FRIDAY’S BIG HEADLINES
Nicolas Pepe and the unstoppable narrative
Motivation comes in all forms in football. A gentle arm around the shoulder. A spot of the hairdryer treatment. And sometimes the simple internal motivation which results from being sent off for sticking the nut on someone and then having to undergo the kind of public shaming that even Cersei Lannister might find a little too intense.
After making apologies to his team-mates, Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal supporters, Gunnersaurus, the cast of Arsenal Fan TV, Nick Hornby and Keir Starmer, Pepe clearly went into Thursday night’s Europa League match against Molde with redemption on his mind. That much was clear in the first 20 minutes as he gave a masterclass in trying a little too hard; shooting from all angles with the desperation of a man who knows that if he has a bad game, it might be a while before he gets back in the team.
But desperation slowly started to metamorphose into confidence. The more he got those shots away, the closer he got to scoring. And then a rasping effort from range hit the bar and then the post. And then a judiciously measured curling effort beat the outstretched arm of the keeper and the redemption story was written. Headbutting Ezgjan Alioski might be the best career move Pepe ever made.
Pepe is a potentially vital asset for this Arsenal team. Arteta’s approach is designed to create a stable foundation in possession but at present, in its early iterations, it’s quite restrictive. And in the Premier League at least, really quite boring. With his wonderfully chaotic dribbling, Pepe offers a different dimension. A hint of, would you believe, excitement.
"I am really pleased. After the disappointment of something negative, you want to see a reaction and I could see from the first minute with his body language that he was ready to act,” Arteta said. "I think he had a great performance, he scored one goal and could have scored another one or two. He created some good moments in the game and worked really hard for the team, so I really like it, I am pleased with that.
"We all know what his level, and all the time the question is how often he can get to that level and how he contributes to other aspects of the game. Today is the example of the level he needs to hit, and he needs to keep doing it because he is capable of it and you can see that every time he gets in those positions in the final third, he is a real threat and a very difficult player to control because he can go with his feet, he can come inside, he can shoot, he can create crosses and he can go in behind you as well. That is what we can expect from him."
It was a good night all round with academy products Reiss Nelson and Folarin Balogun also on the scoreline as Arsenal wrapped up qualification with two games to spare.
Incidentally, Arsenal's next outing in the Europa League, at home to Rapid Vienna next week, will be the first elite match in England to see the return of fans since March. At least Pepe won't have to offer individual apologies to each one on the day now.
The Ndombele show
Tottenham Hotspur's Tanguy Ndombele holds off the challenge from PFC Ludogorets Razgrad's Dominic Yankov
Image credit: Getty Images
Nothing screams 'Jose Mourinho is back, baby' like seeing a tremendously gifted playmaker set off from his own half and dribble round half a team to lay on a goal for his side. Okay, maybe not quite. It's not exactly what you'd expect from a Mourinho side. But nevertheless, Tanguy Ndombele's best Maradona impression certainly indicated that Jose, and his team, are currently in a happy place.
Last night's 4-0 win over Ludogorets could have been headlined by the two goals from Vinicius, or Harry Winks' frankly ludicrous strike which even he admitted was a total fluke. But The Warm-Up prefers to reflect on a brilliant display from Ndombele, who, quite aside from his role in the second Vinicius goal, was in truly masterful form in midfield.
The very best players find artistry in simplicity. Just think of how Arjen Robben made cutting in from the right into a lifestyle, or how many times the original Ronaldo simply waltzed around a goalkeeper like it was nothing before rolling the ball home. There is genius in making football look so simple and Ndombele has this quality in the way he has perfected the seemingly basic act of turning with the ball and made it into a devastating weapon which can open up space in the middle of the pitch. Happily, he is pretty good at complex behaviours too like slaloming past a succession of defenders.
It's quite a package. And it's not as if Mourinho is philosophically opposed to playmakers in general. Some of his best sides have found room for players like Mesut Ozil, Wesley Sneijder, Deco and Eden Hazard. If Tottenham do go on to hit great heights under Mourinho, Ndombele will drive them there.
Best of the rest
Leicester City are into the knockout phase courtesy of a 95th-minute equaliser from Jamie Vardy in a 3-3 draw against Braga.
Celtic suffered more misery as Sparta Prague beat them 4-1 for the second time in a row to send them tumbling out of the Europa League. Eleven points behind Rangers in the league (okay with two games in hand, but still) things are looking decidedly dicey for Neil Lennon…
And speaking of Rangers, they were 2-0 up at home to Benfica before conceding twice to draw, but a five-point gap over third place means qualification still looks pretty secure. Oh, and Kemar Roofe did this:
IN OTHER NEWS
If football is universal, so is Diego, because Maradona and football are synonymous. But at the same time, he was unequivocally Argentinian, which helps to explain the emotional power he has always had in our country, handing him impunity. Because he was a genius he stopped having limits imposed upon him from adolescence and because of where he was from, he grew up proud of his class. Such was his symbolic, sentimental power that with Maradona the poor defeated the rich and the unconditional support that came from below was proportional to the mistrust from above. The rich hate to lose. But in the end even his greatest enemies were forced to bow to him. They had no other choice.
The weight of Diego Maradona reaction has been overwhelming following his death on Wednesday, so it takes something special to truly stand out from the crowd. And Jorge Valdano’s tribute to his former team-mate, originally in El Pais but translated by The Guardian into English, is something very special indeed. Savour every word.
We’ve all now spent the best part of two days binging on videos of Diego Maradona in his prime, compilations of pure artistry. But 99% of football doesn’t reach those aesthetic heights. So here’s a visual palette cleanser to bring your expectation levels down ahead of the weekend.
It’s the ‘they’ll never finish higher than 11th‘ derby tonight as Crystal Palace take on Newcastle United. We will have live comments on that for you.
And just a reminder that although it’s a day off today, from tomorrow the UK Championship resumes in the snooker. You can watch it all unfold on Eurosport, eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport app.
If The Warm-Up is universal, so is Andi Thomas. Catch him here on Monday.