Dead Souls.

Okay. A good-without-being-remarkable win, for starters: predictably. But let’s note to the universe that a) there’s very often a New Man In bonus, for clubs at all levels, and b) Mourinho can organise. Plus c) West Ham are genuinely mediocre. So yeh – predictable, as opposed to seminally transforming.

Whether the Special One can organise and inspire to the level he once could – and whether the landscape remains, in which he can do his Strike and Park the Bus thing – we’ll see, soon enough. For now (Saturday, 6p.m.) he can bask a little.

Does this change anything, in terms of how I view his return? No. I see – I saw it, here, below – as another medium-diabolical sign that we’re all doomed. Or similar.

(Following the appointment of José Mourinho as Head Coach at Tottenham Hotspur: some thoughts… 👇🏻)

Where are we at, then, with Mourinho? Not easy to sugar-coat this one. Feels like many of us find him repugnant, never mind kinda reactionary; like some carnivorous dinosaur from the poshest suite in the goddam hotel. Like football’s Trump, emerging from behind the Fake Plastic Trees to eat us, or gorge on the souls of our beloved footie-teams.

Consequently but perhaps weirdly and uniquely, a freedom to judge him on some faintly discernible but nevertheless legitimate scale of goodness has crept in.

And yet also… the phone-ins. There are people simply flying past this fabulous Mourinho stoning-fest: actually (simply) looking forward to trophies, at Tottenham. Men. Women. Calling and talking. “We loved Poch but José will deliver”. “At the end of the day, it’s… about silverware”. “Poch was over”.

All fascinating – gruesomely so – and all received in this particular quarter with a broiling, Armalite-inclined rage.  Because it’s obvious. Mourinho is done, football has scorched past him, the era when he was a god is done and this is good – progressively good, mildly reassuringly good, morally good, even. Anyone ‘making some argument’, any argument for Mourinho at Spurs is an absolute maniac. I am loading up the boom-stick and ready to settle into the sniper-nest.

There are facts, here, of sorts. Fact: Mourinho ain’t remotely interested in the hard yards of building or generating anything. Fact: he was last seen at an academy game the day *he tried to sign Johan Cruyff, aged four.

 (*From the fleeting Conservative Fact-check site, oooh a while back).

Mourinho pretty much sits there, buying the poker-game, bluffing and motivating his galacticos, then buying those who supersede. He sucks up money; he is joyless and crucially declining. He deserves to fail, surely and the recent signs have all pointed that way. Lost dressing-rooms; lost lustre. The smell of money, impenetrable ambivalence and decline.

Ok the guy is not a materialist, in his life – he’s allegedly medium-cultured. So it’s not just about money for him. The drivers are slightly less crass, in the sense of being beyond the bling. However Mourinho does feel devoid of what we might call personal richness, now, his wit having apparently deserted as his sourness grew.

Mourinho pressers have been consistently contemptible over a period of years: directly insulting towards journos in the room and broadly, plainly dishonest regarding what’s actually happening around his football. (Accept that the second of these two phenomena is hardly unique to the man but the sheer acidity and delusional unpleasantness of his defiance has been extraordinary. He has bred hatred in the Media Core and beyond).

So, there is a ‘moral’ consensus (but apparently not unanimity, listening to those phone-ins) around the notion that Mourinho increasingly has crushed artistry and sport, imagining nothing beyond the grind or slash to victory. A sense reinforced, inevitably, by that public sullenness.

Where did all this come from?

Pressure? Pressure over time? Did the essential adversarial nature of elite competition grind him down, eventually – or is he just a Bad Man? If the latter, how come he didn’t seem so bad ‘til about 2015, or so?

Think. How could the man who was under the wing of Bobby Robson – Angel of the North, Heart of the Footie Universe – turn out so palpably bereft of romance? (Mourinho, if you remember, interpreted for the great man at Sporting and at Porto, early doors). How does that work? Where did the narcissism, the sourness, the anti-love for the game sweep in? We’ll never know.

It’s obvious that José is either all-out a spent force or a declining power; that he might only succeed with monstrous money to spend – but almost certainly not in the Prem, in 2019/20 and beyond – because the likes of Klopp and Guardiola have found better, newer ways.

It seems unthinkable that a) Daniel Levy will free-up the purse-strings to accommodate Mourinho’s customary indulgences and b) that in any case that free spirit thing Tottenham have always had will be brutally-casually disembowelled.

But hey, the phone-in psychos don’t care. They’re dead souls too.

 

The Rugby World Cup Final.

Jonny. Pre-game. Almost worryingly earnest, as so often. Turning his analysis into yoga, players out there behind him. Then ‘that wry smile’ – Farrell’s, not Wilkinson’s and a ‘break’. ITV: okaaay but also weird.

But what a good, solid and sometimes *actually inspiring* tournament this has been. Japan the clear winner, for their childlike embrace of the thing, for their politesse and their Proper Rugby Passion too. (Oh – and their team played arguably the most entertaining rugby in the tournament).

Rugby, World Cup Finals, in Japan. Strange how intelligent administration, free from bias or bung can turn out well, eh FIFA, eh ICC? You get to expand the game and enrich the experiences of everybody, pretty much, from spectator to waiter. The sport benefits.

The sight of Japanese, young and old, belting out the beautiful but relatively inaccessible Welsh national anthem has felt wonderfully symbolic of the potential richnesses – rarely located but found here – that the confluence of sport and peoples can aspire to. Simply, rugby does goodwill particularly well. Japan seems to have done it magnificently.

To the game.

Unusually for me, no live updates. Wanted to watch. What follows is therefore some abstracted thoughts…

 

South Africa and England may be high on the list of unloved rugby nations but ultimately there was a heartwarming bundle of That Good Stuff washing around Yokohama and the airwaves, at the whistle. The Boks had freed themselves up and begun to cut deep and wide, as England, disconsolate, near-humiliated England slipped into hopelessness.

The scenes at the culmination of an emphatic win – the rainbow of joy and wider-spread satisfaction around the host nation for a supremely hospitable tournament – may camouflage the fact that this was a game in which only one team turned up: South Africa.

Questions will inevitably be asked about tactical matters: how could the Boks dominate so completely a game that they entered as underdogs? Was this not an obvious case of one coaching team out-thinking another? Did Jones not know the go-to strengths of Erasmus’s side? Of course he did. But this was a World. Cup. Final.

England looked overawed from the start. Arguably not every player, of course but there was that awful error/contagion/überangst coursing right through them. Painful for Eddie Jones and his backroom staff to see, as they will surely have wanted and quite possibly expected to replicate the carousel of brilliant, confident attacking that characterised their start against the ABs. Instead there was simple error after dubious choice: they were more woeful than mixed, as exemplified by Youngs, on ten minutes, hurling a pass metres high and wide of any colleague, metres into touch. Wow. Shocker.

For Sinckler, the young English prop, there was barely time for nerves. Pre-game, I had a hunch that his personality, his wit, indeed, may have a real influence on this encounter. The fella’s sparky and spunky in a good way: strong but also somehow nimble. He left the pitch, cruelly accidentally concussed, on four minutes: England would miss both his bulk and his capacity to defy, to intervene.

Apologies. This may all underestimate the early power and control of South Africa – who were immediately ahead on the board and looked likely to stretch that lead further the more the first half continued. (Pollard missed a straightforward kick/there was a pret-ty continual siege going on against the England defence, albeit all over the park, as opposed to close to the danger zone).

In the ether, much had been made of the Erasmus plan to stifle and smother but without being electrifyingly expansive in the first period, South Africa went through a certain level of positive phases competently enough – unlike England. Continually and consistently, often via de Allende or Le Roux, the Springboks threaten to threaten.

The men in white, by contrast, for whom I thought Daly (most obviously) and both halfbacks underachieved, either through error or conceding possession too cheaply, were unrecognisable from the week previous. The opposition today were magnificently robust, it’s true but if Game Plan A for England was to hoist (without effectively chasing down) and re-set, as soon as this was patently neutered, surely the halfbacks must initiate another challenge, or twelve?

Youngs and Ford disappointed, in this respect. And yes I know they my have put many man-hours into that Plan A, and that the coaches may have over-egged the need to keep faith with it, but when Am, de Allende, Etzebeth, Kolisi and co are smashing you back decisively on nearly every contact, surely it makes sense (when it’s a known strength of your own) to look to play at pace and with width?

Instead, Pollard and wee Faf could dictate the nature of the play… because they had both momentum and – courtesy those box-kicks and ‘clearances’ – possession of the ball!

Simplistic? Maybe. Less arguable was the palpable superiority of the Boks, not just around contacts but notably and maybe surprisingly at line-out and scrum. Even accepting that the reffing of scrums often seems arbitrary, the concession of penalties by England in this facet of play was both a) remarkable b) completely reflective of Springbok dominance. England were repeatedly smashed.

In line-outs, too, the English were alarmingly out of synch, given their previous high standards. If the throw from George was caught, the movement around – the development – was clunky. The fizz from Underhill, Curry and Vunipola(s) remained well and truly corked.

England escaped the first forty within range, somehow. (6-12). But the imagery was set: blurs and errors and lack of flow from men of The North, and a deep, formidable squeeze from t’other side.

For a few minutes, into the second half, we almost had a game: England almost roared. After the inevitable fifty-odd minute personnel changes, the South African scrum was almost shockingly vulnerable – momentarily, as it turned out – as Marler or Cole or somebody similarly heave-tastic forced a pen. Farrell profited, bringing the scores to 9-15 but then crucially (possibly) failed with a toughish but kickable effort from about 45 metres. Before any meaningful momentum could be gathered, Daly sliced poorly into touch, England conceded a further pen after the line-out and Pollard pinged over.

If those exchanges settled the match, it was the two South African tries in a delirious and exhilarating last fifteen minutes that delivered the flourish. Am threw a peach of a no-looker to put Mapimpi in, then Kolbe danced with some ease round a somewhat movement-restricted Farrell, following a crunching, ball-spilling tackle on Slade. The South Africans (and maybe the competition?) got what they deserved: a stylish, joyful kindofa win.

I’m not big on stagey celebrations or presentations but how could we not enjoy the Bok Party? With its *stories*. How could we not raise a glass to Kolisi and to the idea of shared, enlightened progress? And also how could we not note the South African skipper’s gracious acknowledgement for the stricken Sinckler, moments before rising to collect the World Cup, himself?

Wow. Rugby can be great; sport can be great; people can be great. Nice work, Japan – nice work.

Quarter-finals. Facts & fascinations.

  • Ok. That’s done then. Probably, the best four teams are through – though around that the Irish might do whatever the Irish equivalent of quibbling is.
  • Just now, unloved South Africa squished the wunnerful-joyful hosts, once the early carousel had been closed-down. Disappointing for neutrals, given the electrifying entertainment Japan have provided but guess we do want the strongest teams in there at the death. (Don’t we?)
  • South Africa looked strong, in the same way Wales have been strong, over the last eighteen months or more. More durable than delectable: more efficient than effervescent.
  • The Springboks – are they still called the Springboks; feels somehow vaguely politically unsound? – will play Wales in a semi which could either be a reactionary bore-fest or a full-hearted classic.
  • Two wee interjections, at this point. 1. I’ve lived in Wales most of my life and want them to win the tournament. 2. Some of this stuff, below, which fascinates me 👇🏻.
  • Short memories. Almost everyone in Wales was actually rather contemptuous of Gatland & ‘Gatlandball’ a couple of years ago. He & it were dinosaur-tastic in a profoundly unattractive way.
  • The miserable Welsh performance in a medium-dramatic but poorish quality game against a fitfully revitalised France was a disappointment on several counts. Chief amongst them was the Welsh retreat into box-kicking/set/defend.
  • Wales have played some rugby in this tournament but they are plainly primarily concerned with playing within themselves, to a limited game-plan. They believe it’s a way to win: the evidence would suggest they are right.
  • In defence of arguable Welsh defensiveness, notably against France, they were without one of the great players of the modern era – Jonathan Davies. Davies is ‘class’, with and without the ball. I suspect he is more critical to Wales’ defensive shape than we give him credit for and his rare mixture of intelligence, subtlety and raw courage in attack is often powerfully, often discreetly influential.
  • I am also pret-ty convinced that Biggar is playing with restricted movement – playing hurt. (Wags might say Danny Boy always looks that way; him being the relatively fixed point of the whole Gatlandball organisation. He can’t sprint, we know that but he looks unusually sluggish, just now, to me).
  • *See also Liam Williams*. Picked for his lion-heartedness and inspirational qualities. Should be under genuine pressure now, for a place, from Halfpenny.
  • Next weekend Gatlandball II will face-off against another side likely to play conservatively. Understand that approach but am I/is anybody else looking forward to seeing that kind of game? God no; we’d rather watch Japan any day of the week.
  • Except this is Tournament Play. And much of the drama is/was always going to be of the nail-biting kind. And though my preference for glorious, expansive rugby holds fast, I’ll be as feebly hypocritical as the next man in the moments that matter. 
  • *Plus*, Wales’ obstinate refusal to get beat is, in its own way, magbloodynificent, yes? Romantic, even. It smacks of old-school, matey defiance as well as cultivated belief. I like that – the former.
  • On the subject of match-defining moments, mind, how many thought the TMO and ref swept past the possible forward, as the ball was ripped, immediately before Moriarty’s killer try? I had a slight sense that the adjudicators didn’t really fancy getting caught up in too much scrutiny of that. In short, France may have been robbed. (Discuss over sake/beers).
  • That drama aside, the Wales France game was almost shockingly ordinary in comparison to the first hour of England Aus. (Yes! I am going to do that thing where you mindlessly compare how A played against B and then judge how T (playing U) would have done if they played at that same level… against A, (assuming A retained their B standard, as it were).
  • If Wales had played like they did against France, against either England or Australia, they would have  been battered. There was simply no comparison in intensity or quality. Gatland must and will lift his posse before the ‘Boks.
  • Yes. England versus Australia, for an hour, was scarily, magnificently competitive to an extraordinary degree. It was a fierce, fierce, structured rampage. It was awesomely modern. Both teams looked Absolutely Top Level – and neither France nor Wales did. Know what’s great, though? This prob’ly means nothing.
  • The All Blacks, expected to win, destroyed Ireland. De-stroyed them. Their skills, their power, their athleticism was simply unanswered. All Ireland felt hollowed-out as the absurdly dominant ABs ran all over Schmidt’s men. If clinical can be beautiful, it was that.
  • The watching world took a breath, looked again at the draw, almost felt sorry for England (almost) – and resigned itself, actually, to another New Zealand tournament win. Who will they beat? Wales, I reckon.

Rugby World Cup: Japan v Scotland.

I needed a walk. You? After a wonderfully sapping game, watched from the safe distance of a zillion miles – safe cos storm, safe cos presumably yet more exhausting in Yokohama – a blissful but blustery gathering yomp. Time to think a bit.

I think, on reflection, it was remarkable both for being unimaginably, laudably entertaining and for being everything we imagined, in the laudable-entertainment department. Crazily predictable; wildly, culturally generous and simultaneously massively competitive.

Let’s go into a brief credit-frenzy; to players and coaches from both sides; to the officials (actually) who we barely noticed, right(?)… and to Japan. This was a game that might be a symbol, a touchstone, a model for how we might want elite international sport to be.

The home nation’s coach – inevitably not a native – has continued and now surpassed the work of his predecessors (and maybe we should be offering some appreciation here, to the erm, generally-much-loved Eddie Jones), through producing a team that play fabulous rugby. Sure they are ridiculous athletes but it’s the culture of endlessly bold, swift re-cycling and re-darting that the world is coming to love.

Mr Joseph and his colleagues are doing an extraordinary job, in circumstances of relative under-resource, to sustain expansive sport to such a peak. Four wins in the tournament, with South Africa to come.

Can they go further? As I say below, this may depend on the medium-joyless stuff: robustness, physicality, discipline under pressure from genuinely elite-level competition.

The sharpest amongst you may have noted a derogatory implication in the last sentence – towards Scotland. Bit cruel, after that? Yes.

However, despite a magnificent contribution to a sumptuous contest, Townsend’s side remain, in the main, a notch down on their comrades in Tier One. No disgrace; issues of resource are key here, too. *And yet*, as the Japanese example may be showing, brilliant, streetwise, hard-nosed coaching might be the thing that resolves this.

An abstract and possibly insulting thought but would a Gatland (or similar) at the helm have left any Scotland side of the past several years more durable? And if so – or even if not – why has the perennial lack of durability not been attended to? (Of course in saying this I appreciate that the initial difficulty is in attracting a Gatland to Scotland). 

Japan have an extraordinary flow about them. But they are also finding once, twice, against Tier One opposition, the resilience to come through. I for one hope they find it again in the quarter-finals.

Here’s my live report:

 

Rarely have the natural world and the explosively dramatic world of elite sport been in such sympathy. Am I the only one thinking this can’t be a coincidence?

Skies having gone from steamy-blue to steely-angry. Seas having turned tempestuous as the moment of *ultimate drama* approached. It’s proof, surely, that there is a god – and that she’s as foamtastically mad about rugby as the rest of us.

O-kaaaay, it may be unwise to jest when lives have been lost and property devastated: no argument. But has there not been something wondrous (as well as terrifying and humbling and god-awful) about the barrelling-in to the moment, here? That moment being Japan, the entertaining and engaging hosts, versus Scotland.

Hitchcockian. Busby-Berkleyian. Spielbergian. The awesome, extravagant, cinematic, inevitable whirlwind-to-stilled-pondness of it all could barely be imagined or surpassed. Japan v Scotland, with everything upon it; with hugely adored hosts needing only to maintain their inspiration. (Only). With the visiting, sometime-faltering Tier Oners surely ripe for exposure.

The general excellence – contingency plans notwithstanding – of this Rugby World Cup, in terms of hosting, support and that crucial, generous buying-in from the locals, has rather cruelly left an often warmly-regarded Scotland isolated. The brutal truth may be evidenced in their miraculously-contrasting efforts against a very robust Ireland side.

Scotland, on that occasion, were on the feeble side of crap; Japan were exhilaratingly fearless, imaginative and, critically, found a way to sustain a level that the watching universe could barely believe. It was a remarkable event.

Importantly, this has drawn that aforementioned universe to the side of the home nation. Neutrals everywhere, the sort of folks who might often find themselves bellowing encouragement telly-wards for a Stuart Hogg gambol, will be fixated on Tupou and Lafaele and co.

Broadly, this is surely wonderful? Magnificently testing for the Scots –  who may yet relish that – but with the drama spiralling to a peak (any minute!) it’s hard to recall a fixture more loaded with romance. The players are walking out…

“This feels very, very special”. So goes the commentary. A breathless start – what else? Innovation from Japan, from the kick-off but then Scotland get that shot-in-arm, the turnover. Phases, early, from the hosts.

A counter. Russell cross-kicks and maybe the wing should score… but no. Japan turn that over before losing possession. Suddenly things open up for Russell and (rather easily) he’s in. A seven pointer, slightly against the early grain but welcome, indeed, for Scotland and maybe perfect, for the setting up of the game.

There follows a period of predictably high-intensity ebb and flow before the home side gain a penalty some 40 metres out but straightish. Eventually, Tamura pushes it slightly – or rather fails to draw it back sufficiently.

It matters little. A racing, tumbling offload after some more bustling hands puts the rapid Matsushima in, almost under the posts. Tamura converts and we are level at 7-7, after 20 minutes. Great start, alround.

A delay as Koo is withdrawn, with rib damage, pre an important scrum 25 metres from the Japanese line. The poor lad (Koo) looks in tears. He may be emotionally restored somewhat, by the award of a penalty, to his comrades: looked a lottery, that one.

Twenty-five minutes in and again, the irresistible energy and sheer fizz of the home side pays. Outstanding period of possession-at-pace, again with fearless, athletic and sometimes almost balletic off-loading… and they score. Deserved, for all that enterprise and all that raw courage. 14-7, Inagaki having gone under those sticks.

Long look at a tackle from Gray, with the current context possibly conspiring against him and towards a yellow. Viewed as innocent; rightly, I reckon (at first look), because of the pace around the incident and lack of malice. We go on, exhaustingly.

Haven’t seen possession stats. On 33 minutes you’d have the hosts ahead on merit but hard to judge things with equanimity when the over-riding sense is of a whole-nation cauldron seething. Parity at the scrums, relatively but few of them.

Then two penalties conceded by Dell, for creeping. The Scotland prop looks mystified; he is a tad fortunate that the penalty is missed. However, again the home side brush the disappointment away. Lafaele links through skilfully and Fukuoka electrifyingly gathers before racing through. Fever pitch, welcome.

With the conversion completed, Japan have surged ahead, both in the game and in those calculations around it. Three tries, already. 21-7. Bonus point beckoning, worryingly early from the Scots’ point of view. Perhaps more significantly, the nature of the Brave Blossom’s performance is going to be seriously challenging Townsend’s pep-talk right now.

Japan are playing with imagination and relentless pace. They recycle and off-load with no fear of an error or interception. Absolutely central to their effort is the belief that this ambition will pay. And it looks like it will. And it deserves to. This is great coaching, great ‘culture’ and it’s why most of the world is smiling alongside them. Fantastic stuff..

The flip side is that Scotland – for all their open, attacking rugby over recent years – may again get ‘found out’, here. Yes there are questions about (their own) limited resources but they are rushing headlong into a further enquiry into the legitimacy of their Tier One status. Or they may be. In short, Japan are outplaying them, largely: *just in* possession stats. 78% for the home side, first half!

WOW. Fukuoka is in, after yet more rampaging defence, in midfield. The winger is suddenly bursting into space… and it’s another seven-pointer. The game may be gone one minute into the second period, as the hosts already have a bonus point for that fourth try. Sensational barely covers this, now.

With the crowd utterly ecstatic, and that emotion plainly reciprocated on the pitch, we’re into something extraordinary again. The commentary on ITV understandably relating this to Barbarian-style rugby. If this continues folks will be wondering if Japan can win the bloody tournament!

*Takes deep breath*. It’s true that when they’re going like this, Japan have something of the All Blacks about them. But if the real world still exists, I think it may remind us, in time, that the likes of the All Blacks (and possibly Wales, South Africa and England) *may* prove durable to a higher level. Perhaps.

Scotland respond. Nel rumbles and reaches to get in, in front. Laidlaw can’t miss and doesn’t. We have a period where the visitors get a real run. Russell and Hogg flicker.

The game is wild. Cummings roars forward, Gray rolls to off-load and Fagerson, astonishingly, is also in! The game – which seemed destined for glory a week or more out – is all of that. 28-21, after 55 minutes. Incredible that suddenly Japan need some possession.

Scotland have to chase and open up and of course this has risks. They ring the changes from the bench and resist a flurry of attacks. (It’s a horrid cliche but) it does seem that the next try is critical as we approach the hour.

Play is in midfield – a rarity. Japan maintain the high-octane approach but Scotland turn over before attacking from their own 22: no option. There is a sniff but the ball bounces unkindly. The pace of the game is staggering: those of us watching almost need a scrum or two, to gather in – unbeleeeeevably selfish of the players to deny us that.

The first sign of animosity. Harris has battered into two defenders, legitimately, but in the ensuing ruck, the Japanese have drawn a penalty. Verbals exchanged after the tectonic physical contacts: Richie has a word with Tamura. We go on.

The fly-half kicks, ‘within himself’ for touch, safely: a rare moment of un-ambition. Scotland re-gain possession but then are almost intercepted when again launching from deep.

We hit 70 minutes, with Scotland needing to win this *and deny Japan that second bonus point*. I think. But maybe don’t trust either me or anyone else, until this storm is over…

I’m not going to be the fella who uses the word b*a*e to describe Scotland. Is courageous better? They have certainly been that, in this second half – both adventurous and powerfully resolute. They win a pen but must kick for the line-out, ten metres out. No joy but then pressure creates a near-fumble and a Scotland scrum five out.

They recycle and challenge and burst but the hosts can resist again. We go right across the park before Japan turn over. The roar builds.

Death rites, for Scotland as the finals plays are executed – exhaustedly but with just enough control. We’re into the reddest, noisiest, most spent post-eighty minutes that you could conjure up. A magical day is over as the ball is hoofed into touch. 28-21. Heroically entertaining sport. Japan through.

 

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.

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.