My life’s the disease.

Friday 14th December. From a caff in a retail park. Enough.

Mourinho moaning at a presser. God what a yawn! His joylessness, his deathly narcissism. That ever-present, insulting hostility.

He’s been magnificent, of course – back then. When his energy felt irresistible and young. When his players loved him. When he really was a coach and mentor supreme.

Now he just moans. At an ungrateful universe, at fans, at the media. His contempt for everyone, for their lack of appreciation, is extraordinary. It swirls around him – around those pressers – like a virus. More than anything else, these days, it defines him.

It’s a given that contemporary journo’s are pretty much unable to ask Proper Questions of our elite managers but Mourinho’s brutishness marks a depressing low, on this. He’s out to bully all of us – those who dissent, those who query, those who recognise his tapering, diminishing powers. It’s both fascinatingly pathological and appalling.

Once he had a real, positive presence. He could motivate, in those critical, private moments; pitchside at the training-ground; pre-match. He was coruscating and undeniable – the most proactive coach on the planet. Scorching and soaring; at half-time, re-invigorating, re-ordering if need be.

Now the sense is of something – someone – utterly uncoupled from the will and the heft of those days: a man cruelly, manifestly unable to shape outcomes. Yes, he’ll make those subs; yes he’ll mull darkly and tinker… but nobody’s listening. Or worse – nobody believes. United are drifting and flailing and falling in front of the world.

Distantly, some bathos.

It may be that Jose always secretly wanted to lead United; there may be a touch of melancholy around that? He knew, he felt the weight of all that history.

What if he got to them eight years or so, ago? When he was a great. When the club were ripe for another round of their trademark, lungbursting, emoting glory. When he could have shaped it.

Now, he just can’t. Look at Rashford. Look at Pogba. Look at Mata. Lost, in their different ways. Painfully short. Crying out for skilled, sensitive, inspirational man-management. Lost.

We’re drawn into something inescapably moral, here: riled, provoked. Because United-era Mourinho makes many of us strike out towards something freer, better, more generous. (He’s a symbol, after all). You don’t have to be old-school to want football to break out – philosophically and in practice.

Who cares if we sound like romantic old fools? Imagine Rashford under Redknapp, or Klopp, or anyone with the heart, the soul, the essence, the interests of football coursing through their veins. Imagine being unwilling or unable to unweight that fabulous bundle of talent!

Mourinho appears to be both – appears both reluctant and professionally incapable, now, of both. If things were different, we might be sorry for him. But no. His loss – that descent into irrelevance, impotence – feels directly related to his own, sullen withdrawal. In a cruel universe, Jose is suddenly deservedly feeble.

The coach can’t play but he – she – builds the environment,   makes the whole bigger and the individual better. Mourinho’s blunted bravado kids no more: he’s a coach who can’t or doesn’t want to coach, preferring instead to count down the days to salvation – to the next ‘window’.

Things are brutal. United are beyond flawed, beyond what is acceptable. It’s gone.

The manager may get yet another major job – who knows? But this club (and arguably football) don’t need him; not anymore. He should have gone some time ago.

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Strange ghosts.

Juventus United; as big as they get?

Yes and no. Yes Juve have a certain megastar and some authentic *players* but United, United are strange, or estranged, or something. There’s a consensus – remarkably, perhaps – that this team has some quality (of course) but few of the qualities we might associate with proper Red Devils.

Go through the side and see how many settle into the kind of glorious-amorphous, universal United of the Ages. Or even the Plainly Fit to Wear the Shirt Eleven.

De Gea, certainly, Pogba potentially. Otherwise, I like the case for Mata as the kind of player United should pick and – strangely? – Luke Shaw for his ambition, his vital surges.

Beyond that, who? Rashford and Lingard plainly not yet. Martial? Good currently but not for me. Young, almost, but like Valencia, more a committed Pro than a truly high-level player. Matic a tremendous foil to theoretically enable the full-on rampant unleashingment of a brilliant attacking midfielder – but merely  a goodish international water-carrier, in himself.

More than this lack of quality, United lack direction, sustained energy – lack soul.

This feels like a betrayal and is understood that way by many – inside and out of the club support. The manager’s Trumpian darknesses – utter self-obsession, cynicism – have robbed the Mighty Reds of their romance and, frankly, much of their enduring appeal.

That Mourinho doesn’t, when it comes to it, give a toss about energy and style, is self-evident. That he really is past his sell-by-date, as well as past the moment where he deserves our respect, may be more a matter of opinion – but one I am untroubled by sharing. His team have sunk generally into the muddle of dourness and bad faith – or faithlessness – characteristic, apparently of the man. They are not United.

So this enormous occasion is strangely haunted, before we start, rather than brimful of evocation and memory.

Bung on the telly, half seven. Maybe half-hoping to see Roy Keane or Giggs or something which might light up that hope, that symbol, that reflex. Something lungbursty or flying-forwardy.

Nope. It may come, I suppose but BT, ludicrously, have Rio, Scholesy and Hargreaves on the settee; i.e wall-to-wall Proper United Blokes talking *realistic* shop. United ‘aren’t seeing the pictures’. There’s ‘no pattern’. We’re counting down to Juve v MU and it’s sounding quite dispiriting. Understandably.

Then The Mourinho Tunnel Interview. He’s not actually hostile on this occasion – merely typically ungiving. Hey but things could happen. Let’s watch.

De Gea’s birthday. 28. Won’t be here for his 29th, you’d think. Mata and Fred dropped, Lingard back, Herrera starts.

Moral victory for United as Szczesny flares a shockingly nervy strike out, about ten yards up the park. Pogba may be playing an advanced, central midfield role.

Lingard breaks out but the counter fizzles out. Cuadrado – right up there, for me as an over-rated player – gifts the ball to United in midfield but again no joy. However, after ten minutes, the visitors are looking decent.

First whiff of a chance falls to Juve, as Betancur is allowed a yard or two in the box – the shot deflected wide. Juventus now have a period of possession and some thrust, high up the pitch. Notable that the arch-stopper Bonucci ventures deep into the United box in open play.

United have predictably gone with Matic and Herrera central and deepish; 18 minutes gone and it’s working. The team shape seems good: Pogba freer. Positive energy around the pitch.

Dybala creates some minor fluttering at the heart of the United defence, following a beautiful first touch. In the aftermath Chiellini clunks Sanchez to offer the respite of a free-kick, thirty yards in front of De Gea. It’s alarm-less, in a good way, for MU.

I’m just thinking United look like a stronger side than they have done for months – a quality side – but then Matic swings a shockingly lazy pass to nobody, whilst trying to be the Cool Maestro in midfield. Embarrassing and possibly revealing in the moment, but no damage done.

Mourinho (if he does thrilled) will be quietly thrilled, on the half-hour. 0-0.

Out of nothing, Cuadrado beats Shaw too easily and his shot – deflected across Matic – is pawed into the six yard box by De Gea. Cleared.

First really poor moment from United follows. Smalling and Lindelof go missing as Khedira has time to turn and manufacture something, twelve yards out. His shot is scuffed, weakish, against the outside of the right-hand post. An escape – the first.

38 minutes. United beat away a series of corners and medium-threatening attacks. Dybala a central influence for Juve; Ronaldo peripheral, as is Pogba. (In fact Ronaldo is positive but peripheral, whereas Pogba is poor and the same. A concern).

As is the ease with which a further cross comes in from Shaw’s left flank. The young defender a tad befuddled, this time by some typically extravagant trickery from Ronaldo. Must apply himself – will get an earful during the break, I suspect.

The half closes with a corner for Juve, who have latterly been on top, without really opening up the opposition. The ball curls in but two clearing headers bring relief and the whistle.

Still no score; a good but not sparkling performance from Mourinho’s side. He will want more of that effective defensive shape, plus more involvement and more effect from the attacking midfielders in particular, second half. Juve are clearly strong but have not looked yaknow, *immortal*.

Dybala (not Ronaldo) looks to be their star. Early after the break he finds space in the box before arcing, turning and  swirling a shot. De Gea has no chance. It doinks against the top of the bar. It’s both a) the night’s finest moment so far b) the harbinger of a barrage from the United bench, aimed (I think) at Lindelof. Criminal to be ‘on it’ all over the field then sloppy in your own box.

58 minutes. The first sequence of play (or ‘plays’) for United for some time. Lingard and Martial involved – after a period of drift. Matic again flips a weird, lazy pass wide to no-one. No chance is fashioned but good.

Juve respond, Ronaldo curling in a cross from the left which Shaws attacks courageously before Cuadrado can strike.

Wow. A stunner. Bonucci drives an innocous but decently-weighted ball beyond United’s defenders. Ronaldo reads the path of the ball as it drops from over his shoulder. He volleys it, majestically, past the keeper. It’s godlike.

Drawing breath (and watching the re-run) we can certainly criticise the United defence – it was too easy. But bollocks to that. It was magnificent, it was Roy-of-the-Rocers, it was Top, Top Level.

Within two minutes the score might be two, as United shake off the shock unconvincingly. Juve, you sense, might blow most teams away after that; why would United be any different?

Sure enough, Ronaldo puts one on a plate for Cuadrado… who hoiks over from ten yards, max. It’s opened up and there is real danger, here: Lindelof not alone now, looking lost in space.

Rashford is in for Lingard. There looks no way back, for Mourinho’s men, despite an improved performance. Mata and Fellaini on – somehow the reds need to get from likely losers to unlikely winners. A second for Juve seems more likely.

It really does… but United hang in there… and Mata curls in a beauty to make it 1-1!

Ridiculous, but resulting from some sharp, skilful play by Martial, who had played wall pass ping-pong to create the opportunity.

88 minutes and Young lifts and curls another free-kick from out wide on the left. The keeper flaps, Bonucci fumbles and the ball is in the home net again. Unreal.

Gets more so. Two minutes later and Rashford is absolutely in but blazes against the keeper. Poor miss, in truth.

Doesn’t matter. As the ‘surefire cruise’ to a Juventus victory from woah, fifteen minutes ago doesn’t matter. United have only gone and won it.

Almost hilariously (but not quite) Mourinho stokes the anger of the home crowd, provocatively posturing on the pitch. Predictable perhaps, that even this fabulous finale is not simply a moment for joy for him – that it needs to be about him.

He will and should take some credit, mind. Despite a ver-ry mixed performance from Pogba and lightweight or perhaps more exactly uninfluential contributions from the likes of Lingard and Sanchez, United scored a famous and important win, built on good team shape and application.

They were competitive, they defended well as a team and when United’s central defenders were exposed, they scurried around and recovered. Juve deserved to be 2-up after about 75 minutes but United pegged them back: then they nicked it.

As a purist and sucker for that romance we talked of earlier, I’m chuffed for Mata. His free-kick was a waving of the wand, a delight. He can do this *from nowhere* – he can twinkle. ‘Course he can; he’s United.

United.

Unscientific poll. How many of us wondered about watching United on telly but were then partly entrapped by Football Focus… and partly repelled by how poor and under-charged Mourinho’s Listless Posse were, in the first half hour, at Bournemouth?

In scooting past, let me say I really did enjoy FF: it felt engaging and bright and kinda warm; unlike United. Nice features and Alex Scott and Dion Dublin – okaaay, despite not being strikingly inventive or original, maybe – were again genuinely good company. Unlike, we may be tempted to add, United… or Mourinho.

Okay, as I write MU have replied to Bournemouth’s deserved but nonetheless shockingly poorly-defended strike, making it 1-1at half-time. So they’re ‘in it’. In fact they could be metaphorically buried, already, and possibly their manager too, had the entirely possible scoreline of Bournemouth 3 Manchester United 0 been realised.

The fascinatingly authentic, raw and yet intuitively smack-on pairing of Redknapp Snr and Scholesy are currently unpicking United’s performance – presumably before an irate Gary Neville bursts into the studio, wielding a meat-cleaver.

Second Half. A whiff of urgency, following (surely?) another tirade from Jose the Furious. Luke Shaw bursts forward, collecting a decent return from Martial – should score but for a slightly heavy touch. But, as both Fred (who had pitifully thrown himself, earlier, feeling hands on his back) and Mata are unceremoniously hoiked around 55 minutes, the game has utterly changed.

Logic twists around this. It’s plainly true that United are suddenly a force – meaning Mourinho’s roasting has worked. Yet it’s also self-evident that there should have been no need. Young’s fabulous, bar-rattling free-kick and Herrera’s curler, plus the general, stirring re-boot, simply should not have been necessary. Not at Manchester United. Not at any team which manifestly needs to show some affirming, nay validating grit.

So why the bore and then the bollocking?

We find ourselves – inevitably(?) – with Mourinho. What’s the quality of his work, his influence, these days? Should he stay or go?

I think he should go. His influence, from Press Room to touchline, is somewhere between sour and outright malignant. His squad is certainly dispiritingly ordinary – go look, I just did – but the bloke has had years and extravagant funding towards improving it. The Coach sets the culture and mixes the chemicals: both are currently baleful.

88 minutes done. Might I be saying something else, had either Rashford or Lingard converted reasonably straight-forward chances? Absolutely not. Rashford’s disappearing presence speaks volumes around Mourinho’s exhausted capacity to inspire… but hang on.

As I write this the lanky, recently gawky-looking number 9 – previously a thrillingly energetic and directly protagonistic ‘handful’, remember – bundles a winner. Six yards out, having chested down rather unconvincingly, Rashford converts… and charges to the corner-flag to bury himself in the love (and relief) of the fans. There is the love of ‘one of our own’ in the air.

So extraordinary. United were useless then ‘in it’ then on top: somewhat crudely or gracelessly on top. Then they won.

That this wasn’t the kind of win that great teams manufacture through temporary blips goes without saying. Mourinho’s United are joy-sappingly ordinary. For me – he goes.

 

 

The Tide Whisperer – in Tenby.

The Tide Whisperer speaks of many things. It declaims them, from atop a scaffold, a harbour wall – or it signals them from the clifftop.

Mostly, it beams them in, in between those ears, through headphones offering both a private view and a rich, collective experience.

We’re in teams. We gather in the de Valence, in Tenby, on a coolish but viable September evening, passing racks of kit and rakes of guides or staff or stewards on the way in. I’m red.

In the hall, that scaffold supports an almost-anarchic electro-sculpture, alive with scenes around the town, the water, the world. There are presences – on the stage there’s a bloke who might be a fisherman, dragging for something. There’s a woman in shadow, or grief, or both. There’s a chair… and sand… and then a sitter.

Soon enough the screens will break through the chatter and the scaffold will host an entry, a monologue, a man opening the themes. Refuge; flux; the search for harbour. Then urgency, bombs, carnage: we’re driven out, in our teams, to the sea.

There’s a kind of prose-poem playing between those ears, an evocation of things remembered, things left. The ‘Tudor Streets’ walk with us, with the 30 or 40 reds as we carry that context with us to the beach. I wonder if we might have left our shoes and socks, as we traipse across that sand, past the golden cockle-women and the strewn chairs, to the waiting boat.

The sea, then. Central and essential to the piece. We join it for an hour, maybe, in transit or stalled, circling or encircled, at the mercy of – who knows? Pirates? Police? The evil whim of an indifferent or hostile world?

Two stories. That tragic woman – one of the Boat People – and a young, male Russian(?) who transgressed into loving another. Danger and escape, or not.

Sometimes we sit, ‘pointlessly’. Sometimes we ‘make good progress’ through the chop. Always the invitation – the compulsion – to listen and to feel the stories trawl through us. The headphones make us victims; there can be no distraction, no interaction; we can only immerse, not escape.

Ashore, that man from the scaffold is back, in the bandstand. He is Welsh, he is Corbyn-like, he is a refugee: he was Mayor!

We march on, down, again, inevitably, to the auditorium of the harbour, cobbles becoming sand once more. The three central characters and the swaying cockle-choir and the backdrop of the town await: a staging, a denouement between our ears. My friend Jane wept, almost uncontrollably.

So *things I liked*. The whole, the experience, the physical elements – from walkabout to water, to the inescapable word. (Different groups did different things: I’m glad we were mostly on that sea, in our coats, inside our headphones). Impossible not to be affected – subtly or profoundly – by the leaving, the returning, the rise and fall.

Personally though, I am left with a sense that maybe I/we might have been challenged more. Despite the scope of the piece – and the budget – this was traditional community theatre. (I know, I know – community theatre can be wonderful and revelatory, stay with me!)

The stack of tellys was okay but hardly original. I didn’t need the Guernica reference. I felt the character Pearl didn’t need that name. My comfort, in the face of these atrocities, remained relatively un-shredded. This could, of course be my own inadequacy but there’s an argument Tide Whisperer might have screamed or torn at us some more.

The Man Who Missed That Pen.

I will be updating this post live. Foolishly. Ghoulishly, perhaps.

 

Call it pre-match nerves but I feel a preamble coming on. No – worse. A pre-ramble.

I think it’s a fact that most of us with any interest in Ingerland were a little disappointed when Southgate was appointed; we feared that traditional lack of bite, spark, genius amongst England Managers would go on. Simple. The bloke’s another Fairly Bland One, reassuringly measured, non-controversial, after the boorish moron Allardyce. That’s what we thought.

Today at fourish, interviewed by the accomplished Gabby nee Yorath of the Beeb, he again piled up the evidence of our chronic underestimation. Not just eloquent but witty. Not just calm and responsible and shrewd but streetwise and persuasive. Clever but humble in a particularly good way.

I still harbour concerns but in the rough and tumble of things – if, specifically Colombia duff up his Young Lions later – I will be writing to my MP to express furious injustice and note to the universe that ‘Southgate has holistically transformed the way of things around the national team: that indeed may be his signal achievement, whatever happens, results-wise’.

England, under Southgate’s direction, are simply way more intelligent. Or are they?

In the sense that Southgate is palpably operating at a high level of sensitivity and awareness in respect of man-management – yes. With regard to playing style – yes (probably).

The Gaffer absolutely gets that the massaging or manouvering of egos or frailties is as central here as anywhere. By that I mean in any team the leader must understand the blend, the chemistry… but then be able to intuit (or rally, or bully) towards effective action or choice beyond.

Some people get that, some don’t. Southgate is strong in this – stronger than noisier, more obviously ‘inspirational’ managers, perhaps? Increasingly, it seems possible that his apparently quiet way is a way to create something surprisingly mercurial; players playing beyond expectation.

So a positive view really might suggest that largely because of the exercise of these soft skills (and of course essentially good tactical knowledge) the Man Who Missed That Pen has steered a refreshingly enlightened course. This doesn’t change, if England lose tonight: neither do my concerns.

Despite Southgate’s excellence, I wonder if too many of his players might feel the heat, if not literally, then via that fearful blowtorch conjured through brutally-heightened exposure and (that word again) expectation. I have been both supportive and critical of Sterling and remain concerned about his capacity to drift or disengage from Big Challenges. Let’s start with him.

I understand the guy’s a talent but would I be offering him that lynchpin/unpicker/punisher number ten role? Probably not. He’s been too anaemic too often and despite his goals for City his finishing is often dispiritingly poor. If you were twisted enough to bet on somebody ‘disappearing’ then maybe it would be him.  (I hope I’m wrong on this and if so then this will be another triumph for Southgate-as-Quiet-Wizard).

Elsewhere, Lingard’s progress feels patchy and like Rashford’s his talent appears inconsistently expressed. Hope he and his United colleague (who we imagine will start as sub, yes?) can get their incisive, threatening heads on rather than those wasteful ones.

The main threat to England, though seems likely to be from carelessness or overplaying at the back. Stones, Maguire and Walker can look fabulous and imperious but all have an error in them. With that in mind, I’ll be kindof expecting Colombia to press crazy-high and hard, early on, to try to force a clanger. If England do concede – especially through a goalkeeping or defensive howler, then that enlightened culture is going to be tested… which is as it should be, eh?

Enough, for now. It’s 17.57 so I better start my own, intensive warm-up.

18.50. Southgate on ITV, now. Cool. Emphasises ‘mental resilience’. Prob’ly read the blog? Then bloody adverts.

18.55. Glenda as Chief Pundit? Na. Get him to chip the keeper,  or hitch his shorts up… but talk? Nah.

18.58. Anthems.  An away game, then, for England.

Time for a ridiculous prediction? I think England are 4-1 better than Colombia. But that’s ridiculous!

Last thought, pre-kick-off, looking at the team. Not great quality but the blend… hmmm.

19.02. Neither team pressing really high.

19.05 Chance for England. Free-kick in danger zone, followed by threatening cross but disappointing corner.

19.08. Early signs that Lingard looking brisk and sharp. But Alli may be doing that too-cool-for-his-own-good thing. Maybe.

19.15. Great full-back’s tackle from Trippier – comprehensively robs the winger. England on top but no chances so far.

19.15. Brilliant move from England. Trippier flies round on overlap and ver-ry nearly finds Kane at the far post. Can’t get over the header.

19.20. Decent game. England dominating, as expected, Lingard and Kane going well.

19.22. First half-chance (nearly) as the ball squirts across the England box, then wide. Falcao can’t capitalise and his left-midfielder blazes ludicrously over.

Colombia into the game. England happy to drop in to a 5-3-2 or 5-4-1 out of possession.

19.28. No sign of Alli in the game. Sterling quietish, too – or unable to make anything happen.

At that, he has his first decent run… but slightly wimps out on the shot or the killer pass.

19,32. Some girlie physicals from Cuadrado, on Maguire. This would be the Cuadrado who was an embarrassing failure in the Premiership – as was his team-mate, Falcao. Falcao at least looks like he wants to be involved, tonight.

19.35. Any momentum England had… now lost.

19.38. Clumsy challenge on Kane offers the England talisman a juicy 23 yarder. Around which, there are handbags.

Henderson, rather crassly provokes some physical contact with the head from from Barrios. The Liverpool man then does a Neymar, the lead commentator talks garbage… and Trippier – not Kane – doesn’t make anything of the opportunity. The game has become feisty and scrappy.

19.40-odd. Now expecting more a tense, messy 1-0 to somebody – or maybe 2-1. Can’t be certain if Dele Alli is still carrying a knock but either way you’d be tempted to hoik him at the half and prepare Rashford for the usual Sterling swap soon after. (Interesting test for Southgate’s positivity, that). The City man’s been unconvincing – ineffectual.

After a good start for England, the game reaches the half goalless and rather ugly. Opt not to listen to the over-hyped discussion about a potential red card. Cobblers; Henderson stoked it then faked it – can’t be more than a yellow for that!

Also… didn’t enjoy Maguire – who was close to the incident and therefore will have seen Henderson’s exaggeration as well as the defender’s lack of discipline – gesturing for VAR. Bit cheap, I thought.

Second Half.

First thought; really hope England don’t chicken out and ‘play patient’, in the expectation of a late goal or extra-time. Think they’re better playing with energy – think that instinctive, hearty stuff is contagious.

20.11. Lingard again lifts the pace and offers a threat. Almost.

20.14. Nice in-curling free-kick from Young nearly offers Maguire a free header… but no.

Then; MOMENT.

20.16. Kane is pretty much shafted by his marker (Sanchez) during yet another embarrassing fracas at a corner. Ref rightly gives a pen. It takes about an hour to placate the outraged Colombians before the England skipper nervelessly clips it home.

Real danger that England could get sucked into the anarchy, here. The Colombians are frankly out of order at almost every moment, early in this period. Henderson is foolishly booked, for responding. Daft.

20.23. With the overwhelmingly pro-Colombian crowd in a fury, their players join in. Falcao is prominent in some shocking and intimidating abuse of the referee. There appears no way that the South Americans can finish the game with eleven on the park..

There is almost no football, now – just spite. The experienced Young, fouled but hardly decapitated, has a long lie down to take the sting out of things.

20.30. Minor moment of casual petulance and frustration gets Lingard – England’s best forward player – booked. Then England gift one or two further, unecessary free-kicks away – but not in defensive positions. Stones, notably, remains staggering composed in possession; Maguire is not far behind on this; he also carries the ball forward with some purpose and offers a threat at the occasional set-piece.

20.36 means only about 15 minutes to see this out – if that’s to be England’s approach.

20.37. Lingard, breaking almost clear, throws away most of his brownie points by patently trying to draw a pen instead of smashing it past the keeper. Cynical and depressingly dumb. Could have won the game right there.

20.42. Dele is finally removed: 20 minutes late. Dier.

Oof. Walker offers Colombia their  best chance of the night. In space and with a decent angle, Cuadrado drives unimpressively over.

Things are urgent, suddenly for and from Colombia. Falcao leaps over Henderson to only head tamely. There is some angst but little in the way of real threat. The disappointing Sterling makes way for Vardy.

20.51 & we have five minutes extra. Feels like England should be okaaay… until Pickford has to pull off a worldie, for a corner.

MEGADRAMA though, as Mina, the centre-back nods it down-but-then-agonisingly-over Trippier… and into the net! 1-1. WOW.

Extra Time.

Firstly, there are now questions. About Lingard’s spurned opportunity; about whether Tripier misjudged the scoring header. Maybe too, about Southgate’s arguably reactive management. Alli was muted at best throughout – could’ve been hoiked way earlier. Sterling did okay but again lacked that killer instinct; I wouldn’t have started him.

21.03 it says on my ipad, as the whistle goes. Controversy immediately as Young (maybe more than his opponent) show the studs a little in a 50-50. Both inevitably roll about a bit.

Random thoughts: Henderson done little. Kane I think pretty ordinary in the second half. An almost complete lack of composure from nearly everybody on the park, now. Except Stones. Probably.

Dier’s come on and done nothing right – almost comically. Some signs maybe that Maguire’s legs have gone. A sense that Colombia are more likely.

Suddenly there’s no core to England. The central defenders can’t thread the ball into midfield – certainly not centrally. Rose is on for Young so England do now have pacy wing-backs but it’s Colombia who are playing with more verve and commitment, now. As the first half of extra time comes to a close, England look… if not gone… then up against it.

The Colombian huddle is characterised by positive energy – belief, maybe?

21.23 and the first chance falls clumsily to Vardy. His left-foot volley wouldn’t have counted – he’s off. Soon after he gets a second chance… but fluffs it, rather, disappointingly.

For some time, Henderson and Lingard have gone missing – or at least ceased to be influential. *Except* Lingard runs on and on, almost profiting after a good move from the right.

Rashford is on. Dier misses a golden chance, heading poorly, wildly over when absolutely unmarked, eight yards out. Ouch.

I had a feeling England might win it 4-1. Because of Lingard and Kane. Now, we have penalties.

Normally I’d wander off, disinterested at this point. So I will… after one more thought.

Southgate’s done well; he just doesn’t have the players. Except that just maybe, he does – the right complement of players. Young’s obduracy for Sterling’s relative frailty? Lingard’s running for Henderson’s one-pacedness? Kane’s killer-striker thing, absent elsewhere. This is Southgate’s team: could it yet be his triumph?

 

 

Three Lions Meltdown… averted!

So England win. Probably Southgate deserved that. But there are *things*…

  • Sterling. We have to take care around Sterling, because the poor lad has had so much flak and much of it has had a racial component. I’m pretty clear that my long-held view that he’s a good player but has serially lacked the presence/confidence/bottle to take on the no. 10 role for England is not partial – it’s simply a football judgement. He was obviously weak again tonight. He will likely stay in the side because of a reasonable(?) level of loyalty from Southgate and because England won: he’s a lucky man in that respect.
  • Henderson was heroic in that workmanlike way that average international players can be. He was available, he nosed the ball around, fair play to him ; that stuff demands courage. But let’s again say the obvious: whilst he is pickable (because any side needs balance) he should not be England’s go to man to break team’s down or create an irresistible surge. He’s not good enough for that.
  • Kane nicked two goals, both half-decent finishes but for me his overall contribution was below par. Not enough physical presence, not enough movement and shocking that he didn’t rip the ball out of Ashley Young’s hands for that free-kick on the edge of the box. That moment was made for a captain, centre-forward and budding icon and Southgate should be having a quiet word about it. Kane should be winning more balls in the air, too – particularly hoofs down the park from Pickford. A) This is part of a centre-forward’s job. B) Given the generally poor standard of international defences, imagine the carnage that the occasional well-directed flick-on (to Lingard or Rashford) might cause.
  • Lingard played in occasional bursts but again missed presentable chances. In that way he resembles Rashford, whom we all like (right?) but who shares that tendency for wastefulness. The two are useful and sometimes electrifying but they are both still playing too fitfully – too much like teenagers – to be in the starting eleven together: unfortunately.
  • Alli may have been crocked from the outset – although this would seem to be an un-Southgatelike possibility – but he started brightly before disappearing, alongside Kane. He is a talent but another one who is burning waaay too sporadically. I quite like his spiteful streak, though not his propensity for raw cheating, which is at a more grubbily cynical level than Sterling’s weirdly childlike tumbles. (Not that Alli cheated tonight; he simply ghosted out of it.)
  • Stones and Maguire were untroubled generally (though not flawless) but it was the Burnley man who was a worthwhile protagonist going forward.
  • The keeper looked settled enough, though he was almost completely untested.
  • At full-back, Young played at his usual predictable pace, delaying throw-ins, setpieces and the flow of England’s game. (He is fortunate indeed to be in the side – presumably this is courtesy of his ’reliability’, experience and physical resilience). Trippier, on the right was excellent – or excellently positive. Keen, sharpish, urgent, bolder than anyone; unfortunately for him, playing at a higher tempo than his comrades seemed prepared to join with. He may destroy feeble Panama on his own.
  • England started hugely encouragingly but did drop into standard tournament mode briefly in the second half; self-pitying, directionless, unwilling or able to raise a response to opponents sniffing a Three Lions Meltdown. Maybe they were even a little lucky to get the win, so late, so simply, from such a defendable dead-ball situation?
  • But Kane’s finish – from Maguire’s lusty header – was both instinctive and skilful… and surely deserved, overall.

Levels of Hurt.

Bale’s two interventions. Ramos. Karius. Salah. Wow.  The word is probably ‘dramatic’.

Dramatic but cruel? Dramatic and relatively just? Depends where you’re at. As a neutral, the result felt a tad generous to the slightly haughty Spain-based gentlemen but they were (in some sense) classier and more comfortable on the night. Predictably.

Modric was absurdly unhurried as usual; Marcello – without engaging annoyingly flamboyant mode – was cool. The Liverpool midfield were not; most of the Red Men, were not.

For much of the game, Milner and Wijnaldum and Henderson fluffed things or threaded passes straight to the opposition. Both the Englishmen did that thing where they make the case against themselves, as top international players. They looked bloody ordinary – and one-paced.

Wijnaldum was mostly worse than that, for the first hour plus,  but almost looked to have settled, arguably unhelpfully, by about the eightieth minute.

The passing out from defence was similarly twitching between the poles of freneticism and wastefulness. Klopp seemed generally impassive on the sidelines but the disappointment at the level of sheer nervousness and consequent lack of fluency and fire must have hurt him. Not much worse than not turning up for a massive, massive game.

By my reckoning only Mane and Robertson did themselves justice – certainly in terms of forward, or forward-thinking play.

Sure we can credit Modric (mainly) for the suppression of the Liverpool Way, but I can’t be the only one who (whilst acknowledging Real’s impressive ease) also feels they might really have been vulnerable to the kind of exhilirating rampage Klopp’s team have been serving up all year.

Instead Ramos and Morcello and co went relatively untested.

Of course it’s easy to be critical after the event but I did wonder during the game why the Liverpool coaches were not more animated and maybe proactive. (Presumably Klopp tried to light a bonfire at halftime, rather than counselling calm and measured improvement?)

If Klopp was content to concede possession and look to counter-attack – that’s maybe only to be expected, right? – then okaaaay, except that conceding possession against the most successful team in European Cup/Champions League history will surely invite trouble in the end? Plus – in my view critically – Liverpool have thrived via a pacy, open matrix rather than an italianate(?) deliberately staccato slow-then-alarmingly-quick approach.

Firmino wants to flick things and move; Mane wants to run, Salah wants to turn and race. Much of this starts from halfway and/or springs from periods of pressure,  from within the energy and context of an athletic, confident, free-running team. In my view that kind of team might be more of a threat to Ramos’s relative lack of legs, Morcello’s arrogance etc etc.

In short I think Klopp missed a trick – or his players were too awestruck to express their natural way. That’s a tad frustrating.

The genuinely sad and inevitably damaging removal of Salah was of course a factor – though already Liverpool’s performance seemed both muted and on balance likely to stay that way. The dancing Egyptian might plainly have unzipped the Madrid backline at any moment and the watching world was robbed of much of that frisson.

In terms of Match-winning Moments, let’s concentrate on Bale’s extraordinary overhead. Throw in the fact that it was *more possible* for a left-footer to do what he did than a right… and we are still left with something impossible. Impossible and magnificent and staggeringly, wonderfully worthy. And how hilarious that all of us thought immediately of Ronaldo’s ego flinching at the sight?

The other Madrid goals were clangers off-the-scale: mortifying to watch. Paul Hayward has rightly led the calls for understanding of the possible dangers around these freakish and traumatic moments. Let’s just add that maybe we all have a kind of duty of care to Karius and then move on, hoping that he can, with help and support,  gather himself and respond.

Madrid are champions and they deserve it. They may be fortunate though, that the real Liverpool did not show up; that Liverpool might have hurt them.