THURSDAY'S BIG STORIES

The Best Team

The Champions League group stage is designed to do two things: first, it increases the number of games played in Europe's biggest and bestest competition, and second, it ensures that Europe's biggest and bestest teams get every chance to make the knockouts. Back in the old days, big teams could find themselves out of Europe after just two games; here, they get at least six.
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One consequence of this is, or at least should be, a reduction in the amount of last minute drama. Fates are determined over six games, not sixty panicked seconds. And yet, football finds a way. We've already had Barcelona's hideous and hilarious implosion against Inter, along with Atlético Madrid's inexplicable penalty and follow-up and follow-follow-up miss. And now: Benfica!
The stakes weren't quite as high in Group H, since both Benfica and Paris Saint-Germain were already going through. But there are few things as exciting as watching a side swing at an improbable target, scrambling to pile the pressure on at one end without falling over at the other. You can hear the drums getting louder, as a continent moves from 'they can't' to 'they can't?', and then 'they can!', before arriving, joyous, at 'they have!'
We'll get to PSG in a minute. But this bit is about Benfica, this year's winner of the coveted Warm-Up Rosette for Outstanding Contributions in the Group Stage. You may recall last season, when they knocked Barcelona out and looked good doing it. Then they sold Darwin Núñez, a sad if profitable reminder that some clubs get to build teams, while others are trapped in a constant cycle of rebuilding. And then they somehow got better?
Gonçalo Ramos doesn't quite have Darwin's chaotic energy, or his brilliant-awful cry-laugh celebration, but he is scoring goals and that's probably the most important thing. Behind him, Rafa Silva is already on double figures for the season, and João Mário has eight, which is already more than he's ever scored in a single season. It's November. Also, we owe him an apology: we'd assumed he was about 33 or 34, since he's been around forever and he's enthusiastically bald. He's 29. Soz.
More generally, there's a fearlessness about the way Benfica set about their business. Thrown into a group with Juventus and PSG, they won home and away against the Italians and matched the state-owned superclub goal for goal. Played six, scored 16, and didn't even need Mbappé-Neymar-Messi to do it. And it's good to see away goals bouncing back from a disappointing time. Robbed of their status in the knock-outs, here they come to decide the groups.
A delight to watch, a living, breathing argument against the European Super League, and a hard-running nightmare to play against, Benfica are exactly what the Champions League needs. There will always be bigger teams, and those teams will usually get to the later stages. But without the upstart second tier, these opening stages would get powerfully boring. Instead, they've proved so perilous that UEFA has had to abolish them. Forward, to a glorious Swiss-based future. We're willing to bet that Benfica prove really fun there, too.

It's A Knock-Out

Onto PSG then, whose ignominous failure to outscore Benfica has plunged them into crisis. Well, into the unseeded half of the draw for the last 16. Embarrassing, yes. Funny, definitely. A problem, overall, for their long-running project of trying to win the thing? Well, maybe.
As is supposed to happen after all those group games, the Seeded side of the draw does look a little stronger. If everybody involved tooled up for an impromptu game of 88-a-side using old-school village rules, we reckon the result would be Seeded 2-1 Unseeded after three days' combat. And we have now been wildly distracted by trying to work out which current player would be have been best at mediaeval football…
… actually, you know what, the answer's probably just Erling Haaland. Important not to overthink these things. Get the tallest man in the village and point him over the hill.
The real fun of the draw will come as UEFA's rules on associations play out. Of the four English teams left in the tournament, only Liverpool are unseeded, which means rather than having seven possible opponents (excluding Napoli) they have a mere four. Porto and Benfica fall under 'definitely tricky'; Bayern Munich and Real Madrid into a more complicated category labelled 'help! help! there's narrative everywhere'.
This wrinkle is even more pronounced for Bayern, who can't draw Inter or any of the other three German teams. Instead they'll be getting one of AC Milan, PSG, Liverpool or Club Brugge. We think we know which option Julian Nagelsmann will prefer. (That's right: anybody but Club Brugge. Because nobody will watch that game and so nobody will see his suit.)
As for PSG, their inability to score one more goal than Benfica means they might get Bayern or Real Madrid or Manchester City. They might not. But as ever, PSG's real opponent in knock-out football will be themselves, as they once again try to overcome the destructive tension between celebrity power and sporting competitiveness. It'll be PSG vs. PSG, and some other side will be there as well, watching it all shake out.

Bad Timing

Are we seeing more pre-World Cup injuries than usual? At some point, somebody is going to actually crunch the numbers and give us a definitive answer. Until then, here in the moment, we only have vibes to go on. And the vibes, they are unpleasant.
We've less than three weeks to go until Qatar 2022 kicks off. Son Heung-min's just had surgery on a fractured face. Last night Ben Chilwell limped off the pitch with 'not good' written all over his face. Earlier in the week we learned that Paul Pogba won't be appearing at all.

Chelsea's English defender Ben Chilwell (C) reacts before being taken off injured during the UEFA Champions League Group E football match between Chelsea and Dinamo Zagreb at Stamford Bridge in London on November 2, 2022. (Photo by Glyn KIRK / AFP) (Photo

Image credit: Getty Images

Of course, this may just be because the tournament is so close; we may be forgetting similar clatters of injuries coming before Russia or Brazil. But one consequence of a mid-season World Cup is a lot of important football happening right up until the very last minute.
After all, it's pretty unusual for a football club in any top division to have much to play for in the last few weeks of the season. A few teams will have cup finals, there may be a race for the top four or even for the title. But most of the clubs in Europe's top leagues, which is where most of the World Cup's players will be coming from, would generally be winding down just a little. Playing the kids. Taking things carefully.
Instead, we've just wrapped up the Champions League group stages - some of the most important games of the season - and we're doing the same for the Europa and Europa Conference tonight. The schedule is busier than ever, and that takes its toll. But it's also strange to see so much important football being played so close to the tournament. The data will come, and hopefully we're wrong. But the vibes. The vibes are concerning.

IN OTHER NEWS

You can tell when ex-pros are really impressed with something they've seen: they start laughing. True greatness is so good that it's funny, and a giggle is worth a thousand glowing adjectives.

RETRO CORNER

Rest in peace, Ronnie Radford. You've seen the goal, of course, a finish so straight it seems to explode out of football and end up somewhere near geometry. But it's always, always worth watching again, and here are two different ways of doing so. First, a clip from one of those interchangeable clip shows, complete with talking heads. Ignore Tim Lovejoy, enjoy Radford himself.
And second, longer highlights of the whole game. You may have done the reading before, but plenty of what's in here came as a surprise to the Warm-Up. This seems to have been a great goal from a really fun game. Hereford's players are all trying to score a truly great goal, Newcastle are trying to murder the opposition goalkeeper, and Malcolm Macdonald's sideburns are at their absolute peak. So too is John Motson.

HAT TIP

As you may have heard, there was an election in Brazil over the weekend. Lula emerged the victor, but supporters of Jair Bolsonaro have responded with allegations of fraud and road blockades. The supreme court has ordered the highway police to clear the roads, but as the Guardian's Constance Malleret reports, "Videos showed that some police officers were encouraging the protests."
Enter the football supporters. "According to the newspaper O Globo, at least four associations of football ultras - known in Brazil as torcidas organizadas - broke through Bolsonarista barricades in the states of Minas Gerais, São Paulo and Paraná in their efforts to reach Brasileirão games."
Lula is a Corinthians fan, and his comrades "cleared two roadblocks late on Tuesday as they headed from São Paulo to Rio, where they will play Flamengo at the Maracanã stadium on Wednesday evening. After clearing a section of the Marginal Tiête highway in São Paulo, Corinthians fans hung a banner emblazoned with the words 'We are for democracy', while chanting Lula’s name." Another reminder, not that anybody ever needed one, that football is in politics and politics is in football.

COMING UP

It's Europa o'clock. Manchester United visit Real Sociedad needing - if our maths is correct - a two-goal win to avoid the knock-out play-offs. To avoid the same fate, Arsenal (at home to FC Zürich) must match or better PSV (away at Bodø/Glimt). Also about a million other games. You'll find something.
Assuming he doesn't pick up a season-ending injury in the course of the day, Andi Thomas will be here tomorrow.
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