FRIDAY'S BIG STORIES
The Fraudpions League
Big game tomorrow? Big game tomorrow. And for some reason even The Warm-Up is feeling a little bit nervous. Not on behalf of any particular team: we are, of course, studiously neutral, and treat all clubs, coaches and players with the same amount of affectionate contempt.
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We've decided that the World Cup is to blame. Next season is set to be a campaign of two halves, as players spend the first half distracted and the second half recovering. Which means that this is the last sensible Champions League final we're going to get for two whole years. Next season we'll all be gathered in Istanbul singing: "There are the least tired. The uninjured. The squad that mostly got a month off. The Champions?"
Of course it could have been a whole lot bigger. It could have had a Liverpool quadruple riding on it. That would have made this the biggest game in the history of history, and who knows what kind of state we'd all be in now. Instead, we're faced with different questions. If Liverpool don't win tomorrow, does that make their season a little ... underwhelming? Even, perhaps, a disappointment? Might we even be justified in reaching for football's most pungent descriptor: fraud?
The answer to these questions is, of course, no. But the fact that they're there to be answered is quite interesting, in what it says about football in this particular moment. It suggests, for a start, a certain transactional approach, one that dismisses the arc of the season in favour of the ending. Liverpool's fans have almost certainly had more fun this season than they did when they won the title, for the simple reason that they were allowed to go places and watch their team and be with each other; that Anfield wasn't echoing and empty or lathered with false crowd noise. And 'fans having fun' isn't the only reason a football team exists, but it's the only one that really matters. Seasons are adventures, and adventures are their own reward. Even when the ending's a little flat.
But beyond that, this is a crisis of the footballing imagination. It is, in their normal domestic contexts, very hard to imagine Liverpool losing a random league game. (The same goes for Manchester City in England, and Bayern Munich and potentially several other Big Clubs elsewhere once they sort themselves out.) It happens, but it's hard to imagine. Indeed, the best chance any normal Premier League team has of beating either of this season's top two - beyond crossed fingers and praying for weirdness - is to get them in the early rounds of one of the cups. And that means the cups become important not as trophies themselves, since they'll probably go to whichever big club gets the kindest draw and so gets away with rotation, but as parts of the bigger multiplier.
The FA Cup's greatest significance, to a modern day superclub, is as the first leg of a treble or the second of a quadruple. Nobody cares about the double any more. It's even lost its capital letters. Big teams (which, importantly, isn't quite the same as good teams) can only really achieve a few things. A treble, a quadruple; the league title, for the moment; and of course the Champions League. That's the tournament where you play other really good teams, after all.
The charge of "fraud" isn't just an amusing insult that easily fits into a person's name, though it definitely is that. It is, at heart, a charge of deception: of failing to live up to a presumed supremacy. It implies a stretching of what is possible and, at the same time, a narrowing of what is acceptable. It's almost certainly a sign that elite professional football really isn't very well: it's impossible to call Liverpool rubbish, for the idea that Liverpool might be rubbish is laughable. They rarely even look vulnerable. Instead they have to be derided as not quite as good as they promised to be, were imagined to be. You don't have to take the allegation seriously to find it interesting.
Anyway, losing tomorrow won't make Liverpool's season a disappointment and it won't make Jurgen Klopp a fraud. Unless you really want it to, that is, in which case: knock yourself out. Having opinions is a game of opinions. But if things carry on the way they are, the fact that there's no quadruple riding on this game shouldn't matter very much. Another chance to win everything will be along next season. Wait, no. Qatar. Well, the season after that.
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As preparations for the big game go, it's got a certain soap opera charm to it. First Mo Salah shocked the world when he said that he'd be playing at Anfield next season. And now Sadio Mane has sensationally hinted that he too might be sticking around. Admittedly, either of them saying the opposite would be a little more dramatic. But we assume Liverpool fans are glad of the gentler path.
Here's what Mane has to say for himself, amid links with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. "I think the answer I can give you now is I feel very good. I am fully focused on Saturday's game, that is the answer I must give before the final. But come back to me on Saturday and I will give you the best answer you want to hear, for sure. It's special. I will give you all you want to hear then."
It's easy to forget - at least, we'd forgotten - that there was a fair degree of scepticism about Mane's move to Liverpool from Southampton. Perhaps this was because he'd previously been linked with Louis van Gaal's Old Trafford anti-joy project. Or perhaps it was because we're all fools. But 120 goals in six seasons has made us all look very silly. And it turns out he can play in the middle, too, which is handy. You never know when a Luis Diaz might arrive.
It would be interesting to see how Mane gets on somewhere else, as the big money signing for a big name club. But equally, it might be a bit of a shame. One of the quieter pleasures of football, whatever your allegiance, is seeing a person find the right place for them: the right club, the right system, the right team-mates and coaches and [waves hands vaguely] vibe. Mane and Klopp, Klopp and Mane: it has been a mutual flourishing. And it sounds like they'll be carrying on together.
Here Come The Villa
It's an amazing thing, the power of the celebrity. Steven Gerrard's management of Aston Villa has had good moments and bad moments; we don't know what the jury is thinking yet, but they're definitely still out. (Hang on. Are we the jury? All of us? This is a lot of responsibility.)
But Steven Gerrard's representation of Aston Villa? His face on the posters, his name above the door? That seems to be going very well indeed. First Philippe Coutinho from Barcelona, then Boubacar Kamara from Marseille, and now, apparently, Diego Carlos from Sevilla. Moderately big names, with moderately big reputations. Villa fans: you may progress to moderate excitement.
Villa finished 14th in the Premier League, an acceptable result after a change of manager but nothing more than that. Early days, of course, but we can conclude from this quick-fire rattle of signings that their target for next season isn't 13th. This looks very much like a push for the European places. Watch your backs, West Ham. Villa are coming for the Conference League. So are Newcastle, probably. Oh, and Leicester.
We already know that next season's Premier League is going to be a weird one, what with Qatar. Looks like it's going to be a crowded one as well. Two or three teams trying to fit into the top spot; six into the top four; and, what, ten into the top seven? Perhaps this marks the re-emergence of a genuinely dangerous league, one in which the upper mid-table isn't just a place the big teams visit to pick up three points. Or, even better, perhaps we get to throw "fraud" at an even wider selection of people than before! The Premier League always delivers.
IN OTHER NEWS
There cannot be any better backdrop for a trophy parade than The Flippin' Actual Colosseum. You know, Jose Mourinho would have fitted into ancient Rome quite nicely. Nursing a series of incomprehensible grudges, turning his thumb down at gladiators that displeased him, picking his horse at right-back because he doesn't trust anybody else. Somebody get him a toga.
The good stuff, they call this. Back before filming the game was the thing that everybody hated, here's Twitter user @iamcoxhead's dad and a camcorder right behind the goal as first Sheringham, then Solskjaer, do their treble-winning thing. Lovely to have a new angle on Thorsten Fink's utterly miserable clearance. A slicing doors moment.
Over now to the estimable Jack Lang of the Athletic, and his lovely deep dive into the origin story of Liverpool's newest irritatingly good attacker, Luis Diaz. For yes, we had assumed that Diaz "was just one of those kids — the blessed, luminous few for whom superstardom is a trifling inevitability".
Apparently not. As Lang explains, "For years, owing to geographical happenstance, Diaz looked like being one of football’s if-only men — a winning lottery ticket lost down the back of the sofa. When he belatedly found himself a place at a professional club, he was so underweight that their medical department suspected he was suffering from malnutrition. Above all, he battled doubt — that he was too raw, too late to the game, too skinny to have a chance."
And now he's almost certain to start the Champions League final. Football is a mess at time, but it does have a knack for these kinds of stories: the impossible dreams, realised.
Not a huge amount, if we're being honest. A pinch of La Liga 2. A sprinkle of the Irish Premier League. It's the calm before the back-to-back storms: Champions League final on Saturday, Championship play-off final on Sunday. Brace yourselves.
Have a great weekend. Tom Adams will be here on Monday with all the fallout from all of the above.
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