray Parlour, two-footed Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Arsene Wenger on his trial with Arsenal in 2002. When it comes to beautiful chaos on a football pitch, Toure was the original and best.

HAT-TIP

Of all of football’s so-called dark arts, time-wasting has to be up there with the most reviled. While most fans can forgive, or at least rationalise, a horrendous raking challenge down the shin, or a no-look elbow to the eye socket which leaves an unsuspecting victim clutching at their face like PJ from Byker Grove after a spot of illicit paintballing, a goalkeeper taking slightly too long over a goal kick is likely to send even the most mild-mannered spectator into a fit of violent rage.
That’s exactly why The Athletic’s piece on Huddersfield Town goalkeeper Lee Nicholls, who has a season-high number of yellow cards for deliberate dawdling, is so enjoyable. Readers can expect significantly heightened blood pressure by the end, while Nicholls can revel in the opprobrium safe in the knowledge that his leisurely approach to even the most basic tasks when Huddersfield are ahead has, in its own small way, helped Carlos Corberan’s side to establish themselves in the Championship play-off places.

COMING UP

As the international break draws to a close and the players who represent the likes of your Englands, your Scotlands, your Waleses, your Northern Irelands and your Republic of Irelands – not to forget the smaller nations, like your Liechtensteins, your Andorras and your Faroe Islands(es?) – shake hands and disperse back to their various clubs, attention turns to the Women’s Champions League quarter-finals.
Barcelona take on Real Madrid tonight at Camp Nou, taking a 3-1 aggregate advantage into the game from the first leg, while PSG hold a 2-1 lead over Bayern Munich ahead of their meeting at the Parc des Princes.
On Thursday evening, Wolfsburg host Arsenal, having thrashed out an entertaining 1-1 draw at the Emirates last week, while Lyon trail Juventus 2-1 ahead of their decider at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais.
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