THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

Worth A Shot

It is not, on the face of it, a bad idea. Liverpool don't so much defeat teams as run them over: you stop them, therefore, by keeping them from getting started in the first place. Slow the game down. Get in the way. Frustrate the players, calm the crowd; just because they want to run around at a hundred miles an hour doesn't mean you have to. It's not a competition. Well, it is, but it's not a race.
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It's the footballing equivalent of hiding somebody's shoes. Everton tried it at the weekend, with extra shenanigans. Lasted a whole hour. Villarreal, a better team with a functional squad, a proven manager, and this mysterious thing called tactics? They made it 53 minutes.
Perhaps this is the risk a team takes, when they pack the box. They make it harder for Liverpool to create chances for themselves, but it becomes much more likely that one of their own will toe-end the ball over the keeper. Pervis Estupinan's own goal was freakish in its execution, of course, but felt perfectly natural in the course of the game, as Liverpool poked and pushed and prodded; as the intensity wound up. Apply enough pressure and something has to pop somewhere.
After the game, Rio Ferdinand proclaimed this the best Liverpool side he'd ever seen. We're not going to argue with him, but it is interesting that he was moved to say this after a 2-0 win over a stubborn and frustrating opponent, rather than any of the thrashings Liverpool have handed out over the last few seasons.
Partly that's a question of timing: the immediate aftermath of a semi-final first leg is probably the perfect moment to make a swing at history. Everybody will be doing it around the final, best to get in early.
But it also says something about what the particular brilliance of this Liverpool side is, as against the various others that Ferdinand has seen and played against. Not the goalscoring in itself, then, but the inevitability; not the way in which it comes but the fact that it always does. That it must. Steve McClaren once said of Manchester United, back when they were proper, that they never lost but just ran out of time. As this season comes to an end, Liverpool appear to have the same thundering certainty, except they don't run out of time because nobody can manage more than an hour.
As for Villarreal, the semi-finals seem to mark a natural wall for surprise packages in the Champions League. The competition suddenly decides to get serious: you've had your fun, now here's your Liverpool. It makes sense, of course, with the general flow of elite football. Big teams can drift into the quarters on budget and reputation, which makes them prime targets to get turned over by some upstarts having a big season. But then it comes down to the big teams that are also actually good, and that's when the fairytale starts to look a bit like a made-up story.
Which takes nothing away from the scale of Villarreal's achievement. It simply seems that this particular style of underdog football works to a point, but no further. Perhaps there's a broad conclusion to be drawn, about the nature of football when the big teams are this good. Manchester City and Liverpool know that, in order to win the title, they essentially can't let any well-organised but inferior team nick points from them in the league. It's almost more important that they be able to break down the 95% of teams who aren't on their level, than to be able to win the head to head games.
Unless that's a final, of course. Assuming that Villarreal don't manage something hilarious in the second leg, it's rather neat that two other possible ways of beating Liverpool are represented in the other half of the draw. There's City, perhaps the only side in the world that can match Liverpool's brilliance and inevitability with their own. Or there's Real Madrid, running and running and somehow not falling down, over the abyss like a cartoon character. Keep Karim Benzema's legs moving fast enough and nobody has to notice that there isn't any ground.
Neither team will go into a final against Liverpool trying to keep things tight; neither side is built for it. Which is just as well, since Villarreal are, and have been brilliant at it, and have wildly overachieved with it. And they couldn't make the hour.

Andy Robertson, Luis Diaz, Ibrahima Konate of Liverpool celebrate during the UEFA Champions League semi-final first leg match between Liverpool and Villarreal at Anfield

Image credit: Getty Images

Oh No

We don't have the exact numbers to hand, but we're willing to bet that something like 80, maybe 90 percent of all football's truly great errors — the own goals and the "oh no" goals, the headshakers and the headclutchers — could have been avoided if the mistake-maker had simply kicked the ball as hard and as far as possible. Get away.
It is, of course, exactly this which separates great footballers from mere mortals: any fool can kick a ball, but it takes a footballer to do something useful with it. And it is this that dooms them. The tragedy of ability is possibility. Once you know you can do something, you have to try.
Here's Inter's second-choice keeper Ionut Radu, making sure that nobody in Milan will ever forget his name.
This game was Inter's game in hand over Milan, and this goal leaves them two points behind. It would be premature to say that this goal has decided the title race, since both teams have four to play and it's been a weird old season. But it's certainly possible that this game that makes the difference, and the very best of luck to anybody trying to make this game about more than this moment. And oh, how much happier would Radu be this morning, had he never thought to do anything with a football but kick it really, really hard.
Incidentally, on first watch, we were a little taken aback by the gusto with which Nicola Sansone celebrated the goal. Sure, he's just scored a likely late winner against Inter, but he's also tapped the ball into an empty net from less than a yard. Haven't seen that kind of thing since the other Inzaghi was doing his stuff.
But in the cold clarity of the morning, it makes sense. Sansone, by giving it the full service, kept the director's eyes on him for as long as possible. Every second spent on the celebration was a second not spent on that awful close-up: here is the man who made the mistake, here he is, look at him. Look at his heart breaking, look at his soul leaking out of his eyes. It was an act of instinctive generosity, one professional to another, and we applaud him for it.

IN OTHER NEWS

Fair play to RB Leipzig's social media team, here celebrating the riches to riches narrative that lies behind tonight's Europa League semi-final. A tweet delicately crafted to provoke absolutely everybody.

RETRO CORNER

In honour of Radu's horror show against Bologna, here's that time the English title was concluded by one of English's football greatest and strangest own goals. But there was more to this game than just Brian Gayle's Sistine Chapel: another own goal, some penalty area pinball, and the general sense that nobody was in charge of anything and events were just happening, one after the other; pure uncut football spraying into the air, as if from a newfound oil well or an exploded fire hydrant.
If you told us they abolished the old first division and introduced the Premier League out of professional embarrassment, we'd believe you.

HAT TIP

Last week saw the release of A New Formation: How Black Footballers Shaped the Modern Game, a book edited by Calum Jacobs. For an overview of the whole project, it's well worth reading this interview with Jacobs on Hypebeast; for a flavour, Jeanette Kwakye's interview with Anita Asante has been excerpted over at the Telegraph.
"It is often the case," writes Kwakye, "that women footballers are introduced to the game by men; but Anita Asante’s love of football grew independently from an early age. Instead it was her brother, ordered by their mother, who was roped into a kickaround. 'I’d drag him along, and put him in goal,' she smiles now. 'He still hates me for it.'"

COMING UP

We've got the first legs of the Europa League semi-finals: RB Leipzig vs. Rangers and West Ham vs. Eintracht Frankfurt. We've got the first legs of the Europa Conference League semi-finals: Feyenoord vs. Marseille and Leicester City vs. Roma. We've got Chelsea vs. Spurs in the WSL. And we've got Manchester United vs. Chelsea in the Premier League.
And if that's simply too much football to be dealing with, then there's the snooker all over discovery+.
Andi Thomas will be kicking tomorrow's Warm-Up as hard and as far as he can manage. It's safest that way.
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