Nice.

A nice bright start in a nice, bright Nice. A high camera-angle may be exacerbating the weight of the shadows and the zing-factor of Sweden’s yellow and the white of Ingerland: it’s clearly baking there but maaan, I’m close to reaching for my shades, here, too.

Could be the same for Steph Houghton, who pops a pain-killer early on, following a blow to the head.

There’s some decent but unthreatening bluster-at-pace from both sides, then Sweden score. Greenwood, fortunate to be restored ahead of Stokes in my view, fails to clear an innocuous cross and Asllani accepts the gift.

Barely a minute later, Greenwood is again exposed by a simple lob forward and Jakobsson very nearly beats Telford at her near post. The keeper almost comically shins the ball back into her own net, following the rebound off the woodwork. Could be that England’s left flank is being targeted.

In fact, everywhere is being targeted. Sweden are all over the Lionesses. To the extent that a second goal – beautifully curled in by Jakobsson – is appropriate reward for their first quarter dominance. In truth, the defending was again hesitant and the tall, fleet-footed striker was allowed significantly too much time and space to engineer the arc for the far post.

In the 27th minute, England fashion a sweet move but there is again a sense of passing responsibility as the killer moment approaches: Kirby is off-side whilst attempting her tap-in.

Kirby’s next contribution is a kind of perfect opposite. The moment she receives the ball, wide right, is the moment the instinctive rush for goal begins – solo. Jinking in, she shapes for a left-footed curler and executes perfectly: class goal.

Before the Swedes can settle, Ellen White has an ‘equaliser’. Only she doesn’t. She may be unlucky to be adjudged to have handled a ball that runs up her body whilst she’s under challenge.

The England centre-forward had seemed to have rolled the defender legitimately – and there was no appeal from Sweden – but the ball may have contacted White’s arm (as well as, quite possibly, the defender’s). An unlucky turn of events and another example of VAR getting something right… that may not have needed referring.

It’s surprisingly physical: Sweden doing their fair share of old-school clattering, as if to emphasise the competitive nature of a fixture that we all regard (if we’re honest) as relatively meaningless. The TV reminds us that England have won only three of the last 20-something fixtures between these two and Blackstenius, Jakobsson and those behind seem pret-ty intent on preserving that intimidating record.

Last kick of the half and White, for once, shoots feebly when in at the angle. Half-chance only but going in level after a period in which they were largely either swamped or hurried could have been huge, for England.

Bronze has barely featured but for a single, characteristic drive, Parris has been absent and the midfield has been principally in retreat. Defensively there have been errors both on the flanks and between the central defenders, whose relationship seems less certain, understandably, than the first-choice pairing of Houghton and Bright.

Telford – asked to pass, pass and pass, rather than hoof – has it seems never really settled. A re-cap at the break: whilst the performance did improve, that lack of calm, of fluency is perhaps the standout feature and concern.

Better start to the second half, from England. Mead is soon withdrawn for Taylor, who may add more of a threat, centrally. But can the increase in energy, positivity and level of possession transfer into real control?

It appears so. As Bronze forces a corner on the hour, England are on top and finding a little sustained flow. Kirby shimmies again and puts Taylor through… but she’s plainly off. The midfielder has played at a level, finally, that she will consider acceptable.

The much-vaunted Bronze-Parris combo, however, has been ineffectual. The full-back is looking to burst forward, possibly in frustration at the lack of dynamism in front of her. In the 65th minute, this nearly costs England, as Bronze over-runs, is dispossessed and Sweden are in on that left flank. No damage.

Enter Carney, inevitably, on the 73 minute mark. The retiring maestro is there for sentimental reasons but she is also a real candidate for Person to Make a Difference By Threading a Brilliant Pass. (Which is what England need – someone to find that moment of quality – of clarity).

As the game stretches Jakobsson smashes in a worldie of a cross, which is just about cleared: England have to gamble and they are.

We’re seeing flashes of the possession-based game Neville wants to play, in this second half – there were none in the first – but I am struggling to remember a meaningful contribution from Lindahl, the Swedish ‘keeper. There really has been very little carved out.

Scott, Carney, Kirby are busy centrally but still not able to get White or Taylor clear. I wonder, now that Mead and Parris are both departed, if their best chance is a sharp one-two or a lung-bursting run from deep, such is the stoutness of the Swedish defence.

Bronze’s frustration continues; she gives away two unnecessary free-kicks but still finds herself unmarked with the ball falling to her twelve yards out. She volleys well enough but the ball zeroes in on Fischer’s forehead – cleared.

Zigiotti could finish it but hits Telford’s legs. Moore is rightly booked for checking her gallivanting opponent. The ref blows. A moral victory for the Lionesses, who win the half on points – but they lose the game and the medal.

Carney notably retains her calm after the whistle; she looks more angry and disappointed than sad. The Swedes, meanwhile, are emotional. Good luck to them. They deserved this. England’s tournament? Hmmm, let’s think.

Neville has done well. After the scepticism and outrage regarding his appointment, I think he’s answered most critics. He is clearly heavily invested in this: he gets it and his manner as well as his manners have been close to impeccable.

His view of a united squad, all contributing has been largely successful. His view of how this England should play is fine enough too – just maybe compromised (as so often in sport) by individual frailty or inability to rise. 

His bankers – Houghton, Scott, Bronze, possibly Bright – have been committed and strongish but not world-beating. (The fourth-place finish is bang on, wouldn’t you say, for these players, in this tournament?)

Disappointments and frustrations include the VAR stuff, Bronze’s seven-out-of-ten (for a nine-out-of-ten player), Kirby and Duggan and Parris. Successes would include White, not just for her goals but for her intelligent centre-forward play and, more broadly, that sense that there is a pattern there to aspire to – one which is beyond most of the teams in this World Cup. There are still places to go.

Finally, both these teams have made a contribution, here, to the Big Picture Stuff. Women’s football – women’s sport – is surging. The development, the profiles, the quality, the entertainment is now more visible day-by-day. If there is any disappointment for England maybe that will pass, as players realise and appreciate that they are making this game, their game, authentic and real and compelling.

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Women’s World Cup: Nederlands v Italia – & everything.

Live-blog; being updated and ideally improved as the afternoon/evening proceeds. Might mean it’s worth reading twice, six hours apart… or might mean nothing. 👊🏻

Blazing sunshine apparently, in London and visibly in France but not here. Actually quite a relief to sink back into the settee and squint into that dazzling screen, for Italia versus Nederlands, on an immaculately striped pitch looking strangely lush, given reported temperatures.

We’re off. Several minutes of rushes and errors; familiar banks of orange; Miedema still walking about the place; and did I mention (perhaps not, it might be foolish) how gratifying it feels to see a black woman (Gama) skippering the Italians?

After 17 minutes Bergamaschi rather hurries, rather fluffs the first significant chance, merely gently hoisting a knock-on that she might have waited on, then smashed home. Despite the heat, there’s not much measurement of things, so far.

Not long after, the same striker cuts in from the right, creates space for a left-foot screamer but executes an ego-shrinking scuff. But Italy have gone ahead on points, in an admittedly rather mediocre bout, thus far.

Last night, in contrast, we were treated to a fabulous, deliciously-heightened occasion, with the home nation beaten in the end by a U.S. team that surely reaffirmed its status as the most powerful side in the world. Rapinoe, that symbol both of sparky liberal activism (off the pitch) and sparky-but-powerfully-efficient authority (on the pitch) scored twice as the Americans snuffed out the French Dream.

Diani kindof epitomised the cultural difference. The French forward was swift but infuriatingly imprecise – raw in a way that Morgan or Rapinoe or anybody in white just wasn’t going to be – USA doing streetwise and competent or better, much more than they were ever going to do ‘frenetic’. (This doesn’t mean the visitors weren’t ruffled; having established a 2-0 lead they were challenged, brilliantly at times, by a French comeback prompted by the consistently excellent Henry).

Bottom line, the stronger team came through, in my view with reputation and expectation enhanced. Their organisation and athleticism seems a notch higher even than that of an encouragingly developing England, to the extent that the main hope for Neville’s side really might be that the Yanks have been drained from the standout occasion of the event so far, sapping as it was – Le Grand Match, as it was widely described.

But back from that truly exhilarating and hopefully inspirational action to Holland-Italy: 0-0 at the half, with a four-out-of-ten performance from the first named. Both disappointing and a little surprising, as the women in orange have more quality and greater depth of quality than their opposition this afternoon.

Perhaps the extreme conditions suited the Dutch less well? Might figure. Whatever, the six-out-of-ten Italians would be sucking more contentedly on their ice-lollies (that’s what we do in a heatwave, right?) during the break.

Second half and Holland are better by a percentage. Not entirely a surge but a quiet reversal. From a corner, Van de Donk finds Martens, who has acres just outside the box. She shapes to curl… but finds the top of the bar. A goal, however, *may be coming*.

Wow. Spitse drills a boomer of a free-kick from best part of thirty yards, striking the outside of Giuliani’s right-hand post – reminding me (I think) of Arie Haan or somebody clouting it from four miles distant in the Mexico(?) World Cup. Holland increasingly dominant.

On the negative side… well, let’s start with a positive. Refereeing standards at this event are up on previous tournaments. However, the officials are (amongst other things) spending waay too much time in protracted, sometimes overly animated ‘discussion’ with players. They need to be saying less and enacting the laws more promptly. Onwards.

Miedema scores. Miedema who has yet again mooched about moodily and barely broken the proverbial, despite egg-frying heat, has nodded… and notched. You don’t know whether to hate her or love her. She is a lazy, flukey, pesky-in-an-irritatingly-non-irritating way kindofa something. She does nothing but score. She’s a bloody genius!

In the 79th, van de Gragt nods a second. Thirty seconds later, Miedema could drive a third but no. But now it is feeling ver-ry different. Like the game is up.

Italy respond with some urgency but little belief (and because, frankly, of that lack of quality) fitfully. They can’t sustain the effort, the possession: they are generally two-nil worse than Holland. Often that means nothing; today – the day that Miedema once more scoffed in the face of meritocracy – today it felt just enough.

 

Germany Sweden. Expecting a German win, because you do. They start though they expect exactly that. Sweden should be pret-ty durable but they may not be able to resist the predicted wave of attacks. Maybe.

Magull half-hits a free-kick which Lindahl takes comfortably. Then some reaction.

Sweden rush forward repeatedly, with some commitment and not a little ingenuity. It’s an important sign that this won’t be what we used to call ‘Backs and Forwards’ in the good old days. Germany are going to be tested, defensively, rather than merely resisted. Good.

Ah. Then Dabritz drives, centrally and flips a delicious pass into the box. It’s bouncing but Magull adjusts and shifts beautifully before crashing home. Great goal, for Germany.

Great stuff (though). On 22 minutes, Sweden equalise. They have been playing with intent – like their opposition – in a game that’s sharp, open and promising. Both defences look porous, both sides are pleasingly proactive – ‘attacking’.

Second half. What we need is a Swedish goal to really stir it up. The wonderfully-named Stina Blackstenius obliges, profiting from a palmed half-save following a cross from the right. Now we have the model scenario – Germany, a hungry, determined, energetic Germany, chasing the game.

It’s becoming too bitty, though, to be a classic. On the plus side, both teams have heads up and are looking forward – are trying to play Bright Football. On the other, it’s not quite happening. Popp and Dabritz we know can be lethal… but the links are missing somehow.

Blackstenius nearly punishes a German error. In masses of space, attacking the centre from the left flank, she has only to skirt Hegering and she’s in. The centre-back times her tackle.

As we wait during a further drinks break, the sense that Germany need to raise this is growing. Despite a certain level of good possession they aren’t hurting Sweden. Indeed they no longer look the more threatening – just the more comfortable on the ball.

On 80 minutes this is urgent; still Germany pass and manoeuvre. Oof; a big moment as Popp is clattered by the keeper’s arm in an aerial challenge. Lindhal is lucky – she was clumsy and she cannot have known that Popp was marginally offside. VAR gets this right and we move on.

The goalkeeper makes a further error, failing to clear another right-wing cross but Oberdorf’s header is cushioned agonisingly wide. Germany are going for broke now – at the risk of conceding.

Dabritz has a half-chance but her left-foot shot across Lindhal is easily gathered. Six minutes of added time.

Hegering, thrown forward, can’t get over another inviting chip to the far post and nods over. Jakobbson, released, heads for the flag. The lines-person makes a hash of a corner/throw thing. Time ticks out.

A final threat peters out (should that be pieters out?) and Sweden are through. Seemed unlikely but this has been no fluke: hard-won, marginal, but no fluke. They beat a better team by being determined, well-organised and hugely committed. They will play the Netherlands in the ‘other semi’, believing that they are close to something remarkable.

The bulk of the universe has been focused heavily on the England/USA/France side of the draw and naturally now that England USA match-up will again draw most of the watching world’s attention. Whoever wins it will be favourites to win the tournament.

Because of their athleticism, experience and mental toughness, I imagine this will be Rapinoe & co. However, because of Houghton and Scott and White and Bronze, I do not rule England out. Further, because of Miedema, Blackstenius and the capacity, in sport, for belligerent, beautiful, baffling, magical lunacy, I’m *just not sure about this*.

Bronze makes it hers.

So a great win then. White again looking a complete, all-round centre-forward, Bronze finally absolutely grabbing the game, England generally looking a better-drilled, more luxuriantly-equipped side.

Norway a tad disappointing, if we’re honest. The energy of Engen was again noteworthy, just more in the defensive gathers than any attacking forays. Graham Hansen, possibly the greatest talent in the tournament (and in that sense something of a loss as we reach the endgames) significantly underachieved, looked pained and rather petulant, at times.

Jill Scott won’t care. The Lionesses’ heart yet again beat out the rhythm of the performance, being irrepressibly ever-present once more but again without quite reaching her max in terms of accuracy. Look out France/U.S./Whoever, if Scott *really does* find her radar; her rather heeled-in goal last night was just reward for another nonstop effort.

Neville and his staff got most things right again: Greenwood had to be dropped, Parris and Kirby had to shake off their lethargy or nerves and make more telling, more impactful contributions.

The flying winger was instrumental in much of England’s goal threat but still flashed and flickered rather. (She also missed a second pen of the tournament – one which given her in-&-out performance, she might never have taken). Word is Parris a bit of a card, a bit of a ‘character’: my guess is that there’s a whole load of front there but some real insecurity beneath – hence the recurring mixture of brilliance and frailty. More arms-round from Neville may still bring out more of her best, more often.

Kirby likewise improved, whilst still seeming occasionally wasteful or simply unaware. However, she starts from such a high base that even a 78% performance was always going to embarrass Norway on the night.

Because Norway were exposed, rather than England, to greater effect, repeatedly.

Jonathon Pearce, in commentary got things about right when he suggested a 5-2 scoreline might have been fair – whatever that means. The team in red were pretty much swept away *but*… how they failed to register will remain a mystery.

Houghton is close to the best centre-half in the world: for most of the game she looked it and the central-defensive partnership with Bright was looking more imperious than not. Then came some moments.

Bright appeared to take some hallucinogenic drugs through the second half and her skipper may have dabbled. They were weirdly off it, for a while, in a way which inevitably drew comments of the “can’t do that against such and such” sort. True enough. On balance though, England coped, being better organised, more strategic everywhere, and they defended well enough.

Stokes at left back, in for the frazzled Greenwood, started well and without being flawless, looked strong and quick throughout. Indeed in the first period, defensive concerns for England came almost exclusively – but okaaay, still rarely – from the other flank. Parris repeatedly drifted from her defensive duties, allowing space towards that right corner flag. Norway might have profited.

After Scott’s early pass into the net, Parris put White in for a volley smashed against the far upright and also engineered the tap in for the ‘Lionesses’ Harry Kane’ – a name I’ve heard but wish I could erase from the memory. Could well be that Ellen White may finish up top scorer in this Women’s World Cup whilst actually playing well – something her male counterpart has thus far failed to do. 😉

If the general story is about England marching more convincingly on, the the headlines will and should be about Bronze. Famously, Neville has challenged her publicly to show that she may be the Best Player in the World. Privately, after another decent but relatively restrained showing against Cameroon, he must surely have reiterated or re-worded that challenge.

Maybe he said…

“Bronzey, how about bursting out a bit more? Can see you doing the mature, composed international thing and love that. But how about showing these fuckers that they’re not fit to be on the same pitch as you – that you’re playing a different game. Go grab that game – go make it yours. All of us in the camp know that you can do that. You know that you can do that. Get out there and make this World Cup yours!”

She has – or has started to. The surge in the third minute, to make Scott’s opening goal. The heightened, more positive display. The goal, a thing of real beauty and power, a cheeky, ill-read double-bluffing re-run of stuff Norway should have noticed earlier – a triumph both personal and collective, having been plainly rehearsed prior to and during the match.

Norway should have been ready but Bronze blasted their belated rush into oblivion. What a strike!

So 3 – 0 again. And a part-brilliant performance. Who next?

England really will fear no-one; the quality they have is beginning to shine through the team, as opposed to just via individual contributions in the moment. Only Duggan seems to remain palpably below her par. Such is that development, it could now be that remaining sides would choose to avoid meeting Neville’s Posse ‘til the final, if that were possible? Because they really are a threat.

But next up, Bronze goes home – to Lyons. Might that be a further spur towards something special? But who against, who might be least accommodating to those English Dreams? France, or the U.S?

If I were choosing, I’d play France, anyday. Even with the possibility that they might ride the crest, they are less controlling, less controlled, less consistent. Great potential but so far a lot of waste, too, from the hosts. Let them have a night to remember and a staggering, exhausting extra-time win tonight… and let Lucy Bronze dispatch the French later.

Eng v Cameroon. Women’s World Cup.

Saying something about this game *without prejudice* is a challenge. When everything to rouse or confirm most every prejudice is in there: sex; race; notions of competency; deep frustration and moralistic anger.

Describing the action – ‘sticking to that’ – might help, you would think. But when the game is so lost in the bawl-fest and drift of the VAR, not necessarily. All of us, if we’re honest, stopped caring about the football, somewhere around the hour mark.

That was when England’s most frazzled player on a variously frenetic and rather feeble night, found herself on auto-pilot (this time in a good way) in the opposition box, scoring first-time from Duggan’s corner. Greenwood. Ridiculous. Three nil.

THREE NIL and then some. Some fallout, some previous, some pettiness and worse – something gone.

Hard to put your finger on the exact what or when or who of this, because the event was so littered with utterly deflating incidents, but no disputing that the game was actually done, come that 60 minute mark – arguably before. We were past sport and into travesty, more in the sense of betrayal-of-the-game (any game) than any clear injustice against team A or B.

I hardly dare go back – and when I do it won’t be to relate much of the detail of the endless horror-show that was the ‘drama’. The series of VAR interventions, interminable delays and, frankly, abdications from the referee, plus the ensuing near-mutinies by the aggrieved Cameroonians were an embarrassment to football.

Sounding high-handed? Possibly. But hard to avoid some level of fervour, here. Cameroon were angry – we get why they were angry – but they were out of order.

(It may be noted at this point that England’s signal achievement on the evening was to retain their own discipline: the more I reflect on this the more credit accrues, in fact. There was barely a spiteful challenge from Neville’s team. Just as pleasing, arguably, was the almost complete absence of kidology, or ‘drawing’ of fouls, pens, cards, from his players, who must have known pre-match that their opposition would be prone to what might be called The Agricultural).

Anyone who actually watched Cameroon’s previous matches will have expected issues to arise against an England who have manifestly better, more professional players.

We have to take care with our language – fair enough. Cameroon have shown spirit, have shown running power but have been (in the tournament, overall) on the ordinary side of naïve, with a modus operandi including athletic clumsiness alongside more malign intentions. They lack resources, they lack quality: some of this is neither the players nor the coaching staff’s fault. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Cameroon have looked a poor side, and (actually) a rather dishonest one – dishonest mainly in terms of being prone to (in the further euphemism?) “losing their discipline”.

Whilst I found the England Manager’s post-match interview a tad one-eyed and self-righteous on this, clearly Neville had a point when he said Cameroon, like anyone else facing disappointment or controversy, had to “deal with it”. This is part of sport. Instead they nearly had the game abandoned, such was the level of mutiny and dissent.

The ref and the VAR were certainly complicit in the ruination of the match but the Indomitable Lionesses were equally distinctly unimpressive: in fact even allowing for the emotion of the moment and the cultural-historical baggage they will have felt they were battling against, Cameroon were awful – they lost it. Let’s talk about the football.

England won 3-0 and yet they were disappointing. Kirby and Scott were available but strangely, consistently cross-wired – Kirby to the extent that consideration will be given to her playmaking position. (She made little of England’s comparatively little play).

Parris was again below par; Neville has work to do to gather some confidence around her. Greenwood might have been brought off at the half, such was her discomfort. The possession-based game that England are striving for wasn’t there: instead, they fluffed too many easy passes, made too many poor decisions to find any real flow. Bronze – a tremendous player – is maybe doing that thing where you play so far within yourself that you fail to impact on the game in the way you can, or should: so both mature… and mildly frustrating.

Come the end of this profoundly unsatisfactory match, the gaffer might well have been proud of his side’s discipline – I get that. But he will be concerned that some of his best players are finding it so tough to bear the weight of that England jersey in tournament football. (Sound familiar?) Eyes seem a tad glazed over, out on that park.

Neville appears (again broadly, from a distance) to be doing an outstanding job with his squad: they are, however, entering the phase where exposure is more acute and margins get finer. Norway are much better than Cameroon: they have more skilled, controlled football at their disposal.

Could be, naturally, that the shift into a higher level of match suits these England players – gets that adrenalin, that sharpness going. The Cameroon Game was so-o shapelessly wretched that perhaps England were denied their right to play: maybe this explains, in some part, another unconvincing performance?

Let the authorities look at the implications around VAR, around the officials and at repercussions or warnings to the Indomitable ones. Meanwhile, despite their comfortable win last night, these England Lionesses do need a shot of something.

The Champions League Final (Which Was Crap).

So it was plainly sapping. The game was treacly and dysfunctional – almost shockingly so, certainly disappointingly so. And yet Liverpool, this Liverpool and this Tottingham, come to that, we know to be better than this.

Was it just me, or were Liverpool pret-ty close to outstanding away at Barcelona, recently? (Know they got beat 3-0 but stay with me). Didn’t that game signal a kind of triumphal comfort, for the most part, with the very highest echelon of the world game? Because Liverpool spent a good chunk of that game fearlessly passing around Barca, thumb-nosingly fluently. And doesn’t that mean that they’d – in their racy, exhilarating brilliance – gone past nerves?

Apparently not.

The Champions League Final was crap. They often are, of course but this was somehow different. It wasn’t due to cynicism or negativity from either party: it seemed more about a lack of ability to play (on the day) rather than some miserablist intention.

Klopp spoke immediately afterwards of his players ability to come through, when exhausted. His pride was more about that sense of something overwhelming having been ‘survived’ – something extra to the *actual footie*. He noted conditions and the long, cruel treading of water between the end of the domestic season and this most climactic of events. The challenges, in short, were not about football.

Nerves and what we might call loss-of-form in the moment strike brutally and often. Nearly every major sports event can be Exhibit A in this regard. Oftentimes, we can actually predict who might ‘disappear’ or ‘have a bit of a mare’ when the spotlight really glares. It’s part of the fun, for us breezy scribes and cod-psychologists – and for Yer Average Fan, too, surely?

In Madrid, it felt that there was a general washing away of the individual power to excel, rather than the utter exposure of Player A or B. Sure Kane was woefully uninvolved, and Alli again, after an encouraging start, seemed disturbingly unconcerned to actively intervene. And the erstwhile or early-season All-Court Genius that is Firmino again put the mute into muted, but the issue seemed like a broad, mid-range affliction rather than a personal, individualised trauma. Nearly everyone was a tad off.

You will find exceptions, perhaps. Perhaps Alisson, who was good. Perhaps Matip and Danny Rose. But most underachieved.

The penalty was maybe a factor – have heard this argument.

‘Liverpool didn’t need to blahdiblah cos of the early advantage. They know they’re the best defence in the league’.

But na. The pen was a) odd and b) always going to be given (in the Champions League this year) and c) inevitably some sort of factor but it actually precipitated a spell of countering from Tottenham which was medium-positive, as opposed to reckless or deathwishtastic. The temper of the game was never high enough for anything to be decisive.

So what was it, then? Occasion-related clamminess? Broiling Nerves Syndrome? Symptoms may include; eyes glazed over; dread-fulness.

Whatever, Some Inevitable Depressive Force was acting, here. Something which sapped 28 to 53% of the life and the talent from some brilliant footballers – some of whom you would say are outstanding, upstanding characters. Most of them could not pass and move and pass to save their lives, last night. Amazing; okay we know Liverpool play a pacy game but they can retain the ball; not last night.

Two further things: firstly I wish to out myself as someone who whilst absolutely rating Pochettino, finds the Poch love-in a little wearing. Excellent manager but look closely at last night’s unfolding (or lack of it) and maybe the first half, home to Ajax and then reflect.  Questionable approach, outcomes delivered more by The Fates than by The Poch, for me.

Secondly, it all feels okaaaay, because Liverpool have made such a powerful contribution to both Premier League and European Football this year that not many would argue against the notion that they deserve something. Cos high-level sport is all about merit, eh?

The Final was extraordinary, was it not? Only not in a good way, really. Ask your Scouse mates if that matters.

City Watford.

I suppose this was historic – let the stattos go on about that. I suppose we need to talk about how this happened – meaning how City engineered this (excuse the pun) gulf. And perhaps too, we will need to recalibrate the meaning of this massacre after the financial inquiries are complete. But whilst we are of course entitled to question both the status of City as a club and the legitimacy and honesty of their processes, it feels churlish to mither away at anything happening on the pitch.

Some are saying there is a blandness about City: maybe the Overwhelming Foreign Wedge implies that? As does the sometime listlessness around their home fixtures? Maybe the Catalonian sub-state that is the Management Team will always feel adrift from the original, the real City of the Moss-side alleyways? That might figure.

But Guardiola – from an admittedly high base – has built a wonderful and generally wonderfully fluent football team. A team waaaay too good for all but one other side in this allegedly abundant, allegedly competitive Premier League. Crucially, for me, a team that has had the poet and craftsman David Silva at its beating heart: a team for the skilled and the bright and the creative. A team – with all due respect – at an utterly different level to their opponents yesterday.

In short I’m with Guardiola in the sense that I can separate the ‘issues’ away. He is special. He is a great coach despite those embarrassing riches. His team is magnificent and his legacy in terms of how the game is played is a rich, progressive and beautifully true one. Financial cheating will of course compromise that appreciation – but not deny it.

Here’s how the game was, live…

 

“Abide With Me”. And Tony Book. Sentimental, both, for me but the one kindof glossed-up and the other even more silver-topped than myself, now. Because times do change.

Wemberley has changed, too, of course, since my old man wrote to Tony Book (by then City’s manager) a lifetime ago. The Old Lady of Norf Landun got glossed-up too – and by the sound of things, got fitted up with oversize speakers, to accommodate the ludicrously deafening ‘Announcements’.

But enough of the humbuggery. In sunshine, as so often, this All-New-Again FA Cup Final offers much – or we begin (again) with that feeling around: hope.

City though, are a force that may smash that weirdly-engineered optimism: they are patently in a different league from the waspish underdogs and maybe the butterflies I’m feeling are more to do with that?

First five minutes and Watford *actually do have* the ball. They are somewhere between medium-wasteful and okay with it however – which is good enough, in terms of maintaining the contest.

Ten minutes and rather fascinatingly, nobody on either side has done enough to suggest they’ve settled. Interestingly too, and probably worryingly, the blokes in yellow are setting out two Deep Blocks and challenging their illustrious opponents to thread something through them.

But hold on, in the eleventh minute, with City’s central defence alarmingly absent, Watford should score. Zinchenko is careless, Pereyra is IN… but fails to convert. City respond time and again, through Mahrez. He looks ready… until he passes lamely into touch.

Mercifully, it’s not one-way traffic and we do have a game.

Guardiola will not be satisfied with City’s opening; possession, yes but little in the way of fluency or sustained retention. More than that, Watford have looked as threatening as the typically irresistible sky-blues.

Again Watford threaten. They are maybe unfortunate not to get a pen as the ball strikes Kompany’s arm. But the City skipper is doing pretty much everything to keep offending limbs out of the way – so I’m with the ref. And, rightly, Kevin Friend books Doucoure for an appallingly passionate appeal.

Then City score. It’s a Sunday Leaguer – almost entirely out of character. The perennially gorgeous David Silva scuff-driving in a shot after some crappy head-tennis and the odd air-shot. They don’t deserve it; they don’t have anywhere near their usual level of control… and they don’t care. 1-0.

Wide left is looking like it might be City’s ace – or wide right! But whilst we know Mahrez will beat people and therefore always remain a ‘factor’, Zinchenko is still offering strangely mixed contributions, surging then underachieving.

It may not matter. The domination that all neutrals and all Hornets feared is settling over the game. And it’s 2-0. Bernado curls a beauty round and through and Jesus studs it in… via Sterling’s triumphant hoof. (One for the dispassionate – i.e. in the videozone – to decide upon, that).

In truth the keeper, Gomes, may have done better but the pass was a one of a limited number of clear signals, early doors, that the Champions of Everything might outclass Watford here. Not sure Watford *generally* major in Classy Footie (without being critical) but they have to make something happen now – anyhow, anyway. Deulofeu has shown well enough, but Deeney and Pereyra have lacked presence and maybe the confidence to take responsibility, should it arise.

As half-time approaches, it seems more likely that the gathering Gundogan\Silva/Bernado axis will unpick Watford centrally and possibly embarrass the challengers in the way they’ve embarrassed most, this year. As the whistle breaks, a very big team-talk for Javi Garcia begins. This may be done already.

Lively start for the second period. Deulofeu might score, Jesus might score/does score (disallowed) and the energy in the occasion is lifted. Strangely, Mahrez is withdrawn for de Bruyne. Has he said something to displease the gaffer? Is this just a result of Guardiola’s dissatisfaction with what feels like a seven-out-of-ten performance? (Mahrez has been good-ish).

On the hour de Bruyne is in… and exorcises his customary, obscenely-worldie levels of composure, ten yards out, where most capitulate to hurrying, scurrying and sheer nose-bleeding panic, before finding the corner. Eek. This could be humiliating.

Watford needed a hero – or 12. Whilst nobody seems to be utterly frozen, or utterly lost in Maresville, they can’t find what they need.

Jesus can. He makes it four, in the 67th. A truly great side, without yet playing to their max, are now running away with it. De Bruyne should curl another one in with his left foot in the 69th. Somewhere, Elton John is distractedly tinkling out another melancholy riff.

That the introduction (with all due respect) of Cleverley for Hughes – and Sane for Gundogan – comprises the 70-minute changing-of-the-guard, says most of what needs to be said. Different strata.

No disgrace here, for Watford – though they have been a clear disappointment – but note they have not faced Aguero and actually Sterling has barely had a kick (until he gets that weekly far-post tap-in; 5-0) … and so they cannot realistically compete… and they don’t. 80-odd minutes and I’m still not sure this is much more than a 7/10 performance from City; they’re that good.

From nowhere an arguably ungenerous observation. At the semi-final stage, I really wanted Wolves to come through, in part because I was sure they would test City more than Watford would, or could. We’ll never know but my hunch is that they have more quality and more tactical nous than their mid-table compadres.

I may be indulging here because there really is now a void where the contest should be. Sterling has grabbed a sixth. Yes. It’s 6-0. Guardiola looks mildly embarrassed. Or somehow melancholy. Or awed, perhaps?

Stones – yes, Stones! – should score from yet another break instigated by de Bruyne, who has changed the game, despite looking less than fully mobile, I would say. But you see, de Bruyne is that good.

Manchester City 6 Watford 0.

Going in…

Going in, who are/were favourites? Surely England, after a staggering-in-a-good-way performance against Ireland and an efficient one against France. (Wales have been okaaay, yes?)

But don’t we all love how history churns up the facts and the feelings about This One in Particular? How the stats befuddle, contradict, re-inforce, tease or spear-tackle what actually happened or will happen?

I just read something about England’s strong record in Cardiff. Then waded through my twitter feeds – apparently sponsored by Scott Gibbs Multinational. Then heard the following through some dreamily duplicitous channel or other; ‘it’s 14 degrees and no wind; the roof will be open; Barry John’s a late change, for Wales – Brian Moore, for England’. What, my friends, to believe in? It’s joyously-slanted carnage, before we start.

Carnage but fab-yoo-lussly so. Opinion, wise and otherwise, flooding the senses (and nonsenses?) like marauding hordes lusting for glory or a pint.

My hunch is England have found an extra, critical gear that may prove too much. But Wales have their strongest squad for years – a squad that has manifestly underachieved, performance-wise, so far, in the tournament – and it would therefore be plain daft not to accept that at home, vee Ingerland, they might *find something*. Wonderful questions remain.

The roles of Liam Williams and Jonathan Davies have received particular attention: the former because of both his electrifyingly brave attacking game and the recent English penchant for probing kicks ‘in behind’. Williams has been somehow less dynamic, for Wales, of late but clearly might win them the match, either in attack or defence. He is Proper Welsh in the fearless, lungbursting, ball-carrying tradition. My other Hunch of the Day is that he may find something bloody irresistible at some stage, this afternoon.

Davies is a player. If he had not suffered significant injury, he may already be being described as one if the game’s greatest ever centres. He has that silky-mercurial thing, the capacity to see things invisible to the mere mortals around him, plus a solid and sometimes inspired kicking game. Add in the elite-level non-negotiables (engine, courage, goodish pace, consistency) and you have a serial Lion. My Hope of the Day is that ‘Foxy’ relentlessly oozes class… then scores.

England have been so good, alround, that singling out either their stars or weaknesses feels weirdly inapplicable. Jonny May’s rightly been grabbing those headlines but it’s surely been the powerful performance-levels from 1-15 that have told.  Ireland were smashed and ransacked – Ireland! – France were largely dismissed. The despised Red Rose has to be respected, in rugby terms at least, for epitomising something so impregnably, communally awesome.

This latter phenomenon of course will merely serve to heighten desire amongst the Welsh. The arrival on their patch of a brilliant, ‘all-powerful’ England is tailor-made for the next instalment of this most tribal of fables. Going in…

Poor decision from the ref offers first chance to England. A kick from 40-odd metres. Suits left-footer more than right (despite being within Farrell’s range) but Daley pushes it slightly nervously wide.

Wales have good field position but their lineout again proves vulnerable – to a fine leap from Kruis. Noisy, frenetic, as expected, early-doors. Quite a number of England fans in the stadium: “Swing Low” gets whistled down.

Kick tennis. England in the Wales 22. Important defensive lineout for Wales. Again England make trouble – winning a free-kick. Wasted, by Farrell, with an obvious forward pass. “Ferocious start”, says Jiffy on the telly. He’s right. No score after 15.

Finally some points. Penalty almost in front of the posts – contentiously given, usual issue, scrum failure – Farrell accepts the gift. 0-3.

Couple of flashes, from Liam Williams but no significant line-breaks from either side. Wales penalty; again kickable but Anscombe aims for the corner. Wales secure the lineout then gain a penalty; should be a formality – is. Anscombe from 18 metres. 3-3.

From nowhere – well, almost – Curry runs through unopposed from ten yards out. All of us thinking “how the hell?” Farrell converts, to make it 3-10.

Immediately afterwards, Curry robs possession again, as England gather control. Wales must raise it – the crowd sense that and try to lift them. It is Wales who are under more pressure.

Finally, Wales find touch deep in the England half. But…

Lineout is clean but knocked forward from the tip-down. Frustrating for the home side – and crowd.

Feels like a big moment as May breaks out, chasing his own kick, deep. Parkes gathers but May, visibly pumped, hoiks him easily, bodily into touch, before bawling into the crowd. Wales hold out – just – and the half finishes with the visitors deservingly ahead. 3-10.

Consensus among pro pundits is that Wales must be more expansive – but clearly there are dangers around this. Slade, May and co can be pret-ty tasty in an open game.

Second half. Pacy, lively start. Eng, to their credit, look at least as likely as Wales to throw it wide. Nowell and Slade both prominent. They force another Wales lineout inside the 22.

England look to have pinched it again but they’re penalised for using the arm. So Wales escape but England better – dominating. *Bit of feeling* between the players, now.

Messy period follows; happily for Wales this results in May being penalised for holding on, after gathering just outside his 22. Anscombe nails the penalty.

It felt vital that  Wales troubled the scoreboard next: England seem simply a tad better, thus far and therefore unlikely to concede many points. Now the deficit for Wales is back to 4 points, at 6-10. Can the crowd change the mood? They’re certainly trying, now.

England may be a tad rattled. A high tackle by Sinckler (whom Gatland had baited, remember?) offers Anscombe another straightforward pen: accepted. 9-10 and game on. Wales have barely threatened but they are absolutely in this.

England, through Tuilagi and Vinipola, respond. Biggar enters, to a roar. Who has the nerve for this, now?

Earlyish Man-of-the-Match contender Curry strips Parkes again, to offer Farrell a 35 metre kick, in front. Slotted. 9-13.

Possibly the first sustained onslaught from Wales. Through at least one penalty advantage, via seemingly endless crash-bangs from the forwards, they finally score, through Hill! Predictably, Biggar succeeds with a truly testing conversion. The crowd is now a real factor. Wales lead 16-13.

72 minutes. England must produce… but suddenly Wales are bossing it, with Biggar already influential. Williams follows the stand-off with an inspirational kick-and-chase. Both players catching balls they had little right to claim. The crowd love it: the players are visibly lifted. Fabulous turnaround – England look done, Wales irresistible.

Hymns and arias.

The Finale. Biggar, with a ‘free play’, hoists one laser-like crossfield. Again, the Welsh player is second-favourite. Again – this time through Adams – it’s the Welsh that come out on top. Adams scores in the corner!

Huge, huge win. Wales were second best, by a distance for 50 minutes. They turned it round. At the end, they were undeniable – wonderfully so. They ran all over Jones’s men, who looked shell-shocked and muddled when they had to be focused, ambitious and bold.

The England camp will be furious and distraught. If it was The Plan to stay with a kick-based game and out-biff Wales, that plan was deservedly (and some would say righteously) exposed. Gatland’s lot were too tough, too organised and ultimately too hearty to capitulate to that. Wales endured… and then they roared.

*Mild cough*. Man of the Match? Liam Williams.