THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES
Neymar Delayed Is Not Neymar Denied
In one sense, PSG's last group game against Istanbul Başakşehir won't be over for some time yet. There will be an investigation into the incident that prompted both sides to leave the pitch on Tuesday night, and the consequences of that demonstration of outrage, solidarity, and player power could be far reaching. Here's Kylian Mbappé after the game:
We are tired, we don't want to go through this again. Of course, I am proud of what was done. We were not disappointed not to play. We made that decision. We were proud. A lot of things were said but, in fact, there's nothing better than actions.
But on the more practical side the game itself did get completed, and entered the football trivia hall of fame as the first Champions League to finish almost 24 hours after kicking off. (At least as far as the Warm-Up can tell. Corrections on a postcard please.)
One odd consequence of the delay was that PSG already knew their place in the last 16 was secure, thanks to Manchester United's self-humiliation against Leipzig. So they were playing for first place from a position of security, which is a decent platform for, say, somebody like Neymar to do something like this.
On the evidence of this group stage, PSG still have that problem where they look less like a functional football team and more like a collection of footballing parts. But, on the other hand, Neymar is brilliant and so is Mbappé, and a certain amount of brilliance is often good enough.
United poised to sack Solskjaer and target Tuchel - Euro Papers
Sometimes the world is good enough to provide the perfect moment. A single sequence that sums up weeks and weeks of effort, that the watching world can point to and say "Ah, yes, that explains everything."
Last night Inter needed a win. Last night, with minutes left, Alexis Sánchez rose in the penalty area and sent a firm header flying towards Shakhtar's goal. The keeper was on his heels, diving backwards. And then, and then … and then the ball thwacked into the head of Romelu Lukaku, standing on his own in the six yard box, and bounced away.
There's getting in the way of the keeper. And then there's just straight-up stealing his job.
As a neutral, Inter are a profoundly frustrating team to watch: talented, rickety, wasteful, and so often less than the sum of their parts. We can only imagine what the famously calm, poker-faced Conte is saying behind closed doors, though in public at least he's doing the decent thing. Blaming the referees.
There’s a lot of regret, but I don’t feel like saying there was a lack of determination, focus or aggression. A goal was lacking, and unfortunately if you don’t score you don’t win. We haven’t had much luck in the Champions League given certain incidents and refereeing decisions. Now that the group stage is over, I think I can say that we were also penalised by VAR, with many incidents that went unanalysed.
Perhaps. Though 180 minutes without scoring against Shakhtar might not be entirely VAR's fault: the Ukrainian champions conceded 12 times in their other four games. And that pair of 0-0 draws left Inter bottom of the group, without even the compensation of the Europa League. Plenty more time on the training ground, then. A chance to figure some exciting new ways to muck up their title bid.
Romelu Lukaku of FC Internazionale looks dejected during the UEFA Champions League Group B stage match between FC Internazionale and Shakhtar Donetsk at Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on December 9, 2020 in Milan, Italy.
Image credit: Getty Images
Operation Avoid Diego
So that's the Champions League last 16 all sorted. The draw comes Monday. Which means that the group winners have four days to cross all their fingers, dodge all the black cats, and find as many rabbits' feet as they can. Six managers, six squads, one simple prayer:
Please not Atlético Madrid. Please not Atlético Madrid. Please not Atlético Madrid. Please not Atlético Madrid. Please not Atlético Madrid. Please not Atlético Madrid.
Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are safe, by virtue of having already played them and being Spanish respectively. Everybody else is in the firing line to face the unbeaten La Liga leaders. The Narrative demands a reunion with Liverpool, after Atleti knocked them out last season, but the Warm-Up demands something new. Quite why we're making demands of a random draw we don't know. This Gazprom has gone straight to our head.
On balance, this was clearly a good year to finish top, since most of the strongest sides did. But beyond Atleti there are some fascinating teams in the runners-up pot. There's Barcelona, obviously, who are a mess but have Messi. There's also Leipzig, Gladbach, and Atalanta — lovely, gorgeous Atalanta — who all play interesting, dangerous, attacking football. There are upsets coming. We can feel it in our bones.
No, no, hang on. That's the Gazprom again.
IN OTHER NEWS
Borussia Mönchengladbach are into the last 16 of the Champions League for the first time. Here they are discovering that fact. Awwww.
RIP to the great Paolo Rossi, aged just 64. World Cup winner, Golden Boot winner, Ballon d'Or winner, and a man who knew how to celebrate a goal. Here's his six goals from the 1982 World Cup.
Playing fast and loose with the concept of retro, a very happy birthday to Warm-Up favourite Gonzalo Higuaín, a wonderful footballer who might have missed the odd important chance here and there. More importantly, and somehow this slipped past the Warm-Up at the time, he missed this penalty on his debut for Inter Miami, then started a fight. Simply outstanding finger wagging.
It's the last round of the Europa League group stage, and as is tradition, everybody is scrambling to finish top of the group so they don't have to play the Champions League rejects. The pick of the games is probably Spurs at home to Antwerp: if they don't win, then José Mourinho & Co. are definitely off to Old Trafford come the knock-outs. The Narrative demands it.
The Narrative also demands that Tom Adams deliver the Warm-Up tomorrow, which is a stroke of luck really.